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A stirring memoir of one woman's mental illness and recovery.
CONFRONTATION, no.76/77, Fall/Winter 2002,
Kelly Cherry (February 2004)
- Northeastern University Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- New Edition
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- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.02(d)
Read an Excerpt
The "memory" of my birth in 1934 grew out of the story my mother repeated so often, I felt myself a conscious witness to it:
"Hold back! Hold back!" cried Dr. Friedson. "She'll tear you to pieces!" I was traveling to life that quickly. When I arrived, and was properly whacked, the doctor lifted me up before her and announced, "A well-knit body!"
"I don't care, I don't care," moaned Mother, "as long as she's out of me."
When my father, who'd hoped fervently for a son, heard the news, "I have a daughter," he snapped.
"You have another one," said the nurse.
"Go to hell!"
But, according to Mother, he adored me. "Don't you remember him kissing your little hands and feet?"
"What? At six months old?"
Now, how in heaven's name could I remember that?
* * *
Little has been passed on to me about my father: Bald, chubby Henry Hebald, the youngest of five sons, came from a long line of Polish watchmakers. Born in Kraków in 1882, he was, despite his lack of schooling, fluent in French, German, Hebrew, and English. His parents and baby sister remained in Poland as one by one his older brothers, reaching the age of conscription, emigrated to the States. Henry was the last to arrive. Four opened separate jewelrystores: one in Brooklyn, the other three within sight of one another on Manhattan's Bowery. The fifth brother, Bernard, unable to make a go of things, turned up at the others' houses and pleaded with them for a job. They offered him dinner instead. "I just ate," said proud Bernard. But couldn't he sweep their stores after hours? No, they couldn't afford it; times were bad. A short time later Bernard killed himself.
The remaining brothers competed fiercely. Each would send his clerk out on trumped-up errands to the others' stores: "Go see how many customers Nathan has." "Go find out what time Julius is closing." The Bowery jewelers worked twelve-hour shifts, from ten in the morning until ten at night, seven days a week. Before he married, my father lived in the back of his store, where he'd take his women to bed. Unfriendly competitors called him "whoremaster."
* * *
My mother, Ethel Miller, was born in 1901 on New York's Lower East Side. Her parents, Morris and Dora, were from Vilna"White Russia," she was certain to point out. With Morris, a garment worker routinely on strike, Dora became a bootlegger. "She chose me as her little lookout," Ethel would boast in her later years. "I was only nine years old." And then she'd tell me the story:
"'Anyone out there?' called Mama, capping the last of the bottles. We couldn't be a second late. When the cop on the beat wasn't looking, we sent them down the dumbwaiter, and up came the empties. We hauled them in the window fast: 'Find the bottle with the yellow tissue paper,' yelled Mama. In it was our money for food. And if the bums cheated us out of it, what could we do? Nothing!" she bristled. Whatever Mother remembered she seemed to live anew:
"When summer came, I used to watch out our tenement window for the girls in white dresses marching to graduation. One day I begged, 'Mama, dress me in white. I want to graduate, too.' But she was bottling the bathtub gin. 'Don't pester me, pester Papa,' she hollered. But my father was praying; I couldn't interrupt him either. I cried so hard Mama raised her hand to smack me, but I was breaking her heart, she just couldn't. Guess what she did."
Her bent body perched slightly forward, Mother's gimlet eye glittered at the memory. "She grabbed the white sheet off the bed, folded and pinned it around me like a toga. Oh I looked like a little queen! 'Go!' ordered Mama. 'Go show off on the stoop.' And there I sat till evening, waving down the strangers. 'Hey! I graduated today.'" Mother sighed deeply.
"What for? You know the rest.... How I quit school at thirteen and took a job sweeping factory floors. Someone had to put food on the table. Me! I skipped three times! I was A-plus in composition! The insults I swallowed. They called me stupid. For what? Every Friday another pink slip." She'd shake her head at the memory, the tears rolling down her cheeks.
