Jan Becker on Home, Violence, Evil, and the Fragility of Life

Following is an interview with Jan Becker, contributor to All That Glitters, a nonfiction collection edited by Corey Ginsberg, Nicholas Garnett, and MJ Fievre. The book will be released online on October 1st, 2013 (along with Issue 7 of Sliver of Stone Magazine).


MJ: They say some things in life will either make you or break you. Your start the story, Life in the Shade of Modern Babel, with a gripping scene in which your stepfather grabs your sister “by the back of her dress and [hangs] her down the window like a rag doll.” How has such violence shaped your writing?

JB: Violence began to affect me even before I was born. I was conceived in the summer of 1969 in a hayloft about 20 minutes away from where the Woodstock Festival was held that same summer. My biological father enlisted in the Army and shipped off to fight in Vietnam to support my mother and me, even though his own brother had just been killed in the war. He came back from the jungle a wrecked man. He was addicted to heroin and speed, and abandoned us to join a traveling carnival where he could have access to the chemical remedies he treated his trauma with.

Also, while I was in utero, my stepfather, who was 17 years old, had finally convinced his mother that he’d be safer fighting a war in Southeast Asia than he would be at home with his stepfather, and she signed the papers that allowed him to enlist. Before he ever married my mother, he’d done three tours fighting in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and had been shot down twice in the jungle.

My childhood was marked by the consequences of violence on a very large scale, but also by the tragedy that can happen within one family, and it’s hard for me to think of my situation within my nuclear family as separate from the tragedy within my larger American family.

My mother was 17 when I was born. She lived in homes for wayward children and foster care from the age of six, because of abuse in her home. She had no model to go by when she tried to build a family after I was born, and she married into an extremely violent segment of our society.  The domestic abuse rates for enlisted families when compared to civilian families are staggering. I wouldn’t say my childhood was much different than many of the brats I met on the bases. As a child growing up, I learned to be very vigilant and protective of my younger brother and sister, not only from my own military parent, but also from the people all around me. Military life is violent by nature. Boot camp is designed to numb the instinct to flee from danger, and deaden sensitivity to others enough that a soldier can do what is unnatural, kill another person. The effects of that conditioning spill over into military family life.

It’s ironic that your question refers to the scene with my sister as a beginning, because for me, that scene came at the very end of a long writing process. I had already worked on the essay for two years when it was accepted at Sliver of Stone, and then Nick Garnett, the non-fiction editor asked for some changes. I needed to place the violence on the lake in a larger context. By that point Nick’s diligence in editing had me frustrated to the point that I was throwing punches blindly in my writing. And then one nailed him right in the kisser. He wanted to know how I fit into the essay, and that memory of my sister was haunting me. I kept seeing her dangling out the window in my head. I couldn’t fit everything I just told you about my family into this essay, because that wasn’t the focus. I had to limit it to one example that could show my own history with domestic violence concisely and give a wide view of how I see the problem of violence in the United States. I could then re-focus on this little community and eventually, Surya Toha’s murder.

Writing this essay for me was a way to deal with the anger I feel about violence on all levels, whether it’s global war, or the dad who comes home drunk after work and terrorizes his kids by heading for the gun rack. It’s the only weapon I can allow myself to use, because it’s the only one I know that isn’t destructive. In another sense, it’s also comforting. As a child, when I had nothing else to escape into, I had books, and they probably saved my life.

MJ: You describe evil as the “decision to traipse across the dividing line between benevolence and savagery, and to embrace violence.” Would you say that evil lives in everyone of us, then? If so, what do you think keeps it at bay?

JB: I have a hard time with the notion of “evil” and how it operates in the world. I don’t believe in evil people, but I do believe that everyone has the potential to act in an evil manner. Sometimes, it might not be an actual decision. It might be a head injury, or a tumor that is pressing on the wrong part of the brain and causes a person to lash out with no warning, but that’s not really evil in my thinking.

I see “evil” as more of a combination of anger, fear, and action. To me, it’s a contagion that becomes virulent when we dehumanize people who’ve created trauma by calling them monsters. Our entire world has been exposed to this disease, so we’re all infected. It’s easier to see someone we fear as a monster, but it’s not a constructive reaction, and it doesn’t allow our society to heal as completely as examining the pathology of violence and its complexities might.

I don’t know why some people act out and others never do. We don’t do enough  to teach our children when they are still young to be creatively angry, and that ignorance could destroy us if we don’t start trying to learn a better way.

In my own life, I chose to keep my fear and anger contained until it was safe to express them constructively.  We were stationed in Hawai’i when I was young and I learned the legend of the goddess Pele in second grade. She had been spurned by a lover, and became furious at him, maybe her fear was of being unloved, but rather than act destructively, she threw herself into the mouth of a volcano and created the Hawai’ian islands with her anger. I look to her as a role model for how to deal with fury. When my stepfather died in 2000, I was able to understand how powerful a force rage can be, because I was feeling it fully for the first time. The year after he died was also the year I was filled with the most terror, because I was still figuring out how to manage my anger.

MJ: For a long time, “home” was “a foreign notion to [you], something you never thought [you] could have for [your]self.” What do you like/dislike about your life in South Florida?

JB: What I like most about living in Florida is that most of the people who live here are from somewhere else, so we’re all displaced, and that feels more comfortable to me in many ways than living in a community where most of the residents have been there since they were born.

I like the diversity of Florida, the accents, the art, the beautiful weird things that can only happen here. I dislike coin laundries, the heat, the humidity, and those nasty no-see-ums. Those little buggers are truly evil.

MJ: You describe Crystal Lake so beautifully and so faithfully—from the jet-skis to the “fisherman angling for peacock bass,” from the commercial complexes and RV storage parks, to the iguanas, the moorhens, the Anhinga spear fish, and the Muscovy ducks. Growing up, your family was always in the move, which probably sharpened your sense of place and your talent for details. What are some places that will forever stay with you?

JB: I always managed to find a nice patch of green at every base or temporary home we moved to. Those are the most vivid places in my memory. In Pennsylvania, it was a tall patch of mint by the base’s perimeter fence. In Hawai’i, it was the upper branches of a monkeypod tree. In Iowa, it was a walnut grove. In Illinois, a hole in the fence that led to a thicket of brush, and in Massachusetts, it was a wooded hummock overlooking Boston Harbor. I remember those places best, because they were the most peaceful. In each of them, I could disappear into something larger, with a longer life cycle than my own. For me that feeling is comforting. Here in Florida, even though it has been marked by tragedy, Crystal Lake is that kind of place. From my essay, it sounds like it’s in a lot of turmoil, but it’s usually pretty serene here.

MJ: You ponder the fragility of life when you write, “No matter how careful we are, Matt and I could lose each other in an instant.” How would you describe a life well lived?

JB: I’m still waiting for Matt to give in and agree to let us buy a washer and dryer for our apartment. I think that would be a good start to a life well-lived. More seriously,I’d say  it’s finally having a door that locks, and still making the decision to step outside of its safety despite how scary it can be on the other side of that door.

Jan Becker is an MFA candidate at Florida International University. Her writing has appeared in Sliver of Stone, The Florida Book Review, The Circus Book, Brevity Poetry Review and Emerge. She is a regular contributor to Selfies in Ink, an online writing and art project.

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