"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When I was 18, I found out that my brother (I’ll call him “T”) had been sexually abused for years by a family friend. This friend had been one of our dad’s drinking buddies. He would come over and they would get so sloshed together that this friend would end up spending the night. When it started, “T” was about 8.
It was found out by my mother (divorced from my father) who walked in on two of my other brothers engaged in fellatio. This was when I was 18, the other two brothers were 10 and 12 at the time. My mother called my father … she had somehow connected all the dots already. The police came. “T,” then 16, was questioned. “T” told everyone about how this family friend had been “raping” him for years. The family friend was indicted by a grand jury, and then a few days later shot himself before standing trial. My brother, a minor himself, went into counseling.
My sister, age 8, then came forward and said that “T” had also been molesting her ever since she could remember. Then, my cousin said that he used to come over to her house when her dad wasn’t home and asked if he could be her first kiss. Then, my other brother, age 6, said that he didn’t want to talk about it … and on and on. Minimal, if any therapy, was received by my other siblings. Each of those siblings went on to start drinking and using drugs. My youngest brother started getting high at age 12, and I’ve never seen him sober since. He’s now 25. It seemed that everyone I knew, every young family member, had been affected. My dad drank, but then again that had started way before any of this. Mind you, I once found naked photos of my father with his sister.
Fast-forward to 10 or 12 years later … “T” married a woman he had dated for several years — a woman I don’t like … a woman who seems fine on the outside, but almost as if there’s something stirring underneath … a woman I don’t trust. I was still wrestling with my anger with “T,” my own feelings of worthlessness for not having protected my siblings, and my anger with my dad for just having another cocktail with all of the craziness. On the outside, everyone looks so put together. Everyone laughs, sings, parties together … yet under the surface … well, there’s so much that nobody was saying.
So, I asked “T” if he’d told his wife. He said that was none of my business. I asked if he was considering having children. Again, none of my business. He said that he was actively working on his issues with a therapist, and that he’d never have children if he thought he himself was a threat. That was four or five years ago.
They’ve had two children in the past three years. I still wonder. I still worry. The family continues to go on partying together. Nobody is in therapy, not even “T.” I’ve asked my other siblings about it to the point that I’ve been told to back off. They’re all in their mid- to late 20s now. “T”‘s wife is still passive-aggressive, still has no girlfriends, still makes these horribly mean jabs just under her breath. I take over hand-me-down clothes for her kids that my children have outgrown. I take over housewarming gifts … .all met with the same response. She’s got this insincere kindness upfront, but then I get wind of the gossip … the things I speak in love that get distorted, twisted, turned and then gossiped about. I feel that my brother might be damaged, and I know that a healthy woman doesn’t marry a damaged man … but I just cannot seem to put my finger on it.
I often feel as if my brother is incapable of empathy. Once, when someone called him a narcissist, I looked up the definition of NPD (narcissistic personality disorder), and felt that maybe he might meet that description — always the victim regardless of the situation, incapable of seeing someone else’s point of view, catastrophically damaged at a very young age to the point of fracture. Any relationship I ever try to create with him is completely one-sided. I’m not asked to meet on common ground — it’s his way, period. If I say, “I can’t come to the party,” it’s met with, “Why not … what do you have going on.” They complain about their children never having playmates — how my children should come over so they can play, but yet they’ve chosen to home-school. If I am so important, if they want me around, then why am I not treated with more respect? Plus, I cannot, not even for a minute, take my eyes off my children when we’re around them. I feel like I can’t relax — like my children are in a room full of knives. My husband always comes and he knows the entire story, but still … it gets old. I’d like to say I’ve gotten through my anger, but I’m not so sure. I definitely don’t trust. Maybe who I’m really mad at is my dad.
So, here are my many questions. Is my brother a pedophile? Now that there are children involved, when does it become my responsibility to ask? Do I ask his wife what she knows? I don’t think that his children are in danger today, right at this moment. But, can I trust myself? All of my siblings were damaged while I was unsuspecting.
Since I believe that “T” is not actively seeking recovery from this trauma, I don’t know where he stands. I would think that any question about that should be within limits if he’s truly seeking emotional health, but I’m dealing with someone who acts victimized that I would even ask the question. My fear is that by bringing it up, I would be ostracized to the point that if intervention became necessary, I wouldn’t know it because they would keep so much space between. Should I try, anyway?
And, then there’s questions about my life and my issues. I don’t always know what’s mine and what isn’t. How do I define my relationship with my dad, my brother, my younger siblings. I was also abused … by a neighbor, but my reaction was so very different that I cannot begin to understand “T’s” reaction. I don’t know how to be in the room without addressing the huge elephant, and they seem to want to avoid the elephant at all costs. Do I address it? I don’t know how to resolve this thing with my sister-in-law … do I try?
What do I do?
Let’s say that today is the beginning and today you take the first step in remaking your life by accepting everything that has happened so far. Just accept it. What you have seen and what you know, these things are true. Others in your family may claim that certain things didn’t happen or that they are no big deal or that you are just stirring up trouble or being difficult but you know what you know. These things happened.
You aren’t to blame. There is nothing you could have done to stop these things and there is nothing you can do to change what has happened.
Your job now is to live and move forward.
Maybe that sounds like clichés. It’s just the way things are.
Take a deep breath. Accept what has happened. Then get to work.
Contact RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
Start there. Explain your situation.Through contacting RAINN and social service networks and support groups locally, you can form relationships with professionals and support groups in your area.
Here is my vision for what it would look like long-term:
You would begin a lifelong program of reading and studying how incest affects families and individuals. You would begin talking to others about these issues. Through these activities you would find a knowledgeable ally in the professional social services who would be on call when suspicions arise, crises erupt or dysfunctional behavior becomes dangerous.
After contacting RAINN, also contact the support group for survivors of incest, SIA, Survivors of Incest Anonymous. As you can see, this group has local chapters such as the chapter in Texas and the chapter in New York. Look for a local chapter near where you live; if you can’t find one, then remain in touch via the Internet.
The point of connecting with these groups is to see how events similar to yours have affected others and how they have dealt with it. You need to be around people who understand what you mean when you say, “I don’t always know what’s mine and what isn’t.” To people who haven’t been through what you’ve been through, such a statement may seem curious and baffling; to people who’ve experienced what you have, it is dead-on clear as day. They know exactly what you mean. You need to be around those people to learn how they have coped and to benefit from what they have learned.
This is a long-term thing. Think in terms of decades — 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. It’s a long road. Stresses are going to occur and things are going to break. People with drug and alcohol habits are going to have illnesses and legal troubles; there will be shifting family alliances, scapegoating, periods of silence and “not-talking-to-each-other-ism”; there may be deaths and violence and drug overdoses. You will need a consistent support network to cope with these things as they happen. At times, though you will feel that you are the one who needs the support, you will have to be the rock for others. So you will need others outside the family to be the rock for you. That is how support groups work.
You and your family members are living with deep psychic wounds. If you have the courage to get to know these wounds and accept how they are influencing your life, you can live a life free of shame and full of joy. You can live with this. You can. But you have to look at it with open eyes and confront it with courage every day. Whatever is true and certain, get it out in the open. Whatever you have seen with your own eyes, speak it. Live your life in the open. Speak what you know.
This is a hard story. But it can be transformed. It is not the end of the road. It is just the beginning. You can have a life full of joy.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)