Clear-sighted, darkly comic, and tender, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is about a daughter’s struggle to face the Medusa of generational trauma without turning to stone. Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs of the 1970s and 1980s in a family warped by mental illness, addiction, and violence, Kim Adrian spent her childhood ducking for cover from an alcoholic father prone to terrifying acts of rage and trudging through a fog of confusion with her mother, a suicidal incest survivor hooked on prescription drugs. Family memories were buried—even as they were formed—and truth was obscured by lies and fantasies. In The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet Adrian tries to make peace with this troubled past by cataloguing memories, anecdotes, and bits of family lore in the form of a glossary. But within this strategic reckoning of the past, the unruly present carves an unpredictable path as Adrian’s aging mother plunges into ever-deeper realms of drug-fueled paranoia. Ultimately, the glossary’s imposed order serves less to organize emotional chaos than to expose difficult but necessary truths, such as the fact that some problems simply can’t be solved, and that loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean saving them.
About the Author
Kim Adrian is the author of Sock and the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms (Nebraska, 2018).
Read an Excerpt
One day as a child of eight or nine I went to school, sat down in my plastic chair, and proceeded to forget how to write. We'd been assigned a simple penmanship exercise, asked to transcribe a passage from a book into longhand script. I was the teacher's pet that year, and until that bright morning, when my mind seemed suddenly to empty itself out, my cursive exercises had been held up by her as examples of what the other children should be working toward. I took pride in copying the letters almost exactly as they were drawn on the green paper band above the blackboard, albeit with a unique twist or two of my own. I was especially proud of the bold proportions of my capital P's, capital L's, and small g's, b's, and d's. In fact longhand was one of my favorite topics that year, allowing, as it seemed to, a back alley passage to the more adult realm of communication — where style and quickness were practical matters. But suddenly I was at a loss as to what exactly was supposed to happen between the pencil, the paper, and my hand, and I sat staring at the page for several minutes as a silent panic took root inside of me, somewhere behind my lungs, and grew.
After a while the teacher came over to my desk.
"What's the matter?" she asked, and in attempting to respond to what I knew was a perfectly simple question, I found it was not only my fingers but my mouth as well that could not form words.
"Come on, kiddo. You tired or something?" She left without waiting for an answer and walked back to her desk, the tweedy chafing of her slacks, the flat clack-clack of her sensible heels, the only noises in the classroom aside from the steady ticking of the enormous clock above the door and the busy hoarseness of cheap paper eating the soft graphite cores of twenty-five No. 2 pencils.
Eventually, something inside of me clicked — freed up, just a little, just enough — and I began to write, copying the typed text from the book onto the sheet of paper in front of me, my pencil racing across its lemony expanse, filling its blue lines with shimmering threads of silver-black arabesques. Amazed that such a ridiculously easy task had only moments earlier seemed so impossible, I drew a breath of relief and looked at my page. It seemed off somehow, but I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong. The words on my paper seemed weirdly empty, as empty as their typeset cousins had been a few minutes earlier, staring at me from the pages of the book. They signified something, surely, to someone — but not to me. Besides, my work clearly ended before it should have, stopping halfway down the page while the other children were already toiling at the bottom edges of their papers. My words looked bizarre — I knew that, but I couldn't understand why. Still, I figured I'd completed the exercise as best I could and began reading for the next lesson. Glancing up at the teacher, I received a subtle wink as if to say, "That's my girl."
A few minutes later, when she came to collect our papers, she stood for a long time at my desk, staring at my page as if it were not a penmanship exercise at all but some kind of strange animal she'd never laid eyes on.
"What's this?" she said. "You've run all the words together! How can I read this? You've forgotten to put spaces between the words." She laughed then and said, "Or is this a little joke?"
A Latin term meaning, literally, "from the egg," and, less literally, "from the beginning," "from the very start," or "from the origin." But I've found that such things are often impossible to pinpoint.
I could, of course, begin with my own birth, which took place in M — —, New Jersey, 1966: a typical midcentury hospital affair, complete with a spinal block for my mother and, at first feeding, a bottle of man-made formula for me. Or I could start with my mother's birth, a mere eighteen years earlier, since I'm never quite sure whose story this is anyway — hers or mine. It might even make sense to begin with my grandma Ellen's entrance into this world in 1916 somewhere in Upstate New York because my mother's mother was a tragic but fascinating woman, and many of the tragic but fascinating elements of her character informed the equally tragic and fascinating elements of my mother's character, and those elements have informed if not exactly my own character (I'm more of an ordinary type), then at least my deepest narrative urges. In the end, however, the real start, the true egg of this story, probably lies with the first time my grandfather sexually molested my mother, which, according to what she's told me, would have been around 1953, when she was five years old. Or maybe something cracked open and hatched roughly two decades later, the first time she picked me up and threw me down, which for a while was a bad habit of hers, one I sometimes think may have shaken something important out of me — perhaps the ability to decide where stories begin?
