I’ve kept journals for 40 years. Over the past eight years, I’ve been filling journals with patient talk, quotes from correspondence with friends and with my son, who currently resides in a federal penitentiary.
Patient talk is language that most closely matches what my mother called bloodtalk: talk that matters, throbs, quivers, rivets; that is both colloquial and elegant. Talk with bite. Talk that struts its stuff. As a psychotherapist, I am fortunate to be able to hear the gorgeous language of real people.
Errors and corrections, errors and corrections. So far as I can tell, that’s what psychotherapy is all about. Yesterday a 5-year-old girl became so angry when I tried to engage her in conversation that she tore off all her clothes and threw them in my face.
“It’s not in my talk!” she yelled. “Quit talking to me! It’s not in my talk!”
She was much smarter than I; of course it wasn’t in her talk. The clothes throwing was “her talk,” that was the story.
Sometimes, lots of times, I don’t know what to do. And it’s not even just with clients. Should I have left the movie theater on Sunday when the film broke? I sat there for 45 minutes, slumped in my seat. I didn’t call my housebound friend yesterday; why not? And, for publicity’s sake, I gave a newspaper interview in which I pretty much laid out my life for all the world (Bremerton, Wash.) and all my clients to read.
My therapist friends couldn’t believe my insousiance, as one of my older male peers called it. Well, what to do? Each day seems wholly separate from other days. Each month seems so, too. Conventional courtesies sometimes feel right, sometimes wrong. Last week, I didn’t have any “double-ups” so I wore the same outfit every single day. “This job is great,” I thought. “Nobody knows.”
“You know who’s got blood?” my mother once asked me.
She used the word blood in various ways, as in character or smarts.
“Gorgeous George, the wrestler, that’s who. His blood is hot as peppers. I’d like to be a scientist and compare Gorgeous George’s blood to, say, Liberace’s. Sure, they both wear fancy costumes, but there’s a difference. Liberace smiles from above his belt. Gorgeous George smiles from beneath his belt.”
I wasn’t in love with Gorgeous George as a child, although he made an impression. I was in love with Jerry Lee Lewis. “But he did icky things with his young cousin!” my girlfriends all said. “All the better,” I said. My girlfriends liked boys with one syllable names who were just dumb lugs with a certain cuteness. I didn’t know much, but I knew sexy, and Jerry Lee was the epitome of sexiness. Even when í see him now, old, wrinkled and slower, not able to get his leg up on the piano keys anymore to pound out a chunk of wild sound, I still stop whatever I am doing and watch with rapt attention.
“But how can talk work? If talk worked, my life would be great; hell, I’ve been talking all my life,” said a prospective client on the phone.
Partly I agree, but mainly I don’t. Past and present always want to rise up and speak, and the speech they want to use is what my mother meant when she said bloodtalk. If you and I, together, can meet inside our histories, tarnished and bloodied and threadbare as they may be, if we can meet and speak out our histories until they become, through our words, flags of victory, then the sleepless devils of yesterday will disappear, and we can finally turn to the passion of everyday sustenance. At least today that is what I believe.
When it comes to words, the world offers us everything we need. Each conversation, each “overheard something” is a great gift. This afternoon I went to a thrift store to buy old keys to use on a collage.
As I was leaving, I heard the man who stood behind me ask the clerk, “What do you suppose she intends to do with all those keys?”
“Who knows,” mused the clerk. “Some people just like to have extra sets of entitlements.”
The first time Kevin was in jail I visited him twice a week. It was county jail. He was in for taking off during probation. He’d gone to Hollywood. For six months, we received collect calls from various California phone booths, and five times the local police came to our door, demanding, “Where is your son?”
“Somewhere in L.A.,” we’d say. “Look, this is all we know.”
Once, one of the policemen winked at me and said, “Well, maybe we’ll catch him in the movies.”
Kevin called to say he’d seen Karl Maiden in a supermarket. The week after that, it was Burt Reynolds on the beach.
“It’s really important not to bother them,” Kevin said. “They have enough on their minds already.”
“Oh, Kevin,” I remember saying. “Come back. I’ll help you with the system. Things are always better if you face them.”
