Tag Archives: sexual abuse

Ode to Billy Joe and the faceless manikins

Tallahatchie_bridge-Hwy_7_MississippiIt was the other day, June 3, 2015 to be precise, when Paul Morris, a fellow MFA Goucher graduate, reminded me of Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.”  Forty-eight years ago, on June 3, 1967, Gentry penned her masterpiece.  How could I allow decades to pass before revisiting the rhythmic, haunting lyrics depicting the day when Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the 220px-OdetobillyjoeTallahatchie Bridge?  Gentry and I had a reunion of sorts.  I began listening to a YouTube performance of her “Ode to Billy Joe;” over and over, perhaps twenty to thirty times.  It was as addictive as my Oxycodone pain-poppin’ pills that kept my back from breaking apart in the hills of southern Illinois, some five-hundred miles north of the Tallahatchie Bridge.  Maybe the passage of time has blessed me with a deeper understanding of Gentry’s lyrical gem.  Or perhaps years of therapy has graced my psychic with insights never experienced before.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T4qsvFAkFM
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Ode to Billy Joe
by Bobby Gentry

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered out the back door, “y’all, remember to wipe your feet!”
And then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

And papa said to mama, as he passed around the blackeyed peas
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please
There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece-a apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

And mama said to me, “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going ’round; papa caught it, and he died last spring
And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything
And me – I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

***

How can a song spur my imagination with so many unanswered questions:  What did that girl and Billy Joe MacAllister throw over the Tallahatchie Bridge?  Perhaps a baby?  Were they lovers?  Maybe Billy Joe had sex with a gay man in 1967.  Could that be why Billy Joe took his life?  And then there was Papa who said, “Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits please.”  Was Billy Joe’s reasoning, or lack of it, that simple.  So many questions, and many more.  Ms. Gentry, tell me why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and oh, by the way, pass me the blackeyed peas.

People have asked Bobby Gentry to explain the true meaning of her song.  And to their surprise Gentry said there is no hidden meaning in “Ode to Billy Joe.”  If anything, she once said, it’s about a family of manikins sitting around their dinner table talking about Billy Joe’s suicide.  The narrator obviously knew Billy Joe quite well, so much so that she couldn’t eat a bite.  When Mama told the family about Billy Joe jumping off the Tallashatchie Bridge, they ignored the narrator’s feelings and asked someone to “pass the biscuits please,” followed by Papa telling Mama to “pass the blackeyed peas.”

Foreshadowing is a literary technique of indicating or hinting what might come forth in the next sentence or so; perhaps sooner than later, or maybe not at all. This is how a great storyteller adds mystery and suspense that turns a mundane story into a page burner.  I’ve watched some great movies and questioned the director’s intent.  Oftentimes I was left to fill in the blanks, wanting more.

Of course I love the pulsating rhythms, the poetic prose, and the mystery of Gentry’s song.  But that’s not what moved me so, grabbing my soul and giving it an attention-getting twist.  It’s the faceless manikins sitting around the dinner table that day in Carroll County Mississippi.  Hell yes, those people drive me fucking crazy.  I’m a victim of childhood physical and sexual abuse.  And I’m not alone. Most of my fellow abuse victims share similar feelings: Manikins don’t care if we’re left to wallow in our misery; hey, maybe the rapes were our fault; don’t air our dirty laundry; perhaps they feel uncomfortable talking about such things, and possibly lack the emotional depth.  And worse yet, what if they don’t believe my story?  Now that drives me so fucking crazy that I want to join Billy Joe MacAllister and jump off the Tallashatchie Bridge.

Come dance with me.

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nIt’s always there to some degree, mocking my every move.  A jig, a waltz, maybe Chubby Checker’s famous twist, or a seductive embrace as we move across the floor — my dancing partner, my pain.  Maybe it’s sharp, a get your attention pain; a boxer’s jab; possibly an unrelenting tooth acne; or a sustained, never-ending pain.  

Pain can be physical, psychological, or both, and when latched onto an individual, becomes unique.  Physical pain can be tested and more easily diagnosed than the illusive psychological pain that sometimes plays hide-and-seek with the mental health specialist.  Treatments for back pain are many — injections, physical therapy, spinal adjustments, medication, meditation, acupuncture, and when all fail, the surgeon sharpens his scalpel.

