Although I possess just about every signpost of someone who was molested as a child — promiscuity, bisexuality, life-of-the-party-ness, binge-drinking, an extreme weight (extremely low in my case), sadomasochism, insomnia, suicidal longing and repulsion whenever someone touches me outside of the sex act — my mother and father never exactly molested me. Few things in life are exactly something or not something.
I have written many times about what my father semi-did, but I’ve never said a peep about my mom. Maybe that’s because her transgression was even more inexact than was my father’s. To this day I’m not sure how to place her. When I was fifteen, I went to live with my father across the country; at sixteen, I moved in with a friend’s family. I didn’t have particularly deep contact with my mother from then until she died when I was twenty-seven, so I know her mainly through distorted, crust-covered, childish memories. I guess I really don’t know her at all.
Donna was almost two. I had just given her a bath when her mother, Krystal, came home. Donna threw off her towel and I chased after her, waving Scooby pajamas threateningly, but she just laughed and did naked celebratory somersaults. My mother came to pick me up, took a sip of the ginger ale Krystal handed her and said, “I can see why child molesters are attracted.”
Krystal’s head jerked up and her mouth fell open, but my mother didn’t notice. Her eyes were fixed on Donna, on whom I’d finally managed to get a Scooby top but no bottoms. My mother continued as if in a trance: “She’s so innocent and puffy and . . . ” — she struggled for the word — “white.” A former English teacher, she deliberated over word choice. “No, it’s that it’s neat down there. Compact. Like a little hot-dog bun.”
Judging from Krystal’s blanched face, I understood that my mother had said something freakish. But how so? My own light command over my limbs and gravity, my health, my childish joy at being alive (I was ten), had always induced in my mother the same too-intense admiration as had Donna’s somersaults and giggles. I’d shake my bum on command, and my mother would chase me with her fingers out, shrieking, “Pinchee bum! Pinchee bum!” Though we were poor, she found money for lessons: I was in dance; I was a cheerleader. My mother always watched. If eyeballs had lips, she’d be licking hers. My mother became celibate at thirty for a variety of reasons — poor health, and no one asking, mainly. So sex for her was purely theoretical, and I guess if sex is theoretical, a toddler is sexy, a ten year old is hot.
Krystal shoved some money into my hands, ushered my mother and me out, and from then on was busy whenever I called. I loved Donna. I used to watch her for free sometimes, pretend that she was mine. But after that day, I never saw her again.
My mother did not belong in this world. She was a disappointment to her own mother, a German immigrant who was efficient, economical, accomplished. Her baby hair kinked; she did not achieve her milestones in the proper order. The only time my grandmother paid my mother any attention was when she got sick. So she got sick a lot. In school, my mother excelled in the mushy language of French, while her brother mastered the tougher German — along with sports, girls, being good-looking and getting voted student-council president.
As a young woman, my mother was already pot-bellied, saggy-breasted, bony-kneed, eyeglassed and pockmarked. She picked her nose, scratched her head until her fingernails were lined with dandruff. Despite all this, she was coquettish, fluttering a bony hand over her mouth as she laughed and laughed at the unfunny jokes of carnies, mechanics, my grandfather, my friends. In many ways, my mother acted like a small child: she was often naked; she didn’t understand peoples’ motivations for what they did and in her bewilderment would make things up; she had temper tantrums that would switch swiftly to a coy, sunny mood, then back again.
I don’t know if anyone ever loved her. Certainly my father did not. Then she had me. On the day I was born, she said, she looked into my enormous, alert blue eyes and that was the one time in her life she was sure there was a God. Because, she said, there was no way she and my father could have created something so perfect and beautiful and pure.
My mother had always felt like the world owed her. Now, she insisted, it owed us. I didn’t want to steal; my father had told me it was wrong. “Well, where’s your father now?” she demanded, and shoved me, in a little blazer with the tags shoved up into my wrists, towards the Ames exit while she distracted the clerk. We left restaurants without paying, fled nasty landlords who rudely demanded back rent. We slept in the same bed.
