Joshua – How One Boy Changed my Thinking by Kenneth Weene

Joshua – How One Boy Changed my Thinking by Kenneth Weene

Summer of 1968, just before I went back to graduate school, I did fieldwork for the “Canadian Association of Retarded Citizens.” Our team was doing a cost-benefit analysis of services for children who had been diagnosed as “retarded—a diagnostic term that is no longer accepted, but which was then used.  One of the facilities at which we did observations was a unique hospital operated by the Province of New Brunswick. It was dedicated to serving developmentally handicapped children: a mixture of many diagnostic categories. Given our specific charter, we knew exactly which kids we would want to study, only those with a primary diagnosis of retardation, and arrived prepared to make our requirements clear to the staff.

What a lovely staff they were. Not only dedicated to the children in their care and close-knit as a group but also warm beyond belief. We were welcomed to their facility and given every assistance…except for their one request. “Certainly, you can observe just the retarded children,” we were told individually. “However, we do want you to appreciate the full range of what we do here. So, would you spend some time with—” And each of us was given the name of a youngster who didn’t meet our research parameters. The boy with whom I would be spending time was Joshua.

“He isn’t retarded,” I was assured by the physician who was in charge of the eleven-year-old’s care; “but at this point he is functioning at the level of an infant.”

I was shown to a room, where Joshua lay. The room smelled slightly of elimination, but not badly. His diapers were clean. His body had been bathed.

Slight and of average height, Joshua’s light brown hair had been carefully combede. His eyes were also brown, but they somehow lacked a sense of life—a dullness as if covered by cataracts. He didn’t move except for occasional episodes of seizures, during which I saw visions of a cold hell as his pupils— contracting and dilating randomly—darted aimlessly. Joshua could not eat unless carefully fed with especial precaution to help him swallow when necessary. Given the level of the boy’s function in contrast to the cleanliness and decoration of Joshua’s room, it was clear the staff expended a great deal of energy caring for him.

I sat next to Joshua’s bed, talking to him—as I had been instructed—as if he were a normal child. It was perhaps forty-five minutes, but it felt more like hours. Talking, pausing, no response, talking more. I rambled on about sports, weather, television, movies, and about my own life.

I knew each member of the team was similarly engaged, also dealing with an experience which seemed so futile and yet incredibly important. The staff members, who from time to time stopped in to see how I was doing and to say something to this inert child, made me aware of that importance.

Finally, the doctor came back to get me and to explain Joshua’s condition. The boy suffered from a genetic disorder which produced inevitable deterioration and death. “It’s genetic, like Tay-Sachs Disease,” he said; “except it’s much worse because the onset is later, which means the kids get to have some quality of life before… Then, they lose it all.”

His eyes misted over and it took a few moments for this dedicated professional to regain his composure. Then he shared some of Joshua’s life since he had come to this facility.

A loving parent fondly remembers the landmarks of their child’s development: first words, first steps, toilet training, first day of school, first sleep over, and on the list goes. This doctor had what might be called a reverse list. “When Joshua first came, he was a pretty normal kid. Most parents would have been pleased with him. But, his folks had already seen what was happening. They had been told the diagnosis. With great sadness, they were staring at the abyss of an hereditary horror.

“‘Our son used to be the star of his baseball team,’ his father told us. ‘Now he can’t even catch a ball,’” the doctor related.

“‘School’s worse,’ his mother insisted. She told us about an A-student slipping into minimal work and less comprehension.” He shook his head as he continued. “The worst thing, and they both agreed on this, was Joshua knew it was happening. They would find him crying. And, he would ask them what was wrong, what he had done wrong. God, it must have been awful.”

Taking out a folder, to which he never actually gave any notice, the doctor went on to talk about the first night Joshua had wet the bed and how he had sat in a corner on the floor and sobbed when the nurse came into his room. About when he soiled himself. When the boy stopped talking. Stopped swallowing.

“The hardest time for us on staff was when the parents stopped visiting. Joshua had been here about a year. At first, they visited every week. Then every two weeks. Then… Finally, they came one last time. They really didn’t want to see him. ‘He won’t recognize us,’ they said; they hoped. But the charge nurse insisted. She practically dragged them. They were wrong. He did. The three of them sitting in the dayroom crying.” The doctor wiped his own eyes with the sleeve of his white coat. “And the rest of us crying, too.

“They told him they’d be back soon, but we all knew they were lying. When we got back to my office, they said they couldn’t—not anymore. That was almost a year ago. Who knows if he’d remember them now? Who knows what he remembers? Or knows?!”

Suddenly, the doctor slammed his hand down on the desk. Pencils, papers, photographs: everything jumped. “It’s so damned unfair,” he yelled. “He was a good kid. He didn’t deserve this. Nobody should have to suffer this way.”

Our research team stayed at the facility for almost a week before moving on to our next destination, Prince Edward Island.

Nobody told me I had to do so, but I found time to go back to Joshua’s room, to sit with the boy who was there but no longer present. Talking, pausing, no response, talking some more. Each visit I shared more about myself, what I hoped for in my life, what I feared.

