Freezing and Thawing

Grief. Such a difficult problem for public officials. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, police officers are all acting in roles they are finding difficult to perform. It is not easy to comfort a woman who has lost her children; it produces a glazed and inhibited look; the public face of compassion sculptured in stone is grim, opaque, immovable. Second husbands are finding it hard too. They need help. Religion offers much but delivers only a little: a fanatical Christian unable to prevent his alcoholic wife from returning to the bottle when her nerves overcome her redemptive aspirations.

These men are struggling to communicate. Their feelings are not commensurate with their ideas (of public service, of loss, of addiction, of religious enthusiasm). Officials trying to show solicitude to a dead man’s relatives invariably produce a mismatch of idea and feeling; the idea of compassion cannot meet the emotional expectations of the bereaved, whose anguish it does not share. Disappointment is certain. These professionals unable to respond in kind; and yet they must show sympathy, reacting with self-conscious words and gestures that only emphasise the lack of instinctive response. It is obvious to the onlooker. Obvious to the relatives. The difficulties are revealed in fixed stares, stony countenances, a miser’s carefulness with words - these officials must not expose the emotional vacuum inside themselves. They act the part; but they are amateurs who are trained to control not cultivate their emotions. Professional restraint is a barrier that cannot be crossed. In order to serve the victim they must submit themselves to ideas that generate social discipline and civility; inevitably this inhibits their emotional effectiveness. Representing sympathy through quiet gestures that are often feeble and uncertain they convey an atmosphere of helplessness; low voices, a respectable distance, the religious silence making them abject before a suffering that is beyond them in this place at this time. Oh to escape such scenes! An over-willingness to help betrays these characters; a nurse wishing to lose herself in activity eagerly searches for the deceased belongings; her rigid manner relaxing as she quickly walks away, to talk to a colleague who is carelessly unaware of Lee’s presence. It is not natural to play this role. Yet they try so hard, these public men and women. 

They need help; the bereaved expected to understand the restraints and accept the civility it breeds; all aware that emotions are to be controlled and suppressed until the doctors and lawyers leave the room. Lee Chandler won’t play this game. Catatonic with pain he refuses to make the little concessions, those small artifices, which by camouflaging the official reality allows these meetings to be bearable, even pleasant. The conventions of public life are nothing. No roles for him. He exists only, inside a sealed block of inarticulate feeling. His body is a coffin.

The undertaker has a novel solution to the problem: he acts the tragic role at every funeral. This creates its own difficulties: “doesn’t he realise that we know he does this every time?” says Patrick, as they leave the premises. Perhaps so. But nothing works perfectly. Confronted with Lee’s unresponsiveness even the nurse can’t get her reactions right; dressed like a man - it is the gender neutral uniform of public service - she behaves like her male colleagues, self-consciously refrigerating her emotions to reveal her uneasiness. The teacher is bolder. He freely approaches Patrick and his uncle Lee. He goes further, trying empathy by telling Patrick that his father died when he was a teenager; and so he understands, “so, please, come to me if you want to speak to someone, to open up.” Kindly meant the teacher’s words lack the nuance of an emotional sympathy that exists only when you share same feelings as the victim, now this minute, at this moment. No one weeps over ancient history.

Is private life different? It is more complicated.

Patrick is all feeling, and this takes many forms. Anger comes first. Then he is withdrawn; travelling in the car with his taciturn uncle he is a passive participant in an administrative round of hospital, undertaker and lawyer. Back home and wanting company he invites friends over; at first the atmosphere is uncomfortable, but quickly there are stories, jokes and laughter until Patrick’s girlfriend makes them self-conscious: “to think we are talking about Star Trek after what’s happened.” Sharon, it is clear, is destined for public office. Later she sleeps with Patrick, who needs both companionship and sexual pleasure, the latter arising naturally out of an excess of feeling. Feelings. They are quicksilver, easily diverted by a joke, a scene; by another person’s presence, the closer the more intense and changeable, metamorphosing in a split-second. Sharon, though feeling greatly for Patrick, overdoes it, and shows that the idea - the idea of his grief - is stronger than her emotional sensitivities; she thus exaggerates the pain of her boyfriend, who is now conscious of what he should but is not feeling at this moment in time.

