What if depression is more than a chemical imbalance? What if depression and suicide are about despair?
By Jacque White Kochak
OK, there’s been an awful lot about depression and suicide in the news lately. That’s good. Maybe talking about these dark subjects will save some lives.
I know something about depression and suicidal ideation. Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think I have a disease, and I’m concerned about the “medicalization” of depression. If depression is nothing more than a chemical imbalance, then of course the cure is medical – pop a pill to get those brain chemicals back in sync, right?
But what if depression is about more than a chemical imbalance? Humor me here. What if depression and suicide are about despair?
I’ve battled spells of depression since my middle teens. I used to wonder whether someone could cut off an appendage, maybe a finger or an arm, and measure the pain. I know what it’s like to feel like I’m wading through molasses to get the simplest task done, and to struggle to get out of bed. I know what hopelessness feels like.
I’ve researched and devised elaborate suicide schemes. I guess I have the cred – and the medical diagnosis, actually. And yes, I’m probably biologically predisposed to depression, just as I’m biologically predisposed to sunburn. I ought to be medicated, I suppose.
But if depression and suicide are about despair, we have the uncomfortable task of looking at this problem in a different way. For one thing, we have to look at conditions in those states where suicide has increased by 30 to 40 percent in the last few years, and we have to look at our own lives and what we can aspire to change. Sometimes, we have to change our own attitudes, ways of looking at the world, and the messages we tell ourselves.
In a shocking recent report on suicides nationwide, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control found that more than half of those who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition. Relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems and job, money, legal or housing stresses often contributed, the CDC admitted.
Still, I keep reading personal accounts of people who have suffered from depression, pleading, “I have an illness. Don’t tell me to ‘cheer up.’” I’m pretty sure the brand of tough love I’ve imposed on myself is going to get me branded as insensitive, but let me speak my piece.
When I read accounts of depression I say to myself, “But you do have some control.” I ask myself if these people may have experienced something different from me, and maybe they have. But any mental health professional would likely reaffirm my diagnosis. Many in my extended family take antidepressant medication. Some have been diagnosed as bipolar. At multiple times in my life, I would have hit all the high points on a checklist for major depressive disorder. It hasn’t been easy.
So how can I possibly say I’m not sick, and I have some control? On the “sick” part, I know (and most people would agree) that I’m a lot saner than some people I know. And how can something that is so common really be considered a disease, rather than part of the human condition?
Explaining the “control“ part is more difficult. I began grappling with depression at quite a young age, and it was severe. My life was affected, and I’m sure I would be in a different place than I am today if not for my life-or-death struggle with that black dog. The fight took all my energy and destroyed my confidence, and I don’t want to minimize the pain or the destructive effect on my life. But I survived, and over time I developed coping strategies.
I learned to look around me and realize there were a lot of people who had lives a lot worse than mine. I learned to put problems in perspective. I learned not to grapple too long with an insoluble problem, but instead move on. I learned not to ruminate, to take one step at a time, and see the positive. I learned not to think in black-and-white terms and not to berate myself with negative pronouncements about myself. I learned to identify what specifically was getting me down, and see whether there were solutions.
Here’s an example. At one point in my life my time was completely consumed by a man, and when that relationship ended I was destitute. Anyone would have been devastated, of course; the icing on the cake for a person like me, prone to depression, is that I was convinced I was radioactive, all the fault was mine, and no one would ever want to be my friend, let alone be more.
Then I looked around me and saw that almost everyone, no matter how obnoxious, seemed to have a friend. I realized I probably didn’t have to be alone, so the trick was figuring out where to meet people with whom I might have something in common. I put the plan into effect.
That’s a very, very simple example, and probably not a very good one. Since I have a tendency to severe depression, perhaps I should have sought pharmaceutical relief. At some point, however, I discovered my approach has a name, and that name is “cognitive behavioral therapy,” or CBT.
Briefly, CBT can help to restructure negative thought patterns, to recognize the source of depression, and to change the actions that exacerbate it. Study after study has shown that CBT is about as effective as antidepressants, and somehow, through trial and error, I mapped out my own approach.
Consider this: According to the National Institutes of Health, about 20 to 40 people out of a hundred people noticed improvement in their symptoms within six to eight weeks if they took a placebo. Among those who took an antidepressant, about 40 to 60 out of a hundred people saw improvement in six to eight weeks.
Read that again. If you take a placebo, you’ve got a 20 to 40 percent chance of improvement. If you take an antidepressant, you’ve got a 40 to 60 percent of improvement. Them ain’t great odds if you’re struggling with a demon.
This is not to completely discount medication, but I think of antidepressants as being something like aspirin. Aspirin helps the pain, but doesn’t cure the problem (which might not be a “disease”). One friend describes an antidepressant as a way to “take the edge off,” and another requires a mood stabilizer. Neither is a miracle cure, and neither is really enough. A will to change is also required.
Abe Lincoln is often raised up as an example of someone who struggled with severe, chronic depression, so it’s interesting that people usually forget what he supposedly said: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
That’s not the whole story, but it’s something to think about.
I like to say my grandmother’s uncle won women the right to vote.
The state of American politics these days has got me ruminating about the uncle who died six years before I was born—a minor character in the drama of history, a forgotten footnote to a very important chapter.
He’s also my hero, a testament to the consequences of personal and political courage.
I pray that today’s legislators will learn to be true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.
