My mother loved to make things. One day, when I was thirty-two years old, my mother created a giant, half-lifesize doll that looked just like me. (This is absolutely true.) It had yarn hair the same color and kink as mine, and real corduroy pants just like the ones I wear. My mother called it the Dyke Donna doll. (Mom was very pro-gay and lesbian, so she always felt very happy using words like “dyke.”) The doll wore a stripey red shirt like a circus performer, along with real, removable, bright red booties made of felt, and extravagantly long curling eyelashes that my mother drew in by hand, quite lovingly. It had big red apple blush-marks on its cheeks, like Pinocchio as I have always seen him drawn. It stood a discomfiting three feet tall (I myself am only five feet two). My mother gave it to me as her gift, to keep in my tiny apartment. I had to keep it under my bed because I couldn’t bear to see it sitting in my chair. But I felt like I was hiding a child away there, without food or anyone to talk to.
Starting in her early 20s, my mother had made a whole series of dolls and wooden soldiers and little straw figurines and puppets, and I believe that one of them was me. A few years after the Dyke Donna doll appeared, my arms broke. (This, also, is true.) I don’t mean that my arm bones broke – I’ve never had a broken bone – but that my arms’ capacity as limbs, their functionality and coherence, suddenly ended.
It was as though my hands had simply stopped being hands. They began to hurt so badly that I didn’t want to do anything with them, because that only made them hurt more.
I was a writer. I am a writer. And it hurt to write, just like anything else people do with their hands, which basically destroyed me. But forget about “me” and my twee artiness and ridiculous ego- please just forget, reader! – because what I’m really afraid of telling you about, really, really afraid, is the pain. The pain from that time, when it began, thirteen years ago, still seems magical to me, as though it could happen again at any moment. Just by thinking about it.
As I write – with voice dictation software, the only way I can from now on – it’s almost happening again. I couldn’t lie about how scared I am of this, it would make me vomit. My hands start to feel as though they’re rolling in rocks…
A mysterious tension in my arms, like a salt battery beginning to work.
It hurt, that March it started, in my upper back, shoulders, forearms, wrists, hands and neck. Sometimes even my head, by means of a process I couldn’t begin to comprehend. Sometimes it burned, as though hot metal were in my shoulders. The hands were the worst, with knives sticking in the palms. I had a sensation of spears through the wrists. Had I suddenly become a Christian martyr? But the pain wasn’t even agreeably sexual, as it might have been if I’d turned into Saint Sebastian. It was impossible to aestheticize it without – begging your pardon- throwing up. The backs of my hands felt as though they were being repeatedly forced to move through a basin full of tiny, crushed metal balls, like in some Star Trek punishment from a newly-contacted planet.
This happened suddenly. I was having sex with a married woman – well, a woman married to another woman, and occupied as well with two small children – when my attack occurred.
All right, I wasn’t in the very act of having sex with her when it happened – God does not work in such linear-narrative ways. And, if you’re wondering why my attack occurred, why God caused it, they weren’t precisely, absolutely married – in point of fact, they had an open relationship. But almost – I was almost in the very moment of having sex with her, and they were very nearly married, except that they had sex with other people. I don’t even believe in a punitive God. I don’t even believe that “things happen for a reason”!
But it happened. And I couldn’t tell why. It was around Purim, and everything in my life had stopped making sense. I went to a lecture at Makor, a conventional yet profound and funky Jewish center – I live in New York City, where we have such things – called “Stop Making Sense – Purim’s Radical Message.”
It turned out to be a sort of class, led by a strangely left-leaning Orthodox rabbi. I remember that I couldn’t raise my hands in the class because it hurt. The pain had begun just that week. I was trying not to worry about it too much, although I had a peculiar presentiment that my life had changed. I asked the young guy sitting next me to raise his hand for me when I wanted to talk. I flirted with a nice woman in the next row who turned out to be from my neighborhood, beautiful Park Slope, Brooklyn. The rabbi was talking about how every Jew was required to get so drunk on Purim that they couldn’t tell Mordecai, the one who saved us all in this story, from Haman, the one who tried to exterminate us.
