Tuesday, January 09, 2018

AUNTIES AND BUDDIES


This is the on-going story of an abused boy, just one individual who made his unique way, surviving however he could -- inimitably -- but he represents large social movements and changing cultures that many boys did not survive.

A biography of this boy has to be based on men, esp. fathers, but though the power of the fathers is obvious, it is the subversive and sometimes equal power of women that may be more meaningful, even salvific.  It is the women who carry the culture and boys are shaped by their culture despite fathers who may try to oppose it because it means change.  When women side with the fathers against their sons, the results are tragic.

Even before the leap from country to city, the world of this boy was framed by aunts and other boys.  The aunts must have known to some extent what was going on.  None dared intervene against the abuse.  The other boys became the real family though only some were cousins and others were neighbors.  They formed small conspiracies.  As boys do, they paired off like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn or “Penrod and Sam” or “Two Little Savages.”

Two aunts were on the father’s genetic side.  One was a menopause baby, only three years older than the boy. This aunt lived with the family in the university town because she was going to college there.  Acting as a kind of older daughter, she was oblivious of dynamics and critical of the boy. Deploying the usual defenses of the previous generations — denial and not-knowing, she was quite proud of the family history, which included inventors and professionals, as was her mother, but there were elements of darkness that encouraged omissions.  The other aunt was an Auntie Mame who swept up the boy in a swirl of emotion, nearly smothering him in over-intense bonding.  Her son, the same age as the boy, was in the same style.  They embraced each other.

The two aunts on the mother’s side were educated and moved in more sophisticated circles.  These women stayed in touch with their mother’s birth family.  The great aunt and her husband ran a local repertory theatre.  Each of these women would occasionally ‘kidnap’ the boy and take him out of range of abuse.  One was an English teacher who took the boy into bookstores that his mother claimed were evil and the other had married a nuclear scientist which meant access to galaxies of ideas.  The boy's father was close to this man, admiring the connection to science and atomic power.  

No one ever went to authorities about abuse of the boy.  A police officer lived within hearing distance of the beatings but did nothing about it.  Children were owned, families were private, consequences of intervention would be major.  This father was formidable.

But even in the city there were safe spaces.  One was a reserve or park not far from the house that had a little blind, a hut with a view window.  It became a boy club, a hideaway of total intimate safety.   The boy’s closest bond was with a Chippewa his age and they met there.  In that protected area there was other evidence of native inhabitants in the form of early kinds of corn and squash that had naturalized, gone feral, because they were hardy and not dependent on cultivation. 

Among the other bourgeois ideas the aunts held, was the American fantasy about the specialness of writers and the belief that a person with “talent” could become rich and famous by exertions the uninitiated can’t quite understand but see depicted in movies again and again.  “The Great American Novel!”  Published!  The names of the day were Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, at least those were the figures who rang with the boy because of the “Life” magazine publicity in the Sixties.  

Human developmental years between 9 and puberty are called “adrenarche” because no one has come up with a better term for the time between childhood and adolescence.  It is the period for forming adult personality before sex presents its challenge.  The basic “plate tectonics” of infant concepts of what the world is like are now overlaid with new strategies and categories.  If sex intrudes too early, development can be short-circuited, out of proportion, or numbed. 

For this boy moving from safe and known country to dangerous and lonely city at the same time as the death of his beloved and stabilizing grandfather plus the worsened behavior of his father in his new job, possibly the trigger for the father’s worst abuse, caused the boy’s brain to form two strong circuits that controlled contradictory forces of behavior.  The goal most desired — the love and approval of his father — was approached only by paying a terrible price in pain, broken bones, and blame.  It was going into the labyrinth, even while hearing the minotaur roaring.

The other brain prompt urged running away even though a boy without money can’t do that without misery and risk.  At first he couldn’t escape his father anyway and even after hitchhiking for miles would be found and beaten again.  Then he earned enough money to take the bus but still ended in misery, huddled in public bathrooms, prey.  The two brain circuit trapped him in approach/avoidance.  Going toward something he wanted and needed would trigger panic.  

By this time he had the markers of a victim: one shoulder higher than the other because of broken bones, a habit of looking askance, and whatever pheromone or subconscious signal attracts bullies.  It didn’t help that he was beautiful, still tow-headed, and basically well-built, a positive inheritance.

In some circumstances his personality was charming, charismatic, and seductive, skills he had developed while trying to control his father or at least evade him.  In others he was unmanageable, cleverly insulting, arrogant, turning everything back on itself.  Teachers sent him to the library with an assignment.  He was smart and did tasks too easily, faster than the rest of the class.  He became a skilled autodidact, though a little jumbled and undigested because he read so much so quickly with little guidance.  But he realized he was a poet and proved it by winning a city-wide competition for student poets.  For the rest of his life this was the axis of his identity.

Only poetry can hold the contradictions of torture and ecstasy, the breaks between reality and the unimaginable, the separation from what is touted as civilization when wild animals are the only ones with decency.  For a boy not quite realizing what it meant to be gay, poetry was both a home and a disguise.  The stigmatized sex of the ordinary became the transformative eroticism of another world.  The short attention span and startling metaphorical leaps that offended his logical father became flashing insight to other dimensions.

The boy always thought that after he had learned more, become more strategic, he could make things come right again, even force late justice.  He had fantasies of setting his parents straight and making them into a happy family.  None of it worked.

At the time it was considered proper for boys in swimming classes at school to not wear trunks.  There is a relationship to public baths with immigrants who might be carrying pests or sores.  This particular swim coach was perverse enough to force the naked boys into indecent acts.  Years later T. went to confront the superintendent and ask for records of that man.  She was aghast and sympathetic, but when he went back she had contacted lawyers and was a wall.

At first he was only the target of sexual penetration by boys.  Then his pride and vitality made him realize that he could be the one in charge.  If he couldn’t prevent it from happening, he could use it to get money and to control the boys who craved access.  Now grown men spotted him in the park and were prepared to pay.  No pimps were involved.

Starting high school at puberty, he cultivated an identity of fierce and devilish danger, wearing jackets with fringe “that reached to the floor” and emphasizing his already deepset eyes with the black eye makeup meant to be worn by football players on cheekbones to prevent glare.  He carried a Bowie knife in his boot and made sure everyone knew it.  At some point his father, perhaps complicit, got him a motorcycle.  He parked it outside the school and no one dared meddle with it, though they went to the windows to watch him arrive.

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