"A thought-provoking account of the role of faith in healing." --Jill Ker Conway, author of True North
Holy Hunger: A Memoir of Desireby Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
In this wrenchingly honest, eloquent memoir, Bullitt-Jonas describes a childhood darkened by the repressive shadows of her alcoholic father and her emotionally reclusive mother, whose demands for excellence, poise, and/i>
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"A worthwhile tale about true nourishment that comes not from [eating] but from engaging on a spiritual path." --Los Angeles Times
In this wrenchingly honest, eloquent memoir, Bullitt-Jonas describes a childhood darkened by the repressive shadows of her alcoholic father and her emotionally reclusive mother, whose demands for excellence, poise, and self-control drove Bullitt-Jonas to develop an insatiable hunger.
What began with pilfering extra slices of bread at her parents' dinner table turned into binges with cream pies and pancakes, sometimes gaining as much as eleven pounds in four days. When the family urged her father into treatment, the author recognized her own addiction and embarked on the path to recovery by discovering the spiritual hunger beneath her craving for food. Holy Hunger is a brave and perceptive account of compulsion and the healing process.
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Starving in the Snow
Late at night, the supermarket is garish and dazzling in the cold glare of neon light. I walk in, trying to look as calm, competent, capable, as possible. I try to blend in, to be unobtrusive, to draw no attention to myself. I'm here on a raid, a heist, and I want no one to notice. I'd wear a hood over my head if I thought I could get away with it. Casually I pick up a plastic yellow basket, choose some yogurt and a loaf of bread. Then, very casually, as if I just happened to think of it, I take a look at the boxes of day-old bakery goods. I flip through them, looking for doughnuts. I act as if it doesn't matter much whether I find any .or not. I'm the only one in this store who knows I'm looking for my "stuff." I'm here to get the goods. I don't have to use a weapon or threaten anyone. I don't have to hold anyone up: I have the money for my drug of choice, which is food. But I'm as hard-core as the guy on the street corner who stops passersby to demand money for his fix.
"Hey, girlie," he calls out to me in a tone at once wheedling and belligerent, "ya got a little something to help a guy?"
I pretend to be deaf. I look away, quickening my pace. I make no eye contact, acknowledge no connection between us-- me, a well-dressed, well-educated young woman; he, an unshaven hustler with no known address. I conceal the truth, but the fact is this: we are compatriots under the skin. We inhabit the same dark land. What differentiates me from the addicts who roam the park and sleep on grates is that my drug is legal, I have the money to get it, and I can still pass as normal.
When I arrive in the supermarket, I sometimes spot a fat person with lonely eyes already picking over the bakery goods. As with the drunks and the junkies, I pretend we have nothing in common. I approach without saying a word, peering over the stranger's shoulder, impatient to get my hands on the boxes of day-old cookies and pies. I suppose I could buy fancy, name- brand cookies, and sometimes I do, but it's the leftovers that tend to attract me most--scraps, cheap goods that go down fast. I disguise my urgent, anxious greed; I keep my face calm, a mask of repose. I hope that anyone looking at me will assume it's only an accident that I--a person of average size, a thirty-year-old woman who looks perfectly normal--happen to be scavenging beside someone so fat. But I never even look around to see who might be watching. When the fat person steps away, I make my move. I finger the baked goods and make my selection as fast as I can, trying not to reveal my hurry. I'm intently focused on the task before me. I keep my head down, eyes forward. In the Star Market at 10:00 p.m., I meet no one's eyes ifI can help it.
Every act of addiction is a criminal act, the most ferocious of criminal acts against the self. Like many crimes, addiction insists on stealth, secrecy, and isolation. And it ends in shame. The addict in the middle of a binge doesn't want to be seen by anyone, neither friend nor stranger, and most of all, not by the addict herself. All authentic human connection must be severed. As I put my basket on the checkout counter and open my purse, I'm elaborately deadpan with the clerk (You see? I came in for yogurt and bread. It's just a coincidence that I bought these lemon crullers; they happen to be boxed by the half- dozen, so that's why I picked up six).
Every con artist guards her secrets.