Now, Purim has always been my favorite Jewish holiday because it is a holiday about catastrophe – only the Jews would be crazy and brave enough to have a holiday about catastrophe, tragedy, trauma itself. On Purim you were supposed to dress in costume, get drunk off your ass – the Orthodox guy was only stating basic Jewish law to us – and act psychotic, because you were so freaked out that some people had long ago tried to kill you.
That morning, I’d decided to break up with Gemma, the woman with the frolicsome partner and the kids, who had said to me yearningly the first time she kissed me, “I want to give you pain!” The yearning quality had surprised me, moved me. Gemma’s voice was blonde, like unfiltered honey, and it had a crazy warmth to it. I’d decided to break up with Gemma, but to have one last date, one final cataclysmic ending with her, before we did.
But I was sad – oh, reader, even though I was the one doing the breaking up, even though Gemma was a thoroughly modern girl who never got emotional about women and I was trying hard to be one, too, someplace so far away I couldn’t taste it I was very, very sad.
My mother, who was pretty cataclysmic or catastrophic in her own right, had been about to die for decades, and was finally, anticlimactically doing it. (“Your mom’s dying?” my friend Harry asked when I told him, a year and a half before she actually did, as it happened. He rolled his eyes at me theatrically. “Um, you told me that three years ago!”) My mother had begun telling us she was dying around 1972. An operation that she’d had for cancer of the larynx, when I was seven, had been a great success, although it left her with a large, permanent opening in her neck that she referred to conversationally as “my hole.” She breathed through it; it looked a little bit bloody, but she would cover it with baby-napkin bibs or flowered scarves.
The hole worked pretty well, but she said it left her vulnerable to breathing a lot of “particulate matter,” which causes asthma and emphysema. And so my mother had begun planning her funeral when I was still at PS 197, choosing a guest list and announcing what works of literature should be read aloud (she particularly wanted me to read a long Kurt Vonnegut excerpt that began, “God made mud.”). She wanted classy food be served, like dark chocolates and champagne. Later, as we entered a new millennium, my sister Josie and I had a “dying party” with her one evening, when she was certain she would go that night. I brought her favorite foods, wine spritzers and a hot fudge sundae, and we sang to her. The dying had started when I was eight; I was now pushing forty.
In addition to my mother’s being finally (maybe) ready to pass, other anticlimaxes had been bursting out all over my life. I had just broken up what I’d considered a marriage, to a gay man by whom I not only never got shtupped, but usually didn’t get my phone calls returned. Perhaps this was a series of crumbly anticlimaxes, because just before that, Edna, my therapist of twelve years, had suddenly dumped me. She said she’d just realized that our therapy wasn’t working.
And then my arms suddenly fell apart, too. They had lost their ability to do much more than flap.
My first book had come out – to poor sales, naturally, although my editor had said the book would make me “the next Susan Faludi” – just before Edna ditched me. Before that I’d left the Village Voice, my sole and tightly-gripped foothold in the writing world, because they had promised to make me an official, salaried staff writer and had gone back on it. (This was the good Village Voice of years ago, reader – pardon me for saying so! – not the current one.) Me, I had slipped into the Voice at the age of twenty-two and snuck, wormed, even stolen my way into writing for them. Why else would the paper I believed in more than any other publication in the country publish me? I wasn’t a real person, and I knew it. I have always been a makeshift, artificial person, like a scary marionette or a ventriloquist’s dummy, and I have always known I would be found out someday and punished for my evil dissimulation.
I have known I was a magical being, hand-crafted rather than born, from my earliest days. I’m not sure when I first found out, but it goes back at least to the time my mother, when I was four, began telling me and my sisters that she herself could perform magic, could make us do whatever she wanted to, like puppets.
