Browsing Tag

fathers

Guest Posts, Trauma

I Remember My Dad As Brutal, But It Was Far Worse

August 14, 2020
father

CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse and/or assault.

By Caroline Leavitt

There it is, the photo I have saved to remind myself of the feelings I had tamped down. I’m at my Aunt Gertrude’s sedar table, standing for the obligatory family shot. I’m ten years old, in a starchy blue sailor dress my mother made me wear and though I am smiling, I am terrified, desperate to get away. I can’t, though, because my father is holding my elbow in a vise grip even as I lean away toward my older sister on the other side of me. She’s smiling, not coming to my rescue. My mom, who I love, is outside the frame, her face turned away.

Here are the facts: My dad is a bully who often uses a strap and literally screams so loudly that it sounds like his voice is tearing from his throat. When he talks, he belittles. He never says I love you, never hugs or kisses anyone, and the one time he takes me to a movie, he leaves me alone in the cavernously empty theater to watch the film by myself while he stays at the refreshment stand wolfing down candy. My mom endures him because she doesn’t know what else to do, my sister inexplicably loves him, and his rageful behavior is never spoken about in my house. No, that’s quarantined, a room full of secrets roped off by silence.

Family, I’m told, is everything.

Instead, I learn to bury my feelings, and in many ways, myself. I make myself small—as small as the last line on a vision chart. The one nobody can see.

I grow quieter and quieter because any sort of speaking up can get me hit. I’m not allowed to close the door to my room (and if I do, it will be yanked open and I will be yelled at or struck), but I learn to simulate privacy by getting lost in the world of books, and then writing. I do this for hours and hours because who can yell at me when I am so silent, so invisible? And in books, my writing, I’m lost in a whole other world which seemed much safer than the real one.

I grow up around my father’s rules. Don’t dress like a hippie and embarrass him. Don’t dare get up earlier than he does because I’d wake him with my noise and be punished. And, of course, the rules include what to think. I soon know that my thoughts are not respected, that any opinions have to match his. The government’s always right. Any war going on that the United States was raging is the right one. Women are lesser than men. We are to respect his mother and agree with whatever she does when we visit her every week, and if we don’t say good morning in the right way, he will give us the silent treatment for week, making us beg over and over, “What did I do?” until he would deign to tell us.

But if my thoughts are not my own, then either is my body. We are little girls, my sister and I, but my father never tells us we were darling or smart or beloved. Instead, my father keeps piles of Playboys around the house, the glossy centerfolds of women who look nothing like us, nothing like our mom or any woman we have ever seen, out in plain view and my sister and I stare at them amazed and uncomfortable. One day, my father catches me looking and snatches the magazine away. I go to sit on the couch, and turn on TV, and then my father strides over to me and takes my little hand and shoves it into his wet mouth. Horrified, I jerk my hand free and run to the bathroom, washing my hands over and over, and when I come back, he motions me to him, and he does it again, only this time he’s laughing.

And that’s when I begin to have nightmares. I sleep with the covers bunched over my head and only my nose poking out, terrified. Sometimes I call for my mother and ask her to lay beside me until I fall asleep and then gradually I can and it becomes a habit.

But my father doesn’t like that.

One night, my mother cautiously tells me, “Your father wants you to sleep beside him tonight.”

I look at her panicked. “I don’t want to,” I say. “Why do I have to?”

My mother sighes.  “Please do it. His feelings are hurt. He asked me to ask you.”

“Can I say no?”

I am five. I have no power. That night, I curl into my father’s twin bed, separated from my mom’s bed by a night table, my whole body turns away from my father, facing my mother, whose eyes are closed. All of us have pajamas on, and I’m careful not to let any part of him touch me. I move to the edge of the bed, reaching across to try and touch my mom. I whisper, “Mom,” but she doesn’t hear me. Her eyes stay shut. Mom. Mom. Mommy. In the morning, I wake as my father is getting out of bed, but he doesn’t have pajamas on now, and he is naked and hairy, and I stare at his penis, his balls, the first I have ever seen. He sees my eyes locked on his genitals and he shouts, “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What’s the matter with you?” My mother, rising, says nothing except his name, trying to calm him down. All that day I live in terror that he will ask for me to do this again, but he stays silent, and my mom and I never talk about any of it. But it roils inside of me.

Three weeks later, my mother is called in by the kindergarten teacher because we have been asked to draw paper dolls of our family and I have drawn mine all naked. My father’s penis is so large, it dwarfs him, reaching down to his ankles. His balls are like balloons. The teacher’s concerned but my mother shrugs it off. “She’s precocious and imaginative,” she tells my teacher.

When my mother comes home, she holds me and tells me about the meeting. “Maybe keep things in the family in the family,” she says gently. My sister, listening, looks appalled. “You’re disgusting,” my sister tells me. “You lie and lie and lie. You made Mom feel bad,” she says, and I feel a flash of guilt. I never think to ask my sister, does he ever make her sleep in the bed with him, too?

We grow, and I turn ten and then my sister tells me the facts of life. “It’s revolting,” she says. “No one wants to do it, except for guys.” She bangs two rocks together to show me, a violent coupling that scares me. I grow afraid when I think I’d have to do this with boys. “You just do it,” my sister says, and then she asks me if I want to touch tongues with her, if I want us to touch each other’s butts. I recoil. “Why would I want to do that?” I ask and she laughs at me. But it makes me wonder. Did something happen with my sister and my dad? Or did she escape it all? And if she had, how? What does she know that I did not?

And then I turn sixteen, and then seventeen, and while my sister, the good girl, never rebels, I begin to tentatively speak out and this time, for the first time, my mom yells at me. “Don’t be so independent!” she shouts. She doesn’t like my fresh mouth, my wildly curly hair, the way I dress in skirts so short I’m always being sent home. My dad yells in chorus with her. My sister begins to date and I listen to my mom talking to her about “playing her cards right,” getting married as soon as she can, but not letting any boy get fast with her. “Men need sex. Women don’t,” my mother says, and I listen, bewildered. Was that true?

My sister, newly gorgeous, suddenly has all this male attention, boyfriends who came to the door with flowers and smiles, Is it any wonder I look for my own male attention? That I fall in love so hard and fast with any boy who pays me attention in a kind of madness? I’m skinny and unpopular, and when a known “bad boy” boy in school asks me out, my mother tells me I can go, but we never tell my dad.

That date is magic. The boy likes me. He really likes me. He holds my hands and talks quietly and by the time we arrive back to my house and I have my first tender kiss in our doorway, I am insane with love.  But just as we are about to kiss again, my father barges out in his boxers, his fly wide open, screaming at me that I’m late, and who told me I could date? My father sends him home and then shoves me. He tells me I’m never to see that boy again, and if I do, he will keep me prisoner in the house.

Go ahead and try it, I think, feeling a flush of power. And that whole summer, I lie to my parents about having a job as a camp counselor, about going on overnights, so I can sleep with my boyfriend at an abandoned ski slope by his house, because by then I know for sure that it isn’t just boys who need sex. We are together off and on for a year, and my family never knows it.

I keep dating. My father has no idea about all the boys I sleep with. I keep score in a notebook, as if the amount proves my worth. 70 guys. Then 100. Then more. Every one I sleep with feels like I am ripping away the seam that still connects me to my family.

I go to college halfway across the country to Ann Arbor, as far away as I can get. Every week I speak to my mom on the phone, and when my father gets on, all he says is that I should work hard. “Don’t think I won’t cut you off if you don’t,” my father threatens. He shouts so loudly I have to hold the phone away from my ear. Good, I think. Cut me off. Good.

Why don’t  I ever confront anyone? Because I’m told my memories are wrong, that I must have exaggerated, “the way I always do.” I’m told this  so often, that I begin to believe it. And so I replace those memories with something else: My father loves me. In his own way. I visit home once a year, for two days at the most, and nothing important is ever said. I sleep in my old childhood room, the door locked, the covers around my head.

I am 25 when my father dies. He’s 57 years old, obese, with skyrocketing blood pressure and high cholesterol, a man whose only exercise is walking from the car to our house. I feel nothing about his death. I come back home and my sister is sobbing, my mother wailing, “I want him back.” She is so upset, I didn’t have the heart to ask her why. Later my sister tells me that she thinks she sees him watching over her, his profile in a nearby tree. “He protects me.”

“How?” I ask. She shows me the tree and I stare at it blankly.

“What was so great about him?” I ask.

“Lots,” she says. She tells me when she was in high school and she went to a party, some of the kids were dropping acid, snorting coke, and afraid, she called him to come and get her. “You did the right thing,” he told her. He would always take care of her, she says. “Shame on you for saying those bad things about our wonderful father,” she said.

My father leaves my mother nothing, no insurance money, no savings, but she has the house, and a teaching job, and friends, and without him, she blooms. But for me and my sister, he leaves a legacy. How are either of us to know what a good male partner looks like when our dad was our only model?

