by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
The movie “Fantasia” was released in 1940 but it doesn’t seem logical that I would remember that early, since I was born in 1939. Maybe it came back in a few years. I was just learning to roller skate. Daringly, I tried to roll down our rather steep driveway and succeeded in grating all the flesh off my knees. It was very very painful and I completely lost control, though my mother demanded that I stop shrieking.
After a half-hour of screaming, which she could hardly bear, she said that if I didn’t stop the noise, we would not be able to attend a showing of “Fantasia” which had been promised as soon as my father got home for the weekend. I didn’t stop. She put me on the master bedroom bed, a place reserved for illness, shut the door and left. I don’t remember meds or a bath, but they probably were there. She always did basic treatment. We did not attend “Fantasia” and it was all my fault.
The point is that this was an early event, probably a screen memory, of how suffering was handled in my family. With parents who grew up on marginal farms, one learned the family code of silence, privacy, and unquestioning — possibly physical punishment, deprivation of privileges, and isolation. There were two times in my adult life when I wept in a terrible storm of loss: once after I graduated from Northwestern, leaving a world I loved (1961); and then the last time I had to leave the rez (1991), again losing a world I loved. Both times my mother left and stayed away, clear out of the house, until it was over. I have no idea what my father did.
When I was in high school, my mother had a radical mastectomy. I was not told what was happening and I never heard a peep of complaint out of her until years later. There are other examples. She practiced what she taught, what she had learned. She cannot be blamed.
When I began to investigate my Jimmy Jeffers Sublimation Syndrome, which is essentially that I always choose distant but intense relationships, even in terms of sex and love, I couldn’t find any memory of sexual abuse or even transgression. Yet it is clearly a boundary problem, a whole category of misadjustments of identity. It’s so easily blamed on narcissism. I value Sam Vaknin and his dour diagnoses, but this is something else.
When I was serving UU congregations, particularly the one across the lake from Seattle, the most liberal of the bunch, I was always fascinated to see a parent take an offending small child off someplace quiet — put an arm around them and talk to them quietly. I never intervened or tried to overhear, but it was entirely foreign to me. Offences had brought me a slap or even my legs whipped with the dog leash. This is not exactly what triggered my JJ Sublimation Syndrome, but close.
It was INCONSOLABILITY. I needed to be consoled with physical presence, empathy and explanation, was taught not to admit that need, sublimated it to books like “The Princess and the Goblin” by George MacDonald, a British Universalist minister, who taught me to keep climbing the stairs of the castle and not to fear descending to coal mines to help Curdie, the brave boy who defended against goblins by stamping on their feet. So inconsolability was linked to courage and protection.
When people decide I need comforting, I am horrified and run. I have no respect for such people. It feels like patronizing to me. This is a problem in a liberal religious community that constantly talks “love” and “compassion” but interprets it as a kind of capture, the creation of dependence on them by lesser people. And teaches blamelessness to the point of helplessness, until they have to be rescued by anarchists. We just saw it on video. They are too minor, too weak, too independently dependent.
My maternal grandmother died of cancer over many years. I don’t remember her but my mother said it did help to have me playing on the floor alongside her bed. Her death threw my mother into depression, though she went on functioning tough-mama fashion. Her training served her well. Childish efforts at comforting her were batted away. My paternal grandmother suffered a long economic slide and then, in the last couple of years, widowhood. She lived with her daughter, so my cousins took the gray pall of that. Mourning was a ghost we lived with. So do many families — maybe most. Especially during and after wars. I wept my way through primary school.
Somehow Bob Scriver had been taught to comfort with his body, freely and innocently. (Not always.) He was delighted to cuddle any animal, including humans. He even hugged the captive eagle. I’ve never had better hugs. This was what seemed to console me and let me grow again. Until it ended. Then I went back to sublimation and it worked. My boundaries had been moved.
I have a friend who addresses loss and disappointment with outrage and fury so extended it becomes pornographic, but porn is also a distancing, watching from outside instead of entering. He refuses funerals. He feels it’s all his fault. This is a strong connection between us.
The source is cultural; you can see it in “Game of Thrones.” Vengeance as consolation. Extreme suffering as transcendence and entitlement because it submerges everything else, all relationship. It’s that peculiar Christian notion that crucifixion is redeeming. Saints get their status through horrific damage — roasted, mutilated, pierced. Becoming the human sacrifice.
Perhaps today the luckiest people have been undramatically taught to find consolation in pleasure, the company of beloved others, art, poetry, and other media, the protection of daily life. In short, communion. Isn’t this the meaning of the scenes in well-written police procedurals where the officers — after a dreadful ordeal and maybe loss — go to a pub and get a little drunk? TOGETHER.
How dare I, in my arrogant solitude, shrug off all those others who want to interfere? I’m not alone. Even dead people come to be with me. Even invented people in books. Once in a while a real person.
This is not an invitation.