Lowell, Massachusetts, 1976
“The book that tells kids they are O.K,” the cover said, the reassuring words suspended over a
cartoon of a smiling turtle carrying a balloon. TA for Tots, by Alvyn Freed, was handed to me by my father, who said that he was sure I would like it. This came before the Gestalt approach, which is a therapeutic technique along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s dialogue with the empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Incidentally, it followed the family dialogue hand puppets, only our “therapy” with the puppets ended with my father, as the suit-wearing father puppet, blowing his nose on his tie and belching as we squealed. Officially, he was practicing SAU 29’snew psychological assessment kits on us so he would be ready to use them on an actual troubled child. Unofficially, I was the one being tested.
When I was in third grade, I stopped speaking in public. I still talked at home, and to my friends, but I would not speak in class, even if called on. For two whole years, teachers mispronounced my name and I didn’t correct them; they learned otherwise only during each parent/teacher conference, to the embarrassment of all involved. When I tried to speak out loud, I could picture the eyes of my classmates boring into me, my teacher waiting to correct a mistake. My goal each day at school was to be noticed as little as possible. If you are no trouble to your teachers, very few are willing to upset this trend, and I don’t blame them. And, given that we were free-floating between the age of “Free to be you and Me” and the Ritalin era, teachers in the mid-1970s had a lot to deal with. Being too quiet was not anyone’s idea of a problem, at least not at first.
One day, Miss Coza, my teacher, let me know that the speech therapist would be coming by to
take me out of class during math. Mrs. O’Connor had red hair in a high bun and wore pantsuits;
she looked more important than a teacher, but also softer and more glamorous. She asked me my name and why I was there; it is likely that I did not answer her and instead looked down at my feet. After I read some words out loud from a series of cards, she seemed satisfied that I could actually utter audible sounds, so she tried the direct approach.
“Tell me, darling. Why don’t you talk?” I don’t remember my answer, or whether I answered at all. At the time, I didn’t know, but I knew I was afraid to speak and that it was frustrating. I didn’t want to be afraid to talk. I wasn’t happy being like that. I just didn’t know any other way to be. And there were rewards for not talking: my conduct grade was consistently excellent, and teachers did not want to pressure a shy girl who might start crying at any moment. Why couldn’t they just let me be?
Eventually, Mrs. O’Connor concluded that it was beyond her powers to help a child who could
actually speak without lisp, impediment, or other diagnosable problem, and sent me back to class with a confident “She’s shy. She’ll grow out of it.” Shy. I hated that word. Shy evoked the blushing skunk in Bambi, a cuddly critter with a pure heart. It didn’t match how I felt inside, my anger at not being able to choose whether I spoke or not, how much I hated the children who knew they were cute and smart and didn’t have to try.
My father was never one to give up. Even now, I have witnessed him stay on the phone with Dell’s tech support people for eight hours when something goes wrong with his computer, or take a car to eight garages when something sounds funny. A broken daughter required even more persistence.
My mother had been raised Catholic but she no longer went to church. My parents had been married in St. Michael’s church in 1965, just a block down from my elementary school, in a big wedding with my aunts as bridesmaids and my father’s Navy buddies as groomsmen. In the photos, my dad is smiling and holding up a sign reading “Under New Management” while my mother assists him, looking mortified. That was the last time he willingly entered a church.
Many years later, as he sat next to my husband at my cousin’s wedding, he would tell him, “I’d rather sit in a pile of shit than go to church” and my husband didn’t doubt it. My mother would go to church for a month or two if a prayer made in desperation had been answered, like the time our missing Schnauzer showed up a week later on our doorstep, barking to come in, or my cousin recovered after being hit by a car, but we did not go to church. For my father, psychology was a kind of religion, complete with explanations and answers, but also requiring a measure of faith.