Doesn’t it make sense that my sister marries young, a man like our father, someone silent with a temper, a sexist who likes to cup his hands in the air like he was weighing boobs when a buxom woman walks by. I cry at her wedding, begging her to change her mind. “Don’t be silly,” she says. She has kids, one after another, the way our mother had, focusing on them for happiness. When I ask my sister why she stands for his behavior, she says, “because I have to.” When I ask her why she doesn’t shout back at him, she says, “because he can scream louder.”

I’m afraid of marrying a man like my father, like my sister’s husband, so I go for the opposite, the fast talkers who never shut up, who fill the silence so I never have to feel uncomfortable in its danger. It takes me time to realize they keep talking only about themselves, what they want, who they want me to be.  But with all those motor mouths, no one really notices how quiet I am. How quarantined.

And then, in my 40s, I meet Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who’s kind and sometimes quiet and I can’t believe he might really love me, so I test him, yelling sometimes, and instead of leaving, he comes closer, wanting to solve issues, to make things right. He actually sees me—all of me. He wants me to be happy. And that makes me want to revise my childhood, to try to think about it in a happier way, too.

I try to talk to my mother about my upbringing, my voice quiet, composed, even sympathetic to what she must have gone through. “I don’t want to talk about this because I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she says, and then her whole face changes, and she looks a thousand years old, and because I love her, I can’t hurt her, so I stop talking.

I never find out the things I’m so desperate to know, not then, and by the time I’m ready to try to ask again, my mom has dementia, and then she dies. I try to talk with my sister, but she now feels angry with me. She says I’ve stolen her life, grabbing the happy marriage, the writing career, that she was meant to have. The more I try to help her, to talk, the worse I make things. Her rage grows until she estranges herself from me. I haven’t seen her or spoken to her in two years.

So who can I find answers from? How can I put this to rest? I ask my friends, my cousins what they remember about that time, they said only that my father was oddly quiet, that they just felt he had a blah personality. When I tell them what I remember, they see my father through the lens of my reality. “Oh my God, I never knew,” they tell me. “I never imagined. If I had known, I would have done something”.

One day, just before the pandemic begins, I’m sitting with my friend Leora, and she’s asking me about my past, and I start to talk, and as I do, I see her face changing. I talk and talk and when I’m done, she is so still that I worry. “I’m not making this up,” I insist, and she shakes her head and reaches over and takes my hand. She says quietly, “Caroline, you were abused. You have to look at this trauma.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever used that word: abused.

 CLICK.

There it was, the lens of clarity as my friend reflects this truth back to me. And now it’s my turn to look. How could I not have known from the start who my father really was?

And so I go to talk to strangers, therapists who might help me decode what had happened.  When I tell my first therapist that I feel nothing about my father, that my memories are all jumbled up, he insists I am not telling the truth. “You have to feel something,” he says. Then he asks me to consider my father as a man who had had dreams and yearnings, that I consider his feelings, what he might have been going through. And that’s when I get up and leave the room, wired with rage.

And then I find a therapist I love, a woman who tells me that the brain neurons fire and rewire when we’re young, that a lot of what I’m feeling is leftover responses and if I talk about them enough, the firing will get weaker—I will be able to safely bury the past. “And,” she says. “You need to write about it. Writing about it will help you remember what was really going on underneath it all. The brain won’t know the difference.”

And so I do. Here. Now. The old feelings come back in a rage blizzard. I write about my love for a mother who took me to the movies, and was funny and bought me books, but who couldn’t stand up to her husband to protect her daughter. I write about hurt for a sister who seems to follow my mother’s past path unseeing, one choice after another. And I write out my outrage for a little girl who never got to be the adored daughter, who went through terrible things that she knew were terrible but she never once thought: this is wrong. You need to stop.

 And then I hear it again. CLICK. Like when you’re at the optometrist and you’re doing the vision test and you put your chin in the cup and stare at the chart, eyes wide, unblinking, and the doctor clicks different lenses in front of you as the random configuration of numbers and letters grow clearer and blurrier with each one. You see the first row, the second, the third—things seem clear. Then they don’t. CLICK. But the chart itself has not moved. Neither have you. And as you age, your vision changes, your clarity about your life changes, too. But the facts never change. The truth. You just may need different lenses to see it.

Now, I want to go back in time, first to my father to stand up to him and ask him why he did what he did, how dare he not treasure his little girl, how dare he not love her or want to know her? Why did he yell and abuse? Your loss, I want to tell him. You were wrong about everything, I want to say, especially me. Look at me, I want to tell him. I broke the pattern. I have a loving husband, a wonderful beauty of a son. No one yells. No one rages. No one hits or abuses emotionally or physically.

But you did. And it is your loss.

Then I want to go back to that other me, that quiet little girl in the starchy sailor dress and tell her, it’s going to be okay, honey. Because you are absolutely and completely okay. Right now. And later, too. You will be able to leave all of this behind. You will be able to be loved by someone who deserves you, whom you deserve—and you deserve happiness. You will have wonderful friends and work you love. You will continue to talk and talk and talk and write about all of this, telling the story of your family, the truth, until all that pain loses its power and all of your quarantine will be over.

You will remember. You will see.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

 

On Being Human Online Workshops

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Other upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Universe in the Kitchen

April 13, 2020
sun

By Adrienne LaValley

I didn’t know that everyone doesn’t spend their lives waiting for the other shoe to drop until I was well into my thirties. I think it was the look on my friend’s face when I said “I’m so nervous things are going well right now. When’s it all gonna end?” She couldn’t quite understand the palpable, stomach twisting fear I had about the inevitable future. I thought everyone had that certainty. That no matter how long things had been good for, the shit was coming to hit that proverbial fan. Hard. You could bet money on it. Because it was fact. Not speculation. Not paranoia. Fact. The better things were, the longer they stayed that way, the more terrified I’d become about the looming fall out. These fallouts that were slowly shaping who I’d become as an adult. Not that I could see it at the time. Or until five years ago really. Enlightenment by therapy. The fallout was dark and moved with the momentum of a freight train barreling around the bend. An unstoppable blackhole that sucked the life out of everything around it. Just writing this I can feel my face fall. It’s visceral. The fallout is far enough away to stop causing damage, but close enough to still make my skin crawl. Not my fallout though. My dad’s.

Living with a bipolar parent is like living with the sun. Forever orbiting someone who wields both the power to nourish and love you and the spontaneous drive to destroy who you are at your core. Like termites eating away at your foundation until there’s nothing left but anxiety and self doubt. Then they die and you’re bestowed the gift of reconstruction. Who will you finally be now that the sun has gone down?

One morning in the nineties I came barreling down the stairs like a kid leaving for Disney World. The house was treading on the thinnest ice sheet of normalcy for a moment and I was cautiously hopeful. Again. A sort of middle ground that only came around when my dad was well medicated. But as I bounced into the kitchen, arms wide and ready to vomit love on anyone I came across, I saw him hunched over in such a way that I knew it was all gone. The air changed. It was thick with tension and smelled of evil enjoying itself just a little too much for 7 am. “Morning dad!!! Sleep ok?” My heart dropped like a ton of bricks at the deafening silence that followed. “Morning…” he said, with the heaviness of someone who’d lost everything and didn’t even know it. Fuck, it’s gone. It’s all gone again. Here we go. Man your stations, war is imminent. Shields up. Head down. Get ready.

…“Did you take my braided belt?”

“Your what?”

“My braided belt. The brown leather one. Did you take it?”

“Nope, didn’t take your belt.”

“Someone god damn took it.”

“No dad, Jesus I didn’t take your belt. Why would I do that?”

“Did one of your friends? They did, didn’t they? Was it Colleen? It was, wasn’t it? Selfish little asshole. You get that back from her. Someone took my god damn belt. Where is it?”

My brain usually fails me when digging through these particular memories. The ones where I meet my other dad. The evil one. “Hello there. You suck so bad. Gotta jet.”

I’m sure I said something for the record books, I just can’t remember exactly what. I have gaping holes in my childhood memories. They come in waves of bad dreams, flashes of screaming a lot and crying until my face was blue, apologizing for something I didn’t do then slamming a door somewhere. Sounds right.

That was only if the sun was pointed at me though. Which I preferred. I knew how to handle it and if for some reason I just couldn’t on that particular occasion, I knew how to live with the constant stomach churning and heartbreak. It was just a regular Tuesday. But to watch the sun shoot flares at my family was like watching our house burn down, helpless to stop it and paralyzed with fear. That barreling train crashed into everyone who loved and supported it and to the untrained eye, it relished in taking as many people down with it as it could.

