Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Energy Monster

In lieu of posting a new post on my memoir, I am posting an essay on depression and my relationship to my oldest daughter that I wrote a decade ago. It won a couple of awards and had been available in an online anthology of essays, but that was taken down in the last year. I received a lot of positive response to the essay over the years. I reread it before posting here and it is still relevant. I will posting an additional essay or postscript to this one sometime this summer. Here is the essay. Enjoy!

The Energy Monster

My seven-year-old daughter Natalie calls it “The Energy Monster.”  Natalie drew a picture of it on a large piece of paper in the office of our family therapist.  In the drawing the Energy Monster stands at the foot of my bedroom.  This monster has big teeth, angry eyes, and either a jagged black tongue or a very strange, expressively-shaped text balloon coming out of its mouth.  The monster is orange with hair cut short like mine. Encircled by orange loop-de-loops, it is in a “frenzy.”
In the picture I am brown and am lying on a yellow bed, my head on a pillow.  I’m covered by a brown blanket that has been cross-sectioned like one of those children’s science or “how-things-work” books that show the inside and outside simultaneously.  The blanket is pulled up to my chin, but the side of the blanket has not been drawn in, so my left side is exposed.  She has drawn a shirt, pants, and shoes on me in a nod toward modesty since in truth I wear only boxer shorts to bed.  Whether it is her modesty or mine she is preserving is unclear.
I am in obvious danger.  The monster could pounce on me at any moment while I lie prone on the yellow bed—no chance to defend myself.
Tucked under one foot of the energy monster and drawn in red marker is a building that could be our house if our house were a three-story building instead of a ranch.  Some of the orange-lined frenzy of the Energy Monster overlaps the outline of the building.
Incongruously, Natalie has scribbled a bright yellow sun in the upper right hand corner of the page.  In red marker she has placed herself and her younger sister Ella cramped in the lower left hand corner beside the house.  She stands there smiling while Ella has no face.  In all of Natalie’s pictures she is smiling.  I have always found this fact pleasing because I imagine this suggests she has a positive self view, but more likely is that all kids draw themselves smiling.
As I examine the picture more closely, I notice that Natalie is actually closer to the Energy Monster than I am. I ask her why she did that.
She points to a black line she has drawn separating the monster from her and Ella.  “There wasn’t enough room,” she answers.  “So I drew this line to separate us.”
Then, I ask her what is she doing.
She says she is waiting.
Waiting for what? I press.
She tells me she is waiting for the right moment to send the Energy Monster to California.
Why California?
Because there it will melt, she tells me.
I agree that California seems the most likely place for the Energy Monster to go since we live on the other side of the continent in Vermont.
Then, I look at the sun in the upper right hand corner and think it’s not so inexplicable after all. I soak up the warmth of that bright yellow sun, drawn in an imperfect circle.  I feel safe in its presence and let its imaginary rays restore the energy that the monster has stolen.
Natalie and I know the Energy Monster from different points of view.  She knows the beast as a creature that takes her father away from her and leaves an irritable, sad person.  For me, the monster is a metaphor for my depression.
When the Energy Monster is here, I can’t tell you why it has come or what route it has taken to get here.  I am only conscious of its presence. I am depressed and can see no way out.
When people see me, I am told that I look listless, worn out, exhausted.  My appearance is ragged.  I stop shaving and brushing my teeth.  I will wear the same shirt and pants for days on end.  I prefer the dark and resist leaving the house, especially during the day.  One summer two years ago I didn’t voluntarily leave the house for two months.  During that time, I didn’t mow the lawn or attend to any yard chores.
I can easily sleep sixteen, twenty hours a day.  Oftentimes I will get up in the morning to help prepare Ella for preschool and Natalie for school.  Then I will drive one or both to school.  At this point my wife Elise goes to work, while I return home and to bed, only to rise when it comes time to pick up the kids at the end of their day.  Then I put the kids in front of the television to watch a video, and I prepare dinner.  After supper I return to bed while Elise bathes the kids and gets them ready for bed.   Once this is done, I read bedtime stories to one of my kids.  Then I return to bed.
Combined with my enormous weariness is an insatiable hunger.  When I am not sleeping, I am planning my next meal or eating it.  I can eat so much it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish when one meal ends and another begins.  If I must travel from one place to another, my route inevitably detours through the drive-up window of a fast food restaurant.
My therapist tells me that studies have shown that depressed people crave carbohydrates.  The sugar into which the carbs convert offers a form of self-medication.  The body somehow knows the person is depressed and so signals that it needs more bread, grains, potatoes and other carbohydrates.  The difficulty arises in that I do not turn to a twelve-grain bread sandwich packed with roasted vegetables and sprouts, but instead gravitate toward the foods I found comforting as a child—hamburgers, French fries, grilled cheese, salami submarines.
I think of this kind of eating as grazing.  I imagine myself as livestock working my way across a meadow.  At other times, I remember that my grandfather told me how horses drink water until their bellies explode.  I’ll look down at my bloated stomach and fear something like that can happen to me.  I have no clear answer, but more importantly, I won’t stop even were the answer there.
When I’m awake, whether eating or not, I am reading. I lose myself in pulp fiction.  This violent, paranoid, conspiratorial world somehow soothes the discomfort in my bones.  I’m attracted to blunt, vicious, and unyielding darkness as characterized in the cover blurb of Jim Thompson’s The Alcoholics (Berkley: Black Lizard Books, 1986):

Murder wouldn’t matter now, not after his brain was already dead.  He’d be better off in the ground, anywhere but where he was, strapped to a table—a mute, tortured imbecile.

Or the first paragraph of Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys (NY: Random House, 1994):

Three men at McAlester State Prison had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figuring, hardly human at all.  His was the largest penis ever seen on a white man in that prison or any others in which Lamar had spent so much of his adult life.  It was a monster, a snake, a ropey, veiny thing that hardly looked at all like what it is but rather like some form of rubber tubing.