Then I calmly leave the store, clutching my smffin a brown paper bag. I know better than to break into a run. A getaway must always be calm, unless you're under fire. Safe at last in the car, I sit huddled with the windows rolled up, eating one doughnut after another. If I could shoot up the crullers, I would. If I could mainline them straight into my brain, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Other addicts might try to swig their troubles away, but as for me, I'm going to take a big hit of sugar and shove it into my body. I'm going to blot out the pain any way that I can, as quickly as I can, as thoroughly as I can. I'm going to stuff down my fear, anger, and sorrow until I feel nothing at all, until I'm stupefied and numb.
Tomorrow, maybe, I won't eat anything to speak of. I'll go for a long run, maybe plan another diet. Maybe I'll stop doing this, stop having to stuff myself like this. Maybe tomorrow everything will be different. Maybe.
I've often wondered how I got so trapped. What half-truths did I consume as a child? What lies? How did my desires go so awry?
So much was unspeakable when I was growing up. To the outside world, my family presented every sign of happiness and success. My handsome father was a dashing, high-spirited professor of English at Harvard University, a popular lecturer among the students, the youngest faculty member ever invited to serve as master of a Harvard house. My mother was the beautiful, Radcliffe-educated daughter of a wealthy Midwestern newspaper family. A trustee of Radcliffe, she served on its admissions committee. She faithfully attended Christ Church every Sunday, kept an immaculate house, and, as wife of the Master of Quincy House, was responsible over the years for entertaining thousands of Harvard faculty, staff, and students. As if repeating a refrain that is sung to comfort and to soothe, we four children told ourselves again and again that we were having a happy childhood.
But much of our lives could not be acknowledged or named, neither to ourselves nor to each other nor to anybody else. When I was ten years old, my best friend asked me why my mother always seemed so serious. I couldn't answer her. I'd never noticed it. My mother's almost perpetually somber mood was too familiar, too linked with who she was for me. Even more invisible, more unspeakable, than my mother's depression was my father's drinking. The acute panic before the beginning of classes that could be relieved only by Scotch; the lengthy cocktail hours that triggered a predictable slide into melancholy; the late evenings alone, sitting in front of a blank TV screen, talking to himself and nursing a drink none of this could be noticed or named, much less discussed. A taboo arose among us, all the more powerful because it seemed to come from nowhere, and because it seemed as invisible and essential to life as the air we breathed. Don't say what you see, don't feel what you feel, don't speak, don't ask questions, don't rock the boat.
We are told by clinicians that children who grow up in alcoholic homes never witness or experience real feelings, but only the defenses against feelings. When parents, for whatever reason, can't bear their own desires and fears, they find it difficult to tolerate and respond to their children's feelings in a way that will help the children trust their own inner experience. Such children grow up mastering all kinds of strategies for ducking, dodging, and burying their feelings.
I know I certainly did. I became expert in the art of avoidance. I knew how to be a superintellect, able to rationalize, minimize, and argue myself out of a feeling at a moment's notice. I could be a superachiever too, so busy accomplishing, performing, and proving my worth that I never had to stop and feel my basic loneliness and sense of loss. Sometimes I avoided feelings by focusing on the "rules." I was a perfectionist bent on getting every detail "right," ready to pounce with condemnation on anyone--myself included--who got it "wrong." Sometimes I played the comic, the ever-cheerful, perpetually smiling mascot who made my family laugh. "Look how happy we are!" my grateful family seemed to cry. "No problems here!" Then there were the obsessions I could get wrapped up in as the years went by--smoking, eating, drinking, working, shopping, finding someone to yearn for obsessively, or someone to rescue. All these tactics left me numb, deadened to any vivid feeling, confused about what I really felt, really wanted. There must be an infinite number of ways to avoid the deepest feelings, the deepest longings of the heart.
So who knows what I felt, who knows what I was really longing for, when as a child I would secretly slip a piece of bread into my pocket after lunch. I certainly can't recall any inner voice explaining it to me. Who knows what I told myself? I had no idea what it was--a compulsion, a need, a desire, an unspoken something or other--that caused my small hand to dart out, reach for an extra slice of bread, then slip it quietly, unseen, into my pocket. A secret known only to myself, but not even to me.
Certainly I was not hungry for food. Perhaps it was human contact that I missed. Perhaps there moved within me a hidden yearning to speak my grief about my sad mother, a desire to express my confusion about my volatile and sometimes frightening father, a longing to share a child's anger, wonder, sadness, and joy with another human being. But I could find no one to hear me. None of these longings could even be named. I could not have said what it was that I wanted. All I knew was that I was starving.
