When I was approaching the age of thirteen, I was required to attend services at my synagogue every Friday night, not only to celebrate each Bat Mitzvah that came before mine, but to learn by example how to perform well when my turn came. After each Bat Mitzvah, in the back, our synagogue had large, long tables set up, that were covered with white tablecloths. Spread upon each table were delicious, colorful Jewish foods. The adults who had come to the Bat Mitzvah stood around these tables while children ran between their legs. People spoke in English and Yiddish. At the end of the night, volunteers gathered kippahs that had flown off the boys’ heads while they had been playing, and had landed in the hall and all over the yard, some with their bobby pins still attached. I had to resist the temptation to braid a boy’s tallis strings.
At Goddard College, we are strongly encouraged to attend graduation ceremonies and also the readings beforehand. The reasons are almost identical. We learn by example, we are present to support our peers, and we gain an immense amount of inspiration and confidence. If you are only partway there, the hope is that hearing all of the stories and a variety of writing, perhaps you will understand that the road for each was not the same. This was why we came to Goddard and why we avoided assembly-line style schooling.
Didn’t Goddard graduation dinner always use white tablecloths, too? These are the same darned ones they had at Bat Mitzvahs years ago. I must admit, upon seeing all that white, I decided to split the scene. I made sure no one saw. What I really wanted to do was to open the prize. Did you open yours? I’m talking to you, the nine other grads who finished that semester. We were handed something, remember? We all stood there and the Dean from the Plainfield campus came with diplomas and we each got one in a folder. Remember the tiny trinket that came with it? This was folded right inside the folder. You mean after all these years you didn’t see it? Go peek!
I ran off to the empty road past Officer’s Row, made sure there wasn’t any traffic coming. I saw no one looking, then, I opened my trinket package. All those semesters and all I had learned at Goddard were now embodied in a package wrapped mighty tight. Just this once, I didn’t worry about re-using the wrapping paper. Inside, there it was. I had received a shiny whistle.
This small package alone was not going to make noise by itself, but with me, it had a power that frightened me, and I knew I had to use it responsibly. If a mushroom has an “eat me” sign on it, a bottle says “drink me” and a mirror says “you’d better take a damned good look,” then the shiny whistle I received said to me, “Never, ever shut up.” Indeed, these words were engraved right on it!
Inevitably, a Goddard education means you become who you are. My years as “mental patient” had negated who I was. After Goddard, compliance and blind obedience no longer suited me. My Goddard education told me to write the truth, so I did. A person might not have the right to unlimited access to her advisor all her life, nor the right to a pat on the back and “trust the process” every time she feels like giving up, but we all have the right to freedom of speech simply by being alive.
I was somehow MFA, and also, psychiatric whistleblower. This is the oath I took July 12, 2009, that if I saw something, I would say something. I started off writing about stories I could tell in only a few paragraphs, the flip sides of the stories that hadn’t been told. Why should I not tell dirty parts of my own story, the parts that have been locked up for years because no one was talking? I did, and kept going. I realized that so many people, dead and alive, were begging for these stories to come out. For many whistleblowers, writing about injustice becomes almost addictive. The institutionalization and segregation of those of us labeled “mentally ill” has led to the most tragic mass slaughter of human beings that has ever occurred in human history. I can only hope to see a change in my lifetime.
A whistleblower is obliged to tell the truth, to write the story of what happened as she witnessed it. She may observe cruelty, but also unbounded kindness, and write on how that manifests as a surprise in the most cruel of places.
For many whistleblowers, life isn’t necessarily safe afterward. Retaliation is almost inevitable, and the institutions we speak out against have so much money and power that they do not fear the law nor regard it when they set out to silence us.
On July 12, 2009, our whole class, all the grads, were handed whistles. Did you go off privately to open yours, too? Was it like a thousand shofars that played loudly together and tumbled down the walls of injustice? Was it like the voice of Moses, who stuttered, yet demanded of Pharoah, “Let my people go!” As for anyone I spied squeezing those white graduation dinner tablecloths into a suitcase before heading home, I promise I will keep my trap shut. Until tomorrow.
Julie Greene is an alum of the MFAW Program in Port Townsend, WA She lives in Uruguay.