The improbably raw and mean-spirited plots reinforce my sense that there is real danger and malice in my surrounding environment.  I begin not simply to suspect, but to be actually convinced, that those around me wish me ill, that my family and friends do not like me, that they resent me.  During one difficult period, I got it into my head that I could only drink from a glass that contained four ice cubes.  Somehow I had reasoned that the proportion of ice to liquid in any sized glass was ideal with four ice cubes. It didn’t seem to matter what size the ice cubes were—or how much liquid was poured into the glass.  I was just focused on the four ice cubes.  Whenever Elise did me the favor of offering to get me a drink, she would inevitably forget my rigid four-ice-cube dictum.  She would put two or three or even five ice cubes in my glass.  While I can now admit that I had neglected to remind her of my beverage policy, in the moment I would become inflamed and would then accuse her of trying to displace the exquisite balance I had achieved in my environment.
Simultaneously, I am certain that I have harmed my family in some deeply important way and so deserve their abandonment.  As I sit here at my desk, I can tell you these thoughts are as absurd as you might think.  Of course, I know that they aren’t true, and even when I’m depressed there’s a part of me that knows this.  Still, it feels that way.  And through some weird alchemy that I’m still untangling, in this state feelings are facts.
It used to be that I believed the Energy Monster to be supernatural.  That it followed laws beyond nature.  That was why the Energy Monster could descend upon me out of the blue.  It was as if I really did wake up on the wrong side of the bed, but all four sides were wrong.  Then, just as miraculously, the beast would vanish in a cloud of mystery.
With the work I’ve done in hospital programs and intensive therapy, and the new kinds of medications available for clinically depressed people, I’ve come to understand that this is not the case.  The monster is anchored in very real biological and psychological circumstances.  The most effective treatment I’ve had has been in what is called a partial hospitalization program that I would attend from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.  This program was organized around the tenets of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  I attended the program twice over the course of a year.  The focus of my work there was to identify and become conscious of habits of thinking that would distort my reading of situations.  I learned how these cognitive distortions prepared me for and then propelled me into depression.  My therapist and I have continued to work on these techniques, and I have seen real progress in my ability to function and, even, enjoy life.
Nevertheless, this new understanding is not a cure-all.  In this way I am not like many who get situationally depressed or experience a period of depression in their lives and fully recover.  I think of my friend Susan who suffered depression for many years, but has recovered without a relapse with the help of Zoloft.  I look at Elise who recently lost her job.  This event sent her into a deep depression, which lasted several weeks.  Her feelings passed eventually—however.  They were situational.  When the situation changed, the depression lifted.
That my depression does not follow one of these patterns has caused me much distress over the years.  In fact, for my entire life.  As a child I used to sit in church and listen to people testify about one affliction or another.  They would describe how their faith in the Lord and prayer had lifted their need for alcohol or their lustings after another’s wife or husband.  Then, we would sing a hymn that underscored how they were lost and now they were found by the Lord.  As I listened to these miracles, I’d wish that it could happen to me.  Then I would pray for my pain to be lifted as well, but it never happened.  For years I wondered if I were bad or evil in some way I couldn’t identify because I could not be saved.
I felt my affliction was more primal.  Its roots were not in the New Testament, but rather in ancient mythology.  I was dammed much like Sisyphus who was forced to roll a boulder up one of two hills, and each time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down and Sisyphus would have to start anew.  In my worst moments, I imagined myself allied with Prometheus who was chained to a rock, where his liver was eaten daily by a vulture, and grew back nightly, only to be eaten again the following day.
At times, I still characterize my depression in epic proportions, but Natalie’s drawing has tempered this inflation of feeling.  It shows me the “cartoonish” texture of my dramas.  Like a slasher movie, all of these narratives are from the victim’s point of view where the monster is some hideous, unknown entity that is out to do me harm.
For this reason, I keep the picture tacked on the bulletin board in my office.  When I talk on the phone or pause for a moment, my eyes rest on the drawing.  As I look at it now, I’m reminded of what I’ve learned.
This beast has very distinct and recognizable travel plans.  The Energy Monster never simply arrives unannounced.  Instead, I can see it books its flight from California well in advance.  This Monster is frugal.  It wants the best package it can get—meaning it wants me to pay as dear a price as can be extracted.
The Energy Monster will start packing its bags whenever I begin to feel isolated.  If Elise and I have an argument or disagreement that is not easily resolvable, I can feel my anxiety level increase.  The first signs might be that I dream that night of losing her in some catastrophic way—a car accident, an earthquake, cancer.  The first ten years of my marriage I would do anything not to come into conflict with Elise.  I used to brag to my friends that Elise and I never fought.  I can see this pathology now as my unconscious effort to thwart the Energy Monster.  It’s a simple syllogism:  if Elise and I don’t fight, I won’t be anxious.  Therefore, I won’t become depressed.
Over the years, I went to great lengths to keep myself out of situations that held potential conflict.  I used to joke that I lived by the Boy Scout Code:  Safety First.  My sensory perceptions became finely tuned for any static in my environment.  At a magazine job I had when I was in my early twenties, my boss was particularly irascible.  Before I took the position to be his assistant, he had gone through three people in six months.
In some ways I view that job experience as my training ground.  I learned to be very skilled at modulating his moods.  Elise, who worked for the same magazine, used to joke that everyone thought I was on Valium because I handled him so well.  In truth, I was so calm because I was exhausted.  All my attention was focused on keeping this man happy.  When he was upset or angry, I would find some way to change his mood.  I might go out and buy him ice cream.  Or I might share a particularly delicious piece of office gossip.  Usually, I simply acted like a devoted puppy.  When he was in a good mood, I worked hard to protect it.  I would deflect all bad news.  I would hold potentially combustive phone messages aside until I could find a safe way to pass them along.
In that small office we shared at the end of a hall, I learned to be an exquisite listening device.  Much like the seismometer that geologists use, I was an instrument that received and measured the environmental conditions for conflict.  Often, I could do this long distance over the phone.  Sometimes, I’d use this skill like a psychic to predict potential conflict that lay in the future.  Then, I would strenuously avoid those situations.  I can remember at the time never wanting to be in the same room with two friends who did not like each other.  I couldn’t tolerate their enmity even though their dislike had nothing to do with me.  Deep down, I felt that I was not only responsible for their conflict, but also responsible for resolving something that could not be resolved by me.  The only logical response then was simply to avoid their company.
As it was bound to, this exquisite instrument failed.  As I grew older, I had to modify it repeatedly until it was more like a Rube Goldberg contraption than the instrument I had originally constructed.  I developed such sensitivity to any shift in environmental conditions that I became immobilized.  The infinitesimal nuances and shifts of emotional energy in a room were too complex to process and then to form into an appropriate response.
As I lie in bed, the Energy Monster threatening me has come to represent this condition so clearly.  I am enormously grateful to Natalie for her inspired drawing.  It has given me a starting point from which to trace the monster’s journey backward.  I can see now that it begins as a ticket of doubt in need of a customer.  I then cash the doubt in with an experience, such as an ambiguous response from a friend that might leave me feeling unsettled.  Like everyone, I sometimes invite a friend for dinner or to go to a movie and that friend can’t do it.  The next time I call with an invitation, that friend might be busy that night as well for any number of legitimate reasons.  Without prompting, however, I’ll find a way to blame myself and characterize the decline as cold rejection.  With a sense of desperation I’ll sort through my memory of the most recent encounters with this friend and identify numerous instances where I “probably” offended them.  The consequences of my offending behavior have only one conclusion:  As a result of my utter repulsiveness, my friend no longer wants to get together.  The reasons are clearly self-evident.
My choice of career as a writer has offered a unique opportunity to cash in on this doubt as well.  Often, when I mail a manuscript to an editor, I do not hear from them for months.  Instead of calling to check on the editor’s progress through my work, I create worst case scenarios: the editor is much too embarrassed or repulsed by the amateurishness, or the bald stupidity, of my efforts to feel it deserves a response.  Ka-ching!  The ticket has been purchased at full fare.
At this point the monster is ready to travel.  It approaches slowly.  At first it’s a speck on the horizon.  As I accumulate more experiences that reinforce my sense of inadequacy, the monster nears.  It is as if the monster is now in a car, or a bus, traveling along a winding road and gaining speed with each pang of doubt.  With the monster approaching, I can feel my tentative hold on my own sense of adequacy, even legitimacy, begin to loosen.  Here, the monster picks up speed.  He aims for my unprotected confidence and flattens it on the pavement.  I survive, if it can be called survival, with only that wretched, yet intractable, organ of the spirit, worthlessness.
Out of this diminished state, my feelings of hopelessness emerge.  Effortlessly, I globalize even further and conclude: whatever hopes I might have for my life are foolish, delusional. My being can then be reduced to a neat syllogism.  I am unloved and unlovable.  Therefore, I cannot exist.  This simple logic would have sent Descartes to the asylum.  These thoughts are mine.  Therefore, I cannot exist.