And that was the game that I'd play in my room after lunch: I was a wild horse alone in a blizzard, starving in the snow. Back and forth across my bed I cantered and trotted, walked and staggered, slowly dying of starvation, my head bent down, my windswept mane heavy with snow. I was lost in the storm. I was starving and alone. And then--Aha! I found a piece of bread! I nuzzled it. I licked it. Slowly I nibbled at it. The blizzard still roared around me, but now I had a bit of nourishment. I would see how long I could make it last. Maybe I would live after all.
Quincy House was built for adults, no doubt about it, nine stories of brick, concrete, and glass rising on the outskirts of Harvard Square, just a stone's throw from the Charles River. We moved into the penthouse on the top floors of Quincy House right after it was built in 1959. I was almost eight years old. To me, everything about the place was impressive. I was proud to live there. My father must be important, being in charge of all this, so it followed that I was important too. Besides, no one else in my third-grade class had an elevator.
Still, I was somewhat daunted by our new quarters; clearly the penthouse had not been designed with children in mind. A long hallway ran half the length of the eighth floor. It was lined with my father's collection of eighteenth-century prints and opened onto a formal dining room and living room. Beyond the parquet floors and Oriental rugs stretched a gravel- covered terrace with a trellised arch down the center. Who could say how many guests would gather here over the years, indoors and out, their hands reaching for countless delicacies laid out on countless trays, innumerable streams of cocktails easing their way down countless throats, the distant sounds of laughter and impassioned conversation floating down the long hall to the children on the other side of the house? My siblings and I learned, when company came, to smile politely, pass a tray, perhaps, and then disappear quickly behind the door that divided the public side of the house from the private living area. We retreated to the playroom, the library, the master bedroom, or our own bedrooms downstairs on the seventh floor, out of the way of the grown-up world.
I always got the feeling that children didn't quite belong in Quincy House. The front-door buzzer was too high for us to reach, too high, in fact, for the average adult, so that an extra stone step had to be placed on the ground beneath it. Looking back now, it seems to me that something about the whole place was too high for the average adult, no less the average child, and that none of us could quite live up to it. So many of us got lost there, adults and children alike, as if we had not paid enough attention to the map, or the woods were overgrown, the trees too high, the path too dark to see.
The first one of our household to go was the smallest. Early one morning shortly after we moved into Quincy House, I saw our dog fall off the roof. Corky was a Welsh corgi, a short little dog with wiry brown hair and a stub of a tail. He had the run of the terrace, eight floors up. Somehow, in all the bustle and distraction of the move, no one had paid much attention to the fact that the chain-link fence encircling the terrace wasn't finished yet. Corky liked to slip through the hole in the fence and run out along the terrace ledge. Obviously there was a risk that he might fall, but where else could he run? We lived in the city and had no yard. Besides, my father said, the fence would be finished soon enough. Corky was a nimble fellow. He could fend for himself for a while. My parents had more important things to attend to than this one little dog. Unpacking and moving in was only the beginning. My father had lectures to prepare, classes to teach, exams to write, papers to read, hundreds of students to oversee. My mother had a large household to manage; a new staff to hire, train, and supervise; and soon there would be hordes of guests to feed and entertain.
I was standing right beside the ledge when Corky fell. We'd gotten out of bed before dawn to watch an eclipse. A few students had been invited to join our family on the terrace. Corky was running back and forth along the ledge, excited by all the people gathered at this early hour. I saw him take a step backward, as if he meant simply to turn around. I saw the surprise in his eyes when he found no footing. Then I saw him drop over the edge and disappear.
I didn't have the courage to go look for his body, so my father and older sister took the elevator downstairs together. Later they told me that Corky had bent a parking meter in his fall and made a messy landing in the driveway. He was buried in a construction pit behind Quincy House. The library was built over him, as if his broken body had sprouted books.
Our next dog, another Welsh corgi, never went out on the ledge. By the time he arrived the terrace fence was finished, and he stayed safely inside its bounds. Corky the Second, as we called him, didn't fall off the roof. Instead, he went mad. At least, that's what we children were told: He "went mad" and he had to be "put to sleep."
It began innocently enough. Corky the Second was nosing around our playroom one day when he picked up a safety pin in his mouth. Afraid that he would prick his tongue, I reached impulsively into the puppy's mouth to extract the pin. The dog was startled, and he nipped my fingers. It wasn't much of a bite, but I ran off to tell my parents.
