The things I want more than anything are the things others want: peace of mind. Friendship. Money, even. That’s the one that gets to me. Oh, maybe they all do.
Friendship is hard because there has to be a line. You cannot let the other person take over, but you can’t take over either—you need to dance some kind of dance. Hard.
Not knowing. I have a friend whose parents were guerrilla fighters. Like most people, I used to think they were named after the ape—that’s how far I was from their, and his, lived reality. He wonders about the people his mother killed—what it was like for her—before she was dragged away when he was two. He remembers her placing him in the neighbors’ care and never seeing her again. His father didn’t get the chance to kill before he was arrested. He didn’t die.
If he knew the whole story, it would be easier. He could put it in one of the mind’s little shoeboxes. She could even fit in the blood and guts, maybe some cruel words she said to corrupt officials and capitalist pigs who so firmly deserved to die. Easy. This is who she killed, and why. These are the mountains she fought on, this is where she lay in ambush, and this is where she shot them. They didn’t get her. She shot them. Men, probably. She shot men. With her two-year-old boy at home, she shot because she believed in something even greater than him or like all mothers out there striving and sweating, she was, in a way, doing it for him. Maybe she wanted to leave him a better world. She left him nightmares. The bodies are not metaphorical.
My not-knowing is different. My parents were also killers. But not. For a good. Cause.
Cause? Caused by the trauma they lived, passed it on to me, to my body.
There are several problems with this:
I cannot find peace. A constant restlessness, as if my life may be ended at any time, like a guerilla hiding out in the mountains. I live because I believe in it, so I keep going.
It is very very hard to live a normal life as if everyone is climbing a mountain, but my backpack is full of stones. No one notices. They climb merrily to the top and wonder why I struggle, and I wonder myself and before I didn’t even have any clue at all.
Disbelief: My own best friend didn’t believe me. I am desperate now. You have to believe me. You must. Know why? Know the biggest unease? Self-doubt. The precariousness of my own faith.
Take these words into you and give them meaning.
I have been tested and I have passed so many.
The sharks are mind-sharks. But their teeth bite.
I gave birth. I love my son.
I love him so much it hurts. Maybe that’s all. mothers. who. love.
It is like a fist grabbing my heart. Pulls it together where there was only vapor.
The steam of a heart. Cut. The body an open wound. You’ve been there, you’ll know.
My best friend thinks false memories were embedded in me.
When I tell people, I watch their faces. There are those who believe, those who don’t. There are those who sit on the fence. They are the most annoying.
The disbelievers I can disregard. The fence-sitters look too much like my own hopes.
I love my boy so much it hurts with all the hurt I felt.
when. they. hurt. me.
The more I tell you and the more you believe, the more they never stand. a. chance. of. getting. him.
You are my comfort. I sacrifice a night’s sleep to you.
How normal must I act tomorrow? How much must I blend in and comfort?
My very presence is dangerous. To some.
My speaking out is dangerous. To them.
Fragments. I was over thirty when I learned that the worse the trauma, the more fragmented the memories. Like. a. shirt. full. of. holes. that. cannot. warm. or. be. worn.
Fragments. It is all I have. It is not their word against mine. It is their word-of-God against fragments. My life has been a windy thing. A tumbleweed. At best, a bumblebee.
The me that wants to get out is crying, and crying out. A chrysalis that cannot open because it is too hard and afraid of what is outside.
Inside, a me that wants out.
I read Salmon Rushdie’s autobiography of when he was in hiding and what struck me the most was that even with a death threat and secrecy enforced by the government that provided round-the-clock police protection, he had more of a life than I do. He was less hidden than I am. He could be sneaked out for dinner parties in Manhattan. He could be smuggled up to Stephen King’s cabin in the woods. He gave himself and was received. I had no interest in the fatwa. What gripped me was his life, insofar as it was allowed to continue even under a rock. Even seeing that shadowy bit gave me a glimpse of what for him was normal, but for me extraordinary. A life.
Not that I am reclusive—no, not anymore. I make an effort. I meet people and have rich human sharing and some deep friendships. Though none are without . . . complications. None. We care in the margins. It is hard to say when I am being used or who I am trying to use for what.
The best hope I have is to tell you my story as clearly as possible.
My mother’s name was Mary Anne Hatchet. I should fictionalize it. But this is not, contrary to appearances, a work of fiction. Everything is fact. Maybe I will go to jail for saying her real name. More likely, she would sue me, then bail me out. It would be like Stephen King’s Misery. And of course, I would try to refuse the bail, if they’d let me. She might petition for me to be in a psychiatric institution at that point because who, short of crazy, would prefer prison to the bosom of her loving family . . ..
I can only put together pieces, like an archeologist digging up and gluing fragments, many of which are missing. One thing you must understand is this: the huge gap between how things really were and the discourse about how things were. In the discourse, this was a happy, normal, loving family. I was already an adult before I realized this it is not the norm for families.