Enter TA for Tots. Transactional Analysis has been referred to as both post-Freudian and extra-Freudian, but I understand it now as a version of psychoanalysis for the “me” generation. Basically, it looks at communication between people and how those interactions shape how we see ourselves and each other. This sounds reasonable enough, but this is the same theory on which the book I’m OK, You’re OK was based. The theorist who came up with TA, Eric Berne, was a colleague and friend of OK author Thomas Harris, but they disagreed on one key point: the influence of adults on children. Harris argued that children are innately intimidated by and inferior to adults because they are larger and have more power, whereas Berne had a more romantic conception of childhood: Kids are OK. It’s the adults who mess them up, with their power trips and their rigid expectations.
Yet the children around me had been born in 1969, to parents who could hardly be described as authoritarian. While the young parents in our Lowell neighborhood were not exactly hippies, neither were they suburban parents like the Bradys. The divorced mom across the street watered the lawn in her Dr. Scholl’s, squirting us playfully with the hose as we ran by. The bearded Vietnam veteran on the corner sat on the porch and smoked as his kids snapped caps between rocks instead of lighting firecrackers because the sound made his hands shake. My friend Billy’s mom Janet, with her headscarves and bare feet, stirred tomato sauce on the stove. They lived their lives, and we lived ours, and most were too busy starting over to watch us too closely. New life, new marriage, new house, new baby, new job: the same new things they had started out with in 1965, before it all went wrong.
“You kids are not right,” shouted an elderly neighbor as one of the older boys threw sticks at his
cat until it ran up a tree. He had a point. A boy in my class would chase girls around the playground, exposing his penis, an act treated by the teachers as an innocent as a game of “doctor.” The concept of the recess monitor had not yet taken hold: usually one or two of the teachers would congregate by the one tree in the cement playground and smoke and tell stories, only intervening in the case of obvious distress or bloodshed. An uncommunicative boy who always had head lice sat in the back, eating his reduced-price hot lunch with his head down. The lucky kids like me, with loving parents and enough money not to have to get hot lunch, were a generally anxious lot, with strange tics and manic energy to spare. We walked home in packs, stopping off at the store on the corner for infinite varieties of dyed sugar: in straws, in little packets that you could open and eat with a sugar utensil, in bottle cap shapes or balls or in liquid form, in little wax bottles you could bite. If we were really lucky, we’d catch the ice cream man on the way home, right at the corner near my house, and use our lunch money to buy sherbet cones with gumballs at the bottom, or creamy pops that looked like Mickey Mouse’s head. The most cheerful, well-adjusted kid around was Jenny Olin, who wore special bifocals and had a brace on one leg. She talked like the middle-aged lady who worked at the convenience store: “Hey guys!” Jenny would lurch over, dragging her braced leg. “That looks like quite a treat! Where are you girls off to today?” She was so slow to catch up that we could avoid her if we kept moving.
One day, Jenny managed to catch up, because the group had formed a big circle of the sort that usually surrounds a fistfight or a bad nosebleed. The fourth graders were telling horrifying stories to the kindergarteners, who looked about to wet their pants. First there was the one about Mikey, from the cereal commercials, who had met his end mixing Pop Rocks and Coke, and the kid who ate a razor blade hidden in a Halloween candy bar. Would it make it down his throat and shred his stomach, or would the carnage begin in his esophagus? Or worse, made its way back out of the body? There was much speculation. There were so many horrible ways to die, it seemed. You could accidentally inhale a balloon as you were blowing it up and it would expand your insides, much like Violet Beauregard, who had the blueberry juice squeezed out of her by the Oompah Loompahs after she grabbed and ate the four-course gum. A spider could lay its eggs in your hair, and they could travel in your eye sockets up to your brain while you slept, transforming you into a human with a spider brain. Nine hundred people drank poisonous Kool Aid. An older boy had seen a picture. “The bodies were all piled up outside on picnic blankets,” he said. “They made babies drink it first, through an eye dropper.” Someone asked what kind, as though it mattered, but I will never forget what he said or how he answered, as though this itself were the detail that could not be faced: “Grape.” In a move that capitalized on our morbid curiosity, two fourth grade girls named Greta and Karen started charging a quarter for a palm reading. They would examine your life line and heart line and tell you what your love life would be like, whether you would have children, even when you would die and what of. They ran their sideshow on the steps that led up to the fourth grade entrance, and
in good cop/bad cop fashion, the nicer girl, Greta, shared the happy details (“you’re going to get married!”) and the bitchier Karen blurted the bad news (“to Charles Manson!”) The children linedup, serious-faced and in single file, as though going to confession. Jenny lurched back from her session, chatting to no one in particular. You had to move away so she didn’t latch on, so we ducked behind some older kids and found a place in line. My friend Colleen went before me. When she returned, she was smiling.
