Note about this essay:
This essay was written with the encouragement of an erstwhile editor at Self Magazine, Paula Derrow, in 2007. She commissioned the essay for Self; and I was paid a substantial amount for it. The EIC was never comfortable with the fact that, at the time, both of my abusers of origin were still living: publishing-company paranoia weighing heavily on the side of 'rights of the abusers' to sue deep-pocketed publisher, rather than 'the rights of the abused to tell the story.' So the story sat in unpublishable limbo for over a year. Eventually the rights reverted to me. Now it's posted here.
I have been a bad person all my life. In my case, being bad has nothing to do with ethics, or morals, or shoplifting. I have never stolen anything. I am educated. Most of the time, I earn my own living. I try to live up to my own impossibly high standards. My badness has to do with perception – a view of myself bestowed on me from the time I was born.
I was the bad daughter, and nothing I did could redeem me. I was born second in a family of four children, two sisters, and a younger brother. We were close in age, all born in the five years between 1954 and 1959. I was the one who did not fit in.
As a child, I had nightmares and insomnia. I was afraid of the dark. Sometimes, on nights when I was feeling especially fearful, I padded down the hall to my parents’ room. If all was well in their universe, they would let me get in bed with them, and lead me back to my room and tuck me in when I was ready to go back to sleep. Just as often, they would become enraged.
One particularly bad night, I awaken and get up multiple times. Something is chasing me: a huge carnivorous snake with a maw as wide as my father’s VW pursues me down our street and I can’t outrun it. My entire nursery school class is in front of me, and I am woefully slower than they – they outrun it, but try as I might, I cannot.
I pad down the hall quietly, and enter my parents’ room. Tearfully, at their bedside, I try to explain the nightmare to my parents.
My father awakens first.
“Who is it?”
My mother’s eyes float open.
“Rica?” She throws back her covers and leaps from their bed. The smell of adults in the nighttime is both pungent and malodorous – familiar, yet infused with the sour smell of something unknowable. My father leaps to his feet too, and strides around the end of the bed, over to her side. He hoists me to his shoulder. Barefooted, he descends the stairs to his in-home office. I gaze upside down at the backs of his bare heels as he hurries into the office. My father always wears jockeys to bed. My mother, wearing a thin nightgown – I can see her breasts through the diaphanous cloth – follows, then closes the doors, two solid wood doors, built back to back, the way all psychiatrists’ doors were built back then to attenuate sound. My father deposits me and I tumble with as much resistance as a sack of flour onto the black-and-white wool-covered couch. He switches on the buzzing fluorescent light over the room desk. To this day, I cringe whenever I see lights like those, relics from the era of the nuclear family: brown oblong metal things emitting a chemical smell along with their unnatural bluish headache-inducing light.
I am paralyzed with fear. My mother’s blows descend on me – randomly, haphazardly, now on my back, now on my bottom, now on the back of my neck, on my forearm, which I have managed to twist around behind me in an attempt to protect the bare small of my back. My pajama top is rutched up around my chest, and my skin is exposed. Her closed fist thuds against it. My father pushes her aside. My father is not one of those men who limits his outward expressions of anger to shaking his fist at the sky and railing like Job about his victimization by the universe – although he does that too. When he hits, when he yells, he means to inflict pain. Because he is stronger, his blows are harder and they hurt more. My mother’s blows and chastisements are haphazard. Often when my mother hit me, I felt she didn’t knew whom she was really mad at. Hands that ought to stand for comfort – mother’s hands – that have held and rocked four children by then, are able to extinguish trust in the time it takes to draw a breath. Then, suddenly, I break. As though outside of myself, I hear myself screaming, “I hate you, I hate you!” at the top of my lungs. I scream the words in the midst of otherwise incoherent sobbing. In them, I am lucid. Otherwise, I have ceased occupying anything I could identify as an integrated body. I am borderless, elsewhere.
