David Sutherland’s three part documentary Country Boys is one of my favorites. It lasts six hours, but I wish it went on for hundreds. The series, which first aired on PBS in 2006, follows two young men growing up in Appalachian Kentucky: Cody Perkins and Chris Johnson. While Cody has a tragic back-story and is extremely open-minded, thoughtful, and articulate, Chris is the one who truly haunts me. I hope and I wish that Sutherland films an update about these two since it’s about a decade since he first embedded himself in their lives. WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Why my connection with Chris? From the start it’s clear his life is fraught with chaos. His father is an emaciated, confused ghost of a man fully committed to a slow alcoholic suicide. His mother, who is also weathered looking and exhausted, cleans rooms at the Holiday Inn. She seems to turn on a supportive tone for the camera, but there are obvious indications that in private she values Chris’ education and future very little and instead looks for ways that Chris can help support the family. Until Chris turns 18, which he does towards the last third of the film, Chris is providing for the family via a SSI check he receives because of behavioral issues. According to Chris, his mother gets nervous if he does too well at the alternative school he attends because it means the check may stop. Once he eventually ages out of the benefit, his mother discourages him from finishing school altogether, and instead pressures him to work full time at minimum wage jobs to help her pay for things like rent and her car.
How Chris, who is awkward and hesitant, but eloquent with his speech, deals with these overwhelming circumstances is captivating. I think at the root of the problem is that he severely and chronically suffers from something sometimes called the Jonah Complex, which is, in my opinion, a prevalent fear. It’s the fear of success. Fear of reaching our potential. It is a rampant fear that is with us always, but never so much as when we are in high school.
Chris is the embodiment of that feeling, that terror. He is a terminal procrastinator who constantly takes hits of an instant anxiety-relieving drug: putting it off. The relief washes through you like a river bursting through a dam when you tell yourself you’ll put it off, when you make that little decision inside of yourself. There are usually consequences, sometimes long-term and/or severe, to your decision to put it off, or to not do it at all, but in that moment, oh you can taste the idea of freedom. You can breathe freedom in your lungs, and the world is bright with color, the wind is soft on your skin. I know that drug pretty well, and still use it from time to time, and may very well have been an addict when I was a kid. I’ve gotten over it by realizing how easy it is to just do that thing that you’re avoiding, but I still take a hit or two when I’m overwhelmed.
To compound this procrastination addiction, and perhaps as a symptom of it, Chris constantly signs himself for huge projects. In the first episode, out of nowhere, he offers to start the first ever school newspaper. Immediately the dread of such an endeavor overtakes the project itself, you can watch it happen in his face. These words come out of his mouth of a dream or desire that he DOES possess, but doesn’t have the motivation to barely begin. Instead of backing out, he keeps up the lie while simultaneously doing nothing about it. Every encounter with a teacher about the project induces a panic. His face flushes. His eyes dark. You can practically feel his heart beating out of his chest through the screen. His mouth starts staying things, anything. If the teacher doesn’t free him from the hook of casual accountability in enough time, he starts spouting candid revelations. “I just tell you what I think you want to hear,” he’ll admit before promises to do better and setting another deadline he knows he’ll never meet. But the pushing it back, and having that soft cushion of perceived extra time offers just the right hit. Just that little toke of relief.
Eventually, having staved off putting together a one-sheet newsletter with the help of reluctant but somewhat productive peers, he sulks off toward the seeming freedom of his Christmas break ready to embrace the full abandon of doing nothing. Earlier that day he had had a realization in the shower: If I don’t go into school on the last day before Christmas break, I don’t have to do the newspaper, thus obliterating the Jan. 3 deadline, and pushing it into some unknown regions of the calender. He needs some rest now. Everybody deserves a little relaxation, right? “I’m not one of them perfect editors,” he says in disgust and defiance while smoking a cigarette by a passing train. It’s one of my favorite lines, and I say it jokingly to myself sometimes when confronted with my own mistakes or failings.
Another great quote from Chris, “My 100% is like 50% to most people,” illuminates what’s so frustrating about Chris for his teachers and for the audience. This kid has a lot of potential, an untapped reservoir of some kind of talent, or at least a hope to build himself a somewhat comfortable life.
But why the fear of success?
Like the fear of failure, fear of success is a complicated thing. If you’ve been told all your life that you shouldn’t expect success, you can feel that even if you get the nagging suspicion that you’re capable of something, you might not be able to handle the responsibilities and the pressures of it. Furthermore, you can fear social isolation from your family or your peer group if you achieve more than they do. We can be nervous about not being able to relate in the same way and being on the receiving end of jealousy and other negative emotions. We can be afraid of falling harder if we climb higher, and hedge our bets against a “safer” fall if we lose our grasp on a lower rung. And then, there is the sickest fear of all: we fear regretting that we should have pursued certain goals sooner. The longer you stall, the bigger the potential regret, and the more reason to just not do it at all.
I definitely feel that some of this is what’s going on with Chris Johnson, who goes through an enormous amount of trouble to simply graduate high school, even with a special school full of teachers bending over backwards to make it happen for him. His parents didn’t do it, and don’t see the need for him to do it. At one point the school helps him move into a nearby apartment so he can have a way to get to school. Projects like a newspaper or a band are completely irrelevant to this bigger priority: Just finish school. Mostly exacerbated by his mother’s wishes and his tumultuous home life, this goal seems impossible to Chris, who is intelligent but trapped in a myriad of emotional traps. Through the film, he becomes a symbol of anxious potential and self-sabotage. He is a young man adrift without a family structure to help him take the blows at life. As happens all too often, it’s his family who strike the most crippling blows.