That might have been the end of it, but several days later, my older sister got into a fight with my father. Who can say what she'd done to upset him, or whether he was drunk at the time. All she remembers is racing down the hall as fast as she could, down the stairs, into her bedroom, my angry father running after her, Corky the Second barking anxiously at their flying heels. The dog was my older sister's staunchest ally, her dearest friend. My sister fed him every day and brushed his wiry hair, and at night the two of them would curl up together in her bed. Not surprisingly, the dog leaped at once to my sister's defense.
By now my father was furious at my sister and increasingly irritated by the barking at his feet. His anger shifted to the dog, and he chased the puppy under my sister's bed. Although my sister begged him to leave her dog alone, nothing could stop my father when he was in that mood. Getting down on his hands and knees, he peered under the bed. The dog was cowering against the far wall. My father yanked off one of his shoes and, reaching as far back as he could, began slapping his shoe into the darkness, searching for haunches, head, anything to hit. Corky the Second snarled and bared his teeth. When the pounding shoe came too close, he sank his teeth into my father's hand.
My father sprang back, nursing the injury. "That's a mean dog," he yelled. "A mean dog. We'll have to get rid of it. It bit Margaret and now it's bitten me. That dog should be killed."
"You can't do that!" my sister cried. "That's not fair! He was frightened, that's all. He's not mean. He's a good dog. He's my dog. You can't kill him."
But my father was adamant, triumphant. He'd won. The mean one, the mad one, would be sent away and killed. My father would see to it.
My sister went to our mother to plead her case. Mother tried to console her, but there was nothing that she could do. Her husband wasn't about to change his mind. Going along with his wishes seemed the only way to keep the peace.
"Then I'll run away!" my sister said. "I'11 leave this family forever if you kill my dog!"
Her threats and pleas were no use. There was nothing my sister could say to change the decision, nothing she could do. Within the week, our mother scooped up Corky the Second, put him in the car, and drove him off to the vet. The vet was surprised when she asked him to "put the dog to sleep," but he didn't offer much resistance. That was the end of Corky the Second.
We never got another dog after that.
My older sister did run away, as she'd promised, but where could she go? She was only ten. She took the elevator downstairs, walked down DeWolfe Street and across Memorial Drive. There, hidden under the footbridge that spans the Charles River, she sat, as she remembers it, for several hours, timing her defection by her watch. Perhaps it wasn't really that long. To her it must have felt like forever.
She didn't really want to run away, she tells me now; she just wanted to give everyone a good scare. She wanted them to be sorry for what they'd done to her dog, sorry for how they'd treated her. She sat in the shadows under the bridge for what seemed like ages, imagining her mother's grief, her father's guilty face, her two parents worried and upset that she'd disappeared, suddenly aware of how much they loved her, how poorly she'd been treated. She imagined the search parties they would send out, the boats that would scour the river, the people who would come on foot.
After a while she got tired of waiting to be found. She walked home.
What a shock to discover that everything was the same as before. No one had noticed she had gone.
The image of my father and his pounding shoe melts imperceptibly in my mind. My father grows stouter before my eyes; he is aging, balding, suddenly dressed in a suit and tie. As if in a shifting dream, the dog cowering under the bed fades away too, the scene in the bedroom dissolves, the room grows larger, the walls fall back, and I am in an amphitheater. A crowd of men and women ranged in rows listens intently to a man, who is no longer my father but an even more frightening personage who sits at a desk and pounds his fist, pounds his shoe, shouting angry words in an unknown tongue. I can't make out the meaning of the words, but their tone is unmistakable. Protest. Threat. Revenge.
I don't remember if I watched the TV coverage of Nikita Khrushchev visiting the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1960, if I saw the pictures in the newspaper the next day, or if I only heard my parents' worried talk. And yet the image is seared into my mind, because it captures in one moment, coalesced in a nightmarish joining, the menace that secretly paced and prowled within my family and the menace that brazenly stalked the world.
Of course I knew nothing much about politics at the time, nothing about the strategic and political struggles that had been developing in the decades after World War II. But the image of the Soviet premier roaring and pounding before the nations of the world made a strong impression on me. What was the meaning of this moment, of this man? Was he a comic figure, a buffoon, an unpredictable, bombastic zealot whom I could afford to mock? Years later, I saw a picture of Khrushchev, a preposterous portrait really, in an advertisement for shoes. It was the famous shot of him raging, shoe in hand, ready to strike. Above his glowering face someone had written, "These shoes are killing me."
