... the unvarnished reality
The other morning I heard my wife, Catherine answer the phone from our living room as I typed away on my computer. She came in to where I was sitting and, looking puzzled, said there is a Donna Blass on the phone.
“Donna Blass, my God!” I had not heard from Donna Blass for thirty years. I took the phone and, sure enough, the unmistakable raspy voice that I remembered was none other than Donna Blass. She said she was planning on coming from California to Boston for the first time in many years and hoped we might find a time for a visit. I was so glad to hear from Donna I did not hesitate to set a date for Monday, May 19, 2003, here in our condominium, where Catherine would give us lunch.
I first knew Donna when I was at The Judge Baker Guidance Center where I worked from 1959-1964. Donna was a day patient enrolled in the Manville School designed to treat emotionally disturbed youth, as such were called then. My more enduring memories of her came after I had become the Director of the Dearborn School, a similar program for troubled youngsters, in Cambridge Massachusetts. I was phoned by a senior social worker at the Judge Baker Guidance Center telling me that the Center had decided not to continue treating young females. Did I have any places left for females, and, being an easy mark, I agreed to take Donna and Denise.
The Dearborn program, on Concord Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at that time, was owned and operated by Lesley College. As I think back to that time over forty years ago, I see Donna stomping up and down in the corridor just outside my office door. At fourteen, Donna was most often in a frenetic, agitated depression. Crowned with flaming curly red hair, her tiny body was always in motion. Her murderous thoughts were easily evoked.
I remember sticking my head out of my office and say, “You seem a little troubled this morning, Donna?”
She said, “You just wait! I’m making enough gun powder at home in my cellar to blow up this f****** place!”
This was characteristic of Donna, as she was outraged most of the time. I remember suggesting that she come in to my office to talk things over. I did take her seriously, but felt it possible to honor genuinely expressed rage without having to censure its author.
Donna was sent off to a residential program in Rindge, New Hampshire. I did not see her until about ten years later when she came to visit me at Boston University in 1975 when I was teaching there. This was a brief visit but I do remember how Donna had gained considerable maturity and composure. On May 19, 2003, I was going to see what had become of Donna now claiming fifty years.
As I drove to Oak Grove, the last T station on the Orange line, I was uneasy that I might not recognize Donna Blass. She had told Catherine on the phone for me to look for a fiftyish woman with a red-striped blouse who was, indeed, Donna Blass. She got in my car, we hugged and kissed and she said she would have known me anywhere. I am not sure I would have recognized her if I passed her on the street, though I might have. She still had red curly hair and a slight build.
We drove back to our condo where Catherine had lunch ready for us. For the next three hours, the conversation just rolled along. Donna still had the ability that I had forgotten of almost being able to answer the question before you were through asking. She told us that she had finally gotten her act together in her twenties, was graduated from Goddard College and won a scholarship at the School of Social Work at University of Southern California. After completing her Master’s degree in social work, Donna became a licensed independent social worker, and was now doing forensic work for the state of California.
When we settled in easy chairs after lunch, spurred by my curiosity, I got Donna reflecting on where she was as a youngster compared to where she was today. Donna said that there were two people most significant in her life to a change for the better. One was a young teacher at the Judge Baker and the other was me. She remembers the teacher who felt as if she was always available to her. Sometimes she would be seen as much as three times a week.
As for me, she said that I had given her a copy of "The Myth Of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus for her to read. After she had read Camus, she came to me and asked me to tell her what the story meant. She remembers me telling her that if the story was to have meaning for her she had to figure out what it meant for herself.
“I finally did get real meaning from the Sisyphus story and it has been one of the most important messages in my life,” she said. The Sisyphus story is about a man who falls in disfavor with the gods and must spend his exisistence pushing a boulder up a hill, having it fall to the bottom wherein he must repeat his trial over and over again. She said she learned that the story means struggle and survival is necessary and possible despite outrageous circumstances visited upon you.
I did remember telling Donna at fourteen to read "The Myth of Sisyphus" and I remembered, too, of telling her she would have to find its meaning. I did not know to this day what it had meant to her and I was thrilled to hear her understanding of the Camus story. It meant struggle yet survive. The last line reads, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The fourteen-year-old Donna had never seemed happy, always on the verge of outburst. The fifty-year-old Donna seemed buoyant as she talked freely and fluently with Catherine and me. Even when she told us of her abuse by her addict mother and indifferent father, a lot of the sting was gone. She has a sister who teaches school in California whom she sees regularly. Part of this attachment is, ironically, sharing the same disturbed home life. This tends to corroborate the outrage they suffered as children. And, too, Donna’s younger brother lives in New Hampshire. She planned to visit him on the upcoming Memorial Day.
On the drive to Harvard Square where Donna wanted to be dropped off, she offered that she had had a few romantic episodes but none seemed to last. She did not know why and wondered if she was happier being with herself? She is still very tiny at fifty, as I noticed #15 waist size on the back of her Jeans. Donna still has a raspy voice and her face contorts some as she speaks. Even so, she is attractive and extremely interesting to be with. Donna has an extraordinary fund of knowledge and maybe a thousand IQ.
As we parted in Harvard Square, I urged Donna to e-mail me when she got back to California so I’d know she had arrived safely. I kept a lookout for an e-mail and it finally arrived. Donna’s e-mail is so delightful its worth sharing for all to see…
“I am sorry that you ended up being the receptacle for my ‘angst’ and it was largely unintentional on my part. I do not believe I am chronically angry about the situation as egregious as it was and it was the first and the last time I intend to really revisit it. The mere fact that I was able to talk about my feelings relatively calmly and rationally indicates to me that I have gone a long way towards resolving them and was probably part of the impetus to go back to Boston after more than 20+ years of avoiding the place. I had not been ready. In large part the trip was interesting and enjoyable and covered light-years in psychological time. My subjective impression was far more than a few days in literal time.
I was fascinated to spend time with you again — this time as a middle-aged adult. I recognize now that you had been a larger than life size figure (a sort of hero) to me in the past and I prefer the unvarnished reality although it was a bit of a jolt. I think as we get older and become more self-sufficient we need fewer and fewer heroes anyway. Maybe if we’re lucky we become our own heroes and fill that role for others unintentionally…”
May 4, 2007