Rage, Narcissism, and a Lost Childhood
A couple of months ago I was talking with an artist about collecting old pictures at flea markets and antique stores. My daughter had a book in which the narrative was constructed entirely of old, strange photographs. A five-year-old girl appearing to have wings, for who knows what reason. Her blonde hair almost white, angelic in the black and white photograph, a white 1940s dress, ankle length socks, black mary janes. Outside somewhere by a grand oak tree. She was posing, one foot turned, leaning to one side. And on each side of her little body what appeared to be wings, translucent. It wasn’t possible it was a costume. It was something else.
I said, “old pictures like this make me yearn for something. It causes turbulence inside of me. I want to know.”
He said, “that’s because you’re a writer.”
The internet can do that too. Up late, stressed about middle age. Not that I want to be young; it’s just all that lost time and history . One night up late, I found year book pictures. My mother’s. My father’s. Mine. I have no family pictures having been born to horribly cruel parents who both on their death beds wanted to demolish my history. They wrote me out of their wills; my grandparents did the same. My father’s family would not allow me to his wake or funeral. I read about it in the paper, like an orphan in a Dicken’s story looking into a wealthy family’s window. They threw away or locked away all of our family pictures. I have two items that belonged to my parents: a crystal set of rosary beads that had belonged to my mother and my father’s 1950s copy of The Sun Also Rises, warped from water damage. Both are representative in some way of my parents. I must have stolen them because if they had known I wanted the items, they would have denied me. Given them to someone else.
My parents were abusive, alcoholic, sociopathic. They both, at different times, were criminals. But, the irony of it all was that my childhood was so bizarre that it really was funny. Even though I suffer from post traumatic stress disorder at different times, I can’t tell the stories of my childhood without breaking down into laughter. Not that we had funny, close moments punctuating the pain. As a family, we didn’t. My brother, sister and I did but when we laughed it was mostly because the traumatic events were unbelievably fictional and completely absurd. This often had to do with my mother’s particular brand of mental illness: part poor southern girl in the 1950s, part small child, the biggest part narcissist (she always had a velvety black and white picture of herself as a teenager hanging in one room or another in our house. The picture was at least 24 by 36 inches.) She loved herself in that photograph. I believe that was when time stopped for her. When she looked in the mirror the face staring back wasn’t that Sophia Loren looking girl. Pretty. So, she started pretending. Always lying, taking on characters from movies. Dramatic voice, cigarette held in the air, deep drags to underscore her monologues “Oh children why can’t you see?! How can you be so damned blind? This existence is torture!” another deep drag. Palatzo pants, low cut halter. Hair up in 1960s style. 3:00 in the afternoon. This was who was in my house when I got home from school
There were nights that weren’t so comical. I know that too. My dad drunk, pounding on the door. My mother having barricaded the whole house. A portable dishwasher in front of the back door. Multiple chain locks on the front.
“Get out you bastard.” This time a deep French accent.
“Open the God damned door, Bunny!”
“I’d rather die.”
The three of us: my sister, my brother and me, awakened from a restless sleep. Two in the morning. We remained vigilant. Listening so hard our ears began to ache. Just outside our doors, alternating silence then screaming, pounding. Finally, my mother rushing into her room, barricading her door. Leaving us in rooms without locks. Pretending to be asleep. Hearts pounding. Then it started up again. My dad having retrieved a screwdriver from his glove box and the sound of him unscrewing the chain locks through the cracked door. I burned into my memory: when I grow up I’ll get different kinds of locks. People can get in with chain locks.
Those were the parents I knew.
