The Alexandria Papers Newsletter #59 | Dr. Alexandria Szeman | 20 November 2022
Oh, my, I’m so anxious for Thanksgiving — read: for all the yummy food — that I said there would be no newsletter this weekend. But it’s a week early. It’s “No newsletter next week” because it’s Thanksgiving in the US, and my kitties and I will be celebrating the holiday weekend by eating turkey and all the usual side dishes, including pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream. So much whipped cream!
5 Steps to Wind Down and Fall Asleep – Mindful
A bedtime meditation to stop tossing and turning, and get some quality shut-eye. As someone who works every day with patients struggling with insomnia, the most common thing I hear is once the head hits the pillow, the brain doesn’t stop.
Dangerous Gifts for People with Chronic Illnesses (and Gift Ideas to Swap Them With)
I’m a big fan of samples, which makes Christmas gifts or other exchanges a pleasure. I love trying out new textures, sniffing new scents, and figuring out if the latest product on the block is a fad or of true value. Yet, samples might be dangerous gifts for some.
Nadine Burke Harris: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime
Childhood trauma isn’t something you just get over as you grow up. Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explains that the repeated stress of abuse, neglect and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain.
10 Ways Minimalism is More Than a Home Decor Trend – The Simplicity Habit
Inside: There are many ways that minimalism is more than a home decor trend. Read on for ten ways it can improve your home, life, and the planet. A guest post by Cora Gold The word “minimalist” is used to describe everything from watch and clothing designs to art and home decor.
10 of the best novels set in nature to escape into the wild – Tolstoy Therapy
A quick note that some of my posts contain Amazon affiliate links. When you buy through these links, I may earn a commission. “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac Over on Live Wildly, I recently shared my selection of the most…
Cooking and Baking
Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States, and Thanksgiving 2022 occurs on Thursday, November 24. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and
I did my last three years of high school in a district that was cramped for space. Because there was only an elementary school and a high school, and the district had decided to create a “junior high” category but didn’t have the building done yet, the high school building was used for both groups of students. The high school students started at 6:00 a.m. and were done by 1:30 p.m., allowing us half an hour for lunch. Then, at 2:00, the junior high students came to school. They had to stay late in the evening, and the parents didn’t like it very much, but until the new Junior High building was completed, it would have to do. That’s how I was able to work two jobs in high school. We lived near a mall, so I could be at work by 2:00 every day and work any time on weekends.
In one of the stores, I worked in the credit department, calling customers to remind them their payments were due, stuffing envelopes, and eventually, becoming a supervisor and approving borderline credit purchases when the stores called in to our central location. My other job was in a prominent retail store’s catalogue department, which was located next to Sporting Goods.
That’s where I first saw the display of baseball bats. As soon as I saw them, I knew I had to have one. I let the Sporting Goods manager help me narrow down the selection. I don’t recall whether aluminum bats were available then, but I was convinced that a wooden one would suit my purposes better.
I got permission from my one of my teachers (and the principal) to take Spanish class, which was my last class period of the day, during my lunch period. (They knew I had two jobs so that I could save money to go to college, which my parents and the rest of my family violently opposed, and I think they were trying to help me out.) That released me from school half an hour early, since, technically, my lunch period was at the end of the day. I couldn’t leave the school grounds, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t spend my lunch period outside, at the edge of the parking lot, with my baseball bat. So that’s what I did.
I practiced every day with that bat, slamming it as hard as I could against the trunk of the stoutest oak tree on the school’s property. At first, my arms, shoulders, and neck hurt so bad from batting practice, I thought it would kill me. But when I remembered my plan, I got back to work.
I attracted a lot of attention from some of my fellow students, most of them guys, virtually all of them “dead-heads,” as we called the students who used illicit drugs back then, because they were the ones who skipped their classes but, for some strange reason, didn’t leave school grounds, though they all had access to cars. At first, they just watched me. Then Leo, whom I knew from my Political Science class, sent his girlfriend, Nessa, over to inquire what, exactly, I was attempting to do “by beating that tree to death with a baseball bat.” After she returned with the answer, Leo and several of the boys came over.
They all had girlfriends. They all knew I was a “brain,” a “teacher’s pet,” a “brown-nose,” a “suck-up,” and everything else that the College Prep students got called by everyone in the school because we made good grades. They all knew I didn’t wear make-up, dress in all-black clothes, dye my hair purple or blue with Kool-Aid, or skip classes to roam the hallways or smoke marijuana in the bathrooms. They knew I’d never had a boyfriend and that I didn’t drink, do drugs, or party. In short, I was the complete opposite of all of them.