“I will be a teacher and marry a firefighter and have two children, a boy and a girl. I will live to be
fifty and I will die of leprosy.” “What’s leprosy?” I asked. She didn’t know either. But fifty seemed so old. And a disease, well, one could live with that,especially if it was so far in the future. Mine didn’t go quite so well. Maybe Karen thought Greta was being too easy on us, but it took a
dark turn. And, given that I would not argue back, I was an easy mark. “Your life line is really short. You will die when you are fourteen,” she said, acting as though it was hard for her to break this news to me. “Of chicken pox,” said Greta. “Teenagers can die of that. My doctor knew of an eighteen year old who died of chicken pox.” “No,’ disagreed Karen. “Killer bees. Definitely killer bees.”
Karen’s father must have let her watch the same shows mine did, because it had not been one week before her pronouncement when I had heard Leonard Nimoy’s voice announce: “Killer Bees. Headed for the United States. When will they reach our shores?” I was watching “In Search Of,” a television show about “unsolved” mysteries and legends. Each week we tuned in to find out about new developments in the cases of Sasquatch, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, King Tut’s curse, and now, the Africanized bees prophesied by Spock himself to be perilously close to invading our yards and homes, like some Biblical locust swarm. My mother did not allow me to watch “In Search of,” but she was in night class and not home to serve in her usual role as censor and skeptical debunker.
“Dad, when are they coming?” I’d ask, wondering how he could be so calm, reading a newspaper about a comparably non-catastrophic teacher strike. “I don’t know—five years? Ten?” Twelve—I’d be twelve. Maybe Karen and Greta had been wrong about the age of my demise. I pictured myself running down the hill to school, fleeing a dark swarm as I dropped my books one by one down the sidewalk. Ten years--also wrong age. This was more reassuring. In a car with the windows up you could drive to Canada or Alaska, where it was too cold for even rabidly homicidal bees to survive for long.
Finally, a commercial. “One year ago they found a spot on my lung,” said a pale woman in a hospital gown. “By then it was too late." Then a plug for the American Lung Association.
I thought of green spots on potato chips, and that black fleck of burnt oat you sometimes get in a packet of oatmeal. “How do you get cancer?” I asked. The killer bees came back on, and my father focused as a beekeeper, his gloved arm caked with bee bodies, explained how killer bees were different from ordinary bees. “Well, sometimes it just happens. You just get it.”
From then on any dark spot was picked out of food, scratched off my skin. I had already stopped eating grape Pixie Stix and drinking grape Kool Aid. Even my pajamas had a tag reminding me that they were not flame-resistant. Danger was everywhere. When my mother came home that night I called for her to come to my room. “Killer bees?” she hooted, and her laughter reassured me. “What next? Bigfoot? Sasquatch? The Yeti? The Abominable Snowman?”