The other night, middle-aged and restless. I ran a Google search on my parents. They’re both dead, but I thought maybe by some miracle Google could find them. It took several tries: Paul Barrow, Massachusetts. Paul Alan Barrow, Acushnet company. And so on. But then “Paul Barrow. Scrimshaw 1960” appeared. To my surprise when I clicked on it, his college yearbook came up on the screen. I did the same for my mother: Bunny Edwards, Swainsboro Georgia her high school yearbook appeared in the search results. After the existential shock subsided a bit, I looked for my own year book: Donna Barrow, New Bedford. There we all were: all young. The yearning started. Why can’t I know these single points in time? How much will I be able to understand from these pictures? From the pictures of others in the yearbooks? With my own yearbook, I suddenly recalled every detail. Forgotten feelings and memories. My reaction to my own picture and pages of my yearbook was opposite of my feelings about my parents’ yearbooks. I hadn’t known their younger lives or that time in history at all. I felt, on a cellular level I was haunted by my discovery. I still feel spooked by it. This essay is their story and one I interpreted through my lens of knowing them as their daughter. They had been terrible parents. I was only acquainted with my parents until my teenage years. Then, I freed myself. I left, moved across the country. I tried very hard make myself a new person. But, of course, they are inside of me; not just on a psychological level, but also on a genetic one. My code is written from theirs. It makes me cry to write that because I don’t want their story to be part of mine. These yearbooks were just a splinter of our existential connection.
I got it. I thought I knew the 1960s and 70s. I was born in 1965. Having moved to Haight Street in 1989, going through my Brautigan period, Ginsberg. Riding around my best friend Lynn’s VW bus. Into the woods meeting up with a group of friends. The girls in flowing dresses. The boys in ratty jeans and flannel shirts. Long hair, smoking pot and cigarettes. Lighting a candle in the tent and reading William Blake. It was all pretend, my best friend and I knew that we weren’t hippies but we were young and it was fun for a little while.
That was what my parents never had. Part the times, part their circumstances, part their own experience of child abuse.
But even though they were trapped, it was around him. Intellectual freedom. Fun. Revolution. A chance to emancipate just like I had. It was there in dad’s yearbook. Girls with long hair. Students hanging in the lounge, out in the courtyard. But dad was older than they were. He’d returned to school after my sister and I were born. He had a six year old and a four year old at home. My mother was pregnant with my brother. Dad was 29. The first i generation in his family to go to college. His father mocking him for being a sissy, so different from the navy man grandpa was. Different from the electrical line worker grandpa became after the war. My grandpa had big tattoo of a Hawaiian lady that he made dance by flexing his muscles. Dad studied biology.
“You’re father’s a goddamned genius.” My mother told us repeatedly. “Oh the intelligence that man has.” He was the consummate expert and his bachelors in biology proved it. He lapped it up. Reading Thoreau, but deep down loving Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s humor narrating in near insanity, satire, irreverence. Dad wanted to make fun of society and the ridiculousness of norms.
“Your sister is just like him,” my mother would tell me, a brandy and OJ (just a splash) from a McDonald’s promotional glass tumbler. The hamburular in his cape and mask. “Your sister is just like your father, smart and selfish.” I felt a wave of contempt. The strongest emotion I remember towards my parents. “And you my dear, are just like me. Beautiful but dumb. You’ll get by on your looks but you can’t keep being so mean to your boyfriends.”
I hardly remember when dad was in college. But the pictures. How could a man in his predicament have felt amongst all this freedom? Did he go to his science classes? Take in the learning. Was that emancipating? Or was he, like my mother claimed, “fucking all these college girls?”
My mother told me that she was so ignorant, still a country girl. She told us that he stayed on campus all day, telling her that was how college was. Nine to five. Had to be there all day.
“Well, I didn’t know any difference, being an uneducated southern girl. I didn’t even finish high school because of the car accident. He stayed on that Goddamned college campus while I worked day and night in the nursing homes run by the nuns at the rectory. I worked two shifts: 11–7, all night. Then again 7 to 3. You kids stayed with your dad at night. I was so tired and worried about you during the day while dad was at college. I tied you to my wrists with shoe laces while I slept so you wouldn’t run around and hurt yourselves.” (The last part could have been a lie, but it could have been true. Dad confirmed some of the things mom had done when we were very little children “I knew something was wrong when she told my she’d hid the knives so she wouldn’t hurt you kids.)
Was that me saying it as I looked over the pictures? Or, was it my mother?
Looking at my dad’s yearbook photo, no mixed emotions stirred inside of me. He, unlike my mother, had tried to reconcile. After he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, an operable one but none the less malignant. After five years of surgery and radiation he died. In that first year after his diagnosis, I received a stream of letters. All of them written on small sheets of lined paper. I assumed it was from a notepad for jotting scientific formulas at his job working as a chemist. Written in light, mechanical pencil lead. His familiar cursive, a lefty. Penmanship I knew well from years of forging his name when I cut high school.
