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  • Attachment Therapy
  • Melissa Stephenson (bio)

Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

—Parker Palmer

In a pile of papers on my desk, I have a picture of a picture of my family in 1979. My mother holds me on her hip, though I am six and too big. Her shoulder-length hair is permed into a mini-afro and she’s Patti Smith–thin. Her dress is the same fabric as my dress, the same fabric as the dress on the doll in my arms. Dad sports shaggy hair and a beard, his hand resting on my nine-year-old brother’s shoulders. The wood paneling on the wall behind us casts an amber glow. Despite my brother’s spazzy, forced-photo face, we look happy—a family alive and going places.

The original photo hangs on the dining room wall of my parents’ home in Indiana. The pictures in that room line the walls from chair rail to ceiling, the frames hung an inch apart—a collage of faces, bodies, squares, and rectangles. There are so many images that it is easy to miss something for decades. My parents’ wedding pictures hang next to my wedding pictures, which hang next to pictures of my only sibling, 14 years dead now from an inherited hollow leg and a self-inflicted gunshot wound (though that is a story for another time). It is the childhood images that fascinate me most, their sun-faded light the filter through which I see all of my earliest memories. How did those people become us? How did that little girl become me? And where did her brother go?

My folks live in a mid-sized Midwestern city, in the house we moved into when I was seven, a house nothing ever leaves. The dresser drawers still hold [End Page 9] baby clothes from my children, and their father’s shoes from the last months of our marriage, when we lived with my folks for a stretch and put my mother through rehab a second time. As soon as she got out, I moved to Montana for good. The psychic weight of the clutter—these inanimate reminders of lives long gone—give the place the air of a fallen empire. This is my own baggage, I know—a judgment, an attempt at reckoning.

I have often entertained friends with stories about my crazy mother: her OCD tendencies (she got carpal tunnel from vacuuming too often, our carpets replaced from overcleaning instead of overuse); the way she could drink four bottles of wine and lip sync the entire Rocky Horror Picture Show to friends held captive, all before dinnertime on a weekday; how she sewed matching outfits for us when I was growing up, as if she could turn me into the little doll she always wanted. I have often drunk one pint too many and laughed at her expense, inviting people to ask, How did you turn out so level-headed, so functional?—a question that is fair and deserved, the implication true and not true, based on narratives I spin about my family that are true but not the truth. They are simplified snippets of complex pictures, a verbal photoshop job of memory in which I am the wizard behind the curtain, deciding what you will see, turning your head from the things I want to hide. Like this. Like what I’m doing right now, giving you a copy of a copy of a copy:

My mother sewed matching dresses for us because she wanted everyone

to think she was The Best Mother in the World.

My mother sewed matching dresses for us because she didn’t understand me.

My mother sewed matching dresses for us because she was crazy.


I try not to blame my mother because she was a young parent. Pregnant at 17 and again at 20, she had two children by the time she could legally drink. She pointed this out to me annually for the duration of my childhood: I couldn’t drink on my twenty-first birthday because you were overdue. Then she did drink. Not too much...


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pp. 9-23
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