Friday, February 20, 2009

Churches and the Ethic of Life: Facing the Human Cost of Employment Crisis

The AP is reporting Labor Department statistics that show a current all-time high for job losses in the United States (here). The human fallout of this situation has been on my mind this week, after I received an email from a friend telling me of the suicide of a friend of his family. It appears that this man took his life due to the economic downturn.

I fear that we may see skyrocketing suicides with further job losses. And as I think about these issues, I realize my optic on them was shaped early in my life by a tragic family story that I encountered sooner than I would have liked. It has to do with the suicide of my mother’s half-brother.

My mother’s brother Carl was the son of my grandfather’s first marriage. Carl’s mother died within days of his birth. For a number of years after that, my great-grandmother kept house for my grandfather and raised his son along with Ella, the daughter of my grandfather’s oldest sister Arabella, who had died young.

When my great-grandmother died, my grandfather was sorely in need of a housekeeper-nanny, and he married my grandmother, who was twenty years his junior, and from a social background different from his own. I mention this because it may be a dynamic that plays into the story of Carl’s life, something that added to his sense of being alien in the family in which he grew up. My grandfather had been born on a plantation in Alabama, and grew up on what remained of an old plantation in Mississippi following the war (he was born just after the war, in 1869). Though his family had no resources to speak of in that period in which every Southern family struggled merely to get by, they had a history of . . . well, something they never quite put into words: status, education, social dominance.

My grandmother, by contrast, grew up on a small, self-sufficient farm in central Arkansas. Growing up, she never traveled further than Little Rock, a twenty-mile trip that took all day on the rare occasions when her family took a wagon into the city to buy or sell goods or conduct other business. Her husband went off to school after he completed the standard eight years of education provided by public schools then. My grandmother had only the eight years of schooling.

When she reached marriageable age and had fallen in love with a young man she liked—the brother of her sister Fanny’s husband—my great-grandmother chose to interfere with my grandmother’s happiness and heaped guilt on her for wishing to leave home. My grandmother was the youngest daughter in a family of sixteen children, and her mother expected her to remain at home as long as my great-grandmother lived, to care for her mother and the younger brothers still unmarried at that time.

When their mother died, the “children” remaining at home (all adults by then, but unmarried) were parceled out to the homes of various siblings. My grandmother spent several miserable years living with her sister Alice, whose husband would complain bitterly in her hearing about the cost of boarding Hattie.

So when my grandfather asked for her hand, she jumped at the chance to marry, though she had no strong attraction to this older man whose mother and sisters had long treated her with disdain, due to the social distance they imagined between their families. The marriage was a ticket out: out of the misery of a dependent, unmarried woman in a society in which being married counted for everything in the life of a woman, and in which opportunities to marry as one pleased were few and far between. My grandparents spent almost two decades together, not in a loveless marriage, but not in one that happened due to romantic love. And they were, as far as I have ever heard, happily married, having six children, with Carl, the step-son from the first marriage added to this brood to make seven.

When my grandfather died in 1930, the Depression was just getting underway. Needless to say, this produced major trauma for my grandmother and the family she was left to provide for as a youngish widow of forty-one. In later years, she would often mention her horror when the banks closed and she realized only a nickel for every dollar she and my grandfather had saved. They had opened small accounts for each child; those, too, were wiped out, leaving their daughter Margaret in a fear that lingered throughout her adult life, of the sudden closing of banks and the unreliability of the economic system.

This was the situation in which my mother’s half-brother Carl grew up—the son of a widow who was not his mother, with six half-siblings who were the children of the woman raising him. I have heard nothing but high praise of my grandmother for her commitment to mothering this son. When she spoke of Carl to me in her late life, she always did so with tears in her eyes, as she said, “It cuts to the quick to lose a parent, but losing a child is unthinkable.”

Still, I imagine Carl has to have felt alien in a family that was not quite, not totally, his family. And his struggles with his demons, as he came of age, did not help matters: he apparently had a serious drinking problem, and he was the kind of drunk who rampaged when he drank, so that the family endured embarrassing scenes in their small town, in which he caused so much trouble that my grandmother would take the other children to the fields behind their house and sleep outside on nights when he was uncontrollable.

Some of this rage may have been fed by the sense of guilt that children whose mothers die at their birth are sometimes said to endure. Part of it had to do, I suspect, with Carl’s realization that he was intellectually gifted, but had no venue in which to pursue his gifts in a small Arkansas town in the grip of the Depression, with a widowed mother struggling to make ends meet for her large family. The professor who headed the local high school said that he had never encountered a student of the brilliance of Carl and one of his first cousins on my grandfather's side of the family.

My grandmother confirmed the judgment: she was amazed at the scope of Carl’s knowledge, much of it gleaned from his wide, constant reading of any book he could get his hands on. He would lie by the fireplace at night, reading by its light after the rest of the family had long ago gone to bed, oblivious to everything around him.

With little opportunity to do anything with his intelligence, Carl joined the army when the war came along, though he was older than most of those with whom he enlisted—he was in his thirties. The war gave him something to do, places to go. It also scarred him. He came home speaking with horror about the bodies he saw lining the roads into Russia when his cavalry unit marched there, of the hunger they saw in Italy, where people in small towns would rush out to cut up any horse that died on the streets, cooking and eating the flesh as soon as they were able to do so.