“Did you write these excuse for Donna’s absences? Or was she truant?”
Dad never would have defended me. But, he was so high and drunk my senior year, he didn’t know. He sat in Mr. Calnan’s office. A Nazi as my mother had screamed in his face before he kicked her out of the hearing to decide if he would let me graduate or stay back based on my truancy record. My dad held the letters written by me. He looked at them intently for what I thought was too long. I controlled my affect, defiance.
“I think I did,” Dad said. Mr. Calnan didn’t doubt him because my dad was also a man. Man to man. That was what had prompted my mother to call him a “Goddamned Nazi” in the first place. Calnan had told my dad to please control his wife. It went like this, in almost a protest rant. Channeling Gloria Steinem:
“You sexist bastard It’s 1983! Women have rights. This whormonger isn’t my husband. We’re divorced. And you’re a Goddamned Nazi.”
Just 8 years later when my dad was 54, the letters from him started coming. “I’m sorry for allowing your mother to abuse you. It am guilty of omission. I saw what she did to you. I knew. I love all three of you just the same.”
What about his abuse and alcoholism? And what about my mother? She was committed to the psychiatric hospital just a year after he graduated from college. After months of lying in a dark room. No one helping her. My dad gone all day or so she said. The story goes she faked a coma and went crazy. Well to be accurate — according to our family lore, she faked a coma and they performed a brain surgery that everyone said was routine and minimal (is there such a thing as routine, minimal brain surgery?) After that she was dark and even more evil.
He was selfish. He could have saved my mother. He didn’t have to have affairs, sell drugs. He didn’t have to turn me into his little wife. He didn’t have to write me out of his will.
Fuck him, I thought. I didn’t want to save his picture. Even in the picture he was a liar. I could see it written all over his face.
The name of his yearbook: Scrimshaw.
ˈskrimˌSHô/: to carve or engrave in bone.
Fact: mom was not in her 1959 high school yearbook. That was the year she was supposed to graduate. The reason I say “fact” is because my mother lied so much, but here this yearbook corroborates at least some of the story.
According to her she was a rebel. She and a boy named Frankie. Her retelling of their love went something like this: I was going out with this boy Frankie. He and I would go out in his car and share only one beer. On Sundays, momma would have her radio on the church station and Frankie would rig the string that turned the dial to change the channel and he would put it on my rock and roll station. Momma would go crazy. “Bunny, I can’t understand what happened to my radio.”
I always thought this was plausible. Who would make up something like that? Well, my mother would. But, why? Why did she make up things that she just as easily could have just told the truth? Usually the lies were someone else’s truth. This may have happened in a movie or to a friend.
But, a yearbook doesn’t lie-of course it does, but in this case it verified that my mother didn’t graduate from high school. Her story:
“I was driving down the road and a group of men, Ku Klux Kan dressed in white robes, had blocked off the road. It was a dark country road and I remember I was trembling my hands were shaking on the wheel. But, they were just stopping cars and when they saw I was a white, young girl they let me go. Then I was driving down the country road, crying and shaken up. I wasn’t paying attention and I drove off the road. See here?”
She would hold up her wrist. “They had to tie wire where my bone used to be. So, I never graduated high school.”
There was a scar on her wrist.
The first time I looked at these yearbook photos, I took screen shots. The first one was clear. It was from the night I was searching the Internet. But, when I looked for it for this essay, I couldn’t find it. When I went back to the page to take another picture, it was blurred. Even more ghostly than the first time I laid eyes on my teenage mother’s image.
I wish it were in focus. The child in me says, “That is just the kind of thing she would do.” I thought my mother was evil, supernatural. I thought she could read my mind and cast spells on me. Part of it was that she told me she could. Another part was her mental illness, which would cause her eyes to grow dark and crazed. And, a piece of it was that when I was around her. I was in mortal danger.
The second picture is similar to the large portrait she hung in our house all the time I knew her and it was still hanging (another house, 20 years later) when I went to visit her just before she died of leukemia. That was the first time I had seen her in two decades and she was just as cunning and cruel. That night she served prime rib she had ordered take out. It was almost raw, blood red. My siblings and I looked at each other. Was this some kind of ritual? Had she poisoned the food and made a pact with some unmentionable power? Was she exchanging our lives to save her own? I was pregnant at the time, and I lost that baby. I lost two more after that. I blame my mother.
