Saturday, May 28, 2011

Library of Dust, part 2: Scared Out of My Mind

Many stories have escaped the walls of any asylum although most have died within. One such story was the experience of a child – a sane child whose spirit may have been a bit rebellious for the time, but none the less, she was and is perfectly sane.

Sharon captures her haunting memories in the following essay written in a writing class I facilitate.


In 1955 I was placed in the Oregon State Hospital for the criminally insane in Salem along with three other escapees from the Hillcrest reform school for girls.

After breaking free from Hillcrest, the four of us were picked up early one evening by staff from McClaren School for Boys. We had no idea no where we were going, and it was a quiet and somber ride. That would be the last silence I would experience for several weeks.

Hillcrest authority had warned the girls that runaways would not be tolerated and had suggested we would be transferred to Rocky Butte Jail in Portland. I believed I had prepared myself for jail. We had joked about it among ourselves laughingly, using the jailhouse phrase “we can do that standing on our heads”. So, of course, I was confused and bewildered when after a short ride we pulled up before a huge, looming and ominous building that housed Oregon's insane … about 3,500 patients at that time. It looked like what it was … a house of horrors! I could never have prepared myself for what would meet me inside.

My carpool partner and I were separated from the other girls, and I never saw them again. My memory of this place begins after entering the first of a session of wards where I was slightly relieved by the relaxed setting of Danish-style furniture and young people milling around for the most part, looking quite sane. Between each ward and locked door there was a hall or a short screened walkway. The heavy, solid doors were locked behind before the next was unlocked. One of the next wards housed older women; some were sitting in the wicker furniture that was familiar only to that ward. They were a scattered group with some talking to themselves or others, but it was nothing compared to primeval chaos that greeted us when we entered the back ward that was to be my home for the next three weeks … a ward for the criminally insane.

When passing through each ward into the next, it seemed as if we were descending deeper and deeper into this world of madness, peeling off layers until we reached the “back” ward where I was assigned. The constant racket and uproar overpowers my memory of the foul smell, but they were both overwhelming. I was scared out of my mind.

The building was constructed in 1883 with high ceilings, old fashioned lighting, and heavy screened windows. It was a perfect expectation as to what an Insane Asylum would look like, including the tormented occupants.

A group of women surrounded us as soon as we entered. I did not move even as they pressed close and picked at our clothes muttering and asking questions without needing answers. Surely, they were not going to leave us here in this snake pit. Well, they did!

It was near bed time, but they first took us to the shower area which also held two deep bath tubs set in the middle of the room. This arrangement provided space for as many attendants as needed to control the patients who became unmanageable. On this night, the tubs were used to disinfect or delouse the two of us, washing our hair with a nasty smelling liquid, even though we had come from a state institution. It was the rule. There were many other rules.

Two of us were placed on this ward, but we were separated. After being “disinfected' and issued a faded worn nightgown, I was taken to the bathroom and then instructed to leave my shoes outside the door of a room that held two cots. I was strapped to one of them with a heavy leather strap and wide leather cuffs that secured my hands to my waist. The other cot under the tall screened window was empty. I tried to convince the attendant that I was not crazy, only here for punishment. They ignored me, telling me I would be in restraints for twenty-four hours. “It was the rule.”

There was little sleep that night. It was February, and the wind was howling outside; the patients were howling inside. Tormented pitiful cries along with repetitive chanting, hollering, and pleading came from the women now restrained in bed.

Someone was allowed up to pace the hall. She was chanting “Jesus don’t care, Jesus don’t care” over and over, louder and louder. I was a stranger in a strange place and was thrown completely off guard.

I laid in bed trying to relax and not struggle in the restraints. I fought the claustrophobia and the fear. Just about then a hand came through the space between the wall and the radiator and grabbed my head. The wall that separated the room and the hall was cut away providing a spot for a radiator which heated both areas at the same time. The space around the radiator was large enough for a hand to reach inside. My friend who was released from her restraints to use the bathroom had seen my shoes outside my room and used the chance to scare me. My screams blended with the others.

Morning came, and my door was open, but I still was strapped in bed. One of the patients entered my room, a heavy-set, sloppy-looking woman. She talked softly, sweetly to me and reached under her dress for a comb that was left with just a few scattered teeth. I pleaded with her to leave as she leaned over me and started to comb my hair. She rambled on not paying any attention to my pleas, and I was afraid to make her angry as I couldn’t defend myself. She quickly left when a childlike girl or woman bolted into my room taking an aggressive stance with hands on her hips and screaming, “You're in love with Doctor Dreis are you? Aren’t you? I saw you take him down and intercourse him.” I was afraid this agile little monkey-like gal jumping around was going to tear into me. Just then a matron arrived and released me to wash up and have breakfast. She left me with a bleached cotton print dress which was common issue, and I hoped it would help me blend in with the other patients. Most of the women seemed to be living in their own worlds, talking and using wild hand gestures to get their point across to the imaginary people they were directing all their energy toward.

