Monday, October 23, 2006


I've had a fascination with the story of Medea for a long time now. It didn't start with my college senior project but that's where it gained it's place at the forefront of what I create. Andrea Yates, Susan Smith, all the modern Medeas put me back in a research space. Not research really but a thinking about what an easy play, really, it is to understand because she could be any of us. My heart always goes out to the mothers. As awful as the result is it seems so clear that it could come to that, how one can find themselves painted into that corner.

I've been reading a play by Anna Deavere Smith that I'm really loving and you can bet your boots this won't be the last you hear of it. It's called House Arrest and it's about politics and society and whatnot. More on that later. The characters are all real people and the words are all directly from interviews by the playwright and/or written words from historical documents.

I read one portion on the train home tonight. The interviewee is Paulette Jenkins, an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. Her boyfriend used to beat her and her kids. She got pregnant with a kid of his in the hopes that he would stop hitting her kids if he had his own. One night she sat in the bedroom with her baby listening to her guy hit her daughter. "...every time her would hit her she would fall. And she would hit her head on the tub. I could hear it. It happened continuously, repeatedly. (Whispering) And I dared not move." Her daughter sustained severe head trauma (shocker) and died. Jenkins later went along with a scheme by her boyfriend to report the little girl missing and then dump the body where it could be found and blamed on unknown kidnappers. The play doesn't get into the rest of the story but since she's an inmate I suspect their little ruse didn't go over very well.

In the original Greek play you have a woman who was a princess, a powerful sorceress, beautiful and intelligent. She makes a choice to follow one man. Then she makes some more choices to cut all her ties to her homeland and her family. You know, not necessarily great choices but hers to make. And there she is, washed up on a foreign shore with her kids and she's been waiting for the one man who now comprises the rest of her family to come back and she hears that he's found another woman, that he's not coming back.

So. You live in a land that belongs to the woman who replaced you. You can't leave because the ship you came on and everyone who run it belong to the man who just discarded you. What are your choices? You could teach your kids to turn the other cheek and accept the situation and continue to live here. But is that the lesson or will it turn out to teach them that they aren't worth putting up a fight? You could scratch and scrape and debase yourself with work far beneath your station to break free and leave the country of your rival. Making your own way is a good lesson, right? Or will they learn that running away at all costs is the way to deal with sorrow and betrayal? You could leave by yourself, give your kids over to the care of their father and this woman. They'd live a wonderful life with every material thing they ever needed. But chances are the only thing they'd ever remember is that their mother left them. You could just drown them. It's the only thing that doesn't offer them lasting harm, isn't it? Or is it. At least with the drowning their suffering is finite.

Jenkins had been covering up the beatings that she and her children had been taking from this guy for years. She'd made her share of bad choices by choosing this guy, by staying with him, by standing by in any form when he beat her children. On the night in question she sat with the baby, the most vulnerable of her babies, and he started in on one of her others, her precious daughter. She could hear it. She had the option to intervene. She could go in there with the baby and risk the baby getting hurt. She could go in on her own and then both she and her daughter would get beaten. And if she was beaten badly, if she were killed, there were 3 other kids who would be at this man's mercy without her there to even comfort them. And this doesn't even begin to address any of the other things that might have happened if she'd taken her kids and left. She probably didn't have any money or any place to stay. She could have reported him but they'd been living like this for years, how could she be sure the authorities wouldn't take her kids away from her completely if she owned up to the situation? Maybe if she let him take one, if he went too far with just one, then he'd be scared straight and she could give the rest of her children a better life. And if it didn't turn out that the life afterwards was better at least that one child's suffering would be finite.

Heartbreaking, all of it. And yet. Yet. It's going to happen again and again. For a lot of reasons.

But I have a meeting in 15 minutes so here's your conclusion in short form.


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