A List of Books That Traumatized Me As A Child, In Chronological Order

1. Title of Book: The Bible

Age I Was Traumatized: 4

I am not saying that the Bible was written by a sexual sadist. I am saying that my 1986 edition children’s Bible was, without question, illustrated by someone who regularly tied their partner to a cave wall and flogged them to ecstasy while in a Hebrew slave-Egyptian overseer roleplaying situation.

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(For a kid whose parents barely let her watch TV, some of my Sunday school lessons were intense.)

2. Title of Book: Little House On the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Age I Was Traumatized: 7

The prairie is on fire. A snake is twisting itself around your leg, having mistaken you for a source of safety. Inside the sod house, Ma is making rabbit stew with dumplings, only she has no more meat, only flour and grease. Pa tells you to bring him a drink of water from the dipper. “This is fine,” he says, staring out the window at the burning world. “Everything here is just fine.”

3. Title of Book: The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom

Age I Was Traumatized: 9

Third grade is a normal and developmentally appropriate time in a child’s life for reading vivid first-person memoirs about hiding from Nazis and surviving Ravensbrück for over a year.

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Artifacts

(Trigger warnings for discussion of child abuse and suicide below.)

For various reasons, I am a person who doesn’t own a lot of stuff. Just for example: I have three pairs of shoes. One pair of flip flops, one pair of ballet flats, and one pair of Batman Converse high tops, which explains everything you need to know about the current state of my right Achilles tendon, according to my podiatrist. I own a bed, a lamp, a small book shelf, a card table, and about 150 books. My car is 15 years old. The most valuable thing I own is my Macbook Air, which was a gift from my literary agent. And while I would like to, say, own more clothes (and therefore do less laundry) I am mostly okay with all of this. When you’re poor and you have to move a lot, minimalism is convenient. But when you’ve lost things you care about, it makes you more materialistic, not less. Everything I own is important to me, because I had to make an effort to keep it.

My books are the best example of this. When I became homeless in 2012 I didn’t have much, but I had a personal library of about 700 books, and giving away so much of it was nothing less than heartbreaking. Every gift of money I got as a kid went into my book collection, every Christmas and birthday, every $20 bill I wheedled out of my parents. My library was to me what a varied and stylish quality wardrobe is to some people, a way of presenting to the world the image of myself that I wanted to project. I often sat and looked at my books and took pleasure in the thought that a stranger walking into my room could get a sense of my personality, my interests, even my abilities, just by looking at my book cases. I dreamed of the day my own published novels would join them. The books in which my name appears in the acknowledgments had a special shelf of their own. Ego and memory and history and sentiment and accomplishment were all wrapped up in that book collection. Disbanding that carefully curated bibliography felt like an act of self-harm.

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(The author, age 6, Christmas 1988. The box was full of books. My 3 year old cousin is baffled and intrigued. What do they do?)

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In the Bleak Midwinter

1. If you’re going to write about Christmas, you have to pick a side: pro or anti. Indicate that you are “meh” about Christmas, or that you can “take it or leave it”, and no one will believe you, not really.

2. The Christmas that you were 6 years old, you had trouble finding your shoes when it was time to leave for the 10 hour drive to your grandmother’s house. You nearly cried because you believed your parents when they said the trip would have to be cancelled because of your shoelessness.

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3. You were 12 when the big annual Christmas trip to Kentucky became something to dread rather than look forward to. There was an overlapping church retreat you wanted to go to instead that year. Presents were less exciting than people for the first time ever.

4. By high school, you were dreading Christmas so much that you gave all your friends your grandmother’s address and made them promise to write during the week you were gone. This was 1997; your grandmother wouldn’t have internet for another decade.

5. The first Christmas after you started college, you got presents for everyone, joined in the cooking, and tried to act like an adult. It lasted until the first time your mother ordered you to do something, and you found out that nothing makes you act like a child as much as being treated like one.

6. The Christmas your uncle was home on a brief leave from Iraq, you gave an Oscar winning performance of a person who was enjoying herself. It was so good, there were moments when you forgot you were faking.

7. When you were 27, your cousin and her friend took you to a bar and a drag revue on Christmas night. You had 6 Irish car bombs and didn’t throw up. It’s still the best Christmas you’ve ever had.

8. The first Christmas you didn’t go see your family, the complex was so deserted you felt like the sole human survivor of the apocalypse. While your roommate was away, a cat came to visit. You ended up naming him Beau and keeping him hidden in your room for the next six months.

9. The next time you went home for Christmas was the last.

10. Last Christmas, you were dating someone, and you got the world’s most amazing Christmas package in the mail, complete with a stuffed stocking. You lied and told her you wouldn’t look in the stocking until Christmas morning, but you were too excited to wait.

11. These days, your Christmas traditions involve dropping roommates off at airports. You make hot buttered rum and watch all the QI Christmas specials in a row. Your favorite part is digging out the ornament collection you’ve been working on since you were six and decorating a tiny tree.

