Friday, April 01, 2016


A few nights ago I was looking for illustrations for something or other I was writing and — as happens every once in a while — I ran across something that stunned me.  It wasn’t one of those pay-for-tattling websites, but just an ordinary newspaper story about a man from Browning, respected and educated, from a good family, a grandfather, a ceremonialist, elected to a responsible role in the community, who had a son who “made it” on one of those legendary athletic scholarships.  Here were his mug shots from an incident in one of the state’s bigger cities.  Evidently he had flashed some people in a coffee kiosk and the mall security grabbed him.

Long ago I was his teacher.  The last time I saw him I sat next to him at the funeral of a respected elder.  Of course the consequences of the exposure were a domino chain: loss of respect, loss of role.  I don’t know how his wife reacted but she’s not a weak woman.  Shame? Or guilt?  For what?

Women around here, whatever color, are often caught embezzling.  Usually they say they want money for their families.  But men occasionally do unaccountable defiant but self-destructive things, stuff a junior high kid would do, and though there’s often alcohol or drugs involved, they are stupid acts — maybe self-hating.  Shame, guilt . . . frustration, overwhelmed by everything.

It took me a long time to understand that Native Americans feel so very ashamed that they could not defend themselves from the Euro-invaders.  They weren’t equipped, they didn’t understand what was happening, and Euro-disease wiped out many.  There is no justification for holding them accountable and yet they feel that way.  For generations now.

It’s not so different from young Jews who feel that a Chosen People ought to have been able to find a way to prevail over Hitler, a way to explain or escape or even offer some kind of accommodation, the way England did at first.  Maybe you remember how Americans tried to shame the French not so long ago, because that nation criticized the invasion of Iraq.  They renamed “French” fries to be “American” fries and they tied the whole thing to the German capture of France in WWII, claiming that the French didn’t fight.

It’s like family crackups that the children feel they caused, that they ought to be able to fix, so when they can't, they leave home, hoping that will make it all settle down.  This is never real and most people never get it resolved because they can’t see past blaming.  Often the blaming is so clever, so accurately aimed at a soft spot, that the one who takes the blame punishes themselves, clear to the point of death, taking desperate chances to prove that they are brave or else maybe giving up.  

Especially women can sink into depression, a terrible burden on their right to live, always trying to propitiate the mysterious gods who made them inevitably come up short.  Stockton links this to the suicide of Virginia Wolff, probably accurately.  She never could satisfy her father, whose standards were impossible anyway.  He caused her to be ashamed of her beauty, her talent, her intelligence.

Those young Indians who finally refused to take the blame were in the cities, talking to defiant Blacks, but defiance and blame only perpetuate stigma.  It becomes a rebound weapon against themselves.  A tool for their enemies.  When Bob Scriver’s museum burned, the FBI was quick to say it was AIM that did it, which only pushed the fear and rage up higher.  No one looked at the structure of society and how it traps stigmatized young men; the same thing happened in Ireland.  Plenty of evidence, many strong theories, individuals who saw clearly.  But the little worm of debasement ate into them like toxoplasmosis making rats love the smell of cat pee.

Blacks have a different context.  They were not victims of invaders that they failed to repel — rather they were captured, chained, taken across the sea to a different country, and kept enslaved by a strong cultural consensus and brute force.  Ever read “Mandingo”?  Slaves were penetrated and boiled into soup.

Down deep in many Native Americans is the idea that they might be able to restore their tribe to its former power.  Whites make noble angels of them, and they kind of believe it.  Casinos with all their glamour and clatter of money sort of appeal to that.  I suspect that Englishmen — and certainly Scots — have that same wish to reconstruct past glory.  It’s unreal and finally makes them angry.

My first impulse is to go have coffee with this man and try to understand what happened, why he was so out of character.  But I suspect that he was IN character, that something festering had broken loose and burst constraints.  When I try to imagine how he would react if I tried to talk to him, I see that there is no way he could believe that my intentions were good and he probably doesn’t have that much insight into himself anyway.  It might take a sweat lodge with wise older men.  But where are they?  HE was supposed to be them.  

I don’t think a Western style therapist would be any help because they all work from theory and NOT experience.  Not many have experienced being mocked, excluded, and shunned.  Maybe that’s why the most effective analysts are often Jewish.  “Jimmy P” has nothing on the reality of being “Indian” and I’m not going by the movie — I’ve read the book carefully several times.  “Winter in the Blood” is closer.

My mother’s family were major blamers and ridiculers.  My father’s family is deniers, people who are nice no matter what.  I’ve got both in me.  My strategy has been to think things out, to learn how things work, to explain and justify.  But none of that ever changes the accumulated shame-and-blame feelings.  The feelings just sit there like toads and stare.  Someone said to me, “Why can’t you believe that I love you?”  Well, there’s the answer: a panel of toads, all with their webby little thumbs turned down.

The toads say,  “Why couldn’t you save your marriage?  Why didn’t you finish your doctoral thesis?  Why couldn’t you save your brother from death on the street?  Why haven’t you written a best-seller?  Why didn’t you cure your step-daughter’s cancer?  Why couldn’t you save her daughter from suicide?”  

All this assails me until I have to laugh at such grandiose narcissism.  But that’s not the same as taking on the burden of the loss of an entire culture, the destruction of a continent.  The actual offense of the man in the mug shot — he just pleaded no contest, paid a fine or something — would never have become public if he hadn’t been Native American, but it was a satisfaction to some to once again punish people they stigmatize.

The shrinks call such incidents of disruption in the middle of a lifetime of constructive work “acting out.”  It’s considered a defense mechanism, a way of relieving pressure.  I like the image of a container (hot philosophical concept at the moment) that holds a roiling hot mixture, reacting, getting deeper, until it causes the container to leak — tell things, do things, provoke, make something happen even if it’s bad.

I like that container idea because it offers a way to address the guilt/shame issue that triggers so much frustration.  Two ways, actually:  one is to make the container bigger or stronger, and the other is to stop adding to the heat inside.  Ways to do those include reframing the situation, finding a community that understands, increasing one’s skill level in any way, and others, including the Native American favorite:  laughter at the absurdity of little fool Napi — yourself — trying to save the world.  Well, we DO manage to save little patches here and there.  But some atrocities can never be reconciled.

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