The family frown

I dropped my youngest daughter at
her work this morning.  The sky was
overcast and we rejoiced together in the rain that fell over night. It has been
so dry in Melbourne since before Christmas and the plants are wilting. 
On the way home I caught the
beginning of a programme, 360 Documentaries, devoted to the humble frown.  It has set me thinking. 
The presenter argues in favour of the
frown in this age of forced happiness when even the slightest hint of sorrow
gets shunned. 
Rachel Kohn one of the programme’s guests speculated that the mark of Cain as described in the book of Genesis
might in fact be a frown.  A mark
etched on Cain’s forehead after he had killed his younger brother through
jealousy and was then sent by God to wander the earth forever.
Apparently Cain feared that if he
were a fugitive people would want to murder him as he had murdered his
brother, and so it seems, at least according to Rachel Kohn, God struck him
with the mark of Cain as a warning for people to keep away.  It was perhaps an attempt at curbing retaliation from vigilantes.  
We joke in my family about the
family frown.  My father had one,
my brothers and certainly I have a pronounced frown that deepens for me when I concentrate.  And this was another point
made in the programme that people do not frown simply to express displeasure
when they are sad or angry or when they disapprove, they frown when they
It  is akin to the way your mouth might move when working on
something fiddly with your fingers. I’ve seen it in my husband.  He pries loose the clasp on a piece of
broken jewellery, or something else small that requires concentration and fine
eye hand coordination.  As he
wriggles the pliers his mouth moves in unison.  My sister too when we were younger opened her mouth wide
into a full circle whenever she applied mascara.
I thought about frowning first in
adolescence.  I thought about it as
a way of alerting the nuns that I was not as happy at home.  I practised being bright and cheerful
at school.  This seemed the best
way to win the nun’s approval but in between times I frowned.  
I enjoyed the way the two sides of
my forehead came together, skin on skin, to form that vertical line in the
middle above my nose. The nuns might take me more seriously I reckoned and they
might know that despite my happy go lucky exterior things were not right. 
A frown is a form of
communication.  The Radio National presenter
talked about the tendency these days to use botox and surgery to eliminate  frown lines, to eliminate the mark of Cain
perhaps, or to hide our occasional murderous impulses.
One of my brothers once accused me
of writing in such a way as to make people unhappy.  As if I strive to cultivate a frown for
sympathy perhaps or to offload my own sorrow.  I’m not sure about this. 
On Face Book there are many
opportunities to feel happy: the lol cats; the sudden performances of musicians
in shopping centres who burst into song; the happy stories of down and outs who
make it against all odds. 
I scroll through and occasionally download these as they pop
up on the pages of my friends. 
They have a sweet flavour like eating sugar on cereal.  They help me through the day.  But it is the sad stories, the stories
of hardship and of loss that tend to stay with me. 
So perhaps my brother is
right.  Perhaps I want to linger
longer on the exquisite pleasure of melancholy, the way it weaves its way into
my life like a thread that I might follow for sometime until it comes time to
change threads and then I can feel happy again for a while.  Always glad to be alive,
however deep the sadness.  
To feel
is to be alive. 
To feel nothing, to suffer boredom,
to sense the absolute deadness of despair, the unbearable lightness of being,
is something I can entertain, but only occasionally- like last week.  Like a small dollop of Hot English mustard,
it infuses the taste but too much would blow off my head.  Take away my frown. 
Years ago I saw my father-in-law minutes
after he had died and his whole face, once a bag of wrinkles and harsh lines, was
softened such that I almost could not recognise him.  
The slack face of death is something that will come to us
all one day but while we are alive, I’m all for the occasional frown mixed in
with plenty of laughter lines. 

24 thoughts on “The family frown”

  1. I'm all for the vertical frown line between the brows — it's sensational. I know I've said it many times before here, but Elisabeth, when I read your writing it's like eating something that tastes like nothing you've ever had before, that grows in flavor with each word, that makes me sort of frantic in the eating and that finally and completely satisfies.

  2. Oh, boy. I have frown lines! One of the reasons I have them is I squint a lot. If botox was free and I knew it was safe I would probably have it done but…alas it is expensive and I don't feel safe injecting crap into my body for reasons of vanity. My face is what it is.

  3. I haven't listened to the podcast yet, but I recall seeing a child focused on doing something with what I called the 'tongue of concentration', the tip of his tongue out the side of his mouth.

    When I am cleaning the balcony glass and windows, I am aware at times I am making faces of exertion and concentration. I then think someone might be watching and relax my face, but only for a minute or so, and I then forget about it.

  4. Lovely post, Elisabeth! I agree: frowns and wrinkles are signs of concentration, character and charm. Nothing worse than the tightened face of plastic surgery. And I abhor those happy stupid games and silly stories. I'm drawn to the tragic and melancholy. I love Cormac McCarthy. The sad stories are the ones that stay with me. I'm actually working on a post of this exact subject. Thanks for sharing!

