I have recently written about our responsibility for teaching ‘our’ children, and about the importance of telling them stories, and paying attention to them, instead of giving them instructions. But are there some stories we should not teach them? Are there some secrets better left untold?
I’ve been reading Canadian poet Patrick Lane’s extraordinary autobiography There Is a Season (published in the US as What the Stones Remember). Lane’s childhood, in the 1940s in the rugged timberlands of Eastern BC, was impoverished and flecked with violence, but probably not significantly more so than that of most of our parents or grandparents growing up in that era. Here’s an excerpt (caution: contains descriptions that will be troubling to the sensitive reader):
Behind the truck were three more, all piled with apples from the orchards. There was no market for them anywhere in Canada and rather than give the fruit away it was burned. The trucks rumbled onto the flat and then backed up to the tip where they disgorged their loads.
The edge of the dump was a cliff of fruit. At the bottom were women and children. They were chinks, ragheads, injuns, bohunks, polacks or wops to us. They were at the dump to scavenge apples. They leaned into the charred pile and tried to find fruit that hadn’t been burned. When they found a fresh lode they carried armfuls to small wagons and wheelbarrows they had pulled or pushed all the way from town. The man on the tip watched them and when they began to cluster around a spill of fruit he would pick up a can and fling a twist of kerosene and diesel down the slope. When it flowed through the burning air, it exploded and the women and children dragged their wagons back. The man on the tip rolled cigarettes and smoked as he watched them sidle back into the billowing smoke and flame.
Quiet among the rusted car bodies, we watched as the empty army trucks returned to the orchards and packing houses for more apples. Then we made our way to the bottom of the drift away from the slope of burning fruit. There was almost no fire where we were. Here and there a pocket of thin flame flickered among torn clothing and broken chairs, but most of what was there was still intact.
I remember poking a stick into a mottled paper bag. The thin paper tore and a small cotton bundle fell out onto the inverted curve of a rusty fender. The bundle was knotted in the middle and I took the stick and picked at the knot. My brothers were below me, sifting through the discarded effluvium of the town. The knot gave way and I flicked at what looked like a cotton shirt. It slowly unfolded at my prodding and a tiny arm fell out, its fingers clenched, its skin a pale blue.
I stared at the thin arm and then prodded until the rest of the cloth gave way. It was a baby, a girl, and I gazed at her infant limbs, her swollen belly, and the bruises that suffused her skin. I pushed the edge of the fender with my bare foot. The metal tipped and the body fell into a crevice, the fender coming down and covering it. I looked at the flaking paint and moved away. The small body both existed and and didn’t exist in my mind. I walked away from the secret grave and placed the dead baby somewhere deep inside where it could be lost.
There was no one I could tell, not even my brothers and not my mother or father or friends. If I did, it would somehow be my fault. We were not supposed to be at the dump. The last time we were caught our father had taken us to the woodshed and beaten us with a strip of boxwood. I didn’t want to be beaten again…
Those were hard and brutal years. There was only one policeman in town and he was ineffectual at best. That wives and children were murdered and babies aborted with coat hangers or boots was a thing left to a family. Privacy was the measure of freedom. My friend’s father prostituted his Down syndrome daughter for twenty-five cents to anyone who had the money. When his father wasn’t home, my friend sold her to older boys for half a popsicle. I learned early to hide such knowledge, for whatever I might tell would have repercussions, involve my family in things that were better left alone.
Dead babies, the dump, memories of childhood, swirl around in me. Who should I tell now? What good comes out of the past? To go back over those days brings down on myself the caul of childhood. That a neighbour beat a small friend to death in his woodshed when I was six, that another neighbour locked his idiot daughter away in an attic for years, and that a man my father worked with beat his wife insensate every weekend were what I thought was normal. Secrets and the silences that surrounded them governed my young life. To do or say anything was anathema. Grief and memory are burdens that cannot be lifted by going back.
How many of those of us now in their 60s, who we meet every day in our busy activities in our affluent lives, have stories, secrets like these? How many of those who come from less affluent countries, neighbours and co-workers and friends of friends, much younger, could tell us more recent stories that would shock us, cause us to wonder what it is that holds our fragile civilization together?
What is our responsibility, to the young, the naive, those who cannot see beneath the veneer of respectability and calm that allows us to deny what is really going on all around us? What do they need more: To know the real truth, so that they can learn to cope with it and act on it, or to be protected from knowledge so terrible that it can render us senseless, numb, paralyzed, without hope? If our parents and elders told us awful truths, would that destroy our trust in them, our ability to see them as role models, as exemplars of our moral compass, or would it cause that trust to deepen, a conspiracy of transparency and honesty without bounds? Would it weaken us or make us stronger, sensitize and mobilize us, or demobilize and disengage us?
Five years ago we had a new, environmental decking put around our swimming pool. The contractor was Italian and the head of his work crew was second-generation Chinese Canadian, but the other five crew members were all new Canadians who spoke virtually no English. As soon as the contractor and foreman were out of sight, work stopped — whenever I looked out the window I could see no sign of the crew. At first I just lamented the lack of progress to the contractor, but when that didn’t change anything I decided to go out myself and see what was happening. As regular readers know, we live on protected wetlands, and the low-lying half of ‘our’ property must be kept in (as near as is possible in any developed area) wilderness state. I heard the crew screaming at each other, and the sound of running through the underbrush, down by the shore of one of our ponds. When I called out to them, they all froze — no sound, no movement. They were waiting for me to leave. I waded down through the brush and told the first crew member I found to come up to the driveway. He called the others and followed me. The crew came up, two of them with hand-made snares in hand — they were hunting for foxes, muskrats, any of the abundant and trusting wildlife they could find. One of the five spoke a little English and said they were on their ‘break’. I told him what they were doing was against the law and they could go to jail. I asked him why they were hunting, and he just shrugged and smiled. I was shaken, on the edge of tears. Instead, I spoke slowly and said the next time I noticed them not working I would call both the contractor and the police, and walked away. From then on the work was completed promptly.
I tried to put it out of my mind. It became my dark secret. I didn’t want to tell anyone. What good would it do? It would just get others as upset as I was. I didn’t understand their behaviour anyway, so there seemed no lesson to be learned from it. I just wanted to forget it, to pretend it had never happened. Although I would not in any sense equate this experience with the more serious traumas that people face everyday, it gave me a sense for why the victims of trauma go into a kind of shock, denial, self-belittlement, as if they were somehow complicit in the crime committed against them, in the conspiracy of silence that follows.
What would happen if, instead of the fraudulent, manipulative, humiliating, scripted crap that passes for ‘reality TV’, the networks were to broadcast some real reality: A hidden camera in a crackhouse, an animal laboratory, a prison, the bedroom of an abused spouse or child, a factory farm, a village in Darfur, a forced labour camp in China, a nursing home for the poor, a back alley or underpass in any poor part of any city in the world. What would we see, what truths would we learn, and how would it change the way we see the world? Would it change our definition of what it means to be a ‘survivor’? Would it change our definition of courage? Would it rise us from our complacency, or instead drive us to use the channel changer to flee the horror it revealed?
If there is nothing we can do, here, now, after the fact, in the absence of any imaginable human solution, what purpose can be served by showing ussuch truths? To Lane’s question What good comes out of the past? should we add What good comes out of the truth, if it is beyond our imagination or power to act on it?
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--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
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A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
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Complexity and Collapse
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What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
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No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
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Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
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Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
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The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
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Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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