Everything halts. My mother’s voice stills. Her hand pauses, mid-swing. For a moment, I have stopped life – I have interfered with the parental dynamics as I know them.
My mother sits down on a chair.
“Do you really hate me?”
I do not answer. I stare hiccupping at the woven wool strands of the sofa back.
“Answer your mother,” says my father. He waits, a WWII first lieutenant, standing in readiness against the enemy.
“Answer your mother,” says my father.
“You don’t really hate us, do you?” asks my mother.
“Turn around and look at your mother.”
I don’t move.
“Turn around and look at your mother or I’ll patsch your bottom.”
I turn, hiccupping. Tears streak my mother’s cheeks. She pulls a tissue out of her nightgown sleeve – she always stuff tissues into sleeves – and dabs her eyes. I try not to look at her.
My parents have a phrase with which they ridicule me whenever I cry. “Crocodile tears” they say, “you’re crying crocodile tears.”
I am silent.
“Answer your mother.”
“I want to go to bed,” I say.
“Tell your mother you love her, and you can go to bed.”
Silence. A few remaining tears, spasmodic hiccups on my part.
“Did you hear me? Tell your mother you love her and you can go to bed, or else I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I make my first survival bargain with the devil. I decide the only way to get away from them is to lie.
“I love you,” I mumble.
“What was that? Say it so your mother can hear you.”
“I love you,” I say. I know I am lying. Eventually, they let me out of the office. I decline my mother’s offer of being tucked in. That night, I learned my first lesson about lying to save myself.
These days, when I think about my emotional state rationally – as rationally as I can – I hear a voice saying: “A person in her 40s ought to be able to get over these things, to be able to say ‘it’s all in the past.’” Most of the time I think I have gotten over it. Then something happens – I have a disagreement with a friend or a romantic relationship goes badly – and I am unstuck in space and time. I am like a person trying to balance herself on a wire stretched between universes. The present falls away, the wire dangles loose, and I am falling alone through space.
The past caught up with me at work recently, shortly after my younger sister died of cancer. She was the one family member with whom I was close, and I was devastated. A few weeks later, I had an unpleasant letter exchange with my brother, after not speaking in more than a decade. He told me not to come to the funeral.
The after-effects of the letter were immediate. I myself, as a sentient being, as a person going about her life in the real world, evaporated. Language itself ceased to function; words would not hold themselves to known patterns. I could not stop crying. I was afraid to leave my apartment. I could not make eye contact with anyone. I mumbled when I spoke. I stopped answering the phone.
I could barely muster up the confidence I needed to carry on a conference call with a high-flown client. I made excuses for not being able to focus on the project. I asked the same question three times because I couldn’t process the answer. My supervisor phoned me afterwards and demanded to know what I had been thinking. “I don’t know,” I said, in a voice like a mouse. “What do you want me to say?”
When that earlier universe invades the present and threatens my very survival – when even my ability to earn my living becomes precarious – I cease to believe in the possibility of my own psychic emancipation. I am floating alone, lost in an amorphous universe of family, a family wherein I didn’t merely do wrong, I was wrong. I didn’t make mistakes; I was the mistake.
A few days after that long-ago incident in my father’s office, I found myself in the office of a child psychiatrist. For the next few years, I spent an hour a week there. As an adult in my early thirties, I sought out the same psychiatrist. I told him my parents – in the field of the mind themselves, my father a psychiatrist, and my mother a psychologist, both self-proclaimed experts in child development – had beaten me regularly me. That abundant rivers of crocodile tears flowed in our household during my childhood. I reminded him that I had on one at least one occasion told him about the violence, and rather than protect me, he had revealed my remarks to my mother, even though I asked him not to. My mother, when confronted, denied any wrongdoing. He instituted a rule about no hitting. That day on the way home from the psychiatrist’s office as she steered the family’s blue Chevy station wagon through rain-slick streets, puffing ferociously on cigarette after cigarette, my mother told me that I would live to regret having betrayed her. I had exposed her secret, and, I discovered, I would pay for it.
