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Rachel-K
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To Prevent Flare Ups

[ Edited ]

Please use any of these observations or questions as a starting point for discussion!

 

Fairly late in the novel, this is the first chapter where we have Benji and Reggie's parents present on Sag Harbor with them. How does the atmosphere change? 

 

Benji, while trying to clean out all evidence of his youthful "nerdiness" comes across a grade-school picture of himself, and is inspired to get  his hair clipped by a friend rather than his father. The gesture, although it seems offhand, is recognized by Benji--and by his father--as being a step toward  independence. His father says, "I was wondering when you were gonna stop having me cut your hair."

 

What are some ways you see Benji alter his identification of himself in this chapter? Does his relationship to his family change? Where is Reggie in all of this?

 

Certainly, if you were in the Western hemisphere and had any hair or clothing between 1970 and 1985 you didn't escape the embarrassment of having fallen into bad hair and/or an excruciating polyester getup, and pictures from an ealier decade can seem totally alien. What is it about seeing ourselves from a new perspective? The teacher who  seemed so ferocious later looks pale and tired in the class photo. The myth of father's perfect haircuts and perfect barbecue fall apart when inspected from any distance.

 

We've now seen a number of family "top" lists. Benji's are "fake smiles," or "family silences." Earlier he described his mother's handwriting with a list of grievances and injustices in her marriage. What are these lists telling us that the adolescent seems to understand but never name outright?

 

If this chapter holds up to light the image this family has shaped for itself, how does reality hold up?


What are some ways each family member tries "to prevent flare ups?"

Message Edited by rkubie on 03-01-2009 11:46 PM
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dhaupt
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

The air feels very charged when the parents come to town. The boys have to be on their p's and q's can't live like slobs etc.

 

I thought that the fact that Benji let his friend cut his hair just shows that he's growing up and taking more of an interest in his appearance. 

 

The reality of their family life was very different than what I expected, I expected a well adjusted and less dysfunctional family. And I guess I say that because in all of their antics I think Reggie and Benji are well adjusted young men. 

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Bonnie824
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

I loved the line "We were the Cosby family, we looked good on paper." It made Benjy's bullying father less of a shock later.

 

His "sending for" his wife, then interrogating her about stupid paper plates, then insulting her and her answering his nasty questions peacefully instead of throwing the plates in the grill made it pretty obvious that she was scared of him and he was abusive without actually showing it.

 

It is interesting that Benjy's focus in this chapter was more about his hair and girls and his friends. His family was just a little blurb in his life.

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nfam
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Registered: ‎01-08-2007
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

This chapter gives a fascinating picture of the inside of a family that looks like the Cosby family from the outside. Everyone copes with the stresses in the family by either ignoring them, or avoiding them. I thought the picture of Benji waking up and trying to decide how long he had to get out of the house before his father's alcohol inuced rage spilled over on to him. 

 

Reggie also avoided flare-ups by being absent. I thought it was sad that he worked extra shifts on the weekends to avoid his father. Equally sad was the haircut scene. Benji wanted recognition from his father and time spent with him so badly that he was willing to put up with a bad haircut just to sit in the chair and be close to his father. 

 

I found this chapter quite tragic. Unfortunately it's not unusual and certainly not restricted to black families. The stresses in many middle class families like this one are very much the same and equally hard for the children to deal with. 

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detailmuse
Posts: 180
Registered: ‎01-24-2008

Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

Great title and symbolism in this chapter. In the end, neither the chicken (famous) nor the family ("good on paper") are very good at all.

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detailmuse
Posts: 180
Registered: ‎01-24-2008

Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

Whitehead builds so much tension in this chapter! Early on, the father’s “Where’s S---head?” was like a punch to the gut -- brutal and surprising, since it came out of nowhere and referenced Reggie, who I didn’t remember seeing in the line of fire before. But yay, Reggie -- his grades may have slipped, but it isn’t because he isn’t smart; heck, he figured out how to avoid his dad by changing all his work shifts.