Stockholm syndrome. My survival depended on pretending. It depended on maintaining discourse. Upholding facade. Most of all, naming reality was a sin. I was to name things as things were required to be named. How do you do this, psychologically, without going crazy or rebelling? My mechanism was to adhere fully to my captors’ views, including of me and my doubts. We classified these. The confusing parts were the blurry borders. Sometimes they seemed truly normal. Sometimes they seemed to truly love me. But now that I think of it, it was more words than seems. They created their reality out of words. And nothing was left to chance.
When you are born, you are dependent. Totally. You have to believe the person whose breast you suck at wants your good. You simply have to. Trust them.
I grew. It is like a cult. In this kind of family, everyone was in on it. Some fools say it is genetic. It’s not. It is inherited, but not in the blood. It is passed along like a hot potato. It’s amazing how much is blamed on genetics. Those people are the deniers. They erase my truths. They are like people who say the Holocaust never happened. Right to survivors’ faces. What if survivors were not allowed to talk about it even with each other—would. they. too. start. to. doubt? I don’t mean doubt they were in some kind of camp—rather maybe part of them would believe (want desperately to believe) the propaganda films the Nazis themselves made showing little Jewish girls skipping happily across stones. A place where they worked and conditions were not great. That’s all. A hard time for the nation. Most people said it wasn’t happening even when it was going on in that candle factory next door. That was also true where we lived, on 41 Hill Street, a house that lives on in my nightmares. Wait, some of you might say. How can she compare herself to a Holocaust victim? I can’t. These are two very different situations, and I would never minimize the horrors that happened to Jews as survivors and their descendants and the trauma afflicting even those not directly touched because their whole religion was singled out for hatred and extermination. They have my deepest sympathy. What the situations do have in common is that both involve total dependence on people who love inflicting pain and suffering and have no scruples about doing so with you and your loved ones (my brothers), while using ideology to justify it (the greatness of the nation, the happy family). This is simplistic, but in both cases, there is the Stockholm syndrome and along with it (my point) is the wish that it could not have happened. Here, I stop the parallel with the Jews because it is not fair to venture into how that wish might make some even want to deny to themselves, although they know they can’t. I think this is a normal human response. Because when you wake up from a nightmare, don’t you feel mighty glad it wasn’t real—so when you’re in a waking nightmare, don’t you think you might also fantasize that it wasn’t real? When your mother announces tearfully that your best friend has just died, and hugs you on the couch, crying more than you are (although she has had him killed), don’t you wish she would say “just joking”? A cruel joke, sure, but better than the alternative.
I never saw the body. They didn’t tell me until the funeral was over. Sometimes I still allow myself to fantasize that he is alive somewhere. I used to dream he was in Australia and had grown a couple feet taller, and was doing well in his job. Drunk, early after his death, having gone there anyway, I had wanted to go out one night and lie on his grave. His brothers stopped me. All of us were drunk and high for quite a long time and I think they still are, brothers and parents too. It numbs the pain. But the wound is still there, as big as ever. That’s why I stopped.
What’s my point? What is this, an essay? No. Because I get to tell you all the hard parts, not trying to convince you of anything. I am just turning my skull inside out for you . . . wait a moment please, while I make sure the brains don’t fall out. There.
I pieced together some of what happened with a psychiatrist when I was over thirty because I recognized my symptoms in a brochure she’d printed on traumatic memory that I came across totally by chance. We traced the symptoms to their cause.
I ran away when I was 16, but although they were bad for me, I thought that really it must be me with the problem. The Stockholm syndrome affects almost everyone when another has the power of life or death over them and lingers on for previously normal people once safety is gained. Thinking I was the one who had the problem was a way of conforming to their worldview, and thus increasing chances of my survival. Like all good evolutionary mechanisms, it doesn’t flip back.
But I did it! I ran, and now I am proud of myself for it, looking back.
Had it not been for the accident, maybe I never would have returned to the bosom of my family.
my. best. friend. and. first. love. was. killed.
I suspected my parents hired a hit-man.
Now, that sounds paranoid. Even to me. That’s how well we’ve been trained.
But it also sounds logical.
People have children for many reasons. They had me as a medicine for treating their own traumas through inflicting them on someone as innocent as they once had been. The hot potato. They got off on that. Torture. Many people do.
What better way than creating your own perfect victim? Always there, always totally dependent, and the perfect alibi of parenthood.
People assume too many things: that parents love and want what’s best for their own children. That parents are somehow more moral than your street corner pervs, especially when they are wealthy and white.
I had fled the flock. That was the worst sin and crime. I grew up hearing about two criminals who fled the flock, one on each side of the family. They were always caned back. It was only later I started wondering if the symptoms of these “fugitives,” disease and depression, were linked to the shepherd’s crook always around their neck and not, as per the official discourse, because of having rejected their family’s bosom too long.
I say “bosom” intentionally. Because I am talking about incest.
Here, the memories are so fragmented. The not-quite-as-horrible float to the top (nasty, frothy bubbles), while the worst are deep at the bottom, hidden like a slimy blind fish, camouflaged with everything else I’ve tried to make out of a life.
