People often ask me how I survived my childhood, and especially wonder how I remained sane. There are many answers to that question. One is that I developed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) to protect my spirit. Another is books. Books and books and books.
So here, as promised, I present to you my lifelong love story with books, starting with childhood and teens. I'll cover my adult years soon. All my education and work history relates to this love affair and yet, oddly, I haven't written much about it. This changes that.
Something about the whimsy of this dress, and the colours so reminiscent of my early childhood in the early 1970s reminded me of my childhood joys, both literary and sartorial. Indeed, one of the fun things you'll notice throughout this post is the fact that many of book covers and illustrations that I loved in my childhood match this dress!
|Dress: Cherry Velvet from Kitty Canuck; Boots: Ecco; Blouse: Eloquii; Socks: from JQ Clothing; Jacket: Target; Gloves, glasses, cape, tam, cape, and scarf: vintage|
I find fashion and books nourishing and sustaining. There have been rough times when I felt that a book, or a fashion trend, has saved my life.
But this post is about the books.
It all started with Dr. Seuss, in the fall of 1975, when I learned to read.
I remember the first sentence I ever learned to read: "The fat cat sat on a hat." Smother sat down with me and made me sound out each letter until I realized that they were forming words.
|Just off the school bus from kindergarten class. I'm the tiny one with braids. I was always several inches shorter than other children my age.|
I could read! I was so excited!
A whole world of freedom and possibility opened up to me in that moment. I ran all over our Massachusetts farm, waving around the paper with my sentence on it, yelling, "I can read! I can read!"
My oldest step-brother (who was in his early 20s) hurt my feelings by suggesting that I'd simply memorized the sentence. All my life, I've been hurt when people think I'm lying. I had and have many faults and one of them is overly scrupulous honesty. It hurts when people think I'm lying.
Perhaps that's why I felt such aching sympathy for Horton when he heard a Who. Nobody believed him. They mocked him and told him he was crazy.
It was like when tried to tell people I was being sexually abused. When I told my friends on the playground, they all laughed at me in just the same way, mocking me, saying I was crazy because families didn't do that "with" each other. I hadn't known that. I fell silent. I thought maybe it was somehow my fault. I thought maybe there was something wrong with me.
|The tiny Whos that Horton hears and tries to protect from those who don't believe they exist.|
DID is, basically, on the far end of the spectrum of dissociation, in which abused children "go away" in their heads during abuse; in this case, part of the child remains and forms a new identity. In an effort to shield themselves from unbearable trauma and danger, children's identities split off into several parts, each containing and shielding the other parts from the full truth of the trauma. Memories, are not, in this case, repressed, as is often the case for abused children who do not have DID; they are instead compartmentalized. Only when a child has "switched" into the part that holds a particular traumatic memory, can she remember that particular trauma.
Imagine a large puzzle that forms a single image. Now imagine that pieces of that puzzle are constantly appearing and disappearing, so that sometimes you can see a tree, other times parts of a house, and other times a bit of a barn, but you can never see them all together or at once, or how they are positioned in relation to each other. You are never able to see the entire image as a cohesive whole. It's like that.
This is what happened to me. This is what was deliberately done to me. I have yet to meet anyone trafficked as young as I was who did not develop DID.
This extraordinary coping mechanism does indeed help severely abused children survive. But it also serves another purpose: the main goal for abusers who deliberately cause DID in children is to cause the episodic amnesia children experience as they "switch" from one identity to another. If, from hour to hour, a child cannot remember what is happening to her, or at least cannot remember it in anything but disjointed fragments, she cannot tell.
It's not entirely effective, or at least it wasn't for me. Bits of the truth, especially the emotional effects of that truth, leaked through from part to part. Note that I was sometimes able to tell, run away, and even ask for help, in my childlike way -- not that anyone believed me or bothered to help me anyway.
|An exhausted Horton tries to find the Whos to save their lives.|
I no longer have DID. Instead, I have DDNOS (Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). This means that I still have many parts, but they are now far less distinctly separate one from one another. I am aware of them and they are aware of me. Communication between them is possible and they no longer shield me from my own memories of the traumas; the puzzle pieces are now all, or mostly all, in one place at one time, and I now know my own story as a cohesive whole. Perhaps most importantly, I do not "switch" between identities and do not have amnesiac episodes.
Most people understand the idea of having a child self, a part of who they are that is still the child they once were. It's more like that for me now, except that I have many child selves, and they all went through hell and have the emotional scars to show for it.
I consider this change in me to be a positive thing, but it does mean that I can no longer compartmentalize my emotional and physical pain and distance myself from it. At times, it makes me feel like my complex PTSD is worse than it was before.
It's not easy! But now, as then, many things help. Now, as then, books help.
For a while, I stuck with Dr. Seuss, mostly because I was confident that I could read his stories, but also probably because I so resonated with them. Like Yertle the Turtle, I was the one at the bottom of the stack, physically and emotionally bearing the weight of those who used me for their own pleasure. Yertle's body might break.
Mine did. Stories like Yertle the Turtle were terrifying to me. They were not metaphors, not really, not for me. As I branched out in my reading, I found the same was true of other books too. The story of Peter Rabbit's treatment at the hands of Mr. MacGregor scared me half to death. It didn't feel like fiction. For years, I didn't see a man in the moon.
I saw Peter Rabbit in bed, sick with fear -- like me, after my stepfather shot and killed a puppy that got into the chickens. He told me I was next.
Mr. MacGregor reminded me of my stepfather.
I had a kind of physical empathy for The Little Engine that Could. I really wasn't sure if my tiny body could endure the things it was being asked to endure. Could I do it? The Little Engine thought it could. I felt sorry for it, and relieved when it survived unscathed.
I would not be so lucky and I think part of me knew that. I didn't think I could, and I was right.
But, of course, books were not only a source of painful empathy for me. They were also wonderful balm. They had pretty pictures, nice colours, and fun stories into which I could escape, something at which a dissociative child is already adept. One of my favourites of this type was A Penny for Whiffles, all about a little pony who gets to have a friend with penny-coloured hair.