 

Each tock, thunk, rasp, poomp built more dread, and when Bobby bailed and Benji was stuck in the house, my heart sank. By now we know their household is one of abuse, and it was a great line that even visitors could incite something, while they were there or after they'd left: “The sound of the screen door closing behind them was never much of a relief because you didn’t know what they’d left behind.”

 

But with the build-up over pages and pages, and Benji even seeming to bait his dad by repeatedly switching the TV channel, I honestly expected a bigger blow-up. If this scene was to be representative of how bad it got, why was it a low-level incident? There was abuse -- humiliation, intimidation -- but I was surprised at the lack of physical violence.

 

So I reread it and wonder: is there indeed terrible violence, but it’s off the page -- represented by the TV movie’s violence and the last several entries in the list of silences? But would his mother have gone to the store if she’d been beaten? I can’t decide, and wonder how other readers interpreted this?

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DSaff
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups


detailmuse wrote:

Whitehead builds so much tension in this chapter! Early on, the father’s “Where’s S---head?” was like a punch to the gut -- brutal and surprising, since it came out of nowhere and referenced Reggie, who I didn’t remember seeing in the line of fire before. But yay, Reggie -- his grades may have slipped, but it isn’t because he isn’t smart; heck, he figured out how to avoid his dad by changing all his work shifts.

 

Each tock, thunk, rasp, poomp built more dread, and when Bobby bailed and Benji was stuck in the house, my heart sank. By now we know their household is one of abuse, and it was a great line that even visitors could incite something, while they were there or after they'd left: “The sound of the screen door closing behind them was never much of a relief because you didn’t know what they’d left behind.”

 

But with the build-up over pages and pages, and Benji even seeming to bait his dad by repeatedly switching the TV channel, I honestly expected a bigger blow-up. If this scene was to be representative of how bad it got, why was it a low-level incident? There was abuse -- humiliation, intimidation -- but I was surprised at the lack of physical violence.

 

So I reread it and wonder: is there indeed terrible violence, but it’s off the page -- represented by the TV movie’s violence and the last several entries in the list of silences? But would his mother have gone to the store if she’d been beaten? I can’t decide, and wonder how other readers interpreted this?


 

Like you, I expected Ben's dad to hit either him or his mother. I haven't finished the book yet and am wondering if we will know where all that rage goes.
DonnaS =) " Reading is a means of thinking with another person's mind; it forces you to stretch your own." Charles Scribner
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aprilh
Posts: 424
Registered: ‎09-25-2008

Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

Wow. This chapter made me feel very uneasy.When Benji began counting how many times his dad got a drink, I could feel the tension in the house mounting. It was inevitable that there would be a "flare-up". The house went from being a carefree enivironment to the boys trying to find excuses not to be at home.

Benji described to us the magic that happened to his mother when she came out to Sag Harbor "as the summer went on, she got younger and younger. The sun tanned her skin to a strong, vital brown, and her thin crow's feet disappeared, ushering a twinkle in her eyes." After the dad yelled at her about the paper plates Benji said, "This is how my mother disappeared, word by word. She got older by the second, that magical Sag Harbor effect fading." It's so sad that her husband would treat her like this, making her feel so small and worthless. And how sad for Benji to have to watch his mother's personality disappear with  these harsh words from his father.

I found it interesting that when Benji's father hit him (in the chapter Gangsters) that his mother watched and said nothing. And now that the roles are reversed (his mother getting screamed at by her husband for not getting the right paper plates) Benji sinks deeper into the couch cushions pretending not to hear the fight, saying nothing in her defense. On page 190 he says, "Something happened to my mother in her life that she never defended or protected herself. That she never defended or protected us, when it was our turn. I don't know what is was. I suppose it was the same thing that prevented me from defending and protecting her, once I was old enough." I wonder if Benji and his mother ever felt resentful  about the other one not sticking up for them or if they accepted that you took what was coming (from the father) when it was your turn?

