December 18, 2010
On KKZZ, Author Calls Mentally Ill Sister “Heart and Soul” of Family Memoir
IN A WIDE-RANGING CONVERSATION with radio host Bill Frank, known as “Billy the Brain” on KKZZ AM 1400 in Ventura, California, author John Paul Godges credited his sister Geri, who has struggled with paranoid schizophrenia for more than four decades, as being “the single most important reason why we have remained united and indivisible as a family.”
“If it weren’t for my sister Geri,” the author elaborated in his mid-December interview, “my family would have probably split apart and gone their own separate ways a long, long time ago. But we were blessed with having her in our family, because she taught us, from day one, the importance of learning to love someone whom, at first, you can understand the least. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that she is the one who has taught us how to love one another. I think that is the heart and soul of the book.”
Billy the Brain noted that the Godges family memoir, Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century, weaves together “really disparate family members, including immigrant laborers, religious conservatives, gays and lesbians, athletes, hippies, veterans, everything. But in the end, the least among them shall lead. And you chose a mentally ill character in your book as the unifying force in the story.”
The irony goes beyond the immediate family, said Godges. “You know, there’s an awful lot of intolerance in our society against those who are mentally ill. I’m hoping that one of the things my book can accomplish is that it could reduce the horrible stigma that we still see against those in our society who are suffering with mental illness.”
“I think anybody who does pick up your book and read it will get that sense and overcome the stigma, just by reading about the powerful character of your sister Geri,” concluded Billy the Brain.
In other segments of the interview, the author and radio host discussed the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, individualism, communitarianism, generational patterns in American society, the intermingling of different traditions in America, and the definition of being American.
The complete, 14-minute interview can be heard by pressing play below. A transcript of nearly the entire interview appears beneath the audio file.
BILLY THE BRAIN: John’s first book is titled Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century. Welcome to the show, John. How are you today?
GODGES: I’m doing great. Great to be speaking with you.
BILLY THE BRAIN: It’s wonderful to have you as our guest today. Thank you so much for being on “Brainstormin’ with Billy the Brain.” Now I find it interesting, in reading your book, that the two catalysts that prompted you to write this book about the American family in the 20th century actually occurred in the 21st century. You cite the 2000 presidential election and 9/11 as two of those catalysts that prompted you to write it. So why did these two events spark you to write the book Oh, Beautiful?
GODGES: Well, those are the second and third events. The first event was my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, which occurred in 1999, at the tail end of 1999, so that was in the 20th century. But the 9/11 attacks and the 2000 election portrayed in a much broader perspective the theme that I was getting at in the book, and it was this ongoing battle in the American family—and in my family as a microcosm of the American family—between individualism and communitiarianism, or the clamoring for individual freedom at the same time that we cling to community life in America. The 2000 election seemed to portray in very vivid relief a country that was so riven with division that arguably neither side won. And you could see a lot of the same themes playing out there, whether we should be emphasizing individual freedoms versus whether we should be emphasizing our social responsibilities for one another. And then in the 9/11 terrorism attacks, you saw this incredible outpouring of patriotism and unity. And so to me, the pairing of the divisive election in 2000 with the outpouring of patriotism and unity just one year later was a very sharp contrast between the divisions that we often confront in our American family and yet this very deep reservoir of common pride, common sense of purpose that we have in America. And so I wanted to explore those ideas, and when I reviewed the history of my parents’ and my grandparents’ immigration and assimilation to this country, it seemed that my family experience had a lot in common with the American experience. And I wanted to tell that story.
BILLY THE BRAIN: Well, that makes sense. And a lot of people who want to explore themes similar to yours, John, look at it more as a generational battle rather than the individualism versus the community. So I want to ask you. Is it generational? I mean, we’ve got the baby boom generation, which is, generationally speaking, the pig in the python as it goes through the normal distribution curve of ages there. Is it more the baby boom generation, and the baby boom generation was brought up in what is known as the “me” seventies, where we were all individuals? Is it more generational—the baby boomers versus the traditionalists—or do you think it is individualism versus community?
GODGES: I think it’s both. You know, when I worked with the immigrant communities around downtown Los Angeles—the Latino, the Armenian, the Russian immigrant communities during the 1990s—I met a lot of families, and I saw very familiar expressions in the faces of these immigrant communities. They reminded me a lot of my own Italian and Polish parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. I could see a similar immigration saga starting all over again a century later. So that would suggest that there is this recurring pattern, you might say a recurring infusion of fresh energy into our country that keeps America dynamic. Now it would be very interesting if some of the immigrants who are arriving today, if their descendants, their children and grandchildren, follow similar paths that have occurred in my family over the past century of our experience in this country.
