Sharron Proulx-Turner: the mad house
Nov 5, 2015
the mad house 1
indigenous natural law: never give up.
drove through an early morning sundog. this was a friday. I was heading up sarcee hill, reaching for my sunglasses, the sun just peeking over the crest. ahead on that foothill I could see the western rainbow of the sundog at the ground of the road. moments later, I drove right on through, carried those colours home with me. in my lunch, in my laundry, in my head. out the big north-facing window at the foot of my bed. that night I couldn’t sleep. watched the big pipe rise high to the east and travel its great arch towards the western horizon out the big window of my room.
just after lunch I’d had a call. when I picked up the phone the voice at the other end spoke something into my sundogged ear I couldn’t make sense of. said she was the assistant to the dean of grad studies and would I be available for a meeting tuesday with the deans from grad studies and humanities, the head of the english department? my heart pounding in my chest, I quietly asked if she could hold on a moment. put the phone down on a table. waited till my heart stopped its frantic flutter. picked up the phone again. said, sorry about that, to the booming voice of the dean.
my thesis was a memoir, a trauma narrative, already approved by the ethics committee. but the men in the tuesday meeting had an earlier discussion among themselves and thought it best to have my thesis vetted by the university lawyers before I could defend. that would take about a year. my supervisors were stunned into silence, but helped along by sundog and naivete and an unwavering faith in the power of words, I was strong. words kept me alive. there were times when I’d come up from the depths of the despair of post traumatic flashback through the power of words. when I wrote, I knew I was part-way into my spirit-self, holding onto the english language like a gift folded outward, unrestrained by prejudice or fear– forming pictures in the air.
I was reminded of a couple who lived next door to my parents during my late teens. their oldest daughter passed away from cancer at sixteen, after years of holding on. she died at home. spent almost all her time there during her illness. her sisters and brothers spent six of their childhood years with photos of their dying sister all over the walls, and then pictures of her emaciated body in her coffin for years after her death. it’d been twenty years, yet I could look inward and see those photographs with exact clarity.
the tuesday men could give no clear reason for their decision. a few weeks earlier my department head put a memo in my mailbox. I should pack up my things. my days there were done. I took the memo to grad studies. met with the women’s rep there, a man, who assured me that as long as I was passing, attending classes, doing my work, my department couldn’t expel me like in high school. I’d already been ordered by the dean of humanities to cease all political work on campus or he’d personally have me up on misconduct charges. even had to sign a memo. I was the spokesperson on a small committee of students elected to act as liaisons between grad students and faculty. just before we were involuntarily dismantled, we’d asked that a prof who’d received countless teaching awards be forced to resign. he was a well-known resident rapist. violent. used a gun. young, brilliant, vulnerable women. girls really. everyone knew it. we’d asked that the department begin to recruit and accept indigenous students and students of colour into their grad program. we’d asked too much.
left me close and quiet that dean’s words did that day, like back in my mid-twenties. from the office where I worked I could hear machines and hammering and the intimate feel of smoked hide entering my soft pores. I’ve always been drawn to the smell of smoked hide. one morning through their open door, half-hidden among gloves and boots and coats sat two elderly people, a woman and a man. they motioned to the only other chair, a stool a little higher than theirs. said I looked like a very beautiful woman who’d been through a lot of suffering and sacrifice in my life and they could tell I was a survivor of torture, like they were. took off their aprons. touched scars on their arms. said they were happy to have each other. they were children at auschwitz and they found settling into the everyday world difficult, as I must. considered their two adult children their most successful accomplishment. they said the same thing as my grandmother. go back to school, they said. go back to school. be a witness. tell your story.
at thirty-six, I considered being in a masters program a great achievement. but my supervisor was not happy with the direction of my thesis. I told her I was writing something else I would like to submit, a memoir, and she agreed to read it. I wanted to write in a way that refused a voyeuristic reading. I wanted the reader to truly enter the text, to identify with the child there. to be protected from the onslaught of violence and inexpressible pain. have relief from the heaviness of the material and yet be unable to escape, in the same way I was unable to escape. my past trauma returned in fragments, interrupted with flashbacks, with my children, with work, with night terrors, with papers, with flashbacks, with writing, with personal resistance to my own past, with night terrors. when she finished reading the text, she fired me on the spot.
in my youth I’d been fired from a job, but this was something I didn’t see coming, didn’t know could happen. like the elderly couple who encouraged me to return to school, my supervisor had been kind and warm. the couple’s warmth and kindness was something I could still feel when I pulled up their image, their bodies small and inward, their thin faces looking slightly upward at me. they seemed surreal and unreal and I felt like vapour, like the smell left behind inside a hide. their portraits had always stayed with me, their words motivated me. the smell of hide returned in that instant. I actually felt them touch me, felt their eyes inside my own.
