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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

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August: Osage County; Brene Brown; shame; vulnerability; dysfunctional families; self- loathing; spiritual; trauma; redemption

Incarcerated

jail

It’s a matter of public record that my brother has been in and out  jail recently on numerous offenses. Beyond the occasional speeding ticket, my brother’s run-ins with the law and his subsequent incarcerations are a first for our mostly law-abiding family.

It’s a few hours drive for me to visit him in the small county jail where he is locked up. Beyond the drab municipal buildings and razor wire fencing surrounding the courthouse, it’s a sad depraved little town whose people seem to have not enough to do and not enough resources to do it with.

Jail visits are surreal for those of us not behind the bars. It’s difficult to know what to say or do. The thoughts that pass through my mind do not seem so appropriate or helpful. I wonder what does one wear in order to look like the little sister of a man who would not break the law? I have never been a fashionista, but it seems important for me to make a good impression, like I am a reflection of my brother’s guilt or innocence. I thumb through my assortment of formless sweaters, omitting the black and white striped one for the obvious reason. I gravitate instead towards neutrals, colorless putty tones that will not show soil or make me stand out too much as a visitor. A scarf adds some cheer and hides my ample bosom from lewd gazes. Then, my mind shifts from my wardrobe to that old familiar comfort of food. Shouldn’t I bake a cake for the occasion? Folks always did that on the old television shows, right? I think how I would not hide  a weapon inside, honest I wouldn’t. I just think it would be so very nice to take him a cake and share it with the guards. Maybe that would earn him some television time or a walk outside for fresh air.

I ride down with my nephews, my brother’s grown children. We all lead busy lives with family and work in our places of too much to do and not enough time to do it in. I enjoy catching up on their lives. We stop to eat, of course, either lunch or breakfast at a local diner or barbecue restaurant. My nephew says “Aunt Susie, this would be fun if we didn’t have to …” His voice trails. He doesn’t have to finish the sentence; I know what he means.

I am angry at my brother, angry at his choices and actions. At times I can barely contain it; at times I do not. There is a feeling that like a contagious disease, he has brought an undesirable element to our lives. I want it to go away. I do not want our family poisoned.

At the jail, my nephews and I huddle around one of three small windows just off the lobby, attempting to talk to my brother via a menacing telephone that appears left over from the 1960’s. I regret not bringing antiseptic wipes, but my mind was on other senseless matters like the outfit and the cake. The telephone line is filled with static. My brother somehow sounds miles away instead of two feet behind the glass. What cannot be heard or spoken in words is evident in the setting of the jaw, the cold dullness of blue eyes, everyone’s aching to get out of there.

Later, I make small talk with the guards.  Some of the female guards remind me of that old character “Pat” on Saturday Night Live; I am left questioning much about their sexuality. They laugh good-naturedly about my brother, who can be humorous and quite charming when he is not armed or drunk. These are traits I share with most everyone in my family, the humor and charm, that is, not the drunkenness, although many folks back home are armed to the hilt. I finally succeed in endearing the guards to please pass my brother a pair of my old reading glasses and a pen with which he can read and write. Along with a few dollars in his canteen, it is all I can offer, this weak but real connection to the outside world.

I miss the brother that I knew, my brother who is all but lost from his family and is now starring in a tragi-comedy of his own doing. His role is both antagonist and victim. The numerous charges against him include assault, making threats, discharging a firearm in the city limits, however the real crime is a life gone missing outside this jail cell.

My brother has always been a fighter but rarely, until his old age, did it get him in serious trouble. One of my earliest memories of my brother is when I was three or four and I insisted on staying up past nine o’clock to watch the I Love Lucy Show. Daddy would put me in bed and I would immediately crawl out. When my patient father finally threatened to give me a spanking, my older brother met him in the hall, one fist repeatedly slamming into the other. “Don’t hit her daddy. Don’t hit her, ” he said. I still remember him saying that. I never did get a spanking that night  although I probably should have. I hold fast to this memory of my protective older brother. I would like to return the favor now but I cannot and he will not listen. There is little I or anyone can do to protect him now against himself.