I always find it unnerving that our consumer culture can trivialize anything, that it can take our most potent memories of collective fear and inject them into the marketplace, using them as incentives to buy. But maybe anything can seem funny in hindsight, once the danger has passed. I'm not sure. I do know, though, that back in the early sixties, I saw no humor in Khrushchev's tirade. On the contrary, I saw in it a reflection of the same peril, writ large, that I dimly perceived in my life at home.
It was peril, perhaps, that gave me my first glimpse of what I might do with my life. Surely my task was to stand up to injustice, make peace, bring reconciliation. After all, I was born on October 24, United Nations Day--a fact that seemed to me charged with significance. I drew a time line of my life when I was eleven or twelve, adding, in addition to such personal information as "born in 1951" and "move to Quincy House, 1959," the notation "Dag Hammarskjold dies, 1961." I'm not sure I knew at the time what the life of the second secretary-general of the United Nations meant to me, why it was so important that his life intersected with mine, why I loved so much to stare at the photograph of Hammarskjold and my grandfather, a newspaper publisher, striding together up the steps of the Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. But I do know that I wanted to make peace. I too wanted all the bickering nation-states--of my family, of the world--to find some way to communicate with each other. I wanted to hold my own clan together. I just didn't know how. But with adolescent earnestness, I knew I would try.
The Cuban missile crisis took place in October 1962, the year my older sister and I were sent away, along with a cousin, for a year in a Swiss boarding school. I was in sixth grade, a girl often going on eleven. News of the naval blockade began filling the newspapers and airwaves just weeks after we arrived, shortly before my birthday. The world held its breath. Already desperately homesick, I was now panic-stricken by the rumors of impending war. As the days dragged by, we garnered what news we could from the radio, waiting in suspense to learn if and when the world would end. I'd thrown up the first night that I'd arrived at the school, and now I had to throw up again, whether from flu or sheer anxiety I do not know. Between trips to the bathroom, I lay on my bed and imagined falling bombs. When my older sister sneaked into my room to visit me--students were forbidden to visit anyone whose bedroom was on a different floor--I asked her whether perhaps the bomb had already dropped, and no one had told us, no one had wanted us to know.
"Maybe I'm the first person to be poisoned by radiation," I suggested, looking at her anxiously. "What do you think?"
"I'm sure the bomb hasn't dropped yet," she reassured me. "Someone would have told us."
But really, how could you know for sure? I had learned by then that grown-ups didn't always tell you the important stuff. No one in my family said a word about my father's drinking, my mother's depression, or the anxiety and loneliness that infected their four children. We got by with silence and pleasantries. As far as I was concerned, it was entirely possible that the bomb had dropped already and that, for reasons known only to themselves, the adults had decided not to mention it. Maybe they wanted to protect children from troubling facts, or wanted to be polite.
It was my paternal grandmother's idea to send me off to school in Switzerland. My parents agreed. My father would be on sabbatical in England with the rest of the family, doing research in Oxford. My older sister and I would study French in Switzerland, just as my grandmother had when she was a child. It was years before I learned that my grandmother had been as miserable in her Swiss boarding school as I was in mine. So I wonder why she encouraged two of her beloved grandchildren to be sent to Switzerland. Was it an attempt to replay or repair what had happened to her? Maybe she thought that if she could comfort us, she could salvage her own childhood in some way.
In any case, DeeDee rented rooms nearby in Lausanne, while my sister and I endured our long exile, debating the relative merits of running away, putting up a fight, or gritting our teeth and sticking it out. Every month or so, we would join DeeDee for an elaborate dinner in a local restaurant. She always sent us back to school with large paper bags full of peanut butter and Swiss chocolate. Maybe she thought, maybe I thought, that food would fill the gaps, sweeten the bitter pill.