my supervisor told me the issue was power. asked, why did I insist on shoving this stuff down people’s throats? did I write my memoir in my sleep? in academia, she said, your success was not measured by how well you write. quoted something from the bloody monday protests in paris in 1968. said, we must march through the institutions. I had no referent. I was too emotional in my writing and that doesn’t mean a thing in academia, she continued. said the purpose of grad school was to remind people they are nobodies. I couldn’t use anything I’d written and if I wanted this degree I’d have to acquiesce. give it up, she said. give it up. you are shooting yourself in the foot. we are all family here. you are mad, sharron, she said. you are mad.
the mad house 2
I live in chinook country, where trees and trucks and barns and houses get blown around like bits of old paper, fly across fields and highways and towns. I learned about chinooks in grade school. minus forty to plus twenty in half an hour is what my teacher said. drew a picture of the wind on the board. I created a story from that wind. took what I knew, the ancient sand dunes of the ottawa and a girl who walked through blinding sand storms, eyes down. all the girl could see was her old aunty’s feet in front of her at the ground. her aunty would say, we are almost there. watch my feet my girl. never give up. no matter where the two began, that was the story’s end. all around the aunty and the girl, beyond the sandy swirl, a childhood scene with sun and rainbows, forest and river and chinook arch and blue. didn’t believe any of it.
at nineteen I had to drop out of university after the birth of my son. no student loans for single moms in ontario. alberta offered them, though, and I chose to move to calgary. I needed to know the truth of my grade school teacher’s stories of warm winds that could push winter far to the east for hours or weeks or days. if I could believe that, then maybe I could believe my own childhood pictures and words all neatly drawn and gridded and hidden inside dust devils on clean white paper, like cartoons in a comic book. then in university I learned a cartoon can be a stand-alone drawing on strong, large paper. so I changed up the form. a cartoon. life size. bright crayon scribbles painted over with black india ink. but willow stick scratches on the surface revealed a new story underneath. clear, living sundog colour blink-blinking out and into the room.
I wrote a new story that way. already I believed in the power of writing. already I knew how words could pull you in, their power unyielding. binding. much like the words that formed my masters thesis. I did find a supervisor who would take me on– two, in fact, as recommended by grad studies. the work was completed and approved when the tuesday men called that first meeting. then, almost a year to the day, they set up a second gathering. I was offered three what-they-called choices: quit. begin again. defend the trauma narrative– on condition my thesis would be sealed. the university would not publish. my memoir and my research would not appear in the university library, in my supervisors’ offices, at the national archives. they took all the original copies the day of my defense, so details of my theoretical process in the critical afterword were lost to me. I was left with this image of my thesis locked up with tired, haunted, empty eyes, blink-blinking, blink-blinking from inside a darkened vault.
much like the eyes of a woman I met in the book store at the children’s hospital after my son fractured his skull in his early teens. the woman walked up to me, took my hands into hers and started talking, a young daughter standing in her shadow the whole time. I noticed the girl seemed uncommonly quiet, reserved, like vapour or liquid, while her mother spoke to me. the girl’s face remained in my mind’s eye, forever there, like a pencil drawing whose lines found their way into the distance around her. the girl’s sister had died of cancer a few moments earlier and she was the last of four children, all of whom died of the same cancer. she was the only one cancer-free, the only one to live past ten. the girl’s mother said she was bone weary, tired of being spoken to in hushed, quiet tones. I knew that weariness now, what it was like to be handled with kid gloves, when my thesis was sealed. then again when the trauma narrative section of my thesis was published by press gang publishers. to the editors (even though there was virtually no editing done) I was not a writer at all, but an adult victim of unfathomable atrocities. again lawyers were involved. I had to write under a pseudonym, beckylane. I felt like the little girl in the hospital, eclipsed by her siblings’ deaths, the little girl in my childhood stories, obscured by whirling sand. flat and invisible.
I needed to write my trauma narrative in order to develop a writing career, albeit undermined. in more ways than I care to say I’ve been kept out of the local writers’ loop. all be that understated. a few years after I graduated, the late rita joe, mi’kmaw elder and writer– who received the order of canada– read my memoir in the night. let her bacon and eggs get cold the next morning. said, when a child is asked to make that kind of sacrifice she’s rewarded ten-fold during her adult years. I’ve met the queen, she said. there is protocol and I broke all of it. she’s just a lady like any of us. I asked after her grandkids. you’re not supposed to make the queen laugh, she said. not supposed to talk to her. then rita joe told me, keep doing the work you do, my girl. keep writing. keep questioning and keep pushing at authority. otherwise us indians will get nowhere. people have to earn your respect, especially people in positions of authority. when you’re feeling intimidated, remember, even the queen shits. she sits on the pot just like the rest of us. rita joe’s words that day– the ones I can share and the ones I cannot– helped me to understand what happened when I presented my thesis to the english department and graduate studies at the university of calgary in a new and deeper way. unpublished theses are rare, particularly when they have already been vetted and approved by the university ethics committee. a reminder of the power of fear. the power of words. never give up, rita joe said. never give up.