As a child, I was often told that my own hair was the colour of pennies. Whoever gave me Pennies for Whiffles told me that it was a book written just for me, and I believed them, so I loved the book, having memorized the story, if not the words, long before I could actually read. That's me on the left there, at about three, proudly holding my book up for the camera.
I was hair vain even way back then! When people compliment some part of you often enough when you're a child, you believe them.
The Old Mother West Wind stories were favourites for me too. There was a soothing, gentle repetitiveness in the stories that resembled poetry or a lullaby. It would be years until I could intellectually recognize that different styles of writing, like different styles of paintbrush strokes, can create different moods, but some part of me could feel these differences, and I loved them.
Plus, all the animals were so dapper, in their old fashioned waistcoats and checked pants.
Dapper like me!
I think all children enjoy soothing, repetitive sounds in stories. Remember Blueberries for Sal? If you do, you remember the delightful "kuplink kuplank kuplunk" sound as her blueberries hit the bottom of her too empty bucket. Am I right, or am I right?
|Come Play with Me|
Sal was able to wander off and have her own little adventure. Kids could do that back then so much more easily than they can today. Our days were not as structured or as monitored.
I really liked stories in which children enjoyed solitude. I was already an introvert, quite happy to be by myself. I loved the hushed quality of Come Play With Me, about a child on her own, befriending woodland animals.
And, of course, illustrations were important to me too. Check out the blue in Blueberries for Sal.
Does it remind you of anyone's cape?
|I'm on the right, falling in love with this new land.|
Around this time, just as I was entering grade one, we moved to Vancouver. I did experience some culture shock: words were pronounced and spelled differently, people were extremely polite, we sang God Save the Queen at school assemblies!
It all seemed very British to me. I learned about Paddington Bear and other British children's books. From now on, my education would be a Commonwealth one, and it would differ greatly from the education I would have received had I remained in America.
I immigrated to Canada in the third week of September, 1976. By the end of October, I'd read every book on our classroom shelves and was frustrated that there weren't any more of them. So I read them all again.
And I was introduced to Canadian literature or, as we all call it up here, Can Lit. The Secret World of Og was a revelation to me. You've got to read it, if only for the cat who thinks he's a dog. Canadian humour was so wacky, self-deprecating, and fun.
|Waving to a little kid who was captivated by our photo shoot. This happens often. I think I'm being a good role model: they see this disabled, chubby, middle-aged woman as glamorous. That's a good thing for them.|
It suited me just fine and still does.
As I got older, I became more aware of the messages within Quakerism, in which I was raised. For instance, the importance of silence in stillness in Come Play with Me made perfect sense to me. Quakerism is a religion in which silence is a form of prayer, and simplicity of living is a virtue. I read a lot of Quaker children's books and easily internalized their meanings. I loved the soft sound of the Quaker "thees and thous" in these books and the primacy of stillness.
Obadiah's name had such a lovely, soft sound to it. He had red hair, like me, and the grey seagulls in the grey ocean fog, not unlike this new land of mine, had a quiet beauty about them that appealed to me.
If you've read a lot of older literature, you may have come across the term "Quaker grey." Traditionally, Quakers were expected to wear simple, dull clothing, so as not to let vanity and ostentation distract them from prayer and good works. Even a splash of colour like my orange earrings was forbidden.
|Me at about six, and a friend outside of the Friend's Meeting House.|
Quakers had abandoned their greys about 70 years before I was born but the basic message of humble simplicity, including of simplicity of dress, remained -- and it did not suit my temperament (though I strongly suspect it's why I've never dyed my hair and still often go out without wearing any makeup).
I adored the book, Thee Hannah, about a little Quaker girl who abhorred her dull, Quaker bonnet, but came to love it when it enabled a runaway slave to recognize her as a safe ally, and turn to her for help. You can just see her peering out from the door on the left there.
But I also adored and envied the finery of the women Hannah herself adored and envied. She was taught that these feelings were wrong. So was I.
I could not reconcile my love of justice and kindness with my love of beauty and style. I was taught that they were irreconcilable. I struggle with this to this day!
Religion is a powerful force indeed!
Another primary text for Quaker children was the anthology of Quaker stories, The Friendly Story Caravan. (Quakers are formally called the Religious Society of Friends and often refer to each other as Friends.) Many of the stories in the book were about children who appealed to "that of God" within people who appeared to be "bad guys." Doing so brought out the good that was within these bad guys. In ones story, a robber breaks into a girl's house when she is alone. She sets the table for him, and offers him a meal. His heart softens and he did not harm her. As if!
Unfortunately for me, many of the Quakers I knew were involved in the pedophile rings in which I was raped and trafficked. They used the Quaker stories and my kind nature against me, teaching me to be "nice to bad men" to help "purify" them and make them good. In other words, they taught me that "letting" men sexually abuse me (as if I had a choice!) was a Godly thing to do.
This is by no means the first time a child's religion has been perverted to justify sexual abuse and it won't be the last time either. I've heard stories of this from every religion and every permutation of each religion, from extremely conservative and authoritarian (as with Beau's upbringing), to extremely permissive and egalitarian (as with mine).
But of course, not every book I read was Quaker. Most weren't.
I still didn't have full confidence in my reading skills. I assumed that certain books, like the Wind in the Willows, were too hard for me, so others would read them to me. Smother used to sit at my feet, with her back to me, reading to me while I brushed her hair. It wasn't till some time in grade two that I realized I'd been reading along with her, reading so closely, in fact, that I often corrected her mistakes or asked her to define a word for me. My confidence grew.
Grade two is a bit of a blur for me. It was an extremely rough year. Smother's husband began beating her often and my home was a place of terror. I don't remember reading much but I do remember hiding in my room by myself, playing games to distract myself from the screaming and yelling.