* * *

Today, I think about tolerating a certain level of discomfort.  I do this by operating at a deliberate pace that allows me to name and acknowledge my feelings as they arise.  That way these feelings cannot spiral out of control unnoticed.  One trick has been to avoid multi-tasking because trying to juggle several things at once distracts me from what I am feeling.  Then these unrecognized feelings can easily transform into thoughts of disaster.  I remind myself, instead, to stay connected with myself and others.  I try to touch Elise a couple of times a day.  Putting my hand on her shoulder or giving her a hug reminds me that I am loved.  At the same time I’ve found exercise essential to my well-being.  When I am conscious of my breath and the movement of my body, I feel physically stronger, and from this actual strength I sense myself as more capable of managing what lies beyond.
I joke with Elise that the Energy Monster has bought a condo in California.  He’s setting down roots there and won’t want to come back.  As I spin this narrative, I shift the paradigm of being Depression’s victim just a little.  My encounter with the monster I now view from its perspective as well as my own.  He has a real home and real needs. Much like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my monster is normalized through this process.  It no longer resides within the traditional horror story model—me a victim of its possession.  Instead, I have come to see my circumstances from the monster’s perspective, where I can discover the kind of sustenance it needs to survive alone in California.
I’ve come to learn much about my monster and our consanguinity.  My daughter’s drawing keeps me alert to discovering more about him so that some day, in the future, I can have the presence of mind to know when my feelings are myth—belonging therefore to the Monster—and when they are “mine.”  I must do this because what I’ve read about depression and what I’ve been told by my psychiatrist and my therapist is that the likelihood of the monster returning is high.  I am not like my friend Susan or my wife Elise, or even the parishioners of my childhood.  I cannot be relieved of its presence for eternity.  I can just hope that the intervals between its return are longer and that its stays are shorter and less intense.  I just hope … I can only hope.

© Laban Carrick Hill

Monday, April 18, 2016

Sometimes the South Really Is Something Out of a Flannery O'Connor Story

The story of my grandfather, Joe Oscar Hill, is a dark and disturbing river of violence and hatred. This piece appearing in The Atlantic online tells the story of a lynching my grandfather participated in back in 1949. The piece is titled Sometimes the South Really Is Something Out of a Flannery O'Connor Story. Click on the title to jump to the piece.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

How the Past Shackles the Present: April 4th

April 4th
by Laban Carrick Hill
Hate’s such a strong word, dear, mom
scolded when I expressed strong
distaste at little stones for supper, back
when Our Boys in the National Guard were
called into the streets, Memphis
burning, those people turning to
violence, polite conversation
rested on Their Own Sacrifice, I learned not
to say hate, so unbecoming, we wouldn’t
talk about hate a year later either
on the next April 4th when Grandfather
Joe died of emphysema, cirrhosis, dia-
betes, pneumonia, and Uncle
Melvin accused the nurse of
murder, because of that anniversary, because
of her being those, because of
Uncle Melvin believing her to be the
mother of the child murdered, only
weeks earlier, with Grandfather
Joe’s gun in his segregated
laundromat, now April
4th keeps coming around again and
again and 46 years later I sit at your
table, our new ardor tender and deli-
cate, and I am full of hate for those braised
Brussels sprouts laid out lifeless on
my plate, like the dead stones  pooled in grease
in my mother's kitchen so long ago,
and even though I know what’s
past can never truly be unpacked and worn
once again like a well-made suit of old clothes,
I still am unable to talk to you about this.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Perfect Mark