Albert Houston Roberts was first a schoolteacher, then an attorney, then governor of Tennessee. He took office in 1919—just in time to help change history.
That year, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, 39 straightforward words that inflamed passions nationwide. If ratified by 36 states, the amendment would enfranchise women.
One by one, 35 states signed. One more was needed to complete the “Perfect 36,” but none of the recalcitrant Southern or Western states looked ready to budge.
August 1920 was muggy in Nashville. If Tennessee failed to pass the amendment in special session, it likely would die. Family lore says Roberts passionately believed women should vote. Opposition in Tennessee ran high, so Roberts called in every favor and used every ounce of influence to force the issue. In a close vote, the measure passed.
As a child, I discounted the story. My children still do. But journalist that I am I sensed a story. I wrote to American Heritage magazine, suggesting I research the story and record the process.
If the editor deigned to answer, I expected a thin letter. Instead, I got a thick packet. The story—far more dramatic than I imagined—already had been written.
That oppressive summer, the nation focused attention on Nashville, which teemed with reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington and Boston. Suffragists wrote letters, staged rallies and canvassed legislators. Telegrams shot back and forth between the White House and the State House in Nashville. Tempers flared.
Supporters wore yellow roses. Those opposed wore red. Legislators showed their sentiments by pinning roses to their lapels—and the roses showed the amendment would be defeated, 49-47.
A motion to table was defeated when one legislator switched sides. A vote on the amendment was called, and again legislators split, 48-48. A second vote was called, and young Harry Burn—red rose pinned brazenly to his collar—broke the deadlock and voted to enfranchise women. Pandemonium erupted, and Burn climbed out a a third-floor window to escape the mob. He hid in the Capitol attic.
Later, Burn explained that he wore a red rose, but in his pocket he carried his mother’s telegram. His mother’s wishes won out over political expediency and superficial coalitions. He voted for the controversial amendment.
The battle wasn’t over, however. Opponents managed to delay official ratification. Anti-suffrage legislators fled the state to avoid a quorum, and their associates held massive rallies. The coalition held, however, and Tennessee reaffirmed the vote.
On Aug. 28, my uncle signed the bill. Two days later, women earned the constitutional right that white men had possessed since the nation was born, and that black men had possessed since the 1860s.
What did Roberts’ courage win him? Absolutely nothing, in the pragmatists’s view. He’s not mentioned in the history books. Family legend says he was considered for inclusion in Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage but missed the cut. He failed in his bid for re-election and took up the practice of law with his son in Nashville.
He left a legacy, however, a legacy of which his family, his state and his country can be proud. Now, as a government shutdown threatens and rumors of corruption are rampant, I pray that our legislators will become true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.
Photo: Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts (1868–1946) certifying the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Memphis suffragist Charl Williams stands watching. Photo credit: Nashville Tennessean (in the Tennessee State Library and Archives).
This was written one day after 9/11 and published two days later. I think it is worth remembering the raw anguish of that terrible day.
By Jacqueline Kochak
I want you to see the World Trade Center through my eyes.
I lived in metropolitan New York City for 17 years. My children were born there and grew up exploring lower Manhattan. I want you to see the World Trade Center through their eyes.
To understand the importance of this landmark to the city—we always called it “the City,” with a capital C—you have to understand the geography of Manhattan.
Manhattan lies at the center of a vast metropolitan area, stretching west into New Jersey, north into the foothills of the Catskills and east onto Long Island. The other four boroughs are congested and heavily ethnic, full of neat small homes bursting with barely assimilated Italian, Polish, Jewish and Irish families, along with a smattering of Germans and a little bit of every other nationality on earth, just for spice.
If you’re a fan of old movies, think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, not Woody Allen in Manhattan.
I hear that Liberty Park, where we once boarded the ferry from Jersey, is a morgue now. Those rude cabbies, Americans after all, are ripping out their back seats to carry bodies to the ferry.
The island of Manhattan is different. Manhattan is the city of our dreams, the city we love to hate, where skyscrapers rise to breathtaking heights and green space is limited to a generous series of parks. The streets are clogged with honking cabbies, trucks belching exhaust fumes and exasperated businessmen trying to get across town.
Manhattan is raucous yet refined, bumptious yet big-hearted. This is a young, vigorous city that has welcomed immigrants since its birth. Those immigrants have produced offspring just assimilated enough to move to the suburbs, and their descendants have percolated out into the rest of the country.
Every language on earth can be heard on the streets of Manhattan. You’re lucky if you catch a cabbie who speaks adequate English, but the street vendors selling pretzels, Nathan’s hot dogs, knishes and exotic delicacies are priceless.
The city itself is a patchwork of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality. To the north, along the East River, is the tony Upper East Side, home to the wealthy. Across vast Central Park is the funkier Upper West Side, home to the up-and-coming. Below Central Park, the broad boulevards of a great metropolis sweep southward. At the heart of Midtown is Times Square.
After running straight as an arrow from Harlem south, the boulevards lose their confidence somewhere below 14th Street and prove no match for the tourists’ favorite haunt, Greenwich Village, or its grimier cousin, the East Village. Lower still, there’s little planning in Chinatown or the Lower East Side—and stay out of Alphabet City, locals will warn you.
The massive bulk of the World Trade Center’s twin towers once loomed over lower Manhattan, shading the world’s financial nerve center, Wall Street. The buildings were so enormous, so dazzling, so overwhelming that only American wealth—and American hubris—could have dreamed them and built them.