My best friend was also being sex trafficked by her mother and had brain damage from having her head smashed against the floor by her rapists (though I didn't know this at the time). She was very bright but she was also delusional and believed the strange stories she and I made up about government conspiracies and bad guys lurking just outside our school grounds, waiting to abduct us. Such things did not seem far fetched to us.
Perhaps because of the ornate tales she and I constructed, I don't remember much about my reading that year. I do remember that I read through all the class readers very early, and my teacher decided to move me up several levels so that I could could read grade three readers. I was grateful for this.
I also remember that this was when I first understood that I wanted to be a writer. I started my very first novel, heart-breakingly entitled, I'm Going To See Daddy.
I've already written about how my father knowingly abandoned me to my abusive home, preferring to go and "find himself" in California -- for the rest of his life -- so there's no need to delve into that here. Suffice to say that he very little than a ghost to me by now.
He did sometimes send me presents, including several of the Serendipity books, quintessential, crunchy granola books about environmentalism and other leftie issues. I loved them, especially their illustrations. I mean, look at those huge, feminine eyes! Why, they were almost like Disney princess eyes, something I was dissuaded from enjoying.
|Tiny me on first day in the tiny town in British Columbia that would come to feel like a prison. I'm eight.|
Part way into grade three, around my eighth birthday, Smother decided that, though it was fine for her husband to beat children, it was not fine for him to beat her, and she left him. She got a job at a community college in a tiny town in the mountains of British Columbia.
I hated that town! I still have bad dreams about being trapped there all over again.
If you're not from western Canada, you probably can't imagine what I mean when I say the town was tiny: 4,000 people if you included surrounding areas, two stoplights, one high school, no public transit, and isolated as fuck! We were tucked into the deep, narrow valley carved into the mountains by the Columbia River, and, when the narrow, winding, mountain roads weren't closed by snow, it was an eight hour drive to the nearest city of any real size. Bears were regular backyard visitors, and, if it was an especially rough winter, cougars were too.
Remember, this was 1978. There was no internet. We had four television channels: NBC, ABC, CBS, and CBC. Most of the time, we could get a few radio stations from Spokane. Thank God for CBC radio!
I was a brainy, hippie kid with a vast breadth of experience, and a highly educated single mother, in red neck mill town where brains were highly suspect. On my very first day of class, I made the mistake of distinguishing myself as being at a reading level far in advance of my classmates. I didn't know it but I had just sealed my fate; I would be a badly bullied outcast for the next five years of my sad little life.
When I say I was bullied, I do not simply mean that I was taunted, insulted, called names, and jeered at, though I was -- daily. I mean I was beaten by my classmates, badly and often. No adults intervened, ever.
|Even now, I'm always the short one|
Remember: I was Jewish. I was much smaller than the other kids, all of whom were protestant Christian and of WASP or Russian decent.
|My eleventh birthday. All but one of the girls is the same age as me. The girl on my left, my best friend, was one week younger than me.|
Not only was I smaller than they were but I didn't look anything like them either. My eyes and features were darker and I had never been blond. That was enough. That was too much.
The sexual abuse got much worse now too. I was no longer told I was special and helping to purify bad men. I was told that, because I'd "let" all those people touch me, I was now irredeemably filthy, disgusting, and evil. Therefore, men (and sometimes women, including Smother) could do anything they wanted to me. The sexual abuse became brutally sadistic and I was often injured. If a particular abuser or abusers were male, penetrative rape of many sorts was always a part of the abuse now. My gynaecologist recently found five old injuries on my genitals, all caused by my rapists.
Illicit drugs now played a bigger role in the abuse too. My abusers, including Smother, took a lot of drugs to fuel their depraved, sadistic assaults, and I was given a lot of drugs to subdue, terrorize, and control me. This is why, to this day, I refuse to use medical marijuana or narcotic pain killers. They scare me.
At some point during this time, I also became aware that Smother was receiving money from many of my rapists. She'd probably been doing this for years.
I became far more dissociative, my DID expanding from a few "alters" to many.
I began writing a journal, something I would continue to do for the rest of my life.
|The famous wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe|
This is when reading became my lifeline. My world expanded to include the infinite worlds contained in books. I had a form of escape and I plunged into it completely. I was no longer a little girl who read books. I was A Reader, a proudly self-proclaimed bookworm.
I will forever be grateful to my next door neighbour, a single school teacher, for helping me make this transition. She was never my own teacher but she somehow saw my potential and introduced me to a world of books at a higher level than I had yet had the confidence to try. She changed my life. In some ways, she saved my life.
She introduced me to C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, the most important books in my life then, and, in a way, now. They are so much a part of me, in my blood and bones, that I find myself struggling to explain why they were so important to me.
Pauline Baynes' beautiful illustrations of the books depicted a land of calm, manageable beauty, while I was living in a mountainous land so wild and awesome, it hurt my heart. While my own natural surroundings were huge and overwhelming, Narnia was pastel green and soothing.
More than anything, I suppose, the Narnia books soothed me. I read them over and over again (and still do). Even now, my heart feels peaceful even if I just touch one of the books, let alone if I pick one up and read it
Part of their appeal was C.S. Lewis' distinctly English, and old-fashioned prose style. It is melodic, elegant, and beautiful, like a lullaby. As an author, he felt very present to me, like a gentle, funny uncle, often talking directly to (never down to) his readers as he helped us picture the world he knew so well. Lucy had told him all about it, and now he was telling us all about it too!
He often described exquisite beauty: beautiful tastes, sights, smells, sounds, and textures, even beautiful stories. He also often described beautiful joy. What a world! What a wonderful world.
And it was mine, my secret window from my dark world to one of light and hope.
Of course I knew all along that the entire Narnia story was a Christian allegory. I knew that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus and that his death on the stone table was an allegory for Jesus' death on the cross: a sacrifice to save humanity. I've always been shocked by adults who enjoyed the Narnia books as children and feel betrayed or tricked by Lewis when they realize that the Narnia series is a Christian allegory. He never tried to hide it. It was obvious. Wasn't it?