I am gullible. Always have been, always will be. I will believe almost anything at least for a while. At seventeen, I moved to NYC and got a job as a messenger my first week. The man who hired me asked, “You know the city, right?”
            I lied.
            At the end of the week, I received my first paycheck for something around $79. I promptly lost it to a Three Card Monte dealer in Times Square. I was certain I knew where the queen of hearts was. So certain, in fact, that I returned the next Friday and lost half of that week’s paycheck. Then I figured it out. I was never going to win, no matter how many times the other guy standing next me wins. That guy was in cahoots with the dealer.
            When I was around 13, Susan dated a boy who bagged groceries. He drove a jacked up Cougar with something called “glass packs.” Whatever they were, they made his car unbearably loud. This was a time when young men would park their cars in Memphis’s Overland Park and work on their cars. They’d dump the oil into the drains and stand around smoking and leaning against car hoods and trunks in wife-beaters and jeans. Just being incredibly cool.
            When I was around him, there was one question that had bothered, and I finally screwed up the courage to ask. “Why is the back of your car jacked up like that?”
            “Saves on gas,” he smiled, “cause I’m always going downhill.”
            I believed him. It made sense to me. Why else would someone do that to their car?
            I was even more gullible a year earlier. That was the summer Dad has kicked us out of California and we had ended up back in Memphis. For most of the summer, we lived with Uncle Ben and Aunt Emmaline in their mansion. Uncle Ben was one of the original developers and owners of Holiday Inns. He was also Mom’s older brother.
            By the end of the summer, we had moved into a townhouse rental about a mile down the road from Uncle Ben’s mansion, and we made friends with the other kids in the neighborhood. On the weekends, three or four of us would go camping on the abandoned King Plantation. But first, we’d hang out in front of the liquor store and beg people to buy us bottles of Boones Farm Strawberry Wine, one for each of us. It cost a dollar a quart. Then, we’d hop on our bikes and ride down to the Christian Country Day School where the trail head to the plantation’s woods was located.
            We’d ditch our bikes in the brush and march into our campground. Then, we’d proceed to drink until we were too drunk to move. Sometimes we had a campfire. Other times, we never got to it.
One time, or rather most times, I got so drunk I passed out. This time, however, I woke the next morning and went over to put on my low top Chuck Taylors. They were sopping wet. I felt the ground, but it was bone dry. It hadn’t rained and there didn’t seem to be any morning dew.
            No one else’s shoes were wet.
My friends laughed and whispered, but I didn’t understand so I ignored them.
            I couldn’t figure out how my shoes could have gotten so wet. It was a freak incident. It wasn’t like we had bottles of water or canteens and they were poured on our shoes. It wasn’t possible that any of us would have poured out Boones Farm. The wine was just too precious.
            So I put on my shoes and we all retrieved our bikes and rode home. My mom put my clothes and my shoes in the washing machine. As she emptied my pockets, she found a pack of Marlboros. These weren’t the kind of cigarettes she smoked so she gave them to her mother, my Granny. She gave me a lecture on smoking, but her heart wasn’t in it.
            It wasn’t until my twenties, thought, that one dark night I woke in a sweat and realized how my Chuck Taylors has gotten wet. My friends has pissed all over them. That was why they were laughing. They thought it was hilarious. It was also around this time that I also realized that Susan’s boyfriend had lied. Having a car jacked up in the back would never save on gas.
I still have those moments late at night, when I’m half awake, struggling to dig deeper into unconsciousness, that memories like these rise up out of a fog and startle me awake. They’re like that jolt you have when you’re dreaming that your falling and falling and then suddenly you jerk awake. And you know. Everything that you thought was true is actually a lie.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Origin Story Part IV