The sun didn’t always rage and spew flares though. It could be warm. Warm and shiny and really excited about everything in life. And if that warmth was pointed my way, I basked in its glow and relished how lucky I was to know and be loved by someone like that. Someone so bright. So full of life. Someone who convinced me I was incomparable to virtually every other person alive. I was special. To be separated from the pack and nurtured to perfection. Days were full of snowball fights and inappropriate jokes at someone else’s expense, spontaneous road trips, manic fun, 5am tennis practices, and overly eager encouragement to be the best no matter what. At this. At that. And definitely at that. I could always be better. It was an endless merry go round of love and pressure and hurt and betrayal and love and pressure and hurt and betrayal. As the planets circled the sun.

I know all of this because I am one. I’m a planet. And my brother and sister and mom are too. We orbited the sun of our home for half our lives, then from a close distance for the other half. All of us. We orbited and constructed our lives around the unsettling, unpredictable love of my father. Until we ran away. Or he died. Or both.

I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more empathetic, sensitive, intuitive, malleable, loyal and compassionate. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun. Fine tuned the art of tip toeing. We know the delicate ballet of appeasement like we know how to breathe. We can intuit someone’s mood like our lives depend on it. Because it did. For however many years we spent reassuring the sun that someone loved it. We do all of this simply by loving an impossible person. Someone who everyone else gives up on or shakes their head in confounding exhaustion at. And we don’t often let go of our impossible person. Because everyone else already did. Somewhere in the recesses of our hearts we believe impossible people deserve love too, in spite of not being able to reciprocate it very reliably. Even deeper in our recesses we believe that if we do let go, we’ll lose our sun forever. And that’s the scariest thing of all. To be abandoned by someone you abandoned first. After all, saving ourselves was never the first priority. It wasn’t even the second or the third. Frankly, it never crossed our minds until someone mentioned our well-being one day. We stared at them with a genuinely perplexed look. And they stared back just long enough for something to spark in our chest. A whisper of self preservation. Something niggling in the back of our heads that we deserved a better life than this. Our souls carefully tapping from below, just in case we were listening this time. Just leave, it says. Just leave.

But we’ve been well trained to know that the sun can’t survive without us. It can’t survive without its planets and its moon. We’re the only ones who understand how it operates. And without us it would be all alone in the inky blackness of its own celestial abyss. And so the dance of codependency forges on, stronger than ever. I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more untrusting, desperate for structure, constantly self effacing, full of anxiety and always in search of something more perfect. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun.

Last year I rode out to Fort Tilden to catch the solar eclipse. I was in awe of how many people were in awe of it. Millions of gazers all over the country gathering to watch the sun god be rendered powerless by our little planet and its little moon. Our pale blue dot. Even more astounding was that in the looming countdown to artificial nighttime, the life around us adjusted accordingly. Crickets started chirping, a few bats started flying around disoriented from lack of sleep on a long summer day, the fresh scent of early evening wafting through the breeze. A powerful entity going dark, the life around it adjusting. Surviving. When the sun and the earth and the moon are all perfectly in line.

When we lined up in the kitchen to watch our personal eclipse we also adjusted accordingly. We’d hunker down for dark mode, which could last for weeks depending on the season. We spoke quietly and avoided the sun at all costs, careful not to disturb it. Never complaining if it tucked itself away in it’s room for days on end. We were safe if it stayed behind closed doors, doing whatever it needed to do to survive the grip. During these times my walk home from school slowed to a crawl. Surely there was a friends house I should be visiting right now. Maybe Nicole’s mom bought fruit roll ups again. I’d drag my feet and trudge home every day, mentally preparing myself to find my dad hanging from the garage rafters. “Would I get there in time? Why am I walking so slow? Feet, fucking move faster. Would I even be able to get him down though? Is there a ladder nearby? Do we even have rafters? I don’t think we have rafters.” But I could picture it so clearly. Like it had already happened and the universe was trying to warn me. It knew that’s how he’d do it. And that he’d make sure I was the one who found him. I was the one he opened up to, after all. I was the one he’d sit down in front of to explain why my mom was so horrible and why he was unfaithful to her for all those years. Why my friend’s mom was something he just needed. I knew how the sun operated. I’d surely be the one he’d bestow his suicide on. But I’d never find him hanging in the garage. He was always alive. Hunched over, now keenly aware that he’d surely lost everything. But alive. A sad calm would hang in the room as long as it was silent. Sarcasm and utter despair if we engaged. Spinning around and around, getting lost in the orbit of the sun never knowing which dad we’d land on but always knowing the truly evil one would be back. He always came back. Like a heavy shoe forever hovering above.

I can’t help but think about what could have stopped the cycle? What could slow the orbit? Something that could have made our universe even marginally more tolerable. Like ketchup on dry eggs. Sometimes I think naming it would have. Just calling it out helps it lose some power. That’s what they say, right? The enlighteners? We knew who and what our sun was, but we didn’t really talk about it. We blamed the sun over and over and then when that got old we blamed ourselves until the rage came clawing from below. Then we blamed the sun again.

Had my dad really sat us down and named the things he did maybe we’d be better off. Therapy was long and painful and arduous and obnoxiously expensive. And I’m still talking about it, for Christ’s sake. He’s still a star in my fucking galaxy. I still struggle to understand healthy relationships and have a distorted ideas of authority. I always gravitate towards people I think need to be fixed. However irritatingly subconscious that is. Because it’s what I’m uncomfortably comfortable with. Feels like home. Maybe if he’d been able to admit to the things he did I’d be a better version of myself. I don’t know the answer to that and I never will. He took his guilt and shame and apologies to the grave with him. If they were ever there in the first place. That’s still up for debate amongst my family members. Did he even know what he did? Did he clock the damage he caused? Probably not.

At one Thanksgiving dinner where we all know family recovery starts and ends, I reminded him of the time my rabbit Poster Nutmeg was found missing his entire body. I found a small pile of him in the neighbor’s dilapidated garage where we knew this one evil cat liked to hang out. George, the orange striped serial killer. My dad joined me in the garage to stare down at what used to be my fluffy pet. He stuck his hands in his pockets rocked back on his heels and said ‘Hey, at least someone got a good meal.’ Then walked back inside. Even as I was recounting the story to him over mashed potatoes and too much wine I could see on his face that nothing was registering. He was incredulous, even. If that wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity, the roaring belly laughter and: ‘I’d never say something like that’ that followed certainly drove the point home. Even if he did know what he’d done at one point, he lied to himself until he believed it never happened. Is there really a difference?

My question for fellow lovers of impossible people is… would you change it? If you were the child of a mentally ill parent would you go back and be a different formula blended in a different bowl if you could? Have a different set of genes? My genes terrify me. Bipolar disorder can be incredibly genetic sometimes ripping through generations of family, as it has mine. Its companions are addiction and eating disorders and anxiety. Who’s kid will have it? Do I have the gene just hiding away in there somewhere waiting to rear it’s ugly head? My own anxiety fuels that fire. But would I be someone else in order to erase all that?

I have family members who suffer on a daily basis. They can be utterly debilitated by the pain their own brain inflicts on them. Would they change that if they could? Would my dad? If he knew what he did to us, would he go back and never get married or have kids? To spare them? I don’t have the answer. But sometimes I think about who I’d be if I never lived this life. If I was born with different parents in a different house with stability and safety and normal mornings. Who would I be now?

I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t change it. The more I look into it, the more I look back at the ugly, the more I like myself just exactly this way. If I changed everything, I’d have to change well… everything. I might be less loyal, less empathetic and less intuitive. I might love people less, or want to have conversations about the Kardashians instead of mental health. And then someone who really needed to hear this might never know that someone else grew up orbiting their own personal sun too. And that it all really happened. That someone believes them. I believe them. If the formula changes, so does the product. And if I start to accept that, who knows what road I might find myself on. Learning to love who I am just exactly as I was made? Preposterous. Right?

Sometimes I wonder if living with an impossible person wasn’t the greatest worst thing I’ve ever done. This is only after years of dissecting the facts of course, or what I remember of them anyway. I know I’ll never fix all the things. I don’t even think I want to. All the digging around and ripping apart and examining has just made me think… if hurt people hurt people… what do you think healed people can do? And when will the planets finally be healed from years of orbiting the sun so close? Maybe never. Some burns just leave a scar that way. So they heal the best they can and then they look for shade. Hoping to find another planet cooling off under a tree somewhere so they can finally talk about just how bright that sun used to be.

Adrienne LaValley is an actor, writer and creator of the podcast ‘The Old Man and the Me’. She writes and records in an attempt to expel shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues while also never tiptoeing around the frequent crapstorm they can cause. She tells stories about life, mental health and lack of both in the hopes that people will feel a little less alone out there. Her full length play ‘The Good Father’ recently had a reading at The Paramount Theatre with the Dramatist’s Guild and will start workshopping in the new year. She lives with her husband and superdog Junebug in the Hudson Valley and wishes everyone would pay it forward just a little more often.