I never once believed that Jesus was a saviour. It just never felt true in my heart, so I always knew I wasn't a Christian. Nor did I think that Lewis' vision of Aslan was in keeping with my own understanding of who Jesus was as a person. I always thought Aslan would make more sense as a donkey or some other, more humble and denigrated beast. But this did not bother me. I respected Lewis' vision and remained grateful to him for creating Narnia.
Of course, I read and frequently reread a lot of other books too. I loved the Dark is Rising series. It was scary, and full of dangers and threats and struggles that spoke to me in my own reality. I've tried to reread them as an adult and, I swear to God, they're too scary! I could read them then, but not now!
On a quieter note, the fanciful novels of E.B. White were a delight to me. Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, Stuart Little: darling little creatures who, yet again, overcame adversity and, better yet, found love and chosen family.
Not all of the books I loved were fantasy or adventure stories. I was a huge fan of Judy Blume. I devotedly read everything she wrote but my favourite was Are You There God? It's Me Margaret. To me, this was a book about one thing and one thing only: puberty. More specifically, it was about a girl who wants to get her period. I loved its honesty about girls' bodies and how we felt about them. That was rarer then than it is now.
Even though my own childhood journal entries were addressed, "Dear God," and I regarded them as a form of prayer, it wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that Are You There God? was also about Margaret's confusion about religion and her own mixed Christian and Jewish heritage. In other words, I didn't understand that she was just like me: half Christian, half Jewish.
When we moved to this backward town, Smother told me not to tell anyone I was Jewish. When I asked why, she said that people might not like me if they knew because "some people don't like Jews." That was the sum total of my Jewish education.
I somehow found the All of a Kind Family books, about a Jewish family growing up in New York in the early 20th Century. I liked the series very much but had absolutely no understanding that I was reading about my own heritage, religion, and ethnicity. Their culture, and religious practices were exotic and utterly foreign to me.
To me, they were just an urban version ...
... of the Little House on the Prairie books. (Please please please don't think you know anything about the books because you watched the television show. As if!) I loved the stories of a family facing extreme hardships and always coming through them with love, warmth, and joy. They gave me an alternative vision of what a family could be and how people could behave with one another. Such new visions of family and love were very healthy for me.
The fact that the stories were true, only made them more special to me.
And, because they were true, some of the hardships they depict are extremely harsh. At one point the entire family nearly dies of malaria. At another point, Mary goes blind from Scarlet Fever. At yet another point, when fourteen year old Mary goes a neighbouring town to teach, she stays with a family in which the woman has gone crazy from loneliness and tries to kill her husband in the middle of the night.
That was life, real life, like mine. But, unlike my life, it was also filled with love.
For obvious reasons, I gravitated to books about hardship and endurance. A teenage girl in colonial America is suspected of being a witch because she can swim, and because she befriends a shunned old Quaker woman.
A pearl diver in search of the perfect pearl pushes his body to its limits in a fight with the Manta Diablo.
In another true story, a girl is left behind when her entire village is deported from her Native island. Through determination and ingenuity, she survives for years on her own, curbing her loneliness by befriending a wolf pup. In The Black Stallion, a boy is shipwrecked with a wild stallion and learns to care for both himself and the horse until they are rescued. In My Side of the Mountain, a boy overwinters all alone in the mountains, hollowing out a tree and turning it into a home. I wanted to be that boy. His solitary life seemed perfect to me.
I think I loved these stories both because Smother often threatened to abandon me up in those mountains, and because I often fantasized about running away. I liked the idea of a child being able to fend for herself on her own in the wild. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be the kind of child who could survive independently, without needing adults for food and shelter. If I could be like that, I could escape!
One of my favourite games was Hiding from the Nazis. I'd pretend I was a Jew (not understanding that I really was one), hiding from the Nazis -- certain death -- in the wilds of the mountain woods. And surviving. Surely, that would be better than my real life.
I didn't read a lot of non-fiction but I learned about art history from my encyclopedia, and I read books about ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations, and the Dark Ages (as they were then called), including the children's crusades. I was fascinated by the fact that entire cultures, with their infrastructures, technologies, belief systems, and ways of thinking could collapse and leave a vacuum -- or a dystopia -- in their wake.
I liked reading dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. In The Chrysalids, children who are different must hide their differences for fear of being hunted down as mutants. In The Awakening Water, children are drugged without their knowledge to keep them docile, unquestioning, and compliant. In such novels, children whose lives mirrored my own somehow survived in and even overcame untenable situations, and freed themselves of authoritarian adults whose abuse was rationalized as utopian.
Here too I found models and metaphors for who I would like to be. Only as an adult do I see that it is who I already was: a survivor, carefully preserving the integrity of my spirit and conscience, in an environment that could easily have destroyed me, body, mind, and soul.
But I was probably most like Anne of Green Gables. Like me, she had red braids. Like me, she was precocious, a little odd, and scrupulously, disastrously honest. Like me, she read a lot, and had a fanciful imagination informed by that reading. Like me, she had an expansive vocabulary and talked -- a lot. The similarities between me and Anne did not go unnoticed. Everyone remarked on it.
Of course, I was also constantly compared the television Laura Ingalls ...
... who did indeed look a lot like me.
I was also compared to Pippi Longstocking, bizarrely independent goof extraordinaire.
Clearly, I wasn't like the other kids. And that was fine by me. I was a snob. I admit it. I was bored in school and I eschewed the books my classmates enjoyed. I didn't even try to read Nancy Drew. I read one Beverly Cleary book, just to see what all the fuss was about, and thought it hopelessly old-fashioned. It was written in the 50s, I think, and was a boring, suburban tale about a bland girl who wants a boyfriend. Yawn.
|Ms. Magazines from the very early 1980s|
I didn't even try to fit in. (I still don't.) For my oral presentation in grade four, I gave a speech on feminism. I'd read a children's book called Girls are Important Too and assumed my classmates, intent on trading hockey cards and buying candy, would welcome its messages. (In grade six, I gave a speech on the world's various mythic cosmologies.)