It occurs to me that whereas my brother is a fighter, I am a flyer. Over the years, this behavior has imprinted itself on me as sense of  worthlessness, of being a secret self-loather, a weakling unable to take charge of her own destiny. A woman whose very wonderful and blessed life can feel as sparse and distant as breadcrumbs dropped on a path through the woods. Most days I know the crumbs are simply the negatives of life that for years I swallowed and swallowed and swallowed. These things sit and ferment in ones stomach, then eat you from the inside out. The truth is I fear loosening the lid on my own Pandora’s box. I fear what might emerge. I fear it could be the madness and rage that has taken over my brother. I realize then that beyond charm and the same color blue eyes, I share something else with my brother. I too am both antagonist and victim in my own life. There are many crimes I commit, but what gnaws on me most is the same, that of leading a life of unrealized potential.

It is the hardest thing in the world to do, isn’t it? To free ourselves from whatever it is that imprisons us. It is so difficult to walk away from behaviors that are self-destructive and no longer serve us well, even when we know we should. We are all incarcerated, each in our own little cell, searching for a means of escape.

At The Movies…

 

ashamed-girl-with-a-bag-on-her-head-10054806

My book club,  The Key West Girls met today to discuss Brene Brown’s I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn’t).  Ms. Brown is a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. Her ground-breaking studies on the subjects of shame and vulnerability have gained her international attention thru several Ted Talks, a PBS Special and a guest appearance on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. If you are not familiar with her work, check out the links below.

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html

Until Ms. Brown came along, the subjects of shame and vulnerability were not likely to be discussed among a mimosa- sipping book club such as The Key West Girls nor in any setting, save a psychologist’s couch. From Adam and Eve’s revelation of sin in the Garden of Eden to my own devouring of an entire Toffee Crunch candy bar yesterday (the extra- large kind that cost several dollars from the discount store Aldi’s… yes, even before I drove out of the parking lot) shame remains the subject that no one wants to talk about. Shame lurks below the surface of our personalities, controlling our actions like the puppeteer controlled Oz. Shame is more than a feeling of embarrassment and more than feeling that we have done something bad. Shame tells us that we are bad. Shame cuts to the  very core of our being and has a profound effect on our feelings of self-worth.

Vulnerability is often associated with weakness, when just the opposite is true. Being vulnerable requires a lot of courage and means that we must be willing to show our true self to the world. In doing that, we open ourselves up to the possibility of disappointment, criticism and rejection. Rather than risk being vulnerable, we instinctively try to insulate ourselves against it. We avoid situations and people that would expose our flaws; we guard our hearts against injury. There are many ways we can hide. Some people rage at the wind while others turn inwards. It’s easy to believe that we deserve love when we think we’re perfect, but when we’re a screwed up mess and our lives fall apart, there’s a part of us that believes we deserve it.

I have a friend with whom I share a similar past. We both experienced trauma as children in  households with an unstable alcoholic parent. The other parent did not really protect us from the dangerous and abusive situations that resulted from this dysfunctional family dynamic.  We developed similar coping mechanisms; we believed we could outsmart the negative effects of our childhoods by making better choices. We swore we would not go down the same roads we experienced as children. Instead, we held ourselves up to impossibly high standards that have repeatedly left us feeling like failures. As adults, we try to practice forgiveness and have not sought to solve the puzzles of our past by casting blame. We are both generally regarded as kind, compassionate individuals however the flip side (our shame) is that we have lousy boundaries with others and often find ourselves being manipulated or taken advantage of.

Although we’ve known each other for nearly thirty years, it wasn’t until we reached our fifties that we even thought to ask “Why did this happen? Why did no one stand up for us?” Over years of sharing numerous Starbuck Mocha Lattes and Panera Bread “You- Pick- Two” combination meals, we have only recently begun to make the correlation between the fact that no one stood up for us as children with our own inability to stand up for ourselves as adults.

