Archive for February, 2011

The First Circle

February 22nd, 2011

Sen. Scott Brown - the face that launched a thousand talk shows

Listening Sunday afternoon to a radio show of interviews with men who have experienced sexual abuse as victims of it, I found myself irked by the way the host and his guest experts repeatedly referred to these men as “survivors.”  I was going to write that day about poetry criticism, but lucky you, I am going to share with you my irkedness instead.

I’ve never liked the sobriquet “survivor.”  It’s inaccurate at best and usually false.  In most cases, including mine, the sexual abuse did not constitute any kind of existential threat.  And in the cases where the abuse did involve some credible threat to the victim’s continued existence, it usually was conditional and ancillary to the abuse itself, for example, “Tell anybody about this and I’ll kill you,” or a result of the victim’s own reaction to what happened, for example, self-medication to the point of addiction.  I became dependent on marijuana.  I kicked this dependency.  Does this make me a “survivor”?

“Survivor,” with its melodramatic punch, seems to me to shove away the hard and sordid and complex reality of what really goes on during sexual abuse and in the long years afterwards.  It telescopes the whole difficult process into one big happy ending.  Like people rescued from a life raft, the “survivors” get handed ashore and congratulated on their luck and fortitude and sent on their way.  The audience to this gratifying spectacle doesn’t have to spend any time thinking about what exactly it is that they “survived” and why there are so many of them and how seamlessly it all fits into our society.

So don’t call me a “survivor.”  At a very early age I had experiences that I should not have had, and these experiences bent my life in all sorts of ways and sent me in all sorts of directions that, in retrospect, were less healthy than other directions I might have gone.  “As the twig is bent…”

All this happened on a level beneath consciousness.  I was sexually manipulated, in the most literal sense of that word, at a very early age by a woman caregiver.  I have no idea what her motivation was, but I suspect it was the way she knew to mollify a man.  I also suspect that at some point in her life she had been sexually mistreated, and so she also may have been acting out some of the feelings she had as a consequence of that.  At the time, of course, I had no idea what was going on, and no way to process it. I had no context within which to understand it, and barely any context for my perceptions of it.  It became part of that armature of unexamined experience that I carried forward into the world, the inchoate, inarticulate basis of so many of my reactions, aversions, and tropisms.  I dismissed it from my consciousness for most of the next four decades, for lack of a place to put it.

I don’t want to engage here in the debate about “recovered memory,” except to say that of course it is a phenomenon that is subject to faking, distortion, and outside influence, and also to say emphatically that the “experts” who deny it exists are ignorant about how memory actually works in the real world.  When my daughter was born, I found myself struggling with a whole lot of rage.  I had no idea where it came from and of course it was entirely inappropriate to the situation.  With the help of a very good therapist, over the next year or so I figured it out.  It had many roots.  My childhood experience of sexual abuse was primary among them.

There came a time when I wanted to tell my parents what I had learned.  It came out one day when we were standing in my kitchen.  I had been particularly worried about my mother’s reaction.  My abuser was someone of whom she had been very fond, and in whose care she had left me.  Even for someone less emotionally layered and hidden than my mom, those factors of affection and guilt, added to the potential unreliability of testimony based on recovered memories, could have produced denial or rejection.  Instead, she looked me in the eye and said, “Oh, honey, I am so sorry.”

Instead of the mawkish, congratulatory-pity of being called a “survivor,” how much better it is to be told, “We love you and we are sorry you were injured.”  I think that is what everyone who has suffered sexual abuse and its aftermath really wants to hear.  For that to happen, though, we would need to live in a society capable of rising above its own guilt and denial.  Too bad.  My mother was truly an exceptional person.

Appropriate to the occasion

February 13th, 2011

Okay,  so it’s a holiday by and for the benefit of the greeting card industry.  Nevertheless,  it’s an opportunity to  think about what we really mean when we talk about love.  I wrote this poem two years into my marriage.  I like the imagery of relatively permanent things being housed in impermanence.  It took another fifteen years for that particular sand castle to erode, and I don’t regret a day of it.

Love is not blind;
love sees with subtle eyes
through our eyes, but we
do not always see what love sees.

When love moves us
we are helpless and wondering as infants.
Moving with love
we are sure and forceful as the tides.

Love seems to live
at night, in the silver surrender
of the waves, to thrive
in what shimmers darkly.  But love

glints in the sand
we fill our pails with beneath
the sun, and love
lights each room of our castle.

Egypt

February 10th, 2011

I mourn for the lives that have been and will be sacrificed to that sick, stupid old man’s vanity, including his own.  Listening to the radio tonight and trying to imagine the feelings that must be storming through Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt, I hoped through my tears that the people’s anger will feed their resolve and patience, rather than erupting into an assault on the Presidential Palace or some other acts of frustration.