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Self Image

Don’t be a Baby – Lessons in a Roy DeCarava Photo

April 8, 2020
decarva

By Trish Cantillon

Labor Day Weekend 1979 before we started ninth grade, my best friend Mery and I went to my family’s vacation home in Newport Beach. Since my parents’ separation it was where my dad spent most of his time, and by extension, my time with him. I assumed that since I was fourteen, I would be afforded some independence. I believed I’d outgrown the obligation to keep him company while he sunbathed on the front patio glistening with cocoa butter, a vodka cocktail always at arm’s reach. My plan was to spend those days laying out at lifeguard station fifteen, with afternoon bike rides down the boardwalk to the Fun Zone for Balboa Bars. We’d endure dinner with my dad, and whatever drunk personality he embodied, because his barbecued chicken was delicious. After dinner, we’d disappear upstairs to talk about boys and how great high school was going to be. This was my expectation.

Late Saturday morning, as we finished up bowls of cereal, Mery and I made our plans. My dad sat on a barstool at the counter: newspaper, coffee and vodka screwdriver in front of him. “I’m out of vodka. I’m going to need to go to the store before you head out,” he said, without looking up. His arm was in a sling from a shoulder injury and he wasn’t supposed to drive, though he seemed to pick and choose when he followed that rule. I was unsure what this had to do with us until he stood up, slipped his wallet into the pocket of his trunks and plucked the car keys from the dish next to the phone. “Come on, you’re going to drive me to Balboa Market,” he said.

“What? I can’t drive! I don’t even have my permit,” I replied, certain that once he realized that he’d back off.

“Oh, it’s fine. It’s just a few blocks. Come on,” he insisted. His tone got sharper. I was not in the habit of talking back, especially when he had been drinking, but this felt like a legitimate place to speak up.

“I’m not driving you to the store,” my voice quaked.

“Don’t be a baby,” he said. Me being a ‘baby” was an idea often directed at me, either in a lighthearted way, like when he’d sing, Yes, sir, that’s my baby on our bike rides, or, in this case, with anger and disappointment. It always made me feel small.

“No. Please don’t make me. I don’t want to.” He was silent, then looked at Mery.

“You wanna drive?” he asked. Mery looked at me and shrugged, as if to say, if you’re not going to, I will.

“Sure,” she answered.

“Atta girl,” my dad replied. I was dumbfounded. My grand gesture undermined in an instant. Mery didn’t see him as a bully trying to get his way. She hadn’t lived with that behavior her whole life. For her it was something cool; an opportunity to break the rules and have fun. I felt the heat rise inside me with nowhere to go but smiled as he handed her the keys. I followed them out the open front door.

Mery looked confident as she climbed into my dad’s loaner, a red Ford Granada. The jealous part of me was glad she wasn’t getting to drive his Mercedes 450SL. In abbreviated stops and starts, she backed the car out and pointed it in the direction of Balboa Market. From the sidewalk, I watched the surreal sight unfold slowly, like the final scene in a movie. Everything about it unrecognizable. My best friend behind the wheel of a strange car with my dad riding shotgun on an errand to buy vodka. I felt empty and deserted. I wandered into the house, unsure of what to do with myself. As the minutes ticked by, I began to question why I was so worked up about this in the first place. What’s your problem? It’s no big deal! You’re being a baby! I grabbed my beach bag, tossed in the Bain de Soleil, two cans of Tab, Seventeen Magazine and waited for them to return. Eager to pretend the whole thing never happened.

***

The tears came suddenly and completely. Before I was even aware, they were running down the sides of my cheeks. My husband Quinton and I drifted through the Museum of Modern Art that spring afternoon in the mid-nineties and happened upon the Roy DeCarava exhibit. I shuffled, along with the other patrons from one image to the next and came upon Graduation 1949. When I saw it, I was overcome with a sadness that’s hard to articulate. In Hyperallergic, Colony Little describes DeCarava’s work this way, “He transforms otherwise mundane moments into intriguing narratives with beguiling characters, extracting drama like no other.” The sadness I felt was familiar; an echo and I could instantly envision the life of this girl at this moment.

On a day she thought would be free from disappointment, she put on a happy face when things didn’t turn out as she hoped. She walked alone to her own graduation, through a decaying Harlem neighborhood and an empty lot strewn with trash. She gathered the sides of her beautiful white dress into her hands and lifted the hem so it wouldn’t drag. Everything she reasonably expected for the day had disappeared; except her fancy clothes and accoutrements. She would look the part, even if she didn’t feel it.

Graduation, 1949 exposed an interior life I had long kept at bay with a smiling face and cheerful demeanor. The physical representation of the young girl alone spoke to a deep abiding loneliness. I grew up in a large family and found myself most comfortable amidst the attendant noise and chaos that accompanied that life. I loved falling asleep listening to my brother’s music down the hall and my sister’s hairdryer in the bathroom. However, because I am the youngest by seven years, I often found myself alone. In those moments when life was quiet, I was consumed with a melancholy I could not name and didn’t understand. Distracting myself with elaborate imaginative play, TV and food, I felt a little less blue.

When I was ten new neighbors moved in next door. It was a Friday afternoon and a last-minute change in plans meant I would not have the standard-issue divorced kid weekend with my dad. My mom had a date so I would stay home with the housekeeper who spoke little English. I had the house, and, most importantly, the kitchen to myself. A few days earlier I had talked my mom into letting me buy a fancy Bundt cake mix I’d seen advertised on TV. Because we weren’t the type of family that baked cakes and had them around our own house, I had to have a reason to bake it and a somewhere for it to go. I told her I thought it would be nice to take to the new family next door.

With the family room TV on in the background, I put all my baking supplies on the counter: cake mix, egg, oil and water. I put an apron on over my t-shirt and shorts and when I was ready to begin preparing the cake, I silently called “action” on the imaginary TV show I was starring in. I carefully walked through each step of the recipe explaining the process and offering my valuable tips for the make-believe audience at home. When the cake was finished, I drizzled the packaged icing over the top (the whole reason to buy this cake mix), saved some for myself for later, and proudly displayed the finished product, with great personality and flair, to an invisible camera. I then walked it to the neighbor’s house and rang the bell. A petite brunette woman opened the door looking surprised to see a chubby blonde ten-year-old stranger holding a cake.

“I wanted to give you this to welcome you to the neighborhood,” I offered the plate to her.

“Oh, well, that’s very nice,” she replied, taking it from my hands, ‘Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. It’s kind of a neighborhood tradition,” I said, puzzled by how quickly the lie flew out of my mouth.

“Hope you like it. Bye.” I turned and stepped off her porch.

Back at home, I polished off the leftover batter that clung to the sides of the bowl and the beaters. I fixed myself a boiled hot dog and large bowl of buttered popcorn for dinner, then settled in for a night of television, interrupted only by a move from the den to my room upstairs. Tucked in bed with the portable black and white TV perched on the end of my desk so I could still see it while lying down, I watched The Rockford Files and waited for sleep to take over. Sometime in the middle of the night the white noise, or the National Anthem that preceded it, woke me up. The TV station’s final sign off for their broadcast day brought with it a profound sense of dread and flickers of panic. I was all alone. No one or no thing left to keep me company.

***

Aside from what was obvious in the light, the darkness and shadows in Graduation, 1949 said plenty to me about a literal childhood fear of the dark and an adult fear of the unknown. In Reading the Shadows-The Photography of Roy DeCarava, Ruth Wallen maintains, “The shadows house the riches as well as the dangers. DeCarava’s persistent focus on life in the shadows demands that they be read in a new way, as fertile ground full of possibilities.”

My mom was thirty-nine when I was born in 1965, which, then, was considered late. I was the fifth child who came seven years after the fourth. Growing up I was conscious of the fact that she was older and quickly attached myself to a fear of her death. In its early state, it was born from panic that if something happened to her, I’d have to live with my dad. After he died when I was fifteen it was simply the prospect of losing her that was devastating. Then, as I got older, it became more acute. I’d fret if she didn’t answer the phone or if I got a busy signal for more than an hour. I monitored every sniffle or cough that lingered. I read obituaries to check the average age of the old people that were dying. I didn’t want to think about life without her, or what it would feel like, so I tried to manage what I could not control.

She was a life-long smoker of unfiltered Pall Mall reds. She had a glass of wine and a cocktail every night and considered her vanilla ice cream a good source of calcium. She did not look after her health but managed to appear healthy. From 1978 to 2003 her only visits to a doctor were via the emergency room for a twisted ankle, a broken wrist and finally a broken pelvis. The extended gap in her health care was precipitated in 1978 by an irregular brain scan that doctors incorrectly presumed was a tumor. From that point she adopted the philosophy that doctors make you sick. By 2003 and the fractured pelvis, some legitimate, long-ignored, health issues were unmasked. She spent eight weeks in the hospital and rehab with a few touch and go all-nighters in the emergency room. In the darkest moments, I tried to talk myself into being okay with the fact it might be her time, but quietly sobbed at the thought. On top of knowing I would grieve losing her, I wasn’t sure how I would get through it.

