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Family Berserk: A Lenten Confession
Jennifer Ochstein

I was twenty-four when I learned I had the capacity for murder. What stopped me from bludgeoning my then husband to death with a bat-length two-by-four in a fit of rage was an image of cop cars surrounding our house at the midnight hour and the glare of blinding spotlights and flashing red and blue emergency lights, like the glow of an apocalyptic bomb blast streaming through the darkened windows. The image of the lights coaxed me from my fury and into the reality of the scene before me: my near-naked husband lying in our bed with a stranger. Unable to process this odd picture of him, my mind conjured new images to replace the immediate scene.

I saw myself in a courtroom, standing before one of the three judges I had come to know and respect. I saw the prosecutor building his case against me, and the police officers I interviewed nearly every day testifying against me. At the time, I was a green reporter, two years out of college and newly hired from part-time to full-time, covering the cops and courts beat for a mid-sized daily metropolitan newspaper. I saw the headline in the next day’s newspaper: “Reporter Beats Husband to Death.” In my mind, I read the lede of the news story, written by a fellow reporter and friend who, like the rest of us, had a bent toward yellow journalism: A former cops and courts Tribune reporter beat her husband to death Saturday morning after discovering him in a compromising position with another woman.

In that moment, I understood how people, out of their minds, commit crimes of passion. They say that when you’re close to death, your entire life flashes before your eyes. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that in the moment before nearly causing the death of another person, I saw my future. The vision knocked me loose from my rage so I could see what might become of me. It wasn’t the thought of taking another person’s life that knocked me from my berserk; it was self-preservation. And while I’m thankful the vision engulfed me at a crucial moment, today it occurs to me that it was a wholly selfish reason to decide not to beat my husband to death. Today, fifteen years later, that moment feels like a cliché, a dark comedy or soap opera. It has the feel of bad reality television.

 

***

 

“I write about situations that are common, universal might be more correct, in which my characters are involved and from which only faith can redeem them, though often the actual manner of the redemption is not immediately clear. They sin, but there is no limit to God’s mercy and because this is important, there is no difference between not confessing in fact, and the complacent and the pious may not realize it.”

Graham Greene, 1953
Paris Review Interviews, Vol. II.

 

The Friday before a long Fourth-of-July weekend in 1999, the summer before I nearly killed my husband, I’d been introduced to a similar kind of human tragedy. The newsroom had been dead for most of the day as the other reporters and I anticipated a long weekend. Just before 4 pm a police dispatcher’s voice squawked over the scanner. A man with a shotgun was running through the parking lot of a local motel. I stared at the scanner, stunned, questioning whether I’d heard correctly. The newspaper I worked for had bureau offices in several counties surrounding its urban hub and home in South Bend, Indiana; I worked out of a small bureau in Marshall County, Indiana, a rural area where juicy news was often hard to come by. People’s private lives rarely spilled into the public realm.

Midwestern people are mostly good at keeping secrets. I think it has something to do with the insular nature of the landscape. As this region is interior, the people follow form. When private lives did leak into the public realm, like the time a woman was arrested and charged with domestic abuse for clubbing her husband in the head with a frozen chicken, we usually made a joke of it and played the stories up in crazy headlines like “Wife Beats Husband With Frozen Chicken.” The headline was the truth, of course, but we couldn’t seem to help ourselves from pointing out the underlying humor in human folly. Nor could we bring ourselves to compassion. Maybe we were thankful that our own private lives didn’t seem as outlandish as the ones that ended up in the articles we wrote, or maybe we were just glad we had sense or luck enough to keep our private lives to ourselves. Often the personal calamities seemed bizarre, like most horrific events in our lives if we stopped to think about them.

Moments later, the dispatcher announced over the scanner that the man running around the motel parking lot had shot himself in the head. When I arrived on the scene to cover the incident for the newspaper, the motel was surrounded by dozens of garish red and blue lights flashing atop a pile of police cars and ambulances. I was horrified by what I saw. Bits of bone and flesh, what I thought were pieces of skull and brains, splattered across the black asphalt in a puddle of blood that streamed toward the sewer grate in the middle of the parking lot.