April
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libralady
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

The atmosphere is definitely more tense in this chapter now that Ben and Reggie's parents are in Sag Harbor.  The entire family seems to walk on egg shells around the father.  Except for Reggie, who does everything he can to spend more time out of the house than in. From Ben's descriptions, they find it hard to tell from day to day what kind of mood the father will be in and who/what will trigger that mood.  I thnk this chapter gives us some real insight into the type of man the father really is.  It is obvious that he is a good provider, but it seems that he has a hard time really bonding with his sons.  Maybe this has something to do with the type of childhood he had.

 

Just a word about Ben allowing Clive to cut his hair.  I think we all experience a time when we have to admit to ourselves as well as our parents that it is time to move on. I think Ben may have felt like he was betraying his father by letting someone else in on what had become a family tradition.

"Sow today what you want to reap tomorrow"
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Carmenere_lady
Posts: 529
Registered: ‎11-05-2006

Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

How does the family prevent Benji's dad from flaring up?  Reggie's at work, their mom makes the macaroni salad then goes to the beach and Benji himself minds his p's & q's all along trying to read his dad's next action/reaction to whatever someone says or does.  It's like walking on hot coals (no pun intended).  At last it happens, all because the paper plates are not strong enough..............I think the author does a masterful job shedding light on what a typical day is like in this family's house..............I felt as crushed and defeated as Gail when on p190 we're told........"This was how my mother disappeared, word by word................."  James is happy and cheerful to every Sag Harbor friend that he sets eyes upon, but his family not so.

To top off the chapter Benji's thoughts lead him to thinking ...........p193 "....no one was watching at all.  No one cares about what goes on in other people's houses.............You have a f'd up haircut" and everyone knows you do "But no one says anything."  Then we learn that James' chicken sits in Benji's lap charred and shrunken.  "It's great" Benji says.  I just had to laugh..........was James' cooking skills all that we had first thought?  Was he a lousy cook but just like Benji's haircut and Gail's put downs it was overlooked, not mentioned?

Lynda

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thewanderingjew
Posts: 2,247
Registered: ‎12-18-2007

Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

It became obvious that there was some kind of abuse in the home because everyone walked on eggshells to avoid it. We don't know if it was physical or not, but, it was surely emotional and that can be just as bad. Words can cause a lot of damage.

 

Everyone seemed to live in fear of the dad, his drinking and his verbal abuse. Yet no one said a word about it. It was totally ignored. They each retreated when sparks flew to protect themselves and made no attempt to protect each other.

 

I was disappointed in that behavior. I would have thought they would have tried to help each other out in these situations. Yet they were so glad that they were not the object of his wrath that they tried to become invisible. Self protection was the strongest motivator beating out any altruistic need to help another. Sad...or maybe it is the behavior that is predominant in abusive households.

 

I was also surprised that such a successful man was such a heavy drinker without it having a greater impact on his professional life. There are hints earlier in the book that there were some cracks in the parent's relationships but the alcoholism caught me off guard.

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jholcomb
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Famous chicken

The chicken that's supposed to be so good and turns out to be awful reminds me of a short story I read years ago called "Gooseberries." I think it's Chekhov. It deals with a man who works hard al his life to get a farm with gooseberries like he had when he was a boy. He brags about them and says they're wonderful, but his friend who comes to visit knows they're sour. Grilling seems to be what the dad has going for him.
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canterbear
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

I thought this was one of the best chapters so far.

It gives us background and a real glimpse into Benji's family and what has shaped some of his choices in life and many of his decisions that summer.

I wish we had seen this earlier in the book.

It is more solid.

 
I lived with my grandparents and my grandfather was an alcoholic too.

Our family was similar to Benji's in the respect of not lettting the outside world know what was really happening within the family. Always keeping the 'front' of looking good.

And like Benji, I learned to not ask why...but to observe, to put together the events around me like a puzzle, from the bits and pieces I heard or saw.