None of that stopped them from teaching me to correctly use the bat, however.
I slept every night with the bat under the edge of my bed. I’d cleared a wide space in my room so the bat wouldn’t connect with anything except what I wanted to hit. I kept the curtains open, though I found it difficult to sleep with the streetlight shining in, because I needed to be able to see my target. I even practiced reaching under the bed, grabbing the bat, jumping out of bed, and swinging it in that virtually empty room.
When my stepfather Fred finally came for the last time, I heard him sneaking down the stairs to my bedroom, which was now on the lower level of the house, so I was already standing in the dark with the bat. It was the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, in the midst of my most extreme discontent.
He came into my room, dropped his pants, felt around the empty bed, stood up, turned his back to me, and cursed under his breath.
That’s when Mr. Louisville Slugger and I struck.
His bellows brought my mother Maida, who didn’t come near me. Instead, she ran out of the bedroom to call the number Fred gave her. About an hour later, one of his employees came from work. The employee said nothing when he was taken to Fred, writhing, without control of his limbs, on the floor of his stepdaughter’s bedroom. The employee said nothing when he saw me, teeth clenched and eyes narrowed, standing in the corner with a raised baseball bat. He said nothing when he put his hands under Fred’s arms and dragged him, screaming through dishtowels stuffed into his mouth, out of my bedroom, across the laundry room, through the dark garage, down the driveway, and to the bed of the employee’s pick-up truck.
As instructed, the employee drove to work and dutifully deposited my stepfather on an icy bridge over a ravine in the parking lot. Taking Fred’s keys, the employee retrieved Fred’s walkie-talkie from his office. The employee returned to the building in which he himself worked. He dialed our home phone number. Maida answered. She screamed. She ran out of the house, jumped into Fred’s car, and sped off to his workplace, a government installation that required high security clearance.
Here’s how their story went:
The employee, who worked third-shift, had phoned Fred, who was the Manager of Physical Plants and who was always on call in case something went wrong with any of the facilities, to inform Fred that something had happened to one of the generators and that no one could get it started. Later, after Fred had arrived at work, he radioed said employee, informing him that Fred had fallen on the bridge which led from the parking lot to the main building, and hurt himself bad. The employee called Security, who, after finding Fred, immediately contacted the hospital. An ambulance raced Fred — and the stalwart employee, who refused to leave my injured stepfather — from the ice-covered bridge at work to the emergency room. My mother, who was not legally permitted to even be in the parking lot, accompanied them.
One week later, the stalwart, taciturn third-shift employee, now promoted to day-shift supervisor, came to the house to inform my mother that the company had installed a hospital bed, along with all the equipment necessary to care for Fred, hired several shifts of nurses, and was transferring Fred to the “hospital room” at work. It seems the company was not about to lose its hundred-trillion-hour accident-free safety record simply because my stepfather had slipped on an icy bridge. By keeping Fred hospitalized on its premises, Fred would technically be at work every day. Thus, despite the eight months that Fred would be unable to actually work due to his numerous and complex injuries, the company would not have to re-set its neon Safety Hours sign at the entrance to zero.
Fred’s injuries were reported as having occurred after his falling on ice on the very same metal bridge that Fred himself had apparently reported as “extremely dangerous during inclement weather” several weeks previously, when Fred’s newly promoted stalwart employee had slipped but, fortunately, not been seriously injured. Paperwork detailing Fred’s report concerning this very dangerous bridge as well as the stalwart employee’s minor accident was discovered in Fred’s office files by his equally trustworthy and ambitious personal assistant three weeks after my stepfather’s unfortunate mishap.
My mother bitterly and angrily related all this to me during the period Fred was not allowed to come home because of his grievous injuries, during the many long months she was not permitted to visit him since she did not have the security clearance to see him in the hospital room constructed for him at work.
A hospital room which absolutely no one was supposed to discover, not even his family members, as it was not only illegal, but unethical as well.
Medical Summary of Fred’s Injuries: Fractured hips, pelvis, upper and lower left leg, upper and lower left arm, left shoulder, left collarbone, both hands, wrists, thumbs, multiple fingers
Words cannot begin to express my severe disappointment.
I’d been aiming for my stepfather’s spine.
read another excerpt (chapters 1-6) from my memoir
and related chapters that are not in the final, published version
“Damn you,” cried the practically naked Charlton Heston as he fell to his knees on the beach in front of the half-buried Statue of Liberty. “God damn you all to hell.”
