It was August 12th, and I was driving through the desert to the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation in Fallon, Nevada, to see a family who had been ordered to receive family therapy by the county child protective services agency. It seemed fitting to be driving in the desert where the temperatures soared above 100 degrees, and the tattered houses of the reservation sat baking in the sun, unprotected by trees, and surrounded only by the dry, cracked earth. It felt dead, the grieving land and its people having given up the fight, the result of generations of white colonization and genocide. As a white female therapist, I felt like a charlatan, the otherizer, the colonizer, going into the homes of families tattered by hundreds of years of white oppression to “do therapy,” knowing all the while that I was a perpetrator simply by virtue of the fact that my ancestors were perpetrators, and I have to take personal responsibility for that.
I felt ridiculous pretending it was perfectly appropriate for me now be the comforter and advocate for families who really wanted nothing to do with me or the social services systems that they had come to fear. I was not at all surprised at their reluctance to engage, their arms folded across their chests and their eyes cast downward as I walked toward their front doors.
On the way across the dusty, parched desert, I was overcome by an errant urge to get the lawn mowed and to make sure the yard was cleaned up at my house in Sierraville. Maybe it was the desert’s way of distracting me from the reality of its starvation. Maybe it was hearing the news on NPR that this was an opportune time to buy a house, with so many in foreclosure or sold in short-sales. I wanted to avoid foreclosure, and continued to nourish the fantasy that I might actually live in my house again. I didn’t want someone to buy it because I had failed to care for it, the way one would care for a beloved grandmother. I called my neighbor Sara, whose mother-in-law once owned my house.
“Such a tragedy,” she said when she heard the latest on my story about what was happening (or not happening) with the insurance company and the Bank of America. “The house looks so abandoned now.” A wave of shame and guilt engulfed me.
“How high is the grass?” I asked.
“Probably about knee high. All the trees you planted are growing like crazy. It’s exactly how you imagined it; keeps all the noise down from the highway.”
She reminded me that LaVerne still cut grass for people on his riding lawnmower and gave me his number. I called him immediately and asked him if he could go over and cut the grass and that I would pay him to cut the backyard and edge everything.
LaVerne asked me if I had seen the local papers, of which there were two in Sierra County. When I said I had not, he told me that he had seen a notice in the legal section that the bank was going to auction my house on August 19th on the courthouse steps.
I pulled over to the side of the road, shocked and desperate for some kind of clarity. I called the foreclosure department to inquire about the validity of this news, which they affirmed after I spent a half hour on hold listening to the canned music and the cheery message about how BAC’s Home Retention “team” was ready and anxious to help homeowners retain their homes. I spoke to a woman who said without any emotion in her tone that BAC was indeed planning to auction the house on August 19th. When I asked whether the bank intended to inform me, she told me they were under no legal obligation to inform me of their intention to auction the house since it was in foreclosure status.
“But what’s the point of going through all the trouble of doing a loan modification if your intent is to auction it anyway?” I asked. The woman answered, “Are you living in the home?” Exasperated, I told her I was not because the home was uninhabitable. I then launched into the story of what happened with the pipe bursting and the insurance company dragging its feet on making a determination about coverage for the damage for what must have been the 50th time. I also told her I wondered why an insurance company the Bank of America was paying was doing absolutely nothing to make the needed repairs to the house.
She was impotent in being able to answer this question and was not interested in taking any action, as every one of the dozens of Bank of America representatives I had spoken to over the previous months had been. She simply said, “Well, we are under no legal obligation to inform you of our intent to auction the property. Loan modification reviews do not prevent foreclosure.”
The powerlessness and desperation of losing one’s home, especially when the intention was to try everything to prevent it, was overwhelming. It seemed so fitting that I was on the borderlands of a dry piece of Nevada that had been “reserved” for the Paiute-Shoshone tribes-people. The roads were half dirt and half eroded asphalt pitted with potholes, and there were few trees and no gardens or greenery around the rundown shacks and trailers. Dirty mutts tied up with dirty ropes barked inside yards fenced with chain-link or chicken wire, and dirty children played in the dirt yards. Once they had this land where they could grow their food and hunt game instead of going to Wal-Mart and buying cheap food loaded with fat, sugar, and salt. Once they celebrated the rising and setting of the sun with rituals of chanting and dancing instead of spending the days watching television and drinking cheap beer with the curtains drawn—and the nights become the days and the days become endless nights.
As I pulled onto the dusty road of the family’s home where I was expected to offer family therapy for a full two hours, I swallowed back tears. My pen exploded, leaving blotches of black ink on my hands and clothing, and I was out of tissue. Somehow being in this place at this moment in my life seemed almost poetic; the Native American people whom I was about to serve have suffered hundreds of years of abuse and indifference. As a White woman, I have not even begun to touch that experience. They lost a way of life; I was just losing a house I should not have bought in the first place.
The callousness of the BAC’s corporate mentality and their willingness to do whatever they needed to do to protect their assets were literally heart-stopping, but they pale in comparison to the violence, abuse, and genocide the Indigenous People have experienced at the hands of hegemonic White colonizers. I entered the home with this in mind and was grateful to be able to be fully present for this family. As a depth psychotherapist, I have become more aware that when I have a heart-opening or heart-wrenching experience, it often enables me to be more present and more compassionate with those I am trying to serve. I thought of how easy it is to slide into apathy or to create separation when life is good, easier to otherize and dissociate from the consequences of oppression of any kind. In this experience of losing my house as a result of my unwillingness to unpack what was behind my need to spend and consume, I realized how narrow the gap is between plenty and poverty.
I let it all go in the two hours I spent with this family whose struggle was the direct outcome of generations of colonization with its silencing, deception, betrayal, and genocide in the name of a Christian god they had been told would replace all those silly gods they’d used as their guides for many thousands of years. It was God that told white people to assume that anyone who did not believe in Him or refused to be indoctrinated should be tortured into accepting the Lord as the light and the way to Heaven, and if that didn’t work on the more resistant indigenous people, God instructed the colonizers to exterminate them. And now, many reservations had cinderblock buildings painted white where all the surviving indigenous people could go and be saved by the God who had instructed their predators to kill. If that isn’t collusion with one’s abuser, I don’t know what is.
I let the house go. I let my self-pity go. The house held me like a child in its mother’s arms in a time when I needed shelter. Now it would go to someone who could restore it, and that was something to rejoice about. I could at last cease my endless chest compressions and resuscitative efforts to revive her.
I was grateful to be invited to sit on the sagging sofa inside the modular home of this family. The girl looked at me through her beautiful black eyes that snapped with anger, yet were filled with tears.
I knew that my time with this family would do very little to improve their functioning as a family, but I decided that it did not matter as much as just giving them an experience of therapy that was loving and genuinely appreciative of their situation. I dared to open a conversation about my Whiteness and about their ancestry. I invited them to tell me about their ancestry and how they ended up in this bereft piece of desert. As the conversation wandered through the generations, the arms unfolded and the eyes softened on both sides of the wound, the rift created by so much killing and torture over so many hundreds of years. The youngest girl’s eyebrows furrowed and she looked down at her sandals.
“I don’t want counseling; I want to go swimming,” she mumbled.
“I don’t blame you,” I said. “I promise I won’t take too long.”
When I arrived, she looked at me with angry eyes, black and shimmering with tears. When I left, she asked me when I was coming back.