I learned the story gradually over a two-hour period as a police spokesman divulged information as he received it from the officers working the scene. The man who’d shot himself had discovered his girlfriend in bed with another man. They’d all lived at the motel. The cuckold ran back to the room he shared with the woman and grabbed his shotgun. He confronted his girlfriend and her lover with it. The lover scrambled around the room and somehow managed to escape out of a window while the cuckold gave chase. Apparently unable to catch the man, the shooter decided to turn the gun on himself. Maybe he’d had a vision of his own future and decided he didn’t want to be present for it. Maybe self-flagellation was the only way he could stop the shock of such a sudden loss of love. Maybe he had to somehow stop the gut-punch pain that comes from invisible heartache. One thing we can know for sure: he wasn’t thinking clearly. But who would, if you found yourself chasing a rival around a motel parking lot with a loaded shotgun?

As you might have guessed, the shooter botched his suicide. With a gun that large, how could you expect to get the job done without more careful planning? Rather than killing himself, the shotgun’s scattershot blew half of his face off. He lived. Police arrested him, took him to the hospital in one of the ambulances.

At his initial hearing some weeks later, his entire face had the sheen of shiny plastic. It was swollen two to three times the normal size of a face, blotting out his human features. His head was partially covered with a bandage. The left ear was gone. Half revolted, half enthralled, I took the gossip back to the bureau office and my fellow reporters. We didn’t know what to do but laugh the cuckold off. What else to do in the face of that kind of human destruction?

Thankfully the sight of that man’s face confronted me before I nearly bashed in my then husband’s brains a year later.

 

***

 

“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

Shusaku Endo, 1966
Silence

 

Since then, I’ve discovered that other people in my family have had the capacity for murder. My grandmother, Barb, nearly shot my mother when my mother was sixteen. My mother told me the story when I asked her once about the worst beating she ever received from Barb. At fifty-eight, two weeks before she would die of cancer in October of 1991, Barb told my mother that the reason she beat her as a child was because she had been Barb’s favorite. It is hard to fathom how pulling a gun on your daughter or regularly beating her tells that daughter she’s favored. We all justify our behavior in our own way. Once during an argument with my now husband Sam, I balled my fists and pounded his shoulders and back while scratching him viciously enough that he bled. I justified it by telling myself his manipulations made me small and mean and caused me to lose my humanity. I convinced myself it was really his fault I’d hurt him. He deserved it for beating me up emotionally, I told myself. I’ve come to recognize we all have the potential to lose our humanity in our small, dark, mean, interior places. Instead of being human, we become inanimate instruments in violent service of self above all else.

 

In 1970, five years before I was born, my grandmother sat on her bed after arguing with my mother about whether my mother would be allowed to go out on a Saturday afternoon to visit a friend in the neighborhood. My mother wanted to go; my grandmother accused my mother, who was sixteen at the time, of never wanting to spend time with her. I often try to place myself in my mother’s life to understand how she might have felt and coped with living in violence and uncertainty. Here’s how I imagine it went for my mother:

After their argument, Barb stomped away to her bedroom. I imagine hearing the scrape of the bureau drawer as she opened it and moments later as she closed it, and then I imagine hearing the squeak of the mattress springs as she sat on the bed. My mother stood in the living room, waiting for Barb to return.

Should I follow?

“Mom?” I nearly whispered, overcome by the strangest feeling in the wake of her squeaking mattress. Buffeted by silence, time slowed. A kind of invisible static seemed to fill the atmosphere the way it always did just before her calm would snap, like the discharge of an electrical current. “Mom?” I said again, this time a little louder. “It’s okay. I can stay. I don’t need to go.” I rounded the corner of the bedroom and was confronted by darkness, the shades closed and curtains drawn, the lights turned off. I couldn’t see anything at first. I blinked and waited for my eyes to adjust. I saw the outline of Barb sitting on the bed. I blinked again and saw the gun. She was pushing the barrel of it into the soft flesh under her chin. “I can fix it if I’m so unbearable,” Barb whispered, her voice hoarse, choked with emotion. As soon as I saw the gun, my arms raised instinctively, my palms perpendicular, like a traffic cop motioning for a motorist to stop. “Mom?” I whispered again. “It’s okay. I want to stay. I don’t want to go.” Barb said nothing. “Mom, I can stay,” I said. Seconds ticked by and I willed her to move her finger away from the trigger, drop the gun. I braced myself for the sound, already flinching at the noise and sight to come. But Barb didn’t shoot. Instead, as if in slow motion, as if she were a marionette attached to a puppeteer’s string, Barb lowered the gun away from her chin and stretched out her arm toward me, her finger still on the trigger, her thumb cocking the hammer... click… click… click… as the mechanism loaded and locked the bullet into the chamber, she pushed the gun away from her body, first her arm and then the gun, an extension of her hand, parallel with the floor, death pointed at my face.

