“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh-huh
I was brain-dead, locked out, numb, not up to speed
I thought I’d pegged you an idiot’s dream
Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen
I never understood the frequency, uh-huh
You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh¹
Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011 was an R.E.M. compilation album but, in so many ways, it could be the story of my childhood. When you grow up with a storyteller who has tendencies towards revisionist history, you’re never quite sure what’s real, and what’s just a better way to spin the story. Of course, kids are easy to bamboozle for a bit, but sooner or later, they get wise. They start to notice that later versions of events are not the same as their version of events, even though they experienced it first hand. The question becomes simply, who’s version is the truth? That’s rather murky. It can be hard to catch the changes. An embellishment here, a reframing there. Gradually you learn that memories are not to be trusted. You learn many things. Do tread carefully. Don’t call out the alterations as lies or untruths. Lying is wrong and incites anger and discipline. Do splice in entertaining stories of traveling around the world, and do listen to stories of how you excelled in school. Don’t interrupt the storytelling. Don’t tell the ugly stories, stories of dark things that happen. These are stories not to be believed, even if they ring of truth. Do try to become invisible and move in the shadows. Avoid the abusive older brother; don’t be left alone with him at any cost. Do get good grades and toe the line, but don’t do anything to bring undo attention to yourself lest your father blesses you with his favoritism. Do learn to tell the right stories, and practice the art of self-editing.
Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes²
When I was 20, an incident occurred and I left home without looking back. The locks were changed before the family went to bed that night. I didn’t dare go back for months, and even then, never as anything other than a visitor. When I finally did return, I remember hearing the stories about how awful I was to just leave like that, how hurtful it was of me to leave for no reason. And a part of your mind goes back to the episode that precipitated it all, where you were trying to schedule classes in NYC for the next semester and there was an argument about how late they were, and suddenly she walks away and comes back with a hardcover book in both hands, almost running down the hall to gain momentum as she launches upon you. You block the swings with your arms, and you protect your face. She is furious. You are scared. At least, that’s how you remember it. But that version doesn’t play well in the retelling, so a rewrite is necessary.
Broadcast me a joyful noise unto the times, Lord, count your blessings
Embrace the lowest fear, ignore the lower fears
Ugh, this means war
It’s been a bad day³
Every big event in our lives seemed to be overshadowed by her desperate need to be the focus of the moment. Unable to use physical force in the home, she resorted to taunts with words and humiliating stories in front of others. Weary from the emotional abuse, I distanced myself even further. Even when I discovered the most basic truth of my life was simply another fabrication — that my birth mother did not, in fact, die when I was very young but was happily alive and well without knowing me — even then I wasn’t shocked into action. Of course, I think to myself. Of course it’s a lie. Still I stay the course. But during their one and only visit to my home, the stories begin again, and I could not let it go on any longer. Not with my kids. Not anymore. Cutting them out of my life was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it felt as though I had no other option. It’s easier to protect others than it is to protect yourself.
Birdie in the hand for life’s rich demand
The insurgency began and you missed it
I looked for it and I found it
Miles Standish proud, congratulate me4
When my father died last fall, my sister had to resort to blackmail to force my mother to notify me. It took a month before she discovered that not having a funeral or memorial looked bad to onlookers, so we had to change the story and have a memorial. I girded my loins, and played out the story of the dutiful daughter once again to pay my respects. I spent eight hours on a plane that day for a 90 minute memorial, with no idea how the story would play out as I stepped off the plane. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I spent the next two hours in a much different storyline than the one I’d expected. Still it felt like the shimmering mirage of a reality not really there, but rather one created by our own hearts and desires. I watched the pastor speak from cribbed notes about someone who most definitely was not my father, but it played well to the audience. The storytelling was a beautiful fiction, well crafted to highlight the best parts, and it was hard to listen to because it was so incredibly different from my story. Even the picture table had been edited to reinforce the story presented; happy pictures of my father with various family members. None of the photos included me. From this version, too, I had been edited from existence, a masterful version of a secondary reality. Or was that the reality? Who could tell? By now, I was used to living in multiple storylines.
Hear the answer call, hear the song rearranged
Hear the trees, the ghosts and the buildings sing
With the wisdom to reconcile this thing […] Oh my heart, oh my heart, oh my heart5
It’s hard to repeatedly hear multiple versions of your life. So many variations on a theme and it’s easy to become lost in the stories so tangentially similar that even the author has no idea which version is true any longer. Without your talisman, you have no idea if you’re still in the dream. I know I have a healthy distrust for family stories without proof. It’s a learned behavior. I discount anything I hear unless it can be verified by an independent source. How I hate that part of me now. Because when you’re told your mother’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, you don’t want to be the one doubting the news. Wondering if this is the real version, or if this is the updated rewrite that plays well in Iowa. How awful do you have to be to wonder if the double mastectomy is really necessary, or just a convenient plot twist? The scars pull as my memories tug at them, and I am chastened by the fact that if this news came from anyone else, I wouldn’t think twice as to its veracity. I’d be on the first plane out, or donating as much money as I could squeeze from my account, or crushing pain meds and stirring them into pudding, sitting in silence next to a friend whose days are numbered. How can I not stir the empathy in me for someone who has received a time bomb diagnosis which, unlike mine, has so much more dire consequences? How callous have I become that I cannot find room in my heart for a member of my own family?
I know, I know, I know what I am chasing
I know, I know, I know that this is changing me6
I have no ending for this story. I certainly have no excuses. I grapple with doubt and distrust, guilt and self-reproach. I’m disgusted I cannot pick up the phone but remain unmoved, hard-hearted, watching from afar to see how the story plays out. Like everything else, it’s simply part lies, part heart, part truth, part garbage.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.7
¹”What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” by R.E.M.
²”Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M.
³”Bad Day” by R.E.M.
4“Begin the Begin” by R.E.M.
5“Oh My Heart” by R.E.M.
6“Überlin” by R.E.M.
7“It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M.