I have no idea how long Joshua lingered in a state of limbo. I hope it wasn’t too much longer.

For years, I spoke to no one about Joshua. I couldn’t imagine what I would say.

When a few years later Roe v. Wade brought the subject of abortion into great public debate, I realized my views had changed. While I had been in favor of a woman’s right to choose, something was now different. It wasn’t the autistic or intellectually disabled children I saw that summer who changed my life. It was Joshua. Maybe somebody could make a case that his existence brought out something better in others. Certainly, he touched me.

But, how could anyone justify what Joshua went through? Although it was never a question for us, I knew then that were my wife and I to be pregnant, I would want to know what lay ahead for our potential child. I would demand genetic screening to discover hereditary disorders. If our fetus faced a fate like Joshua’s, I would want to terminate the pregnancy. I do not believe children should suffer so, that they should suffer such a sense of personal loss of self. I do not believe they should have to question what they have done wrong to deserve such a hell nor have to deal with parents walking away—albeit not in anger or desire but being unable themselves to deal with the pain.

In the memory of Joshua’s dead eyes, I see a reality that demands my acceptance, a realization that children have a right to death. Sometimes we forget how important it is that we, each and every one of us but especially the helpless and weak, have the option of the pain’s end, the option of avoiding the intolerable.

I cannot say abortion is a good thing. I know of no one who says it is. I cannot say a life is unimportant. I can, however, say, that suffering is a bad thing. I can say dooming a child to such pain as Joshua suffered is evil. I can say that offering abortion as an alternative in such cases is important.

Yet, who is to decide what suffering is too much? Who is to decide which child should face which slings and arrows and which should be spared a life that looms so painfully ahead? Perhaps, since death is inevitable for us all, none of us should see the moment of birth. As Otto Rank suggested, we are all only trying to return to the womb anyway.

Certainly, there is a slippery slope before us. While we typically start with an assumption that a mother has her child’s best interests at heart, those who would proscribe abortion make no such assumption. They think they have a much greater concern for children. While this seldom includes caring about the child after birth, a case could be made for their position, especially if one believes that a child has a soul and somehow every soul must see the light of day if only for a moment.

I make no such assumptions, not about who has the best interest at heart or about the existence of a soul. I start only with Joshua and knowing that while pain and death are the natural ends of human existence, they are not the natural end of childhood. Who among us would say Joshua’s suffering is acceptable?

The only reasonable position I can find for myself is that abortion should be considered a rational alternative to a life of pain and suffering. What constitutes sufficient pain and suffering to terminate a pregnancy? I would only ask that the mother seeking to end a pregnancy have thought through her decision having been provided all the relevant information and choices.

I never met Joshua’s parents. I cannot speak for his mother. What would she have decided if she had known he would—after a few years of being her delight—reach such a horrible end? Would she have spared him?

Would you?

Dark Shadows on the Silver Screen by Kenneth Weene

Dark Shadows on the Silver Screen by Kenneth Weene

Just over a century after the release of D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker’s film of the same name came to the silver screen. While the Griffith film justified the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed white racism as the salvation of America, the Parker film traces the life of Nat Turner and the slave revolt which he led in pre-Civil War Virginia. From totally opposing perspectives, both films spoke to the fear and anger that has poisoned American race relations since before the Revolution.

It should certainly not surprise us that films speak to our national consciousness and help us define who we are and what we believe. If there is one art form that is quintessentially American, it is movies, and what greater purpose has art than to explore the human condition.

While the two “Birth of a Nation” films explore the darkest sides of American race relations, three other films released at the end of 2016 try to raise an entirely different set of issues.

“Fences,” based on the August Wilson stage play, presents a Black America that is separate and if not equal one that has its own unique culture. The protagonist Troy Maxson is a Black man who is painfully aware of the limitations that have been placed on his life because of his race. Fearful of what the world will do to them, he tries to protect his sons by forcing them to see the world through his own bitter eyes. Set in the 1950’s, “Fences” references both the fact that Black Americans were fenced in by segregation and prejudice and the career of Jackie Robinson, whose success as a baseball player gave hope for an avenue towards equality.

“Loving” is based not on a play or story but real lives. Richard and Mildred Loving were a working-class couple who loved one another. Because he was White and she Black, the state of Virginia forbad their marriage. Going out of state to marry, they returned to Virginia and found themselves jailed and only released if they promised to leave the state. Featured in a Life Magazine story which I remember reading, the Lovings eventually won not only the right to have their marriage recognized in the home state but also the legal end of miscegenation laws in America. Loving v. Virginia was decided by the Supreme Court Dec 12, 1967. The movie asks a simple but poignant question: are Blacks less human than Whites; are we not all more nearly human than otherwise?

