the farmer's wife

Men and Women In Crisis: The Journey to Harvest by Terrence Real

At first glance, the relationship between Darrel and Juanita seems as archetypally traditional as the landscape which shapes them. Poor farmers, they work hard, scratching for a living. Fighting the odds, early frost, the FHA, to whom they are, in effect, indentured, they pull in harness in the age old ways. He "pushes steel" all day to make ends meet and farms at night by floodlight. She holds the family together, cooking, cleaning, caring for their daughters. But even here, in the heart of the heartland, the changes that have laid claim to the American marriage can not be evaded.

When Darrel visits his grief upon his wife he partakes of the traditional prerogative of manhood. In his rage, he behaves no differently than thousands of husbands before him. But Juanita is no longer a traditional wife. Juanita keeps the books, handles their creditors, restructures their loans with the FHA. Initially, Darrel resents such incursions into his patriarchal domain. But, fighting exhaustion and acknowledging her skill, he soon responds with relief, even dependency. Darrel's parents, "don't understand," and don't approve. Juanita earns money off the farm, too, cleaning other people's houses, work which debases her and threatens her husband.

"He just feels so low about himself," she muses, "it makes him nervous to think of me in those nice homes, what they have and all."

Darrel gets more anxious still when Juanita takes courses toward an associate's degree. His jealousy stands in direct proportion to the relentless shame of their poverty, the grinding message that they are incompetent, shirkers, losers. Moving beneath first impressions, we are soon pierced by this couple's daily struggle against humiliation, defeat, despair. One of the best in the herd is killed by freak lightning. In a scene both chilling and banal, Darrel, his body small against the black sky, grunts and heaves, winching the carcass into a truck. A frozen leg shears off, the carcass falls, and Darrel slumps, bloody foreleg in hand, suddenly overwhelmed. Then, Sisyphus-like, he stoops low and begins heaving the body back up again. You wonder, watching, what stops this man from just lying down in the snow beside his dead cow.

But Darrel and Juanita are stubborn. And, beyond that, they're smart. Smart enough to adapt. Juanita pushes toward her degree; she gets an office job which brings her more money, and, even better, respite, stimulation. Darrel faces up to his stern father, winning the land he is owed, if not his father's approval. Their yield the next year is far richer than Darrel had hoped for. Creditors get paid; the couple squeaks through to hopefulness.

And then an odd thing happens - their relationship falls apart. Throughout the documentary, both Darrel and Juanita speak of Darrel's rage, but, even in this most intimate portrait, we viewers don't see it. Only once do we catch a glimpse of the rawness of his fury.

Sitting together at their kitchen table, Darrel speaks to the FHA officer. Miraculously, Juanita has persuaded all of their creditors to agree to terms, except for one final debt of a hundred dollars. "So, we're okay?" asks Darrel. "We're out of the woods?" Well, the bureaucrat tells him, the government could still close down their operation for that hundred dollars. This proves too much for Darrel. Hanging up the phone, he launches into a frightening tirade. "Wouldn't it feel nice to just squeeze that man's neck and watch his eyeballs explode?" he presses Juanita. "Wouldn't it?" Juanita bows her head, turns away. "I'd like to put that man's neck in a noose, set him on a horse and have him hear me say, 'Giddyup.' Just like he loves to say it to us. 'Giddyup' Let him hear that! 'Giddyup'" It's an apt description of his own position, and we empathize with his helplessness. But this blast of hatred washes over Juanita like a bad tide. She looks beaten, disapproving, and scared.

Why does Darrel's rage, barely contained throughout, break open just as things begin to improve? Why do suicides most often occur as someone comes up from depression? Why do revolutions erupt when conditions first turn for the better? It's as if, after so many years of battling wave after wave of bad fortune and hardship, Darrel is finally free to unleash his pent-up fury on the one closest at hand. He is not alone.

Relations between men and women are in trouble in this culture, whether one looks at the epidemic of violence men level against women, or the alarming fifty percent divorce rate that has been stable for the last three decades, or the chronic anger and disappointment that marks many of those marriages which remain "intact," or even our current national debacle of deceit and infidelity. Darrel and Juanita show us that patriarchy just doesn't play anymore, not even here in rural Nebraska. The crisis between men and women boils down to a simple historical fact - women have changed and men have not.

When Darrel visits his grief upon his wife he partakes of the traditional prerogative of manhood. In his rage, he behaves no differently than thousands of husbands before him. But Juanita is no longer a traditional wife. Unlike women a generation ago, who would most likely have stood for it, albeit miserably, she packs up the kids and leaves. In this, as in so many of the changes we see in this couple, it is Juanita who takes the lead. With the influx of women into the workforce, with greater educational opportunities, with a generation raised after the birth of the Woman's Movement, the traditional roles of man-the-breadwinner, woman-the-caretaker are fracturing. And so are many relationships. Seventy percent of divorces are instituted by women. Why are more women leaving their marriages? Because, like Juanita, they can. They have the resources, both external and internal, to stand on their own.

Across the nation, women are demanding of men levels of responsibility, sensitivity, and connectedness that were unheard of in Darrel's father's generation. Is this a crisis? Absolutely. Ask Darrel. Is it bad? I don't think so. One of the paradoxes of healthy intimacy is that sustained connection rests on our capacity to put our relationship at risk from time to time. Slaves do not make loving partners.

"The thought of loosing my wife and my children shook me up, " Darrel tells us, characteristically understated. "I saw how I was behaving. I wasn't going to let that happen."

As we've seen so many times in the documentary, Darrel adapts. He gets himself into counseling, joins a group "full of court mandated wife beaters and so on. I wasn't like that, but I did come to realize that I was doing damage, whether it was physical or not." Darrel moves past his jealousy to deeply support his wife in her ambitions, he evens out his obsession with farming in order to spend some extra time with the kids. He makes a conscious, deliberate effort to express his love. All terra nova, all acts of courage.

"If a man doesn't have the balls to stand up and face his own problems, what kind of man is he?" he reflects, a thought I will quote to the clients I work with in therapy for years to come. "When I was growing up," Darrel goes on, "everything was the harvest. It was all for the harvest. But, what I've come to realize is that if you don't set back and take care of your family, there ain't gonna be any harvest."

I think Darrel and Juanita threw themselves into crisis the minute they could afford to. Able to breathe a bit after years of hard struggle, Darrel now climbs down off his combine to help Juanita fold laundry and spend some time with his girls. Darrel's father doesn't understand how his son can put off farming for "inside work," but Darrel doesn't care. About his Dad, Darrel tells us, "He probably could use counseling more than anyone else in Nebraska!"

Here in Massachusetts, I struggle with deadlines and angry patients, not livestock and creditors. My nights are plagued with computer meltdowns, not stalled tractors. But the centripetal pull away from closeness with my wife is not so different as one might first think - her anger and burden, my drivenness at work, my privilege to lash out when I feel helpless or small. The sullen, depressed, or bewildered men dragged into my office by stressed out wives are more likely to arrive in Volvo station wagons than in old Chevy trucks, but the lessons here are no different than Darrel's. If he can do it, maybe I can do it. Maybe we can do it. What choice is there, really?


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