Festive Storyteller – interview with Dr. Christina J. John (18 February 2009)

Introduction

When I sent out the last newsletter, I asked my subscribers to write to me if they would like be interviewed. Christina was one person who wrote to me and I’m very pleased she did. Her story is inspiring for any storyteller. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing you to Dr. Christina J. John …


Aneeta: Christina, thank you for writing to me first.

Christina: Oh, thank you for interviewing me. I was just so pleased to find your website.

Aneeta: Christina, you know, having trained and practised as a lawyer, I am always interested in others who have a career in law and choose to write as well. So, please, do tell me a little about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up? What do you do for a living and where do you live now? What’s your family like?

Christina: Well, I’m actually not an attorney, I’m a criminologist. I spent most of my adult life either teaching or working in the field of Criminology. One of the reasons why Criminology is such an exciting field is that it is multi-disciplinary. There are a great many types of work going on in the field.

I worked primarily on issues of Corrections and of State Crime. I taught law courses on Supreme Court decisions regarding prisoners’ rights, and wrote three books about state crime. In my first book, I examined the legal systems of the Aztec Indians in sixteenth century Mexico and that of the Spanish who conquered Mexico. I connected the legal system of these two very different societies with the economic system that each imposed on Mexico. This involved a great deal of research and travel in Mexico. It was a life changing experience travelling around Mexico for a year. Everybody should do it.

In my second book, I examined the way in which the state used the “War on Drugs” to expand state power. In this book I discussed the failures of the war on drugs to accomplish its stated goal of eliminating drug use and trafficking. I then wrote about the successes of the war on drugs in allowing the state to expand its power over individuals.

The third book was about the media and the invasion of Panama. I can sum up that book with one story. It took less than an hour for the corporate media in this country to change from calling the event the “invasion of Panama” to calling it “Operation Just Cause” a name that was a piece of blatant propaganda. The lack of questioning of the invasion helped set the ground work for later invasions like that of Iraq.

Aneeta: One aspect of your education fascinates me. For many Asia, going abroad of any form of education is quite the norm. I have hardly seen this in the West, however. On your website, http://www.cjjohns.com, it is stated that you completed your Ph.D. Criminology in Edinburgh. As you seem to be from North America, why did you go so far away?

Christina: At the time, I was working for the Department of Corrections in Michigan as a statistician and researcher while at the same time doing the course work for my doctorate. After three years, it became apparent to me that the last thing government really wanted was accurate evaluation and research on its projects. I just couldn’t see spending the rest of my working career beating my head up against a wall trying to do research for a system that didn’t want it unless it agreed with what it planned to do.

I had friends in the field who said, leave the country, go somewhere else where you’ll get a different perspective. One of the options suggested to me was to go to the Faculty of Law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Again, it was a life changing experience. I cannot recommend travel, especially for writers, too highly.

Not only was the Department of Criminology at the University of Edinburgh entirely different from anything I had ever been in contact with before, it just so happened that Edinburgh has an enormous Theatre and Arts festival every year that fills the city. There is the Edinburgh Festival with the ballet and large-scale performances. But there is also what’s called “The Fringe.” Literally every closet in Edinburgh is a venue for some kind of theatre performance. Small theatre companies from all over the world come to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe every year. I was astounded. I had never been exposed to that much theatre at one time in my life. And, it was new, experimental theatre, not just the same old ten plays done over and over again. I looked around and said: This is what I want to do.

So, after the Festival was over, I found the Edinburgh Playwrights’ Workshops, a group of people who came together and did rehearsed readings of plays that local writers were working on. I wrote a play, had it read, and then went on to have other plays read and produced and finally had my own theatre company. I worked in Edinburgh for years, doing plays and performances. I was hooked.

As the economy got tighter in Scotland and England, it became harder and harder to get Arts Council grants, and I started to have health problems. So finally, my doctor said that I had to choose between my health and the theatre. So I came back to the States and went back into Criminology.

Wow, that was a long answer.

Aneeta: I know, from your email, that you’re interested in all aspects of writing. Please tell me why and when did you start writing?