She also could tell whatever we were thinking.
My great-grandmother, a Romanian Jew, knew the “gypsy signs” that could tell you what was about to happen – say, by looking at a frozen tree or a dead animal found by the river, and other potent pagan peasant magics that she taught my mother. My great-grandfather, a Jew from Austria, taught my mom wild Hasidic magics that he’d quietly mined from Kabbalah and Martin Buber.
My mother was an extraordinarily- at times revoltingly – creative person, so it was no great stretch to believe she had shaped me like a golem or a living toy, embedded with unnatural life-force like a hobgoblin conjured from a stale half-brownie and a brittle, faded page or two of Keats or Shelley.
Have you ever heard of golems, source of my mother’s first, simple recipe, reader? Oh goyische or unmystical, read here: golems are artificial persons that learned sixteenth century rabbis made out of wet clay, to do everything their makers told them to, and to attack the people who were lynching Jews all over Eastern Europe. They were all eventually snuffed out by their creators, except me. I survived my mother.
My mother added a few special items to the clay that she’d begun with, no doubt because she wanted to be fancy. I had polyurethane in me, I could tell, and psychically potent bits of tin and panty and old paper that she’d discovered at garage sales and a vintage store. Some paint-encrusted nails, chipped tiny screws. Dirty rags that she did not wash, so that their previous owners’ human perfumes might waft through me and provide a power of their own. A few crumbs of wet muffin. I have tried for years to find out exactly what she assembled on her kitchen floor before she said that ridiculous mix of Hebrew and Coptic words. Even now, almost everything I’ve said is guesswork. (Did she cut her fingernails at least to make some protein and collagen to go into me?)
It was the 1960s, generally too early for cybernetics, but my mother was a brilliant woman and well aware of Alan Turing’s theories, and she may have put an early self-aware chip in me. (If so, the first and second laws of robotics would require that it did not displace the pagan magics constituting me, but added to them.)
Golems (and robots) are but two species of our kind, of course. Many clumps of mud on several continents have been over-stimulated with unnatural spirit this way, by persons of power like my mother, for millennia. Certain rocks and springs have been galvanized (for eons) with a painful awareness, and there are young girls (and boys) imprisoned in eleven-inch Barbie dolls, living spirits imprisoned in bottle caps, baseball and tarot cards smarting and throbbing inside locked-up collections. Puppets and toys created far, far realer than they should be. Trees twisted with the force of something alien inside them. We are all over the world, we half-human sad, impregnated, lonely things, sung into life by magicians and pallid Hasids and evil PhDs who wanted to try and see – just try and see! they had wild hopes – if they could reproduce themselves without a partner.
The alchemists made their own little people out of chicken eggs mixed with human blood or sperm, bits of skin, occasionally animal hair or feathers. Sometimes dung (for who has not wished, at least once in their lives, to create a world out of their dung?) Other makers formed their creatures out of wood, or straw, or plastic that was enchanted so that it could think on its own, walk about, and have wishes.
I was one of these subtly manufactured little persons, one that canny old artist my mother had made, and I found her work in the stool-like shaping of myself – oh mother, forgive me! – disgusting.
When I was a child, she put her own art up in the kitchen, but never mine or my sisters’. She made male, earth-red masks from papier-mâché, fierce and staring, extraordinary. A painting that scared me (and I loved) of a tree with branches like claws, surrounded by a crying storm (“Mommy was having a very bad day when she made that.”). A weird clown that looked like my father, sad and falsely smiling (“It’s Daddy!” we cried happily.). A still life of sensual apple, grapes, and pear that I thought was the most beautiful thing I would ever see, and how amazing that I could see it every day while eating my peanut butter and jelly. A bad primitive watercolor of bleak houses and a tree by a lake. I thought all her art was genius then. Her output was prodigious. There was a needlepoint of her own face that depicted her as accurately as a photograph but also made her look exactly like the Virgin Mary.