Mother-daughter relationships are complicated by nature and ours was no different. Its complexities, however, were not typical. I never sassed her, talked back, or crossed her. Her emotional support was the only thing I felt I could trust and rely on as a young overweight girl with an alcoholic dad, who just wanted to feel good about herself and fit in. And she relied on me as a companion and ally, her number one booster and cheerleader. For her, my being “the baby” made her believe she appeared young to her peers, even after she had a handful of grandchildren. When she lied about my age to an old friend we ran into, she told me “They don’t want to know how old you are, it will make them feel old.” But an identity of “the baby” made me believe, by its definition, that I was not capable as an adult. This idea seeped into my fear of her death. Could I handle it? Or would I be an inconsolable mess?

In 2012, after several years of declining health, and several remarkable rebounds, my mom let us know that she was ready to not be here anymore.

“I want to be knocked out,” she said. Sitting up in her bed at the assisted living home she’d been in for a couple years, sipping the Bloody Mary my sister had fixed for her.

“You mean, like go to sleep and not wake up?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered. Her mind was sharp, but her body was frail and, quite literally, shutting down. Less than twenty-four hours later, after the first dose of morphine had calmed her breathing and her nerves, my brothers and sisters and I gathered in her room. We’d been told she’d get a dose of morphine every four hours. The hospice nurse would be back in a day to check on her. I stood near the doorway and observed the scene for a moment and then felt compelled to go sit on the bed next to her. I rubbed her hand, remembering how much I loved the liver spots I thought were freckles as a kid. I could see and feel that she was slipping away, life draining from her body. It was not terrifying. It was not beautiful. It was a somber experience punctuated with inexplicable odd, humorous moments and a peacefulness that’s hard to describe. I felt no fear.

I realized, not long after, I had been present with her when she found out my dad died, when she broke her pelvis in 2003, when she fractured her back in 2010 and finally on the day she died. I had been moving from light to shadow and back to light endlessly but needed to fully experience the thing I feared most to appreciate what was possible in those shadows.

It’s been over twenty years since I first experienced Graduation 1949, it still evokes the same deep melancholy from the first time, when I may have believed I conjured an imaginary life for this young girl on her graduation day, but I what I really did was ascribe my own to her.

Los Angeles based writer and native Angeleno, Trish Cantillon has published personal essays on The Fix, Refinery 29’s “Take Back the Beach,” The Refresh, Storgy, Brain Child Magazine Blog and Ravishly. Her fiction has appeared in Gold Man Review and Berkeley Fiction Review.   She works for Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization providing end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults. 

 

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Books, Guest Posts, healing, Young Voices

Inside Out

April 5, 2020
head

By Allison L. Palmer

I threw up in the bushes outside the hospital the day my sister was born. I didn’t stomp my feet and demand that my mom shove her back up there or refuse to go hold her. I didn’t hop up and down and beg my dad to bring me inside so I could kiss my brand-new best friend. No tantrums, no joy. Just vomit. I stopped right next to the E.R. entrance, put my hands on my dimpled kindergartener knees, and barfed. My dad looked down at me with a crease between his eyebrows as I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my sweater. He knelt next to me and patted my back, checking my forehead for fever. Yes, I feel better now. He shrugged and took my hand as we walked through the doors. Even then, my body knew the things my head didn’t. This is gateway love. My sister was my first. She will probably be my last. Maybe we have to empty out parts ourselves to make room for everything new.

My dad made space for us. Now that I’m older, I see that he was always up ahead of me. Carving away splinters, repainting colors, clearing cobwebs. He could blow clouds from the sky as easily as I could make a birthday wish. My childhood had soft edges. When I was ten and my sister was five, he took us on a trip to a small island off the coast of Canada. He drove us around in a red rental car with the windows down. July air rolled in off the St. Lawrence River, warm and light blue. He pulled the car off the road at the point of a finger. Anything we wanted. Waterfalls, homemade jam, sheep in a field. For me, we stopped at four used bookstores in a day. He popped sour cherries in my sisters’ mouth whenever she started to pipe up and spun her around in circles so I could empty the stacks into baskets with no limit. I wasn’t picky, not even a little bit. While I glossed over titles and artwork, I willed the piles to grow until they reached the ceiling and enclose me, unreachable, in a fortress that smelled of ink, where every wall and window would be made of paper and I would never run out words.

Growing up, I read the same books over and over until their covers fell off. I stole from libraries. I learned from The Lovely Bones that it’s easy to keep things that aren’t yours and make them yours, in more ways than one. I stuck V.C. Andrew’s Flowers In the Attic under my sweatshirt because at the time, it looked huge and menacing and exactly like something I shouldn’t be reading. I didn’t let that thing go until all 400 pages of arsenic and incest and locked doors and mothers who shouldn’t be mothers were branded on my brain. As Cathy and Chris descended their knotted sheet rope to the lawn of Foxworth Hall, I chewed gum and thought about evil. Then ordered the rest of the series on the internet along with the audiobook of Lolita because the jacket art, a girl in sunglasses sucking on a lollipop, seemed undeniably and captivatingly wrong. For days, I laid crumpled on my bed and cried to Jeremy Irons unidentifiable accent. I cried for Humbert Humbert and for the way people can’t fix their hearts, cried because I thought Dolores was undeserving. Cried because nymphets probably do exist. I filed away that word away under “L” for lust, love, lies and loneliness. All of the above. I took to organizing everything I read in books into neat boxes in my head.

After I’d finished gutting the bookstores and the sour cherries had dwindled to just pits and stems, we took a drive up the coast of Bas-Saint-Laurent to see the whales. We wrapped ourselves up in neon orange wind jackets with matching pants and climbed into an aluminum airboat, barely scraping 25 feet long. My dad sat in the middle and tucked my sister under one arm and me under the other. The guide alternated excitedly between English and French in the same breath. My dad kept his eyes on the horizon as the land behind us became nothing more than a thin green strip. I was watching the sun glint off his glasses when the guide began exclaiming things in Frenglish and making big gestures and everyone on the boat stood up. I gripped back of my seat and craned my head around their legs. My dad sat unmoving, but he had pushed his glasses up on his head. He took my face in his palms and turned it out to sea. The blue whale is the biggest living thing on the planet. 200 tons. Its body looked more silver than blue and it stretched an incomprehensible distance, rising in and out of the waves. I held my hands up to the sides of my eyes like blinders and worked my way down the length, head to tail, trying and failing to put boundaries on its existence. Its mouth was the size of the boat. If it opened its jaws, we might drift inside and float for an eternity along an endless shoreline of bones and blubber. I leaned closer into my dad’s side. There might be someone in there right now. We probably couldn’t hear the shouting.

I saw a dead whale about a year later. I could put limits on this one, easily. The three of us had just moved to a beach cottage in the wrong season, the middle of the winter. The ocean was our backyard and we talked there on weekends, down eleven flights of stairs worn splinterless by the saltwater and wind. Even in the frost, the rot smell was still strong enough to make my eyes water. I breathed exclusively through my mouth. Only a hulking skeleton was left, taller than me, with grey flesh still clinging on in some places. My sister was hardly a quarter of its pelvis, toddling around the perimeter like a lost duckling who has mistaken its mother for a corpse. I had never been that close to something so dead. I felt something next to sadness. In the backyard of reverence, but not quite. No one makes coffins that big. I stood in its ribcage and next its open eye sockets. Bizarrely inside and outside all at once. While we explored, we must have talked about how it ended up there, beached, alone, and now three quarters decayed. The likely death. I tried to chase away the gulls that hovered around the body, but more came. Before we left, I took off my gloves and bent at the edge of the waves to rinse my hands. The water was so cold it burned. I thought of the man sailing along the gut of the blue whale, calling out to empty, unforgiving waters and I felt small.

On the way back from the coast, we stopped at an antique-ish gallery surrounded by gardens. My dad admired its history. I’d been promised a stop at the bakery next door. The building was a refurbished barn made of smooth wood painted yellow with big windows. Windchimes tinkled and swayed around all the doors, betraying the way it had settled quietly into the background. I wondered if ghosts could make noise. Inside, the walls were cluttered with paintings of distorted faces and oversized clocks and sculptures made of things like obsidian and repurposed wire netting. I wandered absent-minded up and down the aisles, brushing my fingers along the eclectic treasures. My favorite bauble was a carving of a ballet dancer with movable parts. Her joints were set on loose hinges and splayed out in all directions around a fringe of white tool. I held her by her tiny wooden waist and rolled her head around between my fingers. The little dancer’s face was blank, expressionless. I imagined a soft smile should have been painted there, along with sleepy half-closed eyes. Something fuzzy, out of focus, and full of grace. I imagined she had a lot of secrets.

