Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Michelle Herman’s description of taking leave of her father after he died [“Better,” October 2021] replicated my experience after sitting vigil with my mother. I, too, felt that her body was “only a body” after she died. She wasn’t in it; it had “no meaning at all.” I had the same feeling after viewing my dead father, grandmother, and husband. It’s a relief to know at least one other person feels this way.
It’s good to live in our bodies and love them, especially when they give us joy, as Herman surely found in her ballet classes. But when our bodies die, they’re done.
The spirit is another matter.
Since subscribing to The Sun, I’m often frustrated that your photos are nothing like the ones I take. So I’m happy to see you’ve added a new section, A Thousand Words, to showcase photos that tell a story on their own rather than just complement a piece of writing.
With its keen insight, introspection, and aching familial love, Sarah Broussard Weaver’s “Ungrown” [September 2021] is more than just a memoir; it’s a reminder to get your family stories straight from those who have them. Get them today. You never know when something might happen: accidents, deaths, early-onset dementia, or, most ironic of all, family rifts that might render such inquiries impossible.
Finn Cohen’s interview with Kenneth R. Rosen [“Sent Away,” August 2021] weighed heavily on my heart. Two decades ago, in my early twenties, I was a counselor in a wilderness-therapy program in Utah for two years.
As a psychotherapist I know healing cannot happen without safety and trust. Waking young people in the middle of the night, removing them from their existing relationships, and viewing them as the problem — rather than as part of a family — does not create the conditions for change.
Until I read this interview, however, I hadn’t considered that wilderness therapy might have been traumatizing to those kids. As Rosen says, the staff at these programs generally do not listen to the teenagers’ perspectives. I was trained to see them as manipulative, and not to empathize with them. Though I worked with more than a hundred young people, I’m sad to admit I don’t remember a single one of their names.
To Rosen, Cohen, and anyone else who was harmed by one of these programs, I want to say: I’m sorry for the role I played. I commit to using my position as a therapist to speak up about these programs and to learn more about the experiences of those who went through them.
“Sent Away” brought up unpleasant memories. When I was twelve years old, my parents sent me to a residential program in Los Angeles, where I was physically abused by a staff person. As bad as things were with my parents, I desperately wanted to go back to living with them. After trying to run away a few times, I was sent to juvenile hall. From there I was allowed to return home.
My experience was not nearly as bad as some. Still, no child should have to go through what I went through.
As a parent who sent a sixteen-year-old son to a therapeutic boarding school, I was frustrated with “Sent Away.” While I have empathy for what Rosen and Cohen went through, I feel compelled to respond with a parent’s perspective.
I would have given anything for my son to find help in our community, as Cohen suggests. Therapists with openings were virtually impossible to come by, and convincing a defiant teenager he needed help was an insurmountable feat. Rosen’s “families need to come together and figure these problems out as a team” is an oversimplification that assumes a willing child.
Our son was self-medicating for anxiety and depression — not to mention barely eating or sleeping — which resulted in drug overdoses and multiple ER visits. Deciding to send him away was the most difficult and courageous thing my husband and I did as parents. We were willing to have our son hate us if it meant his getting healthy.
Our son was at his school for a year — the most difficult of our lives. I’m grateful to his program for bringing our family back together. He’s been home for a year now, and we are doing well. I will never regret our decision, as painful as it was, because he got the help he needed.
Name Withheld’s letter, like many I’ve received from aggrieved parents, focuses on the parents’ pain. Mothers and fathers who write me often believe I cannot understand their situations, nor how difficult their child was — despite the fact that I was once that troubled teen myself. Parents invariably say they couldn’t help their son or daughter, so they outsourced the teen’s treatment. And they mention how well their child is doing today. The letters are often written shortly after the child has returned home — in Name Withheld’s instance, a mere year — when the teen is likely still worried about being sent away again. Studies have shown that the trauma caused by these programs emerges years later because children toe the line until they can break free once more.
And shouldn’t we be more concerned about the needs of the child than we are about the difficulty faced by the parents? No doubt a child can become difficult. But how? And why? These questions are rarely addressed.
The experiences of each family member are linked. Failing to connect children’s issues to their surroundings is the first misstep down a dark path. And parents are not the only culpable entity; the troubled-teen industry preys on the fears of parents and leads them astray.
Laura Price Steele’s portrait of the fears and surprises of impending parenthood [“The Unknowing,” July 2021] took me back nineteen years to my own pregnancy. The glimpses the author gives us of that filmy barrier between life and death knocked me down. It’s there all the time, from the first breath to the last, but it’s so easy to forget about it. We should never forget about it.
After heading into the Sierra Nevada for a five-day backpacking trip, I realized I’d forgotten one item on my gear list: a book to read. I started asking outbound backpackers if they had a book they had finished and would be willing to give me.
A young woman asked, “Would a magazine do?” I was expecting a glossy publication about sports stars or race cars, but she pulled out one I’d never heard of, saying that it had “good short stories and stuff.” It was the July 2021 issue of The Sun.
Not confident that one magazine would last me five days, I continued my requests. After many rejections, a young couple offered me a magazine. Sure enough, it was another copy of The Sun.
You folks sure have the thirty-something California backpacker demographic dialed in.
I’m now a subscriber.
For those of us lucky enough to have been mentored by him, it was a devastating blow last January to hear that Richard McCann, generous soul and longtime liver-transplant survivor, had passed away at the age of seventy-one.
I studied under Richard in the 1990s at the MFA program at American University. Beyond teaching the craft of writing, he helped me understand what it meant to be a good literary citizen. I’ve since come to recognize how he intentionally created a rich, inclusive sense of community such that we rooted for each other’s success. He helped us recognize that when one person creates an exceptional story, it is a gift to all of us.
In a poem called “Ghost Letter in a Bottle,” Richard wrote: “I knew there was a project requiring me for its eventual completion, although probably not in my lifetime!” For years I had anticipated reading Richard’s work-in-progress, The Resurrectionist, having seen glimpses of it in a few published essays. (Part of the shock of hearing about his death was that I would never see this book.) What an amazing balm it was to find another excerpt in the June 2021 issue of The Sun [“What I Lived For”]. It was like hearing his voice from beyond the grave.