Monday, October 5, 2015

Unpacking family secrets, thanks to Patrick Kennedy's lead

Once while serving as a copywriter for a local auto dealer, I received firm guidelines from the owner of the dealership for all prospective copy.

“Never, never write an advertisement for radio or television that is directed to teachers, lawyers or doctors! They are the cheapest people on the planet. Also, do not read or follow the consumer opinion polls, because we all know that people will and do not tell anyone their real preference or the reasons for that preference,” came his succinct and intense instruction. “If they think you represent one company’s product, they will tell the pollster that they prefer something else,” he continued. Today, that dealer might say something like, “Teachers, Lawyers and Doctors are not influenced by the same pitch as the ordinary buyer and there must be specific messages targeted to different demographics.” Of course, that car dealer would never have uttered those words “in public” fearing the kind of backlash that his car sales quota could not sustain.

 And we all say things in private that we dare not utter in public. That is how family secrets become family secrets.

We all know that hypocrisy is very much a part of our culture, as are avoidance, denial and secrecy. Son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, Patrick, has written and published a book that exposes the secrets of his family of origin, including the alcohol dependency of both his father and his mother and the veil of secrecy that surrounded both of their dependencies, as well as the denial of any problem even after the family conducted an intervention with his father. Telling the Senator that his drinking was impacting each member of the family resulted in his father’s silent exit from the room, without uttering a word, following by an extended period of icy silence and ostracism between the father and his son. With the book, Patrick has opened the wounds of his family, and incurred the wrath of those remaining who hold fast to the code of silence that has wrapped the family in secrecy for decades. Even when his father took him, at twelve, to the site of the Chappaquiddick car crash in which an aide to Senator Bobby Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopoechne died, he did not hear the story, so painful was its scar on the Senator/driver of the car, that the silence was preserved. Only through his research in newspapers and books written by those who had delved into the details of the incident did son Patrick become familiar with his father’s truth.

Patrick Kennedy was Leslie Stahl’s guest on 60 Minutes last night. He now works in his own foundation to bring mental illness, from which he suffers (bi-polarity), along with his own addiction to alcohol, now moderated and controlled somewhat by daily AA meetings, and a new wife who refused to marry him unless and until he stopped drinking, with three children and a fourth expected, to the public debate, and out of the shadows.

The alienation from his father continued from the day of the intervention until Patrick, by then a Congressman from Rhode Island, proposed a bill calling for increased expenditures on mental health measures and defended it on the floor of the House. The now proud father finally opened the door of his life to his previously estranged son.

It is the stuff of legend that Patrick Kennedy’s uncle, the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, continued his philandering long after his election to the White House, a pattern the details of which were kept secret by a compliant media, dependent as it considered itself, on the access to the president for their very survival as reporters. Without access, there would be no stories; without stories, they would have no job. It really is that basic.

Keeping secrets, while presenting a smiling face to the public, is a feature of millions of homes from the history of too many countries, states and towns and villages. Young women who became pregnant for decades suddenly disappeared from their home towns, to follow their pregnancy, and preserve the reputation of their families, in a different location. Even today, the disclosure of files including names, account numbers and addresses of millions of individuals who have allegedly accessed the services of a website that engages in providing sexual partners for married clients gets front page prominence in daily papers, threatening both the marriages and the reputations of public figures.

Yet this hypocrisy is not restricted to the rich and the powerful. It occurs right on our neighbourhood streets, in our church pews, and in our community organizations. It is an integral part of our cultural DNA, and Patrick Kennedy, while heroic and admirable in bringing light into the family closets, will likely be considered another Don Quixote, in too many quarters. Family secrets, ecclesial secrets, business secrets, political secrets….these are the stuff of deception, drama, conflict and often tragedy, both in their cover-up and in their disclosure. Conflicts of interest, for example, accompany too many politicians who serve in jurisdictions where neophyte reporters are too innocent and also too inexperienced and therefore too cautious to expose them. Small towns, and big cities continue to operate with their unique “family compact” comprising the insiders who have and who exercise power over many of the decisions that are taken, allegedly in the public interest. Developers, for example, are renowned for padding the pockets of aldermen, in order to achieve the needed permits for their real estate developments. And we’re not talking exclusively about third world countries, where corruption is so rife that it constitutes the primary path to power.