Here, the American colossus flexed its muscle. American business ruled the world—still does, I guess—and the World Trade Center was a shrine to newness, bigness, brashness and brawn. Underneath the giant towers, the subways converged at a major station. Above, several floors of shops and restaurants comprised the ultimate shopping center. Above that rose floor after floor of offices occupied by the best and brightest of the business world.
The top of one tower was a favorite destination for tourists and school groups. I can’t forget the clusters of schoolchildren who made regular pilgrimages up to the observation deck, to “ooh” and “aah” at the spectacular skyline.
The air in lower Manhattan is salt-tinged, because the island juts into New York Harbor where the Statue of Liberty raises her beacon. I hear that Liberty Park, where we once boarded the ferry from Jersey, is a morgue now. Those rude cabbies, Americans after all, are ripping out their back seats to carry bodies to the ferry.
People keep comparing this to Pearl Harbor. They’re wrong in a way, because the casualties are much higher and they’re civilians. They’re right in a way, too, because Pearl Harbor woke up a sleeping giant. Once again we remember who we are.
When Grandmother White shared that newspaper clipping with me, she knew I was becoming a teller of stories. She knew I would tell.
By Jacqueline White Kochak
I am in my Grandmother White’s powder-blue living room in her house on Second Avenue in Dodge City, Kansas. The living room is perfect and neat, with low plush carpeting and a fireplace at one end of the long room. She has lived in this house since before my grandfather died, since before I was born, and I will always associate my grandmother with the soft shade of powder blue.
On this day, Grandmother White has decided to share a family secret with me, a family secret so awful that it had been buried for almost half a century. I am 20-ish and staying with her—I don’t remember why—and we don’t often talk about anything serious. With no preamble and without words, she hands me a yellowed newspaper clipping that she has obviously kept hidden for decades. The story covers the whole front page of the publication, and the aging newsprint is splitting along the fold lines.
We are a family that keeps and guards our secrets zealously. The corollary to that family trait is that secrets so carefully protected must at some point be shared, passed on, in homage to their power. Not shared carelessly, but not lost forever. If never spoken, they might never have existed, which for some might seem a good thing—but how can unspeakable pain be denied completely? For some reason, my grandmother chose me to carry the secret forward.
A SENSELESS FAMILY TRAGEDY
I can’t forget the story. On the hot afternoon of June 25, 1927—a Saturday—my grandmother’s cousin William Payton Justice was out cultivating corn in a distant field with his older brother, John Junior. Neighbors described him as mechanically inclined and said he could handle a tractor as well as a man.
The boys’ father, John Justice Sr., had driven to the grain elevator four miles away for some machinery repairs. The day was stifling hot and humid, with no shade and no relief from the sun, so the two boys had just gone to the house to get a drink, returning to the cornfield together. The 13-year-old boy—I suppose they called him Billy—was a row ahead of his brother when he paused, shaded his eyes as he looked at the vast blue sky, and announced he was going to back to the house.
There is no obvious pathology, no secret violence or alcoholism, no dark shadow of insanity. Just a sticky hot day, perhaps a taint of ineffable sadness, and the aftermath of illness.
At the house, Billy went to the well and gulped down more water. Going into the house, he grabbed a handful of shotgun shells. When his older sister Mary Evelyn asked him why, Billy just grinned. Then he got his gun, but there was nothing so unusual about that; neighbors often saw Billy shooting birds on the farm. This time, though, Billy shot his family.
First he killed his 45-year-old mother, Minnie Elda Oglesby Justice, as she sat mending clothes in a rocking chair on a screened-in porch. Shot in the back, Minnie crumpled forward onto the floor. The local coroner said Billy’s mother died “in the line of duty for her family,” noting that he removed a thimble from her finger. Then the boy shot his 8-year-old sister, Emogene, at close range over the right eye. The position of her body suggested Emogene was trying to escape her brother. Billy’s older sister, 16-year-old Mary Evelyn, was bending over the icebox on the back porch, and her younger brother’s assault was so rapid and unexpected that she didn’t have time to straighten herself or react. Billy’s shot glanced off her spine, causing her to limp the rest of her life.
Then Billy shot himself in the gut. An area physician speculated that drinking the cold water might have had some damaging effect on the boy’s brain, given the day’s smoldering heat. The newspaper headline refers to Billy “running amok” (although the editor spelled it “amuck”) and more than once the reporter opines that the boy must have suffered from temporary insanity. Three dead, a senseless family massacre that today would be reported in newspapers all over the country.
One odd detail caught the attention of the newspaper’s editor, a Mr. N.W. Huston. “It is said that during his recent illness, the boy was annoyed by a woodpecker on the house,” Huston wrote. “He picked up the shotgun with which he committed the tragedy this afternoon and killed the bird.”
I have no idea why my grandmother chose to share this story with me, her eldest granddaughter, and I have no idea why she chose that particular day. My Grandmother White was not a talkative person, nor was she a gossip. She was always proper in both dress and behavior, cognizant of her illustrious Southern forebears. I don’t remember her ever joking, or laughing uncontrollably, or “letting go” in any way.
I think we both knew I was a lot like her, bookish and quiet. My grandfather died before I was born, and when I asked Grandmother White why she never remarried, she admitted, “I couldn’t imagine crawling into bed with another man.” She cautioned me to maintain my professional skills because “men die or they run away,” and when I graduated from college with a degree in journalism, she told me she was proud of me because when she was young, women could only aspire to be nurses or teachers. She was a second-grade teacher for some 30 years after my grandfather died, even though she hadn’t worked while he was alive.