During the years between 1958, when the Lovings married, and 1967 another story was also playing out in Virginia. NASA was established in 1958 with the goal of taking America into space. “Hidden Figures” focuses on three Black women who worked at NASA’s Virginia facilities. Dorothy Vaughan eventually became NASA’s first Black-American supervisor. Mary Jackson became an aeronautical engineer. And, mathematics whiz Katherine Johnson played a pivotal role in figuring out how to bring the astronauts home. These three women entered NASA when it was a segregated and misogynistic organization and managed to find the recognition they deserved. This multiple-biopic subconsciously takes us back to Jackie Robinson as it challenges us to judge people not on race but on competence. Should the best mathematician, engineer, or supervisor not get the job regardless of the color of their skin. The message is clear: we are all the same under our skins. Or, to use one of the most self-conscious lines of the script, “At NASA we all pee the same color.” Presumably, that is the color of rocket fuel.

Why this sudden spurt of films about the Black experience in the fifties and sixties? It would be easy to point out the diversity has become an issue in Hollywood and particularly when it comes to awards. That may be one part of the answer.

Another, and in my opinion a more important answer is represented by that centennial of the release of that abhorrent film “The Birth of a Nation.” The release of that film in 1915 began a portrayal of Black America that has often been offensive and assuredly requires redress. As distasteful as the representations of Blacks has overall been in film, that issue pales in comparison to the actuality of Black life. And, on the other side, as horrific as slavery, segregation, and bigotry have been, there has been real movement towards civil rights. Without doubt, the possibilities for Black Americans are far greater and better today than they were at the beginning of the fifties and sixties.

The question that these three films asks is what has made things better. During those years, powerful voices were raised, marches held, and riots occurred. Were those the catalyst for change, or did change come because White America came to see Blacks, like all of us, were more nearly human than otherwise? These new films would have us ignore the marchers, the rioters, and the conflicts. They would have us learn a new mythology of American race relations, one in which aspirations change the world and the system can be altered from within.

These three movies are trying to rewrite the history of race in America. They are trying to say, “Let us forget about racism and segregation. Let us forget about the struggle that brought Civil Rights. Let us instead recognize that the right prevails, that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’ and that the basic American character is one of decency.”

Is this revision realistic? Can we rewrite American history and bury slavery, segregation, the Klan, and discrimination? The rage of both “Birth of a Nation” films is seared into the soul of America. It cannot be so easily papered over. Elimination of America’s racial divide will require not simply the creation of a new set of “happier” myths but real reconciliation.

The great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung spoke of the shadow, that part of each person that they cannot accept in themselves. It is the part of the person that they keep hidden. Reconciliation cannot take place until those shadowy parts on all sides are exposed in the light of recognition. As much as I enjoyed the three films, “Fences,” “Loving,” and “Hidden Figures,” I see them not as sanguine harbingers of a just and equal society but as signs that once again America will try to bury that which is dark in our history. If the “American Dilemma” is to be resolved, it cannot be by the application of whitewash but only by the piercing sting of real discussion.

“Oy Vey Iz Mir” by Kenneth Weene

“Oy Vey Iz Mir” by Kenneth Weene

After finishing college, I spent some time in grad school in New York City. Caught in a depressed mood swing, I didn’t want to live in a dorm or share an apartment with other people, so I found a place I could afford at the edge of Harlem. The building in which I lived was rent-controlled and filled with elderly Jewish tenants. Downstairs we had a neighborhood newspaper and candy store much like the one my maternal grandfather had owned when I was little. Dave, the owner, was as weary and worn as my Pa had been, but at least he could walk without a cane and discuss the happenings of the day; he read every one of New York’s dailies.

What Dave couldn’t do was sell me a paper or an egg cream without a commentary on how the neighborhood had gone downhill since he had moved in and bought his business fifty-some years earlier; and that plaint always followed by an appropriate groan of “Oy vey iz mir”.

Across the street, 163rd to be exact, was another little store, this a bodega in which all business—except mine—seemed to be conducted in Spanish. They, too, sold newspapers, ones I couldn’t read beyond the frequent references to Puerto Rico in the headlines. The bodega sold the little cigars I preferred to the Parliaments I got at Dave’s. They also sold bright pink, green, and other vibrantly colored sweets and sodas with contents I had never actually tried so I knew I wouldn’t like.

Swirling around the Jewish and Puerto Rican center of my tiny world was a sea of Blacks. Of course, back then they were called Negros. Mostly, they ignored me and I them except for one time—late at night—when a teen decided to rob me.

“Hand over your money,” he demanded, his hand thrust deep in his pocket.

I complied and handed him the five bucks and thirty-two cents I had in my pocket.

“Al of it!”

“That’s it,” I answered. “If I had money, do you think I’d live in this part of town? What I don’t understand is why you’re robbing people who live around here. Why don’t you go where people actually have money to steal?”

He thought about that and handed back my four singles, three quarters, four dimes, three nickels, and two pennies. “I guess you need this more than me.”

I handed a buck back to him. “You’ll need subway fare.”

He shoved the bill into his pocket and slouched towards the subway entrance on the corner.

I never saw him again. I wonder if he took my advice.

Jewish, Puerto Rican, or Black, we all shopped at the one grocery store, Sloan’s on Saint Nicholas Ave. It was the only grocery in the neighborhood and the prices seemed reasonable. That was they seemed reasonable until I wanted a piece of meat.