Times were so hard, she told me, that her cousin gave piano lessons by day on the same instrument he slept on at nightwithout ever having learned a note! He advertised for advanced students only, whose auditions he'd conduct as follows: "Legato ... portato ... staccato ... shhhhhhpianissimo! Largo ... larghetto ... and fa-la, fa-la-lanot bad, not bad! Once again?"
When Morris was on strike, he and his Orthodox friends would sit around the kitchen table drinking tea and discussing Torah. Never once did Mother speak of him to me. I asked her why.
"He was close to my older sister Fanny. Whenever we misbehaved, he hit her, not me." She sounded jealous.
"But whose fault was it, usually?"
"Mine," she admitted sheepishly. "My father was afraid of me." Afraid of what? That the sole supporter of his family could also speak her mind? When he caught Mother cooking bacon on the Sabbath, he warned her that God would punish her. "Really?" she tossed back. "How?"
"He'll take ten years from your life."
In a snapshot of my mother taken in the summer of '22, she's seated on a park bench, smiling. Impeccably dressed in a full plaid skirt and belted jacketDora made all her children's clothesshe resembles a tender young queen.
She was twenty. Having graduated from factory girl to stenographer, she worked down the hall from Louis Goldman, a handsome young dentist with whom she made a lunchtime appointment. Sweeping in the door, she told him, "Make it fast. If you see a cavity, fill it. Don't scrape me any new ones with your instrument." He looked at her a moment, then laughed. And so began their seven-year courtship.
"Her Goldmankey," jeered Dora, who took refuge from her loveless marriage every Saturday afternoon at the Yiddish Theater, then reenacted the entire play verbatim at home. A superb mimic, she'd switch parts, bounce from chair to chair, and send the family to bed "laughing through their tears." Mother worshipped her. Years later, when Dora asked her to fund Fanny's piano lessons from her secretarial paycheck, and eventually also to cede her dowry, Mother said she didn't mind. "I was pretty, Fanny wasn't. And she was older by a year and a half. She had to catch a husband somehow."
Fanny was gifted at the piano. She was only ten when our relative, the poet and minstrel Eliakum Zunser, asked her to play his songs at a neighborhood wedding. As a young lady, Fanny was too nervous to work; that's what they called it in those days. She tried her hand at a few clerical jobs. But the clatter of multiple typewriters in the narrow, airless offices of the day scrambled her thoughts so badly she couldn't organize her files.
"Several women in our family were born deaf, dumb, and blind," Mother repeatedly told me. "We feared for Fanny's mind. One summer morning Fanny complained, 'It seems to me there's a big hole in the middle of the kitchen floor.' The doctor ordered her to quit her job and swim at the free beach in Coney Island. So the poor thing went by herself every day on the subway. At night we shared the same bed, went together once a week to the public baths." Mother stopped in the midst of her thought. "Don't you ever tell that to anyone."
"You're ashamed of that?" I asked, amazed. "But you were a heroine, you struggled!"
"Just keep your mouth shut, that's all."
Continuing to support the whole family, Mother would come home exhausted, only to find her two younger brothers in bed, staring at the ceiling. When Dora told her the boys were depressed, "If my brothers are depressed," snapped Mother, "it's because they resent me for working."
She was twenty-six when her beloved Louis jilted her for a young lady of means. Fanny had no boyfriend, either. So on Saturday nights, the sisters would stay home and hang out separate windows to cry. One night Fanny blew her nose loudly, and, finding Ethel's eye on her, turned quickly away, then backboth caught in paroxysms of laugher.
Mother did secretarial work for the renowned bowel specialist Dr. Brinkler. Besieged with pleas for nutritional advice from all over the country, he allowed her to answer his mail. She loved her job, and had earned enough for the Millers to move up to the elegant Bronx.
One Saturday, she and Fanny went downtown to choose a wedding gift for a mutual friend. As soon as they stepped into Henry's store, they found it. As Fanny made out the check, bald, smiling Henry sidled up to Ethel. "Aren't you a bookkeeper?" he asked, by which he meant, Can't you write?
"No," she replied proudly. "I analyze sick people's complaints."
