These silences

You must not tell anyone . . . what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well…

But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have.

Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior: A Girlhood Among Ghosts and her aunt, the “No Name Woman” of its opening chapter, came to mind this week as part of continuing the exploratory drafting of an essay that builds on thinking begun in Demurring: Unwalling – much of which revolves around my much-loved, lovingly-nicknamed Uncle Puzzy, a gay man whose mid-1970s disappearance then and still shapes my own work to understand, be in, and interact with my historical and lived worlds as a queer writing, photographing, teaching, advantage-undoing, social justice seeking Alexander.

On 23 September 2021, the day I will press Publish to release this “good enough draft to share now” post, Puzzy will have been buried for 23 years in Houston’s National Cemetery: interred in 1998 in Section M2, Site 1329. And I will have known only for 16 years of his death, of his suicide completion.

The marble headstone’s small space for personalisation offers “Rest in Peace,” a fervent hope likely of those who witnessed his burial, and one certainly in my agnostic, angel-hoping, souls-crossing-in-some-sphere bones when I sat on this manicured grass, my forehead bent to his his chiseled name.

Getting to that geographic if not somatic reunion wasn’t easy: my almost 30 years of looking brought me Houston residential records in July 2000, scanning print outs from People Search online services while sitting bedside as part of Pops’ hospice care team. Those records provided a satisfactory bit of evidence that Puz had lived beyond the 1973 disappearance, and provided a measure of peace once cancer began to fill Pops’ lungs with fluid. On his passing, those records sent me twice to Houston in hopes of finding something to call evidence that the last of the Alexanders who’d raised my kiddo brain had made a home, a community in the Melrose neighborhood.

For trip number three, Houston’s National Cemetery was my only destination, the itinerary set by a death record Ancestry published in July 2005, and an official State of Texas death certificate that arrived on 22 August 2005 – five years exactly after my father’s death, a record letting me know the little brother had died two years before Pops: death date attached to 18 September 1998, listed as found on 20 September, and interred on 23 September 1998.  As a final cosmic joke, Hurricane Rita moved into Houston on 23 September 2005, delaying my journey for a long month.

Across decades of searching for Richard Ira Alexander, I only knew two or three things for sure: he was a gay man ostracised by family members; he developed lung cancer, and he completed suicide. These silences. I’ve been carefully taught to maintain silence about each, and I’ve been so good at the suicide silence with my – our – family. Of these silences, I have used my writing skills, and cultural voice to address the first, and my teaching voice to surface all three. I am working with kindred to develop a personal public voice as temerous as the teaching one to remove these silences.

Like so many others who seek to find a missing loved one, I have been pestered by “good enough”: Had I been a “good enough” niece during our years together? Had my search plan and investigation of cues and clues been “good enough”? And by “what if” conjectures: What if I’d connected with him earlier? What if Puzzy’s death by suicide could have been averted bu having the family support and engagement that distinguished one group of lung cancer patients expressing suicide ideation – those who died by natural or medical causes, from another – those in a higher percentage group who died by suicide? What if he’d not been another aging, family-estranged gay man who died alone?

With this, at least one wider cultural question: What if the semantics linked to descriptions of suicide bereavement as part of that broader category complicated grief were less shaming, less “othering,” less diagnostic, less connotative of persistent, agile, reflective, and sometimes stumbling grief as always psychological disorder?

This black and white photograph from March 1958 includes two young adults and one infant. The male adult holds the infant, his niece and goddaughter; the female sits to the right, gazing on the infant who is her new goddaughter
March 1958 baptism – Ilene with godparents Puzzy and Merrily

Like other memoir writers/non-fiction essayists, I have more questions and context for telling this story than I do narrative clarity or contacts who can illuminate his life. The writer’s questions at the heart of what’s be be explored – especially because public silence has been the expectation in comminity and family cultures – include: What is the uncle’s story? Who gets to tell it? How does the niece who inherits the story, the scripts, the nurture tell it?

Time to return to The Woman Warrior, to consider mapping as it’s set out by Minnie Bruce Pratt in “Identity: Skin, Blood, Heart,” to hear again Dorothy Allison on knowing two or three things for sure, and Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 – each a reckoning with silences and identities we were taught to despise.

And more, as this timely September of Suicide Awareness Month has taught me, there are silences linked to illness, depression, and suicide that I must seek to understand in the uncle’s story, and my parents’ stories. Work to be done in writing the book I imagine, I’ve actually outlined.

Resources


Starting to work through the literature – feminist theory as non-fiction narrative + mental health/suicide

With the first lines of “No Name Woman,” the first chapter of The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston sets up the liminal space her talk-story collection will take as she navigates both telling the story of her aunt and navigating the river of shame teeming with secrets that move from one generation into the next.

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold.” The liminal space is the “crossing over” space – a space where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully in something else. It’s a transition space. (Alan Seale, “The Liminal Space – Embracing the Mystery and Power of Transition from What Has Been to What Will Be,” 2016)

The secret shared in basic: Kingston’s father’s sister jumped into the family well as a pregnant woman, carrying a child that could not be of her husband, a 1920s laborer permitted in the United States to build east to west railroad lines – exclusion laws sanctioning Chinese male labor but denying family immigration. In the narrative Hong Kingston characterises an aunt experiencing punishing psychological pain – shame, guilt, hopelessness, and takes a position herself as a narrator seeking to understand the aunt in her full context, and to name the punishment’s intergenerational impact.