Years later, there was a wild, abstract sculpture of her lungs, constructed of clear plastic tubing, with Aeolus, the god of the winds – a clay figure – attempting to breathe into them. (She was dying of lung disease.) A sexy, disturbing, luscious, Chinese-looking painting of a red rooster menacing a hen.
Then there was her writing. A ferocious story narrated by an insane boy who saw light all around him in wave form – I was eight, and it remains my favorite work by her. Her master’s thesis on Feuerbach and Hegel – I was nine and I loved it, although I didn’t know what “hermeneutics” were. Her dissertation on whether a Marxist philosophical framework might possibly allow for religion – I loved that, too, at fourteen, and was crushed when, at sixteen, she decided that her dissertation committee was too politically conservative to ever allow her to actually get her PhD on that topic, and so she transferred to Teachers College to produce a much tamer and more boring dissertation about Marxist pedagogy. I read all the drafts of all versions of the thesis and dissertation, and proofread them all, plus her translation from the Latin of Lucretius (my age: ten), and her undergrad Urban Planning paper (six) on the unique water supply of New York City. Don’t even get me started on her poems.
I admired all of her art but I hated admiring it because it was always there, and it took up all our space. I also hated admiring it because my mother made me admire it, telling me her work was wonderful until it was the beginning and end of what I thought wonderful was.
When I was six, my mother asked if I wanted to be Haman for Purim and I thought that was a fantastically wonderful idea as well, because I had never been Haman and neither the girls nor boys had ever been him in my school; the girls were always Queen Esther in tinfoil crowns and kitchen-drapery ball gowns. I hated being Queen Esther, and I loved the idea of being someone evil.
Oh reader, assimilated or unknowing – no one dresses like Haman for Purim, for the simple reason that Haman is a genocidal murderer. Every Purim we celebrate that at the end of the Purim story, Haman’s body has turned black and is hanging from the highest tree. We have put him there.
I certainly knew he was a genocidal monster when my mother dressed me up as him. My yeshiva was so Zionist that even the rabid Arab-hater Meir Kahane sent his daughter there, and my teachers were quite thorough on all points concerning violence against the Jews, even when addressing six year olds.
My mother worked so enthusiastically on my costume for Haman – sewing me a three-cornered (vinyl) dark purple hat, which functioned rather as Haman’s SS helmet in the Purim story, putting one of her black wigs on my head to be Haman’s hair, and another wig carefully cut to fit my face to be his beard. Outlining my brows and eyes in black pencil – that it was the best costume I have ever worn, and I hated every minute wearing it because it was all my mother’s.
Nothing of the art of the Haman I was playing was me. Wearing the costume she had put together so artistically, I was simply being my mother’s notion of Haman, my mother’s transgression of gender and the niceties of Purim in my very conservative yeshiva, my mother’s antic creature.
I have always hated being as porous as I am. Able to be filled with others’ content. Mimsy-the portmanteau word Lewis Carroll coined for “flimsy” and “miserable” at once – unlocalizable, able to take any shape. Especially when directed by my mother … Fey, impish, effeminate, will o’ the wisp; mercurial, multifarious – counterfeit in my very being, like a photocopy of a human. Like those beautiful beings Puck and Ariel, who were really nothing more than great-looking, impressive slaves when you get right down to it. With them, as with me, there is no there there. All the creatures of Faerie are tricksy, thievish, prestidigitational performers. Fairies have the duplicity of all subject peoples.
I have always felt my own twoness, always known that I was only half a person – if indeed that much. I realized very young that I was the true referent all those men unthinkingly have in mind when they refer to some gay man as a “lightweight” or a “Twinkletoes,” someone who cannot fill his own, deep human shoes. I am the one they really meant. I have never been a real person; and I have always dissembled, or as my fairy kin like to say, beguiled. And I cannot help it, reader. Camus may have said “liberty is the right not to lie,” but as for me, I have never been free.
