The Bridges of Joan Jett or How to Survive
I once spent twenty-six days listening to “Bad Reputation” on repeat ‘cause we can’t talk about suicide in my family and at least Joan sounded like she didn’t care what anyone thought. My father had become sick and tried to kill himself a few days after his birthday and ended up in the hospital in the kind of stay you can’t check yourself out of. While my father survived his attempt, his father hadn’t been so lucky. Bridges and rope aren’t as forgiving as a bottle of pills. So, for the twenty-six days that my father was in the hospital, I listened to Joan Jett, her swagger-rough voice telling me to keep on, and read about bridges as though finding the answer to the old question of “what had happened to the grandfather I never met” would help answer this current heartbreak.
My grandfather had killed himself when my father, his son, was ten years old. Aside from my grandfather’s name, his place of birth (found courtesy of Google), and that he was in the Pacific in WWII, I know little about him except that there was a bridge, that he married my grandmother, and that he fathered three children before leaving the world. My mother once let a sentence slip about this grandfather being a violent drunk, but when I asked her to continue, she shushed me and that was the end of it. I know nothing about his sadness, if it was sadness, or his suffering or his hopes or dreams or was it nightmares or did he ever read a bedtime story to the kids or was he only unkind or drunk or scary or did he like football or cars or fishing or perhaps maybe he was an outdoorsman or maybe he dreamed of cities and skyscrapers and travel or maybe he’d never been anywhere except Wisconsin and the Pacific Theatre and maybe it was impossible to see beyond the Midwest and death.
Maybe he was an asshole. Maybe he was the kind of man who, when you heard the car pulling up and a bottle drop onto the gravel of the drive, you jumped into bed and pulled the covers up and took pains to control your breathing. Maybe you only whispered in the house those next mornings, skipping showers and dressing as quickly as possible, grabbing peanut butter on toast so that you could get out the door to school before he woke. Maybe you always worried when he was around, afraid that the wrong word or a sock left on the floor or a ball left in the yard was the thing that would set him off. Or maybe he was silent and wouldn’t speak and maybe you begged for attention, clamoring and with words, or silent and with offerings of perfect grades or the most points scored in hopes that he’d shine upon you. Or maybe he was terribly ill in his heart and mind and he stayed in bed for days, unable to rouse himself from an internal unreadable weight. I just know he went to a bridge and hung himself when his oldest child was ten and no one ever spoke of it again.
After hours spent hours researching in newspaper archives, looking for mentions of my grandfather’s name, of my grandmother’s name, of anything that might tell of a softball league or a birthday or a business opened or a meat-raffle won, I have unearthed nothing except a google image of his headstone and a marriage license. My father’s siblings are no help, no secret source of information. They are as closed off about those years as my father. It is as though time didn’t exist until the after and even then it’s complicated. And, to be honest, what I was searching for was some evidence of what made it possible, what made it the best possible course of action, of what made a man decide that the best thing to do was to leave his three children and kill himself.
When I was a child I could imagine myself into anything--at age five I imagined myself into marrying Elvis on a beach, we walked down an aisle made of shells and got hitched with the surf around our ankles--and at ten I won the Kentucky Derby four times a day for a week. When my father would take me to the roller rink, we would skate and when Joan Jett came on the sound system, I would sing along and imagine myself on a stage, wearing shiny black, impossibly cool. But, tried as I might, I can’t see into grandfather or what it would be like to commit to height and rope and a failure of hope.
Because it was easier to theorize about bridges than it was to think explicitly about death, bridges became the easier thing to focus upon. Bridges are designed to span an uncrossable space between two places, their own structure becoming a liminal passage between. I’d always thought of bridges as functional and, sometimes, deliberately beautiful works of art. When I was living in Berkeley I remember being surprised that the bridges there were such frequent sights of attempted suicides they’d quit publishing the numbers for fear there would be an increase every time it neared the next hundred. It’d never occurred to me to think of them as a place for death before that moment and, although I believed what I was being told, it was hard to comprehend; the bridges in the bay offer such beautiful views and offer passage to such magical places--all fog and sun and choppy waters, green hills and shining cities.
