Dr. Timothy McNeil

“No DSM IV Diagnosis for Poor White Trash and Southern Cultural Schizophrenia”

This article was first published in Journeys Magazine, a Publication of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, in the Winter-Spring edition 2009.

Rev. P.T. Holloway, my grandfather, was an ordained minister in the South Georgia conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In 1924 he preached a sermon condemning the lynching of an African-American in the community he served. My mother was the youngest of seven children born to P.T. and Lilly Holloway. Mom remembered being terrified as a little girl when her Uncle Rufus died. The terror did not come from his death. It happened after the committal at the graveside. Hooded men wearing white robes came out from behind the bushes to hold their own ceremony. Nobody knew Uncle Rufus had been a member of the Klan.

My parents married in 1941. Dad was 21. My mother was 16. During World War II my father drove in the motor pool while stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia. His experience as a veteran qualified him to drive a bus for the Jacksonville Coach Company in Jacksonville, Florida. Dad proudly boasted he would have kicked Rosa Parks off his bus in a heartbeat. Southern protocol demanded African-Americans to surrender their seats to Whites and take their place in the back of the bus.

I am a son of the cultural schizophrenia of the south. As a six year old boy I never understood why there were separate water fountains and restrooms for “Whites” and “Coloreds”. Dad hated Cassius Clay and Martin Luther King, Jr. Our once a week restaurant experience was usually at Morrison’s Cafeteria. James was our regular waiter who would fill our glasses with iced tea. Dad gave James a $7.tip one year at Christmas, a dollar for each of his seven children. Mom said he was a “good Nigra” which was “southern” for a shuffling Uncle Tom who tried to please his white superiors.

I awoke one morning at 2:30 a.m. and heard unfamiliar voices in our living room. Two uniformed policemen were sitting on the couch. My Dad was being questioned. Mom told me everything would be o.k. and to go back to bed. Police do not make social calls at that hour. Her words did not reassure me. I later learned Dad had run over and killed an African-American man on his last run of the night. The man was drunk, had stepped off a curb, and Dad couldn’t stop in time. Dad was not charged, but he quit driving the bus and he began drinking heavily. It was his way, I suppose, of dealing with his pain.

            My parents did not graduate from High School. I was the first in our family to attend college, initially motivated for a student deferment to stay out of Viet Nam. In a freshman sociology class I had a sudden epiphany. From national income averages I discovered our family was never middle class. I saw us as we were: poor white trash. I majored in Political Science and minored in Black History. Dad read my texts: Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Langston Hughes. He told me of a lynching he had witnessed when he was just four years old. His cultural lenses began to change.

Education may create empathy and understanding but it isn’t enough. Insight doesn’t always heal. Abuse frequently becomes replicated in family systems and can surface in every generation. Racism is abuse trapped in a cultural family system. Why I wasn’t infected with this virus of hate is unclear to me. I just always knew it was wrong and this is what we taught our children. Racism institutionalizes splitting and becomes culturally embedded. Projecting toxic emotions onto others and disowning your own demons is delusional. You don’t have to make someone inferior to boost your own pseudo sense of superiority. No one is better than anyone else. Believe in yourself. Be humble. Remember from whence you came. We’re just poor white trash.

Happy 95th Birthday Dad . . . A Tribute to You and Your Razor

It was one of his prized possessions. He won it in a poker game while he was in the Army, stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia during World War II. The razor was nearly stolen one night when he was off base sleeping in the back seat of his car. A would-be thief was rummaging through the glove compartment. Dad heard some commotion. The thief was startled when Dad sat up and demanded to know what he was doing. The would-be felon dropped the razor and ran. This razor had a harrowing beginning and I'm certain I would have never been told this story if the thief would have made off with his booty.

From the time I was a little boy Dad told me, "One day I'm going to leave my razor to you." "Where are you going? I asked. He meant that when he died he was going to leave me the razor. "You're going to die?" The thought terrified me.

