by Carla Savino
I don’t remember what I wrote and I don’t remember what I said. I only remember how I felt. I was so numb with an emotion overload on January’s coldest day. I wish I could remember the words that I said through the tears and the blank faces and the church. I never realized how important strength was until I need to rely on it so much. It was that one-week in January, five years ago, that brought me to that pulpit as it brought me to the podium on stage to discuss my greatest experience with my entire high school. Two years ago I stood on stage in a dark-lit auditorium and told the most personal story of my life to my peers and the faculty members. To my surprise everyone listened, embracing my words.
The day my life changed, almost six years ago, started out like any normal day. It was surprising warm yet it was also January and the sky was very dark. I woke up and went to school and had a basketball game. Looking back on these routine acts, they all seem like a blur -one that has smudged itself into that month. I also realize how cold and dark my house appeared on the outside. As I approached it to walk in, its structure and shadows seemed so unknown, nothing like a home. It was as if these signs were placed to tell me to prepare myself, to tell me that some news was lurking and waiting for me to walk through my front door. My family was quiet which is unusual for them. I sat in the most familiar place only to hear the most unfamiliar thing. My cousin Darla died. She was twenty-three and murdered. Her murder happened less than a mile away from my home.
Our names rhyme, which I was always proud of. I looked up to her and in many ways she was and still remains my hero. I remember as a little girl clinging to her hip as if I wanted to be a part of her. I went to every play she acted in and when my parents sat me down staring me square in the eye to tell me the news; the only thing I saw was her performing on stage. Upon hearing how she passed, I shook my head shocked by how much five minutes- no five seconds- could change everything. It wasn’t until a day later that I found out who killed her. Her labeled murder, who happened to be someone I knew all too well. It was my other cousin; Darla’s brother.
The media describes murderers as bad and mentally disturbed people who are dangerous. But what about the families of the murderers, what about the families of the victims they kill? I found confusion in both my answers when I lost both my cousins: my cousin Darla, who was killed, and my cousin Gerald who had become someone else, a labeled murderer. Someone I didn’t know. His mind was completely absent from himself, as it still remains today. That day, he could not control himself or his actions. Yet, for the rest of his life he would be held responsible for taking life. Today, I miss both of my cousins. When someone is lost from your life in any way, you begin to feel a major hole. That feeling started six years ago and it is still massively present today.
Previous to that, I had never known loss or anything like it. But, I quickly discovered the pain of it. The day of her funeral was the coldest day I have ever known. That morning, people lined up outside the door of the funeral parlor to mourn her death. As difficult as this was, I witnessed an accepting and caring community naturally form around the tragedy. Our loss united us, despite our differences. Yet, I would later discover another dimension of humanity, one that was dark and judgmental. On that day, however, I felt loved; and out of the most tragically negative situation, strength started to take shape. This strength was an attribute that would prove to be vital to my existence.
The media got a hold of this whirlwind and labeled the event as family tragedy. They publicized it for brief media hype. It was something that I didn’t want other people to know about. I was compelled to feel ashamed that this could happen to my family. I felt a deep breach and I wanted to go home. However, when I arrive home all I found was more sorrow and more TVs with more names with personal, publicized information and descriptive labels. My world changed from that moment on. Familiar places sent chill up my spine and brought darkness to the brightest of locations. These are the components that I struggle with as I analyze my journey of my captivity while growing up in an environment with social labels placed upon me.
“This is family business
And this is for the family that can’t be with us
And this is for my cousin locked down, know the answer’s in us
That’s why I spit it in my songs so sweet
Like a photo of your granny’s picture
Now that you’re gone it hit us
Super hard on Thanksgiving and Christmas, this can’t be right
Yeah you heard the track I did man, this can’t be life
Somebody please say grace so I can save face
And have a reason to cover my face
I even made you a plate, soul food, know how Granny do it
Monkey bread on the side, know how the family do it
When I brought it why had guard have to look all to it?