All of it is irrational, magical thinking. But, she had tried to poison us. She had claimed to have taken pieces of our hair while we were sleeping and frozen it in an ice cube to curse us. “Watch out now, sister. You’ve been cursed.” At sixteen, blackberry brandy was the antidote. It undid her spell, at least for a few hours.
The pictures of her. The first thing I thought was, as I said, cursed. I felt that I had unlocked an evil just by clicking on the page. Oh why did I do such a foolish thing? But, that hunger for understanding took over. I switched back to my 49-year-old self. The next thing I noticed was how different she looked in both pictures. And, how different she looked from all the other girls in the yearbook.
Next, I realized (more than noticed). There were no black kids. It was sickening. There were no black kids, no black teachers. It was completely segregated. And, in this small, not so rich southern town, there was an eerie privilege.
I noticed she wasn’t in any other yearbook pictures. She wasn’t homecoming queen, best looking, most popular. She wasn’t in any of the groups of well-quaffed girls or wearing a letterman’s sweater. I scrolled through the pictures looking for a Frankie. I looked in her class photos 1959 and all the way back to 1957. I saw a couple of Frankie’s. Maybe they were hers. But, maybe they weren’t. Perhaps, my mother retold the life of another girl. One of these, 1950s convertibles. Or one the stage in ball gowns next to white boys in white suit jackets. Or, could it have been that Frankie was an outlaw, a James dean. Stealing a beer from the liqueur store and picking her up on his motorcycle?
In her 1957 sophomore picture, she looked terribly broken, sad to me. Her eyes, her posture. Was she deep down shy, excluded? She was poor, from a family of sharecroppers and an alcoholic father who beat her mother. Did she lie to equalize herself with the pretty, popular rich girls? I had visited her town once or twice, and these girls -turned women-were just the same. They were on church committees, featured in the Swainsboro Blade, “Miss Jane Courtney announces her 10th anniversary party to her loving husband Jarred.”
I saved the pictures of my vulnerable high school mother. I wanted to visit it again. Figure her out. If anyone can save a child, it’s her mother. I wanted to know why she couldn’t save me. What happened to my mother? Was it the brain surgery after she pretended to be in coma? If that really even happened that way. Was she slammed against the windshield during the car accident, experiencing traumatic brain injury? What made her a sadistic narcissist? A liar. Was she abused as a child? Excluded and bullied in high school? Did she carry so much shame for her old clothes, poor family? Did she get pregnant, get sent somewhere and never finish high school? What the hell happened to my mother?
The name of her yearbook was Spotlight.
/ˈspätˌlīt/: a projected spot of light used to illuminate brilliantly a person.
When I found myself on the internet, I recognized her. I looked so young, maybe like a normal person. But, none those high school experiences depicted on the yearbook pages were mine. I flipped through the pages; saw so many people I knew. She was nice. I thought. She was nice; she was in my chemistry class. And I remember him. They all liked me. None of it was bad, but by senior year I had already rejected childhood / adolescence. As I examined the picture, I remember feeling so above all the other kids. I felt they were immature, their interests juvenile. Instead of slumber parties, football games, dances, I was getting wasted and sneaking into nightclubs. I was dancing with older guys, doing drugs. Sleeping with them. It’s hard for me to believe looking at myself. I could have very well been a normal girl. But, I wasn’t. In my mind, I was a powerful, girl pretending to be someone else.
It wasn’t so much a flood of memories as when I found my parents’ yearbooks. It was just feelings. Sadness and regret. It was not having what the other kids had. No father, except a violent and cold presence every so often at 3:00 a.m. to punch holes in the wall then pass out on the front porch crying for what he never had. It was being up at night with a drunken mother in hospital emergency rooms while they pumped her stomach after a suicide attempt. It was her telling me she’ll stab me in my sleep, dark eyes fixed on me, tearing my insides out with her threat. It was the metal hospitals, scratches (not deep) into her wrists caused by attempting suicide with a butter knife. It was the blackberry brandy burning my throat as I made her disappear.
My yearbook title: Crimson Log
/ˈkrimzən/: of a rich deep red color
lôɡ,läɡ/: an official record of events during the voyage