Christina: I started writing when I was a child. My first work of fiction was about a riddit, commonly known as a rabbit. After that I kept writing, but really only for myself. I didn’t start writing seriously until I moved to Edinburgh and started working with the Playwrights’ workshop.

Aneeta: What about the grant you have from the Georgia Council for the Arts. Please tell me about this. What do you do?

Christina: The Playwrights’ Workshops were the brain child of a Scottish Poet named George Byatt. Now dead, George was a fierce activist for writers. He believed in the integrity of the writers’ vision and opposed the notion that a director could come in and alter and cut the writers’ work. George set up the Playwrights’ Workshops as a place where writers, actors and those interested in the theatre could come together in a non-threatening environment and showcase and work on their writing. The writers worked directly with the actors and a coordinator, who was more of a facilitator than a director. There were no sets and no props, just actors reading. The rest was left up to the imagination of the audience. It was the first time I realized that a good actor can do with your work. It is just extraordinary to watch a good actor work. They can bring things to your writing you never even imagined yourself. That’s another life changing experience.

The Workshops were free and audiences paid only a minimal fee. This made the readings open to all sorts of people, all classes of people, not just to an elite “arts” crowd. Part of the philosophy of the Workshops was that art was for the people, and not the preserve of a certain class. Another part of the philosophy was that art could be transformative and bring about social change.

In the Woodbine Writers’ Workshops, we have maintained that philosophy and opened the workshops to writers of fiction, poems, essays, all forms of writing. And, we are very definitely doing community building, reaching out to all segments of the population and encouraging them to come and write and perform.

Aneeta: Christina, sometimes I ask people I interview to share stories they’ve written. Would you like to share one here?

Christina: Yes, I can. My story is called, ‘Lottie’s Babies’.

Mattie Mae Hollis was a part of our family for over fifty years. During those years, Mama and Mattie Mae helped each other a great many times. I, of course, remember only the most dramatic occasions and most particularly I remember the time Pickering Head had those two dead babies at Sneadlin’s funeral home.

Mattie Mae was the one who phoned mama for help that crisp Autumn day, but the help wasn’t really for her this time. It was for Lottie, Mattie Mae’s best friend.

Mattie Mae was phoning from Mr. George Reed’s gas station about a block from Sneadlin’s Funeral Home. To my consternation, mama hadn’t seen fit to pass on the information that Lottie’s house had burned down that past weekend, and that her twin babies were killed in the fire.

This was the kind of thing mama never told me. She always thought I had a morbid turn of mind, and I suppose she saw herself as not feeding what she and my grandmother deemed my unhealthy and definitely unladylike obsession with all things secret.

Of course, the minute I heard the words “dead” and “babies” and then “funeral home” in the same few sentences, my ears cranked around like those of a cat hearing footsteps in the leaves.

Now, there are a lot of peculiar things about this story. One of them is that Lottie’s two babies were even taken to Sneadlin’s Funeral Home. You see, Sneadlin’s was a white funeral home, and if there was any life function in the 1950s south that was more segregated than religion, it was death.

The only thing I can figure out is that the babies had somehow wound up there because it was an accident, a fire, and somebody got put through to the wrong funeral home. But even so, it seems like somebody would have realized the mistake and phoned a black mortician. It doesn’t make sense.

Mama’s was never any help with this issue. She refused to talk about the incident and when I pressed her, she denied it even happened. “Lydia, this is just something you’ve made up. You were a strange child.”

She always did this to me. It took me over fifty years to work out that mama, Frances Sarah Ward McPherson had a lot of secrets. She didn’t like talking about the past and whenever anything “uncomfortable” came up, her way of dealing with it was to just deny it ever happened.

But, I remember as clearly as I remember the color of theCatawba riverthat Lottie’s two precious babies were left in the cold waxy hands of Pickering Head.

The problem Mattie Mae was phoning about on that crisp autumn day was that Pickering wouldn’t let Lottie look at the bodies. I stood just inside the white swinging door to the breakfast room, my ear pressed to the crack, listened to Mama talk.

Seems, Pickering said he’d already closed the coffins; that the bodies were too badly burned and that Lottie didn’t need to see them. Pickering, of course, being white, thought he knew better than Lottie what she needed. He also probably thought that once this poor black woman was told with some authority by a white man that she didn’t need to see her own dead children, she would go away and let it be.

