Monday, April 18, 2016

Enter the antagonist

                                             4. Good with Conflict
                                      From The Far Side of Eden (first post on 4/11, right)                                                        

     GROWING UP, she spent whole summers with her sisters on a lake in northern California and hiked and fished the Eel River with her parents. She witnessed the depredations of logging and the decline of the steelhead, that mysterious, muscular, silvery, seagoing trout that spends most of its life in the deep but returns—briefly, perennially, against great odds—to the headwaters where life began.
     Her name was Chris, and she developed what she would describe as a “sense of nature,” although her existence was primarily urban. She grew up in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, and studied science and psychology at Sacramento State. By the time she was finished with school, she was married to the soft-spoken, accommodating Jack Malan and was the mother of two boys.
     They had moved to Napa in 1978, and Jack had gone from the United States Navy into the county’s health program, as a psychological counselor. Chris went into that line of work, too, to supplement the family income. They bought a piece of property on the flank of Atlas Peak, a rugged, wild promontory in the south of the valley strewn with volcanic rock, and they built a rudimentary house with a carport. It had the feel of an outpost, separated from the road by a long stretch of blacktop and two cattle gates, the first a mechanical device that rose when a button was punched, the second held shut by a piece of chain. Between the two barriers—one to the outside world, the other to the Malans’—cows belonging to a neighbor stared mournfully. No cattle sullied the Malan property, though there were dogs, a mobile home parked on the tarmac, and cars necessary for the relentless commuting that characterized life miles from the nearest store or school.
     Chris had always wanted to work with children. She and her husband took foster children into their home, and as a county counselor she dealt with a range of pathologies mostly manifest in adults but rooted in childhood. Addiction and psychosis were often factors, and child neglect and abuse often the result. This was the dark side of the valley, the antithesis of the shimmering reflection thrown by wine and money, unsuspected or ignored by the tourists and often by those catering to them. Large contributions from the Napa Valley Wine Auction went to hospitals and health services every year, to take care of such problems in scruffy urban neighborhoods far from the vineyards and McMansions and symbolized not by the Wine Auction but by the somber presence of the Napa State Hospital.
     Counseling helped families at their worst, Chris would say when asked why she was drawn to work both difficult and depressing: “I like helping people at the lowest point of their lives.” Some of those years were spent in crisis and psychiatric intervention, working with people who were disturbed and often needed institutionalization. She spent many nights and weekends on the job; often the police were required. She found she was good at dealing with conflict—knowledgeable, committed, physically solid, with full, dark hair and a daunting persistence.
     This could be risky. Once she walked up to a house that had been barricaded by the owner—“a biker, huge, covered with tattoos”—and surrounded by police officers, and Chris said, “Hi, I’m here because some people are worried about your kids." The biker told her the kids were fine, and she told him, “I have to see them.” Reluctantly he opened the door, and the confrontation was resolved.
A man just out of prison came to the crisis center, jumped from a window, and threatened to slit his own throat. He had to be dissuaded. “That’s the kind of work I do,” she later explained. “I deal with very crazy people.”
     A woman and former prisoner became psychotic after drinking too much alcohol, and Chris had her hospitalized. When the woman got out she returned home, put on fatigues and camouflage paint, came back to the hospital with a gun, and started shooting. The police had to wound her in the leg before they could subdue her. Chris learned from the experience that when people focus on you as the source of their problems, it can be dangerous.
     The lesson would come back to her in an arena far removed from crisis counseling.

To order Napa:

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