As I’ve hinted often in this column, my favorite hobby is local historical/genealogical research. My most frequent partner-in-crime in this effort is a lovely lady to whom I’m related east-Kentucky fashion, several different ways between only a few families, from the Left Fork of Two Mile originally but now living downstate. I just got back from the County Library, having tried to run down some information for her from microfilms of our local papers about a suicide that occurred in this county eighty-nine years ago. As I might have expected, I learned nothing whatsoever from the community news media. The two issues of the newspaper immediately after the date of the tragedy contained a number of remarkable articles including one about an individual who fell from a twelve-story building in New York City, and another claiming the Garden of Eden had been in America (this was the Roaring Twenties, after all, the Reagan Era on steroids)—but left a complete blank for a fifty-eight year-old farm wife, mother, and grandmother who, in a day and age when the United States was supposed to be God’s Own Nation and Kentucky was where He was best worshiped, one early autumn morning decided that life just wasn’t worth living anymore and ended her own by drowning. And now, as with the legendary Inconnue de la Seine, we’ll never know her griefs or her motivation.
In modern Appalachia suicides are often written off conveniently and complacently as mentally ill and therefore probably not responsible for their actions, but years ago nearly everyone considered them as damned eternally. Back then too, a good many churches and ministers around here were known for a bit of self-righteous depravity called “preaching a man (or woman) into hell” at funeral services, much like the priest in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” did with Ophelia. This deplorable practice is, thankfully, almost nonexistent now—but because the Church has historically taught that suicides must either be hell-bound or unhinged, mostly the former, should this despondent grandmother’s neighbors and kin have thus consigned her very memory to oblivion too, an idea seemingly scarier to most people even than hell is, and the possible lack of an afterlife more terrifying than the possible absence of a God? All that my downstate friend and I could do was shake our heads and recall a proverb that both of us had learned almost from the time we were able to talk, and which had been repeatedly drummed (literally) into us growing up: IF YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT IT, IT NEVER HAPPENED.
You rarely see anything written about Appalachia that isn’t nostalgic. The Good Old Days, simpler times, country living, family closeness, what not: we’ve idealized ourselves almost beyond recognition, Waltonized our culture you might even say, and outsiders have often swallowed the deception hook, line, and sinker. If you don’t believe me, read the early novels of Janice Holt Giles and then check out Diane Watkins Stuart’s biography of her to see how differently she expressed herself in private after she moved to Kentucky. I’m not saying that our culture doesn’t have qualities to admire and even emulate, but after having grown up in, out of, and then back into eastern Kentucky I know for a fact that the age-old mountain attitude of silence and cover-up for inconvenient truths as vital to a family’s or a community’s well-being isn’t one of them. It’s been used to hide sexual assaults, abuses, and scandals, depression and other mental disorders short of full-blown insanity that couldn’t be concealed, addictions, overdoses, church politics and dissensions, and a host of other things that many of us natives have at one time or another been reminded by the back of an older hand across our young mouths never to dare bring up again. And about all it’s succeeded in doing is to foster some very unhealthy coping mechanisms and a weird sense of humor in abuse survivors, which can often serve only to perpetuate the creed of mum’s-the-word. Not to mention suicides, which are swept under the rug with the same complacent attitudes and platitudes again and again. Want to see eastern Kentucky improve? How about from the ground up, forsaking all the nostalgia long enough to try to accept ourselves honestly as humans, with all of the both good and bad that the effort entails?
I’ll have something a little more upbeat in Part Two. If today’s column has made you uneasy in any way, I guess you’ll simply have to remain silent and pretend that I never wrote it. Remember: IF YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT IT…