But Pickering Head didn’t figure on the combination of Mama and Mattie Mae Hollis.

Lottie was broken hearted when she found out she couldn’t see her babies. She walked all the way home to grieve and wait for the funeral, but Mattie Mae was at her house to hear the story.

Now, Mattie Mae Hollis didn’t have much to say on a day-to-day basis, but she was about as determined, when she got her mind set about something, as anybody I’ve ever seen, except my mama.

Mattie Mae and Lottie walked the five miles back to Sneadlin’s Funeral Home and knocked on the screen door to the side porch. They wouldn’t have even thought about knocking on the front door. Pickering Head, the director of the funeral home, opened the glass door to the porch and walked out.

“What ya’ll want?” He asked as he reached the screen door.

“We wants to see the chillin.'” Mattie Mae told him.

Pickering Head opened the door with his left hand and pointed to Lottie with his right. “I already tol’ Lottie, those children are beyond recognizing. Now she’s got no business bothering us and upsetting herself more than she’s already upset by pawing all over them. I got better things to do.”

“She their Mama.” Mattie Mae said, standing firm on her two enormous flat feet.

“Now, ya’ll go on away from here before I call the law.”Pickering said. “I already explained it to you. Now, git.”

Mattie Mae told mama later that he said “Git” like he was talking to a couple of dogs.

Mattie Mae Hollis stood on the side steps of Sneadlin’s Funeral Home, staring at Pickering Head. She did not move one inch.

“When you gon’ send the babies to the church?” She asked.

Pickering gave an exasperated sigh. “Mattie Mae, I’m gonna send the babies to the church when I get the money for doing ‘em and not before.”

Pickering Head closed the screen door to the porch and when he went inside the house, he locked the glass door behind him. He left Mattie Mae and Lottie standing on the steps. Lottie was crying.

Mattie Mae put her arm around Lottie.

“You stay right here.” She said. “I be back. Me and Miss Sarah Ward straighten this out.” Mattie Mae strode across the street towards Reed’s gas station. “Me and Miss Sarah Ward gon’ jerk a knot in Mr. Pickering Head’s tail.” She muttered to herself.

When the phone call from Mattie Mae came, I could see my mama reddening in outrage. “Why that’s ridiculous.” She said. “Absolutely ridiculous. He has no choice but to let Lottie see them if she wants to.”

Mama cast a worried glance in my direction, then said into he telephone. “There’s nobody here Mattie Mae, to stay with Lydia.”

“I’ll go Mama.” I said, perhaps a bit too eagerly under the circumstances. “I don’t mind.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want you at a funeral home. I don’t even like Funeral homes and this thing might be ugly business.”

My eyes widened. Ugly business was just my cup of tea at that age. “Please Mama.” I begged.

“Oh alright.” Mama said exasperated by my eagerness.

“I’m comin’ Mattie Mae. Ya’ll just wait right there.” She put the telephone down.

“Come on Lydia, if you’re coming.” She called.

I raced to find my tennis shoes and then get to the back door so Mama wouldn’t have to wait.

Mama stood there, tying a scarf around her head, looking down at me. “You are the strangest child.” She said, but she was always saying that. I didn’t take it personally. I couldn’t even tell you how many times Mama or my grandmother, Danny mom, said that to me from the time I was about four to the time I left home at 19. Granddaddy Will was the only member of the family who said it with that crooked smile of his, like it was a compliment. But then, Granddaddy Will died with a bullet in his brain which calls his judgement into some question.

By the time Mama drove up to Sneadlin’s Funeral Home in our car, I was sitting forward in the seat with my face almost in the window. I was craning my neck to see what was happening.

“Lydia, sit back in the seat. You could at least try to act like a lady in public instead of a gaping monkey.”

Lottie and Mattie Mae were standing on the wooden steps outside the screened porch of the enormous old house that used to belong to one of the Cobbs before it was turned into a funeral home.

“You stay in the car.” My mama ordered as she got her pocketbook and gloves and started to get out.

“Mama.” I whined. “Let me go with you.”

