By Elizabeth Clark-Stern
Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella begins, “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” Never, in Stanley Corngold’s vibrant translation of Metamorphosis do we encounter the word “cockroach,” yet we know : “His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, were waving helplessly before his eyes.”
Gregor’s family responds with horror: “(His mother) all at once jumped up, her arms stretched wide, her fingers crying, ‘Help, for God’s sake, help!’ and did not seem to notice at all that near her the big coffee pot had bee knocked over and coffee was pouring in a steady stream onto the rug.” Kafka walks the edge of tragedy and comedy, for we cannot help but laugh, as Gregor responds: “at the sight of the spilling coffee he could not resist snapping his jaws several times in the air. At this his mother screamed once more, fled from the table, and fell into the arms of his father.”
This is a farce. We howl, but behind this Monty Python-worthy absurdity, throbs a brutal truth.
The story unfolds in searing detail: Gregor feels shock, horror, the family above all awash in shame. What are they to do when the son they so depended on as the high-achiever of the family, the hero, the provider, the bearer of the family dignity, turns into a hissing monster?
From a psychological perspective, this could be the story of what happens when a family member falls from grace, unwittingly, and all his most repugnant traits are exposed. It is also a tale of what we call in this century “codependency.” The family behaves as if Gregor’s transformation has revealed a terrible family truth that they must shut away from the eyes of a judging world. Paradoxically, if each family member had a secure identity, they could see his misery as his alone, and relate to it without the baggage of their own shame.
We need our heroes to stay heroes, and when they return from war emotionally altered by trauma, we are horrified. “Where is my son?” we cry. “Where is the warrior, the breadwinner, the dignity-bearer? How can he cry out and weep in the night like a girl?”
It goes across cultures, developmental stages, the life span. How many parents look at their teenagers and see a cockroach?
I have two beloved Aunts, one in her 80’s, one in her 90’s. They are not sisters. They grew up in the twenties and thirties in Tupelo, Mississippi, seeing each other across the church pews on a sweltering Sunday morning, or in the park of an evening, catching fireflies. When my parents married, the local paper extolled, “this marriage unites two of the oldest families in Northern Mississippi.”
These gloriously capable women have morphed into people none of us knows. They have no teeth. They cuss, refuse to eat, refuse to move out of their homes, scream with irascible aggression, and when confronted, dissolve in tears, whispering, “How did I become an invalid so fast? . . . Oh, my God, I have lost my mind.”
My Aunts spent their lives striving for mastery. They both earned Master’s Degrees in an era when most Southern women earned a ribbon for the best fried chicken. In World War II, one was an army nurse, the other de-coded spy messages from the Japanese. They both went on to marry men with PhD’s, raise children, speak out against prejudice, often with dire consequences. In the 1930’s, my older Aunt was hauled in front of the dean at Ole Miss for writing an article on integrating the university. One managed a hospital nursing program, the other managed a college library. Both wrote books. Now, at last, they have come up against something they cannot master.
I find all of this frightening new territory. Our family of doer’s, helpers, and problem-solvers have explored every tactic, exhausted every resource. Nothing alters the reality of transformation of our Aunts. Nothing can make them better, less irrational, less tragic, less absurd. We are called upon to accept our own helplessness, our own weakness, our own inadequacy, our own vermin-nature. To nurture a new capacity in ourselves, to be with the monster.
What if Gregor’s family had responded in a different way? Instead of shrieking and slamming the door, what if they had been fascinated: ”What a transformation—our son, overnight, a bug! How did this happen? What a wonder of nature! How do we spread the news of this miracle? How do we learn, from this giant cockroach, who was once only a human boy—our son?”
This seems a fairy tale, for we human beings respond as Gregor’s parents did, with grief, horror, fear, shame. And yet, if we can build capacity to be with this, even this, we can transform our families, our world,
Copyright January, 2012 by Elizabeth Clark-Stern