My father didn't converse—he told stories, stories as simple and vivid as fairy tales, but which nevertheless defied easy interpretation. He started telling me these stories almost from the time I could walk, horror stories in which he crouched in corners while his mother stalked him like a cruel Medusa. He told me how she locked him out of the house, his only refuge an abandoned chicken coop in the backyard; how his eardrum perforated and bled clear liquid when she refused to take him to the doctor for his ear infection; how she smacked him against the head with a cast-iron frying pan for no good reason.
In the kingdom of Little Golden Books and Disney, this suffering would have been merely a prelude to glory, and the evildoers would have met harsh justice at the hands of an omnipotent fairy godmother. The much-abused Cinderella rose from the scullery to marry a prince, and the banished Hansel and Gretel escaped from the witch's gingerbread house and then found their way home, bearing jewels. But there was no magical intervention for my father. His tormentors did not dance themselves to death in red-iron shoes or climb into their own ovens. The world of my father's childhood was an inverted fairytale land where boys were dirt, untouchable just because they were boys, and his mother and his two sisters aligned against him like a trio of evil enchantresses, fattening him up until it was time to take care of him once and for all.
"I was deathly afraid of women," Daddy told me. "Deathly afraid. The thought of sex terrified me. Your grandmother was a scary woman, cold but scary."
I'd heard all this before. I was ten years old now, and I was on summer vacation. My father and I were on our way to our routine lunch at Oatley's Restaurant, where I would have French fries and a Coke and nothing else while my father talked politics with the regulars at the counter.
As always, I was sitting in the back seat of the car, and my father, alone in the front, droned on and on until his voice melted into the rhythms of the traffic that whooshed outside my partly rolled-down window. Occasionally, I caught his eye in the rear-view window, looking back at me, but gazing inward. Daddy was large and solid, with a chest like a barrel and a gut like the stern of a ship. It was hard to imagine him as the helpless, scared little boy of these childhood legends. But I knew he was telling the truth.
"When I was in the Navy and we were in Greece," Daddy told me, "some of the guys from my ship went to a whorehouse, and they tried to get me to go. But I couldn't go in. I was too terrified."
As I leaned back into the upholstery and watched the cars and trees whip by, he explained to me, as he had many times before, how promiscuous and immoral my grandmother had been. She had, after all, been married four times.
"And those are only the men she was legally married to," Daddy said. "There were many other men that she…had relations with. I don't think I could even count all those men. She'd go down to the pier and pick up sailors, especially if she thought they had any money."
My father's mother was an ogre, scooping up men in her fists and devouring them. For my father, the devouring was literal. Men who crossed my grandmother's path walked head first into their own destruction—or at least they came away less than what they had once been, shells with the souls sucked out.
My grandfather left the family when his children were still toddlers, but my father refused to see this as abandonment. She drove your grandfather away, he told me, no one could blame him for leaving. In fact, Daddy seemed amused, and even proud, that his father had the sense to disentangle himself from his mother. His father had escaped intact, without losing any part of himself to the monster. He was too vibrant, too powerful to become a victim. He was a hero.
Daddy was convinced that his mother had killed Mr. Cooke, his first stepfather, who suffered from high blood pressure, by purposefully tormenting and enraging him to the point where he burst a vessel in his head. After their divorce, his mother made it as difficult as possible for Mr. Cooke to see his son, my father's half-brother Carleton. One day, Mr. Cooke arrived for his visitation only to discover that my grandmother was asleep with his little boy napping by her side. My father's sister Nancy, who answered the door, refused to wake her up or to let him in. Mr. Cooke left that day without seeing his son. On his way home, he pulled his car over to the side of the road. Something in his brain exploded, and he died of terminal rage and despair. My grandmother, the sleeping sorceress, had set in motion these events, and my father considered this nothing short of murder.
When Mr. Cooke was gone, my father's mother ate through a whole string of stepfathers, official and unofficial, the many men she sucked dry while doing to them who knew what kinds of horrible things. But somehow, my father said, she always made him out to be the deviant of the house.
"When I was about eleven years old, my sister Nancy got her period," Daddy told me, "and I didn't know what was going on. I just knew that my sister had blood in her pants and my mother told her to stay home. I was worried because I thought she was sick. Someone at school asked me what happened to Nancy, so I told them she had blood in her pants and my mother made her stay home."