My first experience in the dining room is the only one I remember vividly. I sat down with a dozen or so patients at the long wooden table set with dented tin plates and cups and a solitary spoon for a utensil. In the midst of this first meal a young woman sitting at the head of the table announced in a loud voice, “I use Listerine”. She took a big gulp of coffee, threw her head back, and gargled. Then she spewed it out over the table, following it with peals of laughter.

Others would spit food back in their plates or take or give food to others sometimes causing a squabble, but more often this was tolerated or not even noticed by what I guessed to be heavily sedated women, some with drool spilling from their open mouths. I couldn't eat. I tried to convince myself to drink the milk. Take a sip, I love milk. I couldn't do it. Everything seemed so vile. I learned to drink coffee. Black coffee was all I could stomach ... I found myself looking forward to mealtime for the coffee which other than a couple bites of bread I dunked would sustain me through my stay. I was close to hysteria, myself, and I was so grateful when they told me I would not have to finish the 24-hour restraint rule.

After breakfast and lunch any patient that could function at all was required to “Block.” This required pushing a large block of wood covered by a heavy cloth on the bottom with a broomstick handle. This was a twice-a-day, seven-days-a week routine, and it went remarkably smooth. For as boring as it was, it was meant to provide exercise, and, of course, it helped keep the floors polished. Everyone moved exceptionally slow, some suffering with physical disabilities, pushing and polishing single file up and down the hall, around and around for an hour. ...........................................................Blocking tool on right

I got the first look at my surroundings that morning while I blocked, meekly staying in line, trying to blend in, and not drawing any attention to myself. One end of the long hall provided the sleeping rooms, some single, some double, and at least one larger room that held bedridden patients who were in constant restraint. Their yelling and pleading for help was a continual day and night background for the repetitive babbling and pitiful whimpering which never stopped anywhere on the ward. The terrible pathetic sight of their struggling to free themselves is unforgettable.

Blocking was over this first morning and my friend from Hillcrest was not there. They must have moved her early. Separating us, I later learned, that was another fear tactic which I must say was effective. I was on my own here, and there wasn't anywhere to go.

Several times I sought out someone who was exempt from blocking for different mental or physical problems and would place them in line, put the block in their hand, and sneak away. This didn't work very well as my plan would be foiled when my stand-in would wander out of line and foul things up or just wasn't capable because of the lack of strength or balance. Today I wonder if some younger patients were disabled with Muscular Dystrophy or other disfiguring diseases. Shame on me!

The opposite end of the hall held the open “day room” and the nurse's station. There was always activity here. The nurse's station was next to the door, and patients gathered to wait for the doctors or other attendants who stopped there before leaving the ward. There were always several inmates trying to push or beg their way out, pleading to go home. No one likes to be locked up even if they are crazy.

There were two or three women who wore red cotton pajama-like suits that were buttoned around the waist and across the shoulder, allowing them to be undressed without taking off the leather belt and cuffs that were never removed. They were not required to block, and one of these poor souls was hunched in a corner snarling at anyone who looked her way. Her hair was tangled, and she looked and acted menacing. The sloppy woman with the toothless comb couldn't resist the temptation. She stopped and tried to fuss over the hunched woman. It was over in a flash. The crazy woman had her down, and her teeth were locked onto her arm. When separated she was bleeding where a hunk of flesh was missing. The comb which was considered contraband was confiscated. Personal possessions were not allowed on this ward.

There were a few exceptions to that rule. An elderly lady in a single room, who had been a resident for 30 years was allowed to have a broom and spent her days sweeping her room hour after hour. Later, when I tried to engage her in conversation, she brushed me aside. Absorbed in keeping her floor clean, this sweet-looking, little gray-haired grandma always wore an apron.

I went to the day room where there was a television playing with the sound of a game show adding to the pandemonium. I found a place where I could sit with my back to the wall to stay out of the way until I could get my bearings. There were several people in the room; some were staring at the television with blank faces, not understanding the dialogue. I never had a chance to brace myself before the “little monkey” who had been in my room earlier, jumped in front of me again screaming and accusing me of “intercoursing” Dr Dreis. I was still scared of this tiny little fairytale creature, but my hands were free, and I could at least protect myself. She abruptly stopped, went to the heavily screened window, and standing with her legs apart, she lifted the front of her dress and slowly swayed back and forth singing “beautiful, beautiful bluish-green eyes” over and over until she was calm and left the room.