 Also on 60 minutes last night, we learned of a French priest who has spent his career in ministry researching and finding mass graves of Jews, graves that were filled in the Second War. He is proving that not all of the Holocaust deaths occurred in the gas chambers of the concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were herded onto farm fields, in which ditches had been dug, lined-up along those ditches and shot, often from the back, toppling them into the ditches. Respect for the Jewish tradition of not disinterring dead bodies, this highly sensitive and determined priest merely records the co-ordinates of the locations of these mass graves, without erecting anything on their surface, in order to prevent vandalism and execration. According to the report on 60 Minutes, he has discovered some 1700+ sites, along with still living witnesses to these atrocities. Some accounts are so despicable that we learned that mothers were required to hold their babies while they were executed first, and then the mother was shot by these inhumane firing squads.

 There is little doubt that, decades from now, grad students will uncover many of the documents, including videos, instagram pics, utube images, that have already been recorded by the Islamic terrorists, for their recruitment and also their legacy. Secrets that  never came to the light of day will be unpacked before thesis advisors, degree panels and eventually by the public at large. Even today, we are learning more about the current administration in Canada, some of whose highly respected and placed advisors, such as one named Carson, were allegedly manipulating the public purse for their own benefits while serving as senior to the Prime Minister.

We have all read stories about gay clergy, participating in relationships, under cover of the secrecy of their supervisors who, too, were gay; yet when this charade was uncovered, all participants denied their complicity. Preserving one’s “calling” is regarded as far more important than telling the truth, even though the truth is central to the discipleship of a religious.

In my family, stories of my grandfather’ attempt to take his life, following my own father’s hunting misadventure resulting in the death of his hunting buddy, linked to my own father’s overt move to take his own life, when I was twelve, were never discussed openly in our family. Even when they were introduced to my father, he vehemently denied their veracity, not  being willing or able to withstand the fallout of such disclosure. On my mother’s side, her persistent physical and emotional abuse of both my sister and me was never openly dealt with, even when, at thirteen, I wrote a letter to my father’s two sisters, detailing some of her more heinous abuse. Stories, too, of my mother’s demand that my father, as a young husband, choose between parties and alcohol  on the one hand and his marriage on the other, were never discussed. Demonstrating actions and attitudes that today would be likely from what we know as a “dry drunk” (one who exhibits all the traits of one who is dependent on alcohol), without ever taking responsibility for her behaviour, my mother was in effect “the elephant in the room” through her total consumption of all of the oxygen in every room she visited. No one ever saw the welts on my arms, legs, shoulders and even neck, following one of the beatings. I merely covered them with long sleeves and long pants, high collars and, most importantly, total and complete silence.

Proud to a fault, neither my sister nor I would have dared open the closet on our family’s hidden secrets. We would have been beaten even more severely than was already the case. In one’s childhood and adolescence, one knows only what one has experienced, and nothing about the emotional or mental turbulence going on in the lives of those who seem to be the source of so much turbulence, pain, projection and impunity. I often wished, in my adolescence, that my father had been able and willing to take me and my sister and leave our family home. However, divorce and separation, even temporarily, was deeply and profoundly frowned upon, even ridiculed in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, and would likely have resulted in as much pain for him as full disclosure from either  my sister or me. There was certainly another complicating factor: my father, perhaps recalling his early life and sworn commitment to abstinence from alcohol, feared my mother, and was simply unable to confront her and/or her abuse of their children.

And so, our family secrets went to church with us each Sunday morning for decades, without so much as a hint ever slipping out from the vault of family drama, locked in each person’s body, heart and mind. Our family secrets also accompanied me to twelve years of piano lessons, and to thirteen years of schooling, and to many years of summer employment. Those secrets went off the university with me, although none of my luggage would have uncovered their existence. They joined the fraternity with me; they served on student council with me; they hosted a campus formal dance with me; and they failed to graduate with me, at the appropriate time when my “class” was graduating.I did not once think about how I was carrying those beatings and those verbal scars of rejection, alienation and lack of acceptance by my mother in all of those chapters of my life. What I knew and cared about was that I was “free” and “away from home” and “out from under” her contempt and abuse.   And those welts not only scar the body; more significantly they scar one’s identity with a conviction of being “not good enough”….Otherwise, why would those beatings even have to take place, if I were not doing, or not doing, something outside what was acceptable? There must be something “wrong” with me, since I knew intimately and without doubt that none of my friends were undergoing anything even remotely similar. Were they “better” than I?
Was their mother more compassionate, or more duped, or more long-suffering, or more engaged with her partner so that discipline was a shared responsibility? Of course, I never learned the reasons why my friends were not being abused.

