ERASURE OF TRAGEDY
When I opened the folder of letters from seminary colleagues, on top was a handful of shocked accounts about a happening in that community. A very small seminary that has since sold its building and dispersed itself, weakening its once umbilical tie to the U of Chicago Div School, the faculty consisted of three professors. The oldest, most scholarly, most benign and diligent, had a son who was a star: a handsome jet pilot with a glorious future. The family was very proud of this young man.
One evening, dressed elegantly to attend a party, the son shot himself and his fiancé. It was devastating. Even those of us who had connections to chaplaincies with Charles Manson or friends who died at Jonesville, were rocked. The main way of coping was to erase that young man. Biographies of the father name three children and note that there may be more. All inquiries are shut down. My speaking of this is disapproved. I may be rebuked.
This strategy of drawing a curtain over ghastly things is partly because of a wrong belief that it will relieve pain and partly because of a wrong belief that when people do such things, they are “bad”, “evil” — we once said “possessed by demons.” So we know very little about the causes, the precursors, or how to keep from emotional collapse. This is particularly familiar among nice middle class families.
When I prowl my family history over the generations, I find similarly erased people. “X had at least Y number of children.” This is the little evasion of mentioning the extra unnamed people. Some of the reaction comes from shame and part comes from fear of blame for not realizing something bad was brewing. There were always a scattering of alcoholics. A new factor has come from the closer study of events previously denied and erased: sexual abuse of children. It’s estimated that as many as one-fifth of boys have suffered and as many as a third of girls. The symptoms persist, even across the generations. Some handle it, some don’t, and some replicate.
One of my uncles who was erased was a “paranoid schizophrenic” who spent much of his life in institutions. I suspect that his actions account for the anxious character of one cousin and the strong command in that small safe rural place that some strangers should be shut out. Exceptionally pretty young girl cousins seem to be more at risk — on both sides of the marriage families — so it was slow to dawn on me that in the post WWII years when my brothers were little and delinquent boys roamed neighborhoods, one brother had been abused. I remembered puzzling scraps and have always wondered why that brother was “different”, almost hiding from life.
The frankly insane uncle’s affliction was attributed by my mother to his mother, who had other family members with damage. She didn’t know about genetics, but gossip supported inheritance. The effect on that family as a whole, extending through my cousins, has been denial of mental health issues, failure to address them, but the gossip had persisted.
The other relatively “new” dilemma has been senile dementia. Most of my aunts and some uncles have had years of dementia, popularly called “Alzheimers”, before dying. My mother was sane to the end. My father was clearly in trouble by the Sixties because of a head-on car crash with a concussion in 1948. At first he seemed recovered, but over the years he changed. We had not understood this properly until the football players broke their silence. Now it is a concern, not just because of compensation, but also because it raises questions about why a culture would deliberately watch men destroy each other’s brains, becoming so enthusiastic about it as to be nearly cults. (Which are included in some descriptions of dissociation.)
My interest in and pursuit of information about these matters have distressed the family. They avoid me, so to spare them, I have pulled away. Too bad because one tranche in particular has been a tangle of damage and denial that it might help them to unravel some tragedies. Universally, on all sides, both urban and rural, college grads and high school alumni, the emphasis is on presentation and reputation. Few of these folks are church-goers but they have strong concerns about “looking good.” One’s reputation is part of doing well financially, but depending on appearances is also important when things get tough.
Dressing well, having nice manners, knowing important people personally, are all very important to this family. “Creativity” is a dubious enterprise and drugs will get you erased. But somehow we all have a deep aversion to any professional help. Even myself, who knows better and has worked with professionals. Appealing for help with demented relatives, or the management of money or poverty, was never considered. The closest was the uncle who demanded coyote elimination by the government hunter. One of the most outstanding experts on concussion damage was at OHSU in Portland, but we didn’t know it.
My brain damaged brother saw it through assumptions of “crazy” and feared any doctors who might have locked him up. Being accused of being crazy was a means of control and essentially assumed to be “bad” and somehow deliberate.
And yet as the proceeding grind on in Washington, DC. we unveil one nutcase after another, cult members, paranoids, dissociated people committed to tight groups that have lost reality. We elected them. We elected Trump who was a known mafia-attached criminal. Where do sanity and reliable functioning begin except with families and the individuals they support and guide?