Sometime in the first few days I was taken off the ward to have my photo taken. Fingerprints? I can't remember. I do remember that I was taken through a dimly lit tunnel that smelled like a musty basement. There were tracks laid throughout the tunnels, and I later learned they were used to transport food, laundry, and other supplies between buildings using a small rail system. It was also used to transfer patients, which made it a convenient way to keep them from the public eye. I had expected to see a doctor at the end of the tunnel or someone with information. I was confused as to why I was still here. Were they planning on keeping me, testing me? Treating me? Will I see a doctor? I had questions, but no one to ask.

I felt alone, but as the days went on, my fears lessened. The initial fright had turned into more of a defensive mode. I was still leery and cautious but not saturated with the initial fear I had experienced when first thrown into this surreal never-imagined world.

As I became more comfortable, I was curious about these women. I approached several of them looking for someone to talk to and perhaps to help me navigate through this nightmare, but there was no common ground for conversation. I listened to a woman in her early forties who had tears in her eyes when she spoke of being married and cried when she told how much she missed her children. She was so lucid that I wondered to myself why she would be on a ward for the criminally insane.

As we were talking, the big door opened, and she was up off her chair, trying to squeeze her way out while she desperately pleaded her case. She was joined by several other women all desperate to escape. I found something else to do, but I sought her out again feeling sorry for her. She was so quiet and sad apart from some of the more aggressive or heavily sedated women. The entire scene was pathetic. I can't say it enough.

A few days later, while blocking after lunch, this same thin, delicate, red-haired woman began singing “Bringing in the Sheaves, Bringing in the Sheaves.” She had a beautiful soprano voice, but she sang louder and louder, higher and higher as she went around and around until the song progressed into a high pitched scream. The attendants filled one of the deep bathtubs, and two of them wrapped her in a sheet and immersed her in the cold water which subdued her. In the next few days she was taken off the ward for a shock treatment. When she returned she was withdrawn and mute.

I approached anyone who could finish a sentence. I spent time with a young woman who was probably in her thirties who told entertaining stories about hobnobbing with movie stars. As a young girl in the fifties, I enjoyed the movie magazines that were so popular and kept us up to date on the personal lives of the stars. And now, I was privy to the inside stories.

She named different leading actresses and actors she had met and run with. She described the houses of the stars where she partied in Hollywood. She took me to California with the sunshine and the beautiful people, a wonderland she was a part of ... and who knows it may have been true. She was a pretty woman, and even in her cotton day-dress she played the part of a glamour girl to the point of being pretentious. I spent as much time listening to her stories that she would give me.

One morning while everyone was blocking in the hall, I saw some staff and a doctor escort her to a room which was set up like mine as the radiator was cut into the wall. Each time I passed her room I would stop and have a look. Today they had strapped her in bed and had a cart on wheels which was rigged to give portable shock treatments. I watched them put the cones on her temples and apply the shock. The only other thing that I remember is how hard she slept, how she snored so loudly for so long, and how she was so quiet and subdued when she recovered. She was blank when I spoke with her next. That was the end of the wonderfully entertaining stories.

Soon after the shock treatment she was allowed a “day out”. It was a day off campus and most likely with her parents. I wondered if that was the purpose for the shock treatment, to subdue her for her visit. She caught my attention on her return because she was dressed in street clothes. I followed her when she went into the bathroom. The always-busy staff had taken their eyes from her before she changed her clothes, and she had decided she was going to wash her long, beautiful, full-length camel hair coat.

The bathroom had a long community sink with multiple faucets, and the movie star lady laid out her coat in the sink and turned on all the faucets. The overworked matrons now had to deal with this ruined coat which probably cost as much or more than a week of their wages. I speculated that maybe her parents had some influence as she was the only patient I observed that had left the ward with the exception of those who received shock treatments.

At this point I was more at ease with the surroundings and sought out ways to fill the days. The hospital did have a movie night, but the criminally insane weren't privilege. I spent some time playing cards with a little, feisty, older lady who wore mitts on both hands as she would shred clothing, bedding, or whatever she found to satisfy her compulsion.