And I hate it. I hate lying, which is the same as having no history, no will, and no capacity for connection with anyone. Liars do not speak the same language as friends, and therefore they cannot be friends.
Oh reader, hate me, put this down, throw me away, recycle me or even do it the old-fashioned way – burn me up in fire – but of course I love lying, too.
All my life I’ve been able to vanish quickly as a mouse, to borrow and not repay, to lie as lightly as a leprechaun. My mother taught me how to do all three. They form, in fact, almost the sum of the moral philosophy that she taught me. My progenitor was, not to put too fine a point on it, a professor of philosophy, and one of her most influential papers was a lesson plan for children about the goodness of lying, and the utter foolishness of every moral system that condemned it out of hand. For years, this curriculum was actually taught to public school children in New Jersey as a result of my mother’s efforts. The proof of the lying lesson went like this. “You see your friend Stacey running away fast in one direction. When she is out of sight, a group of tough guys runs up to you, looking angry. Some of them are holding sticks and pipes. Their leader says, ‘Where’s that Stacey? We’re so mad at her! We’re gonna get her!’ You point in the opposite direction from the way she ran. Did you do the right thing?”
My mother extended this to all other possible cases of lying. I had to lie to my aunt, to my grandparents – about things we had spent too much money, or too little, on; where we had gone on vacation; the fact that I ate the free lunches offered by the city in my public school; the fact that my mother had told me, at age nine, what my aunt’s first ten experiences of intercourse with her husband had been like (excruciatingly painful, but she persevered, and the eleventh was pleasurable). I had been at the wedding of Aunt Natalie and her husband Bernie, and it was both fun and discomfiting to know what their first intercourse experiences had been like.
And I had to lie to my sisters: “Don’t tell Josie I said this,” Mommy said, “but I happen to know that she is very, very jealous of you.” I never told Josie my mother had warned me about this, but it influenced how I acted with Josie to the end of my days. To my other sister, Aphra, I could not reveal that my mother had said Aphra was a schizophrenic and “pathologically unable to separate from her.”
My mother brought me with her to the New York Human Resources Administration (the city’s welfare office), so that she would erroneously seem to be a poor single mother (“You always get more sympathy when you have a child with you,” Mommy giggled). I was eight. We were lying and saying that Daddy didn’t live with us and didn’t share his income as a salesman or deliveryman with us. “No one can live on welfare and no other income,” she told me, “it’s too low. You have to lie.”
In a sense she was certainly right. It is true that you couldn’t live even the slightest bit well on welfare, including every family member buying books if they desired them, having the children go to camp – even at scholarship rates – in the summers, having meat – considered an important food for children in the ‘60s and ‘70s – available several times a week.
(After a certain point in grad school my mother stopped cooking, but for years we ate costly TV dinners every night, with the so-called Hungry Man Dinner giving me a quivering butchy thrill as I ate the enormous roast-beef entree with its man-friendly apple cobbler, as often as I could get it.)
We shopped only at the really cheap clothing stores – Alexander’s, Klein’s, that pennyworth-apparel wonderland May’s. But strangely, we sometimes went to Cape Cod for a two-week vacation. My mom said we were poor. (She made sure we had piano, singing, ballet and art lessons, either according to age – all six-year-olds in the family had to begin studying piano, for example – talent or inclination. )
My father worked alternately some lower-middle-class, working-class, and a few lumpen jobs (salesman for gates on stores, and by phone, for cemetery plots; deliveryman for Wise potato chips and later, crullers at 5:00 a.m. to greasy spoons; once, hander-out of fliers for a midtown sex parlor – “beautiful Asian masseuses” they said. My father, a silent man, didn’t tell about the fliers; it was my mother who blabbed about them, gleefully).
