"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 21: Uncle George Shepherdson

I drafted the post below before 17 August 2016, when there appeared online an article for the Boston Review, “One Long Poem,” by Heather Treseler, about some of the troubling contents in recently surfaced letters that Bishop wrote to the psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Foster: revelations of abuse Bishop suffered while living with Maude and George Shepherdson. George is identified as the abuser.

Coincidentally, the final letter that Bishop wrote to Grace in 1956, 2 December, contained the first mention of George Shepherdson in this correspondence (at least in what is extant). I try to have a couple of posts ahead, and this is one of several that I’d been deferring as I worked through other subjects.

When I read the Treseler piece, I was dismayed but not surprised. I had suspicions about such experiences and who the perpetrator might be, but had no concrete evidence (if you read between the lines of Bishop’s work, it is a reasonable speculation — but until direct evidence surfaced, it remained only speculation). It is, sadly, no longer speculation.

No one (biographer, literary critic, fellow poet, general reader) will ever be able to understand fully the impact and ramifications of these experiences on Bishop’s life and art. We can imagine and speculate, and can see some of their impact in the writing. But most of the impact is now lost. Over the years as I researched the life of Bishop’s mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, the more I learned about her circumstances the more I realized how little I could ever really know. I could only guess, trying to be reasonable and respectful in those guesses. What I did come to understand better was that Gertrude remained a powerful force in her daughter’s life. The nature of the influence was highly complex and most of it, too, is now lost; but I felt I could make that general claim with reasonable certainty.

I thought about scrapping this post and avoiding George Shepherdson entirely, but Bishop’s references to him in her letters to Grace (and there are a number of them over the years) are fascinating in light of his unforgivable actions. That she speaks of him at all, so many years after the abuse and while he is still alive, is remarkable, considering what he did. I have opinions about what that means, but they can only be that, in the end: opinions.

The draft of my post before I read Treseler’s article:

Bishop’s last extant letter to Grace for 1956 is dated 2 December. She had received a letter from her aunt “a month & a day” before, but Bishop declared, “I thought it was about 2 weeks!” — a sign that Bishop’s life was busy and that she experienced what we all do, that persistent sense of time flying by.

Grace’s letter had clearly updated Bishop on health matters, in particular a visit to a doctor for “a check-up (what Lota calls a ‘shake-up’ — and I think it’s a pretty good word for it, sometimes).” Grace had expressed some concerns about the doctor not doing a “cardiogram” to test her heart, but Bishop, in a sagacious tone reassured Grace, “if your blood pressure is normal that’s a fine sign — particularly when you are slightly on the stylish stout side!” One wonders what Grace, a nurse since 1914, thought of Bishop’s assessment that unless Grace’s heart was “ringing like a gong, or something” the doctor wouldn’t need to do such a test. “No doctor these days,” Bishop writes with authority, “lets a patient go without a heart-test if there’s the faintest symptoms of anything wrong.” Since he hadn’t seen a need to do so, Grace’s heart must be just fine.

But just to make sure, Bishop suggests that perhaps Grace, if she is worried, should switch from sugar to saccarine [sic], something she herself had done. No sacrifice was made by doing so because, to Bishop, it didn’t “make a bit of difference in the taste” of her coffee (she took “only…a little sugar in black coffee). She used a brand of liquid saccharin called “SWEETA” and even put it in iced tea and lemonade. She also used a small saccharin pill, but it took longer to dissolve. The pills were convenient to carry in one’s purse, “I always carry a little pill box now,” she told her aunt.

Grace had also brought her brother-in-law George Shepherdson into her letter, into the discussion about heart health, because Bishop also responded: “Uncle G talked about his heart for years & years before there was anything the matter with it, I’m sure.” In Bishop’s estimation, “he probably brought it on by talking about it.”

George Shepherdson married Maude Bulmer in 1908. It was Maude and George who raised Bishop. She went to live with them in the spring of 1918. At that time, they lived in Revere, Massachusetts. Bishop’s relationship with this uncle by marriage was likely fraught. [Ed. note: An understatement, of course.] George was an imposingly tall man, who was known universally as a teaser. [Ed. note: Well, he was, sadly, much more than that; but this is how Phyllis Sutherland, who knew him much less well, described him to me.] Bishop remembered going to museums in Boston with him. Maude took her to art galleries. In his early days, he was an adherent of the Sons of Temperance in Great Village. By the time Bishop was with them, this giant of a man, who didn’t seem able to hold down a job, enjoyed a drink or two with his Irish neighbour (whom he disparaged behind his back) out on the porch in the evenings. Bishop’s strongest characterization of him in her writing (an unfinished story called “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs”) was that he was a hypocrite. When Bishop went to Key West in the 1930s, Maude and George went too and took up residence nearby.

By 1956, George was an elderly widower living in Amherst, N.S. Maude died in 1940. He re-surfaces in Bishop’s letters to Grace in the 1960s, at the time of his death. But in the December 1956 letter, Bishop tells Grace that she “wrote to him twice, you know, but he didn’t answer.” In spite of her gallivanting about and working in the U.S., Grace still maintained some sort of contact with him. [Ed. Note: It appears that she, or the rest of the Bulmers, did not know what he had done.]

Before the saccharin subject is abandoned, Bishop advises Grace to tell “Poor Uncle George” about this wonderful substitute and ventured the opinion that “if he’d cut out sugar and white bread he’d lose [weight], I bet.” “Remember how much bread he eats? and sugar in everything, ‘for flavor’.” Even with their fraught relationship, and with a “housekeeper” who “certainly sounds pretty dreary,” Bishop was far enough away in space and time to be able to “feel sorry for him.”

Until Treseler’s article, I could only go so far as “fraught.” I probably did not want to believe my suspicions. But when they were confirmed my first response was questions: How is it that Bishop could stand to mention George Shepherdson’s name? Not only that, she was able to label him, diminish him, and pity him. Abusers are failed human beings who wreak havoc. The abused often can never reclaim their lives after such trauma. But somehow Bishop, at least in some part, on some level, took her uncle’s power away from him and reclaimed her own. Was it art? Was it Ruth Foster’s help? Was it Bishop’s own inner strength? It was likely all of these and more. How could Maude have allowed this abuse? My opinion, based on what I’ve read (between the lines), is that Maude was likely an abused spouse.

It seems that abuse is the last trauma (the last “dark secret” — and it is the biggest one, the one that always remained utterly hidden and unspoken) of Bishop’s childhood. Her list is long: the death of her father when she was eight months old; the loss of her mother to mental illness when she was five; this newly revealed violation beginning (so the letters to Foster say) when she was eight. Part of the impact of these traumas were: her adult alcoholism (though she came by it honestly, as men on both sides of her family were alcoholics); her thoughts and attempts of suicide; her troubled relationships and affairs. That Bishop not only survived but also persevered is heroic. It bespeaks some outside goodness, which in some way counter-balanced the trauma: kind and caring family (her maternal grandparents and beloved Aunt Grace); once she began school, supportive teachers and friends; and loving partners. But Bishop’s survival must have come, primarily, from her inner resources (her imagination, curiosity, precocious understanding of and deep belief in beauty, sense of humour and irony). These things needed to be fostered by the outside world, but mostly they needed to exist in the first place. Bishop struggled her whole life, but she also lived a creative life. These revelations will be written about at length, I am sure. Hopefully, they will be treated as respectfully and carefully as Treseler has done, as she has brought them to light.

The next post will be about politics.

Click here to see part 20.

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