Mama stopped moving. She raised her eyebrows and her eyes became big as saucers. I knew that look. It could have frozen me in hell. What it meant was stop whatever you are doing instantly. In this case, it was whining. “Stay.” She said.

I knew there was no point in arguing. So, I watched Mama walk across the front lawn, her light navy blue coat trailing behind her, her beige gloves clutched in her tiny hand, to talk with Mattie Mae and poor Lottie, who was still crying.

They were obviously not paying a bit of attention to me, so I rolled down the window to see if I could hear. But, all I could hear was the exchange of women’s voices. Mama’s little frame got straighter and straighter, Mattie Mae and Lottie were gesturing with their hands and every few minutes, Lottie would cover her face with both hands and drag them down her cheeks, sobbing.

All of a sudden, Mama turned and walked up the steps to the door of the screened in porch. She rapped so hard on the door with her little fist, I could see the wood frame moving from across the street.

She waited like a little soldier ready for battle. Nothing. She rapped again. Then, I started to see what Daddy called “the Irish” rising in her. Mama was about to lose her temper.

“Pickering Head.” She shouted out, right there in the front yard of Sneadlin’s Funeral Home. “You come out here. I know you’re in there. You answer the door this minute.”

The glass door to the house opened and out came Pickering Head even more ashen and unctuous than usual.

“Why Miss Sarah Ward.” He said, feigning surprise. “I didn’t know you were out here. You could have just come right on in the front door. It’s always open.”

“The point is not where I could have come in, Pickering. The point is where they could have come in.” Mama’s left arm flew out, pointing behind her at Mattie Mae and Lottie, without taking her eyes off the pitiable Pickering Head. Mattie Mae and Lottie both stood up straighter.

“And the point is that you have to let this woman see her children. And the point is that you don’t slam the door in a woman’s face and tell her to “git” like she was a dog. And the last point, Pickering, is that I’ve known you for a long time, a very long time. I knew you when you still had cotton lint in your hair and were sneaking up behind young women in the mill and pinching their fannies. You have never had and never deserved the least little bit of power or authority or respect. And so you’re just the sort of man to lord your imaginary authority over two women who you think can’t do anything to you. You are not going to call the law on these women. I am going to call the law on you if you don’t open those coffins and let Lottie see her children right this minute while I’m standing here.”

All the time mama had been delivering this breath-taking soliloquy, Pickering Head had been bending and bowing and holding his hands up in front of him and putting the fingertips of both hands on his cheeks in an attempt to somehow appease mama.

Oh, Mama knew Pickering Head, but Pickering Head sure didn’t know my mamma. If he had, he would’a known that after what he had done, trying to appease mama would have been just about like trying to appease Hitler.

Pickering Head grew paler and paler as he realized he was dead meat. He moved backward and held the screened door while Mattie Mae and Lottie and then Mama filed inside. They all went into the house, and the glass door closed behind them.

I couldn’t believe all this was going on and I was sitting in the car.

I sat there trying to weigh the trouble I would be in for disobeying Mama against the chance that she would be so distracted when she came out, she wouldn’t even notice if I weren’t in the car.

Mama, Lottie and Mattie Mae stayed inside Sneadlin’s for what seemed like hours. I slumped down in the seat, keeping my eyeballs just high enough to see out the window. The sun was getting hotter and hotter, and what had been an autumn day, was fast turning into summer. I lifted my thighs off the seat, trying to keep them from sticking to the upholstery.

I knew Mama wasn’t ever going to tell me what was happening inside.

I let my hand stray over onto the door handle and then pushed it down. The sound it made seemed very loud. I wasn’t really going to get out, just open the door for some air. I scanned the front of the funeral home for activity. None. I scanned the street in front of the car and then turned around and scanned the area towards Reed’s fillin’ station. Nobody.

I twisted in the seat and pushed open the door, putting my two tennis shoed feet on the asphalt. Just getting some air. Then, I darted across the enormous lawn and into the azaleas next to the house.

The windows of the old Cobb house were that wavy, old timey glass. Fortunately for my purposes, the windows on the front porch went from floor to ceiling and the ceilings were at least 16 or 18 feet high. I jumped sideways onto the staircase and ran across the porch, flattening myself against the house. God help me if Mama came out the front door.

