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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Owning it: Some Thoughts on Henderson and McKinney

[This was a post I was saving for later, but due to some recent questions from a generous commenter, I thought I'd like to share them now. Thanks, kbxmas for some hard questions! --Jackrabbit]

...I'm not going to step away from that and say, "We need to show the world that this didn't happen."  I mean, these people are trying to distance themselves from the crime.   And we need to own this crime.  I feel.  Everyone needs to own it.  We are like this.  We ARE like this.  WE are LIKE this.
--Zubaida Ula, in TLP (2001): 60

Zubaida makes an important point about the Laramie community: "Everyone needs to own this crime." It's a statement I've tried to take to heart recently.  Whether either of us like it or not, Zubaida and I both belonged to a community which produced a McKinney, a Henderson, and a Matt Shepard.  It also helped mold the two of us into what we are.  As much as we might value our unfettered individualism out west, communities like Laramie are heavily interconnected, and each person has to claim some knowledge of and responsibility for another.

Another problem is that this realization flies in the face of a western plains ideal: each person is only responsible for themselves and their own.  For that reason, there's a tendency to deny the fact of that interconnectedness of the community when it comes to personal responsibility.  "Why should we have a black eye over this?" many of us might reason.  "I didn't murder Shepard, and I didn't approve of it.  You can't force this on me."  I've heard that same argument from my family on several fronts, and the argument is always the same: I am not the perpetrator.  If I didn't personally do it, then I'm not personally responsible for it.  We don't want to own it even if it's woven into the warp and woof of our identities.   

But, don't we have a responsibility to own this?  Don't we have to embrace our identities so that they don't define us in ways we can't control? 

Aversion.  I want to distance myself.
They are nothing to me.
I am not of them.
I find myself overcome with anger.  Anger for being caught up in their mess.  Watching them out of the corner of my eye, trying to act normally, laughing, smoking-- a slushy fear invades me...
When the amnesty hearing begins, I go to sit in a bench close to them.  To look for signs-- their hands, their fingernails, in their eyes, on their lips-- signs that these are the faces of killers, of the Other.  For future reference: the Face of Evil.  (113-114)
What do I do with this?  They are as familiar as my brothers, cousins, and school friends.   Between us all distance is erased.  Was there perhaps never a distance except the one I have build up with great effort within myself over the years?...  What I have in common with them is a culture-- and part of that culture over the decades hatched the abominations for which they are responsible. 

In a sense, it is not these men but a culture that is asking for amnesty.    (121) 
--Antjie Krog, on interviewing the Vlakplaas Five,
in Country of My Skull, 1998

For some reason, as I think through these issues of cultural responsibility and mutual accountability, I keep thinking back to South Africa.  In some ways, the cultural rift in South Africa is a poor fit with the culture I grew up with, but in other ways it's perfect: the Voortrekker mythos is very much like the pioneer ideal I grew up with, and that agrarian, ranch-driven community in the wilderness of my childhood has been just as reluctant to give their cultural pride to the cold scrutiny of the outside world as the Boere.  In a way, the extreme nature of South Africa's identity battle makes it so much easier to spot and identify the same issues in my own culture. 

And then there's the Truth Commission: in a sense, the TRC was a nationwide and expansive version of exactly what Kaufman would do with Tectonic Theater in my college town: give a performative, national platform for an entire culture to speak its testimony about the atrocities committed.  The political consequences (like amnesty to perpetrators) is a completely different ball of wax, but the impulse is the same: in the face of a terrible trauma, the whole culture must step before a mirror and speak the truth about what they see.  Again, South Africa provides in a macrocosm what TLP does on a much more limited but nevertheless important scale. 

And so, on this question of collective responsibility I naturally turn to South Africa again.  In the passage I quoted above, Antjie Krog is a reporter covering the revelations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and during the proceedings she faces down her own personal nightmare: that the murderers and torturers of the South African Apartheid are Afrikaners.  So is Krog, and she's both repelled by and drawn to the murderers for their familiarity.   She feels a need to identify with them and yet to reject them, to reject their Afrikaans and their Boer culture--  and she can't do that without ripping her own identity apart.  How does one resolve the disjunction, to both embrace the "country of my skull" for what it is and to recognize the evil it has produced? There's no good answer.   For Krog, she struggles to do just that for hundreds of pages, through months of horrific stories of abuse and torture, and at the end of it she still finds herself branded as an "apologist" and reviled by those who prefer to live in denial.  And at the end of the painful, gut-wrenching revelations of the Truth Commission, there isn't even the feeling that has accomplished what they hoped-- only the conviction that,  for good or ill, bearing the country's sores into the open was the right thing to do. 