I try to imagine the shame that would have choked the extended family—including my grandmother, her siblings and her parents—a shame so heavy that only hidden memories remained, with no words to pierce the shadows. Even today, my husband cautioned me that perhaps I shouldn’t be telling people this horrific story—and we don’t live in a rural county where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they are not close relatives. I wonder sometimes if those ghosts have left their sign upon me.
THE SCENE: RURAL KANSAS
I try to imagine Cherokee County, Kansas, in the late 1920s, before Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression engulfed the country. I know from experience that the June heat is searing and the humidity is oppressive. The local newspaper also speculated young Billy “went crazy from the sun,” a diagnosis that makes some sense if you’re familiar with the region. Billy also suffered from measles just a few weeks before, the newspaper explained, but his brother described him as “jovial” on the day of the murders.
Although the Justices were all farmers, Cherokee County occupies the western edge of the Ozarks plateau, and the rolling land is rich with minerals like zinc and lead and also with coal. Mining was important to the economy, and the small town nearest to the Justice farm—West Mineral—is so-named because of the nearby coal mines where miners stripped coal from shallow veins. In the 1920s, the area produced a third of all the nation’s bituminous coal, which fired the kilns that processed the zinc and lead mined in the region.
He learned of the tragedy via an email from a distant cousin. Even then, in 2001—more than 70 years after the murders—the subject was deemed too difficult to share with a family member on a public message board.
Iron foundries, cement plants, tile and pottery manufacturers, glass pane factories, lead and zinc sheet mills, and brick plants transformed southeast Kansas into the most industrialized part of a state known for its agricultural prowess. The dirty, dangerous jobs required workers, and so the immigrants came. Census records note that one of the Justices’ neighbors was born in Italy.
But the Justices, all of them, were without exception farmers. My great-grandfather, Joseph Curtis Justice, was the son of one of three brothers who migrated west to Kansas with their families in the 1880s. John Wesley Justice, Billy’s father, was my great-grandfather’s older brother. They came from Illinois, but from the part of that Yankee state that is totally Southern, located across the Ohio River from Kentucky. The area is called Little Egypt because the major city is Cairo, pronounced “Kay-ro.”
LIFE ON THE FARM
I know exactly what young Billy’s life on the farm was like because of my Uncle Joe’s recollections about his grandparents. My great-grandfather, Joe Justice, was John Justice Jr.’s younger brother by four years. I can see my great-grandparents in my mind’s eye, and I know that they—Joe Justice and his wife Laura—must have been very similar to John Justice Sr. and his wife Minnie. They were country people, deeply rooted in their place and deeply connected to their people.
Joe Justice was about 5-foot-10, lean and hard, and I expect his brother was the same. He had sandy hair, chewed plug tobacco and smoked a pipe. He sat in a rocker by the window to watch people go by on the road outside, so my Grandma Justice put paper under the rocker along with a bucket full of sand for her husband to spit in. For her part, my great-grandmother Laura Justice was small and lean and wore long dresses. Her hair, which she wore in a knot on the back of her head, nearly touched the floor when unbound. Might Minnie Elda have been cut from the same template?
The Justices, all of them, worked from daylight until dusk, keeping so busy they almost ran from chore to chore. Laura Justice got up first and started a wood fire in the big steel stove equipped with water storage on each side so they had hot water. I’m sure Billy’s mother, Minnie Elda, did the same. My Grandpa Justice replenished the water every night as well as filling the wood bin, and I expect John Sr. also did the same. Their wives would make biscuits every morning to accompany fried eggs, gravy, ham or bacon, and coffee. On my great-grandparents’ farm, they milked as many as 10 cows each morning; Laura always milked two, while my Joe and Houston, the only child left at home by the time Uncle Joe made his debut, milked the rest.
When that chore was done, they carried the milk to the cellar where they collected cream in a cream can to sell in town. Milk they intended to use was hung in the cool depths of the well, while the rest was fed to the hogs. The family raised chickens, too, and grew vegetables. Profit from selling the little bit of leftover eggs and cream to the general store was used to buy flour, sugar, coffee, and cornflakes. They enjoyed ice only on Saturdays, and only if they were making ice cream. Somehow, I know Billy’s family lived the same kind of life.
And both Justice families, like all their neighbors, still farmed with mules, smart but balky animals. When old Joe Justice went to the barn and got their harnesses out, the mules knew they were going to have to work. They didn’t like that, so my great-grandfather would take a mule’s ear in his mouth and bite down until the stubborn beast stood still and let him finish getting them harnessed.
When Houston graduated from high school, he told his parents he absolutely would not stay on the farm unless they bought a tractor. He said he wouldn’t walk behind the mules ever again, because the obstinate beasts are famous for passing clouds of gas that engulf anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. Houston’s stubbornness turned out to be a good thing, because the farm never had a money crop until they bought a tractor and planted wheat.
At the time Billy was working in the field with his older brother, though, they were still dealing with balky, smelly mules. Billy’s life wasn’t easy, no question, but why would he turn on his mother and sisters?