Then again, it's possible that the richest and most reliable place from which to begin this endeavor rests, instead, in a happy event — I'm thinking about the first time I met my husband, when we were both in college and he still had all that hair. Or maybe this story begins with the birth of our first child, a girl who's now thirteen years old and likes to paint each of her fingernails a different color. Or maybe, instead, this elusive ovo is actually hidden in the birth of our second child, a little boy who just two days ago lost his first tooth. Yes, something did shift in me then, when Isaac was born — I remember it distinctly. I don't know what to call it, this thing that started giving way (but has never completely gone) right around his birth, though I think it has something to do with being a daughter — with being my mother's daughter.
In those first few days following my son's birth, six years ago now, I spent most of my time simply watching the newness stream off of him. I'd had a C-section, so he and I spent four days in the hospital while things healed. My mother, Linda, visited toward the end of that period, and the first thing she said when she walked into the room was that that I looked weird. She refused to hold Isaac because she was afraid of giving him one of her infections, but she inspected me, as she always does, very closely and at the same time from behind a thick pane of distortion, and what she said was: "Kimmy, you look so weird! So weird! Are you all right?" I wanted to tell her that I'd just had a baby and a not insignificant surgery. I wanted to point out that we were in a hospital room with a brand-new human being — my son — and that he was all there was to talk about, think about, or look at. But she seemed almost oblivious to her grandson's presence and hardly glanced at him. Instead, what she did was to explain, at some length and very high volume without the briefest of pauses (see pressure of speech), why it had taken her so long to visit — something about her car. And then she told me about my sister's birth, which, although it took place, of course, a long time ago, still seemed quite vivid in her mind as she described the protracted eighteen-hour labor that had resulted in the grinding away of the posterior wall of her vagina as well as portions of the anterior wall of her colon.
As she spoke, I watched my son, who was lying in his hospital bassinet with its tall plastic sides, staring intently into the mid-distance while poking first one foot and then the other into the air as if he were testing some kind of invisible, semiviscous surface, the whole time thoughtfully pressing his lips together and then, just as thoughtfully, unpressing them. It made me so happy just to watch him. Actually, all those days in the hospital had been for me indescribably happy. I wanted to tell my mother this, but she was still talking, now explaining how for many months after my sister's birth, she'd leaked fecal matter from her vagina. So I didn't tell her that I was happy. Instead, I watched my son, and even though my mother continued to talk, I no longer listened. I know that doesn't sound like much, but what I'm saying is, it was, because I'd always been the kind of daughter who'd listened very closely to her mother. Very closely.
A good idea, although quite often the very presence of this word in one's everyday vocabulary indicates conditions under which such an act (of acceptance) may prove difficult to implement. In my experience meditation and yoga are of tremendous use, as are homemade baked goods, luxury bath products, and the presence of young children. (See also embarrassingly large collection of self-help books.)
"I just remember the Dairy Queen," says Tracy. We try to talk every weekend, long-distance: Boston to Chicago. Sunlight rakes through the openwork of the lace shawl I've draped across our bedroom window. Irregular polka dots of light scatter over the bed I share with my husband.
"What do you mean, the Dairy Queen?"
"Before we went to the bakery on Sunday mornings. Dad and I used to stop to get ice cream. That's why it took so long."
"It did take a long time."
"Oreo Blizzards. I just remember those. I don't know how you keep all that other crap in your head. All those memories."
"I don't know how you don't."
It's something we often discuss, my sister and I — the different ways we remember our childhoods. "There are worse," says Tracy, and she would know, having taught in a Chicago high school for nearly two decades to students who have crack addicts for mothers and convicts for fathers, kids who get pregnant or shot dead before they're halfway through freshman year. But I, for whatever reason, have always been clear about this: that time, those years — our childhoods — sucked. On this I am adamant.
Of course, we had very different childhoods, as siblings invariably do. For example, Tracy was my father's favorite. I was my mother's. Tracy was barely a year old at the time of our mother's first suicide attempt, while I was three and saw the blood, the razor blade, and the paramedics firsthand. Tracy wasn't quite two when our mother left us, and when she returned, Tracy was four, while I was already six. Beyond that our natural temperaments are in many ways almost opposite. Those temperaments were often parsed by our mother, who liked to say that Tracy was athletic and I was artistic; Tracy good at math, I at English; Tracy practical and happy-go-lucky, I dreamy and oversensitive. Tracy, she often said, was easygoing, but I was incredibly stubborn. If Tracy wanted a lollipop, she'd joke, you could promise to get it for her the next day and never hear about it again. But I have always had (as my mother still occasionally puts it) "the memory of an elephant."
On one of her many cell phones, my mother calls to inform me that I am now her only link to the outside world. This is why, she says, I must do her grocery shopping.