            “Okay, William, I’m done for the week,” called a woman across the hall. “You here, right?”
            William got up from his desk and stepped into the hallway. “I’ll be here, Miz Jackson. Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.”
            She nodded and headed out the door.
            It had taken a couple of days before William was free to see me. We met in his city office. He’s an account for the city and president of the local chapter of the NAACP. His father and uncle were founding members of the chapter in the 50s.
            As he went around his desk to sit, William Edwards, Laverne Edward’s son, explained, “In city offices as in most small town government offices in the South, it is still not a guarantee that African American citizens will be respected and receive the services they are requesting. Sometimes it’s just the legacy of the Jim Crow South, and older African Americans simply do not feel safe or confident that they will be treated with respect or will be told the truth.”
            I nodded as if I understood. It had never occurred to me that something like that would be important. I could understand that something would have been necessary in the past, but in the 21st century. Had things not changed that much?
            “So I have to be in the office for the rest of the week,” he said, “because there always has to be an N.I.C in the building.”
            “Negro in Charge,” William said.
            “But you’re upstairs in the accounting office. When do people need to see you about the city’s finances.”
            William smiled like I was an ignorant child. “No, that’s not the problem. Black people will come downstairs to pay their taxes or request services, but they don’t trust that they will get what they need. So they come upstairs to see me first and I do it for them.”
            “Really?” It just seemed crazy on one level, but then I remembered a week earlier hearing from Judge Vaughn, the man who ran Tipton Country for several decades. When I met with him in his huge plantation house with Corinthian columns, he told me two stories about my family. The first was about my father’s namesake and Grandfather Joe’s older brother. Carrick Hill was a farmer who was shot and killed in 1919 on the town square.
            When I asked him about my Grandfather’s death, he told this instead. He was very skilled at changing the topic and stonewalling me on the topic on how Covington was run during those dark, old days.
            “Oh, I know your family,” he cackled. “Your great uncle Carrick Hill was shot in the groin on the square by the Marshall because he was sleeping with the Marshall’s wife.”
            He paused for effect.
            “He bled out on the sidewalk. The Marshall wouldn’t let no one help him.”
            The next story he shared was how Grandfather Joe bought his farm.
            “You know I knew your grandfather. Did you ever hear how he bought his farm?”
            “No, sir.”
            “Well, it was during the Depression. Cotton prices had dropped so much that it cost farmers more to grow it than it was worth. Well, your grandfather was sharecropping a farm owned by the local doctor. They had a barn packed full of cotton that they couldn’t sell. One night the barn burned with all the cotton in it. The doctor got the insurance money and was grateful to your grandfather for all the hard work he had done on the farm.”
            Again, I nodded. I didn’t want to interrupt him because it was clear he was trying to tell me something.
            Judge Vaughn sipped on his can of beer. “It wasn’t six months later that your grandfather bought 80 acres out in Solo. There was an auction at the courthouse on the land and your grandfather was the highest bidder. The doctor financed your grandfather’s purchase with the insurance money.”
            Later, I learned through my research at the University of Memphis library and from the county historian David Gwynn that these “auctions” were rigged. Farms owned by black families were targeted for not paying back taxes. These were farms that were purchased during Reconstruction by African Americans and then inherited by the children. Often, these farms were owned by families who could not read or write so the title of the land was not completely clear after the original owner passed. In addition, these families might not have known they had to pay taxes or had actually paid taxes but did not have the receipts proving it.
The result was that white men in the city and county government would make arrangements with their friends to seize the land and auction it off on the City Hall steps. The auctions were rarely announced in advance and it was arranged who would be the sole bidder and what amount he would bid. This is how Grandfather Joe most likely bought his first farm. He purchased more in the middle of the Depression, but I don’t know if he availed himself of the same rigged system.
            Sitting in William’s office, I imagined that if I were African American, I wouldn’t want some white person I didn't know telling me what the rules were. I’d come to William, too. Or the woman whose office was across the hall.
            “I’m not sure I can help,” William told me after I explained why I wanted to talk to his mother. “My mother has Alzheimer’s. She couldn't help you on this.”
            “Do you remember this happening?” I asked.
            “I have some vague memory, but I was a kid, and my parents didn’t allow us kids to know much about that. They protected us. We were never allowed ride the bus or eat at a restaurant. They didn’t want to experience segregation.”
            I felt like I had hit a wall. This was the last piece of information I needed to prove that Grandfather Joe wasn’t murdered. I didn’t know how else to go to pursue this. “Do you know anyone I could talk to?”
            William at first shook his head. “I’m not sure. Let me think about it. I’ll talk to my aunt and see what she remembers.”
            A few days later, William asked to meet me for dinner in Memphis with friends. After that, I had lunch with his older brother at the last cafeteria restaurant in Memphis. This was my maternal Grandmother Baden Carrick’s favorite restaurant. I hadn’t been there in years and it hadn’t changed. A week after that William called me again and suggested we go down to Clarksdale for the Juke Joint Festival. I danced until I had to change my shirt. Everybody laughed at me and shouted, “White boy dancing!”
            At some point along the way, my willingness to humiliate myself dancing allowed me to crossover from an unknown quantity to a known. I got a call inviting me to meet him at his mother’s house before going to dinner together one evening.
            Laverne Edwards’ home was a beautifully kept suburban ranch on a tree lined street. When I entered her home, it was full of family members. I brought a couple of autographed copies of my book Harlem Stomp! Mrs. Edwards was standing in the hallway a little agitated. We moved to the living room and sat down. I was offered tea or a soda.
            Sitting around the room were Laverne Edwards, her sister, William, William’s brother, and two others whose family connections I don’t remember.
            After introductions and some light conversation, William spoke for everyone.
            “My mother returned to Tipton Memorial just few months before your Grandfather was admitted. It had taken four years and the Federal Court forced the hospital to hire her back and give her back pay. When that boy was murdered, my uncle Mac Edwards was the president of the local chapter of the NAACP. My father and my uncle made plans to attend the trial. My mother and aunt attended too.”
            Jessie Nelson’s trial had lasted only one day, so it hadn’t been a hardship to attend.
            “When your grandfather went into the hospital, he was one of my mother’s patients like all the patients on that floor, black or white. What we remember is that his son and his wife caused a stir about my mother being on the floor, but the hospital supported her. There was a new director at the hospital, and he wasn’t as bad as the last. So she was just doing what she was supposed to. And when he passed, his wife accused my mother of killing him. The hospital supported her and told the family they were wrong.”
            “That must have been horrible for your family,” I said.
            “It was. It hurt my mother deeply. She was proud of her achievements and to have somebody accuse her of murder was terrible,” said William, “but it wasn’t surprising. That kind of thing happened all the time.”
            I could just imagine how on April 3, 1969, a year and a day short after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., forty miles away in Memphis, my Uncle Melvin and Grandmother Zoelette would feel a deep sense of justice deserved. In the past year, most white Memphians and those in neighboring communities had come to believe that they were the true victims of King’s assassination. Their twisted logic argued that the loss of one of America’s greatest and most courageous figures was actually a threat to their own lives. King’s death deepened the feeling in the white community that African Americans were dangerous and out to steal from them their hard-earned way of life. How they perceived the black community in aftermath of the assassination was not as a population, but as a populace who had turned from a docile and controllable to a threatening and dangerous swarm.
            My Uncle Melvin and Grandmother Zoelette’s blindness was a blindness that was common and in a way is still common today. It was a blindness that they were completely invested in because to do otherwise would be to deny their sense of justice and righteousness. Grandfather Joe’s friend Jessie Nelson had just been convicted of manslaughter for what they saw was clearly to them an accident. He would have to suffer eight months of imprisonment that, according to them and even some of the jurors, he did not deserve. Grandfather Joe had martyred himself by refusing to go to the hospital until after the trial. According to Uncle Melvin and Dad, he was a man who cared too much, so much so that he had endangered his life by not going to the hospital.
            Within this rubric, Uncle Melvin and Grandmother Zolette concluded that Grandfather Joe is murdered by the mother of the boy who Nelson had accidentally killed. They did not bother to investigate if this could be true. They saw a black woman, Laverne Edwards, at the trial and saw her again at the hospital. They simply assumed she must be the mother of the boy killed, even though it was the other boy, the boy wounded in the arm, whose last name was Edwards. They didn’t bother with such seemingly insignificant details when compared to their righteousness.
What their story revealed to them was that the world was going from bad to worse. They must have believed that this would never have happened a decade earlier. From the way that Dad and Uncle Melvin and Dad’s second wife Kati have narrated the events, I can piece together an interpretation that seems both insane and logical. It makes perfect sense that my family would believe that Grandfather Joe was murdered by the mother of the boy who died in Grandfather Joe’s segregated J&Z Laundromat. (By the way, the white J&Z Laundromat was located on the white side of the town.) It made perfect sense that my grandfather could be both heroic in staying by his friend’s side during the trial and being on death’s door, and then not die because of his refusal to get treatment, but be murdered. They could ignore the fact that Grandfather Joe not only had a life-threatening case of pneumonia, but also severe Type II Diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and Hepatitis C. That his entire immune systems and organs were deeply compromised.
The horrible irony here is that my family constructed a highly charged narrative that completely erased the truth about Grandfather Joe’s life and replaced it with an alternative history that enshrined him in righteousness. What this story does is wipe away the truth about who he really was. Grandfather Joe spent his life abusing himself with alcohol and violently taking advantage of African Americans in Tipton County. He had been involved as a Deputy Marshall with the City Marshall in a lynching in 1949. He was fired from the police department in 1957 for drunkenness and being too violent. This in a city where the police chief was nicknamed “Stick” and was notorious for their their violence towards blacks.
In my family’s narrative, Grandfather Joe is transformed from being an abusive victimizer to being victimized. What heightened this seeming truth for them was the fact that neither the hospital nor the police would investigate. The hospital refused to do an autopsy because it was clear what he had died of. The police told them there was nothing to investigate.
            It took hardly any time for me to uncover the true story behind Grandfather Joe’s death. If Grandmother Zoelette or Uncle Melvin or even Dad had wanted to find the truth, they could have with a phone call or two, but that wasn't in their interest. That would have never have allowed them to construct a narrative that made them the victims of these changing times when blacks were able to not only demand their civil rights without the threat of death, but actually receive them.
            When I finally told Uncle Melvin and Dad what I had uncovered. Dad was silent. He seemed to understand what I was telling him, but he also didn’t seem to accept it. Uncle Melvin was even more adamant.
“I know what I saw and I saw that woman come out of Dad’s room. Then, when I went in he died.”