Sandy is Patrick’s other girlfriend. She is very different. But then the relationship is different too; it is just starting out; they are thus closer to friends than lovers, the happiness of burgeoning love creating an atmosphere of spontaneous joy that overwhelming Patrick’s grief obliterates all thoughts of death, of loss. Patrick is thinking only about how to get inside Sandy’s knickers; while Sandy is searching for ways to avoid her over-protective mom… Ordinary teenagers experiencing the usual contingencies of typical adolescent days. Sandy is completely genuine feeling. She tells Patrick straight, “get your hand out of my cunt”, before stripping her jeans off, to get down to the serious business of her first fuck. She hugs him with abandonment when leaving the wake. Screams hysterically when he mucks about on the boat. Sandy is spontaneously reacting to events, her feelings are therefore almost identical to Patrick’s, when they’re together. And because they are in love, and that love is fresh, they are both happy (except for those rare times when they are both sad). Contentment is to be with people who share the same feelings as yourself, and who react to the fickleness of the emotions in the same unrestrained and sensitive way. Sandy to last a lot longer in Patrick’s affections than Sharon, we surmise.

It is the small details that set us off. Unable to the close the freezer door Patrick suddenly collapses; the frozen chicken reminding him of his father frozen until the ground is soft enough to dig a grave.

The mistake of outsiders is to believe that the recently dead monopolise the minds of the bereaved. Except for brief moments death is rarely present in their thoughts. Where there is grief little of it concerns the deceased; it is the relatives, former lovers and ex-partners who meeting after many years are reviving feelings long buried or faded away; Randi, horrified by Lee’s mental collapse, is distraught, and blaming herself her ex’s condition finds her old love returning, releasing terrible pain and unhappiness. Patrick’s mother, separated from her son because of alcoholism, cannot cope with the emotions released by their reunion; the rigid self-consciousness of a newly acquired Christian faith not strong enough to hold back the storm of feeling that his presence raises. Getting up from the table, she goes into the kitchen and pours herself the first drink for over a year. A few days later Christianity regains control: the husband sends an email informing Patrick that he can no longer have direct contact with his mother. Patrick breaks down. And receives the first real sympathy from Lee, who up to now has been distant and uncommunicative: a house locked up for the winter.

The corpse in deep freeze hardly exists for these characters. It is the living who make all the impressions.

Lee does think about his dead brother; it is when he speaks to the hospital, the lawyers and the undertaker; but it is a special kind of thought, where the brother is turned into an object, a bureaucratic procedure, a difficult job of work; we think of Lee’s own janitorial role. The officials cause him angst, because they force him to communicate; something he finds extremely difficult, having spent ten years retreating from all meaningful human contact. Talk melts the ice encasing his consciousness; the words accumulating, the water is trickling, the feelings flowing, the pain drips out, drop by drop drop drop. There is to be no escape from this warmer climate. Lee is the executor of his brother’s will. He must look after the house; attend the funeral, speak to George and Randi, meet old friends; Elise of course gets in touch. Then there’s Patrick, whose life, with its wealth and variety of mood, he is forced to share. Ice turning into water, the pain increases…

This ice block is enormous.

Lee, through drunkenness and folly, was responsible for the death of his three girls. First he tried suicide. Then he exiled himself from human affection; working in a minimum wage job as a janitor in the big city, his room a martyr’s cave. It is punishment for his moral crime. Guilt turned into a religion, Lee Chandler has become a fanatic; a saint doing penance for his sins. This is a man trapped inside his thoughts. Two ideas - guilt and his own lousiness - have colonised his mind, removing all feeling and spontaneity. Dead to the world, he goes through the motions of work and life, with no interest in anyone or thing. Insulated against all feeling, any attempt to get close to him produces an angry, violent response. Feelings are the enemy; his body a fortress that sends out arrows, spears and burning oil over the invading armies; a tap on the shoulder enough to light his canon’s fuse. Numbness is better than pain. A shattering event frozen into a fixed idea, which he cannot, doesn't want to get rid of - it is through his guilt that he understands his world, expiates his stupid mistake, keeps his feelings under control.