It's a great irony that Smother was pimping me and yet openly espoused feminism in a town where mill workers forbid their kids from watching Mister Rogers because he was "a fuckin' fag." She and my best friend's mother both subscribed to Ms. Magazine and I read it often and easily. It was here that I first read about rape (as something other than a joke) and male brutality in harrowing detail. To this day, I am haunted by the story of a woman whose rapists cut off her forearms. This was even worse than my rapists' brutalities!
I also read bits of whatever adult books happened to be lying around. Smother tended to read whatever crappy, pop psych books were trendy: Your Erroneous Zones, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (which Smother loved, believing herself to be a hard-done-by, good person). I read all of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and thought it was boring and stupid.
I think it was The Road Less Traveled that began with the line, "Life is difficult." At ten, I found life extremely difficult but I thought I was the only one. I was relieved to find that I wasn't. I didn't understand that this book was written for adults and, therefore, the fact that was difficult was meant to speak to adults, not children. I didn't know that people assumed childhood was "carefree" and easy.
My life was not entirely one of solitude and sorrow. We social misfits gravitated to each other and formed strong bonds. I think we actually had more fun and truer friendships with each other than the popular kids did.
It was from my best friend that I learned about Asterix and Obelix comics. They were so funny. I realize now that they were incredibly racist and sexist but, at the time, I loved all the kooky characters and their funny foibles: the bard who could not sing, the lovable invincible buffoon who was always hungry, the clever little man whose helmet feathers moved like eyebrows to reflect his every mood, the druid whose potions had magic powers. And the fact that everyone in the village had the ability to win any physical fight and beat up anyone who stood in their way. Black eyes abounded, but no-one was ever seriously or permanently hurt. This was my kind of comic!
Soon after that, my friend got me into Tintin comics too. Looking back now, I see two things clearly: they were extremely and offensively colonial, and the art work is amazing. But, at the time, again, they were just great adventure stories that could easily be devoured in an afternoon. The characters were old friends: the Captain would always mess things up by getting drunk, Snowy would always be loyal and confused, Thompson and Thomson would always be inept and dim, Professor Calculus would never admit that he was deaf. And Tintin would always save the day with his cunning.
It wasn't long before I'd read every book in my grade school library. I remember finding a novel supposedly based on the true story of a Native woman who grew up to take on a male role and marry another woman. This was not my first encounter with the idea of lesbianism but I certainly did tuck this away in my memory to recall later, as puberty taught me that I was attracted to women.
It also fuelled my lifelong affinity with Aboriginal American cultures and spiritualities. I've never spoken much about this, because, as a white woman, it is not my place to appropriate others' cultures, but it was and remains privately important to me.
I have always had a very deep and extremely unconventional spiritual faith. I have no doubt whatsoever that it saved my life. Of course I did not believe that God "allowed" these horrible things to happen to me, but I did believe that God loved me, was always there to comfort me, hated what my abusers did to me, and condemned their use of religion to justify that abuse. That helped me a lot. It still does.
Madeleine L'Engle's books helped me put words to my particularly iconoclastic spirituality. As an adult, I find them too pedantic and "talky" but I loved them as a child, and they led to many deep, philosophical conversations with adults willing and interested in talking to me about such difficult and interesting topics.
Dissociation was another life saving skill for me. I could escape and by disappearing in my own way. It's a bit like daydreaming, only much more real and intense. I remember being so bored in Math class that I stared at the cement wall beside me and crawled into its texture like a mountain climber.
Books were an obvious and useful dissociative tool. I would disappear into a book and forget everything around me, not noticing that body parts had long since gone numb, not noticing that I'd been called for dinner, not noticing that the sun had moved so I was now burning in the scorching light.
|Edward Koren's work|
Smother learned that she could leave me alone for hours in a bookstore or even at the magazine kiosk in the supermarket. This led to some pretty random reading, from Tiger Beat, to the Book of Gnomes, to the adult (but not racy) comics of Edward Koren.
I also read through all the children's books in the woefully tiny public library. I had to get special permission to read teen and adult books. I thought this was silly. You know how books have age parameters on them, letting adults know how old a child needs to be to be able to read them? I genuinely thought these parameters were fake. If a book was labelled, say, age 12-14, I assumed it really meant 8-10. That just made sense to me. I wasn't so much ahead, you see, as that the books were mislabelled.
This started to change in grade four when all students in our zone were given aptitude tests. It turned out I was reading at a grade eleven level. In my weakest subject, Math, I "only" scored at a grade eight level, and this low score embarrassed me terribly.
The teachers took Smother aside and said, "Charlotte is so smart, we don't know what do to with her." I badly wished they'd let me skip a grade or two but that was no longer done. The theory was that it would mess me up socially. Well, it couldn't have been worse than it already was. After all, I was already a freak, already smaller than the other students, already mocked for my intelligence, and already bullied every single day. Plus I was bored.
Thank God I was put into a pilot gifted program around this time! One day a week, I got to go to special classes where I learned the rush and thrill of being intellectually challenged. My favourite part was the logic puzzles we got to play. I begged for them, took extra ones home, and just could not get enough of them. They tired me out, in a wonderful way.
No rural, Canadian, childhood, love story with books would be complete without a little ode to Scholastic Books! There were was a limited number of books available in town, and there was no ordering of books online, but there were those newspapery booklets telling me what books I could order from Scholastic Books.
While Smother was extremely frugal and denied me many things because of their expense, she did not deny me books (as long as they weren't frivolous picture books). This was a mistake on her part, because, by giving me alternative visions of life, they countered her own efforts to brainwash me into believing that what she was doing to me was okay. But, still, she let me buy any book I wanted, especially if they were Scholastic Books because they were so cheap.