My mother looked into her own mother’s eyes. They were as blank as the hole in the gun barrel pointed at her. My mother ran.

 

***

 

“No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by the word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior, by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol—cross or crescent or whatever—that symbol is a man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach a man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.”

William Faulkner, 1956
Paris Review Interviews, Vol. II.

 

Mindless cruelty is woven into my DNA. I understand DNA partly as a kind of memory. Not only does it unite the physical traits of our father and mother, creating a new beginning, but entropic strands from the past also seem to push themselves into new pink flesh. Memory in reverse. Instead of looking over a life lived, as our individual memories do, the strands of our forebears’ humanity and inhumanity emerges into the future with a dumb kind of self-preservation linking generation after generation to a past that is often as mysterious as the future. Maybe time travel does exist in our bodies as the past plays itself out in the people we choose to become and the people we seem to have no choice in becoming. I can’t help but wonder what stopped Barb from shooting my mother.

My mother has told me before that I sometimes remind her of Barb.

Whenever I think of my grandmother, she is like a caricature, the evil stepmother of the Cinderella fairytale, a kind of one-dimensional foil juxtaposed against my mother’s vulnerability. By the time she died when I was sixteen I was filled with the kind of angry teenaged wrath that feels fully justified but in reality only knows half the story and is developed through the lens of self-righteousness. This smug piety encased me along with the anger, blinding me to the moments when I began losing my own mind, just as my grandmother did before she nearly shot my mother.

It wasn’t only that this woman had beaten her child. By the time I knew her, she’d become the kind of Christian who believed aliens from outer space are thinly veiled demons out to possess the unsuspecting. She believed conservative televangelist Pat Robertson had the power to heal through the television screen. She chain smoked Virginia Slim cigarettes, spent hours watching soap operas, set places at the dining-room table for her pets, referred to me as a slut when, as an eleven-year-old, I begged my mother to let me wear makeup. She was also beloved by her church community. They trusted and confided in her. They told me I was lucky to have such a wonderful woman as a grandmother. They made her their pastor. It was a side of her I never knew.

Today my mother and I suspect she may have been mentally ill, perhaps suffering from depression or some other undiagnosed disorder. At eighteen, she married a man, my grandfather, who was ten years her senior. She never got an education. Why would she? She would follow the footsteps dictated to her by a post-World War II, nuclear age, 1950s American society that believed her only worth would be found in staying home to care for her husband and children. Maybe that prescribed life wasn’t enough for her. I believe this may have been true because she dominated my grandfather, and at one point they divorced but remarried because he couldn’t stay away. She gave birth to another daughter, my aunt, who was severely physically disabled; wheelchair bound, my aunt spent much of her childhood in and out of hospitals undergoing surgery after surgery. My grandmother verbally abused my aunt. The pressures of a child needing near constant medical care would have been immense; they likely would have broken me, too. Maybe the reality of her situation did break her, and the only way to release that pressure was by hitting my mother, who refused to conform. My mother, who hated the dresses my grandmother made her wear and the curly 1950s-style hair permanents she was forced to sit through and who resisted the traditional family structure and wanted to be a teacher and a writer, may have been a constant reminder that my grandmother was stuck in her prescribed life. Then I see my child mother again in all of her vulnerability and the old anger begins to smolder again. I have to stomp the coals, throw dirt on them. I have to remind myself to live in the tension of who my grandmother may have been beneath the beatings she meted out to my mother in the same way I recognize my own tendencies toward kindness and cruelty. And I have to remind myself I’ve adopted a religion that teaches me that the fruit of my life should embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control rather than self-righteous anger and piety that I can so easily wrap myself in.

But at the edges of my heart where shadows linger, the old anger waits, ready to pull me back. Hostile to who I want to be, yes. But also reminiscent of a well-worn sweater, warm and comfortable. Familiar and dependable.

 

Jennifer Ochstein is Assistant Professor of Writing at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana, and faculty advisor for The Crossings, Bethel’s literary journal.

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