In fact, there are so many missing parts of my childhood I simply don’t remember that I often have to ask my best friend what really happened. My husband jokes about my lapses of memory and says it is a blessing. I think he’s right. In my observations of my parents’ battles, the truth always seemed relative. I have come to believe that God is the only universal truth and that as flawed human beings, our view of the truth is always skewed and tainted by our experience. Like our ancestors who took the bite from the apple and made up stories to hide their shame, we make up our own stories to explain our lives. We transpose our real life experience into internal movies where we are the star surrounded by characters, plotlines and actions that we understand. The story I told myself was this…

“I had been spared and emerged from the flames unscathed. I was a living example of how life was better if you channelled a resilient inner strength and blew right thru the hard times. Hard times were there but they made you stronger, better. From an early age I understood, no I KNEW, there was simply so much goodness, so much grace, so much joy in this world that the bad stuff didn’t matter.”

I was wrong.

I went with my husband last week to see the film August: Osage County. Adapted from a play, it tells of a magnificent, dysfunctional Texas family. It is a story in contrasts and comparisons: the characters in the film alternately exemplify brilliance and stupidity, strength and weakness, denial and obsession. Except for the beautiful cinematography which includes  breathtaking still shots of the austere Texas landscape, there’s very little beauty in this film. Even Meryl Streep is hideous.

As I sat through the movie with my medium popcorn and a Lipton Green Tea smuggled inside my purse, the details didn’t bother me. Despite having lost my father in a similar manner, I barely cringed at the suicide. I munched popcorn through the fight scenes and slurred insults. I recognized many nuances of the family’s cast of characters: the child who hated; the child who seemed unfettered; the child who felt responsible. Even as the mother Violet mimicked many of my own mother’s worst behaviors, I sat in my seat, unflinching, as if I was watching a movie about anyone but me.

In the final scene, something in me shifted. As the closing credits rolled, I began to sob. I cried as I rarely do  in my life, in gulps and spasms, an ugly, ugly cry. I covered my face as hot tears fell and the salt scorched my cheeks. I sat in my seat gasping through the tears until everyone left and someone came in to clean up trash. My husband didn’t know what to do; the wife he knows doesn’t act like that. He sat there, a dutiful husband, clueless as what to do or what to say. I wish he’d taken my hand or put his arm around me; sometimes, I simply don’t know if we work that way anymore. In the end, I don’t suppose it mattered. This was my moment.

As I filtered many of the movie’s scenes through my own similar experiences,  I experienced a strange reaction. Instead of being upset by the suicide or the defiant, drunken behavior of the mother or the broken children, I felt a kind of reassurance and validation. It was like I knew these people. Yet as the sheer ugliness of this families’ tragedy blazed across the screen before me, I forgot to perform my usual rewrite and reinterpretation of the events. Their story ended like ash falling from the sky after a bomb. There was so much damage and such a small, insignificant amount of hope, that for a moment I questioned everything I thought was true.

There passed through my mind a brief, devastating thought that shook me to my bones, that maybe, just maybe I had it all wrong. Had the people in this movie been made any better by the tragic events? Had my own life? Where was the redemption? Then, the feeling it passed. I looked like hell, but I was okay. I went to the bathroom, brushed the salt off my shirt and pulled the popcorn kernels out of my bra. I splashed cold water on my face, cursed the facility’s lack of papertowels and debated whether or not I should place my head beneath the electric hand dryer to dry my face. Instead, I blotted my cheeks with toilet paper and peeled the tissue off my skin in sections, because of course, it stuck. I walked quietly to the car with my husband. We decided we were hungry and went to K&W Cafeteria for dinner.

I am an optimist. I believe in goodness, grace and joy. This is what I know; this is who I am.

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