Somehow his mother found out that he had been babbling about his sister's period all over school. She beat him and yelled at him and called him a pervert. She said that was why she sometimes locked him out of the house when she had to go somewhere—because he was a pervert and she couldn't trust him to be alone in the house with his sisters.
"I don't think you could ever understand how scared I was as a little boy," Daddy concluded, as he turned into the parking lot of the diner. "But I was always deathly afraid of women when I was a little boy, and even later on as a grown man."
He always ended his stories with a grand, final statement that seemed to sum everything up and close off the possibility of ever returning to the narrative. But after lunch, when my father had finally tired of talking to the locals in the diner and we were heading home, he would start telling the same story, or one a lot like it, all over again.
Always he told me that I couldn't understand. What I really didn't understand was why he kept telling me the same stories over and over again when he was convinced that I could never appreciate their significance. I'd sit there listening, not knowing what to do—I could neither respond nor refuse to respond.
My father still hoped to find some miraculous healing power in catharsis. Every story was an attempt to coax an evil genie out of a lamp and banish it forever. At the end of each account, he thought he saw the horrible thing rush out and dissipate like smoke, but when he looked inside the lamp again, the genie was still there, grinning and mocking him. So he started the story again, as though he had forgotten he'd ever told it.
By the time I was ten and eating French fries with my father, I could recite most of his stories by heart. He rarely changed a thing—he used the same inflection, the same phrasing, he sighed in the same places. Every now and then, he might start focusing on a detail that hadn't been prominent in an earlier retelling, as though he were panning with a movie camera to a different close-up. But it was still the same movie, on a continuous loop. He'd been sitting there in the dark for decades watching over and over, listening to the film fluttering in the projector, waking momentarily now and then to the chilling realization that he was the only one in the audience before succumbing again to the spell of his own tale.
The good thing about his miserable childhood, Daddy said, was that it gave him more compassion than the average person. He would never visit the horrors he experienced on anyone else, especially me.
"I have been dogged by a deep depression, a moroseness, all my life," he told me, "and I was afraid that you would be afflicted with the same thing. I am so relieved that you weren't."
There was no legitimate cause for sadness in our household. Lesser forms of pain withered in the shadow of what Daddy had gone through. When I wore what my father felt was a mopey face, and that was often, I stood guilty of an affront, an act of willful, irreverent disobedience.
My mother, too, seemed to think I was being deliberately contrary if I started looking sad.
"You don't act the way you should, for a kid your age," she said one day. "What's wrong?"
We were driving home from the grocery store, and I was crouched in my usual spot in the back seat. My mother peered at my face in the rear-view mirror.
"You don't smile," she said. "You never smile."
I saw the accusation in her anguished eyes. Why couldn't I just act happy? And behind that accusation lay the self-indictment. What had she done or not done that I should be so quiet and act so sad? I felt such guilt at worrying her, for not being a normal kid. From then on, I tried to smile more.
I was twelve when my mother began watching for smiles on my face. By that time, I was already engaging in that celebrated pastime of despondent adolescents—poetry writing. For a poet, loneliness, depression, and alienation were acceptable, even desirable, states of mind. I consoled myself with the secret hope I would one day be recognized as a tortured genius.
I spent my happiest hours in the town public library where I discovered Sylvia Plath. I was leafing through a book on writing poetry in the non-fiction stacks when I stumbled upon the text of "Fever 103," an ode to delirium that I could barely decipher but which seemed so powerful and real to me that I wished I could be delirious, too. According to the editor of the book, this poem was difficult to understand because, well, Sylvia Plath was just a little insane when she wrote it. From that moment, I wanted to be just like Sylvia, insanity and all. Being crazy was more interesting than being depressed. Craziness bestowed a power that depression did not, and it seemed that I would be less at fault if I were crazy rather than simply depressed. One could decide to be in a bad mood, and one could just as easily decide not to be.
I tried desperately to think of myself as crazy. But I didn't act crazy, and I didn't feel crazy. In fact, the lines my mind followed seemed distressingly straight. My problems all boiled down to my just not being crazy enough.
One evening, the movie version of Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, was rerun on network TV, and I wanted to watch it the way some other kids my age would have wanted to go to a Prince or Madonna concert. I turned the TV on, and Daddy walked by just as the lead actress was demonstrating a convulsive meltdown. He stopped and stared; then he changed the channel.
"Don't watch that crap," he intoned. "When you watch stuff like that you start wondering if you are like that and then pretty soon you'll think your way into actually being like that."
