The Dark Side of Mildred’s Mountain series – Angel book 2 beginning with the POP! Goes Alaska letters – chapter 14
14. Wraith child
Here is the last part of Mildred’s Tuesday, August 6, 1957 letter (from chapter 11) as I believe she wrote it after psychotically erupting at me for something SHE saw happen that never did. Mildred introduced at the end of her letter the people who bought and moved into the log house in front of ours sometime during the first five days we were in Alaska. Again, she does not initially give their names, which were Janie and Scotty.
I’ve only said “Hello” and exchanged a few brief words with my front neighbor. She’s very attractive, slim, and smart looking. They have a beautiful place too!! The people that moved out told me these new people, especially the man, don’t like people and want to be left alone! They bought the place thinking the Spoerrys [our log house landlady and her husband living in Algeria] would live here in this house who had no children and both were working SO I’ve kept my distance – until they get to know us. (I understand how they feel too.) (They have a 3 year old girl and a 10 month baby boy.)
No other news – school starts the day after Labor Day, at least two weeks earlier than California so it really won’t be long now.
We’re all fine, happy and healthy. I wake up every morning excited anew over Alaska. We love it but we were ready for it here. There are undoubtedly people that don’t like it – I’ll send you a clipping from paper from one that didn’t.
Will close now. Much love, Mildred, Bill and the children.
Borderline Personality Disorder people are known to radically, and usually inexplicably to others, flip sides in relationships as they typically first idealize and then vilify them. In spite of all the rambling descriptions Mildred wrote about these people during the year we lived in the log house as their neighbor, what she says about them a year after she moved out of the log house in her July 28, 1959 letter written to her mother is significant to me:
I stopped to see Janie yesterday for the first time since the snow melted. Her furniture is arranged just the same. She is just the same. Oh, some people!!
I hear Mother’s voice of condemnation in these words. Shame on boring stupid inferior Janie! In my recent conversation with her Joe Anne Vanover told me that “Mildred had a great need to be superior to everyone else.” It did not matter what the subject was, Mother was the only person who was ALWAYS right.
In the year that passed from the time my parents moved us out of the log house at the end of their year’s lease July 31, 1958 (while, as Mildred states, Janie didn’t move or move her furniture) Mildred moved us next into a primitive rented cabin so she could “practice homesteading.” When that living soon became difficult she moved us into an apartment in Anchorage, then into a small trailer parked in Pollard’s field at the bottom of the mountain, then up to the homestead to live in a canvas Jamesway hut, and THEN back to the log house by the fall of 1959, a move she had in motion when she made the above comment about Janie.
As it turned out in the real world, shortly after Mildred made her scathing observation about Janie, she and her family did move out of their log home they had been living in for two years without ever having mentioned a word to Mildred about their plans. Mother would not have remotely cared, anyway. In her reality she was the only person who mattered. This is all in illustration of how Mother obliviously lived in an inarticulated crucible where meanings were defined by her sick mind within which we were all forced to reside with her. Her judgments against other people never alerted her to the benefits of normalcy or to the harm of her madness.
I had no experiences that could have given me any perspective other than Mother’s. As I make this note I think about the emptiness of my young adult mind after I left home at 18. Because there was nothing ordinary about my life with Mother there was damage done to my development in many ways due to her inability to keep chaos out of her life. As I mentioned in the previous chapter by the time I left home I was significantly lacking in three areas related to my inability to conceptualize (a) the passage of time, (b) the constancy of objects in space over the passage of time, and (c) a sense of self. Under ordinary conditions I would have certainly integrated these concepts as they are basic to ordinary mainstream American life.
The hammock and the passage of time
I mark a significant memory of mine as having been formed through an experience I had in early April of 1971 when I was 19. I accompanied a man named PJ who was the father of my unborn child and “the love of my life” to visit his friends who lived in Sausalito, California. Feeling an outsider to these peoples’ conversation I wandered around their rambling yard where I noticed the first hammock I had ever seen stretched between the trunks of two shade trees at the edge of a garden. It looked new and was made of white cotton cord. I stopped to study the hammock without having any desire to climb into it.
Over the course of the next months the turbulence and chaos of my life continued to carry me through currents of great changes. By early October of this same year (after my 20th birthday) I again traveled with PJ to his friends’ house. Again I felt myself an outsider to their conversation and again I wandered their garden with my baby girl in my arms.