Two weeks ago I had a bone fusion performed in my lower back.  A herniated disk and the movement of two vertebra called for a bone fusion to eliminate the pain.  A back brace for support and oxycodone for pain are being used during the healing process.  I have become friends with oxycodone and refer to her affectionately as “oxy.”  When in my medicated buzz, I sometimes call her “foxy.”

As a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse, I have experienced psychological pain as well.  Memories of the abuse left me wrapped around a porcelain stool while I vomited poison into the mucus-colored water.  It was an emotional pain like I had never felt before.  Scared, lost, and without direction I turned to a therapist and have been treated with medication and talk therapy.  Life is good.  I have moved beyond surface emotions, and now experience the depth of feelings that life has to offer.

Whether physical or psychological pain, we must always be aware of the monster in the closet, better known as depression.  Pain breeds depression.  While my depression pales in comparison to someone with a severe mental illness, it can be debilitating.  Depression is waking up in the middle of the night covered with leeches that suck the spirit from my soul.  But now, after years of therapy, I can spot them from a distance as they slither over a hilltop and crawl my way.  I refuse to allow a single leech to take residence in my soul.

While a “bring-you-to-your knees” pain has many negative side effects, it can be a blessing, and serve as a reminder of how good life can be.  Imagine a musical phrase of dissonance and intensity that drives towards the final cadence and then, with true beauty, resolves into a morning spring.  Tension followed by release brings joy to one’s life.  I will dance a jig without pain as my partner.

 

 

A worthy cause, my favorite, I might add.

IMG_0088I’ve been a board member of the Women’s Center for several years.   I was recently asked to write a fund raising letter for the organization.  Hopefully this will move you to consider the Women’s Center to be worthy of your support.
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Dear Women’s Center supporter:
Imagine what it’s like to be a bird without wings, Who’s fallen into a hole and not allowed to sing. Imagine what it’s like to be a beautiful whale, With no place to swim but a five-gallon pale.    …male survivor of childhood sexual abuse

It could be in the middle of the night when a woman knocks at our door, shaking as she nervously asks for help. The makeup could not hide the blows to her face. She is without money, a safe place to stay, accompanied by the belief that she had done something wrong. She brings her daughter, as well, who wonders why the Daddy she loves always hits and swears. Perhaps there’s a telephone call to the hotline, where a volunteer hopes to convince a desperate woman that tonight is not the time to die. Or possibly someone calls from the hospital emergency room reporting a rape. Women, men, children, sexual orientation, it makes no difference.

The Women’s Center, established in 1972, continues to provide services to the surrounding counties. In 2013, we assisted 141 children and 862 adults with 11,715 hours of domestic violence services; 6,713 nights of domestic violence and 5,413 nights of transitional housing; and 16,429 meals to residents in shelter. Public edu- cation, professional training, orders of protection, and hotline calls are provided as well.

Thanks to you, we have expanded and updated our facilities. We have little debt and manage to show a respectable balance sheet. But where we struggle is raising enough money to maintain a $1.3 million dollar budget. We receive our financial support from various federal, state, and private grants, and donations from you. We face an annual increase in services while governmental budget cuts leave us with less. I wish you could come to ground zero and watch the dedicated work of our staff. You would soon learn that they are underpaid angels, doing God’s work.

Whether you are a first-time donor, or one that continues to offer us a lifeline, we need your help. This can be done as annual contributions, or through planned giving, a means of providing future financial support with no upfront cost. For now, we ask you to forget the tax benefits in giving. Just think about the abused woman knocking at our door, the child who still loves her Daddy, the raped woman lying on a hospital bed, or the woman who believes that tonight is the time to die. There are so many of them.

Sincerely,

Larry L. Franklin

Board Member
Development Committee Member

You can’t know what you don’t know. Part II

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

“You can’t know what you don’t know.”  That’s what my therapist said as she sat in her chair, waiting for my response.  I scanned my mind looking for clues to explain my past behavior.  When I was a boy growing up in the baptist church I was taught that we have free will — we know the difference between right and wrong, and it is up to us to make the right decision.  It sounded so simple.  Now I have a different view.  Our behavior is based on a combination of our biological makeup and life’s experiences — nature and nuture.