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Origin Story Part III

            I had no idea who Laverne Edwards was.
            “Mrs. Edwards was a nurse,” said Mrs. Frances Edwards, Larry’s mom.
Laverne Edwards was a nurse at Tipton Country Hospital, where Grandfather Joe died.
“She just started on and Mrs. Hill accused her of killing Mr. Hill.”
“Do you know what happened?” I asked.
The television blared a game show in the background. Eveline edged forward in her seat. Mr. Edwards collapsed in his overstuffed tried to follow the conversation and not completely succeeding.
“No, I don’t,” she said.
“Is Mrs. Edwards related?”
“No, they’s the other Edwards. She was married to John Edwards, but he passed.”
After I left, I dropped by Tim Sloane’s house and shared what I found out. He was knee deep himself in researching his family’s background. His father had been the priest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Covington and Director of St. Paul’s Parochial School, an African American boarding school, founded in the late 19th century, in Malone. He died suddenly when Tim was a young boy. Now, in his early seventies, Tim seemed to be trying to grasp onto a past thin and whispy as smoke.
“Laverne Edwards was married to John Edwards who was brother to Mac Edwards,” began Tim. “You should talk to William, her son.” He pointed to the list he made for me with a column for whites and one for blacks. “He’s an accountant for the city, but before you do, call David Gwyne, if there’s anyone in Covington who knows what happened, David’s the person to talk to. David is the Tipton County historian, and he’s helped me on my research.” I would learn later that David is also the manager of the town cemetery.
As I dialed David’s phone number, I felt like I was perhaps getting closer to an answer. If an answer could be found, it would be from the lips of Laverne Edwards.

            I picked up David, who doesn’t drive, at his mother’s nursing home in Covington. We drove down to a restaurant in Brighton on Highway 51 where we talked for about an hour over dinner. Then, David started giving me a tour of Covington. I’ll write about much of our conversations of the next six weeks in other posts. This evening, however, David directed me to the Covington Cemetery.
            “I think I know where Jessie Nelson is buried, but I’m not sure because his grave isn’t marked. There’s a space next to his mother’s grave and it would make sense that this is where he was.”
He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a wooden branch with its bark removed. It was a smooth piece of wood shaped in a Y. It was a divining rod. He led me to the other side of the graveyard.
“This is his mother’s grave. I looked it up earlier today to make sure I could find it.”
I could barely read the name Nelson on the stone.
David held his diving rod with both hands and waved it over the empty space next to the marked grave. I could see the rod point downward.
“See here. The earth here is displaced,” explained David, “so the rod dips. If it was solid, it wouldn’t.”
“Is he here?”
“Yes, this most likely where Jessie Nelson was buried.”
Over the course of the evening, David told me the story of Laverne Edwards.
“Mrs. Edwards was the first and only African American nurse to be hired at Covington Hospital (now Baptist-Memorial Hospital—Tipton) when the hospital opened in 1964. And when she began, she wasn’t allowed to use the restroom that white nurses used, eat in the cafeteria, or use the white nurses’ break room. She had to go to the bathroom with the janitors and eat her lunch with them in the basement.”
I wasn’t surprised by this story. Covington wasn’t at all on the cutting edge integration. In fact, it fought changed tooth and nail. David would tell me that there was a KKK office on the town square next to the Covington Police Station when Robert Lee Smith was murdered by Jessie Nelson.
“Well, it didn't sit right with her so she complained to the hospital director. His response was to fire her.” Clearly, he didn’t want any uppity black woman on his staff.
David explained that Laverne Edwards was married to John Edwards who was one of the founders of the local chapter of the NAACP. John Edwards brother was Mac Edwards, the president of the chapter. The chapter met secretly in the basement of the Canaan Baptist Church because if the Klan found out, the church and their homes would have been burned down. It wasn’t uncommon for black churches to be burned in Tipton, or anywhere around the South at that time.
With her husband’s support, Laverne Edwards sued the hospital for violating civil rights. After winding four years through the courts, she won in Federal court. The hospital was forced to give her job back. Obviously, it was the talk of Covington. Everyone had an opinion about it, and these opinions mostly fell along racial lines.
Just after Laverne Edwards returned to the hospital, Grandfather Joe entered the hospital on March 18th, 1969, two months almost to the day after Robert Lee Smith was murdered by Jessie Nelson. Grandfather Joe was 69 years old and sick with pneumonia. He had been ill all through the trial, but had refused to see a doctor until the trial ended. By then, he was so sick that he was on death’s doorstep. Not only did he have pneumonia, but he also had cirrhosis of the liver, Type 2 Diabetes, and emphysema. To say he was not well would be an understatement. Between his decades smoking and drinking, his immune system was clearly compromised. In layman’s terms, he had abused his body in about every way possible without already being dead.
It was just before Grandfather Joe’s arrival that Mrs. Edwards returned to work. As anyone can imagine, with Laverne Edwards return it was incredibly tense at the hospital. They were under a court order to allow her to have all the rights and privileges of her white co-workers.
This was as far as David could take me. I need to speak with Laverne Edwards. According to Frances Edwards, she was the person who was accused of murdering Grandfather Joe. This meant I needed to reach out to her son William.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Origin Story Part II