“Those are all the same thing,” I said, or maybe I just thought it, as she shut the door, leaving me in the darkness. I could say right now that I didn’t mean to poison my father, but, thanks to Freud, the denial doesn’t help my case. I don’t remember wishing him any ill will. And I didn’t know that the thermometer had mercury in it, or that mercury was toxic. In my defense, a quick search of “mercury poisoning thermometer” on Google indicates that such a small amount would be unlikely to cause any harm at all, much less the symptoms my father exhibited that night. It was probably something else that caused his breathing trouble, his intense stomach pain: maybe his habit of saving food in the refrigerator past its expiration date. I’ll never know. In this story, however, the facts matter very little. The items in the room are what endure. The console stereo in the living room with its faux wood exterior, the one that had the top you lifted up to expose a turntable and 8-track player. The wallpaper with the drums and fifes and eagles carrying banners that said “E Pluribus Unum.” Faux colonial mixed with cheap mid-century modern: heavy, dark wood with orange and avocado green flowers. Everywhere were references to other times; the present was a cacophonous if hopeful American mashup. I am sitting at the table with an old thermometer in front of me. I have probably retrieved it from Ernie cookie jar, because my mother had a habit of keeping useless things like rusty keys, shrinky dinks, rosary beads, and old driver’s licenses in there, just in case. She still has it, and every now and then she will let my daughter dump it out and rifle through sets of dice, erasers shaped like fruit, and my father’s NRA card, and these items are so random and so junky I wonder why she keeps them, yet my daughter remains as fascinated as I was. The thermometer was delicate but insistent, as though it wanted to tell a story, and I sat, eyes fixed on the silver liquid inside the glass. Watch it rise and then fall. Dip it a cold drink, then my armpit, then see if it will go up and down. Then watch it break into pieces while tiny balls of mercury land like shiny dewdrops, perfect quicksilver.
That’s where my memory stops, but my mother can still fill in what happened next. My father
wiped the table with a paper towel and then proceeded to peel and eat an orange in that same spot. Had I told him, or had I hidden the evidence? Had he not realized that what he had wiped off the table were beads of mercury? I did not see how something as beautiful as those silver balls, so much like the sugar cookie decorations at Christmastime, could hurt someone. I must have touched them myself, but as it turned out, I stayed well and my father got sick.
Although stomach pains are not supposed to be a side effect of mercury poisoning, it is the only symptom of his that I can remember. As my mother called a nurse friend on the phone my father gripped his stomach and yelled “It’s going to burst!” and I instinctively stepped back, waiting for the rain of guts and dinner to spray us all. He was going to die, and it was my fault, so all I could do was duck and take cover, hold as tight and as still as I could, and not look up--then I could neither see nor hear what I had done.
After my father got better, and after I stopped speaking, he handed me TA for Tots and said he thought I might like it. The pictures in it were cute and cartoonish: little Warm Fuzzies, Prinzes (self-actualized kids) and Frozzes (kids with low self-esteem), even the Cold Pricklies were adorably rendered. Yet even at seven years old, I did not believe a word of TA for Tots. The adults in the story yelled and belittled, and the children were either traumatized by it or copied their behavior and became bullies themselves. It was all very clear and simple and full of choices. If you Google images of Transactional Analysis, what you will see are a lot of charts. Circles with arrows, acronyms, lists of different ways of thinking, all mapped out in lines and shapes. “You’re OK as you are,” the book reassures, but being told to know myself was like being told to breathe or to grow. “I’m OK. I’m OK. I’m OK” I said, over and over, like the rosary, until the words became sounds with no meaning, until they tasted like sugar and melted in my mouth, until they gave off the smoky whiff of caps smashed on a rock and I sucked them into my lungs, until they became me. In this broken world, everything fragmented and changed shape, as random as the lines on my hands, as the migration patterns of Africanized bees, as the pieces of a shattered thermometer, beaded with luminous poison.
About the Author: Kirsti Anne Sandy teaches memoir and narrative theory at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. Her previous work can be found in Under the Gum Tree, the Boiler, Split Lip, and Natural Bridge. She has a six-year-old daughter who talks nonstop, to anyone who will listen, and she considers this a win.