One day while in elementary school I had a science project that had to be completed. My problem was I needed to cut a cardboard box. Unable to find a knife, box cutter, or other sharp object, I grabbed Dad’s razor, unscrewed the top, and removed the blade. After I performed this clandestine act, I returned the blade to its rightful place. My two sisters would occasionally pilfer his razor to shave their legs. They would likely be accused of this dastardly deed. The next morning Dad came out of the bathroom with tiny little red dots of toilet paper stuck all over his face. In a voice of calm he began the grand jury investigation to get to the bottom of this crime. Both sisters claimed their rightful innocence. However, their testimony was not deemed to be credible because they had been tried and found guilty in prior investigations. The question he raised was, "Who shaved a pig with my razor?" I thought this was uproariously funny, for one reason, we didn't own any pigs. I couldn't get out of my head the image of someone putting shaving cream on a pig and I wondered if this was where the word "razorbacks" came from. Laughter disarmed me and I confessed to the crime. In my mind and at that time I didn't understand that razor blades became dull. I just thought they always remained sharp. In my defense I reasoned that it shouldn't really matter because the razor was going to be mine one day so I should at least be able to use it now.

Dad loved that razor. He would have nothing to do with electric razors. He said they didn't shave close enough. When "Trac Two" blades came out he would have nothing to do with them. Neither would he have anything to do with the three, four, or five bladed razors. How many blades do you really need?

It was one of the few constants in his life. His first wife, my Mom, died from lung cancer a few weeks after she turned 60. He was devastated and conflicted with grief by her death. The devastation didn’t last long. She died in November. He remarried the following July. Dad and Amy were married for 20 years. She stood up from the breakfast table, fainted, hit her chin on the way down, and broke three vertebrae in her neck. After neck surgery, a halo, and attempts at rehab, she was dead in six weeks. Dad was again conflicted with grief. He blamed himself for not being able to catch her before her chin hit the table and her neck snapped.

We moved him in with us primarily so we could get him to much needed medical attention. He had Paget's Disease which meant his bone marrow was hardening and he had fractures in his back. His stomach was distended up into his chest through a Hiatal hernia. His stomach wouldn't empty and it caused nausea and vomiting. When Brenda tried to help him with prep for a colonoscopy he literally became like a rabid raccoon and thought she was trying to kill him. He was on pain patches for his back pain and he was higher than a kite until he would crash. He became mean when the drugs started to wear off. We had to take his car away. He was enraged. He ran away twice and we had to call the police. He wanted to move back to Jacksonville. My sister found an assisted living facility that was just blocks away from where he grew up in Five Points near Riverside.

He adjusted to his new environment but it took months. He slept a lot and stayed in his room. He was depressed. He quit bathing. Other residents complained that he smelled. Dad had to be moved to a different section of the facility so he could receive care with his ADL’s, medical nomenclature for activities of daily living, such as bathing, grooming, etc. With pinpoint accuracy he could tell detailed stories of events that happened eight decades earlier but have no clue what he had for lunch. He told me a story about a cousin of his that had been convicted of murder and had been sent to the electric chair at Raiford. I thought he had made it up but I researched the story and it was true. I always knew Dad possessed many secrets. I’ve always wondered about all of the others that died with him.

His behavior became more bizarre. The administrator called me one day and was dumbfounded when she learned he had defecated in his bathroom sink. During our monthly visits for haircuts, supplies, and an off campus trip for a meal, we’d bring wipes with us because there were always telltale smears of feces on his walker. No matter how many times his clothes were washed he always smelled "old," a peculiar and pungent smell that penetrates the nostrils like a knife stabbing through sinus cavities into the brain. I felt both love and disgust for this man, the emotional equivalent of trying to juggle both fire and ice. The kids nicknamed him Yoda, because he began to look like him. As Yoda would say, “Difficult these emotions to feel, they are. . . .”

Although his body and his mind betrayed him, his sense of humor did not. He was an endless reservoir of corny jokes, puns, and one-liners that caused more groans and eye rolls than the number of hits of those registering for ObamaCare on the Healthcare.gov website. He wanted you to laugh because he wanted you to like him. Laughter communicates acceptance, something he craved. The humor was at time offensive and inappropriate which was also consistent with his character. At other times, it was unintended. Of all of the prose and poetry he had committed to memory the Gettysburg Address was an integral selection in his repertoire. The last time I took him off campus for lunch (he ordered salmon every time, something he had never eaten before) and out of “The Nut House,” the name he ascribed to his place of residency, he launched into a usual and predictable recitation of “Four score and seven years ago.” Upon completion, he looked at me with a deadpan expression on his face and he was as serious as a heart attack, “Did I write that?,” he asked. I said, “Yes, Dad, you and Abraham Lincoln!” His confusion was understandable since he repeatedly plagiarized the poetry of Edgar A. Guest and in his recitations he claimed them as his own.

