“Some people accumulate more emotional rust than others.” ~ Andrew Solomon, Noonday Demon

Savage Grace

Movie Poster for Savage Grace

“I’m living under water. Everything seems slow and far away. I know there’s a world up there, a sunlit quick world where time runs like dry sand through an hourglass, but down here, where I am, air and sound and time and feeling are thick and dense.” ~ Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife

Well, I feel absolutely blah today, sort of enclosed, if that makes any sense. I wasn’t able to fall asleep until 6 a.m., and then I kept having strange visual hallucinations. I woke up with a sore throat and headache.

I started back on a medicine to help me sleep several days ago, but I think that I am not tolerating it well. I have taken this medication before without any problems, but now, I’m having all sorts of strange reactions. I looked up the side effects, and some of them include vivid dreams, increased appetite (no thank yew), feeling hungover the next day (yep, that too), and several other undesirable effects. So last night I did not take the medication, and as a result, I think that I had withdrawal symptoms, and I could not get to sleep.

It just slays me how I have become so sensitive to medications that never bothered me before. So back to the drawing board and back to not sleeping.

“For very sad reasons, human beings, unfortunately, can do really tragic things to each other and these two people went as far out on a limb as you can go.” ~ Tom Kalin, Director of Savage Grace

We watched a movie last night called Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore. The movie, which is based on the book by the same name, is a true story about the life and death of Barbara Daly Baekeland. After I watched the movie, I did some more reading on the Internet about the Baekeland family. The paternal grandfather was Leo Baekeland, the inventor of the first plastic, Bakelite.

Barbara Baekland and son
Barbara Baekeland and Infant Son Antone

His grandson Brooks married Barbara Daly, a tempestuous woman who suffered from mental illness. The two were unfaithful to each other several times, and Barbara tried to commit suicide four times in attempts to keep her husband from leaving her. However, he eventually left for a younger woman. Their son, Antone, also suffered from what was later diagnosed as schizophrenia.

Mother and son had a somewhat obsessive relationship, with Barbara attempting to “cure” her son of his homosexuality by paying females to have sex with Tony and eventually seducing him herself. Tony first tried to kill his mother by dragging her into the street and trying to throw her under a moving car. A psychiatrist told Barbara that he believed Tony would eventually kill her, but she did not believe that Tony would ever really harm her. Shortly afterwards, Tony killed his mother by stabbing her with a kitchen knife. He then proceeded to order Chinese food.

Tony was found to have diminished capacity and sent to Broadmoor. He was released after ten years and returned to the U.S. to live with his grandmother, who he tried to kill less than a week later. Tony was sent to prison and died in 1981 from suffocation. His death may or may not have been suicide as he was found with a plastic bag over his head.

The movie did not show all of this background because, of course, it is impossible to show everything in a two-hour span. I began watching the movie in an attempt to fall asleep as I did not think that it was going to be very good; however, I just couldn’t stop watching. It was the veritable train wreck waiting to happen. Everyone in this family was disturbed, including the father who denied that there was anything wrong with his son and refused to pay for psychiatric treatment.

“The cause of violence is not ignorance. It is self-interest. Only reverance can restrain violence—reverance for human life and the environment.” ~ William Sloan Coffin 

I watched another movie this weekend based on a true story: Dance with a Stranger, starring Miranda Richardson as Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the U.K. in 1955. Ellis herself had a hard life, first having a child out of wedlock in 1944, a time in which such a thing immediately tainted a woman’s reputation. Ellis found out that her lover was actually married with a family in Canada, so she was left to raise her son Andy alone. Then Ruth, neé Nielson, married George Ellis in 1950. George Ellis was a drunk and physically abusive. In 1951, Ellis gave birth to Georgina, but by then the marriage was over.

Ruth Ellis
Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK

In 1953, Ruth Ellis became the manager of a nightclub. She met David Blakely, a racecar driver. Their relationship was fraught with violence; when Ruth became pregnant by Blakely, he punched her in the stomach, which resulted in a miscarriage for Ruth.

Ruth was also involved with Desmond Cussen, a former RAF pilot. Cussen took care of Ruth and Andy, but Ruth was never able to severe ties with Blakely. In fact, Cussen helped Ruth to spy on Blakely, who was unfaithful to Ruth several times. On the night of Easter Sunday 1955, Ruth Ellis waited outside a pub for Blakely. When Blakely ignored Ruth’s greeting, she moved around the car that he was attempting to get into and emptied a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson into Blakely.

