Parlor Discourse on Retooling fatherhood. Or how to crawl out of that sink hole.

Paternity Parlor part one.  The Lovely Bones.

Let’s narrow down Dean’s question from our last Parlor, “What is it to be a man?” and just take a look at dad.  Since back before we daughters can remember a father’s role has revolved in great part round being the one who protects those too young, too weak to protect themselves, and most ferociously, his blood.

Yes, evil’s out there, and in here, in all its spectacular and mundane forms.  A darkness that destroys, ever shapeshifting and clever.  A darkness much entangled with our will to life, evolving right along side everything else, feeding off the energy of love like sugar while the revenge response, always to do with violence, spreads evil’s infection in a sort of contact contagion, working more to cauterize life’s flow than protect it.

Both The Lovely Bones and In a Better World are tales of darkness and its violence – one of a daughter lost to it, one of a son in danger of being lost.  Both have in them fathers struggling to forge narrow passage away from their paternal role as the omnipotent protector and when failing (as inevitably all fathers do, if only with their own deaths) both resist the default pull of paternal revenge and retribution, that old eye for an eye which isn’t, being in fact an escalation.

Instead, the fathers in these stories open their wounded hearts to become seekers of a re-balance, however transitory, however built on that rushing air carried atop rivers, in the hope of allowing for their families’ re-emergent, tentative lean toward life.  Tricky, this.  This re-positioning of fathers to face forward somehow, to find with their surviving loved ones a way not retribution, not “closure” either, rather an away from the ravages of the protector’s revenge, that scorched earth where nothing grows, that infectious, viral realm of Monsters, those beings of violence given over to the spreading darkness.

A free spirit is blooming in 14 year old Susie Salmon in her story The Lovely Bones, a story of the 1960’s, an era emblematic of openings.  On her bike, snapping her hundreds of photos, feeling attraction to a young man, engaging in all the activities of a curious, running-toward-life-becoming young woman.  Susie’s father ventures to grow with and in response to her emergent being, encouraging her brilliance as he explores an allowing fatherhood built on trust and not on presuming the worst of this world.  Neither Susie nor her father, nor anyone else recognizes the monster living down the block, a monster attracted by Susie’s very burning bright.   But this story it is not an “I told you so,”  not a story that invalidates a father’s allowing in his daughter.  And this story is not a warning to all our Susies to dampen their radiance, or else.

A man’s fatherhood marks family territory as his.  Our daughterhood has been as property, a part of the protectorate.  The symbiotic equation is, our being in need of protection gives definition to him as the protector.  We know the stakes are high, that a part of his identity will fall away without our need.  All that’s required is we concur we are weak, that it is our native inclination to concern ourselves with domestic matters in our cede of worry about evil, out there. The delusion here, in our rush to play a supporting role, say, as the good daughter, is that we might be protected from loss and pain.

What is it for a daughter to be strong enough to be thought able to protect herself?  Is strength only a hope held by some parents who choose not to bind and limit, not to scar and imprint their daughters with fear “for her own good?”  This is a yet-being conceived strength, this other strength, not manstrength.  How to encourage that?  Knowing there are dangers but knowing too, that without our seeing strength in them so they come to see it in themselves, our daughters can not become strong.  This is a re-framing which allows, makes room for and confirms as an expression of faith, “You can do.  You are capable of caring for yourself when I can no longer, which time will come.”

Contrary to old narrative ways of framing, a young woman’s radiant shining has nothing to do with calling up the monster’s cause and darkness.  Monsters exist of their own tormented origin.  Susie has no idea she stirs up a violent brew in the heart of her neighborhood monster by nothing other than her brilliant and budding presence, an organic opening to life she simply embodies and which the monster can not tolerate.  Because it disturbs his so carefully constructed façade of normal identity, his perfect doll house, Susie is held responsible for not keeping up her side of his identity equation.  An impossible task and not hers to hold, but his need to repress and destroy the voracious horrors buried within him is insatiable.  So he displaces the burden of these tumults onto Susie for containment.  And then, of course, Susie herself must itself be contained and removed from sight.  Her light of life extinguished for his “uses.”