It was a selfish act on my part. It was a bargain deal. They removed her restraints, and I would play cards with her to weasel out of blocking, although for me it was just about as boring. There was a partial deck of cards, and the “Shredder” did all the dealing. After being restrained it probably felt good to use her hands. She was in complete control. I didn't even need to play my cards. She played them for me and with no rhyme or reason. I liked this little lady because she was so out-front, bossy, and spoke her mind. I should have spent more time with her.

About a week after arriving, the matrons who were always short-handed asked me to help with the showers. I agreed only if I would be on the drying end of the operation. The more violent patients were showered with their restraints intact. Even so, I was uneasy with these naked, sullen women, some of whom spent their days cuffed, either on their feet in their pajama suits or on their backs, and a few on sheepskins. Some would recoil and cower at being touched while others would fight even though their hands were cuffed. They kicked and struggled when they were dried and dressed. More than once I called for backup because they scared me. I hated this chore, but once doing it I could hardly ignore the fact it made it much easier and faster for the overworked help.

I stayed clear of the patients restrained in their beds. I ignored their futile cries and pitiful pleas for help. The same pleas you might hear repeated in nursing homes today. The same smells you'll find there, as well.

I did not witness any intended abuse for my three week’s stay. The matrons I talked with were from around the Salem area. They were of the same make up as the Hillcrest matrons; some of whom had also worked at Fairview next door. Middle aged housewives for the most part, overworked and undoubtedly underpaid. Strong women who must have a matched mindset to rebuke the women following them constantly, clamoring for attention, and asking questions that have no answers. To spend day after day with such despair and heartache and in turn be required to clean the woman with feces smeared on her and the wall of the bathroom or to calm the two fighting over a single scrap of paper or to deal with the woman who undresses whenever a male was present. All this is a constant whirlwind of insane actions blended with the other lost, catatonic souls with bent heads set on over medicated bodies. I wondered what the turnover in this job must have been?

My grandparents came to see me. They told me my parents had been here, but were turned away. I hadn't had a letter because communication was not allowed the first thirty days. My grandfather was persistent, and we were allowed a short visit. He brought me hope along with box of chocolate Turtles. After three weeks of bread and black coffee, I counted the hours until meal times when I was allocated two of the delicious sweet pieces of chocolate and caramel. I nibbled, savoring each tiny bit until the after-flavor had long passed.

It was just a few days after their visit that I was taken to the office of the Superintendent where I met my grandparents again. They had been to the District Attorney's office in Salem, and grandpa had demanded my release. He got it. I was getting out of here!

The meeting with the superintendent draws a blank other than a visual of a large, kind man behind a large desk. I do know I left the State Hospital not knowing where I would be going. A nineteen year-old I knew who was released from Hillcrest, was sent back for parole violation when she married. Amazingly, they allowed her husband visitation. What a goofy world! Being an adult in her circumstance didn’t keep her out of Hillcrest, and perhaps I was to return as well. So, being eighteen would not assure my release. They could return me to Hillcrest if they wanted. Anyway, I felt their intention may be to send me to jail. I welcomed either choice after this experience.

Again, I was on my way to an unknown destination. Only, this time I was surprised and overjoyed when I arrived at the modern Donald E. Long Juvenile Home in Portland. I later discovered that Hillcrest wouldn't take me back because they believed I was the instigator in the runaway.

After several days of peace and quiet in the Isolation Unit, but still certainly concerned about additional incarceration, I went to court. It was brief. The judge asked questions and ruled the State Hospital had been severe enough punishment, a harsh lesson, and he turned me loose. I will bypass any further restriction. Free and clear.

Sharon H., 2011

Photos courtesy of David Maisel
Library of Dust

For more information:
Claiming Cremated Remains
Oregon State Hospital

Emily, 28 May 2011

Library of Dust by David Maisel

Occasionally, I review non-fiction memoirs, but this is the first time I have written about a photographic book which tells nothing of the memories of its subjects, and little about their lives in general.

So, why is this a topic?

It is a story of lost lives; lost memories. It is part of life that is too often pushed aside and forgotten. It is a story that few wish to share, but everyone needs to face. For this reason, the story begs to be told so families will share the secrets hidden behind the doors, the forgotten family members.

Library of Dust by David Maisel, part 1

Dust: the deterioration of solid matter.
Dust to dust: the Biblical cycle of life.
The Library of Dust: canisters filled with dust, shelved as books, and hidden away for decades. Living dust that interacts with its vessel as if trying to escape…one last escape to freedom.
The Oregon State Hospital was established in 1883 in Salem to house mentally ill patients and the criminally insane. In 1913, the hospital’s cemetery made way for a new building, so the bodies were exhumed, cremated, and placed in copper canisters in an underground vault. This practice of cremation continued until 1971.