I didn’t do a lot of cooking. Breakfast was dry cereal and coffee. Most days I ate my other meals in the school cafeteria—tasteless but cheap—or in one of the less expensive restaurants I could find along Broadway. Sometimes—to be honest many times—I got fried chicken from this great little storefront on 125th; mine was usually the only white face in the place, but who cared? If I did “cook” a meal, it usually meant hotdogs or warmed canned stew. Once in a while Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup heated with canned tuna and dumped over a piece of toast.

I don’t know why I suddenly wanted steak: just a whim or perhaps my body communicating some subconscious nutritional need. Whatever the reason, I took the coffin-sized elevator down to the entryway, pulled my winter jacket tight against the cold that found its way off the Hudson, waved to Dave as I rounded the corner, and continued half a block to Sloan’s.

The meat department was along the back wall, right side. Packages labeled “steak” filled a small segment of the display case. I picked through.

Why are they green?

I took a pack: “Rump Steak, 1 pound”, brought it to the butcher’s window, and turned my question into words.

“That means it’s ready for cooking,” the “butcher” assured me. “We age our steak here. This color means it’s properly aged.”

I didn’t believe him, but I bought that pound of meat anyway. My curiosity aroused, I was going to do some comparison shopping.

Hopping on the subway, I headed to the Westside, to the world of brownstone buildings and upper-middle incomes. Finding a Sloan’s was easy. I took my brown paper bag with its “rump steak” contents—label removed—to the meat department, found another pound package of rump steak—which was 15 cents a pound more than I had paid on Amsterdam Ave—went to the butcher’s window and asked. “I have this pound of steak I bought someplace else; but when I was on my way home, I realized I needed another pound. I don’t want this girl who’s coming over to think I’m cheap. Anyway, I came in to buy another pound, but there’s something wrong with your meat.”

“There’s nothing wrong with our meat,” the butcher informed me. “We carry the best meat you can get.”

“Oh, but the butcher in the other place said meat should look like this. That it should be properly aged.” I pulled the package of “aged” steak from the bag. “Yours is a different color.”

“Where did you buy this crap?” the butcher demanded. “First, it’s going rotten. I wouldn’t feed it to my dog. And…” He took a careful look, “This ain’t steak. Too veiny and tough. If it were fresh, you might use it for stew. My advice, throw it and buy two new steaks.” He turned away and then threw in an afterthought. “And, hey, kid, not rump. Get yourself a sirloin.”

I thanked him, but I didn’t buy any meat. Instead, I went to a Gristedes and bought myself half a pound of chopped meat. Salisbury would have to do since I’d exhausted my pocketbook.

Back on 163rd St, I stopped at Dave’s to pick up a paper and a candy bar. Munching my Milky Way, I shared the day’s experience.

“That’s why I hate them,” Dave said. “Those coloreds move in and everything goes to shit.”

Something had surely gone to shit, but it wasn’t the Blacks or the Hispanics or the Jews who had caused it. In those days, before sell-by dates and in parts of the city where the less affluent lived, taking advantage of people who had less by selling them food that was on the edge of turning was common practice. No point in pointing that out to Dave.

“You don’t have to tell me,” the corner store owner continued. “I live here. I shop here. I’m getting screwed, too. What can you do? If I could find somebody to sell this place to, I’d get the hell out; but who wants to buy up here? What another Rican without any money? “Oy vey iz mir!”

I didn’t shop at Sloan’s anymore—not for canned goods and certainly not for “properly aged” steak. I went farther downtown and paid the extra that really wasn’t extra at all. But there was one thing I couldn’t figure out. Dave seemed like a smart enough guy. He read the papers and kept abreast of things. Still, he didn’t get it: The bad guys were the greedy management at Sloan’s who were cheating all of us. Not the customers—Black, white, Hispanic—whose poverty and lack of information kept them only a lucky hairsbreadth away from food poisoning.

“Oy vey iz mir indeed.

The Rorschach by Kenneth Weene

The Rorschach by Kenneth Weene

 This subject is a thirteen-year-old male,” Professor Hogan, which is not his real name, announced as he passed the test protocols around the seminar table. Having just completed my first year of graduate courses in Psychology, I had wangled my way into the professor’s seminar for advanced students.

I knew that Jerry had spent a lot of his capital on getting me permission to audit that seminar, and he didn’t even know why it was so important to me. I hadn’t told him about that psychological years earlier. In the throes of anxiety and hysteria, I had sought help. Early in the process had come a full psych workup that included those inkblots.

My responses still bothered me. I wanted to know what they had meant. I wanted to know how to read my own psychological x-ray. It was the sixth of our once-a-week meetings. Each session had been the same. The professor had identified a “subject” by age and sex and nothing more passed around the protocols and asked the class to discuss their findings.

The first go around the table would be scoring the protocols. That itself was an arcane process. Then would come the inevitable question, “So what is the subject’s diagnosis?” That would lead to another round of responses.