The difference between her job as a philosophy-professor and his as a donut-deliver (and pimp’s helper) was the essence of my mother’s mercurialness, her extreme mobility, and, she thought, her brilliance, her ability to turn dross into something shiny. She told my sisters and me that we were brilliant, too – everyone but my father, who she said was stupid and ugly and smelly – so that our splendid educations, including my mother’s, came to seem the gold she had produced from the lead and dirty coal of my father’s work by means of her own personal and unprecedented powers of alchemy.
My mother’s work didn’t produce very much income (as a professor, like many in our big-name city where instructors were supposed to live on prestige alone, she never made it above adjunct stage), but it produced so much glory that, for my sisters and me, it was like looking at the Sun. The problem for us was that my father really did smell bad, not like a man who has gone to work and not yet showered but like a homeless person or a half-breed monster created by an evil magician and kept locked in the basement, its smell of rotting garbage occasionally rising above the extraordinary, magic sprays of air freshener and drowning them out.
I felt sorry for my little father-monster. I still do, for that smell he bore for his and my mother’s experiments (was he her familiar? her assistant? her subject?) and that he still exudes from his plot in New Jersey, thirty years in the ground.
We had to put special chemicals in. My father had needed potentially toxic doses of preservatives and industrial wastes to keep him from simply decaying even in life, after the worst experiment had ended, the one where his tissues were interchanged with those of a female bear and he was baited for four years in a time-travel medieval English zoo, so that the already poisoned soil of New Jersey was deemed to be the only sustainable site for him when his time came.
My mother said none of me came from him, but I wonder.
Certainly I was more plastic than him. But did that make me more or less free? How can we say? I believe I had to lie more. My mother made me lie to my teacher – which hurt my positronic brain, or felt like it did, with the unbearable contradiction of Teachers as Not to Be Lied to and Teachers as Another Category to Be Bamboozled.
I was more nervous and ashamed of lying to my fifth grade teacher – about our address, as my mom demanded of me – than I have been nervous and ashamed about much else in my life. It felt like my body was burning on the inside and the outside to call out my fake address to my teacher, Mrs. Kay, when she was asking everybody’s address for her file. I felt much worse on another day when she asked who needed a bus pass and I eagerly shot my hand up and Mrs. Kay asked for my address again and I had to give the fake one, only to have her chuckle sweetly and say, “Oh, that’s only three blocks from school, you don’t need to ride the bus, honey, do you?”
I had to smile painfully at her and affirm the lie.
But even more painful – surprisingly so – was the way my mother made me lie to Her Herself. My brain circuits bit into each other when I did that, and I would imagine the sharp edges of my internal motherboard rasping together. I was more intimate with my mother than I was with anybody else and, I thought, more intimate than I could be with anybody else. My mother made me, and she was my gazelle, my dove, my breathing supply, my Source. Reader, she was my only source of anything good – I had no other. I have perhaps neglected to say that she was beautiful. I have perhaps forgotten to tell you how she would kiss my face and say “You are my baby, my own one, my own!” She loved telling me stories that reflected her brilliance and, we both thought, my own, like “Poseidon Is Mad at Odysseus,” or “Theseus Finds a Way Out of the Labyrinth Even Though Nobody Else Can!” She loved reading to me. She was my Sun, and yet I was supposed to lie to her.
This made me feel, at times, like I did not exist. This was a contradiction because she also told me that I did exist, through her – as her “brilliant baby.” But mostly, what existed was the Sun, and everything else was a figment, like the shadows on Plato’s (for of course we talked about Plato) cave wall.
She needed to think that I was constantly in a state of joy, perhaps because she was not. My mother worried about growing old, and she also worried about being ugly and disgusting with that pink and yellow and red and brown hole in her neck. It was odd and fragile, like a bit of cell wall that, under a microscope, resembles a little trove of flowers. But she kept it covered except at home, and no one mentioned it except, two or three times that I remember, my mother calling it “hideous” and “grisly.”