Like Krog, I personally feel like I need to "own" Henderson and McKinney, like something about them is part of who I am.  That feeling unnerves me.   It's not their views on homosexuality, actually, although that's obviously an important point.   It's because I look at Henderson's hair and McKinney's empty, angry eyes and see parts of my own family.  One of the disturbing things about watching The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later and listening to Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney speak is that I finally understood what molded them.  I've heard those words before: that unflinching admiration for a hard and distant father.  That utter helplessness to the whims of the world.  Both of them speak from the script of abuse, and it's a script that floats in my family, too.

 I have grown so close to men like these that we share skin.  Abusive families tend to produce both kinds, you see, often in the same generation-- the angry, resentful child, the doer, the one who often becomes an abuser himself.  Then there's the paralyzed non-actor like Russell, who feels completely helpless and for whom peace and safety are more important than having a free will.   He's often the one that stands helplessly by and tries to negotiate peace at all costs. 

I look into the hate and distrust in Aaron McKinney's cold, dark eyes and I see my grandfather's looking back.  I look into Henderson's and see my grandfather's children.  My father is a good man, but the shock waves of my grandfather's abuse lapped down through my mother to us nonetheless.  I watched my family and the families of friends, and I saw Aarons and Russells everywhere, nearly always together.  In each instance, I can almost always find them both-- Aarons and Russells. 

And the women?  We get these same traits, of course, and some even become abusers like the men, but they just manifest differently in us. For instance, women who grow up in that situation tend to gravitate towards one of these two types in a mate, and that's something I see in my family.   My sister has married an Aaron McKinney down to his very bones.   I very nearly married a Russell: loving, sweet, and completely helpless in the face of personal conflict, terrified at his own capacity for rage.   Both of them have the same kind of abusive father lurking in the background.

So I don't think I can disown Aaron and Russell without disowning something important about myself.  If I refuse to admit that same culture which has shaped part of who I am, then my own life becomes wilderness, a foreign territory.  And if I have children, I won't be able to help them traverse that same territory in themselves, to recognize its pitfalls and and keep from getting lost in its expanse.   I have to own this part of my life and walk its boundaries, to know how far it reaches, and to what lengths it determines my identity so that I don't have to get lost in it, swallowed up.  In a sense, that's what happened to both McKinney and Henderson-- they were swallowed up in a cycle that they couldn't see outside of or to tell how to remove themselves from.  McKinney wound up worshiping the very thing that probably crippled him emotionally, and Henderson lost himself inside of it.   They didn't "own it"-- and when the critical moment came, that wilderness inside them took them by surprise.

I'm guessing that no one was more surprised than Aaron when he discovered himself murdering an innocent man on the edge of town, but it was there inside him the whole time, buried in his own landscape.  He just never walked the boundaries to own himself and to see what his life contained. 

A lot of people are going to grouse that I have labeled the entire western, rural culture that I grew up with as "abusive," and I'm not.  What I am saying is that there are certain traits of my culture that can make toleration of that level of abuse fairly easy.  The spread out nature of the old farmsteads once made it hard to interfere with one's neighbors, and the father of a farm was a law unto himself because no higher authority was available for miles.  The continuation of the family unit, especially in the winter, was a matter of survival.  Sometimes, with no way to escape the isolation and poverty, the mother would lash out at the children. 

My culture produces strong-minded, independent and remarkable women who can work and demand the same lot as men; I hope I can call myself one of them.  We can talk back and take care of themselves, but only to a specific point-- we almost never leave.  Those women in abusive circumstances often form female social bonds for comfort and defense, but those female societies still condemn breaking up the family.  The tendency is to treat abuse like it's a force of nature, something that has to be endured, something you fight through to survive like a bad winter or a drought.   The tough ones stick it out, they don't pack up and move home.    Very few of the abused women I knew growing up were timid and helpless; they were quite the opposite, in fact.  They had to be strong, amazing women in order to help themselves, their children, and their sisters survive. 

The same things that I love about my culture and made me an independent and free thinker has allowed that abuse to flourish in its midst.  If I own who I am, I have to own those other things as well.  Because if I don't, then I don't know who I am-- and if I don't know who I am, I don't know how to tell what is true because my own values remain dark to me.

And I think that's where Laramie, and South Africa, and all of us can get into trouble: if you don't own up to who you are, how then do you know what about yourself is true?  How do you know if anything is true?

Is the truth that closely related to identity?  It must be.  What you believe to be true depends on who you believe yourself to be. 
--Antjie Krog, in Country of My Skull (125)

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