A TAINT OF INEFFABLE SADNESS
Joe Justice was a good man and well-respected, but my Grandmother White described him as a man who was very serious and not given to smiling or enjoying himself. My grandmother was much the same, and that has made me wonder about the dark stain of depression that runs through my family and might have touched young Billy, the boy who killed his family. Yet they were a “happy, contented family of farm people,” neighbors told the newspaper.
Volumes have been written about children who kill, and more particularly children who kill their families. Of course I didn’t know Billy’s family, but I know his cousins and their stories. There is no obvious pathology, no secret violence or alcoholism, no dark shadow of insanity. Just a sticky hot day, perhaps a taint of ineffable sadness, and the aftermath of illness. As I have pondered this story, that illness has caught my attention.
Most children today never experience the discomfort, high temperature and spreading red rash of measles, but in Billy’s day almost every child succumbed. As childhood illnesses that were so common they were expected, diseases like measles and chicken pox don’t sound very scary at all. Even today, however, medical books note the existence of a rare disease of the central nervous system called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), which may develops after a person has measles, even though the person seems to have returned to good health. The healthy interim is usually many years but can be as short as a month. Adolescent or younger boys are most vulnerable to the progressive brain inflammation, which in its earliest stage causes personality changes, mood swings, or depression. The prognosis is bleak.
When I dug a little deeper, I learned that in the late 1800s, infection was accepted as one of the causes of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Emil Kraepelin—the German physician who is considered the founder of modern psychiatry—described rare cases of insanity following such once-common diseases as chicken pox, scarlet fever and measles, with the aforementioned brain inflammation the suspected cause. By Billy’s time thinking had swung around to the belief that insanity was caused only by experiences or by genetics, and only recently is infection once again being considered as a cause.
PERHAPS SILENCE WAS A KINDNESS
I have pored over what records I can find, trying to reconstruct that place and that time in my mind. I imagine Billy’s father and older brother returning to the house to find a bloodbath on a hot June afternoon. From census records, it looks entirely possible the shattered family continued to live in the rural farmhouse, located on a dirt road in the county’s northwest corner. Billy’s father lived just six more years, dying in 1933. His older brother Junior and his surviving sister Evelyn lived out the rest of their lives in the area; Junior was buried in the county seat of Columbus some 40 years later.
I have wondered how a secret of this magnitude could be kept for so many years. My father never knew until I told him, although my Uncle Joe heard some of the story from his uncle Houston, an inveterate gossip. Far more puzzling, Billy’s older brother Junior—the one left alive in the field when his mother and sister were slaughtered, the one who discovered the bodies when he heard gunshots—went on to raise a family. That family was completely unaware of the tragedy.
As best I can determine, Junior’s two sons and one daughter grew up in southeast Kansas, in close proximity to the murder site, attending high school in nearby West Mineral. Yet no one ever breathed a word of the family shame. At the time of the crime, some 30,000 people resided in the county, but just a handful of them—a few hundred—lived in the rural townships where my family members lived. Perhaps the murders were just a quickly forgotten curiosity, or perhaps in a rural neighborhood where many people were related to one another, silence was kindness. Perhaps the silence was like a scab covering an open wound, allowing healing to occur.
Mary Evelyn and her brother Junior apparently grew apart. She had no children herself, and Junior’s sons did not know they had an aunt named Evelyn until one of them—another John Justice—got bit by the genealogy bug. Seeking information about his father’s family, he ventured into a public genealogy forum and learned of the tragedy via an email from a distant cousin. Even then, in 2001—more than 70 years after the murders—the subject was deemed too difficult to share with a family member on a public message board.
In fact, to the best of my recollection, my grandmother and I never again spoke of the family’s heartbreak after I folded up that yellowed newspaper and returned it to her for safekeeping. I have wondered if the story is really mine to tell, or if by telling the story I will be causing pain to some descendant who doesn’t yet know his or her family’s bloody history. Yet, when Grandmother White shared that newspaper clipping with me, she knew I was becoming a teller of stories. She knew I would tell.
On Sunday mornings, strange thoughts waft through my cluttered mind. Oh, the blood (and DNA) will tell!
Jacqueline White Kochak
I do my best thinking about people when I’m sitting in a choir stall at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on a Sunday morning, gazing out at hundreds of mostly white faces. I’m euphoric as my choir mates and I sing, but then my mind wanders. I know I should be minding Father Bill’s pithy homily, but the temptation to ruminate about people and their foibles, with such a wealth of examples laid out before me, is irresistible.
I watch a trim, handsome widower as he links arms with a young woman who once attended Mass with her former husband and their young son, and I wonder how the transition came about. I look for my friends. I wonder why that skinny teenager is dressed as though she is going to the beach. And often, the thought that wafts through my cluttered mind is that I’m more closely related to Paula Whatley Matabane, a “black” woman, than I am to any of these parishioners.
Most of the people in my church are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Polish and Italian and Irish and German immigrants from Europe, the Catholic refuse that washed up on America’s shores. I am separated from these people by many, many generations, and we share little but pale skin. My family, on the other hand, has been here since the 1600s and early 1700s, fanning out from Virginia and moving west.
I am separated from Paula by a mere five generations, and my mother is even closer to her—and my grandmother closer still. We both know the sad history that made us distant cousins, and that is another thing I ruminate upon. How could I, in my amnesiac present, not know that my family owned slaves? Many slaves, apparently.
I’ve seen their names in my forebears’ wills, parceling out Sally to a daughter, Tom to a son, sometimes with specific instructions that one not be sold, but that her “increase” be divided among the heirs. The passage of many years and many miles is part of the reason my family has been blessed with amnesia. Otherwise, the understanding might be unbearable.