Apart from his humor, the one constant, the one thing that he cohered around that created normalcy, consistency, and predictability, was the routine of shaving. Long gone was reading the paper, working the crossword puzzle, going bowling, and frequent gambling trips to Las Vegas. He was such a regular at the Four Queens his lodging and meals were usually free. The last ritual and routine he hung on to with desperation was the daily ritual of shaving. Since the onset of the double-barreled blast he suffered from age and stage senility he literally had forgotten about his lifelong dedication to his blade razor. During one visit he gave it to me so I could “enjoy it” prior to his death or otherwise further demise. He now wanted and demanded an electric razor. The problem was he went through them like most of us go through disposables. He sat in his reclining chair in his room and fouled them up as readily as he did his remote control on his television set. His face was always raw. He shaved constantly. He applied lubricants to his face, such as Vaseline, that further gummed up the works of his electric razors. When they stopped working he would dismantle them and then demand a replacement. After fouling more than a few expensive varieties we then resorted to buying the BOGO’s at Walgreens or CVS. During his four years at the Riverside Presbyterian House our best estimates are that he went through twenty five electric razors, about one every two months. The list was small for Dad’s supplies. “Dad, we are coming up Saturday. Do you need anything?” “Bring Cokes, shampoo, soap, toilet paper, and . . . a new electric razor.”

Today would have been Dad’s 95th birthday. I’ve only ever had one electric razor. It was one of the early casualties when I gifted it to him. I don’t like electric razors. Never have. Never will. If I ask you one day, my children, Sean or Rebekah, to bring me an electric razor please bring me instead at least 30 Ambien or a 9mm pistol. If I ask you for an electric razor you will know that I have officially and totally lost my mind just like your Granddaddy did. I don’t want you to everhave to go through the juggling act of holding those God awful emotions of love and disgust. As you know, I am in my sixth decade. I don't think I fear so much about growing old as much as I fear beingold.

Happy Birthday, Dad. In honor of this day I’m going to offer you a toast, of sorts. Today I will raise my mug . . . and lather up my brush. Today Dad, I will shave with your razor. And I will remember the Dad who shaved with this same razor before the effects of aging and time and dementia hit you with a haymaker and knocked you down for the count long before you were carried out of the ring.

The Boston Marathon Massacre: When We Don't Feel Safe . . . Nothing Else Matters

Safety is our number one need. Simply put, if we do not feel safe, nothing else matters. We react instinctually to threat in this way. Anger and anxiety are reactive emotions we experience to a real or imagined threat to our safety.

The economic tsunami caused from the bursting housing and credit bubbles has sent us on a cycle from boom to bust not seen since the great depression. The automotive industry has been the bell weather economic indicator for the stability of capitalism for decades. Do you remember, “How General Motors goes, so goes the nation?” Revelations of corporate greed have sent shock waves from Wall Street to Main Street. The current digital photo of western capitalism captures an astonishing and staggering image of one huge Ponzi scheme.

As for our individual health, we await the coming of each new pandemic from bird flu to swine flu with dread. As for the health of our planet, our carbon footprint has created the fungus of global warming that promises to make our planet as inhabitable as a soiled and smelly tennis shoe.

Our foundations for safety have been forever destabilized. Prior to 9-11-2001, the United States could depend on its geographical boundaries to insure a modicum of safety. Terrorism always happened “over there.” We now know that our safety is no longer an inalienable guaranteed constitutional right. We now know what the rest of the world knows: safety can no longer be taken for granted. We now know that 9-11 is a dividing line in history, marking time “before” and “after.” The “new normal” continues to raise anxiety to new levels. Our collective consensus is not if there will be another terrorist strike but when and where. Fighting a war on terror without boundaries and borders may well mean that our nation and the world will now be in a state of war in perpetuity. We have notched up both anxiety and anger through isolated and prolonged acts of “holy violence.”[ii]

 We cannot live purposefully, creatively, and with passion if we are stuck in a protective mode. Our psychological safety needs trigger anger and anxiety when there are real or imagined threats to issues of justice or competence.

 

[i] Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (Novato: New World Library, 1991), 103.

[ii] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroad, 1995).