I peered into one of the windows, trying to do so without being seen. But, it didn’t matter. There was nobody there. Turning, I ran toward the end of the porch and jumped off again into the azaleas. It was then that I saw the back of the old Cobb house, where they had evidently built an addition. It went straight back from the old house, a long low monstrosity of a structure built with cinder blocks and aluminum windows.

I could hear voices now, women’s voices, my mother’s voice. And I could hear crying, wailing like I’d never heard before, even at a funeral. I turned and headed for the car as fast as my crooked polio legs would carry me. I almost dove into the window of the car I was so afraid, but was able to jerk it open and sit down when I suddenly heard the front door of Sneadlin’s slam with a force that might well have shattered all the panes.

I sat up straight to see mama storming down the stairs and across the lawn. I had never seen her look quite so furious. Mattie Mae and Lottie were trailing behind her, looking very much like they had seen a ghost. Lottie was wailing as she walked and Mattie Mae was staring straight in front of her with an expression that to this day I would not even try to describe.

Then, I saw the front door of the house open and an ashen Pickering Head emerge cautiously onto the porch. He held his arms out with his palms open and shrugged his shoulders. “Miss Sarah Ward,” he called. “I’m sure we can work this out. It’s just a mistake. Somebody in the back just made a little mistake.”

Mama stopped dead in her tracks. Her hand was holding her gloves so tightly I could see her knuckles whiten. She stood there for a minute and then she turned around. She marched back up the walk way, circling around Mattie Mae and Lottie. She climbed up the stairs and Pickering Head walked toward her in relief. When she reached him, though, the hand with the gloves in it reared back and she slapped Pickering Head. My Mama, slapped Pickering Head’s pasty face for him right out in public, on the street, in front of Snedlin’s Funeral Home. I couldn’t have been more shocked if she had taken all her clothes off and set her hair on fire.

While Pickering Head stood there with his hand on his cheed, Mama bent down and delicately picked up her beige gloves. Finished, she turned and descended the steps.

When Mama and Mattie Mae and Lottie and I got to our house, I was banished (under protest) to the yard while telephone calls were made and voices were raised and Lottie wailed. Finally, I was allowed to ride along while mama took everybody home. Nobody said a word and I knew that my continued existence on the earth depended on my keeping my own mouth shut.

Mama took Lottie home first and then Mattie Mae. When Mattie Mae got out of the car, mama held up her hand before I could even open my mouth.

“Not one question Lydia, not one. I know you don’t believe this, but there are some things you don’t need to know about.”

I didn’t believe it and I sunk back into the seat in frustration and disappointment. What on earth could there be that you didn’t need to know about. Weren’t she and Daddy always telling me to learn. “Look it up in the dictionary, go look in the encyclopedia.” Wasn’t that the constant refrain of our house. Now, there were things I didn’t need to know about.

Of course, to be fair, my mother knew if she told me, I’d tell everybody else in the known universe that would listen and in a small town like Wilkes’ Ferry, even if people commit murder, you still had to live with them and get along. In a town like Wilkes Ferry, you couldn’t afford to have too many enemies and Mama had just slapped a grown man in the street.

When I couldn’t find something out any other way, there was always spying, and the best time to spy was at night, after everybody else had gone to bed, everybody except me. I would wait, pretending I was asleep, until all the lights were out and Daddy went around locking the doors. Then there was a time when Mama and Daddy talked to each other. That was the time I waited for, the time I had to stay awake for if I wanted to learn anything important.

What I heard was that when Mama and Mattie Mae and Lottie had gone into the funeral home, Pickering Head had tried his best to talk them out of having him open the coffins, but Mama and Mattie Mae had insisted. Mama even had to threaten to phone the sheriff.

Faced with three determined women and the threat of the sheriff, Pickering relented. When he took them to the back, though, he didn’t have to open two coffins, only one. Both babies were together in the first little white coffin, laying on top of each other, like they’d been thrown in by a garbage collector.