He rumbled out of the room. There was nothing more to be said.
From then on, I took care to keep my fascination with craziness covert. I had forgotten that my father also had a special claim on insanity. He was a connoisseur of madness as well as of suffering; he knew madness in its many forms, and he knew how to distinguish a pretender to the mantle of madness from the genuine article. That was the moral of the one story that he told most often and that hurt him most to tell.
Daddy was nine when his mother married Mr. Cooke. Mr. Cooke bristled at the presence in the house of his new wife's children by her previous husband. He particularly resented my father, especially after his son and namesake, Carleton, was born. Little Carl, whom his siblings affectionately dubbed "Cookie," was ten years my father's junior. For my father, Cookie, as a boy, was an ally. But Cookie did not suffer the abuse my father did, at least not in his early childhood when my grandmother was still married to Mr. Cooke. In fact, my grandmother seemed to delight in giving to Cookie the material things and the praise and approval she never gave my father. Nevertheless, Daddy adored his little brother and gladly assumed the duty of protecting him in this environment that was so hostile to little boys. In the winter, Daddy dragged Cookie around with him on a little sled. In the spring, he used a toy wagon. Back then, they were inseparable. Home was still a place of danger, and his mother and sisters were still enemies, but my father had a family, for a short time at least.
My grandmother's marriage to Mr. Cooke began to deteriorate before Cookie was old enough to walk on his own. By the time Cookie was three and my father was thirteen, routine interactions between Mr. Cooke and the other members of the household were loaded with so much angry energy that ordinary words crackled and mundane gestures seemed to represent code for shadowy military maneuvers of which no one would admit direct knowledge. Mr. Cooke grew even more impatient with my father and his sisters, on one occasion going so far as to lock them out of the house. The children had trudged through town, like refugees, to their grandparents' place.
Mr. Cooke adored his son, and he viewed his step-children, especially my father, as potential usurpers of everything his son was entitled to. Like the step-children in a fairy tale, they were undesirables, and the narrative no longer had any room for them. The story would have a much better ending if he could simply eliminate them. Yes, everything would be perfect if those false children could be spirited away, leaving behind the real family—Mr. Cooke, my grandmother, and little Carl, the adored one. But Mr. Cooke turned desperate, and, as much as he adored his son, Cookie was not immune to his father's anger.
One night Cookie did something that angered Mr. Cooke—my father could never remember what exactly—and Mr. Cooke took it upon himself to mete out punishment.
"We were in the kitchen," Daddy would tell me, "and my stepfather cuffed Cookie across the ear with his hand."
My father then reached out for Mr. Cooke's shoulder, pulling him back and restraining him.
"I wasn't going to let him hurt Cookie," Daddy would say.
Mr. Cooke yielded. At thirteen, my father was already a big kid, tall, heavy, and broad through the chest and shoulders, a mild-mannered leviathan who didn't know his own strength. Mr. Cooke was scared. But he was also angry, and he saw his opportunity.
The next day Daddy was in the back yard pulling weeds in the garden, his assigned chore, when a police car rolled into the driveway. Two cops got out of the car and went into the house to talk to his mother. Doctor Murray, the town physician, was with them. A few minutes later, the cops and Doctor Murray came out and approached my father in the garden. The cops were carrying all kinds of chains and cuffs and they shackled him.
Doctor Murray sighed.
"Bruce," he said, "we're going to take you someplace where they'll try to straighten you out."
The policemen crunched him into the back seat of the police car and Doctor Murray sat beside him. As the police drove him to an as yet undisclosed location, one of the officers turned to look at my father. Daddy recognized him as a man who, on weekends, frequented the Howard Johnson's where he worked as a bus boy. The officer had always been kind to him.
"You're going to be all right," the officer told my father. "Nothing's going to happen to you. Just don't talk to anyone and don't answer any questions. If someone asks you something direct like what time it is, then tell them what time it is. But don't tell them anything else."
After a long drive, they arrived at a dark, square, almost windowless building. At Mr. Cooke's urging and insistence, my grandmother had told Doctor Murray that my father was dangerous, that he had attacked Mr. Cooke the night before, that she feared for herself and her children, especially her daughters, that she didn't know what my father might do and she was at her wits' end because she couldn't control him. Doctor Murray had agreed to commit my father to the state mental hospital where he could perhaps be purged of his aberrant, violent tendencies.