That was the therapist-me talking. The other part, the part that wanted my own entitlements, disowned my therapist words. “Stay there, Kevin,” I thought. “Just stay.”
“And I may as well tell you that I’m sexually repressed and so are all my friends, which makes it convenient and inconvenient at the same time. We’re also all National Honor Scholars, so it’s not for lack of brains; in fact our brains are probably our most outstanding problem. I mean, if you cut off our heads and managed to keep them going somehow, well, we wouldn’t notice a difference. I mean it! Life would go on like always. Just once, I’d like to start thinking about what’s between my legs. At this point in my life, if someone else was wearing my pants, I wouldn’t even notice.”
—5 o’clock patient
“I’m afraid to act like everything is fine. When I was a kid, I lived in ‘Crazy.’ It was only through my mother’s ‘Come to Jesus’ moods that Crazy left. Otherwise it was knives, knives, knives and not for cutting meat.
“I need to learn how to say ‘Stop it!’ and then I need the next
part to happen—I need it to stop. I want to write to my older broth
er and at the end say, ‘P.S. I faxed your home phone number to the
State Pen. I told them what you did to me. Have fun! Love,——- “
—3 o’clock patient
We speak with several voices, out of several selves. Psychotherapy allows people to naturally enter—and experience—the power of poetic speech. Because I seek the personal, caring modes of psychotherapy, as opposed to the “scientific helper” modes, I could easily make poems out of patient talk. It’s raw, crude poetry, and not one of my patients would claim it for its infectious spontaneity, but like Ray Bradbury said, “Oh, it’s limping crude hard work for many, with language in their way.” The passionate, the dramatic, the mysterious, the mystic—so many individual elements lend themselves to that moment of truth called poetry.
Here is a “found poem” taken directly from this afternoon’s 5 o’clock patient notes:
Last night I dreamed
I lived a time called Dogtime.
A giant emerging eye asked,
Have you received your dignity?
Stabs of memory
Always come for me
That way, at night.
Now, I believe myself.
Grandma and Grandpa.
Every night one of them
Comes to kill me.
I am tired of running away.
Come home, come home. You
are the lonely blossom. If I stand
half in your light, half out, you
invite the silence That follows
I’d rather read regular people’s poems than most poems by real poets. I’d also rather eat macaroni and cheese or tuna casserole than fresh salmon or abalone. I’d rather keep my house looking fairly neat and know that every one of my drawers is an incredible mess than clean my drawers. I eat with my fingers whenever possible. And, all too often, I’d rather lie than tell the truth.
Melanie, my 10 o’clock patient, sits cross-legged on my striped office couch and muses out loud:
“Spring is the hard bowl, cracking. White chicken legs and red plump worms. Tulips aren’t beauties the first day. Nature says ‘Yes’ and marches on, chest stretched, without excuse. Why did it take me until 10 minutes after the hour to arrive here? I will always be the last one to don shorts in the summer. I will always be the last one jumping into the lake.”
Language walks around my office all day; all I need to do is sit, and whoosh, it comes, and with it always come thoughts of my mother and her insistence on bloodtalk. “Bloodtalk matters,” she said, “so watch out.”
I watched out. As a child, the only kind of talk I did not want to hear was what my mother called bloodtalk. It scared me; I thought it was…well, bloody. Too direct. Too in-your-face. I even remember making a vow to live and speak as smoothly and surface-ly as possible.
So how did I come to this, 38 years later? Living in the face of raw emotions, my own and others? Maybe, as I keep paying attention to my clients’ raw language and my delight in hearing it, I can come to an understanding of how I came from there to here.
My son writes me from the Federal Penitentiary in Phoenix, Ariz., where he is serving time for bank robbery:
“How come you never really seem to believe me when I tell you it wasn’t your fault? What do you read that you keep on believing it was your fault? Didn’t your psychology classes teach you anything, or was it their fault that you think it’s your fault? 1 don’t like it when you blame yourself. You wouldn’t know how to rob 15 banks if your next meal depended on it. Stop reading guilt books. Stop talking to guilt people. I have seen so much terror in the past four years that I hate to think of you terrorizing yourself, so stop it. Happy Mother’s Day to you both, Mom and Dad. Funny, but Dad’s my mother, too, and I love you both. —Kevin.”