The thing about a body made of wood and set on hinges is that begins to stiffen. Arms that once stretched seamlessly through space now barely extend. Legs that once leapt and faltered without abandon start to creak. The thing about being afraid of your own body is that it becomes a stranger. I think this is what we think grace is, partly. Ethereal fear floating under your heart. We mistake it a lot of the time for beauty. As I learned to dance, my body lengthened and hollowed out right before my eyes. My teacher’s name was Ms. Mary. She sat always in the front, always in black, doling out critiques like sunshine and lightning. I remember we were practicing pirouettes for the fourth time that week. We practiced and practiced, with red cheeks and quick breaths until all of us turned together but we couldn’t stop because one girl in the back kept falling. Her name was Maggie. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, pulling herself off the floor, madly blinking back tears. Ms. Mary shook her head in slow motion, then called out my name. She instructed me to stand in front of Maggie, so she couldn’t see herself. She was getting in her own way. Stand there and don’t move. The other girls silently parted as I crossed the studio and aligned myself carefully in the mirror. The top of Maggie’s auburn bun was just visible above my head. She was taller than me. Keep going, Ms. Mary said. Until she gets it right. As she turned, I could sense every hot cheek in the room blistering until the heat fried away every nerve that said to scream, to run, to throw yourself on the floor along with her until we were all unmovable, peaceless, quiet. Lovely in our paralysis. I heard Maggie hiccup as she stumbled and hit the floor again and I retreated completely inside myself. I felt the grains of wood overtaking and splintering along my skin and straightening my spine, felt my face rounding out to nothing. Get up. My ribs began shrinking down onto my lungs and grasping hold of my throat. Her breath came faster and began breaking into sobs and the thing about being afraid of your own body is that you can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else to go.

There was a sharp smack on the window over my head. The figurine fell out of my hands and clattered onto the floor. I hadn’t even noticed that the sky had opened up and was now heaving down rain. I ran towards the noise and found my dad and sister kneeling just outside the door. I peeked around their shoulders and saw a bird half-limp in my dad’s hand, maybe six inches long, with black and white tipped wings. It was laying on its side, little legs outstretched and stiff. Poor thing got confused in this weather and flew straight into the window. Wispy noises came out its beak. It reminded me of my sister when she was a baby and how she cooed while she slept. I used to sneak into her room to run the tip of my pinky along her jaw until she would bat my hand away in her sleep. I dropped to the floor in front of her crib before she could wake up. Must be in shock. My dad shook his head and set the bird down gingerly under the edge of a bush. He took my sisters hand and reached for mine. Come on, let’s go. I was still looking down. Its black eyes were lolling around wildly in its skull and its body had started twitching. The muscles had nothing to hold on to, like a little girl who can’t stop falling long enough to stand.

In second grade, a boy I knew died. He stabbed me with pencils and tripped me on the basketball court at recess and I hated him. He gave me a scar, on my right knee. Shaped like a T. Then an ATV flipped over on top of him in the woods and he was brain-dead before my scab hadn’t even fallen off. My mom brought me to the funeral, and we sat in the last pew of the church waiting for a eulogy that no one managed to deliver. She handed me green and blue Sweetarts from her purse and I sucked on them until my tongue was numb. The casket was open, filled with stuffed animals and sports trophies and an entire embalmed life. I looked at my feet and fidgeted and tried to pray even though I had absolutely no idea how to. I am still uneasy in long lines and in silence. My knee itched and I could see the fresh pink skin peeking out from underneath the scab. I wondered what happened to cuts and scabs when you were dead. When I picked mine off eventually, it didn’t bleed. The skin was permanently puckered. I dug my nail into it, to no avail. A tiny spot of nothing. I remember I laid on the hillside outside the church with my mom after it was over and held her while she cried. Both of her parents died when she was 16. She likes to say that I saved her life. I wonder if now she loves less because I’m branded by a dead kid. The thought is fleeting. On the outside, my body is only 99% alive.

Before I could stop myself, I had reached out and taken the bird in my own two hands, cupping it against my t-shirt like a newborn. I laid down on the grass, tucking my knees up to my chin. The wet blades glued themselves to my limbs and cradled my head and left trails of goosebumps like comets on my exposed skin. I didn’t hear the hectic symphony of the windchimes clanging to a fever pitch. I think a small coffin must be much easier to build than a big one. If I could, I’d build one myself, from the softening wood of my body. This is close enough. Didn’t feel the icy rain drops that slid down my spine and under the rain coat my dad must have laid over me. For once, the cold was freeing, limitless. I could swim through it for an eternity. Didn’t notice when the storm had gone, and the sun lit the backs of my eyelids pink. My thoughts were replaced with all the words I’d ever read in books. It’s like when you drop something heavy on a floor covered in dust and the world goes away, just for a second, in the disarray. When it clears, I see my small sister’s face pressed into the grass in front of me. Her eyes are open, and calm. In them, are the parts of myself I thought had gone. When she places her hands over mine, I think about how hearts sound like they are gulping. Like they want to break out of your chest and drink in the air, how they crave leftover life, the 1%, and how there is nothing else like the impossibly tiny body underneath both sets of our fingers.

 

Allison Palmer is an undergraduate student and new writer. She studies Biology and English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her other work can be read online in Pithead Chapel and Eunoia Review. We are THRILLED to be featuring her work.

 

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Guest Posts, Yoga

Yoga

May 16, 2019
father

By Rob Norman

I drove up to my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan after a very long hiatus.  I cruised along once-familiar roads and arrived at the brick-paved Wealthy Street, which back in my early days, at least in that part of town, was anything but wealthy. I stopped and looked for my father Larry’s warehouse that I had worked at for many years of my youth.  I found it, now quite clean and professional in appearance, in the center of a fully gentrified neighborhood.

The building was now occupied with a yoga studio called “From the Heart.” I walked in and checked it out.  I made plans to take a class the next morning.

I was in town to try and find one of my brothers, Steven.  Not only had we grown up in the same house, but we had slept in the same bedroom.  He had written me via text (he would not speak over the phone to me or any other family member) that his girlfriend of over three decades, Cathy, was now sick with cancer and off and on in the hospital.  I came up to Michigan to see what was happening.

Steven spent much of his days driving his bike around town, frequented the library, and God knows what else.  He had always lived at the fringe of society, never able to gain purchase on any semblance of a normal life.  As with our father, as far as I know, he never sought much-needed medical or psychiatric help and was in constant denial as to the severity of his problem.  When my mother was alive, she never seemed to know what to do to help him.  She would provide him food from the Temple Emanuel food bank where she volunteered and gave him cash whenever others gave her money. Time moved on and now he was in his late 60’s, still just as trapped as ever. Continue Reading…

Fatherhood, Fear, Guest Posts

All Fathers Want to Hurt Their Sons

June 17, 2018
hurt

By Brian Zimbler

“I feel like you’re doing everything in your power, verbally and non-verbally, to tell me not to say anything negative,” I say to Randy, my therapist.

We’re doing a phone session.  I’m propped up on Nora’s side of the bed against an ornamental IKEA pillow.  Nora and Myla are downstairs, watching Elliot.  It’s his 12th day.  It’s a snow day.  I have my jeans on, which is a total Nora no-no (no outdoor clothes can touch the duvet) but I am being passive aggressive because I want her to love me more than the baby.

“I’m not forcing you to be positive,” Randy parries, “If anything, I’m asking you to stay in — “

“I know, I know, stay in the good feelings.  I am.  I’m trying.  You gotta admit, I could’ve spun into the real dark telling you the parents-at-the-bris story just now, but I stayed good.”

Elliot’s bris was last week.  My parents came down.  The mohel, in the prep documents she sent us, let us know she would need an assistant to stay by her side throughout the process.  Nora and I decided this would either be my father the doctor or my mother the therapist, we would decide day of; however, day of, I decided – though I can’t really call it a decision, more a clear loud message from inside – that I would never ever let either of my parents be with my son at his most vulnerable, ever, and that I would be the one to usher him through.

“It’s never the dad,” said the mohel.

“This time it’s the dad,” I said.

And I did it.  I stayed with my beautiful new son even through the part upstairs where she pulled my beautiful new son’s foreskin back and clamped it, to prepare him to be cut.  Even through the part where he was brought downstairs covered in a tallis on a sick infant’s gurney.  Even through the part where all the sugar water in the world could not put my strong son to sleep. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts

Closet Shots

April 20, 2018
closet

By Adele Zane

Your father just shoved you into his bedroom closet and slammed the door, entombing you. You tell yourself to get a grip, but your ears still pound and your hands still clench. You pant through your nose, purse your lips, squeeze your eyes shut, and grit your teeth. You do all of this so your head won’t explode like a watermelon rifled against a wall. So what, you tell yourself, this is nothing. Why not view it as a refreshing alternative to his usual forms of discipline? This one beats a harried chase through the house till he corners you in the dining room where you drop to the floor and curl up like a pill bug.

