The other day my six-year-old daughter and I were listing our favourite words. I claimed breakfast, kerfuffle. She claimed since. Then she asked me to choose my favourite letter so that she could guess what it was. I chose I. After a few wrong stabs (H, A, X), she requested a hint.
‘It is what I call myself when I don’t call myself by my name,’ I said.
She scrutinized me.
‘Stupid?’ She said. ‘Idiot? Moron? Fucking moron?’
We both laughed. She is perceptive, my daughter, uncannily so, possibly even extra-sensorily so. This is the girl who leaves me notes on my pillow every third night; for example, after I accompanied her to a dentist appointment that involved needles and blood, she left me a note with a tracing of her palm and the caption, ‘I got too hand it too ya, you where brave waching me at the dentist.’
She knows how hard it is for me to be around her when she’s in pain, but not exactly because I cannot bear to see her in pain. She and I both know: it is a little more complicated than that.
From the moment my daughter was born she could not be without me. Not for literally years. Nor could she be with anyone else. (When she could talk she asked my husband, her father, ‘Remember when I didn’t love you?’) I was touched at first. Then embarrassed. Her neediness damned me. I swore to parents and grandparents who cast a gimlet eye upon our emotional squalor that I’d done nothing to encourage it – on the contrary, I assured them. Once our bond became unseemly, untenable – she was three or so – I’d gone out of my way to be unworthy. I’d become short-tempered and impatient. Also I ignored her pain. This was not difficult to do; her pain was rarely justified. To wear special seamless socks was to stick her feet in an iron smelter. To wear a soft acrylic scarf was to be garroted by a scroll of razor wire.
Over time, her catastrophic responses to the mundane, they dulled me. The more heightened her reactions, the more anaesthetized mine. When I would hear, from the southernmost tip of the apartment, a caterwauling of such flamboyancy it might suggest, to the untrammelled ear, that an amputation was underway, I would roll my eyes. I would shuffle glacially towards the scene of the trauma – involving the rounded cardboard ‘corner’ of a book and a mutely scraped forearm – I would examine the unmarked skin, I would visibly fail to care.
Over time, her catastrophic responses to the mundane, they dulled me. The more heightened her reactions, the more anaesthetized mine. When I would hear, from the southernmost tip of the apartment, a caterwauling of such flamboyancy it might suggest, to the untrammelled ear, that an amputation was underway, I would roll my eyes.
Soon an unhealthy attachment came to replace our unhealthy attachment. We co-authored a hermetic kerfuffle in which we each emerged self-affirmed in our condemnations of the other, bonded by our mutual disdain. Her injury, my sluggish sympathy, her objective outrage at my cold category error.
‘What kind of mother,’ she would scold, ‘doesn’t care when her child is hurt?’
‘This kind of mother,’ I would say.
When I was my daughter’s age I felt her intensity of pain. But not her variety. I was not partial to my own pain; I was not partial to the pain of people. Instead I experienced the emotional distress of broken lamps doomed for the dump, or of a sweater knitted by my grandmother that I knew I would never wear. I once cried over the fate of a strand of my own hair that blew away in a windstorm. I was the tech-poor equivalent of Roald Dahl’s Klausner, the amateur scientist in his short story ‘The Sound Machine’. Klausner invents a device that allows him to hear the screams of roses and grass being cut, of trees being axed. ‘As he listened, he became conscious of a curious sensation . . . that his ears were going up and up towards a secret and forbidden territory, a dangerous ultrasonic region where his ears had never been before and had no right to be.’ Klausner subsequently runs around his neighbourhood trying to stop his neighbours from harming plants, and is deemed insane.
Perhaps because of these tendencies of mine, I did not like to be away from home. Not even, literally, for the length of a movie. I could not be sent to day camp. School I managed by writing on my desktop with my finger every word the teacher said. I adopted superstitions; if I was able to peel the foil top off my yogurt at breakfast without it tearing, I’d have a trauma-free day. If I wore the same sweater in my annual school photo, I’d have a trauma-free year. (This sweater was a green Fair Isle sweater, the kind with the yoke; my parents still have my school photos from grades one through six, me in this sweater that was not, technically, the same sweater – I grew.)