The hospital provided a “safe place” for relatives who no longer fit in the public’s world. It was a place for them to receive care; a place for them to be forgotten. This was a place for those individuals which time has tried to erase. But now their memory is brought back to the surface by one individual whose philosophy is to record “things that aren’t intended to be seen”*.

David Maisel, originally from New York City, but currently living in California, visited the State Hospital in 2005 and in 2009 to photograph various parts of the asylum, but especially the copper canisters which have been stored in an underground vault for decades, repeatedly flooded, and hidden from the world. When I first saw his work online, it was immediately clear that his background in design and structure transformed the misery of this institution into mesmerizing art.

Thousands of copper canisters that entombed cremated psychiatric inmates were exposed to continuous water damage resulting in an array of colors and patterns as the water corroded the copper shells. In his book Library of Dust (Chronicle Books, San Francisco), Mr. Maisel captures the eerie essence of the canisters, each one as individual as their human contents once were.

Maisel’s coffee-table-sized book contains four articles by noted scholars and fifty-four cremation canisters as well as many other photos highlighting various rooms of the hospital. These essays give us insight into the reasons so many colorful minerals corroded these canisters as well as our cultural views on death and cremation.

Geoff Manaugh, former senior editor at Dwell magazine, in his commentary “Mineral Kinship” states, “Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.” He contends that “We, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal; an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, one not of loss but of reunion.”

The late Terry Toedtemeir, geologist, historian, and Portland (Oregon) Art Museum’s photography curator, in his contribution “The Soul Remains” discussed the various minerals appearing on the canisters and that although copper is known to be resistant to corrosion, multiple minerals have formed on these canisters presenting an array of colors. Toedtemeir states that “X-ray diffraction analysis has revealed that the particular corrosion product is a complex copper phosphate mineral known as sampleite,” a rare mineral found in arid regions, yet is appears on these water-logged canisters along with many other minerals. He further postulates that the make up of the water as well as the contents of the canisters could have affected the corrosion, but that this was a surprisingly short period of time for all these minerals to form.

Michael S. Roth, historian, curator and author, shares some background on the role of asylums in the United States and our cultural views of madness and death in “Graves of the Insane, Decorated,” a title taken from an 1886 Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon) news article about decorating the State Hospital’s cemetery on Memorial Day.

David Maisel writes the last contribution, entitled The Library and Its Self-Contained Double, where he recalls his photographic visits to the hospital. In 2009, he returned to find that the hospital and ended his book with one more shot, the new library of dust. In effort to preserve the existing, unclaimed canisters, have placed them in individual black plastic vaults row upon row, each with a metal plate number, now appearing more like a huge library card catalog, or in the least more modern shelves on which to place those lives. Sadly, each copper canister is also encased in a plastic bag with a baggie tie, and Mr. Maisel reports that condensation is developing inside the bags.

There is something very sad that the natural elements of the physical body and the earth’s minerals are now encased in man’s unnatural creation, plastic, which can have the lifespan of up to 600 years … so much for dust to dust.

Part two in this series is the memories of a past inmate.

* "Strange beauty, transformation, secrets and loss" by Leah Ollamn, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, January 4, 2009, an interview with David Maisel.

Photos are the courtesy of Daivd Maisel.

Read and see more at Library of Dust

Emily, 28 May 2011

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Did I Write What I Thought I Wrote?

Often we write a memory and find ourselves off in another land, following a road into the woods, winding in and out until that road becomes a narrow path. We have strayed from our original intent or missed it altogether. We have become tangled in the undergrowth of that forest. How do we return to our original objective?

How can you be certain that you are writing or have written the story you intended to write? There are two basic approaches: You can put the effort up-front to insure you convey what you intend or you can do the work at the end.

The simplest is to do the work in the beginning by writing an outline, even a loose outline, and following it. If you wait until the end, then you must analyze your work in pieces, asking yourself the same questions: Does this sentence say what I intended it to say; is it relevant to my story?

First Method: Outline

1. Write down your topic or thesis in sentence form. One of the biggest problems with formulating a thesis is the scope of it. Often the idea is too broad (usually as a result of not being specific enough for the desired length of writing) or involves too many or too few things for the story.
A clear, well-defined thesis statement is used to unify the entire piece of writing. It defines the scope of your writing, helping to determine what should and should not be covered. It represents the first step in establishing the document's structure.
........Topic: The person I admired the most is my grandmother.