The real kicker, though, was that they hadn’t even been embalmed. Pickering Head (even though he denied it) was going to charge Lottie, Lottie, a fortune on time for the burial of two embalmed babies in two coffins, when in fact, he had done nothing to the bodies except throw them in together.

‘I’ve never seen anything quite so heartbreaking in my whole life as those two babies all crumpled in together in each other’s arms.” Mama said to Daddy, in their bedroom while I leaned with my back up against their bedroom door. Mama was crying, something she never, ever did.

“And Lee, I’ll never forget that smell if I live to be 100. Poor Lottie, poor, poor Lottie.”

I stayed up a long time that night, imagining the two babies together in that coffin, playing back in my mind the scene when Mama slapped Pickering Head. Wondering what on earth Lottie must be feeling, and knowing in my heart of hearts that nothing, absolutely nothing would happen to Pickering Head or Sneadlin’s Funeral Home. Pickering Head was probably asleep.

I wondered, for the first time in my life if it had bothered Mattie Mae to have to phone Mama to get Pickering Head’s face slapped. She did things for Mama all the time, favors. They were friends, but somehow this was different. Mattie Mae was a big woman. He had hands that could wrench a chicken’s head off without hardly noticing it. I watched her do it one time. She could have probably pinched Pickering’s head off. Mama could scare the living hell out of me and even Daddy, but she wasn’t even five feet tall with her heels on.

I knew Mama wasn’t going to talk about it, and I knew what Daddy would say if I asked him: “That’s just the way things are Liddy.” Grandaddy Will would have explained it to me, but I would have to had find him and sit him down for long enough when he wasn’t drunk. Not an easy task.

I sat and stared out my bedroom window. Everybody in Wilkes Ferry, Georgia, all 500 souls, seemed to be peacefully asleep. Everybody except me and Lottie. Poor Lottie.

Aneeta: This is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Christina: After years of working exclusively in Criminology, I found myself in Tallahassee, Florida teaching. The local affiliate of NPR was the affiliate who broadcast the Bailey White stories for NPR. They had a program where between the national news, they would have writers read their essays and stories. I started writing stories again when I began to participate in that program. From that, I started doing public performances of my stories. I also had a radio and television program called Law, Power and Justice where I interviewed local people about law and justice issues.

That schedule and the stress of working in a university brought back the health problems, specifically Fibromyalgia. After a few years, I became unable to work.

My husband and I were then hired to set up an island off the coast of Georgia as a retreat for writers and artists and special needs children and adults. We worked for over a year to bring that about when we were fired because of an article I had written years ago. One of the wealthiest families in the country had their attorney fire us because they disagreed with the politics of an article I had written before I ever heard of the island. We were devastated.

We had sold our house on the Chattahoochee River, most of our furniture, all my books, really almost everything we owned because we were going to live in a small cottage on an island. Having never provided us with an adequate place to live, or promised health insurance, they fired us after having run through our entire entitlement to COBRA insurance. They left us, at the age of 55, with no place to life, no health insurance and no job, in the most abusive and threatening way possible.

We were in love with the dream of providing writers and artists and women with breast cancer and special needs children with a nurturing and healing retreat, and being fired just broke our hearts. I had never invested so much of myself in a project before. It has taken us a year to even begin to put our lives back together here in Woodbine.

But, we are working with a group (The Woodbine Theatre Group) to restore the old theatre here so that we will have a performance space and a place to meet and hold meetings. We are trying to turn Woodbine into a Writers and Artists’ colony and start some of the programs we had dreamed of starting on the island. In short, we are struggling to start our lives over again. A real life changing experience.

I am just finishing a book of linked short stories about a small southern town called Wilkes Ferry, Georgia and the people who live and lived in the town. It will be published this year. This book contains the many of the stories I use when I perform as a storyteller. Since my health has improved over the past year, I plan to start travelling with my storytelling one-woman show called “Stories from Wilkes Ferry.” The story I am sending “Lottie’s Babies” is one of those stories.

Anyone interested in the project in Woodbine can contact me at cjjohns@tds.net.

Aneeta: Christina, that is, indeed, a very inspiring story. I wish you much luck and success.

Christina: Oh, thank you so very much for having me and for all your good work.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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