May 22, 2010
Student Body President
I write about things because I can. And because I am a writer. It is the way I try to make sense of things I cannot understand. I do not understand racism, stereotypes or prejudice.
My family moved from small town Eagle River into big town Anchorage when I was a senior in high school. I met Michael Swannigan there as we shared a political science class. Required class, not one I would have chosen. First period.
This was a giant school compared to the ones I had been used to. The senior class alone had more students in it that the combined population of my old school. That mattered to me only because of nearly a thousand students, it had been Michael who had been elected the student body president. He was slender built, cocoa brown skin, large black eyes that danced. He was happy, respected, well liked, intelligent and musically gifted. And, most importantly, he liked me.
He carried my books, walked me to classes, we ate lunch together, and for the first time in my life, I had a friend – at least for the fall of my senior year.
I was not allowed to date, but the day Michael asked me to the Christmas formal I asked my mother anyway if I could go with him. She grunted an indirect response, “I’ll see.” I knew she wouldn’t allow me to go, but the fact that she hadn’t responded with an angry pronounced or immediate “NO!” allowed me at least a few days of pretending how nice it would be to have a pretty new dress and shoes, to have the chance to do even one thing outside of regular school hours that all the rest of my peers did normally. Or so I suspected.
The bubble of my balloon was soon burst as my sister Cindy, 2 years my junior and attending the same school, had brought home a school newspaper and left it sitting on the living room coffee table. My mother walked by, looked down, and there taking up a quarter of the front page facing up was dark skinned student body president, none other than yours truly, Michael Swanningan.
Mother flew into an instant and familiar uncontrollable rage. “How dare you deceive me? This man is black. He is a negro. Don’t you know what kind of women spend time with men like that? I forbid you to ever speak to him again. Of course you can go nowhere with him.” She involved my father in her condemnation speech, and recruited my sister to spy on me at school and report back home any infraction of this new ultimatum that was to be enforced at all possible costs.
I broke mother’s law only one time when I went to school the next day, and as Michael met me at the classroom doorway I had to tell him that my parents forbid me to ever speak to him again. I had no reason not to tell him the truth. “It’s because you are black,” I told him as I watched his eyes grow wider and watched as his words seem to freeze inside his mouth so that nothing came out. We just stood there staring at one another until I turned to walk away.
That was before Christmas. I never so much as looked in his direction the rest of the year. But what I DID do was write a short note on a piece of paper the Sunday morning of my graduation baccalaureate program, thinking I wanted to hand it to him that day, somehow. All it said was “Dear Michael, I am happy I got to meet you, good luck with your life. Congratulations. Linda.”
For some stupid reason I changed my mind and tore the note up into tiny pieces that morning before we left the house, and dropped them into my bedroom wastebasket. If I had been wiser and as careful as I should have been, I either would have chewed up and swallowed that note or flushed every scrap of it down the bathroom toilet. I did neither, and in my mother’s usual invasive way, she found the note the next day I was at school, pieced it together with tape, and had it in her fist when she met me that afternoon as I stepped inside the house and met her rage.
“How dare you disobey your father and me? How dare you disrespect us? You are going to get what’s coming to you. I’ve had enough of you, you hateful child.”
All other facets of Linda’s life scattered and vanished in that instant as surely as flies on a dinner plate do when the owner sets down at the table to eat. She feasted on her rage toward me, coloring my every waking moment until the day she and my father put me into the Navy the following early October. All the abuse incidents of the following four months would fill, by themselves, a good sized chapter in another book.
I could tell you how she called over the Assembly of God’s prayer team, how they put me on my knees on the living room floor and formed a tight circle of loudly praying people, yelling in garbled tongues, praying for the demons to flee from me as Jesus commanded demons to occupy swine who then rushed over a cliff, plummeting to their death and taking the evil spirits with them. They laid their hands all over my body as my mother joined in with her hands held toward the ceiling crying, “Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus.” I would rather have been dead.
I could tell you the Saturday afternoon that followed with one of her rages as she grabbed fistfuls of my hair in her two fists and swung me around in circles in the living room so fast and so hard my feet could barely touch the floor. My air came out in bunches, and every time it did she shifted grips of one of her hands to grab another cluster. I remember as I was stumbling seeing my father in the corner of the living room watching. Doing nothing. And some part of me hates him for that as much as I hate what my mother was doing to me then.
She orchestrated my summer trip to the evil dentist who, for $75 (the cost for Novocain would have been extra) chopped my three wisdom teeth into tiny pieces and yanked them out. He then drilled out many of my molars, that had no cavities in them in the first place, all done without Novocain. My mother stood at the end of the chair, arms crossed, her eyes piercing me with her hatred as she enjoyed watching my agony and the icy sweat pour down my face. All the pieces of the molars he drilled into flew into the gaping holes from the wisdom teeth extractions. He left them there. I ended up with a terrible infection in my mouth that nearly killed me.