1968: the hottest film in our world was the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes, where three astronauts crash-land on a seemingly deserted planet, only to discover that in this topsy-turvy world, the apes can talk, read, write, ride horses, and shoot guns, while the mute humans are beasts, herded and captured, enslaved and oppressed. The film had just hit drive-in theatres, where kids got in free. We went to see the movie with our parents, with our friends and their parents, with the kids we ignored in school and their parents. We went with absolutely anyone to see Planet of the Apes. Again and again and again.
All the neighborhood children were so enamored of the film that we’d memorized the dialogue and played Planet of the Apes every day at an abandoned construction site on the other side of the railroad tracks. Since the site was vast and filled with gigantic concrete culverts and miscellaneous construction materials, it really was like we’d landed on another planet. It was the perfect setting for our Planet of the Apes games.
The first thing we did each day was draw straws to see who’d get to be the apes and who’d be the humans. We had very strict rules on our Planet of the Apes. Only the apes were allowed to talk. The humans were allowed to grunt, point, and use sign language. Sometimes the humans would huddle together in a corner of the site and whisper, but if the apes caught them doing that, they got mad and hit the humans really hard. The apes got to be up on top of the concrete culverts, and the humans’ goal was to get all the apes off the culverts so the humans could be on top. It was a Planet of the Apes King of the Hill.
The apes were allowed to use pieces of board as weapons, but only if the wood didn’t have any nails in it. Sometimes the apes would pretend the boards were guns and make shooting noises, but none of the humans ever fell down when they did that, so the shooting was just gratuitous sound effects. Given their naturally less evolved status on this planet, the humans were only allowed to use rocks as weapons. More like pebbles, actually. The apes had only agreed to pebble-sized rocks after one of the apes hit a human hard enough to break open the skin on his knee and he threatened to tell his parents what had really happened and which ape had done it. The humans had to be extremely careful about how hard they threw the rocks at the apes, however, and on which part of the apes’ bodies the rocks landed. The apes got really violent if the rocks hurt too much.
Neither apes nor humans were allowed to hit someone on the head or face: our parents would know we’d been playing Planet of the Apes at the construction site, and they’d all forbidden it. The apes could hit the human with their stick-guns on the back or butt. The humans could throw the rocks at the apes’ legs, arms, and backs.
The most important rule in our world was that nobody had to be a human two days in a row. It was only fair.
One day, one of the apes found a long section of rope and decided that each of the humans needed to have a choke-collar and leash, similar to the leather collars with leashes the humans wore in the film when the apes were transporting their captives from one place to another. The rope choke-collar and leash worked fine for a while, though the apes got yelled at a few times for pulling too hard or wrapping the rope too tightly.
Then Bobby Webster, who was human at the time and who fancied himself a young Charlton Heston, decided that humans had evolved sufficiently to develop speech and to have an intelligible language. In fact, according to Bobby, humans had become so evolved, they understood English, which was known to be the apes’ language.
“Take your dirty, stinking paws off of me, you damned dirty ape,” said Bobby as he ripped off his choke-collar and leash, shoved his ape-guard down, and raced up on the few apes already on the culverts.
The rest of us humans got so excited that we immediately learned to speak English and pretty soon had all the apes defeated. We shouted a thundering victory song as we stomp-danced on top of the culverts.
The apes were furious.
They insisted that humans weren’t allowed to talk on this planet. Ever.
Bobby Webster pointed out that Charlton Heston had talked partway through the real movie, so we, too, should be able to talk. Sometimes. Of course, the rest of us humans agreed.
The apes didn’t.
That day, the fighting on the Planet of the Apes was real.
When we got home, cut and bruised, bleeding and crying, our mother was livid.
“You’ve been playing Planet of the Apes again, haven’t you?” she said as she knocked us each on the side the head. “How many times have I told you to stop playing that? Somebody’s going to get hurt.”
None of us was allowed to eat any supper that night — or for several nights after — and she refused to let us clean our cuts with anything but our own saliva, saying that’s all we’d have on our Ape-planet. Two days later, when my little sister Amy cried and begged not to be forced to go to our father’s house for her scheduled weekend visit, complaining that she didn’t like sleeping in his bed with him, our mother said Amy had to go: it was her punishment for playing Apes. After my little brother Jimmy Lee tried to hide from his own father — Amy’s and my new stepfather — in the basement one afternoon, Jimmy Lee came up to dinner with bruises on his face and neck, worse than anything he got on the Ape-planet. When my stepfather crept into our bedroom that night and hurt me more than usual, I wanted to say, “Take your stinking paws off me,” but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said it was all my fault, for playing Planet of the Apes when we weren’t supposed to.
Of course, none of that stopped us from playing Planet of the Apes.