While I’ll probably never know the actual bridge that my grandfather chose--no one will tell me and there’s no mention in the archives of the newspaper--the one I envision in my mind is much like the bridge in a scene in the movie The Lost Boys. There is no such vista or bridge in Wisconsin, no such fog or sounds of nearby saltwater, but that particular bridge, in that particular movie, was a literal crossing space. In the movie the young man in question is asked to leap, an act of faith and nihilism rolled into one, a moving over to another literal side. But there are no such magical bridges in that small town. The bridges there are functional, on ramps and off ramps and one highway passing over another. There are no gorges, no rivers, certainly no vista where young lovers might pause for a kiss or to throw a coin. Or perhaps it wasn’t anything about a bridge except that it was there and was the last stop on the way out of town.
But if I could understand the idea of leaping, I still couldn’t understand the idea of hanging. To take out rope and tie and loop, to close hands and grip and pull to make certain the knot is tight, gauging its strength against your imagined fall and weight is a bold and deliberate and measured thing. It is making something with care, a something that you hope will kill you. Do you study and research rope? Do you consider tensile strength and material? The slip and give? Do you also study knots? Do you practice? Is this planned, measured, a deliberate act of defiance and release? Or is it hasty and simply the tools that are at hand? I get stuck on both places. If it’s planned and studied, then why not find another exit like leaving town, getting help, moving to Zanzibar. If it’s hurried and harried and simply a function of the-thing-that-must-happen-now-right-now then, my god, it seems beyond desperate and brutal. There is so much space to travel, to get to a bridge, the right bridge that hanging is even possible, and then to tie rope and make sure it’s secure. And then to loop rope around neck and leap. Do you look about? Do you go wide-eyed and staring into something beyond you? Or do you close your eyes and hope for nothingness?
For the almost four weeks that my father was in the hospital, in psychiatric care, there was no bridge to him, either. He, too, was trapped in a liminal space, not only because of his depression which had become overwhelming, but he was out of state and in a space no one in the family could access, literally and metaphorically. When in psychiatric care, visitors aren’t allowed to enter your room, so until the patient is willing to come out of their room and into a common area, they remain in that liminal space, in that sort of space below the bridge. They are unreachable. And so it was the case with my father. He was unreachable. He was hanging and was everywhere and nowhere, concurrently, for us all.
Suffering seems almost inexplicably and inextricably linked to shame. Carl Jung said that “Shame is a soul eating emotion,” and shame is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since my Dad was released from care. He’s been healthy and fine since his release, so that part of life has become much lighter, and while that is a capital B blessing, it is still something that “we do not talk about;” we talk about neither him nor his father. And I think that it is this willingness to be silent, this idea that weakness and suffering are things to be kept quiet, is at least part of what gets us to these dark places in the first place.
I think that’s what shame is, at least a lot of it. And I’m here to tell you that I reject it. I reject shame. I reject the understanding that says pain and vulnerability and failure and weakness are things to be hidden away to fester until they drain us completely or explode and we all end up on our own bridges. And I reject the idea that these things are embarrassing to tell.
Coming from a family that, like most families, likes to keep at least some of its secrets, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whose stories are mine to tell, and what does it mean to talk about your own happiness or pain when it is often so directly connected to the happiness or pain of others. The idea that certain shames and pains are best left quiet, silent, that if you dare to ask the only appropriate response is given through clenched teeth in a register and tenor that lets the listener know that a more violent rebuke is just a second question away, a response that says, low and white hot, “I will not speak on that.” I’ve come to believe something that is not unrelated to bridges and books and suffering, that is related to spaces and travel. If we understand every person as a text, as a bridge spanning spaces beautiful and liminal, sometimes crossing dangerous waters by the very skin of our teeth, then the telling, the very act of telling these texts creates bridges of safe passage for us all. The reading and sharing of those texts can only be seen as the opening of a great and beautiful library...a library that just might save us.
About the Author: Sheila Arndt is a writer and MFA/ Ph.D. candidate living in New Orleans. She cares about the modern and postmodern, critical theory, Americana, saltwater, garlic, canines, old blues, and new dreams. Her poetry and prose has been published in The Tishman Review, Gravel, Ink in Thirds, and Literary Orphans, among other places, and has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train. Follow her: @ACokeWithYou_ www.sheilamarndt.com