It’s taken me about 40 years to fully (?) process this.
“J.T” is a simple, hour-long story of a young boy living in a New York ghetto, but it tackles some weighty issues.
I saw this movie right after it came out, so around 1970. The “weighty issues” it deals with are racism and poverty in mid 20th Century America but an 8 year old English boy living in Canada didn’t get any of that. You have to read a few more of the reviews to learn what I saw. And from what I can tell, I never saw the end of the movie, as you’ll see.
I saw it with my mother, in the front room of our house, and for some reason, I remember it as a summer afternoon, with long shadows everywhere. The storyline of the movie I remember was that a poor black kid finds a cat in an abandoned building and it becomes the center of his universe, something for him to love and care for, to look forward to being with. But some older boys who have nothing to love or care about find him sneaking into this old building and they catch him in the act of caring, of loving. They take the cat from him and play “keep away,” teasing and taunting, until one of them runs out to the street and slips, sending the cat into traffic where it is killed by a car, right in front of the young hero.
At this point, I burst into tears. All I saw was a small boy — like myself — who lost something precious due to the cruelty of others, out of the simple meanness and unempathetic jealousy of those who don’t know how to love.
My mother laughed at me for crying. She laughed at a child for expressing a natural emotion. She didn’t do it to minimize the effects or soften the blow. She offered no comfort, no compassion. She was no different from the boys on the screen, who hate to see anyone or anything receive love.
And that response to my openness, my willingness to openly feel, made me close up and hide that part of myself from the world. It made me fear rejection to the point where almost every decision I have made since then has been to avoid it. And to avoid rejection is to avoid life. It means not trying things, not risking exposure to the hurt that comes from being rejected.
My mother and I, if we were ever close, weren’t after that. Soon I was on my way to a new life in a new family in a new country south of the border, but that scabbed-over hurt stayed with me for years, many, many years. I expect the other changes only made me keep that of myself wrapped up tight.
It was only in the past 2-3 years I would allow myself to openly express that kind of feeling, to let the tears flow. And only rarely and at home.
I saw my mother twice after that before she died in 2003, a span of 33 years, and neither experience was positive. No, we weren’t close. There’s more but it’s not relevant here.
I didn’t realize until today that there was more of the movie after that scene, so badly was I hurt at the time. I never saw it or remembered it, I guess. I knew there was something about that moment, frozen in my mind, but I never quite realized what it was, what it all meant.
This has been coming clearer the past few weeks, the realization that I have shut myself off from far too many experiences and opportunities but not understanding why.
People think saying “no” doesn’t cost anything. It does. It can cost you everything.
It’s been a cathartic day. Just recounting the story brings more than a tear to my eyes. When I put it all together this morning, I was in pretty bad shape. And I expect the next few days will be up and down as I come to grips with the understanding of what happened and what I can do now.
I’ve always wondered why Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” resonated with me. What he describes is not unique to my experience but now that first line is going to stay with me, at least as far as an apt description of one of my parents. It’s never been far from my mind…maybe now I understand why.
Following up here.