Only then could there be a discussion of the subject’s psyche, of the conflicts and thoughts that the students might impute to them. As various suggestions were made, the world-renowned scholar would shake his head and explain once again that the Rorschach was not some kind of magic tool. “If you want to know the hidden parts of a person, you might as well use Tarot Cards,” he told us more than once. “Just stick with the scoring system and you can get an accurate diagnosis.”

That was his approach: People were subjects; what they shared was reduced to scores, and the goal was a diagnosis. I soon realized that the goal of the course was to disabuse us of any notion of the unconscious or of psychodynamics. This was, after all, a behaviorist program with little room for Freud or his ilk.

Even as I had listened to what Dr. Hogan had to say, I wanted to argue with him. I knew that he was, for all his fame, missing something. Perhaps it was lucky for me that as an auditor I was not asked to take part in the discussions. While other students were called on in turn, I was restricted to jotting down my thoughts and waiting to be called on. That call seldom came.

We went over the young teen’s protocol. “Okay, what is your diagnosis?” the teacher asked.  Nobody had a clear idea, but that didn’t stop them from throwing their diagnostic hunches onto the table. “Depression.” “Schizoid personality.” “Simple Schizophrenia.” “Conduct Disorder.”  Oh, they made a lovely list.

I had written myself a note. “I don’t know what the diag. is, but this kid is in trouble. He’s going to end badly. Maybe suicide, but more likely an accident. He’s looking to take risks, trying to prove that he can handle things on his own.”

Paul, one of the other students who was finishing his doctoral dissertation, looked at my note, shook his head, and whispered, “And you got all that from this kid’s Rorschach?”

“Yes,” I whispered back. “I’d love to know about what happened to him.”

Ignoring us, Dr. Hogan announced, “You’re all wrong. This is a normal kid. His family lived next door to me when I was in Boston, and they let me use him as a subject in my research. I gave you this protocol so you’d understand that while the Rorschach is interesting and certainly has allowed me to do some research, it really doesn’t tell us much about the subjects we test.”

“What happened to him?” I asked. The look the professor gave me made me sorry for my temerity, but I had to know. Dr. Hogan had been in Boston many years earlier; now he was teaching here in the Midwest. Did he know what had happened to his neighbor?

Dr. Hogan probably would have ignored me, but Paul was intrigued by my question—or perhaps it was by my diagnostic note—and he added his voice to mine. “I’m just wondering if we can extrapolate backward and get some idea how some of these percepts might have predicted his future,” Paul said. “I know we might do as well with Tarot Cards, but it seems like—”

“Actually, it’s a sad story,” our mentor began. “Butch died. He was murdered when he was eighteen. It was a terrible thing. He and a friend had hitchhiked across the country. When they got to Oklahoma…” He took a deep breath. “They found his body tied to a stake in the middle of a field. He had been burned to death.”

A collective gasp circled the room. Paul bent close to my ear and whispered, “How did you know?” I didn’t answer him. I was busy thinking about Butch. I never told Dr. Hogan or anybody else in that room, but I had also known the boy. He had been a camper at the summer camp that my parents operated in Maine. It had to be the same kid because how many kids could there have been from greater Boston who had been murdered that way?

I didn’t have much to do with Butch that summer in Maine. As a junior counselor, I had campers to look after, and Butch was older than my group. There was, however, one day on which he and I had interacted. It was the last day of the camp season. Most of the kids had boarded the busses that would take them back to the big cities from which they came. A few were picked up by their parents, typically because they would be going on a short family holiday before school began.

Butch was supposed to be picked up that morning. When lunchtime came, he was still waiting. A call was made. “Oh, we forgot,” was Butch’s mother’s response. “I’ll call my husband; we should be there in three or four hours.”

Butch took the news in stride. “You’ll have to amuse yourself,” the head counselor told him. “Okay.” Off Butch went to do just that.

In mid-afternoon, I was at the waterfront helping to haul in the docks and store them for the winter. Butch had found a piece of plywood and was using it as a very tippy raft which he polled about near the shoreline. I took a few minutes to ask how he was doing.

“I’m playing Tom Sawyer,” he answered. “The trick is to keep from falling off.”

“It must be a pain having to wait this way,” I said.

“Nah, it’s okay.”

I expressed surprise that his folks had forgotten to come that morning. No other kid had ever been forgotten that way. Of course, I didn’t say that to Butch.

My folks know I can handle myself,” he told me. “They’ll show up. They always do. It’s no big deal.”

I understood two things. The first was that it was a big deal. Being forgotten by one’s parents is a very big deal. The second was that in Butch’s family talking about his parents’ foibles and failures was verboten. The rule was, “Keep a stiff upper lip and amuse yourself.”

At the time I didn’t really understand the mental health implications of that day. I, like Dr. Hogan, saw Butch as resilient and healthy. I even envied him a bit; after all, he could deal with adversity so much better than most people.

Years later a new concept had entered by an understanding of human behavior. Repression is usually talked about as some kind of mysterious process in which unacceptable thoughts are put away, pushed into an unconscious realm. From a psychodynamic point of view, repression is the center of neurosis.