"I can't do your grocery shopping, Mom. I have my own life. Remember? I have things to do."
"You don't understand," she says. "I can't go out of my apartment anymore. I don't know why, but as soon as I step foot out of this place, everything I do gets immediately fucked up. Everything I touch turns into a disaster. I don't know if I just have really crappy karma or what, but everyone I meet seems to get angry at me, and it just works a whole lot better when I don't leave the house."
I've wanted to tell this story for as long as I can remember wanting anything at all. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it's not. I clearly remember waves of that rousing sensation — a kind of primitive narrative impulse — washing over me as far back as early childhood. But this story is complicated in the same way that mental illness is complicated. It has no boundaries. There's no up or down to it. No right or left.
Rooted etymologically in Greek words meaning "almond tonsil" in reference to its tapered and somewhat pendulant shape, the amygdala is a region of ganglia located at the base of each hemisphere of the brain. Considered part of the limbic system, the amygdalae control, in concert with the hippocampus, the processing of memory as well as emotion and for this reason are thought to be the seat of our fight-flight-or-freeze impulses. In people with post-traumatic stress disorder, the amygdalae tend to be enlarged since (according to my mother, who has a remarkable but perhaps distorted knowledge of brain anatomy and whose amygdalae are "big as grapefruits") people with ptsd often experience even the smallest decisions and most innocuous encounters as fight-flight-or-freeze situations.
To be avoided and/or maturely processed whenever possible. When not possible, best used, as per the suggestion of John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), as a kind of "energy."
"All dentists, as I'm sure you know, are vicious psycho-assholes." She describes her dental and medical problems to me over and over, in great detail. David says he doesn't know why I listen. I don't either, except that I sometimes imagine it might help. Imagine that by talking about my mother's "medical" issues, I'm really helping her to talk about what her father did to her when she was a child. I'm pretty sure, though, that she doesn't think of it that way.
Tracy keeps buying them for her, so that by now my mother owns five, maybe six, cell phones. But at the moment only one of them works because in attempting to disable their tracking devices, she broke the others. On my own phone I've assigned my mother a distinctive ring tone. It sounds like a duck, and I rarely pick up when my phone starts quacking. In fact, I almost never touch my own cell phone because on it I frequently find text messages from my mother, and these often contain photographs I don't want to see. Occasionally, these photographs are innocuous — the sky outside her living room window or a flower near her parking space — but mostly she sends me selfies. My mother has always been fond of photographing herself, and the pictures she texts are often dramatically lit shots orchestrated to emphasize her high cheekbones or her large green eyes. I find them spooky. Also, she sometimes sends me photos documenting some of her more mysterious health problems. For example, one night when she was supposed to come over for dinner (she lives just one town away, in a subsidized apartment), she called our home phone a few hours after we'd already done the dishes and put the kids to bed to ask if I'd gotten the pictures she'd sent. "Check your cell phone," she said.
I did, and on it found a series of photographs she'd taken of her mouth. The accompanying text explained: Driving to yr place this happened. Some kind of reaction. Have to turn home. Srry.
In the photos her lips were three or four times their normal size, extremely pink, nearly red, and completely smooth. They looked like enormous clown lips attached to her otherwise gaunt face. Seeing these images, I felt, as I so often do when dealing with my mother, an instant unraveling. Like vertigo, only backward. Instead of a sensation of falling through space, I feel space collapsing inside of me, something shutting down with incredible speed, telescoping, evaporating. I showed the pictures to David, who said, "Don't look at those," but it was too late.
B — —, Massachusetts
The handsome Boston suburb where I live with my husband and our two children has excellent libraries, exemplary schools, a lot of very pretty public parks, and two good bookstores. There are also a few decent restaurants, a yarn store, three great bakeries, and a responsive police force. The children in B — — are generally well behaved. Some of the adults look sour, but this is a problem everywhere. Unfortunately, B — — is barely affordable on my husband's and my combined salaries (David is an architect, while I cobble together a patchwork of teaching gigs and freelance graphic design work).
We rent an apartment off the back of a large house on a busy street. To get to our place, you have to walk down a narrow concrete pathway that's crowded, in the summertime, with azaleas, hydrangeas, pale roses, leggy cherry tomato plants, struggling squash plants, and a raggedy box hedge. At the end of this path is a wooden gate — crooked but functional — and once you pass through this gate, the street almost completely falls away: everything is suddenly quieter thanks to the towering white maples that surround our yard and absorb the city's noise. Chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, and even, occasionally, a wild turkey or two wander through both day and night. Just past the sculpture garden of awkward concrete pilings (made by our landlord in his grad school days) is our porch, crowded with a grill, a table and chairs, potted plants, various racquets, balls, bats, gardening tools, bikes, shoes, and scooters.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet"
Copyright © 2018 Kim Adrian.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note, ix,
The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, 000,