This film is a Baroque potpourri of images and symbols of containments and disappearing.  Sailboats in bottles, penguins in snow bowls.  Scale models of doll houses,  underground fiery holes in dead cornfields dug to hide and consume and make void.  Muddy, gaping sink holes into which unwanted refuse is rolled.  Like Susie.

“Look at me, what he did to me,” Susie says after her death, looking down on life from her gazebo in-between heaven and earth. “What am I now?  The dead girl.  The lost girl, the missing girl.  I’m nothing.”  Because that’s what the evil does, it voids us out, this potent transformational force for darkness.  For un-consciousness.  “Murder changes everything. When I was alive, I never hated anything.  But now hate was all I had.  I want him dead,” Susie says of her neighborhood monster.   She wants him dead. Who better to carry out this daughter’s want than her father?

Susie’s father shows himself early in the backstory to be a benevolent practitioner of his own hobby of contained perfection, putting sailing ships in bottles.  He demonstrates its intricacies to an eager Susie in flashback.  Later, with her unresolved disappearance a growing curse and her father unable to find a conduit for his pain, Susie watches from her afterlife place as he smashes this collection, a trick of folded sails and once in, never to come out except by breaking the container that’s meant to stop the arc of dissolution that is organic life.  And the pain of life’s loss.

Later, when her father discovers that the monster who killed his daughter lives down the street, his pain galvanizes into rage.  It is the nature of rage, as lightening, to seek ground wherever it finds it.  And often it is mistaken in its strike, burning the innocent.  And so Susie’s father, in a violent rage seeking revenge makes a grave mistake wielding a bat in the cornfield inciting the counter-rage of an entirely innocent other man.  Susie watches the unfolding devastation of her beloved father, a devastation she’s encouraged by her hate and says, “I realized what I’d done.  I willed him to stop, to turn back.”  But to no avail.  He ends up in the hospital.  The monstrous darkness spreading from Susie’s homicide is consuming her family, too.

Seeing the carnage of her wounded father, her scattered family, her younger sister in danger, Susie now understands she must admit that the monster has tainted her lifestory with horror, there’s nothing to be done about it.  She must evolve in herself the strength to bear witness to her violent end.  She must track her own disappearance.  No one can do it for her.  This discovery is sequenced with her coming to understand her father’s infinite/finite love.  “I was his daughter and he was my dad.  And he would never count me as one of the dead….He had loved me as much as he could.  I realized, I had to let him go.”

It is Susie’s father who, by not scarring her with fear, has seeded her aptitude for the courage required to track this monster, a serial murderer of women.  So, while Susie’s younger sister does the scary but needed job in the earthly world of finding evidence in the monster’s house, Susie in her spirit world follows the monster’s trail back in time to uncover all those he’s murdered from first to last.  She names, and in naming bears witness to all the femaleness the monster has extinguished.  This is a familiar honoring ritual for the dead, practiced at many a memorial.  We remember those gone from us by saying their names, that they are not forgotten, their lives not voided, not wasted. These humans mattered to us.  They were loved.

As Susie uncovers each victim, gives her name and date of death, we see her face and the circumstances of her killing by the monster.  In this the energy that once enlivened these female bodies is at last released, exhumed from its faceless sublimation into the monster’s takings.  The spirits of these women and girls can all move on to heaven now, in the afterworld of Susie’s story.  There’s relief in this for us, the still living, here on earth.  A setting right, this bringing light against the darkness and into conscious day, this act of remembrance.  A putting the broken pieces back together.

We found this naming of the victims in Lisbeth Salander’s story of the Dragon Tattoo.  The murdered young women in that story too, are brought back into view, their voiding refused.  But unlike Lizbeth, Susie it not a traumatized ward of the state, but a child well grown in a family of love that “bad things don’t happen to.”  Susie comes to understand it doesn’t matter how “good” a girl is, bad can still come to her, in spite of all the protections.  There are dangers to the most loved of us, even the special daughters. Dangers which are not our fault, but will be foisted on us, nonetheless.  What we do, what Susie does, with this hard won comprehension becomes the next move.