Years and years ago, a man exposed himself to me in a local drugstore. He exposed himself at the same time he spoke to me, and he spoke in such an engaging and friendly manner that î talked with him for quite a while before I noticed the something pink which hung out of his pants. I was holding two packs of gum, one Baby Ruth candy bar and a tube of Chapstick. When I finally got the picture, I screamed, threw everything at the man s penis, which looked so dramatically disconnected from everything else in the place, and ran out of the store. I have always wondered whether my reaction further excited him or if it wounded him.
An 18-year-old male patient says,”! think feminism is a horrible thing for parents to teach little boys. Women want you to be sensitive and sweet, but they also want something more. If you’ve been as well-trained as I have been on the subject of feminism, that something more is tantamount to rape. Being a feminist male is like being a battery-operated car. Sure, you can get to the market, but that’s about it.”
“She’s that 800-pound gorilla who knows she can sit anywhere she damn well wants to in my head.”
—4 o’clock patient
My son is thinking about ancestors. He writes, “Everyone is coming back. Grandpa Anderson, who ran off with the Thanksgiving turkey, tell me about him. And Mannie. Manuel. He belonged to Aunt Rosita, didn’t he? Did he really belong to her?
“You know, one of the banks I robbed had a teller who looked just like Aunt Jan’s daughter, Christie. I got turned inside out so that I thought she was Christie, and it knocked me off my regular track. I usually said, ‘Give me the money in your drawer, please’ and ‘Thank you, Ma’am,’ but this time I just stood there, brain twirling like a top. It’s easy to steal from strangers, especially after taking that bank tellers course I took, but to steal from a cousin, that wasn’t in the training.
“So I said real low so as not to scare her, or, of course, bring undue attention because this was my 10th and I hadn’t yet run out of banks, I whispered, ‘Christie.’ She looked at me. I whispered her name again, and then said, ‘Christie, I’m really sorry, but I’m gonna have to rob you because I’m here at the end of the line and I’ve got to make some sort of transaction and I don’t have any money I’m sorry. Listen, I don’t want to brag, but look me up. I’m in some magazines. Don’t tell Mom, though, she’ll hear the news when they get me, and they will. Just please give me the money in your drawer, please. I don’t have a gun.’ She gave me the money in the drawer, then she said, ‘My name’s not Christie.’”
“The other night my cellie and I read ‘Hamlet’ to each other. He’d never seen old books, and you know how sometimes in those really old books the ‘S’s’ look like ‘F’s?’ So when it was his turn to read I’d have to turn my face and hit the pillow hard because he’d read it like the ‘S’ really was an ‘E’ ‘To fleep, perfance to dream, aye, theref the rub.”
One day, while I was searching for a straight black skirt, the shop owner, a lovely Southern woman, brought another woman over to meet me. The owner is known to be a good conservative woman, and I had always appreciated her friendliness. I had not, however, told her much of anything about my life.
“This is Kay Morgan,” the shop owner said, “One of the very-finest people you will ever know. Kay is one of my favorite people. She’s talented and sweet and, well, just one of the good people! And, I have heard,” she went on, “That you are going to Phoenix this weekend. What kind of exciting thing will you be doing there?”
“I’ll just be visiting my son,” I said, hoping she would ask no more.
“Oh, how exciting!” the shop owner said. “He must be a wonderful boy. What is he doing in Phoenix?”
Her tall, lovely friend looked at me and smiled. They both stood and looked at me and smiled. I cleared my throat, trying to think of all the options. Finally, I just went for it.
“There’s a federal penitentiary in Phoenix,” I said. “My son is in there.”
The friend took a step back, but the shop owner didn’t miss a beat. She grabbed my hand, patted it several times, gave me a warm hug, and said, “And so are some of our finest politicians.”
