Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Warm Fuzzies You Get From Watching “Natural Born Killers” When You’re Almost 35

When I was 13, my mother gave up on me. That was the year she was forced to end her 11-year maternity leave following the birth of my little sister. When she returned to work, her job used up most of her low quotient of mental energy and resilience. To my mother, the most important part of parenting was arbitrarily monitoring the movies and television her children watched and ridiculing or forbidding items she disapproved of.  But after I entered high school at age 13, I could watch whatever I wanted.

I grew up in a very rural town. I didn’t have many friends, and none were within hiking distance. Socializing wasn’t a big part of my “down time”, but watching movies was. I still remember the buzz surrounding the release of Natural Born Killers, and my shock that my mother didn’t keep me from watching it. I still remember staying up until the wee hours, watching it with my sister. Mostly, I remember that after I watched it, something inside me vibrated so strongly it shook everything else away. Years later I got the same feeling from seeing my favorite rock bands live- it’s a feeling I get when I consume huge doses of emotional truth.

I was 16. I knew that most of the violence, cruelty and depravity around me was perpetuated by those who withstood a heavy dose of it while young. Since I grew up in a prison town, and could see the hatred and violence common in the corrections industry reflected in correction workers’ children, I knew the movie’s statement about the monsters on both sides of the bars was correct. I was 16. Three years before, I had been sexually assaulted by my father, then by his cousin many times. After three years of it my mother found out and chose to do nothing. Yes, I completely understood Mallory’s whoops of joy as her boyfriend rescued her by killing her parents.

Mallory’s sexual abuse is a big feature of the movie- flashbacks of it haunt her throughout. But we never see her cry, we never see her collapse. Cry, collapse, and seek vengeance were the only things I had ever seen fictional child sexual abuse (CSA) survivors do. My parents made sure that crying was not something I resorted to, ever. And as far as I knew, I didn’t know any real CSA survivors besides my mother, who had collapsed decades ago without getting up.

I was 17 when I went to college. Two things I learned within my first few weeks were not to tell anyone the prison town I was from, and not to identify “Natural Born Killers” as my favorite movie. As those two lessons were absorbed, I also learned what life was like for my peers who’s lives had been easier. Their lives seemed so much smaller than mine, jewel cases containing a perfect orchid or butterfly. I wanted something like that, not all the moss and miscellaneous bugs crawling around in the crate that was my life.

By my senior year of college, I moved in with a male classmate kind enough to tape NBK for me. I figured if I trusted him enough to live with him, I could watch my favorite movie with him. I remember that evening, sitting in our dark little den. I felt the same vibrations going through me that I did when I was sixteen. As the movie ended, I was aware of how dark the den was, how small the room was, and how much distance there was between my boyfriend and I. We talked about it- he found it barely tolerable, not therapeutic. I loved him. I thought he was a good catch, that marrying him would be a superlative accomplishment. And that was the last time I watched Natural Born Killers with him.

For big chunks of my adulthood, renting a movie was a financial luxury and time expenditure I couldn’t justify. As I grew from being old enough to vote, to old enough to drink, to old enough that no one asked for ID when I purchased cigarettes, I became more and more certain a killing spree was as unlikely to be part of my life as a collapse or extended crying jag. I had a blogging gig when the Supreme Court voted on allowing the death penalty for child rapists, and that gave me the opportunity to think about getting revenge against my parents with a sanitized, state-sanctioned killing spree. And the thought wasn’t appealing.

By the time I was old enough to never be mistaken for I minor, I could afford to buy a DVD without skipping a meal. I was also donating platelets regularly for the Red Cross. Donating platelets is more complex than donating blood, and involves laying down for 70-120 minutes- an excellent opportunity to watch a movie. So, last summer I purchased and watched my old favorite. I’m pretty sure the vibrations I felt afterwards weren’t the shivering the donation process can cause. It was still the same movie. It was still the same me. But there was somehow more to it and to me.

The first two times I watched it, it never dawned on me how utterly bloody it was. I had even gotten into arguments about that. Yes, it’s easy to cheer and overlook the blood when Mickey and Mallory kill the bad guys, meting out justice in that visceral, Old Testament sort of way. But they kill a whole lot of people who aren’t clearly bad guys.  It was a lot harder for me to see Mickey as Mallory’s knight in shining armor when he rapes a hostage after they wed. Mallory’s whoops of joy as Mickey kills her parents… well, I still understand them, but I found them a lot more strident than I did the first two times.

So many people use the word “ruined” in connection with child sex abuse. I think a better way to view it is like this- your psyche is a house, and a sexual assault is like having a bomb explode inside it. The doors, windows and maybe an exterior wall are gone. The interior walls become rubble. Rebuilding the barriers between the self and the outside world can be a massive, but crucial, endeavor. But the rest of the rebuilding is a matter of interior design. Friends of mine think with a little more therapy I’ll trade my Alice Walker for Danielle Steel, Nine Inch Nails for The Beach Boys, and my passion for advocating for children into a passion for watching TV. That would be taking their internal blue-prints and copying it within my psyche. I’ve learned that I like not having too many interior walls- they waste so much space.  I like consuming big, loud entertainment that takes up a lot of emotional space and makes some interesting echoes.  The problem with a lot of space is it’s easy to turn it into a repository for hate and anger and rage. I won’t deny that I have some of that. I also have love, optimism, curiosity, compassion, an appreciation of beauty and a passion for justice. All of those things take up room, too, and keep the darker emotions at bay.

Until the day I die, I suspect the scene in Natural Born Killers where Mickey ties Mallory’s mom to the bed, gags her, douses her in lighter fluid, and let’s Mallory say “you didn’t do nothing” before he sets her on fire will always be meaningful to me. Knowin that my mother knew my uncle was raping me and let him continue hurts me at least as much now as it did when I was 16. I don’t expect that pain will ever go away. I know it becomes a smaller part of my life every year, every day, as my life keeps growing. I also don’t expect it will ever hijack my life and cause me to seek vengeance, cry or collapse.
Right now, my mother is 65 years old. She’s in such bad health her bones break regularly. When she’s not at work, she spends all day in a recliner, watching TV, and she plans on retiring this year. She puts less than 6000 miles on her car each year.

I run 5k’s. I lift weights. I put over 70,000 miles on my last car in 34 months- some of that was from work, but most of it was from play. While it’s not easy to portray in a movie, living well really is the best revenge, and I’m quite sure it’s the only one I’ll exact against my parents.  

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