As kids we used to laugh
Who knew that life would move this fast?
Who knew I’d have to look at you through a glass?
And look, tell me you ain’t did it, you ain’t did it
And if you did, then that’s family business”
– Kanye West
In worlds away what have we sacrificed?
Birds can fly over.
The colors of the sky are the truth.
In a world of control, labels, and more control
What is left to fight for?
If seeing is believing
I can’t accept what there is to believe.
There once were many,
But now there are none.
Gerald is schizophrenic. He hears multiple voices in his head. I know what I can bare to know about the severity of his disease. I cannot imagine what was going trough his head on the day he took life. All I know is that he was a loving, kind individual who I trust completely. For hours I would listen to his intelligence hoping that it would radiate on me. But, things changed. Time changed them. He changed.
He has a forty-seven year sentence in prison. Not only is he physically incased in a gray blob, but he also has a mind that is absent from him. He experiences captivity in ways that I cannot imagine. I recognize the difficulty of his life- but refuse to comment on it anymore than I already have.
My fear is that he will be release decades from now, and I will eventually have to see his difficulty; that I will have to stare into his eyes and absorb the captivity, which he is feeling now.
His Words about the Ocean
He once told me why the ocean was blue.
I did not understand him.
He was too technical with his terms,
Oceans equals mystery
At least to me.
But so was he. A complete mystery, or was he incomplete?
As he talked to me, his words failed to express the future he would create for our world.
He never expressed what lay ahead for him, what the horizon predicted.
But if I only knew…
The sun did rise on the cold winter day, taking so two lives away with it. She being one of them.
I wish I could ask him again why the sky is blue, and this time I would really listen
Being careful not to miss one word or single moment.
For now the ocean will make me wonder.
Bedford, New York
I went to a prep school from preschool to ninth grade. For a total of twelve years I was surrounded by the same kids. While these kids were all my friends, I always felt separate from them. It was not as if I was an existentialist; I was just more interested in running around in my boots at the barn, rather then playing tennis at the country club. I was happy with the horses and I made my own community through my hobby of competitive horseback riding. This is where I devoted most of my time.
I wasn’t concerned with the Lily and Pulitzer shirts. I preferred my jeans and sneakers. Yet, a part of me always longed to walk into a country club, pick up a racket, and be just like all the other girls that I went to school with. As I got older and learned that there was a whole world outside of school, I began to release myself from the desire of being apart of the ‘prep school club.’ I never completely felt accepted by many girls at school; my interests were so vastly different that it was hard to grasp onto a common grounds with them. So, at fifteen, I stood to be an outsider who went to school with multiple insiders.
Then my life changed in 2005. At school, I pretended that everything was okay. I smiled when people asked me how I was doing and I pretended not to hear when people whispered about what they heard on the news. I even denied the labels that coincided with the twisted truth. There were many accepting individuals at school yet; it was the gossiping, chatty people that shaped me, in a way that made me who I am today.
Mr. Kober had been my History teacher in 7th and 8th grade. He taught me everything about American History, from the colonies to World War II. I always liked his friendly and interesting way of teaching. I constantly looked forward to his class because it was fun and exciting, yet extremely challenging. One day I met with him for one-on-one extra help. It was a couple of weeks after everything had happened. I needed to catch up of the week’s worth of history I missed because I had been absent from school recuperating from my ‘family tragedy.’ The session went well, I was able to catch up on all my work and, at the same time, maintain an understanding of the material. I was late for practice, and just as I was about to leave, he looked at me and said, “Wait, Carla…How are things at home?”
It wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it. Up until that point, I convinced myself that maybe the entire school didn’t know. After all, my cousins had a different last name than I. Yet, the immense concern behind Mr. Kober’s simple words made it crystal clear that everybody knew. That it was in fact a public affair; my family business was all over the school. This would prepare me for two years later when I would experience the same thing in high school. Yet, in this moment with Mr. Kober’s eyes on me, I froze.