Of course, for Freudians and the like, that repressed material is about strange ideas like wanting to kill your father and marry your mother. But Butch had taught me something years earlier about repression. Repression is what we are not allowed to talk about. We bury that material because we are told to.

In Butch’s case what was to be buried was his need to be noticed and remembered and his anger and disappointment when he was not. Years later, he would still be playing on a very tippy raft. The trick would be staying afloat in the face of danger. That would justify the pain. That would make it clear that he was what he was supposed to be, resilient and healthy.

​We never mentioned Butch again, and I never ever talked about my own responses to the Rorschach. Let’s just say that repression is often an important part of appearing mentally healthy and of success in graduate school.

Black Lives and my White Privilege: Lessons from Childhood by Kenneth Weene

Black Lives and my White Privilege: Lessons from Childhood by Kenneth Weene

had never experienced love before, not like this at any rate. In Latin class of all places. Declining a simple adjective, good: “Bonus, bona, bon…er. Excuse me, Miss Gibson, but I can’t—”

Wise and experienced, our heavy-set, gray-haired teacher waved me to sit. “Yes, can somebody continue for Kenneth.”

A few hands went up. I prayed that Miss Gibson wouldn’t pick her. “No, please not her.” More fervent, more sincere than any moment of Hebrew ecstasy I had seen our Rabbi and cantor muster in synagogue.

That wisest of teachers had taken in not only my protuberant tumescent predicament but also the line of my sight—no not sight, for I was blinded by desire—the line of my adoration.

“Peter, thank you.”

I sat in rapture for the remainder of the class. Each movement, no matter how small, of her perfect head, each gesture of her graceful hands, each hunch of her so well-shaped shoulders and the sudden immediacy of yearning readied itself to ejaculate a spasm of want. Yep, it was true love.

Thankfully, Marylyn, the double-y’ed and budding A-cup of my yearnings, was oblivious. A row to my right and three seats forward, she had not turned around. Such was the decorum of classrooms in those distant days. Or, at least it was my hope and my wish that she didn’t know the nature of my feelings.

But, those feelings were there. Boy were they there. That they were normal was something I had no way of knowing. In our home, we talked about suitability of dates, but never, ever about sex or lust. There was a list of “approved” girls from the community. Given the size of our community, particularly the Jewish contingent—oh, yes, any girl would have to be Jewish even if our family’s most basic act of worship was not in shul but in the eating of bagels and lox—it was not surprising that the list had one name on it.

Janice was a nice enough girl. She danced about as well or badly as I; we shared the same ballroom dance class, the goal of which was preparation for the bar mitzvahs to come that year. Beyond the rumba and the fox trot, there was neither attraction or mutual interest.

But, Marylyn was different. Wow different. Oy vey different.

 Too bad for me. It could not be. Not then; not in a million years. Marylyn was the only “negro” girl in our school; in fact, she was the only negro in my world, period. I use the word negro because that was the word we used in those days. We used it to describe something that we did not understand and should not want to know. The word carried all the freight of a taboo and all the guilt of knowing that somehow the Yankees, of which we Bostonians were the heirs, had failed, that the Civil War had never brought a true peace.

 Certainly, Marylyn allowed me no peace—not in school, not when I was supposed to be doing homework or chores, not in the hours when I might ride my bicycle or play with friends, and most especially not at night. Awake, the nights were filled with visions and fantasies. When sleep came, wet dreams tormented me, and, of course, left their morning residual of embarrassment.  In those days, love outside the prescribed bounds was not an option. For months I fantasized and I pined, but I limited myself to the acceptable fumbling words that passed muster both with the external guardians of morality and the rigid sentinel in my own head. We said hello and talked about homework and teachers. I asked if she liked home economics and she inquired after my shop classes. In physical education we were once in the same square for dancing and I actually held her hand and swung her around.

 No sweet words, no kisses, no caresses.

 With time my infatuation diminished. My declensions and conjugations improved. There would be no one else for me—except dance partners—not for years; and that is a different story.

 Three years after my Latin engorgement, I was travelling north from Florida, back to Massachusetts from our winter vacation. There were five of us, of whom I was the youngest. We were driving along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Harvey, the person who was driving, loved nature and had spearheaded a trip to the Everglades when we were in Miami. Now he had veered off the main route and taken us on another adventure. Those wind-blown islands of the Carolinas were his idea of heaven. For the rest of us, it seemed like the middle of nowhere. Especially that morning, when we had driven miles without breakfast.

 “There’s bound to be a town with a restaurant,” Harvey assured us. But there had not been and young men need their breakfasts.

Finally, we reached a hard-luck town of grayed buildings that tilted from the endless ocean winds. The existence of even a hole-in-the-wall eatery seemed unlikely. Nobody in that hard luck hamlet could possibly afford the luxury of restaurant meals. We grumbled and our stomachs rumbled with matching discontent.

 We were, however, wrong. There it was. As ramshackle and wind-tilted as the other buildings in town. Just another cottage like all the others, but this one put to a different purpose.  A small wooden sign in the front window was the only announcement of that purpose. One of the guys had spotted it and called out, “Hey, look at that.”