2. Under that list at least three points you wish to convey.
........Topic: The person I admired the most is my grandmother.
...........I. Features I consider to be most admirable
..........II. Why I chose this person
.........III. Examples of why I admire this person

3. Next add detail to each point.
........Topic: The person I admired the most is my grandmother.
..........I. Features I consider to be most admirable
..............a. Good role model – include examples
..............b. Contributions to or influence upon community/society
.........II. Why I chose this person
..............a. Commendable qualities
..............b. Particular skills
.......III. Examples of why I admire this person
.............a. Influences my life – give examples
.............b. Motivates me to inspire others – examples of what you have done

4. Continue with the outline until you have added each part you wish to include.

5. Check the outline for continuity. Omit what does not fit.

6. Write. (See Writing Tips and Suggestions below.)

7. Compare your outline to the story to see if you omitted information or added extra.

8. Revise your story after letting it set for a while so you can get a fresh view of it. (Repeat items 6-8 until you are satisfied.)

Second Method: Write First

1. Write one sentence or, at most, a paragraph about what you want to convey.
..........The person I admire the most is my grandmother who has inspired me to go farther than I had ever dreamed.

2. Write your first draft using the Writing Tips and Suggestions below, but do not try to write the first draft and revise it at the same time. Set the draft aside for a while.

3. Reread and ask yourself ....
.....a. Why did you choose this topic?
.....b. What information did I intend to convey?
.....c. Does that writing match the what I intended? (Ask yourself this question
after every line, and concentration on one section of your writing at a time.)
.....d. Does the draft include enough detail to satisfy the intended reader?
.....e. Does the text flow smoothly in a clear, logical order?

4. If it does not, refocus and rewrite where needed.

Writing Tips and Suggestions

With either method, the following should be considered when you write.

1. Make every word count. Be aware of what your words mean (Use a dictionary.) and make certain that the meaning aligns with what you are trying to say. Writing is communication; we need to communicate as accurately as possible.

2. Focus on describing moments with feeling and insight, and not on scenery. Your writing must tell more than what the reader could see on the front of a postcard.

3. View the moment through a microscope, not a telescope. You may not want to tell the reader everything you know, so focus in tightly on the most significant details.

4. It is not just about the story you tell, but it is also about how you tell that story. The skillful use of alliteration, allusion, metaphor, and other literary devises separates the good writing from the great.

5. Think about your reader, and write to them, being aware of how they will react to your words.

6. The best writing is unlike anything anyone has ever read, so when you write something especially clever, unique, or “arty,” double check it to make sure it makes sense.

7. Listen to podcasts about grammar, and read books and blogs about it. I recommend the podcasts Grammar Grater and Grammar Girl, the books Writing With Style by Trimble and The Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker. If you are revising your work and something strikes you as strange, look it up. It will add to your overall knowledge of grammar, usage, and the written word.

8. Reading is the single best way to add to your vocabulary and your knowledge of language and writing.

9. Write with the proper Tone. Tone is the quality in your writing that reveals your attitude toward your topic and the reader. Tone comes from your choice of words, the structure of your sentences, and the order of the information you present. Using incorrect tone can influence the reader incorrectly.

10. Write in the active voice. Active voice makes your writing clearer and more direct. It makes the “doer” in the sentence clear. When you write in the active voice your tone will not sound bureaucratic the way passive voice does.
..........Active voice: I will deliver the cake as soon as you call.
..........Passive voice: The cake will be delivered as soon as you call.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Skeletons in the Closet

“Writing a life story means dealing with the discomfort that past episodes and people may bring. Because the task requires us to face our own embarrassment and even the censure of our family, we need to thoughtfully and critically analyze the bones of the past.”1

No family is squeaky clean. Everyone has skeletons in their family’s closet, and what to do with them is your choice. You can choose to leave them hidden or expose them. Your approach in exposing them can range from a delicate mention to a full explanation of the circumstances. It seems the best approach to be to "tell, don't dwell." That is, do not whitewash your family history by excluding the story, but do not embellish it or make it the focus of your writing.2 Forward-looking Elizabeth Shown Mills, a noted genealogy author, states: “Let's don't bury truths our offspring may need for reasons we cannot anticipate.”

We must remember that what is scandalous in some societies is quite acceptable in others; what was unacceptable in earlier times is now less important. It was once a mar on the family that someone had a child out of wedlock, was sent to a mental hospital, had a birth defect, or was hung as a horse thief. Time and a change in society’s attitudes have erased that blemish on the family tree. However, there may be a living relative who has not conformed to society’s norms and is an embarrassment to the family. Those relatives are few compared to the whole, but it is still important to tell their story. Not everyone is all bad and each of us has difficulties getting through what life presents us at times.

