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One cannot build the house of the self to suit or kill the mother. One must detach.
--Mary Aswell Doll, Like Letters in Running Water
In 1969, a few months before my 15th birthday, I shut the bathroom door and very meticulously cut my wrists with a razor blade. The desire to actually harm myself was as superficial as the cuts I was making; I didn't want to die, I just wanted to make a statement. Having planned the whole business very carefully, I didn't pass out, didn't make a mess, didn't need to call for help. Once the first wrist was cut, I applied pressure immediately and bandaged it up before proceeding on to the next one. I did this on a Friday night and wore long sleeves all weekend, so that the bandages would not be seen by mother, Marcia, or my stepfather, Derk (pseudonyms). Instead, they were to find out about this after school the following Monday. I had it all figured out: the bandages would disappear on my way to school that morning, and an alarmed favorite teacher would call my house upon seeing the wounds on my wrists.
My objective was the thunderstruck shock and humiliation of Derk and Marcia at being called by a teacher and asked, "Did you know Leslie cut her wrists this past weekend?" With any luck the teacher would alert the police and have them both hauled away for being drunk, lunatic parents. At the very least I would expose, to someone on the outside of our house, that life was a nightmare on the inside.
In my mind it was never about crying out to the two of them. It was about crying out to someone else about the two of them. I simply could no longer function in this outrageously dysfunctional blended family. I was living with two alcoholic adults, three needy step-siblings, and my younger brother Geoff, whom I fiercely loved and was virtually raising. My mother's chronic need for change was what landed us in that situation to begin with. Prior to Marcia's marriage to Derk, we rarely lived anywhere longer than 18 months. My mother was always already thinking of the next thing to change in her wretched life, because surely, moving on was the answer. She knew she would stop drinking and make a new life for us all, just as soon as there was a decent boyfriend, a better job, a less depressing apartment, a city where relatives lived, a city as far away from relatives as humanly possible. Alcoholics Anonymous calls this attempt to look for a clean start the "geographic cure," which, AA adds, doesn't work, since "'wherever you go, there you are'" (Alcoholic Anonymous [AA], n.d., p.1).
Marcia was forever certain that a fresh start would fix everything. Running away from, running toward, it didn't matter; it was the running that counted. Salman Rushdie writes, "What is the most powerful impulse of human beings in the face of night, of danger, of the unknown?--It is to run away; to avert the eyes and flee; to pretend the menace is not loping towards them in seven-league boots" (Rushdie, 1983, p. 209). The menace loping toward Marcia was Marcia, with her parental instincts stuffed like a miniature clipper ship inside of an empty bottle of bourbon. Wherever she went, there she was.
This article explores some connections I see between the geographic cure and currere, defined by William Pinar as "the Latin infinitive form of curriculum, [which] means to run the course, or, in the gerund form, the running of the course" (2004, p. 35). As I progress through my Curriculum Studies doctoral program, I've been engaged in Pinar's autobiographical method of currere: remembering my past (when, for a long time, I tried exceedingly hard not to), imagining the future, and analyzing those experiences to gain a deeper understanding of my "submergence in the present" (2004, p. 4). For this paper I utilize autobiographical writing to frame a glimpse of the impact this "cure" has on children, on the adults they become, and on their own survival and coping instincts. I also bring up connections I see between the geographic cure and education as an institution.
The experience of being pulled along on my mother's chases shaped the coursing of my own learning as I grew up, and shapes it still. This is what children living the geographic cure do: generate meaning on the run, and come to expect everything to change, in order to survive. My primary childhood survival decade was the 1960's, and there was a LOT going on. The music of that time period, the war in Vietnam, the mood of the country, all became woven into my lived experience, even though I was young. In contrast, the numerous schools I attended before 11th grade had barely a shred of influence on me. Like Camus' Jaques and Pierre, what I loved about school was that I was not at home (1996). Yet I wasn't exactly thriving in any of my elementary or junior high situations. Children who grow up in the shadow of the bottle are often invisible in school, especially when the school changes with the tide. For us the self is hidden fathoms deep in murky liquids, and often they (we) feel worthless.
Children of Alcoholics (COAs) who are transient are often mired in multidimensional feelings of worthlessness on both the home and school fronts. I've come to believe that survival for such kids often involves becoming dystopic thinkers. They live under the oppressive control of a changeling parent, and thus are on guard mentally as well as physically, for years on end. They either know, or are constantly on watch for, the real score. Marla Morris (2001) explains that "Dystopic thinking is skeptical, critical" (p. 24). COAs often bristle when patronized by an overly optimistic teacher in their newest school, who might proclaim something absurd like, "You will be glad you've moved so much--what an adventurous life!" These kids live with parents who are on a continual search for utopia on the rocks, and on the road. This unending parental quest for change, coupled with the untrustworthy "happiness" generated by a few dozen drinks, can be scary for the child who knows what's coming. As Jacoby notes, "... the idea of utopia is dangerous and violent...." (1999, pp. 1 2-1 3). Indeed.
Children of borderlines have been down the rabbit hole.... they grow weary of feeling big one minute and small the next. --Christine Ann Lawson, Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship
There's something poetic about the use of the word "spirits" as a name for distilled alcohol. When this kind of alcohol is made, grains or fruits are mashed and allowed to ferment. The "mash" is heated in a boiler, and the alcohol boils away, sort of. It doesn't disappear; instead, the alcohol vapors are collected and then cooled in a condenser (MD, 2006). The "spirits" eventually find their way over to Happy Hour, or to a shelf in a refrigerator, or a drawer inside of a chest in the back of a closet. In the home of an alcoholic parent, care-giving, consistency and trust are mashed and allowed to ferment. For the family members the primary goal of the day is often to just get through it--without a major scene, crisis, or heartbreak.
This "spirit," this forever-present spectre of a sloshed parent, hovers over the sister who tells the world that everything is fine at home. It whispers to the …