Editor’s note: The artwork is from my daughter’s current show in Miami. Paula and I are writing down our thoughts about our new relationship, so I might share a few of them here. You can learn more about Natalya Kochak’s project here. And here is an interesting article on the subject of skin color.
I am deeply offended that Kid Rock wears the American flag as a cheap, in-your-face costume. I am not offended that American football players ‘take the knee’ to protest what they perceive as injustice.
I’ve never been interested in football. My head is full of every kind of trivia except sports trivia. Until this last weekend I was only vaguely aware of a guy named Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling protest, and my impression was that perhaps he was somewhat melodramatic and self-promotional.
Then Donald Trump brought himself down to the state where I live, Alabama. In a rambling speech, the President of the United States mused, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when someone disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”
I was shocked, and ashamed. On Sunday, other football players followed Kaepernick’s example. Some of them explained why, in eloquent terms. Their actions ignited a firestorm of controversy, including on my Facebook page. One casual friend sanctimoniously posted, “Memo to the millionaires of the NFL from Americans who understand the price of freedom: Fallen Vet Lives Matter. That’s what the flag represents to all who have been handed one after it was draped over the remains of their loved one.”
For the life of me, I couldn’t see what the protest had to do with “fallen vets,” and I’m willing to bet she’s never known a single one herself. To me, football players kneeling quietly didn’t seem disrespectful, but I get it. I understand that for some, the protests were inappropriate. Still, “fallen vets”?
Being the mouthy troublemaker that I am, I posted a picture of an unkempt, stringy-haired Kid Rock dressed in—you guessed it—an American flag. “Tell that to Kid Rock,” I said, noting that he had been invited to the White House.
“I don’t know a thing about Kid Rock, but if I see someone clothed in a flag or having a flag draped over their dead body residing in a coffin, I think ’That person is passionate about the survival of this nation and what our founders stood for,’” she responded.
I was dumbfounded. Foul-mouthed Kid Rock, who used the “f” word in announcing his interest in running for the U.S. Senate, who starred in a 1999 sex tape, who has used the Confederate flag as an on-stage prop, was “passionate about the survival of this nation and what our founders stood for.”
I know my acquaintance isn’t evil, but her willingness to pretend Kid Rock was somehow admirable while excoriating a bunch of kneeling, mostly black football players was deeply disconcerting.
I am deeply offended that Kid Rock wears the American flag as a cheap, in-your-face costume. I am not offended that American football players “take the knee” to protest what they perceive as injustice.
So who is the patriot? I’ll put my credentials up against hers any day of the week. My ancestors fought in nearly every war in this country’s history, including the American Revolution. In fact, some of them brought their anti-English sentiments and penchant for independence with them when they were transported as Scottish prisoners of war.
Some claim that one of my forebears, an Overmountain Man by the name of Samuel Shannon, fired the shot that killed Major Patrick Ferguson at the pivotal Battle of King’s Mountain in the American Revolution. Another ancestor worked as a surveyor with George Washington, then joined the young general at his request when the spirit of rebellion spread. My family were the rough frontiersmen who pushed west so my friend’s family could immigrate many years later and live in comfort. They fought on both sides in the uncivil Civil War, and in almost every war since.
And who respects veterans more? My grandfathers were veterans, and my father. So are both of my brothers, my sister-in-law, my nephew and my son. I deeply resent the suggestion that I am somehow less patriotic because I don’t agree with people who are promoting what I believe to be a false narrative, who have cynically co-opted the flag and fallen heroes as their own symbols and told me I don’t belong in their club.
These super-patriots, without exception, identify themselves as “conservative,” and spit out “liberal” as if it were a dirty word. They’ve also frequently donned the cloak of religion, and that brings me to the idea of cheap grace, grace without paying a price.
The grace of some of these “football patriots” is cheap and easy; they may be Christians who have been forgiven, but they are not Christians compelled to examine their own lives or follow the narrow path of loving one another, even when it is difficult.
They’re comfortable, wrapped in their flags. And that brings me to Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. In writing about Adolf Eichmann, Arendt described his absolute and thoughtless symbiosis with Nazi norms, which allowed him to commit unspeakable evil as the man who managed the logistics of transporting Jews and others to their deaths. Within those warped norms, Eichmann was deserving of respect and approval.
I know my acquaintance isn’t evil, but her willingness to pretend Kid Rock was somehow admirable while excoriating a bunch of kneeling, mostly black football players was deeply disconcerting. To protect her worldview, she was able to distort reality, moving pieces around until they fit in a way she wanted them to fit. She needed to pretend that somehow the President was justified in his statement—no matter how offensive—and therefore the football players had to be bad.
What could be worse than disrespecting fallen veterans? Never mind that not one of the protesters ever suggested such a motive, and some are veterans themselves.
For that brief Facebook moment, I believe my acquaintance abandoned the critical thought and questioning mind that are fundamental to authentic morality. And for that brief moment, I understood that unquestioning allegiance and a sense of righteous zeal can be an ugly combination. I glimpsed a place I’m afraid to go and a person I’m afraid to know.
Editor’s note: So yeah, I overthink things. My acquaintance is, in fact, a good and caring person whose unthinking comment sent me to a bad place. Most of the conservative Christians I know are kind, sincere people, and so are most of the liberal Christians of my acquaintance, as well as the non-Christians. I had a bad day.
