May 1st, 2015

Extra people

Flannery O’Connor has a powerful short story entitled, “The Displaced Person,” where she describes the impact of the arrival of a refugee family on a small Southern farm. The story is set in the period following World War II when masses of people left Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of Soviet occupation of their homelands.

In O’Connor’s story, a local priest arranges the placement of one of these families on a farm owned by a widow and worked by black and white farmhands. The established laborers do not take kindly to the arrival of the foreigners with strange names and industrious work habits. The resulting conflict sets the story in motion toward the kind of dramatic climax for which O’Connor is well known. I have suggested this story for a reading group of psychology staff and students because of its relevance for our work as psychologists and for the lives we try to lead as decent human beings.

Who are the strangers among us and how do we treat them? Reading “The Displaced Person” reminded me of a boy in my first grade class. When I asked the adults around me about his strange sounding name, they said only that he was a DP, giving me the impression that he was of a class of people somehow inferior to the rest of us and not welcome in our town.

My one time classmate left the stage of my memory long ago, but I have never forgotten his name or the derision he provoked in good people who should have known better. This experience was my introduction to the kind of bigotry and clannishness that flared up whenever new immigrant groups settled in our small corner of the world.

There was nothing unique about that time and place. It could have happened in any town in any country of the world. Each succeeding wave of immigrants threatened the order established by earlier waves. DPs moved into the territory of naturalized Poles, Ukrainians, and Czechs. Puerto Ricans followed the DPs and, after them, came the Asians. Here in New England, where I have lived for nearly a half-century, it was the Irish and Italians who moved into the precincts of the Boston Brahmins and everywhere the newcomers were the extra people.

We are never at a loss for extra people. They are the ones whom we now describe as marginalized, a word that was not in use when O’Connor wrote “The Displaced Person” in the early 1950s. The extras are the racial and ethnic minorities among us, the mentally and physically challenged, psychiatric patients, prisoners, the poor, the old, anyone at all who differs from the perceived norm of the population.

With a candor that leaves no doubt about the inclusion of the jobless in this category, the British describe losing one’s job as being made redundant. One day you are a vital part of the work force and the next, you are redundant, no longer needed, in a word, extra.

The easiest way to fall into the extra category in our society is simply to grow old, especially when aging robs us of the faculties that allow us to function independently. In the past several months, I have been spending a lot of time in assisted living facilities, memory care centers, rehab units and nursing homes. My wife and I made the rounds as we settled her mother into a new residence with a higher level of support following a broken leg in her ninety-ninth year accelerated her declining ability to care for herself. Nearly all of the places where my mother-in-law stayed to regain her strength were filled to capacity with people at widely different levels of cognitive and physical ability.

There was the man with Alzheimer’s disease who sat in his wheelchair the whole day long speaking gibberish. Whenever we visited, his son was there engaging him in a companionable interchange, using words and gestures that the old man seemed to understand at least on the most important level of knowing that someone cared.

A woman sat with her head bowed and summoned me with a flutter of her hand. In a barely audible voice, she said we had to get out of this place and asked if I could bring her to her room. Another woman, my mother-in-law’s roommate, was mentally sharp and sociable and, as she told us her life story, we were surprised to learn how much we had in common. She came from the same town as my wife, went to the same school 20 years earlier, and raised her family not far from where we raised ours. We discovered that we went to the same church and knew many of the same people. Later, in another facility, our introductions to the residents came with asides about what they had accomplished before dementia ushered them into the company of the displaced.

In Flannery O’Connor’s story, an old farmhand, Astor, asks the housemaid, Mrs. Shortley, about the newly arrived family. “They what is called Displaced Persons. . .It means they ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go. . .” Astor replies, “It seem like they here, though. . .If they here, they somewhere.” A young black farmhand at Astor’s side agrees, “Sho is
. . .They here.”

They’re here and so are we, each and every one of us so close to being extra that the word loses its meaning.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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