We see the similarities to Elise and her Christian husband. All three are suppressing their instincts by fixating upon an extremely small range of ideas; Elise, lacking strong belief, easily collapses under emotional pressure, while Joe’s death is forcing Lee to engage with other people, with whom he experiences the complexities and compulsions of feeling. The ice block drip drips.

A warning! Grief and guilt are not the only factors freezing Lee’s mind. His personality is also to blame. Unlike his brother, George, Randi and the rest, Lee has a tendency to believe in ideas; thus his earlier joshing with the young Patrick (in the good ole days before the tragedy) where he talks about having a plan of life. He thinks too much, which, we suspect, is an aspect of an arrested personality; Lee Chandler still the fun-loving adolescent before the fire that took away his family and joie de vivre.

Ideas can be fun. They can excite us, protect us; but they are also dangerous, they are freezing this man to death.

It is a terrible experience when deep-frozen emotions melt. The pain so awful that Lee needs to destroy it; abusing a tenant, smashing his fist through a glass, picking fights in bars. To run away is the best option. Contact cannot be endured; we think of Randi shivering at Lee’s touch when she is stretchered out of the smouldering house. Sharon makes the mistake of holding Lee’s hand: he won’t let her back to share Patrick’s bed. Manchester by the Sea is a risky place for such a character. The familiar surroundings of this pleasant harbour town are warming up our snowman. The people are close here; and impossible to avoid, they are bringing him in from the cold.  Far better the snow-filled streets of Boston - that urban freezer - with its cooler temperatures of anonymity and ascetic routine. He wants to get back there, as quickly he can.

You will be Patrick’s guardian. Joe’s decision is incomprehensible to Lee, who wants desperately to rescind it. We understand it very well. Shortly after the move to Boston Joe visits, and forces Lee to buy new furniture for his room. Joe knows what’s going on. He will not let his brother be another Simon Stylites: this room should be a home not an anchorite’s cell. He wants to cure Lee of these fixed ideas. And so, knowing of his imminent death - he suffers from a degenerating heart complaint - Joe makes Lee his son’s guardian; it will force him into intimate contact with another human being; the relationship to melt through the freezing horrors of the past. The furniture hardly impacted on Lee’s psyche, but this scheme is to have greater effect - human beings warmer than inanimate objects.

Lee offloads the guardianship onto George and his wife. But this takes time, giving time for  Patrick and Lee to bond; the first frosty, alienating interactions softened by proximity into an awareness of each other’s feelings, which though not articulated are felt and thus appreciated; Lee accepting that Patrick must stay in Manchester if he is to be happy and independent; Patrick acquiring insight into Lee’s mentality and the reasons for his emotional catalepsy. 

A relationship has grown up between uncle and nephew, and is to continue. And although Lee will never again be the carefree rascal of his younger self, he will, we are sure, return to humanity; softening just enough to live in comfortable coexistence with human society. The ice blocks melts and melts, but will not disappear entirely. The contrast with Randi is acute: all her old feelings have returned, and she is in despair at the state of Lee; telling him of her continuing love. He cannot reciprocate. He has lived too long with a fixed idea to return to the old freewheeling ways; at best he will enjoy a few lukewarm pleasures, like fishing with Patrick from the back of Joe’s boat. Gone are the wild stories, the horsing around, the jokes; all that fun. Grief has taken away his youth. Lee is like a boy who has skipped middle age to become an old man. Only the old man’s pleasures are left to him now.

(Review: Manchester by the Sea)