But she would ask, “Is my nose bigger than that other witch’s over there? And whose wrinkles are bigger, mine or hers?” And, as I said, my mother was convinced she was dying ever since the 1971 operation, and would call Doctors on Call – doctors you had never met before that you could pay to come to the house on an hour’s notice. The clean-scrubbed young doctors would arrive with beefy bodyguards with guns (this was the ‘70s), and the doctors brought immense black doctors’ bags of Valium and Demerol with them, which they would give my mother. She called them every month or so.
When she had her original surgery, I dreamed that my mother was a car, and my father, sisters and I were all driving in her. I was afraid that my father was driving her too fast, and then he was driving her too fast – and she needed an operation. And so my father performed a tracheotomy with his pocketknife, through the roof of the car. In real life, this is what my mother had – a permanent tracheotomy, which was now the only organ through which my mother was able to breathe. In my dream she had a permanent slit through her own roof.
She was afraid, as I have said, of dying. But she was even more scared of being beaten in some even more dreadful and systematic way, being taken advantage of, being humiliated like someone who had never even been a philosopher. Of being smashed up like someone who was not even the weakest wizard. Being made mock of and kicked, like someone who didn’t even have a brain.
Many years later, when I had begun to study karate at twenty-one and was showing my moves around the house, she kicked me in the shins because she assumed (incorrectly) that I was going to hit her.
As a child, of course, I did not take karate, because ecstatic pointy-headed goblin-toys do not require it. Though she did partly want me to be happy for my own sake, my mother mainly believed that toys are here to sing and entertain, to throw themselves in the air and then catch themselves, in ridiculous clothes like jesters. Sad jesters are hardly effective, and no one wants sad or angry toys, either. I have quite a lot of toys here on my desk as I write this, and not a one of them has ever told me that we need to talk, or that they had an accident and wet their pants, or that they sometimes got scared at night.
I loved my Sun-like mother, but I hated showing her only this of myself. It often made me feel like I didn’t possess even the barest strip of reality that I thought I did, that I was the most basic schematic drawing of myself and not even the actual fully-produced android.
And whenever my sister Josie was unhappy, my mother would prepare a little suitcase. She would pack it and bring it downstairs to our dimly-lighted apartment house lobby, and Josie would have to wait with it, crying, for a car my mother had presumably called that would take her away.
In the end my mother would always forgive her and allow her to stay. But I didn’t know she would, and Josie didn’t, either. I never had my suitcase packed; I was too good a schematic drawing for that. I have always been good at what I do; I would never let my mother see me as unhappy as Josie let herself be seen. I was very proud of this. For years my mom and I played a game called “Smart Baby” where, in the game, I began life as smart as an adult, already knowing how to read and write and do sums and every other task that grown-up people did. I knew history, and geography, and science. As my mother put it, I already knew everything and could do everything. I needed nothing.
A few times, when my sisters and I had let down our guard and actually allowed my mother to become unhappy, she packed a big suitcase – her own – and said she was going to leave. She did in fact leave two or three times during our childhood for a night or two (because “I just have to get away”), although more often my sisters and I won her over when we begged her to stay.
She liked me to amuse her with word games and displays of my many mental talents. For her friends, at dinner parties, she would have me read my poems and book reports and personal declarations (like “This Is Why I Am Now Sure That God Cannot Be Both Omnipotent and Good”).
She had me declaim aloud to her friends the poems of other people that I liked, like Edna St. Vincent Millay telling a bird who represented Thought to “Depart, be lost. /But climb.”
You might have anticipated, reader, that so big a ham as I would have loved this exhibition, but I feared and hated it. It made me sad because it wasn’t me; even though it entailed reciting things I had written or poems that I liked, it wasn’t me back then to show off and entertain with them. None of it was my desire, not even the desire to entertain, at the beginning. Reader, if you can imagine a Puck who is secretly depressed, who worries in the bathroom and sneaks off to smoke and smash his toes into the hard, white tile wall, that Puck was me.
Reader, I had difficulties from my mother creating me out of whole cloth, but I had even more from my father’s surreal sports, employing me as the birdie in his games of badminton.
