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  • Mj Pettengill

Secrets Hidden in Plain Sight


Do you remember an influential person teaching you about the importance of telling the truth? Just how important is it? We face situations when we are told that we should tell a white lie out of politeness. For instance, how does this dress look on me? I may very well hear that it looks fabulous. Our unspoken code is not to say anything unless it’s nice. So, how the dress looks is an open-ended topic, always up for debate. Yes… we get that. However, I always insist that someone not be afraid to tell me the truth, even if it isn’t what I want to hear. This is vital when it comes to writing. We would never make progress if criticism caused us to wilt into a heap of nothingness. It is equally important to trust your source. For whatever reason, some individuals delight in tearing others down. There are many possible contributing factors. What matters is one’s ability to discern. What is the difference between an unwarranted attack and constructive (helpful) feedback? Where is this leading? I am thinking of all the times when people shoulder burdens. In many cases, it is to spare others from pain or discomfort. This is very common in families, especially in previous generations when keeping a stiff upper lip was the status quo. Exhibiting emotions or a response to trauma was considered a sign of weakness. Therefore, trauma is wrapped up tightly and carried on from one generation to the next. It is typical to inherit physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering and grief from our ancestors. We unintentionally suffer for them, on their behalf, manifesting their hardships and passing them along.

A parent may want to spare a child from knowing about a painful event. A child may feel shame and carry it inside for a lifetime. This type of human behavior is typical and is not limited to the family unit. It is present in communities, organizations, and other basic groups and has been throughout history. I mention this because my work is steeped in the act of recovering, reclaiming, and re-membering those who, throughout time, have been cast aside. Because of their circumstances, they lost their sense of belonging. They were actually buried and kept out of sight. I discovered this element of my work via the 298—a literal burying ground with no names or records. At the time of the initial inquiry, I was met with powerful resistance regarding their identities. All of that has been in an ongoing healing mode. It did not happen overnight. It required years of research and working with the community. I tread lightly. For me, it was the unveiling of a collective shadow of fear, shame, guilt, and denial. This was present in the form of historical, intergenerational, and ancestral trauma. The act of discovery, acknowledgment without judgment, and honoring leads to integration. I could not comprehend the initial emotionally charged social response, separate from the academic historical aspect, spilling into our beings. For these people were our people. They came from all walks of life. What they had in common was hard luck, which bound them together in life and death. They were the aged, infirmed, disabled, orphaned, vagrants, and displaced unwed mothers. The moment they were sent to the Poor Farm for admittance was the inception of a lineage of fear, shame, and antipathy. At first, I didn’t get it. However, in time, I was able to soften the blow for those who did not want to look—who avoided the list of names. The original, individual stories had been lost while unrealized trauma was deeply rooted in community and family systems. People forced to either admit themselves or other family members wanted to forget. Even though most did their best with what they had to work with, they may have felt that they had somehow failed their loved ones. Hence, the denial eventually became a hole in the family tree.

In time, when there is so much systematic unseeing, on all layers, we finally do forget. When someone dares to come forward and ask about these unnamed individuals, the first response is what is wired within. It is rejection and, in some cases, open hostility. It is not based in knowing. It is unknowing, which is a close relative of fear. Every time I am entrenched in the research and writing of another segment in the Etched in Granite Series, this realization comes up. It all began with the 298. But it does not end with the narratives in the first, second, or third books. Because the more I continue on this path, the more people and stories call out for acknowledgment. It is an act of setting them free. I am somewhat less emotional when I discover past atrocities, purposely edited and omitted from the records. By this, I mean erased from the basic official documents and in the educational curriculum. The record keepers have had a tendency to experience convenient historical amnesia. This is advantageous when painting a favorable picture for future generations or finding scapegoats for society's ills. Again, those responsible are let off the hook. We may not like what is happening or has happened in the past. However, that does not mean that we can wave a magic wand and pretend that it did not occur or that something else transpired. The day that I discovered the pauper cemetery forever changed me. I signed up for this. Now, while crafting the fourth book in the series—The Crows’ Path—I will say that truth waits for the light to shine where it has been hauntingly dark. There is no shortage of vile secrets hidden in plain sight. We have learned too well how to forget and to sense when it is easier to remain asleep. I have made so much progress. At times, I cried when I unearthed long-buried, devastating events. Now, I take a deep breath, maybe go for a walk in the woods, play music, or meditate. But, I know when it is time to share the stories of those who wait. Once again, it is time. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. —Janis Joplin