Grandfather Joe was very good at two things, plundering and getting drunk. One gave him opportunity in a world that offered little for a man who was removed from school in the second grade to work the cotton fields because his teacher thought he was “retarded.” Only years later did he learn that he was merely nearsighted, not mentally deficient. Life was hard for everyone in Tipton County, Tennessee, but it was especially hard on the people Grandfather Joe exploited through the reign of terror that was the Jim Crow South.
Ironically, however, it was the second thing, his alcoholism, that ensured he would never truly prosper the way others around him did from his plundering. His plundering allowed him to get out of the fields and let others sharecrop his land while he went off on his get rich quick schemes that could only happen in a small, backwards community like Covington.
To describe Grandfather Joe’s life, I’ve stolen myself. I’ve looted the word “plunder” from Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African American writer more skilled and insightful than I could ever be, and his superb book Between the World and Me. Coates chose the vivid and charged verb “plunder” to describe how America—from its inception—tortured, raped, and murdered African Americans in order to create economic prosperity. America is not the richest and largest economy in the world without having been built on the exploitation of African Americans.
Coates provocatively argues that America is the nexus of “when plunder becomes a system of government.” What makes Coates’ argument so powerful is how he anchors it in American mythology and steals the word “plunder” himself from the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson had chosen “plunder” to describe the Colonies’ relationship to the British Crown—“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” To link the birth of our nation and its successful breaking of the fetters of British oppression to America’s systematic oppression of African Americans is brilliant. With one vivid and active verb, Coates is able to reach back into our country’s origin narrative to expose our guilt and to point to the fact that this plundering is still happening.
The reason I mention Coates and his game-changing book Between the World and Me is that he tells the story from the perspective of the victims. I am telling the story of a victimizer. Grandfather Joe wasn’t especially brilliant or imaginative in his plundering, but he was determined and availed himself of the corrupt system in a county that was described by the FBI and the ATF as the most corrupt county in Tennessee. But before I get into this, let me begin at my beginning of discovering this world that through silence was hidden from me until my luncheon reunion with Dad after 17 years.
In order to break this silence, this hidden world, I needed a guide, actually more than one guide. My first was Tim Sloane. Dad introduced me to him at Neely’s Down Under, a restaurant in the basement of the old Naifeh’s Grocery Store on the Covington town square. Tim had been the president of a bank on the town square. He spent his entire career there since the early 60s and knew pretty much everyone in Covington and Tipton County. He had been on just about every board or committee at some point or another.
When we first met, I had explained what I was looking for. He had not heard the story of Grandfather Joe’s alleged murder, which was my second red flag after just the fact that it had been a secret in my family for over 40 years. Tim knew more about the personal lives of his neighbors than even the local ministers. When we sat down in his office just off the square, he took a blank sheet of paper filled the left side with the names and phone numbers of the white people I should contact. Then, on the right side he wrote names and phone numbers of the African Americans. Since everything we were talking about had to do with race, this separation made sense, but it also underscored just how much the world in seen in black and white.
Tim gave me the keys to his office and a room in his house to sleep in, and then he set me in motion. After two phone calls on my first day in Covington, I was pulling up to the South Station of the Covington Fire Station. Larry Edward’s younger brother Dwayne was one of two black fire fighters in the entire department. Larry Edwards had been the lucky one on that night in January 1969. He had only been shot in the arm. His friend, 14-year-old Robert Lee Smith, died from the gunshot wounds he received from Grandfather Joe’s gun in J&Z Laundromat.
To put it simply, I was scared to death. Dwayne had invited me over the station to talk. He was friendly on the phone when I described what I was investigating, but I didn’t know what it would be like in person. When I got there, he told me he had already spoken to his parents.
“I’m not sure what I can tell you,” he said. “I was too young to remember what happened. All I know is that it changed Larry. He never wanted to go out of the house anymore. The moment he graduated from high school he moved to Detroit and never comes back. He won’t talk about it either.”
We talk a couple minutes about growing up in Covington. I asked him why he stayed. He talked about his parents and his wife and children and the church, the Canaan Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Covington and the location of the early, secret meetings of the original chapter of the Tipton Co. NAACP in the 50s.
After about ten minutes of conversation, he asked, “Would you like to talk to my parents? I can call them and see if they will talk to you.”
“Yes,” I said.
This was happening faster than I expected. Dwayne was so friendly and welcoming, despite me being the grandson of the man who had been part of so much trauma. I was distrustful of his kindness, however. As a child, I would mistake the superficial friendliness of Southern culture for real friendship, only to be humiliated when I was confronted with the fact that they weren’t my friends.
“She says you can come over.”
We shook hands. He writes down his parents’ address and invites me to Sunday service at Canaan Baptist.
I’m in motion. Like a top whose string and has been pulled, I will spin until I tip over and roll in a circle. Suddenly, all the hate and anger that had driven me back to Covington felt like an enormous weight that slowed me. I couldn’t lift it off my shoulders. Why was I hear?
Grandfather Joe’s favorite TV show was Dagnet. As a former town deputy marshal and police officer, he fancied himself Sgt. Joe Friday cutting the bullshit out and saying, “Ma’am, just the facts.”
