Shambhala Sun | July 2013
Metta for Broken Men
The loss of her brother sent her on a journey into the past,
where ELLEN WATTERS SULLIVAN encountered a family legacy of shame as old as the
American South itself. Could she cultivate compassion for her slaveholder
ancestors, their victims, and herself?
I stopped praying when my brother Patrick died from
drinking. A few years earlier, Patrick had been born again—I remember watching
the Evangelical minister dunk him in a pool of water set high up above the
modern church altar, all the glass and steel soaring up and glinting in the
sun. I felt hope then. I prayed hard and believed. Every time my brother drank,
and stopped and then drank again, I believed he was in God’s hands and God
would do the right thing. I never thought God would let him die, but He did. I
have not forgiven and I cannot forget, but I do let go, a little at a
The week after Patrick died, I went to clean out his
apartment, as I had done so many times before, when his alcoholism had gotten
him evicted and sent off to rehab. Ever since I was sixteen and could drive, I
had bailed Patrick out, delivered him to rehab, and weeks later picked him up
and helped him start over. Now, I packed his stuff one last time. I carefully
wrapped his artworks and placed them inside his portfolio, thinking, with some
guilt, “at least neither of us will have to keep this routine going anymore.”
And there I was on a small reef of relief in the deepest ocean of sadness I had
Patrick was a sensitive artist, and all he wanted was to
draw and paint pictures with extraordinary imagination and detail. His
depression, though, would envelop him in blackness—the light would go out in
his eyes, and the person who could see and create such colorful worlds in his
artworks would disappear.
Nothing he had done seemed to warrant the suffering he
experienced from depression and alcohol. I needed to know: why had Patrick
suffered so? My father and grandfather had also been plagued by depression and
died from alcoholism-related diseases. I started to look into our Georgia
family’s history, going back as far as I could. What I found was a legacy of
horrific actions and deep shame.
The Watters family settled in northwest Georgia before the
American Revolution, pioneering into Cherokee-owned land. My
great-great-great-grandfather, Col. Joseph Watters—“the Colonel,” as he is
still known—fought against Creek Indians alongside the Cherokee. Later, he
participated in the Cherokee genocide and helped enforce the Indian Removal Act
of 1830, which led to the Trail of Tears, in which the expelled Cherokee were forced
on a horrific march across the U.S. to Oklahoma, during which many people
suffered greatly and died. During this period, the Colonel also began
accumulating human “property”—African slaves.
It was on a recent visit to the old homestead in northwest
Georgia called the Hermitage that I discovered these and other pieces of
Watters family history. They had been hidden for generations.
My father had taken me once to the Hermitage when I was a
child and advised me to remember it. It was “where we came from.” But he didn’t
seem to notice the slave houses in the back. He didn’t talk about the Colonel,
his great-great-grandfather, who’d owned over forty slaves and committed
atrocities against native people. Nor did he mention the Colonel’s ten sons,
who fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side.
Piecing together the family past, I learned that when
Sherman began his march into Georgia, he targeted my ancestors as prominent and
outspoken secessionists. Here, as I see it, is where the longstanding cycle of
pain in my family began, when the Colonel was said to have “died a broken man”
after Sherman broke down the front door to his plantation and destroyed his
land. It began what Jungian analyst Polly Young-Eisendrath calls the
“unconscious emotional patterning [that] is passed along the generations in
The discovery of my family’s slaveholding history shocked
me. My father, Pat Watters, was an activist, author, and journalist who spent
his life fighting for equal rights for African Americans, promoting
desegregation in the Atlanta Journal and in several books. All his relatives
disowned him and our family as a result. But Dad had never talked about our
slaveholding history, not even to me—and he seemed willing to talk to me about
The inability to talk about one’s slaveholding past runs
deep in the South. Until very recently, talking about slavery among descendants
of slaveholders has been taboo not just in the South but in all of the U.S. I
believe this denial of our ancestors’ legacy is at the root of my family’s
suffering—the depression and alcoholism that has followed us for generations.
This suffering, this “unconscious emotional patterning,” began with the
wrongful act of owning slaves, which was followed by unacknowledged shame,
hatred, and anger over the losses after the Civil War.
Acknowledging the wrongs of my ancestors has given me a
sense of freedom from a haunting past. Author and civil rights activist Lillian
Smith said, “The human heart dares not stay away too long from that which hurt
it most. There is a return journey to anguish that few of us are released from
making.” Returning to the source, to the Watters plantation, acknowledging the
anguish my family created and experienced for generations, I have taken off the
blinders of denial. This has helped me restore my own personal faith, lost
following Patrick’s death, and to practice meditation and prayer again.
I have been most helped by the Buddhist practice of metta,
loving-kindness. It is a way out of the darkness of psychological bondage and
the blindness of denial. In fact, it was while practicing loving-kindness that
a sense of understanding for my slaveholder ancestors came to me during
meditation: even people who would do such hateful things deserve compassion. In
working to open my heart to the Colonel, I imagined him dying a broken man,
suffering the consequences of his own misdeeds, and in so doing I found
compassion for him. Metta practice has helped heal me, first through directing
compassion to myself, then to those I love and honor, then to all sentient
beings, and finally to the souls of my slaveholder ancestors. Compassion for
them followed. Not easily, mind you, but gently and in time.
After Patrick died, someone asked me how I kept going, with
all my family now dead and gone. There are no words to describe that feeling of
being so orphaned, so alone in the world. But when I let go, there is a
stillness out there, in the wilderness of my family spirit, that I live in
every day. I’m still here. Still. Here.
Ellen Watters Sullivan is a writer and psychotherapist
living in Vermont. She is writing a memoir, I Once Was Lost: How I Got Found,
about her life growing up in Georgia and discovering her ancestors’ dark past.
Illustration by Tara Hardy. Clockwise from left: The author's father, Pat Watters; her brother Patrick painting; art by Patrick; a map of Sherman's march, during which the Watters "Hermitage" was ransacked; great-great-grandfather Col. Joseph Watters; Pat marching for civil rights; art by Patrick.