Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Black Holes, Graveyards, and the Gravitational Force of What's Below: Mason's in Country

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Black Holes, Graveyards, and the Gravitational Force of What's Below: Mason's in Country

Article excerpt

In the final episode of M*A*S*H, the highest-rated series episode in television history, Hawkeye Pierce is recounting a dream to his Army therapist, Sidney Friedman. Hawkeye has had a nervous breakdown, and he is struggling. In the dream, he is on a bus that is parked, hidden in the brush, and like the other tense passengers, he fears discovery by the enemy. He tells a Korean woman on the bus to quiet the chicken she is holding in her lap. In fact, he yells at her. And she smothers the chicken, successfully keeping it from squawking. Then, in the retelling, Hawkeye reaches an epiphany in which he retrieves what he has repressed: what the woman smothered was not a chicken, but a baby. He had succeeded in getting the woman to smother her baby. He has barely remembered the guilt and the grief before anger takes over. "You son of a bitch," says Hawkeye to Friedman, "why'd you make me remember that?" The idea that unearthing a memory from the unconscious will be therapeutic is fundamental to "the talking cure," and in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, it is an idea that 18-year-old Samantha Hughes urges upon veterans from whom she would like to learn the truth of the Vietnam War. She advises her uncle Emmett, for example, to vent his traumatic memories. "Do the way Hawkeye did when he told about that baby on the bus. His memories lied to him. But he got better when he could reach down and get the right memories" (222).

Sam Hughes, during the summer after she graduates from high school, tries to find out about her past in response to her uncertainty about the future and her estrangement from the community's patriotic rhetoric. She lives with Emmett, whose wartime experience has left him unable, after many years, to adjust to civilian life. When Sam was an infant, her father Dwayne, Emmett's brother-in-law, was killed in Vietnam. Now all she has of him is a picture that she sometimes talks to, combined with scraps of information from shallow histories of the war. She is convinced that she has missed something. When the veterans in the community and her mother hold back in their explanations, her loss and uncertainty give way to anger, disillusionment, and depression. Her situation is very different from Emmett's, but just as she believes that recovered memories will help Emmett, she has been probing communal memory in an attempt to satisfy herself and heal herself. In doing so, she has provoked some hostility and resistance.

Sam's advice to Emmett, given in the middle of a Western Kentucky swamp called Cawood Pond--where she has come on a mission to face the dangers of nature in the way that soldiers do--has the initial desired therapeutic effect. It gets Emmett to talk. Emmett tells a story of his own about smothering, his own smothering, under dead bodies, when he was in Vietnam years earlier. His willingness to try to tell the untellable helps him to take action in improving his life. In the ensuing weeks, he organizes a trip, with his niece and with her grandmother, Mamaw, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Tom Hudson, one of the veterans in Hopewell whom Sam tries to befriend, has called the Memorial a "big black hole in the ground" (80), and Mamaw refers to the Memorial in a similar way when she catches sight of it (239). As the complement of the "prick" that is the Washington Monument, it is a vagina that signifies where we have all come from; as a marker of death, it is symbolic of the place where we're all going.

The journey to the Memorial is an important early step in a process of healing, but one can imagine that Emmett will have trouble sustaining the project, because he thinks he should be able to solve his own problems himself, and because his repression has been a means of survival, and parts of his psyche will therefore continue to resist the dredging-up of memories. If he is going it alone, what will he do next after he confronts a traumatic memory? He may need help, perhaps even highly trained help, to negotiate this uncharted terrain. …

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