Time stopped. I wanted to say “WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TO ASK ME THAT. YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW. YOU CAN’T EVEN IMAGINE.” But, I didn’t say any of it. Grief can make you mad at the world, but it doesn’t have to make you permanently bitter. In that moment, I knew the abrasiveness I felt from Mr. Kober’s question was really not meant to make me angry or uncomfortable; he was just checking in with his student that had recently experienced a great ordeal. He was concerned about me.
So I replied back saying, “Fine. Thanks for asking.” What else was I supposed to say? I was happy when Mr. Kober accepted my empty response to his very personal question. At the time, I though I did him a favor by covering up the ugly truth. In my 15-year-old mind-set, I thought that Mr. Kober didn’t really want to hear all the nitty gritty details of the horror that had become my everyday life. I felt like a captive, chained to the labels given by the news, my classmate, my friends, and myself. Reflecting on his words now, I appreciate the sincerity of Mr. Kober’s question. He was genuinely concerned with my well-being and he wasn’t intrusive with his behavior. However, even with this recent revelation, I probably still would have responded in the exact same manner.
When your personal affairs are publicized all over the news and all over your community, you don’t want anyone to know that you are weak. You want to maintain a façade of being FINE. If you break down, then you give ‘them’ something else to talk about; you give them the right to label you with more names. So I lied to my favorite history teacher.
Mr. Kober told me to run along to field hockey practice and to be “careful crossing the street.” I nodded and left. I realize that he didn’t really mean look both ways before you cross the street because you are in a rush to go to practice. His instructive words I took to heart; I have been careful ever since.
Why now? An independence or my independence.
She scratched me. I screamed.
He killed her and I didn’t make a noise.
Am I a freak? Or perhaps just in need of a major freak out.
My eyes are droopy and purple, so I fix myself with makeup’s tricks and fool everyone with the finest fine.
Nobody notices the discoloration or the lying in my voice.
They were all too amused with the labels that define beauty and are brought out with the luxuries.
Too good to miss, to late to miss them
Now they all bare on me.
Christie has long blonde hair and is very tall. She was friends with most of the girls in my small class, including me. In middle school, she intimidated most people. She was extremely strong which earned her various manly nicknames from the boys. I always sympathized with her, I felt bad that she had to deal with negative labels.
It was a lovely spring Tuesday outside in the courtyard, and a bunch of us girls sat at a long picnic table eating lunch and complaining about the disgusting cafeteria food that we were forced to eat. I was planning to have some of the girls come to house for a sleepover that Friday. I mentioned it to most of my friends and they all seemed really excited about it. Many said that they could definitely come. I brought it up at the table because all the girls who were invited surrounded me. “So who’s coming to my house on Friday? I’m so excited! It will be so much fun!” I radiated my enthusiasm over the table.
In a couple of weeks I would be graduating from Rippowam Cisqua and the following year I would be starting high school as a 10th grader. I could not wait to leave this place that I had been stuck for twelve years. I was anxious, young, and extremely naïve.
“I can’t come,” Christie said.
“But why? I mean I understand…” I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t coming. Throughout 9th grade, we had grown very close with one another and I thought she would absolutely at my house on Friday.
“Oh my parents aren’t letting me. They said I couldn’t go to your house because it’s dangerous.”
It has been over a year since my family tragedy, yet, Christie’s parents wouldn’t let her stay at my house? It wasn’t dangerous; it was safe, it was my home. She was my friend, I had known her for more than ten years, and yet at that moment I felt like I didn’t know her at all.
As I sat in the courtyard eating lunch at the prep school that my older brother and sister had graduated 9th grade from, I considered the place a complete waste of my time. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. But, I couldn’t. I would have to wait until I graduated which would not be until weeks later.