 We climbed the rotting steps and gingerly found nervous footing on the porch that wrapped around three sides of the small building. Al touched one of the rocking chairs that lined the porch and set it in motion. The creaking of the chair could have been a ghost piercing the silence of the vail between worlds.

 Harvey knocked on the screen door before opening it. Then again on the glass-paned door. We stood in the doorway and called, “Hello.”

 A woman of certain years dressed in clean but worn clothes came from the kitchen. “Cans I help you, boys?” she drawled.

 “We were wondering about breakfast,” Harvey said.

 “Well, ya-all sits yourselves down and we’ll see ‘bout feedin’ you.”

 “What do you have?” Larry, my older brother, asked.

 “Well, I’se reckon I can make some eggs and some pancakes. Got some bacon and sausage. Coffee course. Some juice. Toast. I’ll come up with sompen.”

 Before we could order, she disappeared. In a few minutes she brought coffeecake, orange juice, and coffee. The cake was sweet, buttery, topped with raspberry and sugar, and gone in a wink.

 I said something about the menu and the prices to Harvey. In those days I was frugal unless my dad was there to pay the bill, and he was back in Florida, enjoying the rest of his sabbatical year.   Harvey shrugged. “I guess she’s got a standard price.”

The woman marched back and forth with platters of fried eggs over easy. Breakfast meats. Pancakes that needed butter and syrup to keep them from floating off the plate. Toasted, fresh-baked white bread. More of that delicious coffeecake. “I was gonna make me a batch of donuts, but I had ta hunt up them eggs.” She gestured towards one side of the building. From the window I could see her coop.

The tastes, the smells, even the touch of that breakfast was heaven put on a plate and served to five young men who had hoped for far less. 

“What a shame,” Al observed; “this place should be full and we’re the only ones in here. How can she survive on occasional tourists?”

“Well, in season it’s probably busier,” Harvey replied.

 I wondered just how long and busy the tourist season could be perched there at the end of the world.

 We settled the bill. A dollar fifty each. Ridiculously cheap.

 We scraped back our chairs, left a couple of bucks extra on the checkered oilcloth covered table, and headed for the door. As we opened the screen door, we saw that every one of those rocking chairs was now occupied. There were more people sitting on the porch railing, even a couple on the rotting steps.

 “You gentlemen have a good breakfast?” a man asked. His broad smile revealed gaps were teeth ought to have been. His shirt had been patched and patched again. His shoes were scuffed from years of work and his overalls bore stains and other areas that had been bleached of color. Nobody—man or woman—on that porch looked like they had two dollars to rub together.   The other thing they all had in common was their complexions, all as dark and as worn as a stand of trees, as black as the woman who had prepared our feast.

 As we drove out of town, we talked about what had happened. “Were they waiting for us to leave?” Steve mused.

 The thought hadn’t occurred to me. Now that it did, it disturbed me terribly. It was their town, their restaurant, their breakfasts, but they hadn’t come in and taken their places—not until the white men had left.

In recent weeks there has a national discussion—or perhaps it is more a national argument—about ideas like “white privilege” and “black lives matter.” In my head, I often reduce those terms to these two formative experiences from my adolescence: my love for Marylyn and my discomfort in displacing—however unintentionally—those people waiting for their breakfasts.

 Both those terms are about separating people. They are both about saying to that twelve-year-old seventh grader, you cannot desire a girl who is different from you. They are both about saying to those hungry people—the black and the white—you cannot share from the same rich platter that is America.

 I do not believe in separating people. I don’t think that Marylyn and I would have spent our lives together. Heck, I don’t even know if she liked me. But, with her permission, I do wish I had had the chance to kiss her. I wish I had had the chance to hold her hand and walk to Woolworths for a soda, to go to the movies on a Saturday morning and scream at the bad guys and monsters and cheer the good and the heroes.

 And, I wish those hardworking folks had felt comfortable eating beside us. Maybe they would have talked with us and shared their knowledge of that glorious uninhabitable environment in which they lived. I think Harvey might have learned something about nature from them, maybe about how nature isn’t something to be studied but something to be lived.

 So when people ask me my thoughts on “Black Lives Matter” and “White Privilege”, I want to tell them not that “All Lives Matter,” which they do, but that in the end it is only when we can let go of political slogans and delight in the kaleidoscope of humanity, only when we can all take part in life’s gifts from making of love to sharing a platter of the fluffiest pancakes that will ever be set before us that we will have even an inkling of the possibilities that are us.


Before I Write Your Memoir by Kenneth Weene

Before I Write Your Memoir by Kenneth Weene

Personally, I’ve never wanted to write a memoir. I’ve never thought my life complex or meaningful enough to warrant one. My preference has always been to stand back and observe while others took action and risk, which is not to say that I have no great moments of revelation to be shared. There have been a few, but not a coherent set that would make a memoir—not a full foundation on which to base a tale.

