Witness to Writing’s Healing Power

I have no idea when I first started going to the movies. Lists of movies from the 1950s always include ones I can tick off. I know I saw some in theaters, some on TV. 

My father loved thinking-man westerns, film noir and dramas. My mother knew all about the latest movies from reading reviews in the New York Times. They never went to movies together, but they discussed movies, fought about them, of course, as they did everything.

He started taking me to the movies with him when I was about ten. I instinctively knew to supress my yearning to see Elvis or Davy Crockett movies. In order to be included in the moviegoing, I’d feign more sophisticated preferences—Alexander the Great with Richard Burton, Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman, Giant with Rock Hudson. He never admitted to liking musicals or comedies like Anything Goes or Pajama Game. But he hummed songs from the musical Pal Joey as if he’d seen it and expressed careful admiration for its stars, Rita Heyworth and Kim Novak. 

One of the movies I’d be forbidden to see by today’s standards is The Searchers. John Wayne and his cowboys ride off in search of female relatives abducted by Indians. When they find them, the women are all dead. It’s the first time I heard the word “rape”. When I asked what that meant, my father had no answer. Faced with the unknowing, I sensed an ancestral knowing, a subconscious knowing churned up from the genetic code. I listened to these cross-generational gut reactions and the fear I heard settled quietly in my lower back. 

In 1959 my father took me to Witness for the Prosecution. An avid reader of Agatha Christie, he knew the story. I hadn’t paid attention to the chatter about the acclaimed movie starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Deitrich and Tyrone Powell. As we entered the Deerpath Theater in Lake Forest, my father casually offered a wager.

“If you guess who did it in the first five minutes, I’ll give you fifty cents.”

“Ok, but I don’t even know what it’s about.” I balked.

“That’s the point.”

I watched each second tick by on my Timex, and at the five-minute mark I leaned over to my father.

“He did it.” I whispered.

“We’ll see.” He said.

I was electrified for the rest of the movie. He did, indeed, do it. I won. My father was so pleased he let me drive home.

Desperation to please my father dominated my secret life. I wanted to be a reason he’d stay home with us. The fear, the anxiety, the straining to decode adult silences landed like hot lava in the tangled ganglia of my lower back where it lay dormant for forty years.

That’s the last movie we saw together. My parents split up soon after. In my fifties, the secrets smoldering in my lower back suddenly fired up. The secrets turned to truths through writing. And the writing put out the fire.