12. The really difficult thing about Christmas is that it’s no longer the time of year when everything stops in its tracks for a week. You don’t go new places or see new people. Your life carries on the way it did the week before and the way it will the week after, unless you make yourself stop. And it’s difficult to stop, or see the point in stopping, when you’re alone. Are you happier alone? Usually, you think so. On the whole, you probably are. But there’s no point pretending it’s a normal day, and anyone who tells themself otherwise is selling something.

A Little Pretender

A few years ago, my mother asked me, rather plaintively, “Don’t you have any happy memories from your childhood?”

I get the feeling that most of my friends, to say nothing of the readers of this blog, will be surprised to hear this, but I think that as a kid I was happy more often than I wasn’t. My childhood, considered as an epoch, was not a happy time, but that just meant that the full force of my infant genius was focused on finding ways to make myself feel better. Kids are more likely to succeed at that than anybody else, I think.

It’s easy to forget that I was ever happy. For a long while I’ve been a bit worried that if I acknowledged having ever been anything other than abjectly miserable prior to the age of 18, the Authenticity Police would swoop in and tear up my abuse survivor membership card. And it’s complicated by the fact that the abuse shaped me in ways that meant that the things that made me happy as a child were a little weird. We’ve already discussed how between the ages of 11 and 13 my chief thrill in life was to contemplate how Anastasia Romanov died alone in the snow. So it’s probably not too shocking that at the age of 7, I spent a lot of time pretending to be Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, scrubbing floors.

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(The only true adaption of A Little Princess is the 1986 version. Accept no substitutes!)

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The Other Mother

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When I was two years old, my mother became a born-again Christian.

She’d made friends with a married couple in her apartment complex, who invited her to their charismatic Pentecostal church. They believed in powerful supernatural forces that were at work in people’s everyday lives.

At this church, my mother saw people speaking in strange, inhuman languages. Women became ecstatic and fainted when they prayed. Men cast out demons. They taught her that demons and the forces of darkness took human shape to persecute God’s anointed, and that His children were spiritual warriors, attended by angels, to do battle in the world in His name.

As a child, all I knew about religion was that Jesus loved me. Jesus loved everyone. The devil tempted us to do bad things, but we didn’t have to listen. We could just be good instead. The devil seemed like a weak, silly character to me at that age, like a cartoon villain, easily thwarted by children.

The first time I realized that the devil could do bad things to me even though I had Jesus, I was four years old. I was running from my bedroom down the hallway to the living room, where my mother was sitting. There was a wire clothes hanger lying on the slick tile floor, and I slipped on it. I crashed, hard, and got a goose egg on my forehead. It hurt like nothing I could remember hurting before.

“Why did that happen?” I asked my mother, after she picked me up and hugged me.

“The devil made it happen,” she said seriously.

After that, the world was a slightly more dangerous place. I realized that even the love of Jesus wouldn’t protect me from the devil all the time.

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Anatomy of An Adolescent Rebellion

As my last post probably demonstrated, I was kind of an intense 11 year old. Puberty was relatively kind to me in most outward ways: I didn’t go through any awkward new growth spurts (I’d already been a foot taller than everyone in my class since kindergarten) and my complexion didn’t do anything especially revolting. No, for me, the principle change that puberty brought on was something health class did not prepare me for: it was dissatisfaction, with myself, my life, and the way I fit into the world.

Children are understood to be narcissists, and people a generation or so older than me are especially fond of talking about the entitlement of people my age and younger. It’s sort of like the baby boomer generation realized that it was kind of hurtful when their parents’ stoicism prevented them from expressing love and pride and encouragement, so they compensated by saturating their own kids with daily, hourly affirmations of worth and affection. Then, when those kids grew up and didn’t thrive for one reason or another, their parents took it as a personal insult: “But we did everything right! Unlike our parents. I guess we just loved those kids too dang much, and now they’re unprepared for the real world.”

I don’t know. It’s possible that I’m on to something, or it’s possible that I’m attributing my own fucked-up family dynamics to American parenting trends in general. I do that sometimes.

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A 32 Year Old Attempts Middle School Math

Last week, I decided to start taking math classes through a free online learning course. You ever make a decision as an adult that you know your teenage self would have laughed at you for? Yeah.

I can hardly over-estimate the agonies math caused me in high school. I failed my math classes three years in a row, to the point that my guidance counselor wrote me off as not expected to graduate. I did graduate, and on time, but technically I was never promoted to the 12th grade, which created a lot of amusing confusion for my teachers.

My problems in math (and to a slightly lesser degree, science) had less to do with the subject itself and more to do with the fact that I just wasn’t very good at being a student. I’d gone to Christian schools from kindergarten to eighth grade, where I made straight A’s and B’s with essentially zero effort, but when I transferred to a public high school in 9th grade I discovered that I was about two years behind grade level in every subject. Thanks to the paltriness of my education, I had never developed the kind of study habits that might have helped me get caught up, and both my teachers and parents were oblivious to what was happening, so no one made any accommodation for me. This, plus the fact that I was dealing with serious problems at home that left me little energy to worry about school, insured that I was always an indifferent student, at least until my senior year when I realized that I was in danger of not getting into college.

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