I ordered a lot of books. On the day when our books arrived at school, I'd be so excited, I could barely breathe. While other kids were called up to the front of the room once or twice to get the books they'd ordered, I'd be called up over and over again, till there was a huge stack of books on my desk, well over a foot high. This cemented my reputation as a loser and a nerd, and all the other kids laughed at me, but I could not care less. I had a stack of glorious new books!
Because these books were so cheap, I ordered quite randomly. This led to my reading some absolute dreck, books about impossibly stylish, impossibly sheltered suburban teens whose lives and concerns I found both alien and contemptible. Who could possibly be that ignorant of the wider world? Who could possibly be that materially comfortable? Who could possibly care that much what other kids thought of her, or whether or not she had a boyfriend or the latest hairstyle? I couldn't relate to these books at all and wondered who on earth could.
But Scholastic Books also introduced me to some wonderful, classic, children's literature. The older I get, the more I love A Little Princess, so very unlike the princess stories girls are reading today.
The illustrations alone (in the edition I had) were the antithesis of today's princess books and, to me, reflected the realities of childhood hardship and struggle. In the novel, Sara Crewe goes from being a wealthy, and coddled child, to being what amounts to a slave. She is what we would now call a gifted child, and she uses her intellect, imagination, and kindness to survive, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.
Sound like anyone you know?
I think by this time I was becoming aware of the nebulous difference between novels and literature. I liked literature best. I was so proud of myself the summer I read through The Hobbit. I knew it was a classic and I knew it was one that adults loved at least as much as children did, so it made me feel very grown up (though I now realize it was no more difficult than other books I was reading).
Indeed, I was growing up. I read one or two Harlequin romances when we were on the road and they were the only books available at truck stops. They were full of haughty women, angry with men for no apparent reason, and men who were amused by their anger for no apparent reason. There was lots of sex and/or sexual chemistry. And, eventually, the woman would come to her senses and submit to the dominant man that she'd been trying to resist. Sound a bit like today's Rom Coms? Yup.
I was in puberty now and it was confusing. The book, What's Happening to Me, was quite progressive for its day, but was, in fact very limited. It did not admit the existence of any sexuality but heterosexuality. It made no mention of birth control. And, of course, it made no mention of sexual abuse. This wasn't particularly helpful for a little girl so often sexually abused that I can't even say for sure when I got my first period, whether or not it was actually blood from the tearing of rape, or whether or not I'd been pregnant and miscarried before my real period even came.
Smother sometimes let me read books I had no business reading, like Judy Blume's Wifey and Forever, both of which I'd read by the time I was ten, and both of which included explicit descriptions of sex. They were of no help to me though. What they described was something pleasurable and adult and foreign.
Girls had so few role models then. I thought that I'd probably look like Betty and Veronica after puberty, and wield just as much power over men and boys. I wanted to be like these impossible teen girls, but I was also attracted to them. I had crushes on male and female celebrities. My classmates sometimes "accused" me of being a lesbian, but I don't think I even knew what a lesbian was, and I don't think they did either. I'd never even heard the word "bisexual."
I wrote in my journal that I had two choices for the type of woman I would become: a "sex kitten" who got to have sex and enjoy fashion, or a feminist, who was smart and dowdy and alone. That's it.
Sex Ed classes were useless. In grade six, our teacher took the girls aside to have The Talk. When one little girl asked, "But how will it fit?" our teacher began explaining how a penis could fit into a vagina. "No not that," said the girl. Clearly, she already knew how that would fit. From the nods around the room it was apparent to me that many of us already had that information -- first hand. (The little girl actually wanted to know how a baby would fit on the way out.)
Did our teacher really not grasp what had just happened in front of her? Or did simply not want to know? Denial and disbelief were and still are the most common responses to evidence and intimations that children are being sexually abused.
And, besides, there was an awful lot of victim blaming floating around, even in Sex Ed class. I'll never forget reading an out-dated pamphlet on girls' puberty in which we were told that we had to be careful what we wore because "that sweater that you think is simply becoming could be too much for a boy." We understood what we were being told: if our sweater was too much for a boy, he would rape us, and it would be our fault. Even I knew this was bullshit -- sort of.
I generally spent portions of my summers in the Adirondacks with my three girl cousins, one my age and two a few years older. By now, they had started reading bodice rippers, aka porn for women. Out of curiosity, I read one, about a girl who falls for a pirate, or something like that. She was fourteen when he initiated her into sexuality. To me, it resembled rape, and, indeed, legally, it was rape, but apparently she loved it. There were a lot of scenes in which he and other men dominated her by doing things like throwing her over their laps and spanking her for being impudent. This was supposed to be sexy? Why?
I also managed to get my hands on porn magazines (legal porn as opposed to the illegal "kiddie porn" in which I was featured). I stole it from the local dump, and from my much older brother. Whipped women? What?! Even as I lusted after the women featured in the magazines, I also identified with them and drew no sexual excitement from the idea of sexual sadism. I'd been its victim.
In grade seven, all the kids discovered an unscrupulous bookseller in a nearby town who would sell pornographic novels to children. I bought one and read some of it with my friends. I found it so disturbing that I didn't finish it (and I always finished books). I gave it to a friend who read it in its entirety and informed me that there was a rape scene in it in which a man pushes sand into his victim's vagina before pushing himself into her. The victim, who was also the narrator, informed the reader that she'd "been raped before and enjoyed it" but didn't enjoy it this time.
I was twelve. What was I supposed to make of this?
Grade seven was a really bad year for me. I started junior high school, and my gifted program, only offered in elementary school, ended. Not only did the intense abuse continue at home, but the bullying got much worse. I'd had some awful years, and would have some more, but this was the worst year of my life.
I started gravitating toward books about teenage rebels, kids who talked back, drank, smoked, and did lots of drugs. S.E. Hinton's novels were a particular favourite, though the protagonists were all male. I loved Go Ask Alice, the diary of a drug addicted teen who eventually dies of an overdose. It was meant to be a cautionary tale but I read it like it was an instruction manual. This was the life I wanted. It was honest, and intense, and real. (Ironically, I learned later that it was also fake.)