I remember DeeDee with great affection, the way she'd burst into a room. "Let me take a look at you!" she'd say, gathering me up in her arms and pressing me to her soft bosom, planting loud kisses on my neck. What pleasure I took that DeeDee so delighted in me. Patiently she'd explain the rules of a game called Sir Hingkum Funnyduster, slapping down the cards with glee. When we visited her home in Maine, she'd stir up pots of her legendary "chocolate sauce that hardens," watching in triumph as the thick syrup solidified around a mound of ice cream. DeeDee showered us with presents-- handmade afghans for our beds, cookies, sometimes a pair of earrings. And she welcomed everything, even our most outlandish crafts projects. I remember wrapping a Styrofoam ball in thick pink yarn, braiding eight legs, and sticking on two googly eyes. Voila! An octopus, which DeeDee adored. I remember the paint-by-number pictures she bought for me, and how carefully I colored in the barnyard scene of a horse (brown body, black mane), barn (shades of red), and sky (shades of blue).
How many lonely evenings I must have spent sitting on my bed in Switzerland, unscrewing the lid of the jar of peanut butter she'd given me, spooning it out or sucking it off my fingers; filling up on DeeDee's candy; wondering if she knew how much I missed her, missed my family, how much I wished this food would fill the hole in my heart.
In addition to a smattering of French, I took one other thing home with me from Switzerland: a vow, taken during the Cuban missile crisis, to learn everything I could about the Soviet Union, this mysterious enemy that filled us with such fear. Who was this adversary of ours? What could I find out about this enigmatic, hostile country whose very existence threatened Americans to the core? In seventh grade I devoured a paperback with a lurid red cover, written by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, about the evils of the Soviet Union. I read a tract about the "naked rise of communism." I pored over Nicholas and Alexandra, wondering about the life of the tsar, the daughter who disappeared. I wondered why so many adults seemed able to divide the world so neatly into good and bad, right and wrong. What made "them" so wrong and "us" so right? I puzzled over what connections I might make, what bridges I might build, between these opposing sides. I pondered the fact that a distant relative of mine on my father's side, a cousin at some complicated degree of remove, had served as the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union after the 1917 revolution. I learned that my mother had studied Russian in college. Studying all things Russian became a way for me to express my longing for communication, integration, reconciliation, in a family and a world so fraught with hostility and division.
But my dream of eventually taking on a healer's role in the big world of adults was accompanied by an undertow of panic. I was desperately afraid of bombs. I'd already seen a dog fall from Quincy House. Who knew what else might fall? I spent much of my early adolescence worrying about bombs. The Cold War was at its height. Again and again I would stand on the Quincy House terrace, looking out over the expanse of Cambridge and Boston--the blue tower of Lowell House, the Charles River, the big Coca-Cola sign that flashed night and day, the distant skyscrapers--and see all of it, every last building, person, car, and tree, spread out in smoking ruins before my eyes.
Mushroom clouds and terror filled my dreams. If the bomb dropped, what would I do? Where would I go? Would there be room for me in a fallout shelter? Would I be left outside to die, horribly injured and alone, my skin falling off? Would I be locked inside a shelter, gasping for air, crammed elbow to elbow with strangers?
No one knew when the bomb might fall. It could come at any moment--in the middle of the night, perhaps, when everything was quiet, when everyone in the universe was asleep except for me, and I alone was awake and vigilant, the only one not fooled by the silence, the only one expecting its coming just then.
I knew plenty about silence already: the hush that fell over the dining table when my father had had too much to drink and was launching into a tirade or an off-color joke; the unspoken tension between my parents; the tacit family agreement that we keep up appearances, make everything look normal. I knew about the sudden eruption of my father's anger when he was drunk, the scared flurry to protect myself from his vicious words.
Although I could never have expressed it, I must have sensed that something was wrong. Still, I never worried explicitly about my father, my parents' marriage, or the future of this family. I couldn't bring myself to imagine a danger that was so close to home, already inside its walls. Instead I imagined bombs--an enemy outside, a threat from beyond. Whatever rage I felt, whatever longing I secretly harbored to blow the family charade sky-high, was poured into these imaginary bombs. As was my fear of such an explosion, my desperate desire to protect my family from my anger or from any other harm. I wanted to keep them safe and to guard the fragile life we now enjoyed. Perhaps I already suspected that this uneasy peace couldn't last much longer, that beneath the family facade, all hell was breaking loose.
Beyond the generally placid order of our days, beyond the steady rounds of homework and school, piano lessons and vis its with friends, family breakfasts in the morning, the clink of glasses in the evening, the regular rise and fall of the elevator, I knew that danger was nearby, even "imminent"--a word whose meaning I had lately learned from the public service announcements on TV that told us what to do in the event of disaster.