The shooting occurred just ten days after Ellis had miscarried, and she was heavily medicated. Ellis was questioned and brought before the magistrate without having an attorney present. She was examined by a psychiatrist who claimed that Ellis was not mentally ill. The presiding judge ruled out a defense of provocation for Ellis. During her trial at the Old Baily, Ellis became her worst enemy when she said, “It’s obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” Ellis was hung three weeks later.

Again, the movie does not delve into all of the facts regarding Ellis, and it ends right after the shooting of Blakely without covering the trial at all. Public reaction to Ellis’s hanging was strongly against, and partially as a result, the United Kingdom abolished the death penalty in 1964.

George Ellis committed suicide three years after Ruth’s death. Her son Andy suffered emotional distress most of his life and killed himself in 1982. Ruth’s daughter Georgina died at 50 from cancer.

What happened to Ruth Ellis is still a matter of contention. The jury was not allowed to find for manslaughter because of Ruth’s confession. However, Ruth was an abused woman who was still very much affected by her miscarriage. Ruth had been provoked by Blakely’s unfaithfulness and his physical abuse, but because of the laws at the time, the jury could not convict her of a lesser sentence, and the death penalty was mandatory.

Ellis’s hanging caused such a stir because she was a beautiful woman, the mother of two small children, and she had never shown any propensity for violence. Once the public face of a criminal condemned to death became so personal, the British public began to openly oppose capital punishment. The Ellis case was referred back to the Court of Appeals in 2003, but her conviction was not overturned or reduced to manslaughter as had been requested.

“Violence is not merely killing another. It is violence when we use a sharp word, when we make a gesture to brush a person, when we obey because there is fear.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti 

Dance with a Stranger was made in 1985, and Natasha Richardson is radiant, even with platinum blonde hair. Savage Grace was made in 2007, and Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Barbara Baekeland is compelling in its believability.

That I watched both movies this past weekend is purely coincidence as I had never heard of either one, and I found them by accident on cable. However, I am glad that I watched them and then did further research on both of these women.  Both were troubled: Ellis was physically and emotionally abused, and Baekeland was emotionally tormented by her husband. Both women died far too young.

I’m not condoning the actions of either woman. Rather, I offer their stories as reminders of how unkind society was to women, and how few resources used to be available. While there are more avenues for escape and treatment, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse continue to be societal problems that have far-reaching implications, both for those who suffer directly from the abuse and for their children who have no escape from its effects.

Empty SwingsThose in society who say that they simply don’t understand why a woman stays in an abusive relationship have never suffered at the hands of an abuser, have never felt the helplessness nor experienced the complete erosion of self-confidence and self-respect. And the reality is that abuse is cyclic, often being repeated by the abused or the children of the abused.

Unless we learn as a society not to tolerate abuse and violence, the cycle will never end. Until we acknowledge that it is not just with fists but also with tongues that people cause irreparable harm to others, those who suffer will continue to be victims.

If you know of an individual—man, woman, or child—who is being abused, please do not sit by idly, thinking that someone else will intervene. You must be that someone else, lest you allow your humanity to be overshadowed by inaction.

Sorry for the sermon. More later. Peace be with you and yours.

Bird York’s “Have No Fear” 

 

 

 

“Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” ~ Kevin Arnold

The Magpie Monet 1869 oil on canvas Musee d Orsay

“The Magpie,” by Monet (1869, oil on canvas), Musee d’Orsay

 

” . . . say it loud
panebreaking heartmadness” ~ From “Nightmare Begins Responsibility,” by Michael S. Harper

Do you know what it’s like to hold someone you love in your arms as she is dying? All of the white noise of the hospital room dissipates in those last few minutes. The only sounds that you hear are your own heartbeat in your ears and the sound of someone near you crying. Time becomes suspended, and a part of you hopes that it will remain that way forever, just so that you never have to move into that next moment, the moment when all possibilities cease to exist.

I still remember the weight of my daughter’s body in my arms, still remember the smell of her dark hair, or what was left of it. I can recall vividly the bright overhead lights of the small room, and the way that I stared at the machine that monitored her heartbeat, willing it to remain steady so that all that was left of Caitlin would not end.

I remember how it felt as if my own heart stopped in that moment when hers stopped, and how I wished that it were true so that I would never have to exist in a world in which Caitlin was no longer a part. And then how we all left the room while the nurses disconnected her from all of the machines and removed the tubes that had sustained her. How when we went back into the room, she was lying there in the middle of that big hospital bed, so small, so seemingly perfect, and how I knew that at last she was no longer in pain.