I also started reading fashion magazines like Seventeen magazine, and inventing fashionable outfits that I would like to wear when I had a woman's body.
But, unlike my classmates, who got up an hour early to feather their hair, I knew that any attempts to mimic these styles at twelve would only make me look foolish. I knew I only had a few years of childhood -- one really -- left and I wanted to enjoy them.
Plus, of course, looking grownup was not encouraged in a home where children who looked like children could be sold at a high price. If I hadn't looked so young for my age, I might not have been trafficked for long.
|Thirteen, back in the city, and much happier|
Just before grade eight, Smother moved us back to the city, the longed for, dreamed of city! I was SO relieved to get the hell out of that backward town! I went to an alternative high school. The bullying stopped and my education improved. The sexual abuse did not stop, but my school and social life was better so I was happier.
Remember too that I still had DID. I think that by now the parts of me that protected me from a full awareness of the abuse understood that my intellectual aptitude was my/our ticket to eventual escape from that abuse. If the part of me that went to school was not shielded from the worst of the abuse, I wouldn't get as good grades and I might drop out.
In other words, DID was still necessary, not just for my current survival, but for my future as well.
My reading didn't change much yet. I was mostly still reading things like SE Hinton, wanting desperately to be as perceived as tough like kids depicted in them. Even though I was as tough as them, even though I was skipping classes and doing drugs by choice by now, I just didn't look tough. (I still don't.) I looked cute. Ugh.
Worse, I was living in a theology school where Smother was getting a Masters of Divinity. My classmates knew this and sometimes called me Jesus Girl. They were teasing me, not taunting me, but I didn't like it. I didn't like that I didn't look like what I felt I was.
Of course, the reader in me was interested in Smother's readings in theology school. I learned about the Hebrew alphabet. I watched Christians crumble around me as they learned that many of the Bible stories were not literally true. I was intrigued by the idea of Liberation Theology, a particular irony for an enslaved child. It was all so interesting.
And now that I was in high school, and back in the city, I was getting to read canonical literature in my English classes and electives. Of course I liked it.
But some of it was too real for me. Shakespeare's Macbeth gave me nightmares. After we'd read the play, we watched Polanski's gory rendition of it. Smother had left me alone for the long weekend and I came down with something like the Noro virus. I lay on the couch, sick and alone, staring at the ceiling and hallucinating scenes from Macbeth: blood, gore, evil.
Meanwhile, my cousins were devouring Agatha Christie mysteries. I was a snob and refused to read them. It was my loss but I wouldn't know that for a long time.
I took an elective in poetry. On my report card, my teacher wrote a Wordsworth quote that, to this day, I think is the most astute description of me I've ever found:
"And Central Peace, subsisting at the heart,
Of endless Agitation."
How did he know? How did he see that in me when I thought I hid it so well? I thought of him as a kind of magician.
So when, at the end of grade nine, he recommended that I switch to a smaller, academically enriched, alternative school, I listened to him. Besides, all the coolest kids from my school had already made the switch. It must be a good idea.
It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I cannot tell you how many people who went to that school say now that they would have dropped out if they hadn't gone there, and even that the school saved their lives. I feel the same way.
What I'd stumbled into was, in essence, a school for the gifted, though it was never explicitly named as such. I once asked my classmates how many of them had been in gifted programs in elementary school. A hugely disproportionate number of them had. (And a lot of them had been abused or still were being abused, but most of us were not yet able to talk about it.) For the first time in my life, being smart was cool, and in no way contradicted being rebellious, quirky, and odd. In fact, people at this school thought these qualities were natural in intelligent people. All the students dressed strangely. All the students liked to talk about big ideas.
Here was the education and the community I'd been longing for. My teachers recognized and encouraged my writing talent. We read a lot of great literature, including, a lot of Can Lit, like the amazing Margaret Laurence ...
... and the deservedly famous Margaret Atwood, and the bleak and wonderful Sinclair Ross, and many others.
We read Hamlet and it had a big impact on me. I've reread it several times since. His "to be or not to be" soliloquy about suicide spoke to me deeply. I was happier than I'd ever been, but I did still look forward to death. I was, after all, being drugged and pimped out of a "kiddie brothel." (I was also doing quite a lot of drugs and partying with my classmates.)
I kept reading on my own, of course, and discovered the rugged, working class, British Columbia writer, Anne Cameron. This was the first time I'd read a novel that depicted rape and prostitution, not as jokes or titilation for men, but as the graphic horrors that they are! She also wrote about Native cultures in a respectful detail I'd not yet encountered.
I started dating a boy in grade twelve. He said I looked like a pre-Raphaelite painting, so I looked up the Pre-Raphaelites. My education was growing so fast now!
One of my boyfriend's grade twelve friends (who is now a history professor) intimidated me with her vast erudition, and I vowed to be as well read as her by the time I reached grade twelve. For the first time, I became more purposeful in my personal reading choices. I started plucking classics from the classics paperback racks in the public library. I developed a deep and abiding love for the orange and black spines of Penguin classics and modern classics. They usually smelled good too.
One of the first books I read now was Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, about the health hazards and injustices of the Chicago stockyards at the turn of the last century. I was glad I'd already stopped eating red meat at twelve! If I hadn't already had socialist leanings, which I did, this book would have pushed me in that direction. I further grasped that literature could be a tool of social and political change.
Around this time, one of Smother's classmates asked me to be on his thesis defence committee. I so enjoyed the process that I was now sure I'd like to go to university. I knew that this meant I'd have to get not just good grades but great grades. This too gave me more focus in my reading choices. I had goals. I had an idea of a future beyond the home I'd grown up in.
I began going to "artsy" movies in repertory cinemas, where I came across a lovely adaptation of EM Forster's posthumously published, homosexual love story, Maurice. This was a revelation indeed. Of course I had to read the novel and it was wonderful. His prose is so pretty! When I reread it a few times when I was older, I was able to recognize that it was also a purposeful challenge to established cultural norms.