In the years that followed, I did. My mother could control me with threat of revelation of my ugly secret. I was bad. Part of the punishment involved the weekly visits to the psychiatrist to fix my defective self. I was the only child among either siblings or peers who had to do such a thing. She reminded me at every opportunity of my differentness, when, like all children, all I wanted was to be accepted as part of the group. I believed her. And I knew if she did not love me, no one ever would. I would be alone forever.
When I confronted my former psychiatrist with these facts, he told me the version of the truth he had been told. He told me my parents represented me as a violent child who had to be physically restrained from beating up my brother.
I listened in horror to his portrayal of me – a monster of sorts, different and apart from my siblings and my peers. Out of kilter. Defective. Wrong.
There have been times in my life when I’ve felt entirely all right. When I was eighteen I went to Norway on an educational exchange and fell in love. My boyfriend took me to visit a special aunt, his father’s sister, who lived in a town not far away. When we arrived, she was in the kitchen, cutting her daughter’s hair. She asked me if I would like my own hair cut too – and because it did need cutting I accepted. I sat down on a stool beside a table covered in green checked oilcloth. My boyfriend idled around the room, perusing a men’s magazine, inspecting a screened window that needed fixing. From the next room, the monotone muffled roar of Norwegian television – the Saturday afternoon soccer match.
I looked out the open window to an afternoon lit palely by the unsetting sun of late summer. Fields of rambling clover-covered hills bordered by spruce forest. Nearby, a stone wall, raspberry brambles ringing a garden of lilac bushes, black currant bushes, red currant bushes, gooseberries. A bowl of fruit on the table to be cooked later into jam. His aunt asked me how short I wanted my hair. I was still self-conscious about my hair, but here was Tor’s aunt, stroking my accursedly wavy strands as though they were something worthy of stroking – and then, for no reason I can identify, nothing said, or done – nothing but the sweet smell of newly-mown timothy from the neighboring farm, the soft pull of the comb, Tor waiting, the harsh smell of coffee boiling away on the stove, his aunt’s sure scissors clicking away on the curls at the back of my neck, I felt – for lack of a better word – real. Everything in those moments betokened in themselves a tenderness I had never known before. My boyfriend loved me, his aunt welcomed me into her home and cut my hair.
They loved me simply for being. Love connected me to the moment, a moment with other human beings. Nothing was wrong with me. I was loved. The universe itself allowed me residence.
These interludes, these moments of rightness haven’t been numerous, but over the past twenty years or so, as the span of years separating me and my present life from the life and self and universe of my childhood lengthens and the past recedes, they seem to occur more frequently. Not reliably, not predictably, but a little more often.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized my childhood psychiatrist’s depiction of me wasn’t so vastly different from the way I learned to view myself. But after years of therapy, I’ve realized the way I see myself does not match what other people see once they get to know me. My own image of myself confuses people – co-workers, bosses, sometimes even friends and lovers, especially when an event out of the ordinary causes a fragment of the past to land in the present and explode, as it did when my younger sister died. At these times, a familiar fiend clamps its talons onto my shoulder and whispers in my ear. You’re vile, it says, you’re, a joke of nature. No one will ever love you. As it speaks, I become less sure of myself. I often remain emotionally adrift for days, even weeks. The me who carries out her professional life with authority, lives unprepossessingly, quietly, amid neighbors and friends, walks her dog, talks, laughs, sometimes even looks pretty, ceases to be. I become reclusive. I make excuses when friends call for fear they will notice my inadequacies. I avoid seeing anybody because I fear rejection so acutely. I apologize constantly. The litany of things I am not reverberates unstoppably in my mind. Others can feel my doubt; but they can’t see the thing with the crusted, oily, flightless wings, the rusted beak, gripping my shoulder. They see me finding myself wanting, and begin to wonder why.