Kingston’s first sentence as the memoir’s narrator – the sentence confessing to this silence to 1970s readers positioned to question both shame and silence, cultural scripts and complicity – moves readers along long lines of family, social, and cultural histories to that sentence of a witness prepared to emend the many stories that expected, even demanded, her silence.

The Woman Warrior was a core text in every literature course I taught between 1984 – 2001. Students engaged the talk story as a compelling new-to-them-and-us-all genre, and addressed each story as part of then-corrective efforts to weave complex cultural and social histories. Why did I bring this book into each of those lit courses? Its sheer narrative beauty, graceful writing, and humane characterisation. The writer’s ease in occupying liminality as narrative space and personal story to order to undo the power of imposed silence meant to carry forward the punishment.

The family’s mid-1970s silence at my uncle’s disappearance was a punishment – meant for him as erasure, meant for me as an advisory – one part “go forward taking care,” and one part “this will happen to you.”

My own silence about what I’d found during the 1995-2005 return to searching for Puz blends self-punishment with family dictates to not speak of suicide completion, the official reporting of this cause of death letting me finally, actually, if also only symbolically, sit with my uncle for the first time in 30 years – albeit at his burial site, taking in the Rest in Peace inscription as a marker of the broken blessings that brought us both to this site.

My father sparked that 1990s return to searching – diagnosed with bladder cancer after living successfully for two years with a kidney transplant, he asked for a bit of soul-settling news, some evidence that his younger brother had survived life-threatening altercations with their oldest brother – that he had landed somewhere body intact, someplace safe for making a new life. A bit of hope in a threatening-to-return depression that can accompany anti-rejection medications.

Resources

  • McFarland, Daniel C., et al. “Suicide in Patients With Cancer: Identifying the Risk Factors.” Oncology 33.6 (2019).
  • Perez, Jalessa, et al. “A Deadly Combination: Depression and Suicide in the Presence of Cancer.” Journal of Psychological Disorders 1.1 (2018): 1-8.
  • Pratt, Minnie Bruce. “Identity: Skin, Blood, Heart.” InYours in struggle: Three feminist perspectives on anti-Semitism and racism.  Ed. Bulkin, Elly, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith. Long Haul Press, 1984.
  • Tal Young, Ilanit et al. “Suicide bereavement and complicated grief.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 14,2 (2012): 177-86. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2012.14.2/iyoung

Here I’m just trying to put details into one place, still sorting the 30-some years of ephemera gathered while searching

Searching took me into lived worlds, places Puzzy had lived, neighborhoods he’d traveled from home to work and back, bars and eateries where he’d have turned up – haphazardly or regularly. My navigation toward California destinations aided only by bits of data I’d copied from scraps of paper left at the homeplace, and countless dead ends accumulated in formally requested public records. Traveling at the start of this new journey to old addresses in Redondo Beach and Netscape browser searches pointing to Laguna Beach possibilities, I left letters at Redondo addresses, and cheerfully cajoled 40- and 50-something gay men gathering at Laguna beaches and bars to step into conversation, each trying mightily to find something familiar in 1960s photographs and 1970s details, wistfully speaking of nieces, sisters, discretely supportive family they’d left behind.

It took me 5 years to find addresses that listed Richard Ira Alexander as a current resident of Houston’s most gay-friendly neighborhood at the time – my search reignited when July 2000 exploratory surgery diagnosed Pops’ chest pains and shortness of breath as bladder cancer metastasized to his lungs – mainly thanks to a dialysis-compromised vascular system nicked in a last biopsy. Registered letters of 18 July to 210 Avondale Street, and 25 July, to 510 Hadley Street – marked with dates sent and returnd – remind me that I hoped for responses before my father would likely die. As my grandmother said in a last letter about Puzzy’s disappearance, “Anyway, I hope” that people at she addressed, like the one’s I reached out to now, would reach back to me – even if those notified of the letters were not my uncle.

Impatient to die (see Dreams Between Us), Pops waited for two things: news about his brother, news that I’d gotten the new job I desired. Plotting out the Hadley and Avon Street addresses on a paper map, I brought Pops the evidence that made made real the hope he shared with his mother – the younger brother alive. And I got the new job, taking my first vacation for a March 2001 trip to Houston where I could walk in this neighborhood, try again to find a sense of his life, if not evidence of him still living.

A Houston neighborhood map linking three home addresses for Puz, one work location, and the residence of the friend who reported his death
Mapping where Puzzy lived & worked in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood.

Traveling with my godmother, we laughed about the many cosmic jokes of the journey: The Hadley Street address had become a parking lot for Spec’s Wine, Spirits, and Fine Food, a family owned local chain aiming to bring the best to Houston – a hearty laugh given the brothers’ tangles with alcoholism. The Avondale Street apartment complex proved to be a gated community in the midst of an on-the-way-to-home-ownership neighborhood. Harold Street – carrying the name of the life-threatening oldest brother – was the main street providing access to the neighborhood’s bigger artery streets.

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