            I drove from the South Fire Station to the northeast neighborhood called Black Bottoms, I realized I wasn’t here for just the facts. The facts would never cut it. I was here to prove something. To prove that I’m not crazy. To prove that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. For the longest time I imagined Dad as Odysseus, that heroic figure from the ages of the Gods and Goddesses. He had overcome Homeric obstacles to rise to the pinnacle of capitalism. He was the classic rags to riches story. Grew up on a shotgun shack without running water or electricity. Slept in a bed with his two brothers. His mother cooked on a wood stove. His father was illiterate. His mother married at 13. He was the first to graduate from the 8th grade, from high school, from college, from Harvard. He rose to become president and chairman of department store chains.
            In his massive shadow, I stood as Odysseus’s inadequate son, Telemachus. I was Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son who stumbled and tried to solve the mystery and save the day, but would have to be bailed out my my superior father. I would never measure up. So in my car heading across town to the Edwards’ home, I realized this wasn’t about hate. It was about restitution. About my coming to terms with who I was in the shadow of my father. It was a reckoning. When I think about why Dad told me this story—so suddenly after no speaking for 17 years—I believe he did so because he wanted me to find out the truth. He was putting his faith and trust in me. For the first time, the power dynamic had shifted. I was no longer desperate for his gaze. Now, he wanted mine, and this was the mission that would keep mine on him. This story hadn’t been shared with anyone in the family from my generation. It was a close held secret between my dad, his brothers, their wives, and their mother.
I turned onto s small single lane path, named Feezor St., in the Black Bottoms, one of several African American neighborhoods in Covington, and pulled to a stop on the grassy shoulder in front of a small, squat house, no more than 750 square feet. This was the home of Eddie and Mary Frances Edwards, Larry and Dwayne’s parents.
I had read about them in the documents from the civil suit that they filed after the trial. They sued Jessie Nelson and Grandother Zoelette. Grandfather Joe had already passed by then. The suit was settled for $1,500 with $500 going to the Edwards’ lawyer. Grandmother Zolette paid the full amount. Jessie had a railroad pension, but he was essentially destitute. He lived with his mother one block from the Edwards on Feezer in the white block.
In Covington, black and white neighborhoods could change sometimes mid-block. A pocket of black homes could be nestled in the middle of white ones. Blacks neighborhoods had names, such as McCadden Quarters (a single block), Hefer Flats, Dixie Editions, and Black Bottoms, which was near the cotton warehouses. The Edwards lived in Black Bottoms and Eddie Edwards worked his entire life in the cotton warehouse, now gone.
As I walked up to the front door, I could hear the television. A woman about my age peered through the screen door. It was a cool day in April, one of the few times when the weather was moderate enough to have the door open and let the fresh air inside. I knew I was anything but fresh air. My wind was a gnarled, broken thing.
I introduced myself and mentioned Dwayne.
She waved me inside. The small, almost dollhouse living room was crammed with overstuffed chairs and a couch. A large flat screen TV hung from one wall. This was the home that Larry Edwards grew up in with his parents and sisters and brothers. How they all fit in was beyond comprehension, but they did.
An ancient man sat nodding off engulfed by a large overstuffed chair. He was frail and seemed a shadow of his former self. The woman introduced herself as Larry’s older sister, Eveline, and the man as her father. I shook their hands and took a seat on the couch.
“I’ll get my mom.” The woman disappeared into the back. A moment later, Mrs. Edwards appeared. We shook hands. She didn’t offer me anything to drink. It was clear that they didn’t understand why this white man was coming in their house, but they weren’t going to be rude.
I told them who I was, Joe Hill’s grandson.
“He was evil,” Mrs. Edwards said almost under her breath.
I agree and told her a little about my relationship with him. Then, I told them what my grandfather told me.
“I don’t know nothing about that,” Mrs. Edwards quickly said.
We talked about Larry.
“After that, he changed,” Mrs. Edwards explained. “He didn’t want to be here any more. The moment he graduated from high school he moved to Detroit and won’t come back.” Most blacks from Covington chose Detroit as their destination when they moved North. There, they would find family and friends and a church they recognized.
“Larry had it rough here,” Larry’s sister Eveline said. “On the way to school we had to walk through the white neighborhood and this lady would sick her dog on Larry. Every day the dog would attack him and pull off his clothes. There was nothing he could do about it.
“When he was shot, he and Bobbie were coming home from the Fraser High Homecoming Night. The basketball team had won its game,” Eveline said. “They decided to stop at the Laundromat because it had a Co’Cola machine. It was the only place blacks could buy a coke at night.”
I told them I remember the machine and shared the time I took a coke without asking. Grandfather Joe beat me.
“That machine didn’t work right,” Eveline said. “You had to shake it so the nickel would go down. And that man came out and shot him.”
I nodded and waited. Then, I asked, “Did you know Jessie Nelson.”
Mrs. Edwards spoke up. “He lived just down there.” She pointed to the next block over.
I asked if he knew Larry and Bobbie.
“Had to,” said Eveline. “He shot them in cold blood.”
I asked if they knew Frankie Smith.
“Not well,” said Mrs. Edwards.
“Do you know how to get in touch with her?”
“She dead.”
I told them the story my dad told me about Mrs. Smith killing my grandfather.
“No, no, no,” said Mrs. Edwards. “That couldn’t have happened. She never worked. She stayed in the home. It was me who worked in the hospital.”
I waited again to see if she would finish the story. If she would tell me about being accused of murdering my grandfather. When she said nothing, I finally asked.
Mrs. Edwards shook her head. “It wasn’t me. I was a nurse’s aide on a different floor. I never went to the floor where Mr. Hill was.”
Okay, I thought, this is where it was going to end.
Then, Mrs. Edwards continued. “It was Laverne Edwards who they accused of murdering your grandfather.”