"Like a doctor?"
"Like a doctor."
And Henry fell in love. That night, at nine o'clock, he called her: "I had a date I didn't like. I took her home."
"So? Where are you?"
"Downstairs in a booth. Could I come up?"
"I'm not dressed! Neither is my mother."
Dora was ironing in the kitchen, and Ethel waiting in the parlor, when fifteen minutes later the bell rang. Dora peeped out for a quick hello and withdrew to let the lovers get acquainted. Henry began with a kiss.
"What is this?" asked Mother, edging away on the couch. Henry stared at his spats. A moment later he tried again, when she rose and announced regally, "If it was in my mind to see you again, Mr. Hebald, I've changed it."
Highly insulted, Henry opened the closet door.
"No, the other one," Mother pointed. And he left.
"So fast?" asked Dora, racing in from the kitchen.
"He touched me," complained Ethel.
"He touched you!" mocked Grandma. "What are you afraid of? He'll take a chunk out of your hip and not return it? You're twenty-six years old!"
"Want to see me get him back?"
Henry had had the sniffles. So Mother spent Sunday writing him an essay entitled "How to Cure a Cold," signed Professor Miller. They married in 1928. He was forty-six; she, twenty-seven. The night before the wedding, she sobbed inconsolably to her mother. Still in love with Louis, she never liked Henry to touch her. "Go to a whore," she would tell him.
* * *
Soon after my birth, Mother gained fifty pounds. Her neighbors on East Fourth Street would peek in on her at midday, and finding her still in her nightgown and the house a shambles, would chide, "Ethel! You only had a baby!"
"Aren't you breast-feeding? Why not?"
Mother explained that she'd had such a hard time nursing my older sister, she had no milk for me. A colicky baby, Janice had bitten her. I'd be raised by the book: I'd have my bottle on time and not a minute sooner, nor would she pay attention when I cried. It was never too early to teach the difficult art of forbearance.
How was it, having worked for Dr. Brinkler, Mother didn't know that infants can't control their sphincter muscles? Beaten into toilet training, Jani learned much faster than I. My daily "accomplishments" were thereafter compared with hers.
Jan always insisted I was an unusually beautiful child. Four years my senior, she felt by comparison unusually ugly. "Did you know," she reminded me recently, "that Mother never let us crawl?"
"Why not? Was the floor dirty?"
"No, she was crazy clean! Except after you were born, when she let the house go to pot. Ate everything in sight, even your baby food."
She let me cry from hunger, then ate my food? What was wrong? She missed working. Henry forbade it. Instead, he hired our maid Mary, who, when concerned neighbors persuaded Mother to join them for an outing, would lock me in a dark closet before I was one year old. When Jan, sensing something wrong, told Mother, the two kicked Mary bodily out the door. Later they agreed I was not only an unusually beautiful child, but an unusually quiet one, too.
* * *
In the beginning, my father felt only a little tired and had lost his too-hearty appetite. When his complexion began to yellow, Dr. Friedson took one look at him and knew: he had liver cancer. In keeping with the custom of the day, the diagnosis was withheld from him. He rested at home. It was 1937; I was three. Seven-year-old Jan was in second grade when Mother took charge of his jewelry store.
He'd call me often to his room. I'd creep into his bed, where he read to me from his new edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. How he loved to shake his forefinger at me and in singing words declaim, "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit," or "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child." He was in bed for a year. We spent our days together. When his nurse knocked on the door, he'd yell, "Stay out, I'm with my daughter."
I recalled in a flashback twenty years later in a psychiatrist's office that my father had made love to me.
One afternoon my cousin, the sculptor Milton Hebald, then a boy of nineteen, visited Father with his first finished work in hand. The two had been extremely close. Milton was six when his own father, Nathan (my father's brother), was gunned down by thieves at his store. My father, then a bachelor, moved in with Nathan's family and, according to Jewish tradition, was expected to marry his widow. Daddy wouldn't. But he loved to watch little Milton carve figurines out of Ivory soap and drop the shavings on the floor for his mother and older sisters to pick up. Everyone but my father had disapproved his "hobby."