The sunny picnic table went silent. Lindsay Laird quickly changed the subject from weekend plans to how short the uniform skirts should really be. The rest of the day, as well as my time at that school were both like the whole incident never happened. As the others pretended, I still felt the prejudices that my friends held against my family and me. It wasn’t something that I could hide as easily as my friends did.
Christie’s comment became a defining moment in my life. As I was trying to move forward from grief and the horrific past, I was stuck in the midst of its labels.
Even today, when I walk into a room full of people I have never met, I automatically think that they know about my past and will judge me for it just like Christie had done all those years ago. I think that strangers believe my family to be dangerous and that I am a person to stay away from. Yet, I am forced to remind myself that this it is not the case. That not these people who don’t know me at all, don’t know about my personal history. People are not judgmental. People are not bad. I tell myself that I cannot let the influential minority of people that I have encountered in my life influence my view of people in general. And as soon as the fear, prompted by my past experiences, comes over me, I immediately force myself to release it. I am no longer defined by the prejudices that middle school created for me. Yet, I feel the consequences of it everyday with these constant, brief moments of paranoia. In this way I am still captive to Christie’s label.
I started St. Lukes High School in 2006. I was extremely excited that one of my best friends from middle school, Megan, was also be starting high school with me and I found comfort in the fact she would be there as well. As soon as school started, Megan began to distance herself from me. She would ignore me in the halls and in the cafeteria. She stopped calling me on weekends. I didn’t know what I did wrong.
I also found it extremely challenging to make friends. I didn’t understand why it was so hard to because I thought I was extremely friendly and open to everyone. After four or five months I began to acquire friendships, which is when the truth started to come out.
Starting a new school is hard enough, especially when you only have been to one school prior to attending the new one. You try your best to find a niche, a place in the school where you belong. High school is about trying to find that place where you feel comfortable and not completely exposed. All teenagers go through their adolescent lives searching, which accounts for all the changing hairstyles and clothes that we see. My journey wasn’t a new look. It was a search for acceptance, something I had been without. I thought that when I finally changed schools my family history, which I had no control over, would stop defining me.
But Megan made that difficult for me. For the first couple of months, without my knowledge, she was spreading false truths about my family tragedy. These rumors were like little knives into my being. Not only was she breaching our friendship, she was also destroying any chance I had at a new beginning, my chance to live with out prejudice remarks and judgmental stares. For this reason, it took me six months to settle into my new school.
Previous to learning of Megan’s deceitful rumors, I thought that there was maybe something wrong with me: that I wasn’t being friendly enough or open enough or funny enough or enough of anything. I felt as if my persona was somehow falling short. I thought I was merely feeling the self-doubt that accompanies teenage life. I could never imagine that Megan was going around to anyone who would listen and telling him or her about my personal history. She spun the whole thing, making it seem like my family was crazy and that I was one of the crazies. People I didn’t know were hearing a distorted version of my personal past.
Megan spread wrong facts about my family tragedy, but what hurt the most about everything is that I let it greatly affect me in such a negative way. I believed she was my friend and I trusted her with the reality of my past. In this great, new environment of high school, I found myself stuck in the same cell I just left at my old school. It was the label Megan dubbed me as: one of me being apart of something negative, dark, and crazy. Not only were Megan’s words wrong and inappropriate, they were also powerful. She managed to isolate me, and for months I was an outsider. But, unlike my early childhood with riding and school, this existentialism was not by my choice; it was by Megan’s.
So what did Megan say? To this day I only know the bits and pieces of her words. I could not bare to listen when I was later told what they were. I refrain from repeating the words in this writing because they are too painful to write and would not contribute to the message of my work. I emphasize the consequence of the rumors she spread. I continued to feel them, even after I had the confidence to face them. That is why today I still feel a split sense of uneasiness when I walk into a room full of strangers. In many ways I am still captive to this environment that created itself out of my experience with publicized family loss. Yet in the midst, I learned that one has to move forward. At sixteen when somebody created an image for me, I chose to move forward or rather then hide in the image. I decided to reject the reputation that Megan created for me. Through this rough time, I began to absorb the idea of acceptance. I started to think; maybe people can affect you only if you let them.
