My wife and I had the opportunity to 're-watch' the classic movie, starring James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, from 1955, last evening on PBS. Not only was the movie a devastating criticism of the parenting of the 1950's, with fathers and mothers fawning over their idol of public perfection in their children, but the men, especially the men/fathers were as Jim Stark (Dean's character) put it "mush" when confronting their wives.
I was raised in the "Stark" household, metaphorically speaking. Watching that father feverishly clean the mess he had made when he let the tray with his ill wife's food fall, so that his wife would not see what he had done, while his son Jim laughed at his foolishness and urged him to "let her see it," I was ashamed to think that that could have been my father. And, as for the pivotal question Jim asked his father early in the movie, while he contemplated his risk in showing up for the "duel" of stolen cars racing to the cliff overlooking the sea, "What should I do?" his father could summon only luke-warm and ineffectual words: "Let's get a paper, and list our options, and then find someone to give us advice."
I recall a conversation, on the back steps on our family home, in the summer of 1956, with my father about the terrible actions, words and attitudes that we were experiencing from my mother, including disdain for him, and physical and emotional abuse directed to me.
"What are we going to do about this woman?" I pleaded.
"I really don't know; I have tried everything I can think of and nothing has worked so far; so I really don't know what to do," came his honest, if once again ineffectual response.
Were we to have that conversation today, I would be demanding that either he and I leave, unless and until the kind of "zoo" we were living in changed, or that I would be leaving alone. In the words of both Jim Stark echoed by his girlfriend, Judy, in the movie, " I am not going back into that zoo, ever!" (each referring to their family homes).
Trying in vain to "fit in" applied not only to the Jim Stark's of the movie; it applied to all of us, in our mid-teens in the fifties. And although our parents may not have moved from town to town, as part of their campaign to escape the embarrassment of their young son, they were nevertheless just as addicted to being seen as perfect parents with perfect kids.
"Be a good boy!" was the line that spurted out of my mother's mouth whenever I ventured into any social encounter. Dressed inappropriately in a sports jacket as Jim was for his first day at Dawson High, I was sent out to my first "teen-town dance" wearing a similar dress jacket only to find all the other males wearing t-shirts and/or light sweaters. The formality of my attire spoke volumes about the snobbery and the vacuity of my (and Jim's) parents and I could imagine his discomfort at wearing the weight of those expectations in the clothes he was "assigned." I recall having not enough courage, or spine to ask anyone to dance, but most likely told my mother that I had enjoyed myself on that hot August night with those clothes soaked in my perspiration.
"Be a good boy" now echoes in my head as the grating sound of a military commander, barked as if her reputation were intimately tied to my behaviour, my words and my attitudes, while her own responsibility for those features of her life were being drowned in her projections of her own perfect persona onto her only offspring.
Link "be a good boy" to "don't read, do something!" and "if you get the strap at school you will get it twice as hard at home" and "you're no good and you never will be any good" and you have a chorus for a daily, hourly chant from the female tyrant whose strode like a colossus over the micro-culture of our family home. To be sure, to counter her "dark side," she was literally in perpetual motion in her pursuit of work and potentially "redemption"(in the puritan perspective of idleness leading to temptation and evil)...cooking, cleaning, sewing, decorating and redecorating, gardening, preserving, delivering food to grieving families, nursing, and talking to her one or two friends....in excess were all of these activities.
The excess of her criticisms, even emotional floggings of the two men in her life, were, of course, never permitted to escape into the public domain; they were our family secret, and we knew unconsciously that if we were ever to break the code of silence that surrounded and enveloped our house and her reputation, they "all hell would break loose" even though we did not even speculate on what that would look like.
Feeling unworthy and unloved, like Jim Stark and to a lesser extent Judy, I too rebelled, only my turn came immediately following my first year in university, when I was eighteen, a little later than Stark's. My rebellion took the vocal formation, when I uttered the word to myself, "I am not doing this FOR HER (meaning going to university, and achieving grades that would make her proud) but rather I am no longer afraid of her and need to do things for myself and on my own."
It was that year(1960-61) that I became involved in student government, fraternity life and dating while enrolled in an honours program that required even more study time and concentration than my busy, over-consuming ambition-let-loose could and did accommodate. The year came crashing in on me at the corner of Richmond and Central Avenues near midnight one snowy Sunday night in March of 1961, when the recently purchased Volkswagen I had purchased for a summer job selling nursery stock collided in the island-intersection with a northbound car coming up Richmond. I did not see his headlights if there were any, and the right front fender was crushed. Neither my friend nor I were injured, but my ability to concentrate in the final weeks prior to final exams was shattered.
Ambition to become a man and all that that entailed, and the need to be loved and accepted and even liked by a female partner have been two strands that have weaved a somewhat enmeshed tapestry of intersecting timelines for the last half century of my life.
Haunting both strands, however, was the "foundational" understanding and even belief that I was alone in those pursuits, without mentor, without anyone from whom to seek counsel, and without even the option of such a choice. And guarding that foundational belief, were models of "woman" and "man" of femininity and masculinity, both of which were caricatures of themselves and of each other. Her offense drowned or possibly trumped his, because he knew that by becoming assertive he would be overruled and thereby would "lose" again, something the male ego finds troublesome. Similarly his responsibility did not compete on a level playing field with hers, since she held her Registered Nursing "degree" over his head, as her accomplishment that would always trump his refusal to attend Dental School when she offered to work as a nurse in Toronto and "put him through" in effect pay the freight.
Competition between man and woman, in our house, produced a consistent, predictable and tragic outcome: she won, he lost and he retreated from further engagement into passive aggressive patterns that presumably drove her mad.
And like Jim Stark looking for role models of masculinity, Stark finding one in officer Ray at the local police department, I also found one in the lawyer who "took me in" as a student summer employee and became my mentor, providing adult male support, counsel and advice that could not come from inside my home.
However, the thrashing and the self-doubt, and the self-loathing that was "seeded" in the garden of my youth lasted decades longer than the tonnes of raspberries that were picked from my mother's garden. And only through a persistent determination to say "No!" to various and deeply hurtful public admonishments, "targeting" and "bringing down" episodes, designed and delivered by individuals and groups who were well aware they were unable to penetrate my armour, I have, after half a dozen decades, relented somewhat to those attacks, without ever letting my guard completely down.
I still determine to locate and to envisage all the escape routes from whatever situation I might find myself in. I still listen as carefully as one who cannot read and overcompensates with listening, to all the signals that could and would impale me on their sharp tentacles and flag those signals as potentially destructive. I still, on the other side, admire and fantasize about the risks others take, in the spirit and the hope that they might achieve their accomplishment without bringing themselves down, as did Silken Laumen, the Canadian Olympic rower, who, when she was 500 meters from her first "gold medal" and leading her closest opponent, told herself that she was not worthy of winning, and finished second. She too suffered the ignominy of a troubled mother, hers throwing plates and threatening to "gas" the family any day, while mine assaulted both my father and me with her invectives and me with her dowel of a discarded rolling pin, on the shoulders, the arms the legs, if and when I provoked her anger and her disappointment and her embarrassment, adding more fuel to an already burning layer of embers that has still not been fully extinguished inside my being.
I need to watch "Rebel without a cause" a few more times, for the mining of relevant nuggets of insight...do you too?