The anniversary of my mother’s birth. So enmeshed were we, sleeping together, battling together, taking pills together, that one day she glanced at our images in the bathroom mirror and said, “Uncanny. I’ve given birth to myself.”
Her words gave me the creeps. I didn’t mind being like her, no matter what she did or where she did it, but she made it sound like I was her. One person, not two. I looked at myself in the mirror, then I pinched myself hard and held out my arm for her inspection.
“It’s me that hurts,” I said. “Not you.”
And she said—and this is the kind of thing she always said, and always it was a surprise—she said, “I think people are afraid, more than anything else, of other people.”
She turned and left me standing alone in the bathroom. I smiled at myself in the mirror, but the image that smiled back did not feel like a friend.
Still thinking about my mother. One of the last times we were all together, my mother, father and I—meaning one of the last times I remember before she died—my father ate a cheese sandwich in the living room, came into the kitchen where my mother and I were sitting, turned on the kitchen overhead light, and said, “Well, things are perfect again. As long as we have good food and each other and a roof over our heads, things are pretty near perfect.”
My mother poured herself a drink and glowered at the two of us.
“If this is the best it gets,’ she said, “I’m gone.” Nothing had ever prepared me for this, the utter sense of lost-ness. We were all lost in a fog. I mean literally, not metaphorically.
Long gone, long gone, like a turkey through the corn, as the old song goes. And then she went.
I was 19 when I first entered therapy. My doctor wore a blue tie with white ducks swimming across it in lines. He must have been in his 50s. However old he was, I was very much in love with him, and I hated it when his wife answered the door to usher me into his office. I wanted him to do all the ushering. In the center of his office stood a table holding a white bust. My parents had forbidden me to take high school psychology classes, and I had not yet been to college. I had no idea who this bust-person was. I thought it might be my doctor’s father, that perhaps, in this grand old neighborhood of Tacoma, Wash., people held on so tightly to family values that he had chosen to revere his father in this way. If I said something particularly insightful or particularly lacking in insight, my doctor would turn to the white bust, make a little nod, then turn to me and ask, “Well, and what do you suppose The Master would say about that?” The nodding part threw me; all I could think of to do was nod back. So I’d do a little nod and shrug my shoulders; damn if I know, I’d think, but not say. One day he gave me hundreds of old Saturday Reviews plus a book by Ashley Montague, and I figured out who the bust was. It was Sigmund Freud. Never in my life have I seen or pretended such reverence.
“I’ve come up with a few predictions,” says my last patient of the day, a rosy-cheeked young man who can’t yet look at me, but who sits closer and closer to the center of the couch. His words excite me. “In the future all men will all wear fedoras. Corporations will openly promote and pursue greater and greater amounts of anxiety. In the future, an existential theology will form a rigid orthodoxy which will excommunicate all people who believe in anything at all.”
We fly to Phoenix to visit Kevin in the Arizona Federal Penitentiary. All the inmates wear ironed khaki shirts and pants, making them look like Marines. We, the visitors, are the ones who look like the bank robbers, the counterfeiters, the drug warlords. It takes about an hour of sitting next to him before my son can be touched, in one of last year s letters he wrote, “Sometimes at night I get so hungry for tenderness I take my left hand gently in my right hand and hold it, as if it were someone else’s.” That letter, it broke my heart. This morning while I wait for Kevin to walk out of the convict door, I can’t help but overhear a good-looking Italian guy murmuring to his female friend, “Oh baby, baby, there’s gonna be bad news in my dreams tonight, no doubt about it.” Bad news in my dreams tonight. What a wonderful thing to say.
Kevin walks out and looks around. I stand and move slowly towards him.
There are rules here. Don’t run. Dress appropriately (but many of them don’t, and I think it must drive their men nuts). Don’t call out. A felon doesn’t look at another felon in the eye. A felon doesn’t look at another felon’s wife or girlfriend. You can kiss at the beginning and ending of each visit. You can’t bring anything to your felon.
Kevin sees me, smiles, we meet, hug and sit. Ceiling cameras rotate. Guards mill about. Kevin and I talk in short bursts for the first hour. How’s it going? How’s it going with Dad? Hows it going in here? Who’s he? What’d he do to get in here? Look at that cute little kid, isn’t that the cutest little kid?