The less crazy among us realize at a point that it is untenable to be certain people.
Especially if, in addition to your heart’s propensity to voyage into dangerous ultra-anthropomorphizing regions where it does not belong, you are hypersensitive to social shame.
By the time I was in middle school, I’d become sick of my own suffering. It humiliated me, it exhausted me. When I say I hated myself I mean I really, really did, with a homicidal intensity. So the weepy, unfit, full-of-shame girl I was, I got rid of her. I issued a hit, I put her six feet under. By high school she was gone.
And then, in the form of my daughter, she rose from the dead – or rather some zombie version of her did (or maybe a less zombie version). A girl who didn’t ventriloquize emotional hardship on to lamps and strands of hair but experienced actual physical pain. The opposite of a zombie, in fact. A girl who felt pain even when there should have been no pain to feel.
In retrospect I think this is likely why, when she was not even five, I told her about Anne Frank, I told her about Hitler. This is likely why I’ve told her about the Twin Towers, and how the people jumped out the windows to avoid being burned. This is likely why, just the other night –while I was speaking on the phone to a friend whose mother had just died and my daughter was ceaselessly keening because she could not figure out something on the computer – I marched my daughter to her room and said, ‘You do not have a reason to be crying. THIS WOMAN has a reason to be crying. Her mother is DEAD.’
When a child lacks emotional proportion, tell her about the Holocaust. Tell her about terrorism. Why be crying, tell her, when nobody’s even died.
Ironically, however, when she’s actually injured, that’s when she barely cries at all. And that’s when I say, ‘I know, I KNOW THAT HURTS.’
In other words (in others’ words): I understand your pain.
In my words: I respect your refusal, for my sake, to behave as though you feel it.
But the problem is not that I fail in the majority of circumstances to understand her pain. The problem is that I fail to recognize it, by which I mean I refuse to validate it. But by which I also mean that her pain is foreign to me. She feels pain where I feel none.
Which sounds histrionic, even impossible. What kind of mother? But while much of what I’ve written is true, it isn’t entirely accurate. My daughter is not the off-putting headcase I’ve perhaps made her out to be; she is abundantly loving and lovable, generous and empathic and magnetic. She has always been astonishingly unmaterialistic. She gives her clothes and toys away, not because she’s desperate to be admired, but because she, unlike me, has no emotional connection to objects. When I visit her friends’ bedrooms I find her clothing, her headbands, her dolls. For Christmas she wraps up her belongings and gives them to family members. Some of these items are so archivally valuable to me that I steal them back when the cousin on whom she bestowed it isn’t looking.
For Christmas she wraps up her belongings and gives them to family members. Some of these items are so archivally valuable to me that I steal them back when the cousin on whom she bestowed it isn’t looking.
When my daughter was two we played a game called ‘My Mouse’, involving a plush mouse that we would alternately grab from one another and announce, ‘My mouse.’ I thought, like most of her peers, that she should learn to unhealthily care for a stuffed and easily lost stuffed animal. She did not care. (I did care; I had a soft spot for this mouse.) She faked her rage when I took the mouse from her. Soon she grew bored. When her daycare suggested we ease the apoplectia of her separation from me by allowing her to bring an attachment object, we were at a loss. She was attached to no object; in fact she might be said to have an object aversion. She, from the start, was fit only to love people.