His fancy eel skin belt, the buckle flying, raining down on your back and thighs. In fact, when you think back through the fifteen long years of your life, as far as his punishments go, this shut-in-the-closet one is easy. It hasn’t involved belts, wooden spoons, or yanking of hair. So get ahold of yourself, calm down, and above all, do not cry. He hates that. He says it’s manipulative and that he’s way too smart to fall for what he calls crocodile tears. Whatever that means.

It’s Saturday afternoon and time for his nap. No one in your family will want to wake him once he falls asleep. Even as a toddler you knew not to go near him when he slept, but if you had to, to wake him for a phone call or because it was dinnertime, it was safest to stand at the foot of his bed, and say, Daddy, Daddy, several times with increasing loudness. If that didn’t work, then you would touch his big toe lightly, recoiling fast so he couldn’t clobber you when he came up from his dreams, arms swinging at imaginary assailants.

You realize you could be in here for hours. The door doesn’t have a lock; you could open it if you wanted to, but you won’t and neither will anyone else. Now that you’ve calmed down, you better find some way to entertain yourself. You slowly turn around and move your arms like you’re doing the wave at a football game until you find the pull chain to the overhead light. You wonder if turning it on is against the rules of his new made-up-on-the-spot punishment. You decide to chance it and pull the chain, real slow so it doesn’t make a clicking sound. The bare 40-watt bulb illuminates two identically tailored pinstripe suits, one brown and one navy, from Roos/Atkins, his favorite store, and lots of work pants and shirts from Penney’s and Sears.

On the floor are his polished black dress boots and his dusty work boots—the ones he whistles for you to come and remove from his feet when he gets home from work. You quell the urge to kick his stupid shoes and yank his dumb clothes from their hangers because you know your father can go from charming to ballistic in less than a second without discernible provocation. This would be too discernable an act of provocation. You could go through his pockets—maybe there’s something interesting in them—but he’d know you looked, for he’s all-knowing or so he tells you and you can’t take that risk even though you doubt he would really know. You dare yourself to look in his jacket pockets anyway. Nothing much—a silver lighter, a toothpick, and a couple of pennies.

What is interesting is what’s lined up against the wall to your left, almost as tall as you are. Careful not to touch, you use your index finger to count them. There are a total of nine zippered cases of soft beige suede, each holding either a rifle or a shotgun. You don’t know what makes a rifle a rifle or a shotgun a shotgun. Is there a difference? You’d never realized he had this many, but then again, you’ve never hung out in his closet either. To your right are shelves he built. On the shelves are boxes and boxes of bullets and a pair of sheathed hunting knives. He’s got enough firepower to kill every deer, duck, and quail in the state of California, and maybe Nevada too. At least that’s what it looks like. He’s even got handguns nestled in boxes. You read their labels: .44 Mag, .357 Mag, and something called a 1911. Why the heck does he need all these? To sneak up on an unsuspecting pheasant? You think it’s extreme overkill to own so many guns and smile to yourself at your wittiness.

You hear the thwack, thwack of a tennis ball being hit back and forth. Your father, now lounging on his bed atop a faux fur bedspread the unnatural color of a teddy bear, smug in the knowledge that his oldest daughter is confined ten feet away, has resumed watching the Wimbledon finals, a match between Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. You hear him fire up a Camel no-filter. His chain smoking makes your family and your house smell like you all roll around in dirty ashtrays.

But back to the guns. He didn’t put you in here so you could peruse his gun collection, choose your favorite one.

For a moment you flirt with the fantasy of hurting yourself, but it seems too obvious a move given the situation. Too bad you didn’t pay more attention when he first showed you how to load his BB gun, then how to aim and shoot at the paper target he’d taped to a stepladder in the basement. A good starter gun he’d called it. You’d bawled and made it clear that unlike him, you weren’t interested in weapons or hunting or killing animals. Besides, your eyesight is so bad you didn’t even come close to hitting the target itself let alone the bullseye.

To kill time, you imagine the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, if you successfully loaded a gun, and managed to fatally shoot yourself in the closet’s three-by-six-foot space. Poor Misunderstood Girl Shoots Self Dead in Father’s Closet. Now you’re feeling sorry for yourself. How about Trapped Teenage Girl Shoots Self Because of Idiot Dad and Stupid Family. Your attempts at amusing yourself wear thin, and you collapse down to sit cross-legged on the cherry red shag carpet to wait him out. You cover your face with your hands.

You’re lulled into sleepiness by the sound of the television audience’s polite applause and the announcer’s soothing voice as he loudly whispers Love, Fifteen. Your dad’s rooting for Connors. You think Connors is a hotheaded jerk and hope he loses to the black guy Ashe. If your father knew you were dozing during your punishment, it would anger him even more. You don’t want to do that because he can be inventive. Besides his trusty belt, he has a dog whip for special-occasion infractions. It stings like hell and leaves the nastiest welts, worse than the belt buckle. He’s careful to hit you above your knees so the marks aren’t visible below your skirts, but his thoughtfulness doesn’t keep you safe at school. It’s against the rules to take your gym clothes into a bathroom stall to change, but you do it anyway. You don’t have a choice, you have to; you know instinctively that if anyone were to see your body, it would be too difficult and embarrassing to explain.

You imagine standing in front of your dresser and contorting your body in the mirror so you can count the multicolored welts that adorn your butt and thighs, fingering them gently, monitoring them day to day as they change from angry red to mellow yellowish purple. Proof of his unfairness or your uselessness. You’ve dozed off but wake up fast when you hear your mother’s voice. Maybe she’s come to remind your father you’re still in the closet.

“Manuel. Wake up. Ashe won, but Wide World of Sports is about to start or maybe there’s some soccer on. Want me to get you some Sanka?”

You’re happy Connors lost. Then you hear the jingle of the keys that hang from your father’s belt. A sound that elicits fear in your family because it tells you he’s coming but doesn’t telegraph what mood he’ll be in when he gets to you. The closet door opens before you can jump up to pull the chain and turn off the light. You pray he doesn’t notice.

“Had enough?”

He looks down at you on the floor. You look up, squinting against the daytime brightness. You pull yourself to a standing position using the ammo shelves as leverage. Your legs don’t quite cooperate. You remember to drop your eyes to the carpet because looking directly at him is considered a challenge to his authority. Yes, I’ve had enough, you tell him, because that’s what he wants to hear.

“Good, I hope you learned your lesson,” he says.

“Can I get back to my algebra homework, Daddy, please?” you remembered to say please.

He flicks at a speck of cigarette ash on the ratty terrycloth robe he wears over his work pants.

“Say sorry to your brother then go make me some Sanka. Not too hot, and don’t fill it too full either.”

“Yeah, say you’re sorry.”

You raise your eyes at the sound of your seven-year-old brother’s voice. Across the bedroom, he stands next to your mother and little sister, his arms folded across his chest like an angry genie-child denying wishes. You grit your teeth and take a deep breath through your nose, careful to keep your face blank. He is the worst brother anyone could ever have in your opinion, but you don’t want to sit in a gun-filled closet for the rest of your life so you apologize to him.

“I don’t believe you,” he says, tapping his foot for emphasis.

“That’s enough Mark,” your mother says, “she’s been in the closet for hours.”

You blink your eyes slowly and force your mouth into what you hope passes as an apologetic smile and try again.

“Really Mark, I’m sorry,” you say, “sorry I yelled at you. I just got to study.”

Your brother looks at your father, then back at you and states, “I can come in your room anytime I want.”

You admonish yourself to stay calm. Yes, your father shut you in the closet because you yelled at your do-no-wrong brother, interrupting an important tennis match, as well as your homework; however, this closet punishment trip wasn’t so bad, you handled it.

“Sure, anytime you want, Mark.”

He smirks with triumph.

You remind yourself that in three years you’ll graduate high school, you smile for real at the thought and head to the kitchen to try to make your father the perfect cup of Sanka.

Singer and songwriter Adele Zane was born in Brazil, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York with the fine artist Richard Rosenblatt and their rescued terrier, Wally. She has taken memoir writing classes at both FreeBird Writing Workshop and Gotham Writers Workshop.

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

 

Join Jen at her On Being Human workshop in upcoming cities such as NYC, Ojai, Tampa, Ft Worth and more by clicking here.

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Promises and Lies

March 7, 2018
manuals

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world needs you.

By Jen Soong

In a cramped motel room, I stared silently into the dark, lying still as a corpse. Until recently, I had been studying at a prestigious university, my future beckoning brightly. My father kept vigil over me, still his little girl. The distance separating us — a few feet, at most — felt like an unbridgeable gulf.

Jen-ni-fer, he said, his once-steady voice cracking as he broke the silence. Promise me you’ll never try that again.

I promise, I lied softly, knowing those were the words he needed to hear. Lying proved to be easier than living. No, I’m not having any thoughts of harming myself. I lied to the clinician to gain my release from the locked hospital ward after my dad arrived. Yes, I will seek help if I have those thoughts again.