A ghost has haunted my dreams for more than 30 years. He is evanescent and ephemeral, in the way of dream figures. Unlike most ghosts, however, today he exists somewhere, most likely balding, with a pot belly.
Long ago, I knew him well. His name was Tim—still is, I guess. He was a frat boy with a houseful of Beta brothers all bound for law and medical school. His daddy was a doctor, and the golden boy was on the same track. He had a loving family, with two sisters, a brother…
It’s been a scorching Kansas summer day, 103 degrees in the shade in the days before air conditioning. You can’t get in the car wearing shorts because the vinyl seat is too hot, and you can’t walk barefoot on asphalt or cement or you’ll be sorry. If you are out in the country, you’ll see water shimmering where the highway meets the horizon, but you know it’s a mirage.
Better to be outside than indoors, though, because in western Kansas there’s always wind, sending tumbleweeds scuttling down the side of the road. I’m not talking about a timid little breeze, flirting with the treetops. I’m talking wind, always wind, a familiar companion like a lullaby that eases me to sleep at night.
‘My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof.’
I’m alone in the backyard. I’ve used a slender tree branch to draw a circle in a patch of dirt beside the sidewalk that leads to the back porch, and I’m sitting inside the circle with my skinny legs crossed. This is my teepee, and I’m an Indian maiden. It’s getting towards suppertime, and Mother is in the kitchen cooking. Probably biscuits with dried beef gravy, because we ate a lot of that in those days.
Daddy is away, as usual, and my sister Kelly and brother Steve must be inside playing. Mother comes out on the screened back porch, pokes her head out the door, and asks, “Jacque, have you seen the twins?”
No, I haven’t, so she shakes her head as she wipes her hands on her apron. “Well, you better look for them. Those boys are going to give me gray hair,” she says.
So I unfold myself from my teepee and gallop across the yard to look behind the old outhouse. I crawl through the hole in the wire fence behind the outhouse and search around the rusty, decrepit farm equipment behind the barn. We are trained to stay away from the ramshackle chicken house and the barn’s interior, so I don’t check there. I don’t figure they’d dare go inside.
Deciding they must not be outside, I move my search indoors. I look upstairs, systematically checking each one of the four bedrooms and their closets. I return to Mother’s tiny kitchen, where Bruce and Brent have been known to race ants across the counter.
“Mama, I can’t find them,” I say tentatively, knowing I should have been watching them.
Consternation etches her pretty face, then anger. I cringe, because I know how my mother’s anger can escalate, culminating in a session with the pink plastic hairbrush, its bristles bent from contact with our bottoms and other tender parts. She’s too worried to waste time on me, though. My brothers are a handful, and there’s no telling where they’ve gotten to.
The mystery is soon solved. The doorbell rings, and a policeman looms in the front door, blocking out the bright late-afternoon sun. Bruce and Brent are in tow, their faces dirty and their bright blue eyes intent as they gaze at my flustered mother. They contentedly lick chocolate ice cream cones, with just as much ice cream dripping onto their t-shirts as makes it into their mouths.
“Mommy, wook!” says Bruce as he shows her his melting ice cream. They are about 3 years old, and their speech is a little hard to understand. In fact, they have their own language between them, a language that nobody else can understand.
The tall, kindly officer explains that the boys turned up at the drive-in restaurant located a block away and across four-lane South Second Avenue. I know he is kindly because, after the bemused owner called the law, the policeman showed up and bought my errant brothers ice cream before he brought them home. I see this as patently unfair, because they got in trouble, tempted fate by crossing a busy street, and received a reward for their daring.
My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof. When they were younger my mother tried attaching them to the clothesline with dog leashes, but they undid the latches.
As teenagers, Bruce and Brent often preferred to sleep on the floor, and they made their own bows and arrows from Osage orange, common on the Great Plains. The big green fruit, bigger than a softball, is known as a hedge apple because the Osage orange, like the cottonwood, is common in the windbreaks that stopped the wind from stripping the fields. The heavy, fine-grained yellow wood is prized for tool handles, fence posts—and bows. In the early 19th century, a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket.
Don’t ask me how my brothers knew this, but they knew a lot of things that didn’t make sense for them to know. Once Brent told me that he and Bruce were reincarnated Indians, and I half believed him. Now, he says he doesn’t remember saying any such thing.
As the oldest child, I was usually nominally in charge when we played in the yard. Once, Kelly and Steve got into a giant ant pile, which left them screaming and crying as the ants stung them. Mother, enraged, demanded to know why I had let them get into the ant pile.
“And why did you get in the ant pile?” she also demanded to know of them. Kelly and Steve told her Bruce and Brent were playing in the ant pile, so she asked them why they would do such a thing.
“The ants are our friends,” the 4-year-olds replied. And the truth is that the ants were their friends, never stinging them—just one more thing I can’t explain about my brothers.
I didn’t know my brother was gay until close to the time he died. When AIDS stole his life, I was advised not to tell.
By Jacque White Kochak
When my brother died of AIDS, I was advised not to tell anyone. My adviser was a parent at my son’s school. A well-meaning pediatrician, he was short and round, with glasses and a single tuft of hair on his balding head. I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I took his advice.