  5. A little girl I once knew, whose mother was particularly devout, once said to her mum something along the lines of, “Will Jimmy smile when he gets to heaven?” I forget the exact words but you get the idea. I don’t smile much. I’m not especially conscious of frowning but I do maintain a serious face. I can pretty much pinpoint when it all started too. If you look at my school photos there’s one from when I was about nine with me looking stern and there’s hardly a photo after that time where I’m smiling. My wife says the only ones are where I’m with my daughter but even then although I’m animated there isn’t one with a proper smile. I’ve booked the photographer to take the picture of the two of us to commemorate her passing her degree and I’ll be honest I’m genuinely worried how I’m going to look because I’ve no idea what to do when a photographer says, “Smile!” I’m sure I must smile—I know I laugh—but every time I look in the mirror this slightly anguished face looks back at me. I’ve been trying smiling in the mirror and it looks odd, not me. I’m thinking about my face just now. I can feel the furrowed brow, a tension between my eyes as if I’m concentrating on something which, of course, I am—this.

    I’ve never heard that theory about Cain. I’m not sure I buy it but it’s interesting. Some Bible translations use the word ‘sign’ rather than ‘mark’ and the implication is that it was more like an ordinance rather than a scar or a blemish on his body but the bottom line is there’s not enough information to say one way or the other.

    People enjoy sad things. We listen to sad music, watch sad films, read sad books. We do much the same with scary stuff. Life is not all about the pursuit of happiness and often what passes for happiness is just something that distracts us from the misery of our day-to-day lives and not real happiness. I can be happy even if my face has difficulty showing it. I enjoy meaningful things. I enjoy things that make me think. You can tell your brother that I look forward each week to your posts. They serve as writing prompts for me. And I have 4096 characters to respond in a meaningful way to them. It’s fun although no one looking at me right now would think I’m having fun. Here’s a poem I wrote a while back. In my head it’s my daughter talking:


          My dad was an incredibly sad man.
          He saw sadness in everything
          in art and literature but
          mostly where there shouldn't have been any.

          He wasn't sad
          like someone had died though.
          He had his own
          special kind of sadness.

          It didn't exactly make him happy
          to be surrounded by sadness.
          That's not the right word for it .
          I suppose it made him feel less alone.

          Thursday, 19 February 2004

  6. I think we all have our little idiosyncrasies when it comes to pulling faces Elizabeth – concentrating produces a tiny bit of tongue poking through the lips, or eyes slightly squeezed tight. Interesting what you say about your father in law's face being ironed out in death – my mother's face was just the same – as though all her worries and cares had disappeared in a flash. I found it quite moving.

  7. I went through a period of years when life was not happy and so those days are permanently etched into my face, the deep creases between my eyebrows. they make me look unhappy or angry even when I am not.

  8. I have two very distinct frown lines which were explained to me by a Dr. as inherited from a family member (my mother) who had an indented area (the glabella) on her frontal bone. It may be structural, but it's hard not to enlarge on it by concentrating or frowning. It's why I wear bangs.

    A study was done that suggests those who inject botox, not only free themselves from the lines, but actually experience more happiness by not being able to frown.

    But I'm with you. I like the full spectrum of emotions and am drawn to artistic expressions of negativity.

  9. Some of the biggest SOBs I've ever met smiled all the time, whereas as some of the nicest people had constant frowns on their faces. Before any of you get too up in arms about that, I've also known it to be vice-versa. My only point is a facial expression is perhaps not the best way to judge a fellow human being.

  10. It doesn't take very much self-reflection to know whether or not your actions of each day were such that you knew you had gone through the day from a position that always in the right. Not meaning always being correct, but doing the right thing, and often all that entails is being honest. When practice honesty with yourself and others you have to be a damn near an evil person to act in ways that would remove yourself from righteousness. But there too, dishonesty can mean that a person who is damn near a saint, is in actuality not exhibiting behavior that is considered righteousness. Which is really a shame esp considering that dishonesty and the worlds need for it is nothing more than someone else attempting to drag you down with their sinking of their ship into the sea of permanent death for those who currently experience life as a living Human Being

    Privacy and it's maintenance is almost always a better philosophy that dragging the life of a saint into unrighteous living. Better to be a naughty saint, live righteously, and maintain a private life then succomb to the same death as others who fear the light

    I liked the interp of Genesis you gave, for a second I thought you were going to attemot to convince the reader the foolishness of the utterly false belief that frowning takes significantly more muscles than smiling. While it does a person good to remain positive, actually believing in lies can distort your sense of world which may prevent you from recognizing all other truths. So if you are going to believe lies, make sure that believing such lies are determental to your survival