"Well, Uncle?" Milton asked him on his deathbed.
Daddy examined the sculpture carefully. "It's very good, Milton," he said finally, "but carve the 'Hebald' a little bigger."
One day Father overheard the doctor tell my mother, "He doesn't have much time." Soon he was in too much pain to see me. Toward the end, I heard his great shout in the night, "God, don't let me die."
I saw him one last time. "Daddy, what should I be when I grow up?"
I remember our days together as the most idyllic of my life. We did more than make love; we read Shakespeare. I have never, to this day, been able to muster the appropriate rage I'm supposed to have felt. I find it impossible to hate the man whose agonized screams still echo in my ears. He died in September 1938.
Just as his illness was kept from him, his death was kept from me. The day of the funeral, Janice and I were sent to the movies. Later, when I asked, "Where's Daddy?" Mother told me, "Daddy went far away on a long, long trip."
Soon after I got sick myself, and Dr. Friedson was summoned to the house: "Open wideahhhh!"
"Well?" asked Mother.
"She has to have her tonsils out," he announced.
I grabbed onto his pants leg: "Do you want to be my daddy?" I asked. Silent, he looked from Mother to me. I wouldn't let go. I suppose she called me offI don't remember the detailsbut I knew I'd moved them both, and for the first time, savored a feeling of power.
The day Mother checked me out of the hospital, she dropped me at home in a taxi and rode straight to the store. No sooner had I opened the door than Jan hugged me tight. She'd missed me! I'd missed her, too. She didn't know she was holding me so tight. I cried from pain, "Stop!" And she began smacking me on the head with both hands.
Daddy had been gone only a few months when I saw her standing on a windy street, crying. It was winter, and she was alone. She thought Mother didn't love her. Sometimes she'd stutter, and Mother would smack her to stop. Then, in her presence, she'd call me her "little ray of sunshine."
Suddenly, Jani was hitting me hard:
"Why did you use my towel?"
"You did." (Yes, I did.)
She was slapping me on the head with both hands. The quick sharp stings, the stunning shocksI couldn't catch my breath. She took my head and banged it against the wall, then kicked me hard in the stomach. I couldn't stop crying, couldn't tell her I'd made a mistake.
One night in our common bedroom I woke to find her snipping off my eyelashes. After she fell asleep, I tried to stick a knitting needle into her eyeswhen catching it, she aimed it at mine. I was rushed to the doctor's office. "Carol tried to hurt herself," explained Jan. Of course she was believed. She believes it to this day.
* * *
Mother walked from the house to the store, where she worked my father's grueling hours. A Junoesque, Roman-nosed beauty of thirty-seven, her auburn hair swept up in stylish pompadour, she dressed for business every morning in the same mannish suit: khaki one week, brown the next. I'd follow her from room to room, watch her roll on her stockings, struggle into her corset, then fasten it hook by hook. "What's that?" I'd ask. "That child is always following me around," she complained. "That child is always asking questions." But they were vitally important to me!
Soon after, I'd open my mouth to speak, only to lose my thought. On the verge of it again, I couldn't catch it. Again I'd try, and again, opening and shutting my mouth, until Mother screamed, "What is it you want?" Then, "This is you" She mimicked a fish drowning in air. When I lost objects too, she'd cluck, "Just like my sister Fanny." But it was Fanny, in the far-off Bronx, who took me into her arms the week my father died; Fanny, in her egg-stained housedress, who allowed me the blessed relief of tears. Flesh, not words, I wanted.
One morning, I'd found something to do! I was cutting up paper with a pair of scissors. Pleased and proud, I cried. "Look Mommylook what I'm doing!"
"Only crazy people do that," she said.
Silent and forgetful, I began to suck my lip. "You'll get cancer like Daddy," she warned. But I couldn't stop. "Over and over, Carol, like a monkey?" She'd mimic with a crooked face.
With no toys ("What do they need toys for?"), I played with pots and pans while our Hungarian maid, Barbara, ate breakfast.