After about an hour I ask if I can put my hand on his back. He nods yes. I lift my hand and place it gently on his back. I touch my son. The feeling is almost too intense. I want to run and sob. I want to lie down in a church, hold my breath forever, dive to the bottom of the ocean.
My mother was an incurable, incredibly loyal racist. Part Canadian-Indian, all poor, most of her siblings ended up in North Dakota’s Jamestown asylum. My mother not only hated blacks, Chinese, Japanese, British and Jewish people, she also hated authority figures (judges, lawyers, police, the president, senators, representatives and high school principals) and the rich (anyone who lived in a two-story house, had drapes, maybe a shower and especially, damn them, a swimming pool).
I was astounded, therefore, the day she told me that Dr. Martin Luther King talked bloodtalk—and that she called him Doctor.
“Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Walk softly and carry a big stick’ isn’t bloodtalk, hell, it’s common sense. But that Martin Luther King, when he said that ‘I had a dream’ speech about all the little children, that was good. it had beat, and it gave me the shivers. He can’t help it he’s black and brilliant, although that non-violence garbage he keeps harping on is just so much cowdung, but maybe his mother didn’t teach him right. Anyway, that Dr. King, he talks bloodtalk, and he’s big enough to throw a good punch if anybody besides me bad-talks his mother.”
At last, Kevin has been transferred close to home; five hours of driving time away, to FCÍ Sheridan, Ore. Jim drives while I write in my journal. We’re penitentiary bound!
Sitting in the lobby. The place is sparkly clean. Nice as Phoenix, loads nicer than Terminal Island. My journal, anchor to the regular world, will soon be taken from me and locked away in a steel locker.
Here is what we do: Make a run for the desk, grab a visitor’s form before they disappear, fill it out. Remember our convict’s number: No. 20842-086. Remember our convict is a number. Put down the number of our car license, the car’s make and year, our address, our name, our relationship to our convict. Do everything right. At Terminal island, that hellhole of dirt and bribery, I once wrote my name in the wrong place and was detained for three hours. Grab a paper clip. Attach your driver’s license to your form with the paper clip. Rush it to the guard’s desk—we want to be the first to get in.
Sit down. Look around. Don’t stare. Once again, smile if smiled at, otherwise, don’t. Except for children.We can smile at them, but be careful, not too big a smile.
Three Hispanic men. Ten or 11 Caucasian men and women. Everyone is between the ages of 20 and 50 except for one grandmother, leathered and tough, her little grandson glued to her side. Perhaps the man in the T-shirt that reads “Shipfitters Do It Better” is her son.
A beautiful young woman leans forward to smooth her nylons and—no, no!—her right breast falls out. She sits up; she does not know. Her breast is so small, so perfect, the top of her dress is lacy and low. There is no wind indoors; she cannot feel a thing. Nobody says a word. The social protocol is so strict, what should we do? Ahhh, God!—here comes the little boy. He breaks away from his tough-looking grandmother and runs directly to the young woman; he takes his hand and bashes it into her bare breast. “Tit! Tit! Tit!” the little boy yells.
The grandmother gets to her feet and whacks him two or three times. Now the child’s father screams at him, yanks him away from the grandmother, hits him on the bottom, and caUs him a “fucking little creep.”
The young woman is crying. I move closer. I try to soothe her by asking how far she has come.
What’s going on here could have serious repercussions between the prisoners being visited. This is dangerous stuff. These people don’t seem to understand that the relationships between visitors must mirror the code of conduct between inmates; that words uttered between visitors can become debts of respect between convicts and that debts of respect can be deadly.
I will not tell Kevin about the tit incident. The word breast may be whispered but not spoken aloud. Here, words like killer, Hitler, gun, sex, racist, Jesus, Hispanic, black, Jew and death sentence are not spoken. It may or may not be appropriate even to say Caucasian or white. For some reason, Indian is usually OK, although I don’t know about Native American.
Don’t worry about not knowing what to say. Your convict will tell you. One thing: Bloodtalk is not spoken here.