the mad house 3
to a cynic or a skeptic, what I’m about to say may seem way out there. for us métis, the figure eight embodies infinity, the indestructibility of our nation. two cultures that cannot be torn apart. forever. a couple summers ago I was at a ceremony. the people there were invited to hang the flag of their nation. flagpoles all dressed and lined up, one after the other after the other, four days and nights. nation after nation. the métis flag flapped a strong-wind-flap the whole time. blue and white, blue and white, horizontal in the wind every moment. like the current of a river, a continuous, steady flow. what’s important to know is there were hours at a time when the air was still and hot and dry and all the other flags drooped and sagged, slack. hugging the poles. there was a great deal of speculation. lots of talk. there were questions and there was fear. and there was great joy and pride among us métis. the babies and the kids, the teens. the ladies and the men and the old people. even after all the suppression, the silencing, the shaming we endured over the past five hundred years, we knew our ancestors were there. we knew we were protected. we knew we were doing the right thing.
sometimes life is simple like that. even when fear inserts itself, a miracle breaks apart a long-sleeping silence. there is so much more to know. in my own writing life, how could I have known the silencing I would endure when my thesis was censored by the university? when I had no choice but to publish my trauma narrative under a pseudonym? how could I have known how much both of these events would undermine my literary career? cause untold damage and harm? dishonour and shame? I felt silenced for years.
after two years my memoir was out of print. then about ten years ago tlicho writer richard van camp listed where the rivers join among the top ten books by indigenous writers in english. held up a copy when I was reading at a west coast line launch. declared, this book saves lives! someone said it was still among the most signed-out books at regina public library. some interest was stirred up to republish. I received calls from four publishers. asked to provide a reading copy at three more. every one declined. a typical response, and I quote: we did have a chance to review your memoir, previously published by press gang, and unfortunately don’t feel this is something that we can include in our reprint program at this time. and, we were concerned about including a title on ritual abuse, because as a cultural phenomenon it has been largely discredited as a moral panic of the 1980’s and 1990’s. and, for this book, you might consider having it published electronically through amazon, so that you can ensure its viability as a source for anyone who might like to research the topic of ritual abuse. and, I do note that we found your prose both strong and very readable.
then at an international auto/biography conference in banff this past spring, there was a lady who spit her food onto her plate. she heard me read the previous day and I was good, she said. like most of the scholars there she’d never heard of me and was wondering why. tell me the titles of your books from the most recent to the first. I said, some of the titles are long. no problem, she said, her attention divided between me and her chicken parmesan. I listed the titles slowly. watched her body begin to fold in on itself in disinterest, her eyes dart from chair to chair searching for a break in a conversation. when I got to the title of my first book, I felt like I was in a movie set. her food flew from her mouth in a perfect triangular spray like a monty python moment. the colour drained from her face. she white knuckled the edge of the table and pushed back her chair to get a better look into my face. her voice shrill and loud, she almost hollered, you are beckylane? I told her, no.
I am not beckylane. beckylane does not exist, just as my masters thesis doesn’t exist, sealed as it is inside a vault. my masters degree was not classified as a creative writing degree but as a research english degree in feminist bio-theory. that’s what it says on my certificate, something that neither describes my work nor my scholarly interests. in her forword, lee maracle concluded with, I am moved to wonder at the amazing things this spirited and heroic woman could have accomplished had she not been forced upon this path. lee maracle had no idea that when I finally did tell my story, I was forced to walk backwards into the oncoming traffic of that same path. to deny my very existence. I was bullied there. yet it could be argued that I wasn’t forced into this long-sleeping silence. that is true. this long-sleeping silence was forced into me. such is the power of silencing through shaming.
silencing through shaming. last winter I was away at a nephew’s wedding. my dad passed away while I was there. I wasn’t rushing home. when asked why, I shared some from my early life. the cousins opened up about their years in residential school. in métis boarding school. torture. starvation. sexual assault. no contact with brothers for sisters, sisters for brothers. forbidden to speak the language. no parents. no grandparents. no family whatsoever. no culture. no ceremony. no traditions. inferiority bashed and beaten into their tiny bodies. their minds. their hearts. their spirits. over and over again. canada’s official policy: genocide. kill the indian within the child.
my cousins’ aging faces, locked and frozen in my mind. not vapour or pencil or photographs on a wall but skin and heart and bone. years of flashbacks. trauma. depression. suicide. to stay alive is the challenge. at age seven I attempted suicide. I’d been hurt so bad I couldn’t talk. completely lost my voice. weeks later I found my way to the porch of our house, stood on a stool. stared at myself in a mirror. I hated me. I wanted to die. I smashed the mirror with my fists, sliced my little arms, my legs, my chest. that was the moment my voice returned.
Sharron Proulx-Turner is originally from the Ottawa river valley and is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta. She is a two-spirit nokomis, mom and community worker. She is the author of five books including she walks for days/ inside a thousand eyes/ a two-spirit story; she is reading her blanket with her hands, and the trees are still bending south. Her work appears in several anthologies, including the Oxford Anthology of Native Literature in English, Crisp Blue Edges, Tales from Moccasin Avenue, and Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood. She spoke for Paper Hearts: A Valentine’s Day Roundtable on Gender and Power in Canadian Literary Communities, TIA House’s inaugural event, in February 2015.