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Autobiography via Screaming

by Marianne Chan

My family saw a therapist. We’re screaming too much, my brother said. My brother
was fourteen and sad. On the drive home, my mother complained: We don’t have
this kind of sadness in the Philippines.

The therapist told us: When you’re mad, count to ten. Go to the other room. Cool
down before you say anything. I remember at the time thinking that this would
result in artificial expressions of our emotions, that screaming was the more
honest mode. If you’re mad, scream, I thought. But I was wrong, I understand now.
Screaming was too loud. It drowned out all complexity. While screaming, we
would, momentarily, not hear ourselves love one another.

In the competition between screaming and singing, most people would consider
singing the superior vocalization. Singing is more controlled and often beautiful,
while screaming is uncontrolled and often abrasive. Sometimes at home in Biddle
City my mother would scream, not sing, into the karaoke microphone, I want to
dance with somebody! I want to feel the heat with somebody! Her voice reaching the
garden outside, making the tulips in our neighbor’s lawns shrivel in fear. Even as
a child, however, I never interpreted this as anger. I knew that this screaming was
joy, despite it all.

At church, the priest screamed: Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us! I asked my dad, Why is he mad? My dad said, He isn’t mad, he’s
just praying. I learned then that prayer, like screaming, can change in form and
substance. It can be quiet or loud, private or communal. Like in Romans 8:23, the
spirit contains groanings too deep for words. Which I think means: the spirit must
sometimes scream.

Dogs love to scream at the screaming. We don’t call a howl or bark a scream, but
what else is it other than loud speech, expressing joy, fear, or pain? My childhood
dog Whimpy would rarely make a noise. He was trained by his previous guardians
to be quiet and obedient. But on the occasion when people screamed around him,
he would scream back, as if to add his opinion to the conversation. Awoo! he’d say,
Awoo! And this would replace the screams with laughter.

When my Uncle Fabian died, I received a phone call from my mother. A long,
aching sound. It was not the crying I’d heard from her before, the demure croak in
her voice that emerged sometimes while telling a story about her childhood. Her
voice—in grief at the loss of her brother—was the engine of a great machine, low,
murky, guttural: the spirit groaning.

In high school, I was a theatre kid, which meant I was a new member of the
sexually active. I asked my friends why people always screamed during sex in
the movies. I found it as false as screaming on a roller coaster: You don’t have to
do it. It’s not like you didn’t see the drop coming! My best friend Phil replied, It just
feels better when you scream! Oooh! Oooh! His eyes rolling in his head. At the
time, physical expression for us preceded internal emotion. In the plays we were
in, we could make ourselves sad by crying. We could make ourselves angry by
slapping the air around us. We could make ourselves excited by kicking our feet
and screaming: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8!

After watching my plays, my father commented on the strength and loudness of
my voice. I resented this, as I wanted him to remark on my performance. And
yet, perhaps, he believed that there was power in loudness. Playing alone in my
room, my father would call to me to ask if I was okay and to yell I love you. While
screams can obscure true emotions, it can also carry them a long way and for long
periods of time, all the way to the back of the auditorium, all the way to the ears
of someone who needed to know what it was you felt, what it was you had to say.

Last year, I wrote a series of longer prose poems with the word “Autobiography” in their titles: “Autobiography via Screaming,” “Autobiography via Forgetting,” “Autobiography via Revision,” and so on. Each section of these poems focuses on an experience I had that is related to the poems’ theme. In “Autobiography via Screaming,” my goal was to explore the different types of screams I’d known in my life, as well as the nature of screaming. So, this poem looks at family fights, loud dogs, karaoke, theatre warm-ups, grief, and affection. A mentor called this piece a “variations on a theme” poem, which I think is accurate. I love constraints, so focusing on one theme, image, or type of experience and looking it at from various angles was generative for me, and I learned a lot from the process.

Marianne Chan grew up in Stuttgart, Germany, and Lansing, Michigan. She is the author of All Heathens from Sarabande Books (2020). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, Michigan Quarterly ReviewThe Cincinnati Review, The Rumpus, West Branch, and elsewhere. Chan is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.