I will try listing what I have to go with, like a shopping list:
We are at Disney World in Florida. Parking lot. There is a fight. Mainly me and my parents. Looking back, the fight, whatever it was supposedly about, seems staged. I walk away. We are staying at a Disney-affiliated hotel a short way down a big, busy road. If I can only make it there . . .. Along the road, broken glass. An armadillo. The thought of snakes and alligators. Cars whiz by. Some slow down for a ten-year-old girl. Such easy prey. I shout at them with such venom that they move on. I don’t even know that shout. I just need to make it to the hotel. They will give me the key. I can go to the room and be safe. The man at the desk refuses. He leads me to a laundry room. Rapes me. Another man too. Rape me against the noisy washing machines. Then they pull themselves together, tuck in their shirts, wipe the sweat off their red faces, and, smiling behind the desk as if nothing has happened, hold out the key. I dash to the room. Unlock it. Run a bath. I stay there a long time. In the bathtub, I piece myself together. I don’t yet know there is a world out there, but I have some idea there might be. In my mind, I am sequestered as if I never saw anything but them and the bubble they put around us everywhere we go. I am convinced they knew very well what they were doing, and wanted me to be raped.
Did they rape me themselves? I am pretty sure of it. I have vague memories of serving as a tool for my mother’s masturbation when I was a baby. And she would come in at night after listening at the door. It was through masturbation that I too gained relief and no, it’s not genetic. I was reliving the trauma, paradoxically to bring relief. Because in extreme trauma, the brain produces substances to calm you down and keep you alive. Just as I was climaxing, she would always come in, no matter what hour in the middle of the night. Her pretext was usually bringing laundry. I realize now that was her way of happily recalling my rape. Both for her benefit and mine. That’s why she always kept that washing machine going in our kitchen. And when it broke, she used to like going to the laundry mat. Maybe she had even been there watching. Maybe she’d been paid. Maybe there are even videos or photos. At least that would be proof. My story, these memories, mean nothing as proof, I think.
Why would I lie? Don’t you know I wish more than anyone I was lying? I wish I had a family that loved me. I wish I was born for another purpose than being someone’s medication. But I wasn’t. So I move on with what I have. There is much more to say. In some nightmares, my father or grandfather is raping me. I am not fighting, of course—they have the power of life and death. I tried rebelling sometimes. It didn’t work. Then after the sensible move of running away and the accident, I went back to them, under their thumb for the next half of my life again. I got away at 16. I went back until I was 32. Every 16 years, a light-bulb went off.
Now, the light is on. The light is on and someone’s home: me.
I’d like to reach a point where I don’t fear them. I will sound paranoid if I say they are spying on me. But the facts suggest they are. Always someone mutually known gets a message to me indicating, as if incidentally, that they know. “Your parents told me you are in . . ..” Even though I’ve done everything to hide it (no Facebook, nothing). They know. But they have better victims. They don’t want trouble. They want easy victims where they won’t get hurt or get in trouble, like my brother who is paralyzed. Though the abusers live to a hundred and still drive, he got a heart attack at age 30. He is their medicine now, while they blame him for being such a loser and the trouble he causes them, giving their lives to his care, the martyrs. They are a very high level of narcissists. That is for sure.
In addition to the bottom-memories, the shredded ones, reading them like shredded documents taped together, there was the everyday hypocrisy and cruelty. That never was seen. You can’t get caught for it. Psychological abuse. There was physical abuse too, especially Sunday mornings when my father dragged me by the hair to church. I didn’t want to go. The priest was a hypocrite. I think he also abused me, or I saw him abusing someone, for me to hate the church that much from such an early age. That memory, and others like it, were always with me—no need to piece them together at all. They happened for sure. I remember them because they were less bad.
I hear disbelief out there. People don’t want to believe, because of what it implies. What do you do, even if you know? What whistles are there to blow when there is so much food in that big house and such rich, educated, married white parents? None. And if the kids did get taken away, foster care isn’t much better, is it? There’s still the myth of how we need family to thrive.
Story. What’s my story? You have the option of interpreting me as crazy. That way you won’t have to look too closely at the horrors in your own neighbor’s basement. Or maybe you want to look, and maybe that’s what scares you most, just like it scares me to think someday I might give in to the temptation to deny.
My stories and poetry have been published or accepted by Diagram, cc&d, Anti-Heroin Chic, Page and Spine, Literary Yard, and Rain and Thunder, as well as journals in French. My first novel, Mosaïque des Autresses (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009) led to an active life as a writer during my 13 years in France while earning my PhD in Comparative Literature. I also worked for several years as chief editor of a French literary magazine, Le Champs des Lettres. Currently, I teach world literature and creative writing at a university in China. In addition to my PhD and MA from Université de Montpellier, I hold a Bachelors in International Studies from Boston College, and completed one year of an MFA program in Fiction at University of Alaska.