She told me everything—the two times she’d tried to masturbate (with a hot dog and a cucumber), the one time she’d tried to give a blowjob (to my father, and she threw up after). All her thoughts and dreams and philosophies. So many times we’d remain sitting in the car listening to the engine click and sigh, still talking as the sky grew dark, reluctant to open our creaky doors and break the spell. “It’s you and me against the world,” she’d say. From her strained smile, her hand squeezing my thigh, the love-look in her eye, I knew that must be something good, something loving—and I must be so defective, that I wanted to run screaming from her, this person so grateful for my companionship, for my very existence.
When I was six, my mother gave me a diary, and I wrote “I love Mommy” in it. The next day, I got mad at her for something and added “sometimes” and a frown-face. I locked it and hid the key in my pen cup.
Some minutes later I looked up at her from whatever I was doing on the carpet and saw tears running down her cheeks while her mouth distorted, and I knew she knew. Did she find the key while I was in the bathroom? She started shaking her hands out as if there were pins and needles in them. She cried, “I’m your mother! I gave you that diary!
My mother’s love was improper and destructive and selfish, but it was also huge, and it was all mine.
Little girls don’t ‘sometimes’ love their mothers! Do you want me to ‘sometimes’ love you? Do you want me to ‘sometimes’ pay rent for where you live, and feed you ‘sometimes’? When I’m dead, how do you think you’re going to feel about yourself, having ‘sometimes’ loved me? You put so much stress on me, I probably am going to be dead soon, and then you’ll know!”
To make things right, I knew I needed to hug her legs right away, but I couldn’t make my arms reach up and do it. I was frozen. She horrified me. Then it was already too late: her warm, wet sadness turned into brisk, purposeful anger. She grabbed me by the arm and yanked me up, shoved me towards the diary, yelling at me. I had to cross out “sometimes” and write in “always.” Then show her. I love Mommy always.
It’s four a.m. A bony hand encircles my wrist as I try to make my way out of the bed.
“I need to go work,” I protest.
“Lisa,” a voice says, “you need to sleep more.” My wrist is pinned.
He tells me what to eat, how to breathe (I don’t do it deeply enough), that I am too tense and that I need to masturbate every day to release tension. “You’re crazy,” I said when he said that. “I’m a grown woman. You’re going to make me leave you. I can’t breathe!” He laughed. “That’s what love is, Lisa! Your lives are entwined; you’re invested in the other person’s health. Of course I tell you love how to eat and sleep and breathe! You tell me, too.”
He was right. I do do it too. I learned about life from visiting my father, but I learned about love from my mother. My mother’s love was improper and destructive and selfish, but it was also huge, and it was all mine. When I was trapped underneath it, it frightened and enraged and suffocated me, and yet once I escaped it, I found myself at odd moments missing it, craving it: that too-much love. That’s what made me write this down now—figuring out that she’s not dead. It’s her looking back at me out of the eyes of these sad, angry, grateful, suspicious men I keep finding.
Life is but a dream
I like somebody else’s weight on me. It feels like I have a body: theirs in mine. Then it’s over and I’m lost and floating again. Before I discovered men, I was only floating, all the time. When I was in third grade, my teacher sent me on an errand from the classroom to the cafeteria, less than a hundred feet away. She found me an hour later, huddled in a corner, crying and disoriented. Unusually caring and perceptive, this teacher added that incident to some other vague symptoms she’d noted—I’d lost weight (though there really wasn’t any to lose) and lost an unusual number of things (three sweaters in one week!) and continuously got lost myself. It was as if I lived somewhere other than in this world, and so food, clothes and spatial markers were not important to me; I didn’t even see them. I was in a sort of functioning hypnotic state that nowadays might be diagnosed as dissociation, common among abused children. But this was the ’70s, when, for example, torturing and killing animals was nothing more than “boys being boys.”
The school forced my mother to take me to a psychologist. He said my lost-ness was nothing to worry about: it was the result of my overactive imagination. He strongly suggested, however, that my mother start seeing a colleague of his. That made her laugh, and reinforced to me the danger of telling anyone about our private life: they’d take me away.
