I read Russell Banks’ novel Cloudsplitter when it first came out. It’s historical fiction about Abolitionist John Brown, someone who’s always intrigued me because of his complexities. It’s been years since I read it, but there’s one part that still comes back to me.
The story is told through the life of Brown’s son, Owen. He’s in the thrall of his father’s madness. His life’s choices dictated to him by his father. At one point he meets a young woman who is unmarried and pregnant. She tells him that in their society, a woman in her situation has very few options (she later commits suicide) but he can do what ever he wants to do. All he has to do is change his mind.
The woman is a prisoner of her society, but Owen is a prisoner of his mind.
That idea stayed with me. I think because at the time I read it I didn’t quite understand it and was trying to. And now, it comes back to me because I understand it too well.
I know about being a prisoner of my mind. Because of my beliefs, I didn’t know I could leave my marriage if I didn’t want to be in it anymore. I didn’t even know I could leave a family dinner if it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know that I could not like my father. I didn’t know I could be an artist or be loved and desired. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City in the 1970’s a time of freedom, experimentation and equal rights. And I know I was effected by what was going on around me, but still, my beliefs kept me small and voiceless.
It took me most of my life to begin the process of freeing my mind. But those grooves run deep and if I’m walking along the edge, after just having pulled my self up out of that worn path, it’s easy to slip back in. Changing my mind is work. It’s doesn’t just happen because I want it to. Because my mind is in my body too, not just my brain. Everything has to be rearranged. And I had to actually do it, not just think about doing it. Again and again, until I carved a new groove. Lots of new grooves, of my choosing, that cradled me and led me to my freedom.
I’ve heard that the Israelites had to wander in the desert for 40 years after they were freed from Egypt because they had their physical freedom but still had the minds of slaves. And it takes that long to free the mind. That makes sense to me. It took me forty years just to understand I was a prisoner of my own mind and I’m still working on the freedom part.