"Where's Mommy?" No answer.
I wandered from room to room. I looked out all the windows, opened all the doors. I couldn't stop moving, I couldn't stop searching.
Sometimes I'd cut myself for an excuse to bother her at the store. I couldn't tell her the other reasons. Constipated, I was given strong laxatives and often lost control. This made Barbara so furious, she housebroke me like a dog by putting my nose in it and smacking me.
Every morning after Mother left, Barbara would sweep the floor quickly, nervously. She wanted to be done! I grabbed onto the end of her broom. "Pay attention to me!" She hit me with it. I screamed. She hit me again. I screamed louder. Then she pushed me into a dark closet, just as Mary had, and locked it with a key.
Did I bang to get out? I don't remember. My entrance into fantasy was swift. The first is vivid in my mind: A fat lady, living by myself in the woods, I never changed out of my nightgown. Every morning a delivery boy would arrive with a huge bag of groceries at my door. From behind it, I'd hand him his payment and tip. Then I'd eat alone all day long.
I tried to think down the hours. The morning was sharp and clear. Now it was dark and close. I held myself, rocking back and forth, back and forth. I wished, and then believed, someone was rocking me. A sleeve became my father's hand; a silk dress, my mother's breast; a fur coat, my father's chest. But here I must confess, even as I write this, my mind is traveling elsewhere, as it must have then when sorrow split off en route and left only memory charged with longing.
Barbara must have let me out before Jan came home from school. It happened daily; I told no one. Barbara said she'd kill me if I did.
Not yet five, I chose my night dreams too: A bald, chubby man resembling Daddy welcomed me at the circus gate.
"What'll it be tonight?" he'd ask: "A circus or a spanking?"
"Too many bums in the circus," I'd say. I chose the spanking instead. It gave me immense pleasure. Pudgyman did the honors.
So from night's darkness I entered the day's.
* * *
A Hungarian-Jewish refugee, lonely, pockmarked Barbara joined "over twenty-eight" clubs to meet men. Weeknights she'd seek my mother's advice: to kiss or not to kiss? Or ... and then they'd whisper things. I took pleasure listening in. One Saturday morning Barbara took me into her maid's room bed. Peering down her pajama top, I saw a dark, pink nipple large as the cover of our soup tureen. I reached to touch it; she hugged me fiercely. Is it possible this brutal woman loved me? Yes, as one loves a little kitten one beats in rage for yowling. In rage? Why? My needs were too sharp a reminder of her own. I knew that even then.
Now, as I listen to the sounds of my childhoodMother's late night chats with Barbara, Jani in the bedroom shuffling her feet to jazz, my "chopsticks" on the piano, the banging of pots and pansI suddenly remember skipping down the street with Mother, happy in my leggings, en route to my first haircut. We waited as the barber, finishing a wash-and-set, kept stealing glances at me. Finally he exclaimed, "What a magnetic personality!"
"She didn't even open up her mouth," objected Mother.
"She doesn't have to."
On the first anniversary of my father's death, Barbara was serving Mother breakfast, when I saw the memorial candle burning in the window. "What's that?" I asked.
"It's Daddy's birthday in heaven," Mother said. I walked to the window and sang, "Happy birthday to you," then turned, delighted to find them in tears. That night, on a rare visit to synagogue, I asked Mother, "Do you think, if we pray very hard, God will bring Daddy back?" and all but brought down the women's balcony.
If ever an actor's life was preordained, it was mine.
GUN VIOLENCE IN AMERICA Northeastern University Press
The Struggle for Control
By Alexander DeConde
Copyright © 2001 Alexander DeConde. All rights reserved.
What People are Saying About This
Gail Godwin, author of Heart: A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings
Meet the Author
Carol Hebald was an actress for twelve years both on and off Broadway. A former Associate Professor of English at the University of Kansas, she is the author of Three Blind Mice: Two Short Novels and the play Martha. Her poems and short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. She lives in New York City. Thomas S. Szasz, M.D. is Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus, at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Myth of Mental Illness.
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