After all, on that planet, sometimes we got to be the apes.
read an excerpt (chapters 1-6) from my memoir
and related chapters that are not in final, published version
Trigger Warning: This post, though not graphic, discusses childhood sexual abuse.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me…
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
William Shakespeare Richard III, 5:3:194, 208-210
In the middle of the night, in the middle of the closet, I pulled down all the clothes from the shelves and the hangers and covered myself with them. As my younger sister Amy slept in the bed next to mine, and our baby brother slept in his crib in the corner of our room, I dragged all the clothes, shoes, and toys over my legs, body, and face. Then I waited. I never knew how long it would take, so I just had to keep on waiting. Though I kept pinching my arms and legs to stay awake, I eventually fell asleep.
My stepfather’s cursing woke me. When I heard the noise of squeaking bedsprings, I knew he was in my empty bed. The lamp got knocked over, and my stepfather cursed again. His footsteps came toward the closet. I put both hands over my mouth to prevent any sound from escaping.
The door opened. His huge hand groped among the toys, clothes, and shoes. My heart was thumping so loud in my ears, I was sure he would hear it. I couldn’t see Fred’s face: just the dark silhouette of his head and body.
“If you’re in here, you better come out,” said Fred.
I didn’t move.
“I’m the one paying for all the food you eat, and I’m not even your real dad, so you owe me,” said Fred. “Your mom tricked me into marrying her, and I had to take you, too, because your real dad didn’t want you: you owe me.”
He leaned further in, yanking at the clothes.
“It’ll be your fault if I have to do Amy,” he said.
Still, I didn’t move.
Eventually, Fred left the closet and got into Amy’s bed. Her cry was immediately muffled by his hand over her mouth. When Fred finished, he said the same thing to Amy that he always said to me and, later, to Jimmy Lee, even though Jimmy Lee was his real son: This means I love you.
After Fred went back to his own room and Amy cried herself to sleep, I hit myself in the head over and over for being such a bad girl. For making him do Amy instead of letting him do me. I was the oldest, I was the biggest, I was the one who should be protecting Amy and Jimmy Lee. That was my job.
Sometimes, though, I just couldn’t take it anymore.
In the middle of my ninth year, in the middle of my first year with a stepfather, when I finally came out of the middle of the closet, my sister Amy looked at me with dead eyes. She never said anything about what Fred was doing: she just ran as soon as he came into a room. Sometimes, she ran so far and hid so well that it took us days to find her. When she was thirteen, she ran away and never came back.
I didn’t blame her.
I blamed myself.
While her own children were small, Amy often complained about Fred’s sexual abuse. I didn’t owe him anything, she said once, and then, one day several years later, without explanation, she simply stopped talking about it.
When I was giving an interview about one of my novels on a radio talk-show, the host asked what had inspired the “intense and unsettling exploration of violence” in my fiction. I told him about the sexual abuse I’d suffered at the hands of my father, stepfather, and mother.
Afterward, Amy called me up, hysterical. She told me that she’d phoned every member of the family and asked whether any of the things I’d said on the radio were true. She claimed that every single person in the entire family remembered things exactly the same way, and that none of it had happened the way I said. Furthermore, everyone said that I was a liar and a storyteller, and that I always had been.
“Were you trying to embarrass me?” said my sister.
“By saying that our parents abused us?”
“Our childhood was perfectly fine and normal,” said Amy.
For so many years, I felt guilty for hiding in the closet when Fred was looking for me. Guilty for hiding in the closet, in the garage, in the basement, in the crawlspace, under the cellar door. Guilty because whenever Fred couldn’t find me, he hurt Amy or Jimmy Lee like he’d been hurting me since I was five. Guilty because even though my own mother knew what Fred was doing, she did nothing to stop him, so I thought I somehow deserved his anger and abuse. Guilty because Fred said it was all my fault for hiding.
But I simply couldn’t stop hiding from him.
After all my years of therapy, I guess I don’t feel guilty any longer. But I still feel sad that I wasn’t strong enough to take it from Fred every night. Every day, too, if that’s what he wanted. Sometimes I think I should have let him do me, and me alone, every day and every night, if that’s what it took to protect my younger siblings.
Even if they say they don’t remember.
read an excerpt (chapters 1-6) from my memoir
and related chapters that are not in final, published version
Usually considered to have originated with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was subtitled “A Gothic Story,” Gothic fiction is literature that attempts to combine elements of romance, mystery, and horror — without becoming either too fantastic or too realistic. Initially featuring decaying castles, curses, ghosts or other supernatural creatures and events, madness, murder, and “oft-fainting heroines,” Gothic fiction was hugely popular entertainment.