I removed the hospital gown and dressed her in soft white pajamas, and I tried to train my eyes away from the incisions on her chest and arms and legs. I felt the scar on the back of her head where the surgeons had cut into her only two months’ previous, and then I kissed her, caressed her still-warm cheeks, and left.

We walked out into the bright November afternoon, and I thought to myself that it was impossibly cruel that the world outside could still be moving on as if Caitlin had never been a life force among those moving about, completely mindless of her life and her death. After that, I don’t remember much. I don’t remember the car ride home. I don’t remember walking into the house that had been mostly empty for months. I don’t remember getting into bed that night or waking the next morning.

My next memories are of minutiae: picking out a headstone and deciding what to inscribe, taking a dress and bonnet to the funeral home, renting a carpet cleaner and cleaning the carpet and living room furniture, even though they did not need it. I remember my mother-in-law bringing Pizza Tuesday night so that we would eat, and I remember that it tasted of cardboard. I remember Ann going with me to find a dress for the funeral, and how I obsessed over finding finger-tip towels for the bathroom.

I remember the day of the funeral, passing out Valium like it was sweet tarts, standing in the tiny bathroom of the chapel with Kathleen and watching the people pulling into the parking lot, walking up to the podium and looking out at all of the faces of people who had been so much a part of our lives—nurses from the hospital, our friends from the medical school, people with whom I taught at the university, and I remember not being able to distinguish faces.

I remember the ride to the cemetery in Kathleen’s car, and looking behind us at the long line of cars that followed. I remember the late morning sun and the cool breeze. I don’t remember what was said, nor do I remember actually being there during the service, only the moments after the service concluded, when friends began to come up to me and hug me, how surprised I was. I remember looking up and seeing Johnny and collapsing into his arms, sobbing openly in my dear friend’s embrace.

Afterwards, I remember sitting in the Bentwood rocker in which I had held my daughter, drinking wine, and listening to people talk to me. I don’t remember what was said or everyone who was there. I remember that Sarah wore red. And then as people left, I remember pressing food into their hands because the idea of a house full of food made me physically ill.

Awakening Bessie Pease Butmann 1918

             “Awakening,” by Bessie Pease Gutmann (1918):            This is how Caitlin looked with her dark hair and chubby cheeks.

 

“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t undrestand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” ~ Sophia Loren

These are the things that I remember about those four days in November, remember still even though so much time has passed. And while I know that I have forgotten as much as I remember, it’s the memories that continue to cut so sharply, reopening wounds that have never healed completely.

I know that it is a cliché to say that a part of me died in that room that day, but that does not negate the statement’s truth. A part of my heart closed off completely the moment that Caitlin’s heart stopped beating. The part that had belonged to her grew cold and has never regained its living warmth. I can live with that. I have lived with that. I will continue to live with that.

Death is not a gentle journey for anyone, for those who die or for those who are left. Death is insidious in its ability to weave its way into the sinews of existence and memory. What those of us who remain must do is learn to take that loss and incorporate it into our daily lives. If not, it would be impossible to go on, to move through time with any kind of peace or hope.

The memories of the day that my daughter died and the hours that followed are stored away, and I dare not retrieve them too often lest they break me. But sometimes, it is necessary to open the box in which they reside, even if the doing feels like bloodletting. These memories are not the totality of my daughter, yet they are as much a part of me as the cells that give me life. I have incorporated these memories into my lifeblood, and there they will remain, along with the memories of my father and all of the other memories that make me who I am.

I have come to realize that the ability to recall such intense emotion helps to make me stronger, even if it feels like a little death each time that I do so. It may not seem to make much sense, but embracing every part of the tapestry of my life—the beauty and the pain—affords me my humanity, and given the opportunity, I would not choose to have traveled any other path.

One of my favorite songs from that time: “Cristofori’s Dream,” by David Lanz

More later. Peace.

                                                                                    

Remembrance of Monday Afternoon Past
     for Josh

How can I explain to you
what it is to hold someone you love
until she dies?
I cannot prepare you for that moment of separation—
     it is something so unspeakably personal
     that to watch it, to intrude upon it
     almost cannot be forgiven.
If I try to tell you about the silences
that enclose and isolate,
     you will not understand
     until you, too,
     have felt them.
I cannot describe for you
     the desperation
     with which you will try to pass
     life
    from your arms to hers,
    but you will come to know this as well
    as I once did.
When the moment comes,
     you will not be ready,
     but you will recognize it for what it is—
     that last instant
     in which possibilities still exist.

L. Liwag