The next day, I repeated those lies to a disinterested psychiatrist in a drab beige office, tuning out his line of inquiry about my ethnicity. A verbal no-harm agreement. Like a security blanket, it generally works only if the child tucked underneath believes it. Let’s play pretend. I knew my lines to deliver, even if they weren’t completely honest.

I took too many sleeping pills. Truth is a slippery slope. I just wanted to sleep. If I never spoke the words out loud—that I was tired of living—was I technically lying? If the bitter truth, a suicide attempt, is never examined in the light of day, then it can stay buried in the past, like the ghosts of my ancestors.

We don’t talk about these things.

Earlier that day, my dad questioned why I had run away when I was a kid, a time I could still cry out for help. He was desperate to connect the dots and reach a logical conclusion. My father, armed with a PhD in electrical engineering, will read a manual from beginning to end before attempting to fiddle with anything.

Daughters don’t come with manuals. My dad was my protector; once he scolded the boy who crashed a bike that caused my skinned knees. Dirt and tears, these could be wiped away with his pocket handkerchief. Protecting me from myself was not a formula he could solve.

Depression runs in my family. My dad’s mother committed suicide when she was 59. The last time he saw her alive was 1956, before he boarded a freight ship from Taiwan to study in America. Thirteen years later, he flew back to his homeland for her funeral. After the service, he learned she killed herself. His sister had discovered her body in the bathroom along with a suicide note.

We don’t talk about these things.

Late at night during family gatherings when I was still young, adults whispered in hushed tones in the kitchen, usually with fruit — likely oranges or Asian pears — peels and peanut shells littered on paper plates at the table. The secrets swirled in the air, sucking the oxygen out of the room. When I entered, my body immediately tensed, torn between wanting to know and needing to escape.

Often, I would descend into the basement to play mah-jong with my cousins, shuffling tiles and competing for red and blue poker chips, never revealing what lay behind our tile walls. It was easier to hide our hurts, mask our missteps, swallow our pride. If we never questioned our elders, then perhaps we would take home the greatest jackpot.

This unwritten bargain will be familiar to immigrant children, whispered softly like a mother’s lullaby. We will make unimaginable sacrifices to raise you in America, land of riches, and you will play the role of the dutiful daughter, living a life of immeasurable happiness.

Lying in bed that night, I couldn’t find the words to explain to my dad how lost I felt. Depression had stolen my voice, betrayed my mind and filled my soul with an insidious darkness. No map could lead me out of this bleak, nameless place. Instead, I lay in wait, knowing my dad, my hero, would sacrifice his life to light the way home.

Jen Soong is a writer and brand strategist with more than two decades of media and marketing experience. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she grew up in a small town in New Jersey, lived in NYC, Boston and London before moving to Atlanta in 2005. A graduate of Cornell University, Jen is working on a memoir about one woman’s struggle to understand her depression and her family’s history of suicide.

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

Family, Guest Posts

Hallmark

January 28, 2018
hallmark

By Sheila Grace Stuewe

I darted into my neighborhood Hallmark store and held my breath. To my left stood an endcap stacked with plastic potpourri bags. Who’d buy that? Someone with a sewer back up? Homes should smell of pancakes on Sunday morning as mine once did, not like chemically altered flowers.

Past the dust-catching collectibles—statues, candles, and ornaments—to the rack of Father’s Day cards, I sped. I didn’t know why I had an urge to send Dad a card. In September, he’d reached the three-quarters of a century mark. He wasn’t going to live forever even with his Prussian peasant genes—stocky, sturdy, stubborn, and seemingly impervious to the effects of decades-long alcohol abuse. And I needed to stop exhuming what may or may not have happened forty years ago.

Standing in the middle of the dad-of-the-year aisle, I felt my throat close—an allergic reaction to that artificial scent? I coughed. I tried to swallow. I rifled through my purse for a bubble gum ball (the only kind I’ll chew—no mint for me). I popped it into my mouth. As my teeth bit through its hard surface, a burst of cherry—red, tart, yet much sweeter than the real thing—my childhood favorite. If only I were on a swing in Marquette Park, Dad pushing me higher, me leaning all the way back, my legs soaring in the air. Instead, surrounded by doodads and sentimentality, I wondered if I’d find a card I could send my father. Continue Reading…

#metoo, Abuse, Guest Posts

On Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, My Past and My Daughter’s Future

January 21, 2018
story

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.

By Jane Rosenberg LaForge

My father was a storyteller. He most enjoyed telling stories about his family, my sister and I included, how life befuddled and bedazzled us, as it did to his immigrant parents. He consumed novels, newspapers, and magazine articles, and then sought out his usual interlocutors, my mother among them, to comb through every last detail so he might glean the correct implications. But he hated science fiction and fantasy, because so much was left to hocus pocus, or some deux de machine that you had to accept, lest you deflate the whole project.

My father also experimented with religions other than the Judaism he was born into. He investigated everything from Scientology to Catholicism, because he wanted   a “proscribed life” without the endless debate of the familiar Talmud. He wanted to rely on an already tried wisdom, not just rituals but an ethos that would be all encompassing and reassuring.  That he wanted this spelling out of what to do and how to do it on his own, secular terms belied the purpose of religion, and he wound up settling for a life of doubt, since the alternative—faith—could not be explained in rational terms, and was too supernatural. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Young Voices

I Am A Thief

December 8, 2017

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.

By Gabriella Geisinger

I am a thief.

At age fourteen I began shoplifting. It was part of my teenage rebellion. A ring here, a bracelet there; a tube of mascara or lipstick would find their way stealthily into my pockets as I sauntered, impervious, past cash registers. I only acquired items that were small enough to conceal in the palm of my hand. By age eighteen the habit had waned. My first year at college provided whatever psychological freedom I required to keep the mild kleptomania at bay – for the most part.

With adolescent abandon, my freshman year passed uneventfully by. August soon became May and I packed up several suitcases, shoving them into our Pampolna’d bull of a car – a black minivan with a nasty habit of spewing maple syrup scented steam when it over heated – and returned to New York City for my first summer at home in three years. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parents

Fathers

October 11, 2017
fathers

By Acacia Blackwell

My mother told me that my father had the sweetest breath in the world. This was a man who chews tobacco and has been known to go for weeks at a time without brushing his teeth. “And you have it too,” she said. She leaned her face close to mine. Millimeters. The kind of proximity reserved for mothers and lovers. She said, “Breathe on me.” My mother closed her eyes and inhaled my breath like she was breathing in a part of my being. The way I inhale my lover’s armpits, craving the raw, human intimacy of sweat. “Yep,” she said, opening her eyes, “sweet breath and too much gums in your smile. You are your father’s daughter.”

Father’s daughter. Fathers’ daughter. Fathers. Daughter.

Once, when I was almost but not quite yet a legal adult, I managed to piss my mother off in the way that only teenaged daughters really can. She seethed but for the first time I didn’t back down from her rage. I raged back. Her glare receded—a softening—and she offered only a resignation that, “You are me. And your father. But you might be more of somebody else than both of us combined. He didn’t bring you into the world, but he clearly brought you up in it.” Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Practising Grief

September 11, 2017
dementia

By Julie Butler

I’ve braced for my father’s death my whole life.

Dad was two decades older than my friends’ fathers. As soon as I could understand mortality and average life expectancy, I counted down the years and milestones I might have left to share with him. I became a child who practised grief.

As a teenager, I snooped through the folds of his wallet to find the neat, white envelope where he kept his nitroglycerin, as though keeping a secret inventory confirming that he had slipped a tiny tablet under his tongue might protect me from shock if his heart gave out. That was the threat in all my worried forecasts; a sudden, massive, lethal myocardial infarction.

There were times I believed I’d arrived at that eventuality, bursting through the backdoor, my bare feet descending two porch steps at a time. I anticipated the snip of pruning shears that would prove to be too much exertion. Yet, Dad’s heart defied my worry. So focused on what may come suddenly, I did not consider that death may slowly claim him, and in minute pieces. There was no rehearsal for dementia. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Over and Over

July 5, 2017
fishing

By Jessica Knuth

There is an unexpected sense of loneliness in watching the dead body of someone you love being taken away from your home. Alone in the back of a car. Zipped up inside a body bag. Driving away into resounding blackness.

Somehow, in your delirium, through the tears and snot, through the sharp pains in your chest and loved ones touching your shoulders, your hair, somehow you manage to walk down the hallway where your Dad should be sleeping, where he has slept your entire life, and you look inside his bedroom, though you know you shouldn’t. The bed is unmade, sheets jumbled and repositioned in haste. There is a stain on the bed and you can’t tell if it’s blood, or urine, or vomit. Otherwise, the room is the same as it was two hours earlier when he was still alive. When his lungs still worked. His heart, his brain, however limited. Before he went from present tense to past tense. Animate to inanimate. Living to dead. Continue Reading…