That said, I’ve noticed that most memoirs rest on the shaky foundation of post-traumatic stress. Often they are piacular, meant to make atonement for the guilt that accompanies the memory of those traumatic events. That guilt may be for harm done to others, for almost doing harm, for not doing right, or simply for ones own unacceptable actions. Whatever the nature of the remorse, it eats at the writer’s innards and demands expiation.

Of course, who among us is not haunted by at least one traumatic event from the past? Who among us does not remember at least one reason to feel guilt? I certainly have had my moments, but they don’t suffice for a memoir because they are not the thread that binds the meaning of my life.

To be effective, a memoir must go beyond the event and provide a grain, a consistent integrating pattern for the writer’s life. Horrible as it may have been, that one anxiety attack, that one experience of rape, that one moment of confronted rage: these are not sufficient for a memoir. A good memoir vibrates with continuity and repetition; it has a quality of pentimento in which the same themes and even events keep returning to the narrative flow—each time with deepened understanding. The therapeutic journal your shrink has suggested you keep, the one in which you write over and over about that traumatic event, that is not a memoir. It may be helpful to you, but it isn’t for publication.

Sadly, the availability of self-publishing has debased memoir more than any other form of writing. It is too easy to conflate one’s therapist’s interest with a waiting audience.

Even when you are cured, when you leave that last therapeutic appointment, your experience is not sufficient if there is nor a clear repetition, a growing crescendo of experience.

But experience—even repetitive experience—without growth is not the stuff that makes a memoir work. Unhappily, there are many women—and men—who have been sexually abused. Starting in childhood and continuing into adulthood, they have suffered at the hands of others who have cared for nothing but their own gratification. A number of these people have decided that their stories are important. And they are, only not to the world. When faced with another version of that all-to-frequent gothic tale, I want to know how did the woman grow, how did she come out the better person. “I’ve learned to let go and go on with my life,” “I’ve accepted my savior and am healed,” or similar one-liner solutions to the devastation of such a life do not make a memoir. The cessation of your personal suffering does not mean that you are offering the world a lesson that deserves $14.99 on Amazon.

No, the lessons you offer must be part of a larger fabric of your story. You are weaving a tale. Just as weaving cloth, you need a warp and woof, so in weaving your tale the repetitive trauma must crisscross the growing awareness of who you are and who you are becoming to give a whole cloth.

Which brings us to yet a third essential element in memoir. If we go into a store to buy cloth or clothing, our eyes are drawn to patterns more than to the simple one color fabrics. That piece of cloth has to evoke something in us. To be stirred by a memoir, the reader must find something in its fabric that is personally arousing. That doesn’t mean it has to be something the reader has personally experienced, quite the contrary. I can read a well written memoir by a rape survivor and become very involved. I care about the person and am furious at the perpetrator. More importantly, I suffer with the author through their personal journey to wholeness and redemption. The key is that I can relate to the person, not identify with the experience. Indeed, I would be less interested in a story that I could find in my own life. I want a story that will take me to new places and ideas. Relatability is not being like me but in sharing our common humanity. For you to share that with me means that you have come across as real, as authentic.

How do I know that I am meeting the real you? How do I know that you are authentic? First, I look for a sense of humor and a realization of the irony that is in your life—as it is in every life. Is it not ironic, for instance, that the child of an alcoholic marries somebody who is marijuana dependent? Isn’t it part of the paradox of life that we all move not from the pot into the fire but from one pot to another? How about the man driven by his desire to succeed in business who is fleeced by the sharper predator? If the memoirist can’t see the irony and laughability of their life, how can they possibly be in touch with its meaning?

If I can relate to you, if I believe in you, then I want to read your story. But there has to be a story for me to read. That is the fourth key element in a successful memoir. Memoirs are not autobiographies; they are not a history of the writer’s experiences. They are stories that are being shared. They take the reader on a journey. That the road is personal and based on true events rather than being made up by the novelist’s mind does not make the storytelling less important.

Think about good fiction. No matter how much it focuses on the experience of a central character, there has to be a world in which that character’s life is set. Events cannot come out of the blue as if the world is at the mercy of whimsy. Motivation and complexity of character, appropriate richness of detail, and a narrative voice that fits with the content are some of the requisites for writing a good story. They are just as necessary for a memoir.

Recently, my abstract thoughts about writing memoir have been challenged by the experience of working with a man who asked me to help him write his story. From South Sudan, Deng Atum left his home at age eight and has not been back since. His journey has taken him on torturous routes replete with starvation and death. He has survived refugee camps. Eventually, he was sent by a charitable organization to the United States, where he has lived for many years. The events of his life are overwhelming and horrific. Clearly the stuff of memoir; but are they? Taking those events and shaping them into his story has been a consuming task for the past few months and we are far from finished.

With each chapter, I go back over the list of ingredients that I have laid out above: Trauma, check; growth, check; humanity and humor, check; and story telling, check. If they are all there, the memoir writer is ready to go on to the next chapter; each building on the ones before, a carefully crafted tale that will in the end intrigue, entertain, and enlighten. At least that’s the goal.