BILLY THE BRAIN: Well, you tell an amusing story in your book about sitting around the table, and people were sort of dissecting the family, what characteristics come from this side of the family, what characteristics come from that side of the family. And you as a six-year-old, you piped up because you needed to know your identity there, and you asked them, “What are my characteristics? Where do I come from?” And you were the first one that they characterized as an American.
GODGES: That’s right.
BILLY THE BRAIN: And so here you are, you’re second generation there. Isn’t it also true in most families that the second and by far the third generation are Americanized at that point, they’ve lost many of the traits of the traditional family from which they came?
GODGES: You know, it could be true, but when I was studying the Italian language in college, I remember my Italian professor saying it’s very interesting that the second generation has this need to assimilate, but by the time the third generation comes along, there is this interest in where they came from. They want to relearn, in many cases, the language of their forebears. They want to reconnect with their cultural identity in addition to their American identity. So I think it’s a tug-of-war that goes on. I would hesitate to generalize, though, to say that by the time the third generation comes along, we’ve lost our traditions. I think that there are other ways that the traditions are passed on and are carried on. And maybe one of the most influential ways that those traditions are passed on is our faith tradition. Regardless of what our religious backgrounds are, the faith tradition is a source of community identity and community integrity, especially around the times of the holidays. It sort of hearkens back to where we come from, the types of things that gave us meaning as children, and the types of traditions that we do want to pass down to our children. One of the things that makes America so fascinating is that we have this intermingling of all of these different traditions. And ideally, I would like to think, you know, when I put my rose-colored glasses on sometimes, I would to think that all of us could learn from each other’s traditions and strengthen our own at the same time.
BILLY THE BRAIN: Ah, well said. We’re talking to John Godges, everybody, author of the book Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century. And, John, one of the precepts of your book is that, in the end, the American family is bigger than any ideology or social movement. And what is it, in your view, about the American family that permits the acceptance, the forgiveness, despite these divergent paths that so many of your family members took in the book?
GODGES: Well, I think that it is a constant struggle to make sure that we can move beyond our differences toward reconciliation. What is it about the American experience that allows us the opportunity to retain the best of both our individualistic impulses and our communitarian values? I think that it comes from each of us, individually, discovering how we can contribute, in our own unique and peculiar ways, to the greater common good. If I were to define what being an American is, it would mean discovering yourself as an individual but in the context of the community. It would be maintaining that paradox. And sometimes, it would require us to sacrifice. It would require us to clip our wings for the sake of others. But ultimately, I think we find our greatest meaning and our greatest joy in life when we can find our places as unique, contributing individuals, toward something greater than ourselves. And that’s where the excitement and dynamism of America come in, because it’s a constantly refreshing and hopeful opportunity to make the best of those conflicting forces.
BILLY THE BRAIN: Well, you certainly bring up some conflicting forces with the characters in your family and in your book. I mean, you weave together really disparate family members, including immigrant laborers, religious conservatives, gays and lesbians, athletes, hippies, veterans, everything. But in the end, the least among them shall lead. And it was interesting that you chose a mentally ill character in your book as the unifying force in the story. Why?
GODGES: Oh, I’m so glad you brought that up, Billy. My sister, from the age of 13, has been battling with paranoid schizophrenia. And this is our closest and most lasting connection to Ventura County, in fact, because she resided for a short while at Camarillo State Mental Hospital there, before it became Cal State Channel Islands. I think that if it weren’t for my sister Geri, my family would have probably split apart and gone their own separate ways a long, long time ago. But I think that, from the very beginning, we were blessed with having her in our family, because she taught us, from day one, the importance of learning to love someone whom, at first, you can understand the least. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that my sister Geri, who has been battling this mental illness now for about 40 years, I believe that she is the one who has taught us how to love one another. I think that is the heart and soul of the book. You know, there’s an awful lot of intolerance in our society against those who are mentally ill. But here is this woman, who is the single most important reason why we have remained united and indivisible as a family. That’s my fervent belief. And I’m hoping that one of the things my book can accomplish is that it could reduce the horrible stigma that we still see against those in our society who are suffering with mental illness.
BILLY THE BRAIN: Well, I can hear the emotion in your voice, John, when you talk about that. And I think anybody who does pick up your book and read it will get that sense and overcome the stigma, just by reading about the powerful character of your sister Geri. We’ve been talking to John Godges, everybody, author of the book Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century. John, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. We’ll talk to you down the road.
GODGES: Fantastic. Honor to be on your show, Billy.
BILLY THE BRAIN: Thank you so much for being our guest.
GODGES: All right, bye-bye.