It was not until much later, after graduation from university, and after teaching for well over two decades, that my life began to disintegrate; my marriage fell spstrt; I entered therapy to begin a discernment process as to who it really was that had emerged from this psycho-drama of early childhood. And then, I decided that, rather than enter a doctoral program in one of the academic disciplines, such as English or History, both of which were interesting and even compelling in their own way, I decided that a stint in seminary, where I believed then, and still do today, I might spend some time looking “inward,” reflecting on some of the pain that had not been resolved, reading some of the stories of others who had written, prayed and reflected on their dark nights, without knowing anything about what might be the outcome of all this “internal processing, additional therapy, spiritual direction, and more walking and more digging deeper into emotional identity.

I had never even known that I did not know the words that would or could name my feelings, prior to entering seminary. I did not know that other men, of my age, were also on a journey to find their emotional centre, their spiritual identity and their life path for the ensuing second half of the chronology, should there be a second half. And then, I began to discover that I was the agent and the origin of many of my screw-ups, that the world did not really care how I lived, or even who I was. They saw a face, asked a few questions, debated the purpose of active ministry and the real meaning of evangelism, attended seminars and chapel services, rehearsed their own homilies and their readings in preparation for their participation in daily chapel services, of both morning and evening varieties.

I enrolled in a chaplaincy training program, which required a highly focussed and attentive verbatim of each encounter with each patient in a large suburban Toronto hospital, then presented to a supervisor and classmates, each of whom were free to ask the kind of penetrating questions like, “Why did you say that? That’s  more of your shit, and has nothing to do with the condition or situation of the patient.!” These were riveting sessions, compelling and twisting though they were; they demanded, not requested, a level of both honesty and openness eve, vulnerability to which I had never been exposed. Even the many novels had not penetrated into the deepest darkest corners of the psyches of all of the characters between the covers. Many of the manuscripts told stories of the emotional life through something I later learned from T.S. Eliot, was called the “objective correlative” the metaphor, and the figures of speech on which the narrative was hung. And while there is a significant overlap between the imaginative presentation of a fictional narrative and one’s personal biography, given that both use metaphor, simile and personification extensively, there is a degree of detachment  in the literature, unless and until one knows the experience of the novelist. And even then, there is a kind of veil of protection that keeps the most private details locked away from the heat and the glare of public scrutiny. Family secrets are nevertheless shared in most novels, although the actual characters and the actual times and places are hidden by changes permitted by the genre.

Two years of pastoral counselling training in parallel to the seminary work provided additional exposure to the issues of personal crisis, family secrets, repressed feelings and an opportunity to encounter all of this in what I can only hope was a healthy and healing and caring environment in the counselling room. My memories of some of the best encounters with clients come out of adolescents who were referred to the centre by the courts. Their experiences in their families were so familiar to me, although I had fortunately not crossed the line into the judicial system in my own pattern of self-sabotage.

The lasting imprint of the abuse is that one does not really believe that one deserves a life of success. Consequently, one enters situations, engages, and then too often, finds something or someone who triggers all the repressed angers, frustrations, unresolved conflicts and memories from the previous several decades. Only then, is one able to see the patterns of the pursuit of perfection, for example, to rid my mind of punishment potential, (why would anyone wish to punish me, if I were doing things correctly?) and then, I learned that even that approach put others on the defensive, made them potentially envious, or jealous, or snide and abusive and they called my “Jesus” in a mocking reference to their contempt for my lifestyle.

And then, I had to re-evaluate on a daily basis, both the meanings of others’ actions and words, and their import to me, as well as how a newer and more insightful me might proceed without resorting to self-sabotage. And that path continues to unfold each day, with struggles and with the care and compassion of a loving and empathic wife. And together we are putting one foot in front of the other, without falling or stubbing our toes every day.

And those secrets, the unpacking of which will continue to long as I draw breath, will, even with this partial unpacking, continue to ripple through the pride and the shame of those members of my family who may still be unfamiliar with their magnitude. And for that I can say, I apologize, but do not recant. I understand but do not completely grasp the totality of the gift of the buried pain that is still to emerge from my unconscious.

As the Pope reminds everyone he meets, “Please pray for me, a sinner!” and yet this sinner is not permitting his sin to define his identity, nor his history nor his future. We can only hope that Patrick Kennedy is not permitting such a sophisticated self-sabotage to encumber his life, or that of his wife, children and family either.

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