Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Three Voices on a Cassette Tape



I had the honor of talking to one of my literary heroes, Frank McCourt, on a call-in talk-radio show.  It was "The Walt Bodine Show" on Kansas City's public radio station KCUR.  It was September 22, 1997.  I was twenty-six years old.  I had no idea one day I'd share my stories publicly on this blog.  The word blog had not yet been coined.

Around this time I'd recently moved into my own apartment where, while unpacking, I discovered the cloth-bound journal I'd kept during my teenage years.  I opened it up and began reading about unrequited love and all this ridiculous angsty crap and, without a thought, threw it into the dumpster in the parking lot of my new apartment where I would live alone for the first time in my life.  I was getting my shit together.  I was choosing a solitary life to save my sanity.  I needed myself.  I needed no reminding of past struggles, I thought.

Now how I wish I had kept it.  Now I am a happily married, middle aged woman.  In a much better place than I was when I was twenty-six and getting my shit together.  My crappily written sappy stories no longer embarrass me like they once did.  I love to revisit the past.  I've lived through it and survived it.  Instead of embarrassment, I feel pride when I reflect upon who I once was.

I once read that before indoor electric lights people weren't as concerned with how filthy their homes were, but once the interiors where they spent the majority of their time were well lit, housewives felt compelled to clean more thoroughly than when they lived daily in dim light.  Over the weekend our power was out for ten hours.  Will was at work, so it was just Katie and me at home, twiddling our thumbs, wondering what to do.  At first we read by candlelight.  As the storm passed and the sun began to shine, I opened our blinds and let in some natural light.  I coughed and waved at the dust particles spewing from the blinds.  I looked around the room.  Still now power.  Without power I couldn't write.  I mean I could write, long-hand on a piece of paper, but I knew that would be a big time suck since I type so much faster than I write with a pen, and I'd want to get my words onto my blog which would mean hand-writing it and then typing it over.  Ugh.  I looked around the room at all the dust and dog hair.  Everywhere.  I'd rather clean the house than write inefficiently.

Without an electric-powered screen in front of my face to blind me, I saw our filthy home in the same way people long ago must have seen their homes when they first switched on their new electric lights.

Yuck.  Get the broom and dust pan!

In the far corner of the master bedroom I picked up an empty box, well, it would have been empty except for the clumps of dust and dog hair it contained.  Under the box was an old wooden clementines box that stores some of my old cassette tapes.  I picked one up, blew off three inches of detritus, and discovered I had unearthed gold: the cassette I had recorded off the radio that day back in the fall of 1997 when I got to ask Frank McCourt about the difficulties of memoir writing.  Back when I aspired to be a writer someday.

I'm a writer now.  Though I'm not too tech savvy.  Despite my Luddite tendencies, I wanted a digital copy to store online, thinking one of these days the dust mites are going to eat through the cassette tape or gum up my boom box so I will no longer be able to listen to this relic.  So when the power came back on I recorded a video of my boom box playing the cassette tape.  Yes, it's like you're right there, standing in my kitchen with me.  Yes, it's 2013 and I still have a working boom box that plays cassette tapes.

Here's a partial transcript:

Becky Carleton: "Did you find it difficult to write about real-life people without feeling like you might be, you know, hurting their feelings or sharing things that they might not want you to---"

Walt Bodine: "--Yeah.  I wonder how many people would write memoirs if they, if, uh, certain people were still alive?"

Frank McCourt: "Since my father and my mother are dead...I couldn't have written this while my mother was alive."

Frank McCourt is now dead.  So is Walt Bodine.  Of the three voices on that cassette tape mine is the only one that belongs to a body that is still alive.  My body is the only one that still has time to tell stories.  I must be brave if I wish to be honest, and I must be honest if I wish to be sane.

Why is it so difficult to communicate face-to-face?  Why is it sometimes easier to write a story for the whole world to read after the main character in the story has died than it is to talk directly to that character before he became a character and was instead a living, breathing, listening, speaking human being?

I couldn't talk about my sexual abuse openly while my brother who abused me was still alive.  No matter what kind of hurt he did to me I did not want to further the hurt of sharing our secret with others who would no doubt judge him and confront him.  I was afraid that would just make him feel worse about it.  I only shared our secret with people I knew would understand the complexity of it.

I didn't want to hurt his feelings.  It's hard to explain but in so many ways my brother was wonderful.  He really was.  He was a fucked up kid who had a horrible childhood (abused by his father, his grandmother, his step-father) and he did fucked up things to me when he was young and I was very young.  What he did to me caused trauma and it is the direct cause of many of the anxieties I deal with daily even now, but still I forgive him.  Because I am brave enough to look, I see that my brother was a good person who did a horrible thing a long time ago, and so many good things afterward.  I don't believe he meant to hurt me.  Hurt people hurt people, as the bumper sticker psychologists say.  I hurt less when I speak openly of our secret.  I heal more when I forgive him.

I couldn't ever tell him face to face that I forgive him.  I could never talk to him about it at all while he was still alive.  It's easier to tell you, random internet reader, this story than it was to talk about it with my brother.  It's hard to talk face-to-face about abuse and forgiveness in the same story, but somehow, when I write it out and share it with the world, it makes more sense.

I'm glad I got to speak to Frank McCourt so he could assure me it's OK to wait to tell your story til the time is right.  And there's no shame in preferring to write it out rather than talk it out.  Getting it out is what's important so it doesn't fester and cause more harm.