This time when I passed the two trees the hammock was no longer whole. I stood in amazement in front of grayed and broken shreds of rope, most of which trailed down to the ground to become entangled in yellow brittle weeds and grasses. This was the first time in my life I became personally aware of the reality of the passage of time. It was as if I experienced a paradigm shift that altered how I viewed life as a whole and how I felt about myself in relationship to it.
My life with Mildred gave me no sense of constancy. I had never known anything but ongoing, perpetual and usually traumatic change that had no obvious cause and that followed no reasonable course over time. It was not until the instant I was visually confronted by the changes that had happened to that hammock in between the times I had seen it new and whole and the next time I had seen its dismantling that I recognized that change itself occurs within the passing of a specific amount (length, period) of time. This was the first time I understood that all change is not random.
I had been through many, many serious and difficult experiences during the months it had taken that hammock to disintegrate. My life, run as it had always been upon accident and instinct, had never been accounted for directly within time itself until that moment. The hammock, along with the changes that had happened to it (through exposure over six months of time to rain, sea salts in the air, wind, sunshine), brought my first conscious awakening to the momentous idea that there are some kind of mysterious consequences inherent in time passing over-through-by-around a stable object that remained constant in place so that its nature is drastically changed simply because the object exists – in time.
At this juncture in the development of my mind I was able to finally include myself in this equation that time and change were connected to one another and that I, as an “agent” could witness how time changes things. This is how I gained, at age 19, my first inkling of awareness that I existed as a separate and distinct self-person-body in that world of time passing and change. After all, it was I that had also traveled through time and change to be able to capture both of those two distinct images in my mind of the perfect whole hammock and of the one that the passage of time had destroyed.
My insight, although subtle and outside the range of my thoughts, changed me in ways not unlike how the sound of an orchestra would change if an important new instrument was added into it. Before my experience with the hammock change and the passing of time were disconnected (dissociated) from any sense I had of myself in ongoing life. Yet even now dissociation, built into my body from my infancy through Mother’s psychotic treatment of me, remains a complicating factor in that I doubt I remember my life experiences in ordinary ways.
A culture of one
Even as I write these words I am stretching my story of myself in my life from who and how I am now at age 61 as I write this book back through key signature moments in my young adult life as I consider how certain awakenings then were connected not only to who and how I was right before my sixth birthday in August 1957 but also reaching all the way back to being born to my psychotic mentally ill mother in the first place. Because she had never passed through her own earliest self-development processes correctly, and because all of her difficulties deprived her of the ability to recognize me as an individual person separate from her, I was deprived of the ability to recognize my own self as a person (who existed in time) separate from Mother.
This level of damage is very difficult to articulate and describe. Normal children with safe and secure adequate early attachment relationships with their primary caregivers have in place by the time they are one year old all the critical self-recognition information they need to continue developing that self. Whatever experiences a growing child needs to have to be able to (seemingly) naturally and automatically gain both awareness that they are a self and then that they are a self-agent did not happen for me as the captive of the hell-half of Mother’s sick split mind.
As author Edmund Carpenter described in his 1973 book, Eskimo Realities (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) about the Canadian arctic Eskimo culture prior to Anglo Christian contact, the passage of time, degrees of perceived permanence/impermanence of objects and constructs of self are culturally determined. These conceptions both define their expression in language at the same time they create the underpinnings of language, itself. I was forced to exist primarily as a member of a unique culture that was made up (created by) by psychotic Mother to be lived by only me.
I was, therefore, raised isolated within a culture of one. Even though I had contact with outsiders to my culture which included controlled contact with my siblings, my core experience was defined by Mother. I could not have meaningful language for experiences I had never had. The lack of experience and the corresponding dearth of words with which to conceptualize what I did not know led me eventually in my adulthood to the very late discovery of ideas that belonged to cultures other than mine, most significantly to the dominant American culture. The difficulty for me in reverse is to find a way to communicate to people who are foreign to my “culture of one” what my life has been like.
The ashtray and the constancy of objects over time
After the complexity of many more changes and moves the next moment of significant enlightenment for me came about nine months after my hammock-related recognition. I had landed in Fargo, North Dakota with my daughter who was now 18 months old. We lived in a small rented basement apartment. Lily, our very kind landlady, lived in the other half of the basement. Lily cared for her ailing older brother who occupied the main floor of the house.
