March 23, 2009

“The brighter the persona, the darker the shadow.” --Carl Jung

Last month an amazing thing happened.

Forty years ago I lived in Orange City, Iowa, a small Dutch town of solid Christian and American Reformed, my family moving in when I was a sophomore in high school. It was not a pleasant experience. In 1967, this town of 3,000 knew more about our family than we did and I suffered a lot of social humiliation at the hands of the bleached blond girls. The social fabric of high school, experts tell us, is vital for healthy psychological and social development, and I did not escape those two years without damage to psyche and soul. And so forty years later I can’t think too deeply of Orange City without risking a sensation of mortification and emotional fear. Of pain just beneath my sternum, shortening my breath. In college I came across Carl Jung's “The brighter the persona, the darker the shadow.” Orange City, for all its Christian motif, was a dark place for me at the time; and if I think of Orange City at all it is Judy’s face I see. Rightly or wrongly, she came to symbolize that town. Then last month the most amazing thing happened; she e-mailed me.

Ironically, I'd only recently applied for a one-year teaching position at the university there, where my father served as academic dean all those years ago. I swore I’d never return. The last few years, though, I’ve been in this mode of revisiting my past—scattered as it is all over the U.S. and Canada—to see if I can’t find understanding in my patchwork upbringing. I currently need a teaching position and Northwestern needs an instructor. And so I applied—though I secretly wondered if I could walk into the metaphorical lions' den without getting myself mauled. Ironically Judy e-mailed.

It was not in my consciousness that anyone from Orange City would be writing, though. I kept trying to place Judy in Tempe, Arizona, where I’d moved my senior year. Nothing fit. Suddenly Judy’s maiden name popped into focus. Did I remember her? she wondered. “I was part of a place that caused you much harm,” she wrote.

I must have sat absolutely quiet for several minutes. She’d read something of mine, she said, in Guideposts Daily Devotionals, and wondered if it was me, from high school. So she looked up my blog and website, where I make mention of Orange City and its darkness, the girls, the prevalent self-absorption. She'd named herself as part of that harmful place. Something turned in my mind. Old feelings of humiliation and fear dissipated. Vanished. I discovered I could think of Orange City without turmoil. I could actually go back to teach and not be bait for the lions of my past. What kind of miracle was this?

I took a couple of days before responding. I wanted her to know what a gift her e-mail was—yet I didn’t want to brush the past too quickly under the rug. It stood between us and it was precisely because of my memory of her unkindness that her extension of friendship meant so much. “Yes, I do remember you,” I finally wrote, explaining that in my mind she was the worst of the lot. It felt cruel to write such words. But it was Judy and the others, after all, who’d brought on my knee jerk reaction years later when my son told me his junior year of high school that he’d gotten the phone number of a cheerleader. “A cheerleader!” I yelped, physically wounded. The bigger truth, though, was that I deeply appreciated Judy’s acknowledgment. She'd taken a risk. I wanted her to know how much this meant to me, an unexpected gift. In first one e-mail and then a second I struggled to name that gift, to describe the emotional freedom I now felt. She was gracious and wrote back, catching me up on her life. But she had no recall, she wrote, of deliberate unkindness, only that as an adult she can see how the town would have made me feel rejected. She was willing, she wrote, to be a face to that rejection, but as to targeted unkindness? Could you, she asked, give me a specific that might help me remember?

Our remarkably different memories astounded me. How could this be? How could she not remember what I remembered in such painful detail? More astonishing, though, was her graciousness and willingness to continue our dialog. A lesser person would not have bothered—annoyed that a simple gesture of friendship had resulted in an assault on personal character.

Our conversation was initially painful, I think, for both of us. But very quickly it became apparent that while my memory had become the reality out of which I functioned it was nonetheless unreliable. There is value in learning this—for grace can then trump. Judy was not without her own struggles back then, and I was able to view my experience through new perspective and gain a friend where once I did not have one. How does one explain this kind of miracle?

My mother says the emotional freedom from those dark years happened because I finally forgave the town for what happened there. Forgiveness implies I brought this about; yet I had nothing to do with it. It was Judy and her willingness to be a face to the darkness I felt, and to spawn a mystery I now seek to explain.

The mystery may have something to do with Jung’s “The brighter the persona, the darker the shadow.” Judy named the persona for what it was. A place that caused me much harm, yes—but harm not always intended. Named, the shadows disappeared. My son, who married his cheerleader, would tell me it’s simple physics.

Judy visits Orange City once a month, where her mother still lives. Perhaps the university will consider me; I’d like to experience Orange City with a friend. She tells me there’s Chinese takeout now. When the tulips bloom in spring, we could grab some sweet-and-sour pork, maybe lemon-glazed chicken, and head for the park where I used to go alone. Today we’d go as friends, creating new history from our past.


  1. I sincerely hope you don't still think of me as "the cheerleader"! :) Will I ever live that down? Not exactly one of my proudest achievements, ya know? ((HUGS))

  2. I actually kind of like that about you, Katie, your bouncy-trouncy-go-go-go days when you brought into my life a better understanding of what it means to be a teenage girl. You were a great cheerleader--with the exception of all that insane catering Sehome's cheerleaders were required to do for the football team. Now that still sticks in my craw!


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