Skeleton Pride

More and more people are sharing their wayward kin with the world. Australians are proud of their convicted ancestors; many genealogists hope to find some interesting family member embroiled in a scandal. We wear a badge of pride to know our ancestors had a colorful past. There are many websites dedicated to helping researchers discover more about their errant relatives and to boast of the family indignities. Below is a few:

International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists
-- A site and mailing list for those who have an "infamous individual of public knowledge and ill-repute in their family."

Notable Woman Ancestors' notorious women

A Sampling of Prison Sites

Cyndi's List of prisons, prisoners and outlaws

Illinois Department of Corrections
allows you to search for inmates, including those who have died or been discharged. Gives name, birth date, offense and physical description

Colorado State Corrections Records

Proceedings of the Old Bailey (London's Central Criminal Court) 1674 to 1913

Old vs. New Skeletons

Writing about a family skeleton of long ago can be much different than letting one out of the closet who is living or whose victims are still living. Also, the degree of misbehavior suggests latitude in divulging the circumstances, and how you handle these situations may be very different.

Impact on Family

You must consider the impact upon the living family members. If there are relatives who may be upset with the details of the scandal, approach them with bits of information and gradually see if they are open to accepting public acknowledgment of the situation. Carefully write the facts so not to embellish nor to lie. If family members would be hurt by sharing the story with the entire family, then write the story as you desire and either share it only with those who are comfortable or wait until which time the family members who would be hurt are no longer living or have accepted the situation. Perhaps you may wish to chose to write the full truth and preserve it for future generations, regardless. If your writing will be published for others besides your family, then you need public documents to support your story.

Point of View and Tone

Consider your point of view and tone when you write about delicate situations. If you take the time to learn about the social history of your ancestor’s time and location, you can better understand why the event was or was not acceptable in that society. For example, if your family owned slaves in the early 1800s you may be hesitant to write about it as today slavery is so very sensitive a topic. Those were different times in the South then. You should not justify the behavior, but give the background of the culture that allowed this to occur. Writing with factual information, an understanding of the time without judgment leaves the reader ready to accept the history of the family, without condoning it. Remembering to write about the circumstances that lead to the unacceptable behavior shows that our ancestors or living relatives may have been doing their best with what they had. Writing with the attitude that we all try to do our best although we do not always making the best choices in a situation is a fairer approach.

Do not write to attack others or to defend yourself. Write to tell the story couched in the circumstance of the time and culture. When writing about difficult situations, stick to facts and events, refraining from judging your relatives. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, tells of the horrors of alcoholism and poverty in his family, yet he never makes a judgmental comment, but based his story on events written with love and humor.

One of the most difficult skeletons may be that of abuse: physical, mental and sexual. These topics are unacceptable, but common, in our current society. Instead of making these negative stories the focus of the family history, you can develop the roles of a husband, father, and how it took a strong woman to remain with an abuser or to get out of the situation and seek help for her children. You could look into the troubled childhood of the abuser or the financial circumstances which help create a short fuse that flared and singed the family. There were good times with the bad, no doubt and all should be shared.

Using Themes

You could develop your stories into certain themes: racism, interracial marriages, spousal and child abuse, effects on the family during Depression. You could also develop the story by explaining how writing this family history allowed you to see that this person wants to love, except he/she is too afraid to expose true feelings.

Lessons from the Closet to Brought to Light in Love and Forgiveness

When you go beyond reporting events you invite the reader to learn from the experiences. Lessons from the past can be used to deal with current problems. Family histories can “elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arrive (sic) at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge.” Write about troubled family members or ancestry with love and positive purpose. Do not write a history only to have your readers say, “Oh, that was terrible!” Invite your readers to experience the raw, human emotions and acquaint themselves with their ancestors.

Remember, you do not have to tell the whole story. Simply choose the degree of exposure that best suits your purpose. Keep a neutral point of view that allows your audience to make their own conclusions. Develop the negative situation into an enlightening, reasonable setting. Remember, you should not write the ‘perfect family’ history, but instead, a history that is perfect for your family.3

Questions to assist in writing about a family skeleton4

1. Does the episode fit within my life story's boundaries?
Living doesn't occur in a vacuum. However, if everything is interrelated, what is relevant, what should be included and what should be excluded?

