Here is the Tell

By Kris Malone Grossman

Kris received their BA in English from UC Berkeley and an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where she is co-researching prismatic narrative standpoint and women’s embodied art practice.


Content warning: This piece discusses alcoholism, abuse, and violence.


In recent years some members and friends of A.A. have asked if it would be wise to update the language, idioms, and historical references in the book to present a more contemporary image for the Fellowship. However, because the book has helped so many alcoholics find recovery, there exists strong sentiment within the Fellowship against any change to it.

                                                —From the Introduction to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

Its a miracle Im here to tell you this:

all those years I tried to be dead.

It hurts to say all this.

I need you. Talk to me.

How does my life remind you of your own?

                                                                        —Joan Larkin, from “A Qualification: Pat H.”

Shame: the unspoken, taking root. Uprooting, tap-rooting, tapping the soul, rooting in the bones. Perfidious tangled roots sinking down, primed to exhaust one’s stores. The unspoken, unspeaking—re-unspeaking, pushing the shame down, down, down, where, having no outlet, it serpentines through the body, lodging in cells, with its tendriling fingers that refuse to be stilled, an unchecked, shapeshifting entity casting itself about, thrashing against one’s heart: a silent cacophony. A cacophony: the voices of women in my family, “The day you were born was the worst day of my life—you ripped me to pieces, I almost died,” my great-grandmother to my grandmother, an oft-repeated, shaming refrain; my great-grandmother, forced, while pregnant, to sequester in her prairie town, lest someone spot her and be reminded: something shameful had occurred, was occurring, her womanbody an emblem of shame, invidious reminder of companion shame: townsmen practicing manifest destiny on women’s bodies as they had the land, “You ripped me to pieces” the foreboding leitmotif informing my grandmother’s girlhood, at nine, forced to bind her breasts, lest she and her girlbody shamefully arouse any men. Such manifest solicitousness, a nine-year-old’s solicitousness, a girl’s, a child’s, solicitousness, she, whose father, complicit in his silence, just like my mother’s father, the man my grandmother, who ripped apart her mother, would marry, because that’s what girls do, because that’s what you do: rip apart your mothers and marry silent men and keep equally silent in a perfectly silent, perpetual re-silencing. He’s a real quiet man, they say of the men in my family. Shame, silence, how, when the two wed, their union begets ever more shame. How shame lodged in my mother’s bones, carried down: generations, embodied memory. How shame coursed through her veins that, pre-Rowe and losing blood, hemorrhaged, Scarlet lettered, covert, ashamed, you ripped me to pieces, I almost died, she marries my father, a drinker, a Real Quiet Man,who was it who said, Silence is deafening?, a silence that suffused the house I grew up in, the street I grew up on, the street where a house alight with shameful ghosts will later collapse in on itself, a two-story house, a many-storied house, front corner room upstairs where boys took girls down, housecats traipsing nonchalantly past, past the stacks of smut rags dirty socks wet towels musky T-shirts lumped in the hall, the silence of addiction and shame and Real Quiet Men and Real Quiet Boys and Even Really And Ever So Much Quieter Girls; alcoholism, they say, is a family disease, one big unhappy family disease in its variegated unhappy ways. Silence, addiction, shame, you ripped me to pieces the day you were born. Infants, before they feed, often become so agitated by the scent of the breast they cannot suckle. Fists clenched, bodies taut, tensed, thrashing, the infant seeking, red-faced, screaming, for the breast. The milk lets down to the sound of her cries, the milk sprays, the milk wets her cheek, whetting her appetite. Milk surging so swiftly it gags the infant when she latches on. She screams again, outraged, repeats the pattern again and again. Insanity, some genius claimed, is doing the same thing over and over again expecting—expecting what? Sometimes you win. Sometimes, the infant wins. When she does, her fists slowly uncurl. Her body relaxes. The breast. The milk. What she’s been waiting for. Not for shaming not for binding: for nourishing. The infant suckles, the fists slowly uncurl. She suckles, soothed in her suckling. That with swagger my girlfriends and I boasted loudly, we sucked it up, outing the truth in bluster designed to silencetruth: another line, push it down; another fuck, push it down; another denial, push it down; what was happening to us, push it down; who was doing it, push it down. What was happening? We could only guess: guess from what we knew: what was happening to us, to each other, our mothers, our grandmothers: Real Quiet Men. Real Quiet Boys. Who kept each other’s company. A quiet sort of company. This is a family affair. This is family business. This is—Oh, come now! Boys will be boys. He was high, he was drunk, he was not in control, he was not in his right mind, he was needing an outlet, he was suffering, he was misunderstood, he was laid off, he was turned on, he was scared, he was having fun, he was, he was, he was. He was what? He needed what? He was not in control of what?

We were what. We were what was happening to us: our own quiet addictions, taking root alongside shame, twisting together like strands of DNA, an (un)coping mechanism. What was (re)happening to us: Real Quiet Boyfriends who, like the brothers and fathers and uncles and mothers’ boyfriends we knew, in keeping with our families of origin, in keeping with the tenet that alcoholism is a family disease, that alcoholism is a community disease, that addiction is our disease, we would be likely to partner with addicts, in our cases lovers who also knew that boys will be boys. Boyfriends, girlfriends, who, too, had been schooled in the cult of silence, who understood that we were astutely trained in its tacit curriculum: boys will be boys will be men will be boys.In the borrowed pickup. In the carpeted bedroom. In the wet grassy lawn at Fair Oaks Park. In the cemetery orange groves. In the swelter of a Sacramento Valley summer night. In the manure-smelling horse pastures. In the Safeway parking lot. In the knock-down, ho-hum everyday dirt road: pull out, pull down, peel out, pull off. Remaking the map, the map of California, the map of our bods. Shares that are violent or sexual in nature are better left for discussion outside the group. Admitted to God? To Him? Admitted what? The nature of our wrongs? Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of what? How despite this, we begin to tell. How the memories tell themselves, fold in on themselves, unfurl again. A single subdivision block. A cast of girls casting about, cast on the heap, giving over to go-fast and gone down. Carrying us, sweeping us, down. Lost at sea. Adrift on some sea. How not to tell. This is the tell. Here is the tell. Boyfriend, father, brother, lover: Where does one end and the other begin?

Bibliography

Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, last accessed September 1, 2019, https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/twelve-steps-and-twelve-traditions

Larkin, Joan. A Long Sound. Penobscot, ME: Granite Press, 1986.