(My mother had decided the summer after I finished high school that she was going to send me to a fanatical Christian Bible College outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada after I turned 18 the end of that August. They required all dental work be completed prior to entry. She believed that they should be able to ‘save’ me there. Lord knew she had tried her hardest for the 18 long years of my childhood and had failed. )
There I was trapped again in that massive chair with the same dentist I had worked for as an assistant for part of my senior year, who had sexually attacked me. [*See note below] Although I escaped physically unharmed, the experience terrorized me, and here I was getting ‘pay back’ months later. It was only after I sat for two weeks isolated on the homestead with a mouth turning green inside, swollen and infected so that my eyes could barely open and I could eat nothing, barely able to open my mouth far enough for a straw to fit in so I could sip milked-down Cream of Wheat, that my father finally returned to this dentist in Anchorage with me after he had come home from work that night. As I sat in the car with my father I held my hands covering my infected face, trying to hide it from motorists passing by. I was given antibiotics, but nothing has ever healed my woundedness from this horrific experience.
But what strikes me most is that 10 years later, being married with children of my own, completing my undergraduate degree I had worked long and hard for, and approaching graduation, I wanted no part of it. I wanted no cap, no gown, no ceremony, no fuss, no party and no congratulations. I had no idea why, as my husband, children, and family proudly demanded I attend my graduation. I finally remembered, as they insisted on my participation, with clarity that I was forbidden to attend my own graduation the weekend after my mother pieced together my little death note.
I did not remember this omission from my senior year until this “cue,” this “trigger” happened in my adult life, though I had in general remembered the horror of that spring and summer. All I knew is that I felt an oily, sticky darkness crawling around inside of me – whether I was waking or sleeping as the big day approached – like a morose and tangible shadow inside for which I had no explanation. I felt that foreboding until the memory finally cracked its way into my awareness with all of its enveloping, mortifying sense of trauma, ugly danger and disaster as I approached my college graduation day.
This experience alone was enough to convince me of how thoroughly we can NOT remember traumatic stressful events of our lives, because the instant that the memory of NOT going to my own high school graduation hit me, I felt as if my perception of my self and my sense of myself in my present life was now covered in inky darkness of toxic poison.
I donned the cap and gown that college graduation day, and walked across that college stage with a smile on my face, and tossed my tassel across my hat like everyone else did. But there was no joy in that. Once I remembered I could not forget again, and there was no room for both the Linda who had suffered through that teenage horror and the married Linda with children completing college to coexist in the same body. I could no longer divide and conquer this memory. I could no longer keep faint memory awareness of only parts of the experience that I could tolerate. When the missing piece, the actual deprivation of my own graduation experience dropped into place, all the related memories found their way together into a heap in front of me that I could not walk over, around, or shovel out of the way.
These are the types of trauma memories I say do not wish for without extreme caution in your adulthood. They were too messy back then, they will be too messy right now, and once those giants are awakened, they will not return to their subjected place behind the screens of our awareness.
Yet there is also never a time when I listen in conversation to someone describing and defending their attitudes of prejudice that I do not remember the entire horror that became entwined with my mother’s pathology that fateful spring day my parent’s prejudice made itself loom into my teenage life. True, there are few who would suffer the blatant out-croppings of their parent’s attitudes enmeshed in a torturous system of malicious torture and abuse as a consequence as I did. But prejudice, to me, is an ugly seeping sore perhaps scabbed over thinly in places but ripe for the smearing should such beliefs become threatened when the scab gets nicked
Perhaps I was able to understand at 17 as I endured over four months of continual abuse as a result of this episode I came to understand that prejudice contaminated my parents. It could be no other in my mind, for once lanced and ruptured their prejudice merged in totality with the worst possible treatment of me and became a “one thing” that could not be separated or parceled out from the other. Each was rooted in the same dark and awful place within them, drawn from the same putrefied well. Somehow I equate both prejudice and abuse as two wings of the same inhuman bird, which sadly I must admit was as human as my parents were. But that is not the kind of human I have ever wished to be.
*This dentist, an older man, was a member of the Assembly of God congregation at the church my mother (and then of course the rest of us) attended. My job was gained with him through this connection. After he attempted to molest me, and I quit the job, the minister’s daughter was hired. She was the ‘angel’ of the church: Petite, long hair past her waist, sang in tongues. The doctor tried the same thing with her, but unlike me, she had someone to tell and did so. The doc was run out of the church. This man’s ‘line’ was that the mouth of anyone who worked for him was advertising for his trade. He insisted that he be allowed to examine the teeth of the young women who worked for him, and once they were in the chair in the room — alone in his office after regular hours — he attacked. The day he did it to me I was able to slide sideways off of the chair, squeeze between the porcelain spit bowl and the wall and escape.