I wonder if, from my description, you’re picturing a scared, dreamy, inward child with bad posture, poor eyesight and little life to her. That may have been how I acted with authority figures, but with other kids, I was a leader, a ham, a goofy exhibitionist. I would take my pink-framed glasses off and hurl them against a wall, then invite others to do so. I offered my body up as rope for tug-of-war. When kids squeezed my wrists and ankles and yanked, and my body rose up off the tar, it felt good. It felt like little fires of love springing up everywhere my tendons stretched. I had all kinds of unusual interests for a young girl: out-of-body experiences, wormholes, religious ecstasy and sexual liberation. I still have pictures of me doing a striptease down to my brown velvet bikini and striped knee-highs. My chest is flat. There’s only a very thin layer of skin covering any of my bones. I look wild, a newborn gazelle trying to flee an out-of-frame, raggy lion.
The ketchup incident
My mother had Crohn’s Disease, which causes pain, fatigue and irritability. When her doctor prescribed steroids, her “getting emotional” (already frightening enough!) led to her getting physical — hitting, shoving, shaking.
One night we were in a diner. The ketchup was Heinz, so it was coming out slowly.
“Use your knife to dig it out,” my mother said.
“I don’t mind waiting,” I said.
“Well I do!” My mother didn’t need any ketchup. She just needed me to get my ketchup out the same way she did. “I’ve had a hard life,” she said, using her eyes like nail guns. “And I’ve
I saw a man stare straight into my eyes with pity.
learned a lot of hard lessons. You have been getting pretty sassy lately. If you think that at ten years old you know how to do things better than me — and I’m thirty-five, I think I have a bit of wisdom — well, then you’re going to learn things the hard way too.”
Sometimes I would get stubborn with my mother, and this was one of those times. “I’m okay,” I said.
“Use … your … knife,” she growled, trembling with fury. I continued to refuse blandly. She got up and came around the table. Instead of just grabbing my knife and getting my ketchup out the way she wanted, she grabbed both of my hands and made me get the ketchup out with my knife. I was sort of fighting her, but not much—I didn’t want to make a scene. Still, because she was shaking so badly, it was difficult for her to maneuver, and it took a long time. She was hissing things at me the whole time: threats, complaints, descriptions of my soul.
I happened to look up and see another diner stare straight into my eyes with pity. Then he looked at my mother and shook his head, not bothering to hide his disgust, and muttered about her. I wish I could meet that stranger now, tell him what an incredible feeling it was for me to see someone so blatantly side with me. I think I loved him.
Children don’t judge. They concentrate on the details of the terrain they find themselves in, how best to navigate it. They don’t step back and consider whether it’s good or bad terrain to begin with. At least I didn’t, until that man in the diner made his judgment obvious. People had tried to help me before — teachers, neighbors, doctors. But they had been subtle; they couched their words carefully. They were sympathetic to my mother too, to our whole situation — to poor people in general, to physically ill parents in general, to families abandoned by the father in general. They thought it was complicated. No one ever said, “This is bad. This is wrong. These things should not be done to this little girl.” I looked at my existence through that diner guy’s eyes, and for the first time, I understood that parts of it ought to be different. But how to change? Where could I go? I contemplated running away to California to become a movie star or a prostitute. I settled on simply being surly.
Some weeks or months later, I was perfecting my new bad attitude, squatting at my stereo and turning down the volume in exaggerated slow motion after the fifth time my mother asked. She bashed me in the back of the head. I was knocked forward, off my feet, face-first into the stereo. I whirled around and started wailing on her—a response that had never occurred to me before. My skinny arms were like windmill blades, driving her from my room.
I wish I could tell that stranger from the diner how different that was from before, when I couldn’t even imagine driving her back: from my room, from my body, from my (for lack of a better word) soul. I would say to him: If you could have seen her face! In some ways, that act — hitting my mother back — made life harder. It destroyed the careful balance I was, with great effort, able to maintain. But it made life begin to be my own. She never touched me again.
Down on the scene
As soon as I was able, I was having sex in cars, in parks, up against walls. I found SM. I’d been looking for it for a long time. I had a high tolerance for pain and a low tolerance for anyone touching me gently. I always wanted more, and rough felt closer to more. While other little girls were — I guess — fantasizing about a handsome prince, I was forever getting kidnapped and bludgeoned to death by someone who had to take my life because he loved me so much. I’d masturbate to thoughts of getting mowed down by a machine gun, or the devil popping up out of the tub drain to rip out my cervix.