His first morning at the hospital, my father found himself at a long dining table surrounded on one side by a bunch of drunks who had come to dry out and on the other by a row of men, all considerably older than he, all wearing the same vacant look. The staff served boiled eggs for breakfast.
My father was starving. He cracked the end of his egg against the corner of his plate and intently removed the shell bit by bit. The vacant-faced man to my father's left matter-of-factly stuck the end of his egg in his mouth and began crunching on it, shell and all. The sound was violent but methodical, like a cat crunching on the bones of a bird it had just slain.
My father, still working on his egg, glanced over at the crunching man.
"You're supposed to take the shell off first," my father told him, trying to be helpful.
But the man just took another bite and stared ahead as though my father were invisible. He chewed on the egg with a mournful concentration, like a cow chewing its cud. The drunks who sat across the table from my father started laughing. They hadn't seen anyone as funny as this new kid in a long time.
From then on, my father heeded the policeman's advice. He didn't talk to anyone, and he didn't answer any questions. When the doctors interviewed him and he had to say something, he said as little as possible, and he locked his eyes straight ahead. He never looked into the eyes of the lobotomy patients, emptied of vitality; he did not heed the cries from down the hall of the alcoholics, shaken to their root by the DTs. Holding himself so silent and apart, he escaped them all, he went to a vantage point where he could look down on the whole crazy lot of them—doctors, staff, patients—in their cruel absurdity. No longer the absurd object of their cruelty, he had stepped outside the story of insanity unfolding around him and secreted himself, a quiet observer, behind an invisible fourth wall. Finally, my father's grandparents, after much effort to ascertain his whereabouts, came to retrieve him from the institution. He had been inside for more than thirty days.
Spending a month in a mental institution in the 1940s gave my father extensive experience with all the varieties of craziness or at least the varieties of behavior that society found it convenient to call crazy. He spent time with patients who had undergone lobotomies and electroshock treatments, schizophrenics, vagrants who had no place else to go, alcoholics who had run out of bottles to drink from.
As a result, my father was convinced he knew what mental illness was and what it wasn't. Mostly it was make believe, he thought, and he considered psychiatrists, psychologists, and the like to be quacks on the level of snake-oil salesmen. Daddy considered himself, on the other hand, uniquely qualified as an arbiter of lunacy. Being a true lunatic required rare talent and a special nature, and I had neither.
By the time I was fifteen, a couple of years older than my father had been when he was sent to what he called "the loony bin," the paths to depression and insanity had been closed to me. I had no choice but to become physically ill. Not painfully, acutely, dangerously ill. But chronically, exhaustingly, miserably ill. I was tired all the time, weak and listless. My sinuses were always painfully stuffed. A cough nagged me; my ears were clogged. I was well enough to go to school. In fact, I couldn't really say specifically what, if anything, was wrong with me. I just did not feel good. One night at dinner, I announced to my parents that I thought I was sick, that I thought I should go to the doctor.
"What!" my mother said. "Do you want to have mono or something?"
To my surprise, my father was the reasonable one. "If she's sick, she's sick. It's not because she wants to be." He smiled a smile so pleasant and accepted what I said so easily that, for a flickering moment, I felt suspicious. Suspicious of what I would have been unable to say.
My father took me to Doctor Murray, not the Doctor Murray who had signed him into the mental hospital as a kid, but his son. This younger Doctor Murray ran blood tests for mono, anemia, thyroid problems. He ordered X-rays of my sinuses. But everything came back fine.
"Except the sinuses in your forehead are a little underdeveloped but that wouldn't cause these symptoms," Doctor Murray, Junior, told me. Having found no illness or deformity, he referred me to an allergist.
When my father found out that the tests had revealed nothing and that the next step was to consult a specialist, he decided we should try a home remedy. He went to the grocery store and bought cans and cans of Campbell's tomato soup.
"This will build you up," Daddy said, referring to the vitamins in the soup. "Have a can of this every day."
I hated tomato soup and Daddy knew it.
"But Doctor Murray said I wasn't anemic and that I didn't need building up," I told my father. "He said that if I started taking lots of vitamins I might start eating like a horse and gain a lot of weight."
My father did not listen. He had presented me with a test. If I was really sick, I'd do what it took to get better. I'd sit down and eat that tomato soup. But if I refused to scrape the bowl clean, I would be making a confession. I would be admitting that I was making it all up. That I wasn't really sick. That, if I was sick, I certainly wasn't sick enough. That, by not suffering in silence, I had shown my deep-down, irredeemable weakness.