Ask if the episode furthers your purpose for writing the story. Discovery lies at the heart of a life story. Focus on describing the past, instead of manipulating it to create an acceptable picture.

Ask if the episode explains a family dynamic or merely gossips. Because memoirs can further understanding of the present, an event that gives insight is of greater importance than if it solely titillates.

Develop criteria for what to include or exclude. Include episodes that expand current knowledge, reinforce existing information or add new evidence about the family. Include information that refutes commonly held belief, but omit what repeats the already-known.

2. Does the episode fit the thematic statement of my life story?
By focusing on causes, solutions or consequences, a thematic statement helps in dealing with a family skeleton. Issues and concerns that result from differing opinions about values, such as Cousin Susie's alternative lifestyle or Uncle Charlie's marrying "that woman" can be analyzed in terms of such a statement.

Look for recurring patterns to confirm that the episode fits the story's focus. Weigh the story's credibility. Consider the event's uniqueness and if it will add interesting detail. Decide if the story's inclusion shines light on other unexplored recesses of the closet. Ask yourself if the timing is good to include the story.

3. What's my strategy for uncovering additional information?
Hours of deciphering primary documents, travel to distant relatives or pressing reluctant sources for more information may become necessary once the closet door is opened. Try adding information bit by bit. Inch into the unknown, looking for confirming patterns.

Use a bridging technique to fill in blanks from uncooperative sources. Starting with reliable sources, build sets of known information and then span the space between. A reluctant individual may even help you build the bridge between the knowns, for cross-referencing can draw information from even the most uncooperative sources.

Decide when to stop. If a pattern has emerged, if all sources have been exhausted or if the information becomes repetitious, you may want to stop. You may decide that one more source is not worth the bad feelings that could result from pressing too hard.

4. Can I corroborate the authenticity of my story?
Proving a story true is not the issue. How you convince your reader of the authenticity of your interpretation is also important.

Utilize triangulation. Researchers use this method to test one source against another until satisfied of the interpretation's validity. You can do the same when writing about the family skeleton because more mention of it increases the chances of its truth. Weigh new information against established knowns. If a person raises concerns, get input from him or her by asking, "This is what I have found so far, what do you think?"

Use multiple sources of information, such as oral histories, contemporary interviews, documents, newspapers, books and diaries, to double-check what you have learned.

If you can't confirm every detail, remember research theorist Egon Guba's words, "Tolerance of ambiguity is a virtue."

5. Who is my audience for this memoir, and when will they read it?
Publishing a memoir means a different reading audience than if you write for yourself or your immediate family.

Consider not releasing the story. Instead, donate it to an archives, stipulating that it be sealed until the story's subjects die. Ask if the episode will make the individuals in your life story more real for future readers.

Remember that you are writing the story for the future. Life stories enlarge our families to include past and future, filling voids that have appeared with the weakening of the extended family. Family stories give us role models or generational perspectives for handling crises.

6. Have I maintained objectivity in the way I'm sharing the information?
Although bias is part of life, unconscious bias, conscious prejudice, or downright gullibility may threaten your objectivity about the family skeleton.
Remain open to other perspectives that aren't the same as yours, remembering Guba's words, "Having an open mind is not equivalent to having an empty one."

Strive for fairness in telling a story, asking yourself, "Is it free from distortion and bias?"

Ask if including the story is humane and handled with respect. Does it reflect respect for the person in the story?

7. Have I maintained a view of the whole picture, not just one side?
A holistic approach to writing a life story puts skeletons in a context, for who is to say what is right and what is wrong? Beware of using the word "should" either implicitly or explicitly. Avoid dwelling on the problem, emphasizing instead solutions. Let the reader know that you are writing your perspective. Episodes that may raise concerns can be introduced with, "From my perspective ."

Remind the reader that the episode is drawn from family oral tradition if that is the case. However, avoid allowing the multiple viewpoints to fragment the story.

Because each situation is unique, there is no formula for safely handling family skeletons. Opening the door for your skeleton is a learning experience whether or not the episode is written into your life story. And you may find that what felt like a warning was really a bony finger tapping out a message that the key to a well-written life story lies in focusing on how the world is experienced.

“The key for writing about our family’s skeletons is remembering that no matter what lies in the past, it does not affect who you are. You are the result of all the decisions your family has made in the past. You should respect your history, but not let it interfere with your future. Your family may have many skeletons. It is just important to keep an open mind and be ready for anything.”5

George Bernard Shaw once said: “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

Sources: (Sadly, some of these pages are no longer available on the internet)

Jan 2011