At end, Susie’s spirit self must face, must name, must bring into the light of day, the event of her own life’s end.  Comes a scene we’ve all been afraid of watching the whole movie, what we hoped Susie might have escaped when first she, Persephone-like, seemed to crawl out of that corn field trap.  But we soon realize it is, in truth, her own mind’s refusal to remember, her own heart’s bit of buried horror that Susie’s been repressing: her violent death at the hands of the monster.

The man of evil, the monster is characterized as creepy and banal until Susie screws up her nerve to go into that nightmare visualized as a bathroom.  Blood and muddied clothing all over the floor.  The knife that’s cut up her body.  Her bracelet at the sink.  His naked, male body floating in tub water with a cloth covering his face.  This is the nature of the Monster revealed, the force that’s manipulated her innocent, human born desire to be radiantly open to life because this – opening to life – is what must be extinguished.  In his homicidal re-channeling of her life energy to his dark purpose, which means her death, the Monster, with pathological hubris, acts in an extreme extension of the permissions of the male narrative.  He presumes to use her life as salve for his own sick torments.  As if taking her life could bring his turned-to-stone innards back to life.

Instead, at his touch, Susie’s burst of life turns brown.  Like the roses.

Her body, the decayed rose hidden away in that safe. The safe plunged into that sinkhole never to be found.  Concurrent with her first kiss.  The opening and the closing, together.  Concurrent with Susie’s naming of the murdered women and girls that gives recognition that they, and Susie, existed.  That their loss is a loss for us all.  In Susie’s bold finding and naming some ancient, primal tilt toward equilibrium is encouraged.  Some bit of rebalancing in the samsaric cycle leading away from the violent agony of revenge, pain and retribution that re-generates evil, over and over until nothing grows.  Sterile.  No life – the real fear for all of us whose life, whose ability to open into life, to birth life is such a  threat as to be buried, abandoned, lost forever in sink holes.  Susie’s defiant naming is a courageous act of opening to consciousness.  Because bringing out consciousness from the un is our task to do here, our human gift, the continual opening that creates more life.  An ascending spiral within the repeat.

And at end, the mystery of Susie’s death revealed, her father released from revenge, her family sets off on the arduous, eternal work of rebalancing from their loss of her.  A wound never healed, but somehow held, carried forward with them into life.  This allows their remembrance of Susie to be as she was, an opening brilliance, not as a taking of the Monster.  In this they turn away from that viral realm of darkness and toward the question continuous – what is it to live?  A front and center concern of our emerging Narrative Otherways.

As Susie puts it:  “The lovely bones that had grown around my absence.  The connections, sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost. But often magnificent.  What happened after I was gone…I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.”

Next time in our Paternity Parlor.  Part 2:

How a man refuses violence to protect his son in Susanne Bier’s In a Better World.

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    • Maryna Ajaja
    • November 6th, 2011

    Nice. I like the ground you walk here. But, there’s one sentence I really don’t get. …”both (fathers) resist the default pull of paternal revenge, that old eye for an eye, which isn’t in fact an escalation.” What do you mean “escalation”?

  1. Maryna- Good to hear from you. I’ve used escalation here to mean that revenge doesn’t get us even but ups the ante yet more, encouraging not balance but ever increasing violence — perhaps the true function and aim of violence- to breed itself?

      • Maryna Ajaja
      • November 7th, 2011

      I’ve always thought of escalation as an act, or actions that intensify a situation. So I would say that “an eye for an eye,” escalates and never satisfies. Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet, said that justice, when and if it ever comes, never satisfies as much as one would think. Regardless, I am happy to see filmmakers make films about men, husbands, fathers, who try to take another road other than rage and revenge. And before I would criticize fathers, I would resist the impulse for small acts of revenge in myself.

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