I’d feared, loved, hated and needed my mother, right up until the day I found out I could take her in a fight. From then on, all of my emotions were replaced by one big, burning scorn. I’d turn my back on her mid-sentence; I stayed out all night. I flaunted my bralessness, bruises, drug use, the dark circles under my eyes. I did what I knew would hurt her most. And yet I missed her, missed the magical everythingness between us. I wanted to replicate it, and I did.
The ketchup incident, part two
I went out to eat with my mom shortly before her cancer diagnosis. She owed me money and didn’t want to pay it back—because she had paid my $175 dentist bill some years before, because no one had ever done anything for her, because I should want to give her money. The thing was, I might have given her the money, but she told me she would pay me back, and I get insane about people doing exactly what they say they’ll do. I always thought that was what set me off that day, causing the only prolonged visual and auditory hallucination I’ve ever experienced not on drugs. Now I see it was a flashback to the knife-in-the-ketchup-bottle scene from fifteen years earlier. My hallucination was this: the clatter of forks scraping plates and teeth got louder and louder and louder, then the entire diner shifted. Furniture and people slipped down the angle like in an earthquake, though no one seemed to notice. Forks and knives were flying through the air, stabbing people. And then I saw my ghost-arms rise up from my lap where my real arms lay, reach across the table and strangle my mother furiously, pitilessly. I think it lasted five minutes, or one. When it was over, I was shaken, but my mother was oblivious, still full-speed ahead in her diatribe.
To this day, I can’t let people watch me eat or share my plate. I don’t like to be looked at at all, in fact, outside of a sexual context. If another person is in my bed, I can barely sleep. It’s good for my job, this alertness, because I watch everything and everybody closely all the time, always looking for clues as to the underlying motivation, and that’s pretty much what a writer needs to do. It’s a killer, though, in relationships.
My parents didn’t become what they were out of nowhere. They were both abused as children. I used to think they weren’t at fault for passing it on to me, but then I had children, and I changed my mind. Although I can’t get my parents out of me, I make sure I’m not sticking them into my kids, by not doing the things I’ve been taught — like getting a temporary fix by huffing my kids’ affection.
I believe my mother loved me, but her love was a transactional thing. If I filled her up, and didn’t contradict her dream of what and who we were together, then she would giggle and caress and compliment me, and not do anything scary. I remember lying on the plaid couch as a young girl, picturing grown men entering my vagina with their erect penises and peeing in me. They’d keep peeing until it would come out of my mouth and ears and nose and eyes. I believe now those men were actually supposed to be my mother. She needed my love, my acceptance, my total agreement always: her need poured into me continuously, until it felt like it would flush out everything that was me.
When I left my mother and entered the world at fifteen, I couldn’t imagine a friendly, honest, equal relationship in sex or love. I believed there were only hostages and hostage-takers, that each needed (and needed to destroy) the other. That’s how it was, until I had children. When we see that our kids think well of the world, when we’re able to control our impulses and offer them respect, when we see they don’t take advantage of our weakness and in fact respect us back, then our perceptions of the world change. The things that happened to us no longer seem inevitable. They are simply what happened to us, randomly.
Figuring this out has not been smooth and easy. I had some bitter days after I realized that my three-year-old daughter has already outdistanced me emotionally. I understood then that in some ways I’m ruined beyond repair. But then I felt good, because I don’t believe my daughter will ever feel that way. Being ruined is not the worst thing; ruining others is.
My daughter recently told me she didn’t love me anymore. I had put her in her room for a long time-out after she bit her brother. My mother was wrong, what she said when she found my diary. Children don’t — and can’t be forced to — feel constant adoration. They need their privacy, their evil thoughts, their mystery moments. But they also need to be told that the love is still there, parallel to any anger or disappointment, on both sides.
So I told my daughter that I love her every minute of every day, even when she’s bitten her brother and I’m mad, and that I know she loves me even when she’s in time-out and she’s mad. She sighed with relief and threw her arms around my neck, then ran off to play and completely forgot about it, and me. That’s my gift to her, that I let her forget me sometimes. It terrifies me. It also makes me feel proud of myself, and clean. n°