At this point of High School I decided that the best thing for me to do was move forward. I was able do so by addressing my school about the issue. It was hard to get up in front of the entire school and talk about something, which had defined me for a very long time. But, it was not until I gave the speech to the crowd of schoolmate and faculty members that I finally felt a release. It was the point of acceptance and strength.
I never directly confronted Megan about it. And to my own surprise, I still remain in vague contact with her today. She made me deal with my own issue; I was captive to these labels because I gave power to them. My captivity with the title of my ‘dangerous’ nature has ended. Today, I still struggle with confinement of grief. I miss both of my cousins who I lost that day, almost six years ago. That will hold me captive for the rest of my life. With time, its power lessens. However, it will never truly completely fade away.
I was surprised to find that I could finally breathe.
It had been several years of drowning but I finally seemed to understand the concept of treading water.
Glasses later, a shot gun was missing,
Doors were locked tight even to his family.
It was the known that became unknown.
Dark strands became bleak and black.
I did not recognize that I was sacred at that time in my life, until two or three years passed for that day. All my experiences lay perfectly done with my future seemingly undone.
An unknown risk in 2005- but I left my sliding glass door unlocked that warm winter’s night, only to awake to the coldest winter day I have ever known.
Years- almost six to be exact, and its hold on me has been lifted but not forgotten.
I remember, I feel, and I go forward. I can comfortable let the air pass through me.
I can breathe.
The day of her funeral I spoke. It was my first public speaking of my 15 years of life and I felt great about what I said. I was surprised through everything, but I was given the strength through Darla, my family, and my true friends. My family tragedy made me a stronger person. Sometimes in the most unlikely situation that you can never even imagine to happen, you will find strength and along the way yourself. This is why I decided to address my school. It was only with my total self-acceptance that I was capable of living in a positive environment.
Everyday I feel the same emptiness I felt that January but I also feel that strength that drives me forward. I wish I could remember the words I said at her funeral, but more importantly I remember how I felt. It was a beautiful poem, and as I read it my words echoed through the stain glass walls. Here I stood staring at the crowd, in a church where I had been baptized, and received communion. When I look at the coffin I felt sad, yet I was able to say the most influential words of my life. I wish I still had the poem that I read, but somewhere along the way it became lost. Even others don’t remember the poem that I read that day. I suppose that is what happens at funerals. People can only remember bits and pieces, but not the whole thing. I would love to remember, but I fail to. I only recall the courage, the fighting of tears, and the feeling I had within myself.
Strength can come from the most unimaginable circumstances. It was through this immense vigor that I was able to speak to my entire school about my most significant and personal experience. There will always be people labeling and talking about you, but you can choose how this will affect you. I chose to talk about it, in front of my entire school because I believe in the message. Having and holding onto strength is important. Strength is something that is needed in light and heavy situations throughout your life. Outside forces can make you feel ashamed, only if you let them. Overtime I was able to feel comfortable to talk about this aspect of my life. And I take that experience with me each step ahead.
“I must have been sleeping, I must have been drinking, I haven’t been dreaming about you for years. There was a sharp turn and a sunburn I was too cool for high school that year. Must have been new years, no one invited you, You took things too far but I missed you And your antics. You were lonesome and Blue-eyed and so special to us. You should have taken a long break Instead of a long drop from a high place. Ten years I never spoke your name. Now it feels good to say it. You’re my friend again. Said he forgave you, I said I hated you, He was the bigger man, I was sixteen. All the innocence it took well I guess you finally made the yearbook. That year. That year. You should have taken a long break Instead of a long drop, instead of a leap of faith, Ten years i never spoke your name, Now it feels good to say it you’re my friend again. I was angry I was a daughter I was a Baptist I was wrong.”