I’ve failed to portray how tolerant and patient I’ve been with her, most notably during the tough early years, years that were so intense we waited nearly five of them to have a second kid; how I was the only person not literally nauseated by her scream that became legend among friends, one of whom, when driving behind our car, reported my daughter’s screaming could be heard inside of her car, even with both our vehicles travelling at 50mph, the windows rolled up, the stereos and ACs on. My daughter, despite her decibel force field, has land-grabbed more of my heart than I thought available. Than I thought any longer existed. With her there was no Plan B, no escape hatch, no point in withholding. There was only the decision to love her and to accept the possibility of total emotional annihilation if she died. So I suppose it’s important, here, to acknowledge that this is not an accurate portrayal, really, but a disclosure of my worst fears about my shortcomings as a parent and, more generally, as a human, and how these shortcomings might have long-term effects on people who aren’t me.
I have already fantasized about what my daughter will say in our future therapy sessions. In truth, however, I already know. I’ve witnessed her building the sturdy foundation of her future self-presentation. I’ve witnessed how I’m a crucial part of the plot machinery no matter what. As my Alzheimered grandfather used to say after we’d finished telling him a story about his own life, Glad I wasn’t there.
I wasn’t there. Yet I am always there.
For example. Since my daughter is constitutionally allergic to most clothing, I have adjusted my expectations of what constitutes ‘clad’ accordingly. She’s allowed to wear the same outfit for weeks on end, and usually does. I demand only that she wear some clothes, but even this seemingly very minimal desire can, at times, seem grandiosely Fitzcarraldian, a bug-eyed delusion on a par with pushing ships over mountains.
One day – it was January, 18 degrees – she rode to school in her stroller wearing nothing but her underwear.
But some mornings she will decide she wants to try on the long-sleeved dress with the ruffled collar that a well-meaning friend or relative gave her as a gift, and which I have hidden in a closet, because I know this dress will send her into a flail of exorcistic proportions. I beg her not to try the dress on; literally, I beg. Please don’t put on this dress. (Here the fairytale parallels cannot be ignored; Snow White tying the toxic ribbon in her hair while the knowing yet ineffective reader screams, ‘Noooooooooo.’)
Despite my protests, my daughter will put on the ruffle-collared dress, very optimistically she’ll do this, as if she really believes in her ability to wear a long-sleeved dress with a ruffled collar, despite years of behavioural evidence to the contrary. She’ll insist that I button it, which I wincingly do. Nearly instantaneously she’ll drop to the ground, victim of a seizure that falls somewhere between the voluntary and involuntary zones. When I say she occasionally foams at the mouth, I mean that she does exactly that. And when she finally claws her way back from this afflicted Helen Keller-before-the-waterpump-epiphany world, she’ll stare at me and say, ‘This is your fault. You forced me to wear this.’
When I say she occasionally foams at the mouth, I mean that she does exactly that. And when she finally claws her way back from this afflicted Helen Keller-before-the-waterpump-epiphany world, she’ll stare at me and say, ‘This is your fault. You forced me to wear this.’
And often then I cannot help myself; often, I laugh.
Which I know is exactly what I’m not supposed to do. But I view these fights less as attention-getting manoeuvres, more as creative acts. She is honing her narrative craft, her sense of structure and character believability. She is practising for that time when her deployment of causality is more refined and less easily dismissed as ridiculous, my blame more perfectly plausible, her identity the inextricable fault of me.
Also I find this relieving, a guarantee of our future snarled intimacy. No matter how I try, she will never be rid of me. I am always there.
Not that she’s really needed to hone her craft. She’s gifted, a natural. The one therapist we took our daughter to – to teach us, essentially, how to put clothes on our own kid – was in our daughter’s thrall in seconds.
We’d gone to this woman as a last resort; winter had rolled around again, it was the first really cold day, my husband and I, after an hour of trying to force (yes, force) our daughter to wear something in addition to a tutu (like, I don’t know, a coat, or a hat, or maybe one sock), had realized, as we sat, defeated, on that war-zone threshold to the outside world, that if this continued, we would get divorced. Or we would have to move to the tropics. Or we would have to consult a professional.
We consulted a professional, an occupational therapist, who quickly concluded that we were the fucked-up ones, not our daughter. But we’d been told by people that she probably suffered, not just from plain suffering, but from an actual condition called sensory integration disorder.