I was vigilant, on alert, a radar screen ready to pick up the slightest hint of trouble. You never knew when the bomb might drop. It could happen in the middle of a meal, when everything looked normal, when everyone was talking, passing plates, even laughing. I alone had the sense to eat quickly, protein first, so that after we'd rushed to the fallout shelter I'd survive a little longer.
Food was already a comfort to me, a key prop in my inner drama, a source of solace and strength when I felt cut off from the people around me. Or so I thought.
My family moved out of Quincy House the year I entered tenth grade at a boarding school in Maryland. It was the year I learned to binge. I remember the secret thrill of a handful of coins, feeling them jingle in my pocket as I walked oh-so- casually to the vending machine at the foot of the stairs, inserting dimes into the slot, pulling the lever, waiting for the satisfying thump of a candy bar falling into my hand. The thrill of tearing off the paper wrapper and taking the first bite, and the next, the next.
I was fourteen when I left Quincy House and my family-- for boarding school. Somewhere between Boston and Baltimore, I managed to lose my grip. I felt as if everything were slipping away from me, as if I had no ground to stand on, the world having tipped over on its side. Our life in Quincy House was over, a closed chapter. It was as if all of us had suddenly fallen off, had slipped inexorably over the edge of the balcony, like our first little dog. Unlike Corky, however, we landed not in a single pile, but in different places, scattered across wide distances.
I didn't know it then, but the Harvard administration had asked my father to take a leave of absence. He was on the brink of a nervous breakdown, sometimes irrational, often drunk. Over the summer he began training for a post with the Peace Corps. He expected my mother to join him in the fall, but to everyone's surprise--including hers--she found herself unable to board the plane to Bolivia.
My older sister called me long-distance at my boarding school.
"I bet our parents will get divorced," she declared. I don't remember offering any objection, any reassurance. It was too late for that. I knew she was right. The bomb was out of the chute, already falling, on its way down. I don't remember telling anyone at school about the imminence of its fall. Why broadcast the news? Its impact would be felt by me alone, I figured, so why speak of it to roommates or anyone else?
Eventually my mother flew down to Maryland to tell me that she and my father were indeed going their separate ways. She wouldn't have thought it appropriate to tell her child just why it was that she and my father had "grown apart," as she tactfully put it. Even so, it was clear that the marriage was over.
The bomb fell. It had finally fallen, and my world was blown to bits. I was devastated. But not really surprised. I'd been on alert for years.
My mother asked me if I had any questions. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to ask. I had no words. I didn't even know what my questions were.
When she left, I ate. By now I'd discovered that sugar could make me sleepy, dull the edge of any feeling, take away any pain--at least for a while. I took myself off to the candy machine, put my hand on the lever, pulled it again and again. The sweets dropped like tiny bombs into my hands, doing their own secret damage. I wept alone, in the company of peanut bars and chocolate chip cookies. In public, I kept on smiling, kept on studying, kept on making the honor roll.
I began studying Russian as soon as I got to high school. I needed to learn to communicate with the enemy. Like many a schoolgirl, I quickly fell in love. The loops and curls of this alien alphabet thrilled me. So did the guttural vowels, the deep murmur in the throat, the mouthfuls of sibilants. The aesthetics of Russian--the way it rolled off the tongue and sounded so lush to the ear--pleased me no end. What's more, I liked the challenge of cracking its code. I liked being able to decipher paragraphs that to the uninitiated eye were only gibberish on the page. I liked being able to write diaries in a languffge so secret, no one could possibly steal a peek.
There was power to be had in penetrating the secrets of the Russian language, a sense of mastery and control. More control, certainly, than I felt in my own family, where, by the time I got to high school, communication between my parents had entirely broken down. They might as well have been speaking in mutually unintelligible tongues, so opaque had they become to each other, so estranged. Even before my mother told me of the impending divorce, I was beginning to suspect that I'd failed miserably in my self-assigned role as secretary-general of my family. Still, the longing lived on in me, the yearning to create a space where everyone could speak, to open communication, to transform enemies into friends. I wanted to keep it all together--the world, my family, my life. And yet that task seemed increasingly impossible. More and more often I numbed myself, stifling and choking off all my longings, all my feelings, with food.
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Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal Priest and lives in Boston, Massachussets.
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