– Brandi Carlile
When I first started high school, it was a bit of a relief that nobody knew about this aspect of my life. I no longer felt ashamed of it, yet I felt compelled to want people to know me on my own terms instead of the terms that my family had defined for me. But, I was wrong. Rumors circulated with wrong facts, which made my first year of high school very difficult. I was labeled and defined by a dark event that occurred. But, through building friendship and people knowing me for who I am and not for this moment in my life, I arrived at a certain point: the point of acceptance. I am who I am and I can’t be ashamed of it. My family is a part me, the best part me. And my captivity can only occur if I let it. I still feel the major losses and tiny moments of self-doubt, but I can honestly say I that I don’t let people’s judgments and labels control me anymore. I have the power and only I can take that power away.
I have learned through this class that captivity is man-made. People that surround your everyday life make it and it becomes powerful because you surrender your power to it. I have felt this in the last six years of my life through sorrowful circumstances. It is a process; I am beginning to see my role not only as a captive but also as a captivator. Growing up in a society that puts labels on looks and actions, it makes it hard for me to get dressed in the morning or even raise my hand in class. In high school, both of these things seemed so important; and even today I put more emphasis on them then I would like to admit. What do my classmates think of me? How might society judge me?
But through the class, Art of Captivity, I have acquired the knowledge to know that everybody feels captive to something or someone. Humans make captivity in order to maintain order. We cannot all be like animals and act on our every basic instinct. We have obligations and rules. However, maybe we are trying to be the superior race when we are all just animals. Reading Tarzan brought this idea into perspective for me. Maybe I should live in the African jungle and be a savage; then I would not know of obligations, society, or the cruel world of labels, stereotypes, gossip, and high school.
I think I’d rather not. Even Tarzan feels captive in the jungle with only the animals as his companions. Tarzan can escape society, but he can never escape his own humanity. I believe that self creates captivity because the truth is that captivity makes life interesting taking into account the differences that everybody has.
These differences make for unique and interesting art. I am not saying that I liked having my High School classmates call my family and my home dangerous, nor am I saying that I enjoyed watching the television to see my family business broadcast on the local news. What I am saying is these experiences made me stronger. They made me grow up. I am not thankful for them, but I do acknowledge the significance they had on my life. I was able to not breakdown in the face of my social captivity because I had such a strong community surrounding me including my family, friends, and mentors.
In the face of not making sense of anything that was going on in my life I would write and take pictures. Who knew that these prose and photographs* would perfectly frame out my captivity journey? I am thankful that I was able to channel this possibly negative energy and use it to create something as positive as this project. This whole process has been a tool that helped me to break the yoke of the captivity, which I felt and continue to feel at times. I find my captivity to be as powerful as I let it be. However, I cannot control it at all times.
Like I stated before, when I walk into a room where people do not know me, I still feel as if their eyes are judging me. It is that split second when I lose control and it passes quickly. These episodes are sporadic throughout my daily-life; however, their consequences are long enduring. These are the scars, which I will have for the rest of my life. The interesting thing about these remembrances of my captivity is that I find them to be vital to my personality. I am who I am today because all of what I have experienced. And, I am glad I was able to express it through this medium.
This work was not about analyzing my captivity or answering it. It was about recognizing it. I wish I could say that this whole process has completely abolished this controlling power that yields so much authority in my life; however, I cannot. Saying it would be untruthful. This opportunity gave me a means, a way of expressing myself. It is not done, as I am sure to encounter greater obstacles in life, other than those that coincided with my middle school and high school experiences. I look forward to tackles those, as they will inevitably come. This process has raised further questions about how one can live in captivity. It made me learn that everybody is battling with his or her own struggles; everybody is captive to one thing or another. And, because we all are captives, we are all together. I find comfort in the fact that together we are not alone. Self is the common factor in captivity.
* The photographs have not been included with this post.