 

 

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biljounc63
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups


detailmuse wrote:

Whitehead builds so much tension in this chapter! Early on, the father’s “Where’s S---head?” was like a punch to the gut -- brutal and surprising, since it came out of nowhere and referenced Reggie, who I didn’t remember seeing in the line of fire before. But yay, Reggie -- his grades may have slipped, but it isn’t because he isn’t smart; heck, he figured out how to avoid his dad by changing all his work shifts.


I really surprised that the father allows Reggie to keep his job even though it is summer if it eat eats up so much of his time. The father seemed to not associate the balancing act of school and other activites while keeping his grades up.

This is one family of avoidence. they are going by hopeing that they don't have to see each other at all. The tv seem t be a wall that Benji uses to hide form his parents. 

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libralady
Posts: 159
Registered: ‎09-23-2008

Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

I think Ben and his family deal with the father's "flare ups" the best way they can and that is to try and avoid them.  As children, Ben and Reggie can not confront their father about his behavior.  For whatever reasons, their mother does not stand up to him.  This may be because she is a product of another time, a time when the husband and father ruled the house and the children and wife did as they were told.  I think the reason they do not take up for each other is because they have not openly talked to each other about the problem.

 

I have to say that Colson Whitehead really did a good job with symbolism in this chapter.  This chapter was intense, but I think it was the best one so far.

"Sow today what you want to reap tomorrow"
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Sassy398
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

Benji discovered early on in his family structure, sometimes it was best to be seen

and not heard. Somehow,I can relate to this idea, when growing up children did not

have a voice in any matter, and you absloutely did not disrespect the parents by

any means. Therefore, you kept your opinions to yourself,even though you so badly

wanted to be heard.

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MelissaW
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

I can relate to this as well.  I was brought up to respect my parents and not talk back. 

 

Reflecting on this section of the book, I think that Benji, Reggie and Gail are all practicing their on form of avoidance when it comes to dealing with James' abuse. 

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PinkBaby
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

so true i  knew he  was   bad   when he punched benj in   the face  over the incident in  school.  where this kid said the N WORD. then your right you  knew he was abusive when the paper plate thing happened. his wife was definetly afraid of him.
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fordmg
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Re: To Prevent Flare Ups


dhaupt wrote:

The air feels very charged when the parents come to town. The boys have to be on their p's and q's can't live like slobs etc.

 

The reality of their family life was very different than what I expected, I expected a well adjusted and less dysfunctional family. And I guess I say that because in all of their antics I think Reggie and Benji are well adjusted young men. 


Actually, to some extent all families are a bit dysfunctional.  As children growing up we are used to our own situation, and when we are aware enough to decipher another family's situation, we find that every family is different.  I didn't expect Benji to have a "well adjusted" family, because then there wouldn't be anything to write about.  I think the reference to "The Cosby Family" aludes to the fact that that family just doesn't exist.  Just like "Beaver's" family isn't a reality.   I can immagine the boys scurring around when the parents are coming to try to behave as the parents expect.  The problem is, the parents are gone so much of the time, that maybe the boys forget what is expected of them.  

MG

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chris227
Posts: 111
Registered: ‎12-02-2008

Re: To Prevent Flare Ups

I thought that this was a great chapter!  Benji describes them like the Cosbys, dad is a doctor, mom is a lawyer and then there are three great kids, but that's where the similarities end.  Benji's father is extremely abusive.  The whole family does there best to avoid flare-ups with him and when one person is in the line of fire the other members can relax a little b/c it's not them this time.  The abuse we witness is mostly verbal but I wonder if there is not physical abuse going on as well.  Benji does his best to avoid the neighbors finding out about his father's tirades (shutting all the doors and windows so no one can hear) is he minimalizing and hiding other abuses as well?  I think that the writing in this chapter is wonderfully descriptive.  I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach reading it, hoping that Benji did not get caught in his father's wrath and feeling sorry for his mother as well.  It makes me wonder what goes on in the family's home in NYC during the summer while the boys are away and how much abuse his mother suffers then.  It also makes me wonder if the father's abuse is the reason why Elena seems to stay away from the family now that she is in college.