About a generation after Walpole, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding Gothic villain in her novel A Sicilian Romance: a tempestuous, moody, sometimes secretive, and extremely passionate male who usually encounters a heroine that completely upsets his life. Later this type of “villain” would be called the Romantic era’s “Byronic hero.” Radcliffe also introduced more independent heroines to Gothic fiction with her bestselling The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though Radcliffe’s heroines are still pretty helpless and faint far more than anyone I’ve ever encountered, they inspired “gothic feminism” which critics claim the author herself expressed as “female power through pretended and staged weakness.” Further, Radcliffe changed the infant genre of Gothic fiction by introducing the “explained supernatural,” where all the apparently supernatural events, from ghosts and moving furniture to strange knocks and cries in the dark, turn out, eventually, to have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations.
Gothic fiction and its various, evolving components spread into the literature of the Romantic era, appearing in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Poe. In the Victorian era, Gothic elements were more prominent in fiction, and are found in the work Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre).
Many of these Victorian authors added strong moral elements to their Gothic fiction, producing novels that questioned everything from man’s relationship with newly developing technologies and medical advances to man’s responsibility for feeding and educating the poor. Gothic literature became more than entertainment to pass the long hours of a dark and rainy night: it explored the meaning of life, morality, social responsibility, and man’s relationship to the Divine.
As Gothic fiction spread to authors in America, especially in the South, it became a sub-genre called Southern Gothic. Authors like Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, and Percy examined family relationships, sexuality, poverty, race, and the Southern myths of an idyllic antebellum past. Southern Gothic is filled with
deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters… ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.
With its particular focus on the South’s history of slavery, Southern Gothic became a vehicle for fierce social critique.
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of both American fiction and Southern Gothic. A coming-of-age story set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama from 1933-1936, during the Great Depression, the novel examines everything from family relationships and mental health to societal responsibilities, poverty, violence, and crime. The 1962 film version, adapted from the novel by Horton Foote, eliminated some of the novel’s childhood adventures to concentrate on the aspects of its storyline that make To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American literature and film: the ugly and intractable racism between whites and blacks, a bigotry and intolerance that still exists over most of the country.
The film’s (unseen) narrator looks back on her six-year-old self and on the events that changed her from an innocent to a more mature child. In 1933, Scout (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck).
Together with a visiting neighbor, Dill (John Megna, modeled after Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers next door to the Lees with his aunts), Scout and Jem roam around the neighborhood and create their own adventures.
Atticus agrees, but despite his attempts to shield his children from the consequences of his decision to represent a black man in a racially charged crime, Scout and Jem soon become involved in the racial “war” brewing around them.
In particular, the father of the ostensible rape victim, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) tries several times to intimidate Atticus into quitting the case. When that doesn’t work, Ewell threatens violence against Atticus and his children.
Though the children continue to find “gifts” in the hollow of a nearby tree, these gifts and their former adventures pale in significance to the events surrounding the crime concerning Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell.
By the time the trial starts, most of the town is divided and angry. Though Atticus warns his children to stay away from the courthouse completely, Jem refuses to be barred from the biggest event in the county, and Scout refuses to be left behind at home if Jem and Dill are going to the courthouse.
Judge Taylor presides as the District Attorney (William Windom, in his film debut) badgers witnesses and makes his opinions about Tom Robinson’s guilt clear. Despite the fact that viewers can have no doubt whatsoever about the jury’s eventual verdict, the courtroom scenes are intensely riveting, especially when Atticus cross-examines Mayella herself.
Though the verdict is not in question, Mayella’s father, angry at the Atticus’ not-so-subtle accusations of incest and child abuse, provokes Atticus repeatedly in an attempt to draw him into a physical confrontation. Then, he decides to provoke Atticus by going after his children.
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars:
Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction (set design, Black-and-White).
Everyone should see this film, though children under 12 may need to be cautioned about the subject matter and the language as this film deals openly with rape, clearly suggests incest, and uses language appropriate to the time and place of its story.
Be sure to watch the black-and-white version of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the colorized one: those who colorized it obviously completely missed the symbolism behind the story’s being filmed in black-and-white instead of in color. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon,iTunes,YouTube,GooglePlay, and Vudu.
*As an Amazon Associate (also called “Affiliate”), I may earn a small commission (at no additonal cost to you) if you click through any of the affiliate product links and make a purchase. Posts with these affiliate links are indicated at the top of the post in which they appear. Read more: Disclosure.
Copyright 2012-2023 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman, Ph.D. All rights reserved. No content may be copied, excerpted, or distributed without express written consent of the author and publisher, with full copyright credit to the author. Please, don’t support the piracy of Intellectual Property.
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