I began to understand that writers, or some writers anyway, were a different sort than other people. They were often cultural rebels and had been for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The thought of this made my heart sing.
I began to understand that writers, or some writers anyway, were a different sort than other people. They were often cultural rebels and had been for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The thought of this made my heart sing.
Writing like Timothy Findley's bizarre, intensely iconoclastic retelling of the Noah's Ark story was unlike anything I'd ever read. It was weird. But it was also amazing, taking me into a supernatural past I could never have imagined on my own.
It also presented God as a mere mortal who would eventually be nothing but a rotting corpse. Oh my!
Religion and faith were sticking points for me at this school. I had my own, unconventional faith, and a lot of exposure to classic and current theology. I knew that individual faith, as well as different theological movements, were extremely varied and that some could of them could accommodate a questing, questioning intellect. Yet, amongst my friends and teachers, it was assumed that any smart, thinking person was an atheist. This was in part because they assumed that faith and religion did not vary from person to person, denomination to denomination, or century to century. I did not believe what they thought people of faith believed and, clearly, neither did many of the poets we read in English class.
But my teachers and classmates did not seem to see this. To me, their rigid definitions of faith and religion seriously marred their interpretations of some of the poems we were reading. This was personally painful to me and just plain irritating to the nascent literary scholar in me.
I also got in trouble for insisting that we start using gender inclusive language, replacing "mankind" with "humanity," for example, and "him" as the generic pronoun with "him or her." There were some who thought that this was a sign that I hated men but history proved me right on this one, so that's gratifying.
As with most teens, I was particularly taken with William Blake and the Romantic poets. His poem, The Sick Rose, seemed written expressly about sexual abuse victims. In a few years, this poem would come to be "my" poem.
But at this age, I was more taken with Blake's notion that innocence would be succeeded by experience, but that true maturity and wisdom came when the two combined into a synthesis of understanding. This blew my head off! So the brutality of truth as I knew it need not erase the beauty of innocence. They could coexist. This was enormously helpful to me and is a theme I return to again and again in this blog.
Wordsworth's poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, or Daffodils, was also very special to me. It spoke of a single encounter with beauty sustaining a wearied soul. I understood this. I felt less alone knowing that Wordsworth did too.
|Sixteen and on my own in California|
In the summer before grade twelve, I grew incredibly independent. I traveled on my own to California, Ottawa, Montréal, and upstate New York. I met all kinds of interesting people with whom I explored many ideas but spirituality in particular.
My world was getting bigger and bigger. I could see my future free from Smother and I longed for it to begin now. I was ready to leave home.
But I still had one more year of high school to complete. Some of my friends did manage to go to school and live on their own at the same time, but I knew they found it to be a struggle and I didn't think I could do it. Maybe I could have. I don't know.
In grade twelve, the class decided that we wanted to read Crime and Punishment. I don't think I understood a lot of it but I understood this much: it was about a man who felt himself to be of superior intelligence and morality, and therefore above the law. To prove this to himself, he committed murder.
I knew all about people like that! That's how Smother felt about herself. She was different from other people so it was okay for her to show her love for me by sexually abusing me, and it was okay for her to take drugs, and to drug me, and to sell me. I wasn't to tell others about this, not because it was wrong, but because they were beneath her and "wouldn't understand."
At the same time, we were reading Milton's Paradise Lost. Oi! His descriptions of hell were some of the most ghoulishly beautiful passages I'd ever read, and they freaked me out.
And it was in this context, with these two texts as my backdrop, that I quit the drugs that Smother had been forcing me to take for years. I'm not sure why she let me do this. I like to tell myself that it was because I was finally strong enough to say no to her but my guess is that she would not have let me say no had it not been for the fact that I now had a curvy woman's body that wasn't worth much to her anymore.
All this was complicated by the fact that I still had DID. Only certain parts of me even knew about the abuse, including the drugs. If I was going to remain sane, finish high school, and successfully break from both the drugs and Smother, it was necessary for those parts to continue to protect me from their traumas for just a bit longer.
In other words, I went into drug withdrawal without understanding what was happening to me.
It was as horrible as you might imagine. I sweated, my stomach burned, I couldn't eat, and I was sick at both ends. I couldn't sleep. I thought there were monsters under my bed. I was in a constant state of terror. I was paranoid, thinking there were bad people that were trying to get me. I had horrible hallucinations, and most of them were of Crime and Punishment and the hell described in Paradise Lost.
The worst of it lasted for a week and a half.
Then I went back to school.
I was probably more clear-headed but I was thinner, badly weakened, and plagued by nightmares and anxiety attacks. I was afraid all the time.
At some point, I read Breakfast At Tiffany's in which Holly Golightly, herself a survivor of sexual abuse, describes waking every morning with a feeling of dread that she called The Mean Reds. So that's what I called my fears: The Mean Reds.
I became superstitious about my writing, thinking that if I wrote about my feelings in my journal, they'd be too real and the pain of them would kill me. So I tried not to write, but I wasn't very successful.
But there was literature. We read Chaucer in Middle English and it was great; mostly, it was funny! The further back in time my reading went, the more I became interested in history, especially cultural history...
... including fashion history, art history, literary history, etc.
I was also interested in current social issues. For one class, I chose to write a field study of a prostitutes' drop in centre in our inner city. I was interviewed on the radio about it, and my teacher suggested I publish it. I wrote poems about prostitution and child sexual slavery. As I'm sure you can tell, my DID was pretty unstable now, the truth leaking in from every angle. It was a very tough year.
I took the final provincial exams and got 94% in English.
I honestly don't know how the hell I did it but I know for sure it would have been impossible if I hadn't had DID.
For the next five days, I went to my graduation parties with the classmates I had come to love like family. It was very emotional. I would stay in touch with many of them for the rest of my life.
And then I left "home" forever, not just my house, but my city as well. I needed to get away, far away.
I was free.
Stay tuned for Part II: The Adult Years.
(I'm sharing this with Not Dressed As Lamb.)