    Being somewhat of an amateur/hobby biblical researcher My take on the mark of cain is that the story wasn't about individuals that we would consider homo sapians, and not until the twelve tribes of Israel (excluding Levi and Joseph, and instead the members of Ephraim and Manasseh) were the first Genera of Homo, meaning in the likeness of God

    but if you must apply the mark of cain to mankind as we know the human being today, it may be better thought of as a concept of communication. Specifically in regards to how all animals communicate but few can understand what the system of symbols and sounds well enough to know other animals unlike themselves as anything more than gibberish sounds and gibberish symbols. To take it even further there are not many animals who understand the frequencies given off by a thinking animals brain with every thought that is involuntary telepathy (makes a lot more sense etymologically in that context) and quite possibly what Cain had begged God for mercy from was only after the realization that as far as telepathy goes, unresolved deeds such as murder (and a few other fundamental no no's that seem to have a common theme of dishonesty) are signals that are "universally" known or understood by all animals (except the parallel story is in reference to all Gods) and that thoughts thunked without the dishonest tone, are not universally understood which gives the level of privacy within families that allows the type of occurrence wherein you might feel inclined to lie, but instead you wish to maintain your status of righteousness

    For surely Cain would have been destroyed emitting universal signals that are recognized by every member living in a Celestial Boat of Gopher Wood.

    I wouldn't be concerned with wrinkles from frowning Elisabeth, the way the world is at present I would be more concerned if you were able not frown after bearing this world's witness

  11. I agree Unknowngnome, a smile that lies is far worse than a frown. A smile that lies in one person might well induce a frown in another, for obvious reasons. Most of us prefer authenticity.

    Thanks, Unknowngnome.

  12. I prefer a face to as it is, Birdie, frown and wrinkle lines notwithstanding. There's something unique about each person's face that botox and the like would destroy.

    If we all used botox regularly in time we'd all develop MacDonald's type faces and where would the beauty of idiosyncrasy and individuality be in that.

    They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I'm inclined to agree.

    Thanks, Birdie.

  13. The 'tongue of concentration' is a good way of describing this bodily effort that accompanies certain exertions, Andrew. And all our efforts over time are etched onto our skin in some way or another, a frown being one of the most noteworthy.

    Thanks, Andrew.

  14. Are you suggesting Nicole kidman is into cosmetic surgery and the like, Kath? I had no idea, though to be sure, she does look perpetually young in all the photos of her that I've seen.

    Thanks, Kath.

  15. Yes Yvonne, there is such a resounding beauty is the sadnesses of our lives, that stays with us much longer than the loud clanging of joy and laughter.

    As for the manufactured faces on those celebrities who go in for reconstruction, their grimaces that are so horrifying when the wearer can no longer smile or frown, to me they look tragic.

    Thanks, Yvonne

  16. My slowness to respond is not a reflection on your poignant poem, Jim, just a function of one of those things called a frantic week. It sounds as though you might lack in smile lines, if what you say is true about rarely, if ever, smiling. I'll check it out when I see – hopefully – that photo of you and your daughter on her graduation day.

    My brother and his view of my miserable writing is referring I believe to what I write about family. I doubt he's ever seen my blog. I reckon I'm not such a misery queen myself but I'd be prejudiced wouldn't I?

    And I agree with you entirely about the degree to which life need not be only about the pursuit of happiness. If it were it would be terribly limited.

    Thanks, Jim.

  17. It's funny how those facial lines can be misleading at times, Ellen. That's the trouble with aging, or at least one of them: layers of meaning get superimposed on our skin and hide the true nature of our underlying feelings much of the time, including how we feel from one minute to the next. I think I've repeated myself a bit here, but it's late on Friday and I'm flagging.

    Thanks, Ellen.

  18. They say that death is a release, Pat, a release from the trials of life, and so it is, I believe. Funny too how much as we age we can grow to resemble our parents in looks more and more. At least that's the case in my family, as if age brings us together.

    All those worry lines ironed out at last.

    Thanks, Pat.

  19. That's a tricky one isn't it, Kass? Do we feel sad because we frown, or do we frown because we feel sad. I'm inclined to go with the latter. The frown as an external reflection of an internal state. But it's not just one state of mind that our frowns reflect. As you say it can even be structural, in our bones.

    Thanks, Kass.

  20. I agree, Kirk our facial expressions can lie. But it's funny the way we can pick so much up from one another without words simply by the look on our faces. Something in the eyes perhaps. In the eyes more than through the frown or smile.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  21. It's lovely to see you here again, Dusty Who.

    I reckon you're right about the way the world is vis a vis frowning and the need for it. I also recognise the mark/curse of Cain as a communication. If only we could understand such communications better.

    Thanks, Dusty.

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