"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 23, 2021

Nature, Nurture, And Identity–Felicia Cabot’s Troubled Journey From Appalachia To Park Avenue

Felicia Cabot (nee Loretta Fowler) was born to a poor, hungry family in a West Virginia holler until she was ‘found’.  A wealthy Washingtonian who summered in a cabin on the top of the mountain in the hollow of which Sandra was born and grew up saw her, bought her, adopted her, and gave her privilege, taste, and access to the best that his world had to offer.

His was an act of charity and compassion, but as the girl grew up, he developed an intimate attachment to her.  How could he ignore the fact that she had become one of the most beautiful girls of the Junior League, the most beautiful ever to have come out at the Chevy Chase Cotillion?  He would part with her with difficulty and regret once the time came for her marriage.

Image result for images poor families hollers west virginia

She knew little of her heritage.  It was not that her adoptive father wanted to keep anything from her; it was only that her adopted world was so far from the dark, wet, porches of her parentage that he saw no point.  Whenever they went to Bannockburn, the name that Arthur Cabot had given to their elaborate Falling Water-style natural ‘cabin’ retreat in the mountains, he never mentioned that she had been born not twenty miles away, down in Ridder’s Hollow, and that her parents were quite happy to give up their tenth child for ‘adoption’, a sale for $10,000 to the Cabots.

It was not exactly regulation, this transfer, but suitable and acceptable to both parties.  The Fowlers, Loretta’s biological parents, had reached their tolerable end – photos of them resembled the worst Depression portraits of barefoot and poor Okies and Hillbillies – and they were quite happy that Mr. Cabot had offered such a generous price and an unparalleled opportunity for their daughter.

Image result for images great us depression 30s

Arthur was unsure how to break the news to her of her adoption, especially since their summer home was so near that of her parents.  “It’s so gloomy down here”, Felicia once said as they walked the trails of Dolly Sods Wilderness, a wet, dark, morose place visited by few. 

 “Let’s leave”, she said, and leave they did for the highlands of their summer cabin overlooking the Wilderness and the hollers to the west.  As she and her Cabot family wound their way up and down the hills, valleys, and hollows of West Virginia to get to their mountaintop retreat and as she looked out at the loose-boarded cabins, falling-down porches, old chassis and refrigerators, chickens, and overalls, she asked her father, “Why?”

Image result for images dismal wv hollers

“They have no other place to go”, he said, and feeling it was time to reveal his daughter’s past, told her everything.

Of course the young girl, grown to be dismissive of the poor shacks and lives of the hollers they passed through on their way to Bannockburn, was nonplussed.  “I am from here?”, she asked querulously.  “From here?” .

Nature-Nurture has been an item of intellectual interest since Darwin.  In this age of easy genetic testing and open DNA records, Nature has gained currency.  “What have I inherited from my real parents?”,  Felicia/Loretta wondered; and what have I acquired from my adoptive ones?

She obsessively read volumes of West Virginia history, Depression era economics, and Robber Baron era laissez-faire capitalism.  She was the biological heir of the holler and the adoptive heir to privilege and prosperity but as she moved up in society, through cotillions, teas, and charity events; as she summered on the Vineyard and skied at Gstaad, she felt a grainy dissatisfaction, a feeling of personal incoherence.  This all might have been part of the zeitgeist – an era of revelation and identity, DNA, parentage, and family history – one which, in its determination to unearth the truth valued it a priori but she couldn’t be sure.

A recent Harvard professor set out to determine the genetic origins of well-known black athletes and entertainers, and in a televised series recorded their reactions to his findings.  While most were pleased to learn of their Ibo, Wolof, or Lingala heritage, most were not at all happy to learn how much white blood they had.  

Not only had one Simon Legree taken advantage of their slave forbears, but many had over many generations.  In fact in the case of one movie star, despite his dark skin, he should have called himself white.  

The point was that race trumped all; and that the generations of blacks, whites, and Indians who contributed talent, character, physical and mental ability to the double helix of their descendants meant little.  The environment in which they prospered, that particular configuration of political freedom, economic opportunity, and market forces - Nurture- was valued even less.  Men who considered themselves black and had identified with black culture, image, and victimhood now had to face the reality that they weren’t so black after all, that the white man whom they had vilified may have given them many of his European genes, the genes of high culture and empire.  

Rather than take their genetic potpourri as a given – a randomly assembled but essential part of their nature and one which should have put race, racial identity, and racial politics aside – they ignored it.  They had chosen the facile and unfortunate monicker of racial simplicity.

The professor’s findings should have been an important step in the promotion of racial understanding; but it did just the opposite.  His subjects cherry-picked.  They chose the few drops of Ibo royalty over the many of English cavaliers.  They were black and proud, and nothing would change that.

Felicia needed no DNA testing to identify her origins.  She  knew she was holler born and could not rid herself of the depressing images of her West Virginia lineage.  As much as she had become the child of her adoptive parents – wealthy, progressive, tolerant, and charitable – she could not help thinking that the bitter vengefulness, spite, and murderous feuds of the hollers and mountains were what defined her.  

At every sign of her own callousness, intemperance, or thoughtless criticism, she felt Fallow blood not Cabot.  She was like the black men in Professor Charmain’s cohort group who made what they wanted of the results, not what the results themselves indicated.  

Because of the historical prejudice leveled at hillbillies, crackers, and mountain men, she focused on them and the worst aspects of a marginalized, inbred, and isolated clan.  She was neither interested in their Scots Irish origins, their European and Roman ancient past, nor the influences of her adoptive parents.  She was holler by nature.

Image result for Harvard Logo. Size: 116 x 100. Source: 1000logos.net

As a result she came to resent her Cabot parents – her illegitimate parents she believed – and rebelled against everything they stood for.  She dressed down, ate poorly, affected an Appalachian accent, and became a caricature of her biological parents.  

The Fowlers, who insisted by contract and law that they should remain anonymous and never discovered by their daughter – were nothing of the kind.  While they were poor, destitute, and hopeless, they were strong, spiritual, correct, and good.  Ignorance, lack of education, and social contact were not their choice, but their fate.  Barton Fowler was a highly intelligent man whose intelligence – his nature – was a poor match for the overwhelming circumstance of his environment, nurture.  

He was certainly more intelligent than Arthur Cabot.  He was perhaps not a Ramanujan, the Tamil genius who solved historically complex mathematical problems on instinct and insight alone; but scraps of his brilliant mathematical abstractions were found in a moldy box in the tool shed.  Felicia could not have known this, but susceptible to the pernicious identity politics of the time, she never even supposed it could be true.  And rather than be proud of her biological inheritance – as identity politics required of her – she was dismissive, petulant, and scornful of it.

She had indeed inherited her father’s intelligence and her mother’s steadfastness and spiritual courage, and like it or not had become a sophisticated women of culture and breeding thanks to the Cabots.  It took her years to sort all of this out, to accept herself for what and who she was regardless of origin or influence, to be neither poor white nor wealthy, Park Avenue sophisticate. 

She was often ragged and disconsolate because answers did not come easily.  The holler was hard to ignore and the solicitous, loving involvement of her adoptive parents was comforting. Unfortunately Felicia was coming of age during the corrosive identity politics of the time and it was hard for a young person to ignore its dismissiveness of personal integrity and worth and contrary insistence on racial and ethnic markers.

Happily, nature and nurture both engaged at the right time.  Her intelligence, native confidence, and rationality – wherever these traits came from – saw her through.  She prospered and lived well.  She summered on Nantucket, skied in Aspen, shied away from the Cabot family retreat in the mountains, but was not shy about visiting; and all in all was her own woman.  A success story by any definition.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.