Using me as the pins and ball (and sometimes the alley and the next lane) in his games of bowling.
Using me as the puck (yes, my reader, the Puck, the two have always been connected) in his games of field hockey.
Using me as the ball and clubs and beret in his games of golf.
Using me as the ball in his games of jai alai.
How his perceptions could become so altered that he could think I was a piece of state-of-the-art athletic equipment, bought at a nearby mall, I do not know. I do know his perceptions were very altered. (Mine would be, if I’d been bear-baited, for sure.)
Reader, my father hit me, and the rhyme or reason to it was as frankly odd as if he had instead played Ultimate Frisbee with my cheeks, or used my gallbladder as a mallet in a gentlemen’s game of croquet. He was not – as I hope I have made crystal clear – a dominant force in my family, and yet he was allowed a certain liberty to use my brows as bocce-balls and my temples as a wiffle ball, however many times he wanted.
My mother didn’t mind. Sometimes he hit me when she wasn’t there, sometimes when she was, but it did not matter as long as he did not strike me many blows at a time, in which case she would tell him huffily, “That’s enough.” But, reader, even his single blows were enormous, like a giant’s, and his short recreations hurt me.
Perhaps I’ve lied. It wasn’t only recreational for him to strike me – I clearly made him angry, although it was often surprising what made him angry at me on any particular occasion.
He was sensitive. And my mother added to his pool of sensitivity daily, by saying things like, “You’re just too stupid to understand!” in everybody’s earshot. He never talked back to her when she said things like that. She also told jokes to which my father was the punchline – “What’s immovable and fat and hairy and idiotic?” and encouraged my sisters and me to make fun of him. I only once saw him reading a book – My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok – and clearly the only possible thing for me to do was to say, “Holy Christ, Daddy’s reading a book! What if his brain pushes out of his head?”
But he did not strike me when I said that. I don’t remember which words of mine made him do it. He smelled so unbearably bad that we made some playful jokes at his expense about emergency deliveries of Odor Eaters, but he did not hit me (or my sisters, who for some reason he never hit) in response to that, but to other things that I really, really can’t remember, reader. Were they innocent things like “Would you mind leaving me some of the pickles?” Or mean things like “I’d never be as stupid as you!”
Whatever I said to inspire him is lost in the fog that always overcame me at such moments, which has made me remember them utterly differently from all other events in my long life. Not as discrete happenings, but as one long, never-fading, continually present moment of getting hit (like a robot programmed to see a giant fist coming down on its head every nanosecond, so it must scurry to come up with a million strategies of avoidance, as long as its power is on).
I did frequently call him stupid. But so did he call me. He never acted like my father, not remotely. We were always equals in the Minkowitz Family Consortium, except that he was four times my size and had a vastly stronger arm. My mother treated him like just another child in the family, albeit the one who was supposed to be hated.
I was seven when he started, and he always hit my head.
It hurt. And reader, it made me terrified in a peculiar way, of everything under the sun, and all creatures that flew in the air, and ones that crept on the earth, of all people and, of course, games engaged in by the arms.
For years, the sound of keys disturbed me, I had no idea why. I think now that it was the sound of his keys in the door. I do know I was frightened whenever he was home, and felt safe when he was not.
My plasticity came in handy, I think, because it made it easier for me to assume the roles as the equipment in the ballgames than a non-goblin individual would have found it. I was made of Things, after all, reader, a variety of largely inorganic and inhuman Things, and being treated as a thing could not have made as big an impression on me as it would have on a biological girl. Soil and paper and nails do not feel as much as humans do, and have never done. Not even muffin batter, the nearest thing I have to human flesh, and which I have only in a very small amount, feels anything like what human beings feel. This is the reason Rabbi Judah Loew was allowed to make a golem in the first place, and the reason he was allowed to destroy it, as Abraham was not allowed to destroy his son.