The Shadow Knows

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“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

The Shadow knows. (Bwhahahahaha!)”

The Shadow, 1937-1954 radio program

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As you read this, Mary Lee and I are in Nova Scotia, on what I think of as a genetic pilgrimage, traveling through the country that my Grandfather, Lyman Beecher Wile, left in 1906 to work in a Marlborough, Massachusetts shoe factory. Wile is a common name in the Lunenburg area of Nova Scotia—I’m looking forward to visiting Wileville—and I’ve made arrangements to meet with some distant cousins.

My grandfather Wile is a shadowy figure in my life. When I was growing up, no one in our family ever talked about him. I guess my grandmother left him around 1923, when my father was four years old. My mother told me that Lyman once beat my father with his belt, and Nanny told him if he ever did that again, she’d take Dad and leave. Apparently, he did and so did she. (I expect there was more to the story.) Other than that, all I knew until my sister started compiling a genealogy of the Wiles, was my Grandfather Wile came from Nova Scotia and lived in Massachusetts. I have a vague memory of an interminably long car ride to Marlborough ending in a series of winding streets and tenement houses and a hazy image of my father talking to someone who, except for being older and heavier, looked a lot like him. I don’t know the purpose of the trip—I expect my mother might have had something to do with it—but I know Dad never visited his father again and seldom mentioned him.

The way my family dealt with Dad’s father was typical of us, and many families I knew growing up (and actually, quite a few families I know now): if there’s something embarrassing or unpleasant or shameful in your past, never talk about it. If you’re afraid, if you’re in pain, don’t show it.

One the revelations of my life was to discover that all families, all people, have these dark sides that they don’t want to acknowledge. Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the word “shadow” to describe the negative, socially unacceptable impulses, the sexual lusts, selfishness, greed, anger, and so on, that we try to deny and bury in our subconscious. This denial, Jung posited, is damaging because the most common way to avoid looking at our negative impulses is to project them on to others so that we don’t have to confront them in ourselves. Both as individuals and as groups, even as countries, we create scapegoats upon which to inflict those prejudices, fears, perversions that we won’t admit we have.

My most vivid memory of the power of my own shadow goes back to the year I moved from the two-room primary school just up the street from my house to the third grade in adjoining elementary and junior high schools. Suddenly, I was thrust into an intimidating world of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and because in those days students routinely repeated grades, some of these kids were sixteen and seventeen years old. Bullying, fighting, taunting were common occurrences. Up until then a serious and solitary kid who liked to crawl into a cabinet next to the chimney in his living room and nestle in the warm darkness, or pull the bed covers over his head when he listened to “The Shadow” on the radio, I started waking up early on school mornings, shivering with apprehension.

Fortunately (for me, not for her), there was girl I’ll call Ester Morin. She was repeating the third grade. Possibly twelve or thirteen, she lived in a section of town filled with tarpaper shacks. She was thin and round-shouldered. I recall a long face and I want to say she had bad teeth. I remember dark, tangled hair falling over one eye, a faded dress, probably too short to cover her scabby knees, dirty socks puddled around her ankles, and scuffed shoes with at least one broken strap. The perfect target for ridicule and teasing.

It was a no-brainer. I could try to hide from the big kids on the playground, or I could join the gang of anywhere from five to ten guys surrounding Ester with their hands over their noses and mouths, hopping up and down like crows and cackling, “Fart-smeller Moron!” I soon became one of those guys. In the halls, we tried to trip her; in class, we targeted her with spit-balls. Sometimes we would wait for her after school and run circles around her until she shrieked and swung her long, bony arms.

It was, I discovered, great fun. I had found someone uglier and clumsier and weaker than I was. Ridiculing her made me stop thinking of myself as a loser. If I was self-consciousness about being fat, it helped to know someone who was ugly. If I was afraid that an eighth grader would beat me up, it was reassuring to know there was someone I could hit and no one would care. Ester became my way to strike back at those morning fears, ridicule them with names like “fart-smeller” and “cootie-lover.” Every time she screamed and waved her arms like some broken doll because of something I’d said, I felt stronger.

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I’m deeply sorry for the way I treated Ester. Still, I was 8 years old, I didn’t know any better, and I can’t do anything to make it up to her now. But Jung and others would say that I need to bring that memory to light. Richard Rohr, one of my spiritual gurus, writes: “Human consciousness does not emerge in any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow.” Maybe I need to remember Ester to help me confront and learn from my continuing sexist and racist tendencies.

Jung said that the shadow contains “positive potentialities,” such as creativity and spirituality. One example supporting his theory is that for the last several months, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has featured an exhibit called “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe.” The exhibit contains a variety of art, especially ivory statues, prayer beads, and jewelry boxes, urging us to “remember death.” Many of the figures have a human face on one side and a skeleton, sometimes with snakes crawling around the eye sockets, on the other side—a great depiction, I think, of our shadow side.

Last week I heard a speaker say that this art of “momento mori” reveals the renaissance search for meaning in death, which of course was commonplace. People apparently collected these figures and showed them to others. I couldn’t help but compare their attitude of curiosity to our present fear of death. We don’t want to look at death, so we relegate the dying to hospitals and hospice centers away from the rest of the world, and assuage our fears through caricatures of death in books and movies about zombies, demons, and vampires.

So perhaps I’m on a pilgrimage into the shadow side of my family. And possibly of myself. How much Lyman is there in me? Can I look at my own violent streaks, the pain I’ve caused my children, bring it to the surface, and reintegrate it into my life in a healthy way?

At this point, only the Shadow knows. (Bwhahahahaha!)

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3 thoughts on “The Shadow Knows

  1. Thought-provoking! Not easy facing our shadow selves! You are very brave.

    I was doing some genealogy yesterday on my father’s family. He was born and brought up in Nova Scotia. I came across the Wile family in trying to figure out one branch of the family. Now, the very next day, you post this about the Wile family from Nova Scotia. Hmmm

    Liked by 1 person

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