Over the next few months of visiting Lily in her apartment it suddenly flashed into my awareness one day as I sat having coffee in her kitchen that over this period of time Lily’s small ashtray, one of those metal topped ones with a plaid cloth bottom filled with sand, ALWAYS occupied exactly the same spot at the bottom of shelves built into the wall beside the breakfast nook table and benches when it was not in use. Whenever I wanted to smoke a cigarette it was always to this spot I could look for the ashtray and it was always right there. This was my moment of awakening to the idea that something could remain the same over the passage of time.
This was the first time, just as I was about to turn 20, that I had experienced any personal antidote to Mother’s judgmental concept having to do with her chaotic sense of the passage of time and the impermanence of objects in time as she expressed it in her 1959 letter speaking of Janie, “Her furniture is arranged just the same. She is just the same. Oh, some people!!” In those 1959 letters Mildred stated within a week after she wrote those words that Janie and her family indeed did move out of their house, although Mildred did not offer any recognition of how they had only been living there for two years before they disappeared. The only sense of the passage of time that existed in Mildred’s life or mattered to her was her own.
My ashtray insight struck me profoundly because up until that moment I had never comprehended that any kind of stability existed in anyone’s life, let alone that stability could FEEL good and be a good rather than bad experience. This was the first split-second permanent shift in my thinking that just as this ashtray and all it was connected to in Lily’s life had continuity and stability over time, so also was I and my daughter experiencing stability. However, this spat of stability only lasted four months for me and I moved again.
The wraith and the absence of a continuous self
After the next brief three month move-in and move-out of an apartment on the north side of Fargo I next found myself sharing a small house in Minnesota with a friend and her son on the other side of the Red River by winter 1972. One still night of falling snow I walked alone to a nearby campus and found myself circumambulating the center plaza’s sidewalks in a pattern that left behind my footprints in the sparkling empty whiteness. I finally stood at the center of a wide circle with my bare palms lifted to the sky ahead of me as I watched snowflakes disappear into the warmth of my hands.
As I stood mesmerized by snow falling and melting on my palms through the silence four words spurted from some distant source that spoke to me only this: “I am a wraith.” Though I heard the words they held no meaning to me at the time. I had no idea what a wraith was and no recollection that I had ever heard the word before.
I accepted this experience without question in the same way I had everything else I had ever gone through. By this time at age 21 I wasn’t a lost self. I wasn’t any self at all. How does a person who has no sense of self at all become rescued from obscurity?
Forty years later as I examine this word I know how accurate it was to describe me at my young adult age. Sadly, even now I cannot say I have made a lot of progress out of the condition I was forced into through exposure to such horrific trauma during the first 18 years of my life. No matter how I look at how I feel in the world, the following is still a far more accurate description of my reality than any other I have ever found. I cannot argue with this word.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary states that the origin of this word is “unknown”; it’s first known use in Modern English was in 1513; and it’s definition is: “1a: the exact likeness of a living person seen usually just before death as an apparition b: ghost, specter. 2: an insubstantial form or semblance: shadow. 3: a barely visible gaseous or vaporous column.”
The online free dictionary Wiktionary states that “wraith” is a Scottish dialectal word for “ghost, spirit.” Some claim it has connections to Icelandic vörðr meaning “warden, guardian.” Others suggest possible Celtic or Norse origins. Walter W. Skeat conjectured in his 1893 book, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (2nd edition, Oxford: Clarendon) that “wraith” was of Scandinavian origin meaning “an apparition in the likeness of a person, supposed to be seen soon before, or soon after death. The apparition called a wraith was supposed to be that of one’s guardian angel.” (p. 720)
(Note: An online search using these words in combination will reveal technical aspects related to what the word “wraith” more imaginably describes: child abuse trauma dissociation depersonalization derealization.)
These three experiences I have described were significant to my own quickening knowledge that I had definition and that I was actually “something else” other than a blob of body that had occupied space in time for the purpose of receiving abuse from Mother. I have continued to suffer from a disconnected sense of myself through time. There was no possible way my awakening to the consciousness of my own self-existence could have happened instantaneously at 18 when I left home. I am still involved in this process and will be for the rest of my life.
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