I lasted two days on the Campbell's tomato soup regimen. Each spoonful was a swallow of thick, red disgust. I could push myself no further. The remainder of the cans sat on the kitchen shelf, gathering dust. My father said nothing more about them.
I had already failed. After losing the tomato soup challenge, I could not claim my suffering was authentic and I could never prove myself worthy of entering the inner circle of lunacy and despair my father inhabited. But my father allowed the test to run to its natural conclusion. When the time came, he drove me to my appointment with the allergist, who was arrogant and flippant and told me I was probably allergic to something because the mucous membranes in my nose were tinged blue. We made an appointment for an allergy test in two weeks. I would lie face down, the allergist told me, while they pressed a board with lots of little needles into the bare skin of my back. I was scared. Scared of the needles, but even more scared of being naked. Simply changing clothes in the locker room for gym class made me rigid with anxiety.
My father was right. I did not know anything about real pain, real sickness. There was nothing wrong with me—other than my pathological desire that something be wrong. I could not submit to the needles. I would rather forget the whole thing, pretend everything was fine, and trudge on. I only had to decide to be well, and I would be well, and I would remain clothed and intact. Yet, my mind kept returning to an image of myself lying face down, my humiliated flesh exposed to mockery and puncture.
My father pronounced the allergist a money-grubbing charlatan. He said nothing about the appointment. I feared he would make me go for the test. At the same time, I feared he wouldn't. I said nothing and just waited.
One evening while the question of my future with the allergist was still up in the air, my father took my mother and me to McDonald's. I sat there with my fries and my shake, and, suddenly, for no specific reason I could identify, I burst into tears. They were serious tears, complete with the sobbing and the gulping that made me afraid I might start to hyperventilate. I lay my head down on the table and hiccupped and heaved. My mother watched, hapless and frozen, as though she had just witnessed a horrible accident her mind could not quite take in. My father just looked on coolly and folded his arms. He was amused, but not impressed, by my performance.
After a few seconds, my mother asked me what was wrong. I babbled incoherently about the kids at school, and feeling sick, and hating gym, but none of it seemed adequate to explain why I was crying so convulsively. My mother seemed to be listening and then Daddy interrupted, intoning my name, Ali-Baba-like, as though it were some sort of secret password. The password that would shut me up.
His voice controlled my attention like a drum roll. I braced myself for a scolding. But he was calm and detached as though, for once, he was taking my emotional outburst seriously.
"Sometimes people think they're sick," he said, "but really it's in their mind. And when people do things they aren't happy doing and they keep doing them long enough, that's when they become mentally ill. Now, we're you're parents, let us know—have you reached that point?"
I sat up, tried to control my gulping breaths, and wiped my eyes. I had to take control of myself. I had to be quiet and calm. My spine straightened. Like an animal, I sensed something coming, a silent rumbling, the ghostly seismic waves that toll the last warning before an earthquake. I wasn't sure what the real answer to his question was, but there seemed to be only one thing I could say.
"No," I said. "I'm not at that point."
"Good," my father said.
I started eating my fries.
I never went back to the allergist. My parents and I entered into an unspoken agreement that we would not discuss the allergist or the dusty cans of tomato soup or my emotional outburst or my sniffling and fatigue. I did not feel any better, but I did not spend as much time thinking about how bad I felt. Instead, I was distracted by a shapeless shame.
I knew I was guilty, but I was unsure what I had done. My father had defeated me somehow, in a contest I had unknowingly entered and whose stakes I had not fully understood. I never had a chance at winning. Yet he took a grim, quiet satisfaction in his victory. Like his mother and his sisters, I was a girl and, therefore, by nature, his oppressor. I had tried to pull the wool over his eyes, pretending I was sick. But, like Hansel matching wits with the witch, he had managed to outsmart me, even as he crouched in the cage where we evil women kept the little boys we captured. I had been too blind to tell whether he had been extending a finger or a bone through the bars. I had been too blind even to recognize that I was the enemy.
My father did not realize that I, too, wanted to escape the gingerbread house. And now the door was open. Neither of us made a move.
Bonnie Walker is a writer, lawyer, teacher, and photographer who lives and works in New York City. She holds degrees from Bryn Mawr College, the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, and the University of Michigan Law School. Her writing has appeared in BigCityLit, Everyday Fiction, and the ABA Journal E-Report. One of her personal essays will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Same. She is currently at work on a book-length memoir.