I was living in the suburbs of New York City, and the year was 1995. The AIDS epidemic had settled in; at that point, some 500,000 cases had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta…
This column by Gillis Morgan was first printed several years ago in The Auburn Villager and won first place for commentary that year in the Alabama Press Association Better Newspaper Contest. I am reprinting the column in honor of Gillis’ receiving a 2016 Auburn Journalism Honors award this month.
By Gillis Morgan
Sometimes I can think of more reasons not to write about a heavy thought or a dark memory, and I have found that not to write about something is simply a way of running away from it.
But it always catches up with you.
So right now I have decided to write about the darkness of a memory I have been running away from for 58 years.
The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes.
It was in June of 1952, about a week or so after my high school graduation from Evergreen High in south Alabama.
My plan was to join the Navy, get the GI Bill and then attend college to study journalism. My father was lobbying for chemical engineering, but we would have more time to think about that after four years in the Navy.
“You’ve got about two weeks before you join the Navy, so you have time to get a job,” Dad said. “Try the bus station. They’re always looking for somebody to pump gas.”
Dad was always saying that “a man without a job is not a man,” so I got the 8-to-midnight shift at the Greyhound bus station pumping gas. A character named Slim was the night manager. He was over six feet tall, lean and wiry, and had tattoos, which back then left a man’s character open for question.
I had been there a week, when about 11 p.m. on a Friday night the bus from Montgomery roared in, air brakes pumping and loaded with passengers. Evergreen served as the rest stop between Montgomery, 94 miles on north on U.S. Highway 31, and Mobile 113 miles south.
As the passengers were unloading to make their way to the station café, I was walking away from the pumps. Slim was standing outside the café door, and I was walking toward him when a young black man got off the bus, stretching and yawning his way to the café door.
I saw Slim reach into his pocket to grip a leather scabbard that held his ticket puncher.
At the black man approached the door, Slim snatched out the scabbard in his right hand and then slapped the young man on the left side of his mouth, and I could hear Slim saying something but I could not make out the words because of the roar of the bus motor.
The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes. As he tried to stand, Slim charged again and slapped at him with the scabbard as the man backed up and began to stumble his way back to the open bus door. He got on the bus. The bus driver and the passengers were still inside the café.
Slim opened the café door and went inside. There was no one else out front.
I looked at the bus, and I turned away. I didn’t check out from my shift. I just started walking home, all the while thinking: “I didn’t do a damn thing.”
All these years, and I still feel guilty.
I never told anyone about what happened that night at the bus station—not my folks, not anyone.
After I joined the Navy, went to college, majored in journalism and started working, I never told anyone. Even when I was covering the Selma-to-Montgomery march I never told anyone.
It was only after I came to Auburn in 1977 that I told someone.
This past week was the first time I have ever written about it, and I rewrote it at least three times.
I never saw Slim again. Nor in all my visits to my hometown did anyone mention that night. I don’t know if anyone else knew about it.
And I figured the young man who got attacked then got back on the bus just went on to Mobile or Pensacola. It was 1952, and I don’t think he would have gotten much attention with his story.
Was I scared of what I had seen? Of Slim? I think I was scared, but I didn’t run home that night. I walked.
And after thinking about it while writing about it I think what I felt was mostly shock. And I have always felt guilt and pain. A whole bunch of guilt and pain.
After I decided to send this in to Jacque, my editor, I sent a copy to a friend who grew up in Evergreen but now lives in Huntsville. I asked him if I could include his letter and use his name—James Daniels.
It is a beautiful letter, and it made me feel better. Here is the letter.
Gilly: Thanks for that painful, heart-rending story. I know that, like all of us in our younger years in older times, you suffered from shame at your own inaction. But also, as we all did, there was the inertia of the soul that kept us from reacting in accordance with our conscience in black-white relations.
It was just the way we all were, like our parents, like our neighbors, like our friends, like the whole white South…and yes, like the blacks themselves, just bogged in our cultural swamp. As youths in that overwhelming noxious atmosphere of white adult prejudice, we felt the absolute helplessness of any overt response that would be counter to the norm.
I, too, saw acts similar to the Slim incident on a number of occasions, even among my own kin. And, of course, I was hypersensitive to the constant lesser incidents, where I did not speak up or express my own evolving sentiments. I don’t excuse myself, Gilly, for not acting, for not standing up for my own conscience.
And, today, I don’t dwell on regrets and self-flagellation for my guilt. Yet, like you, I still can’t erase from memory such childhood failures to protest prejudice. But I find some solace in the fact that I did at times at least raise objection to my parents and some few adults.
And I know that in my adult years I have stood up for my convictions on a number of occasions. Of course, the climate of change and the protection of law had become prevalent by the time I started openly holding my stand.
Gilly, we need never regret nor dwell in self-condemnation for the timidities of our youth. Be proud, good friend, that in the soggy, foggy environment of our birth and childhood that we saw the light of right, anyway, and threaded our way through childhood thickets and found the dry hummocks through swamps of our youth toward the brightness. And that, today, though shadows still fall all around us, we live in the light.
And don’t forget that “the child is father of the man.” And you are today a product of all that you experienced as a child and a youth—the good, the bad, the indifferent. And, be grateful to the Creator for the cards he dealt you. You have played them well, my friend.
Now, my children, my sermon next week will be on sin and all the pitfalls therein!
The Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council presented the annual awards during a luncheon at the AU Hotel and Conference Center on Sept. 9. Also receiving awards were Rick Bragg, David Housel, Philip Marshall and Ken Hare.