I have learned over the years to keep the story of my childhood close to my chest because it is hard for others to believe. I have had friends I thought I trusted tell me I was hallucinating when I told them about my childhood.
“Your parents are pillars of the community,” one former friend years ago told me. “I can’t believe all that really happened. Maybe you just imagined it.”
Now, after a ten-year marriage and amicable divorce, I am living on my own for the first time in years. I negotiated my own lease. The electric and gas accounts are in my name.
Last fall I went to a wedding on a barge tethered to a harborside garden on the Hudson close to where I live. Music, dancing, drinking, a crowd of people from my neighborhood – the owner of a local art gallery wearing yards of purple tweed, her current and past husbands, local craftspeople, business owners, the local precinct captain, community activists. The bride and groom with an assortment of children, dogs, Italian and Greek relatives getting married, both for the second, time in commodious disorganization.
I gaze over the water at the Statue of Liberty. A tugboat shoves a container-laden barge through the channel that separates my Brooklyn neighborhood from Governor’s Island. The groom, a man who would never ordinarily be caught dead in anything but varnish-stained blue jeans and a tee shirt, carpenter’s pencil wedged behind one ear, cigarette behind the other, is decked in full-on wedding regalia: waistcoat, tie-and-tails, silk scarf. He walks over to me and folds me in an uncharacteristic hug.
“I’m dying for a cigarette,” he says, “but I’m not supposed to smoke out here. You look gorgeous.”
“Thank you,” I say. It is only recently that I’ve begun to accept compliments without cringing or saying something to diminish myself. I look around and for the bride. “Where is Beatrice?”
“I don’t know,” he says, looking outward towards the harbor, as though scanning for a missing schooner. “She should be here by now.” He glances at his watch. He is at that moment pounced on by a tow-headed boy of not insignificant size, also clad in full formal wedding regalia, the bride’s son from her first marriage.
“DAAADD!” shouts the boy, winding his arms around Brad’s neck. “I have a new DAAADD!!” Brad blushes and looks the other way, then sets about unpeeling his stepson from his torso, affectionately holding his hand.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Brad says, reluctant to admit he’s happy. “I’m marrying the most difficult woman to ever walk the earth.” Travis is beaming so broadly his face looks as though it has widened. His patent leather shoes sparkle in the sunlight like carved jet.
“We’re all difficult,” I say. “I bet you’re not always easy on the nerves either.”
“That may be, that may be,” says Brad. “Hell.” He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a packet of cigarettes and is about to embark on a disquisition on the nature of humanity – he’s known for them – when suddenly the string quartet seated silently at one end of the barge plays the first few notes from “Here comes the bride.”
“Well,” says Brad, tossing his cigarette into the water, “guess I don’t have time for a smoke after all.” He hugs me again and Travis, who is in an uncharacteristically huggy mood, hugs me too before darting off toward the end of the pier where his mother is waiting nervously. Her dark hair is coiffed in an elaborate up-do. She is wearing white and carries white flowers.
For the first time in my life, I feel connected to where I am – both in time and in space. My life, my work, my community. Where I live, how I live. I realize I have changed. Nobody else defines me: not my ex-husband, not my mother, not the people I work for. I will be happy if I find love again, but if I do not, I will not feel less human. I’m just another person with quirks, dreams and curly hair jostling along on the over-crowded bus, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, going about the daily business of living.
The older I get, the more my accumulated experiences become counterweights to the events of my childhood. I have had good days like that long-ago day in Norway. I carry the memory of it and days like it close to me like talismans to be pulled out and considered whenever I am feeling particularly vulnerable. Like all charms, they perform inconsistently. They work in some situations. In others, they fail. I carry them anyway, as tokens of hope, of possibility – a secret, intangible currency from a better place. I know it exists because I have been there. Eventually I may even be able to live in that place for a time – maybe, if I’m lucky, forever.