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  • No Hothouse Flower
  • Marguerite Barnett

To be a woman is a rich and dangerous job. I experienced this in my mother's womb, she who created me out of hope and love, which transcended betrayal and racism. I sensed this as I watched my adoptive mother subsume her identity to a soul-sucking concept formed at the confluence of culture and religion. But I didn't really learn it until I began the path that led to my current identity as a surgeon.

I should not have survived any of this, and I say that with a sense of wonder and gratitude.

I was born to a Japanese woman in postwar Japan, who met my father, a US military doctor, at a USO dance. He did not wear a wedding band, but he did not try to hide her. He took her to "nice" restaurants where Japanese women were not usually taken, so, at nineteen, she thought they were having a grand love affair. She did not realize he already had a wife and child back in the States. She was so naïve she did not know she was pregnant. She had morning sickness, and he smuggled her into the base hospital for testing. She found out when he sat her in the office chair and said, "I have a Japanese doctor friend who can fix this." The way that he said it made her realize "this" meant she was pregnant, "fix" meant an abortion. Something was wrong—he should be happy they were having a child! I do not know why she didn't have an abortion. Abortion was not frowned upon in Japan, but having a mixed blood, unwanted child certainly was. Most unusually, she kept me without any support. The combination of youth, poverty, and lack of support left her vulnerable, and she lost custody of me when I was trafficked by a babysitter at age one. Ultimately, I was adopted by an Army chaplain and his wife, who provided a stable upbringing despite the constant movement of military life. This conservative and fundamental religious upbringing primed me for marriage and a life of being a "helpmate" to a husband.

There were some warning signs that I might not take the expected path. I knew I wanted to be a doctor even though, at that time, I knew nothing about my natural father other than his nationality. I did not want to be a nurse. I thought it was because I was a failure to thrive, which, in retrospect, I think was because of my refusal to eat when separated from my mother. But the fact that I had a heart murmur and got ill very easily led the doctors to conclude that I had a bad heart and would not make it past my fifth birthday. It was so bad my adoptive mother said she could not hang white sheets on the clothesline lest I thought it was the doctor coming to give me a shot! The warning signs became red flags, and I ultimately hit a brick wall when I chose to attend an Ivy League Medical School to be with my then fiancé. I did not realize how a liberal "heathen" institution such as the one I attended in the 1970s could destroy me. This was the time of widespread student protests against the war, Timothy Leary was urging everyone to "drop out and drop acid," and Patty Hearst had been kidnapped and brainwashed into a gun-toting radical. For my crimes, I was disowned by my parents, and the shock of losing their support was compounded when my minister molested me. I do not know how I survived those dark days.

My fledgling marriage fell apart under the pressure, and I was abandoned in the cold north in a program not known for its supportive nature. Desperate, I joined the military scholarship program, but it only paid for books and tuition. The financial aid package provided by the school did not cover living expenses. It should not have been a surprise that the final injury—caused by my lack of financial security, expressed in such seemingly minor things as unsafe housing and...


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pp. 197-199
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