A sensory disorder made sense to us. When she was an infant, we’d called her the mood ring – was it only a coincidence that she screamed when we were with people who stressed us out (i.e. family members), but when we were relaxing with friends she would sleep peacefully on a patch of cold grass? Once she could talk, her disintegrated sensory self could cull lost frequencies from the air. Once day, en route to a nearby cathedral to check out some peacocks, she said, ‘I like this walk, this walk is so . . .’
‘Beautiful?’ I said.
‘I was going to say “beautiful”,’ she said, ‘but then I thought, what if we see a car accident?’
Three blocks later, we saw a car accident.
I found this less creepy than reassuring; no wonder this girl couldn’t wear socks.
But to return to my fantasy. As I’ve said, I don’t imagine what she’ll be telling this therapist; I fantasize about what I’ll say in my defence. (This is a fantasy; meaning, there’s got to be something in it for me. So of course I will be in the room with her and this hypothetical future therapist, and my side of the story will be solicited.) I honestly do fantasize about this, especially after we’ve had one of our more brutal confrontations, one that exposes me, even to myself, as scandalously hard-hearted.
Because I am a byproduct of her. This will be my opening gambit to the therapist, likely a woman prone to funk in the earring department but nowhere else, whom I will feel quite confident I can charm to my side even though past experience would not support this confidence of mine. This is not who I am, I would tell the hypothetical female therapist; or, OK, this is sort of who I am. My husband here (I would tell her) would probably appreciate it if I revealed what a bitch I was when he dislocated his shoulder. Not directly after he dislocated it; my heart is good in true emergencies. But I am not so gifted a caretaker once the adrenalin subsides. A week later, when he griped about having to wear his sling in Paris, or three months later, when he was still too unstable to climb a mountain because of his shoulder injury, I was unsympathetic, even derisive.
It had got so bad, this behaviour of mine, that whenever he was sick he tried not to tell me; when he couldn’t hide a bad cough, a thrown-out back, he asked me if I was mad at him.
So you see – well. You see. It is indefensible. I do not want people to feel pain. If they do, it makes me angry.
Quite evidently (I’d tell the therapist) I was the sort of person who’d been raised by parents who were emotionally and physically stoical. Here my father would be cited as the pre-eminent family stoic, the man who once said to me, when I was in the midst of some elementary-school-era sensory implosion, ‘We’re not going to have to send you to a therapist, are we?’ The man whose child-rearing breakthrough occurred when I was an infant, and I was crying, and he said to my mother, ‘Is she hungry? has she been changed?’, and when no suitable reason could be produced for my inconsolability, my father instructed that he and she ignore me, the upshot of which, he often boasted to me once I was a parent, was, inconceivably, this: ‘And you never cried again.’
I would cop to these contexts and shortcomings as a means of coming clean, yes, but also as a way of establishing a trustworthy, self-critical base from which an argument can more believably be mounted. I, too, have been honing my craft.
Then I would tell the therapist that living with my daughter – and here I would seem to be joking, but it would be abundantly clear that I was not at all joking – was analogous to living with an abusive alcoholic. That I spent my life looking into the near future, attempting to spot the binge-and-violence triggers – a flocked and itchy nightgown, a pizza with a fleck of basil on it – and deftly sidestep them, so as to protect both of us from her sensory implosions. And so our lives in the present were fraught, stressful; I was absent, I was busy. I occupied a slightly different zone on our mutual timeline; I was the advance team, checking for bombs in the form of her. Though I’d killed off that unsuitably sensitive and fearful girl I once was, I had, for the first three years of my daughter’s life, been my old self. I’d temporarily brought back my dead for her. She’d become my broken lamp, my lost strand of hair. I had been so scared of her feeling pain that I’d fled to the future to prevent it.
Or something like that.