Nature tattoos us with a genetic makeup, DNA, that determines who we are in many fundamental ways.  Nuture is a product of what we see, hear, smell, and touch, and the countless life experiences that mold our core.  Developmental biology tells us that we are a combination of the two.  From the beginning, we are organisms with a genetic blueprint that continually interacts with our environment, causing change to occur as we move from conception, to childhood, to adulthood, and finally to death.  In her book, “The Biology of Violence,” Debra Niehoff says, “Even the most unrepentant assailants, the most cold-blooded murderers, the most sadistic of serial killers, were once infants.  There was a time when they could barely hold a rattle, much less a gun; when they smiled for Christmas portraits and giggled at peek-a-boo; when they were afraid of fireworks, needed help to feed themselves, and wore shoes no bigger than ring boxes.  What happened?  What inner or outer factor — parents, schools, genes, morals, abuse, television, neglect, stress, attention deficits, self-esteem, temperament — has the power to transform innocence into violence?  The answer provided by modern neuroscience is ‘all of the above'”

“It was the childhood abuse that caused me to act in a certain way.  I’m certain that I knew the difference between right and wrong.  All of the abuse programmed me to think and act in negative ways.  It’s my DNA.”  That’s what I told my therapist.  We agreed that it explains my past behavior.

I think about this therapy session when I examine my life, and when I wrote my two books about two female prison inmates.  Both inmates participated in violent acts.  And in each case, each person has a history of physical and sexual abuse.  There are so many inmates who committed acts of violence that were “programmed” to behave in a certain way.  I’m certain that a lot of them knew the difference between right and wrong, but their “programmed” ways overpowered and concept of “right and wrong.”  It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it certainly explains it.  You can’t know what you don’t know.”

When I first heard the words in the dark black night.

IMG_0088I was three, maybe fourth months into therapy.  Horrific memories of childhood sexual abuse came in different ways — sometimes a complete memory, other times in bits and pieces while meditating.  I was very proficient in meditation, and would sit for thirty to forty-five minutes, and even an hour.  The really bad memories erupted during nightmares in the form of metaphors which had to be analyzed in order to grasp their meaning.  On this particular night the meditation flowed nice and easy, allowing me to experience the sensation of floating throughout the darkened room.  Only the street light slide under the window shade.  Otherwise, it was a dark black night. This was when I began hearing words that jumped in my mind.  The structure and rhymes seemed like poetry — crude, unrefined, but powerful nonetheless.  Maybe my surprise came from  the fact that I had no interest in writing or reading the written word.  I moved to my computer to see if I could recall what I had heard.  My fingers flew across the keyboard as lines of poetry appeared on my computer screen.  It was easy and without effort.  I was writing poetry about the sexual abuse I had experienced during my childhood.  It felt like I was in the middle of some alien experience, or perhaps a miracle.

The next day I was sitting at my desk where I maintained a financial planning office.  I couldn’t help but think about the previous night’s experience when I actually wrote some poetry.  I couldn’t wait until I went home and sat at my computer.  Evening came.  Okay, I thought, let’s see what I can write.  My mind was in lock down.  No words came forward.  Finally I gave up and assumed that last night’s experience was unexplainable and would never happen again.  So, I returned to my meditation and settled into my soft chair.  Thirty minutes into meditation the same thing happened again — more poetry about childhood sexual abuse.

In the days that followed it became clear that the key was to meditate and wait for something to happen.  The meditation somehow eliminated the wall that had previously blocked my creativity.  In time I could enter the place where poets dare to tread.  My therapist suggested that I contact a writing teacher and see where my writing might lead.  I took her suggestion and talked with a client of mine who happen to teach in the English Department at the local university.  She worked with me for about 6 months and then suggested that I work with a teacher of creative nonfiction writing at the university who worked with me for three years.  Upon her suggestion I completed my MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

Here I am three books later, thinking about the wonderful journey that I have taken.  My therapist and writing teachers changed my life.  I can now enter that well of creativity, floating through a liquid-like gel which must be love.  Not only does it happen when I write, the love comes forward anytime I open the door.  What a life changer it has been, and is there for the taking.  One only needs to trust, to feel, and ultimately to love.