When, at seven, i was skipped ahead, from second to third grade, my older sister beat me with a belt. It was one of those plastic belts, then in style among the well-to-do suburban set, bright pink, with a hard and shiny silver buckle, a prized possession. Ava stood over me and hit me with it until I started shrieking and she got scared and stopped. No one other than the new maid was home. We could hear the roar of the vacuum cleaner coming from downstairs, and, as things turned out, the new maid was only to last a couple of months before our mother, who was picky, fired her. In any event, the beating hurt—I smarted for days, and it was weeks until the marks completely faded—and after it, nothing was the same.
Our parents were so incapable of raising children that I often think the three of us (I have a younger brother, too) would have been better served in foster care, or even an old-fashioned orphanage, the kind I first read about in the fourth grade, in a grisly story about Anne Sullivan, who was raised in a large and terrible orphanage, where rats bit her while she was sleeping, before growing up to become Helen Keller’s teacher. I loved that book with its grisly descriptions of the young Anne’s deprivations, the beatings, the cold, and must have read it half a dozen times. In comparison, how lucky I myself was—how lucky we all were—because while our own father drank and stormed around the house, and, in an effort to keep the peace, our mother trained us to not to react, we not only lived in a large and well-run home, filled with art and books and music, but had a father who was a somebody, an author, a respected and well-known member of his field, psychiatry. Which of course made things all that much more confusing.
Mother would make us lie down on our backs so she could tickle us. If we laughed or giggled, she’d slap us, not hard, but hard enough that we’d stop. If we managed to lie perfectly still, betraying nothing on our faces, she’d let us have a treat: an extra half hour of television, perhaps, or an ice-cream cone. Eventually all three of us were able to pretend that nothing was amiss no matter what our father did, including when he threw things at us, or smashed a lamp against the wall. [End Page 540]
But for me, it wasn’t any of these things—the strange ritual with the tickling; my father’s alcohol-fueled rages; the sense that despite the regular violence that punctuated family events, we were distinctly superior to, better than, and special (nothing at all like the ordinary run of humanity, with their petty ambitions and tacky taste in home decor)—that tripped me up. No, it was none of these things that flung me into something that, now, in my own late middle age, I recognize as a state of unmooring, of darkness so dark that I had nothing to compare it to, of utter collapse: a me that had unscrolled, unwound, collapsed in on itself, like an exploded crater. I was there one minute and then I was gone.
“You show-off bitch! You show-off bitch! I’ll show you who the show-off bitch is!” my sister said as she beat me with her pink plastic belt there in the light-flooded upper landing of our large, modern, airy house.
Until that moment, I’d been the smart one. I understand that in families such as mine, this appellation is typically reserved for the firstborn, and that any who follow tend to be saddled with labels both less intoxicatingly privileged and less binding. But in the case of my older sister, there were pronounced learning issues, an inability to focus, but these things weren’t well understood then, so instead of getting her the help she may have been able to get had she been born at a later...