It’s a truism that no crime goes unpunished, so I am willing to entertain the idea that I am being punished for that murder I committed so many years ago. I’m a novelist; a few years back, a critic pointed out, more or less, that my third novel was populated by sardonic, unsympathetic characters (I’m paraphrasing here, or maybe I’m attributing to this critic what I fear myself to be true); however, she believed, this critic, that I had it in me to write a book that was more emotionally direct.
This challenge is one that I’ve been trying to rise to ever since. But here is the conundrum: can you choose not to feel pain, yet still be able to evoke it (and not by throwing a brick in someone’s face)? Can you create an alternative human, an alternative you, who feels things that you do not?
I had a therapist once who wanted me to talk about the novel I was writing at the time, my first. I did not want to talk about this novel with her or with anyone; I’ve never really liked talking about what I’m writing, or might someday write, or have once written. But finally I relented, more for her than for me. I described my main character, her situation, etc. (It was an infanticide novel. The main character, a mother, kills her son because he is sick.) Afterwards the therapist looked at me and said, ‘You have so little sympathy for her. You’re so disdainful of her.’ I was meant to see a fitting parallel in this – in fact, the therapist spelled it out for me. You speak about her as pitilessly as you speak about yourself.
But that relationship between me and me is an oft-acknowledged one, i.e. no big news. What mortified me was this: while trying to keep very far away from the autobiographical first novel trap, I’d done something arguably more artistically clueless; I’d written about myself without realizing I’d written about myself. I’d written a roman-à-clef-à-clef. I could not write an emotionally direct novel, but this I could do – I could put a character through hell, then show my readers why they shouldn’t care at all about her.
But if i was so unsympathetic towards this ‘character’ I dreamed up, how might this tendency of mine manifest once I was the creator of actual humans? How might a real innocent become the receptacle of my abundant disdain?
I have discounted this easy equivalency; I am bothered by this easy equivalency.
When I encourage my daughter to not feel the incredible pain she feels, I do it because I do not want her to lead a heart-breaking life. Aside from the unavoidable gutting tragedy, these kinds of lives are an option. You can choose not to have one. I chose not to.
In terms of my daughter, however, I have begun to rethink how I talk to her about her hyperactive sensory self. When we’re at that threshold to the outside, and she can’t put on her boots, I do not say, ‘You are six years old. You should be able to deal with this.’ Because I know to ‘deal with this’ will require for her a massive system override; it will be the beginning of the creation of a person who might be capable, a few years from now, of performing a murder on herself. The other day, after one of her clothing tantrums, she shut herself in her room and yellingly self-flagellated: ‘Everybody hates me. My friends, my mother, my father, my brother. Even I hate me!’
In these future therapy sessions I cannot wait to be to falsely blamed for everything that she is, and with which I had nothing to do. But this other legacy of mine, this ability to perform a variety of suicide that permits a person to keep living – I cannot bear to be accurately blamed for teaching her how to do that.
For christmas this year we received the usual presents from my daughter. One cousin received a tulle skirt I remembered buying her last winter when we subwayed downtown to kill a snow day.
Another cousin received a mother-of-pearl heart locket given to her by a racist Christian great-aunt who travels the world in a boat filled with old people and, despite her bigotry, really does mean well. (I remember the provenance of every object she owns, which is why I find it so impossible to give anything away.) Her brother received a stuffed rabbit that was once, for about a year, actually loved by her. And I received the mouse with which we’d played ‘My Mouse’. When I opened it, my first impulse was to hold it high in the air and announce, mock-triumphantly, ‘My Mouse!’ But I didn’t, because I didn’t feel particularly triumphant. It was impossible not to read into this mouse (it has a name; it is Nussbaum) more than the simple fact that she was giving me what I cherished more than she ever did or could. Nussbaum seemed more unsettlingly symbolic, the first warning flare she would soon no longer need me in that way that had once, shamefully, shamed me. She could dispense with these objects over which we falsely fought, and I knew it was just a matter of time before the dramas we’d concocted to feel close to one another would fail to matter to her. I was the one who, by winning, had lost. Fucking moron, indeed. In these future therapy sessions, when we look back, I am not always there.