When he returned home, Carl could not find his way. Everything had changed. My grandmother had sold the family’s small general merchandise store and had moved into the city, into Little Rock, where her adult children could more easily find work. All of his siblings now had jobs, good ones, ones that paid well and seemed secure.

From what I’ve been told, Carl spent weeks on his return scouring ads for jobs, going to job interviews, never finding a job. I have not been told this, but I suspect he was drinking heavily as he was job-hunting, and this added to his lack of luck at securing employment. It was a particular shame to him that all of his sisters were working, as teachers and secretaries. As the oldest son, he felt obliged to support them and his step-mother. He felt worthless when he could not find a job.

And so he shot himself. In the weeks before he took that step, he carefully cut his face from almost every picture the family had of him, so that we now have very few pictures of him at any period of his life. On the night he chose to kill himself, he returned to his boyhood house in the small town twenty miles southeast of Little Rock, took a shotgun shell and removed most of the pellets so that the act would not create too much of a mess, put the barrel of the gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

My grandmother’s niece's husband found Carl’s body the following morning. My mother—always regarded as the strong one, the one daughter who, as a neighbor told me many years later, was not a flighty Southern belle—had the unhappy duty of identifying her brother’s body at the morgue. She told me years later that when she did so, she saw blood running from his ear. She had nightmares the rest of her life, in which her brother would knock at the door and she would open it to find him drenched in blood.

I didn’t know all of these details as I grew up, but I did know of Carl’s suicide—sooner than I would have preferred to be burdened with such knowledge. When I was four years old, my parents had a huge row one evening. The next morning, my father sat my brothers and me down in the breakfast nook and solemnly informed us that my mother had had a half-brother who had shot himself. That was his less than mature way of getting back at my mother for whatever was the grievance between them.

This made a huge impression on me not only because of the sensational nature of the news, but because, from the time I was tiny, I had been compared to Carl by various relatives. We shared the same name: his first name was William, after the great-grandfather for whom his father was also named, a name that marks us in that family line, since it passes down from generation to generation, from the first generation of the family to settle in Maryland in the early 1700s. I loved to read, and read voraciously, with the same total absorption in whatever I was reading that the grown-ups told me my uncle had had.

I suppose this is, in part, why I am telling his story in such detail. He died unmarried, and those who knew him are now themselves dying. Soon, there will be no one left who remembers these tragic details of a promising life cut far too short. In remembering Carl, I am, I tell myself, making his life count. And I’m carrying on a commission that, without ever declaring it so, his sister, my mother’s oldest sister Kat, bequeathed to me.

When Kat died in 2001 and her remaining sister Billie and I cleared out my grandmother’s house, I found a trove of materials Kat had gathered about her brother: letters from soldiers with whom he served, who told her that his IQ test showed him having the highest IQ in their unit, and so they could not understand his suicide; scrapbooks full of articles tracking the movements of his unit, insofar as those at home had any information about this during the war; report cards and medical tests. Kat never accepted Carl’s suicide. On the day she received the news, she took a train home from the school at which she was teaching and collapsed across the front gate of the old homeplace, where the family had gathered. To the end of her life, she believed that he had shot himself because he had learned he had cancer: hence the preservation of any of his medical records she could find.

It’s clear, though, that Carl’s inability to find work after the war played the major role in his deliberations to end his life. I’ve noted, as well, that Carl was unmarried. Towards the end of her life, my mother chose to talk more frankly about questions of sexuality than she had ever done as I was growing up. Since I wanted to take advantage of this new openness to real dialogue about important issues before my mother lost all mental acuity (as she rapidly did in her final years), I can remember asking her whether her brother Carl had ever dated or had serious relationships with women.

She told me he hadn’t, not that she could recall. No, none at all.

And, of course, I can’t help wondering about that, too, and about the possibility that one of the additional burdens my mother’s half-brother carried around in that small town with limited opportunities was the burden of knowing that he was gay—and with no vocabulary at all with which to speak about this recognition, since no words existed to identify or define gay members of the community.

Unemployment takes a toll. When those dealing with the impossibility of finding work struggle as well with other issues that affect their self worth, joblessness can become an impossible burden to bear. For men, who define themselves according to what they do, not having a job can be lethal.

I am intently concerned about the effects of the job crisis in which we now find ourselves—about the real-life effects of the abysmal statistics on real human beings. Someone—all of us—need to be helping to pick up the human pieces, to prevent stories like Carl’s from happening now.

I continue to think—and have blogged about this previously (here)—that the churches have an obligation to assist in this regard. They do so because it is part of their mission, part of their calling as redemptive presences in the world.

They do so as well because the churches—many of them—have helped get us into this mess. Many church leaders worked very hard to place in office the leaders who walked us into our current economic crisis. It is the obligation of churches to help now, to provide safety nets for people struggling with unemployment. These could include seminars on dealing with unemployment, services to support families struggling with job crises, and outright assistance—church-sponsored health care, meals, loans through credit unions, and so on.

I will not hold my breath as I wait to see churches face this obligation. But I continue to wonder how churches can talk about themselves as churches, and not face such obligations. Or how churches can talk about the ethic of life and expect to convince anyone of its importance, without accepting such obligations . . . .