Piling it on

February 6th, 2011

If poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth said, then it is probably too soon for me to write about my feelings as I watched the plow turn the corner and aim its massive blade down my side of the street, where I had just spent the past hour or so removing the four foot tall berm of compacted snow and ice that the last plow had deposited at the end of my driveway.  Suffice it to say that when I first saw the orange monster emerge from behind the cross street’s snowbank, I muttered, “Fuck me!” and when it headed in my direction, flinging a dirty curl of the last plow’s leavings at my knees, I yelled, “Fuck me!” again, to the apparent surprise of the crew of twenty-somethings from the party house next door who were congregated in its driveway, making light work with their many hands.  A little while later, one of them said to another, “This is god’s way of making Americans get exercise.”  Not long after that, a young man came walking down the middle of the road.  I smiled and said hello to him, and he smiled back and said, “Gotta love the snow.”  I replied, “Not sure I can agree with you about that.”  He said, “Well, wait an hour or so.”  Here it is an hour or so later, and I still don’t think I agree.  On the other hand, all warm and loose and just this side of having sore muscles, I am enjoying feeling both languid and powerful.  A couple more storms like this and I am going to have shoulders and arms like a gorilla.  I am going to write a book, The Vermont Shovel Workout: Five Thundersnows to a Stronger, Happier You.  Guess I won’t buy that snow blower, after all – at least not until the royalties start rolling in.

Echoes of the Eddys

February 1st, 2011

Henry Steel Olcott

A friend recently sent me a link to a story about a woman who had found some grace in the course of her husband’s passage through alzheimer’s.  I could relate, because my parents, as eachof them went through cancer, similarly exhibited clear-eyed courage and reaped its benefits for themselves and for us who journeyed in their company.  Ram Dass nailed the basic attitude in the title of his book, Be Here Now.  In the clipping my friend sent, the woman refers to our society’s attitude towards death and illness as “phobic.”  She got that right, but ‘twas not always thus.

Here is a poem I wrote a few years ago, describing some events that actually happened in Vermont in the latter half of the 19th century.  Joseph Citro used a few lines from my poem at the head of one of the chapters in his excellent book, Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls and Unsolved Mysteries, which is only right, because the poem was indirectly inspired by hearing Mr. Citro on Vermont Public Radio before his book was published, reading about the goings-on at the Eddy farmhouse.  I was so intrigued that I went to the library and borrowed the source from which much of Mr. Citro’s information came.  My poem grew from Col. Olcott’s memoir of those strange evenings:

We are pusillanimous in the face of ghosts.
Think of that woman at Tanglewood, too seized up
to scream one summer afternoon, in a hallway,
when her hair that had hung limp on her neck was brushed
swiftly across one shoulder and then the other
by unseen hands.  Later, she said it was like a
playfully affectionate child, and innocent;
but no way would she spend the night in that house, no.
Her companions, though untouched, had abandoned her.
They ran.  I never have felt my hackles rise
except in thinking of such things, mere thinking of
the dark figure that waits on the couch beside me,
the hand that may reach from behind to stroke my cheek.
Then I read Colonel Olcott’s account of doings
a hundred years ago in Vermont, upstairs at
the Eddy brothers’ ramshackle farmhouse where he
and many other guests lodged – ate and slept – for weeks.
The ghosts they’d come to meet there had cold, sweaty skin.
A woman passed her hand beneath one’s shirt, and ran
fingertips across breasts she said swelled chill and damp
as ocean waves.  To Olcott’s disappointment, he
never was allowed to dance with that spirit, a
gay, lively squaw called Honto, although others were;
also, the room was too dark to make out faces;
also, he wasn’t allowed in the chamber where
William Eddy sat alone, summoning dozens
of humanly shaped shades each night but Sunday to
brief visits with audiences of dozens of
the quick.  Once, weakening before she could pass back
through the sole, curtained door to William’s cubicle,
Honto sank to her waist in the floor, laughed, and slid
to the drape like a footless chess piece.  Pawn or queen?
Sustained at first by skepticism, Olcott measured
rooms, sealed windows with gauze and wax, swished back cobwebs
in dusty attics, sought trapdoors and costume trunks
without success, counted the cast of characters,
painted scales to record the apparitions’ heights
(from two-and-a-half feet to a bit over six)
and hauled in scales to weigh them (Honto averaged
sixty pounds or so, but fluctuated wildly).
At last he was reduced, like the newly bereft
mothers who came to wail at one last vision of
babies doubly torn from the body, to belief
at once grudging and enthusiastic.  “Wonders,”
he called them, beyond his powers to explain or
more than describe.  He recounted but one stab of
fear: sitting in the loft’s blackness, they felt beams shake
that were trees when the land belonged to those who now
danced, stomping and whooping, among their silent chairs.
(No, two: an elderly woman, Honto’s willing
partner in most hijinks, scrambled atop her seat
to escape a mouse that Honto let skitter loose.)
But when Olcott, having formed an unspoken wish,
felt it answered by the lips of a child he knew
to be dead softly kissing his face, there was none,
no more than the frisson of hope unexpectedly
blossoming.  We can’t bear such breathless affection,
we, in whose days corpses are bulldozed to mass graves
and not allowed to linger for farewells at home.