Patty Bialak's story begins with her troubled youth, invisible in a home dominated by parental discord, a severely mentally ill sister, and no one to turn to for such simple things as attention, affection, and guidance. She wandered through life without direction and fell into one bad relationship after another. Eventually, she escaped to Europe, where she found a job on a Danish car ferry, discovered love, returned to the United States, married, and returned to college-an event that would place too much strain on her marriage.
After graduating from college, her life changed yet again, influenced by her friendship with a gay man and the love and compassion shown to her by the gay community. She began the slow, challenging process of evolution, moving from adventure to adventure. Her career took off, and she had all the financial success she could have ever imagined, but still she felt unfulfilled.
After another failed marriage, she met a much younger man who introduced her to the world of recreational vehicles. Together, they took off for a life on the road. Although that relationship failed as well, it led her to a solo life on the road and showed her that life is what you choose it to be.
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What Now?A Memoir of Self-Realization
By Patty Bialak
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Patty Bialak
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe Are Not All Created Equal
Here's my story. My reluctance to tell it is not because it's more horrible than the stories of many other more unfortunate souls but because I fear that I'll be defined by my past instead of who I've become and who I'm yet to be. I've put most of my childhood behind me, but now and then, there are little flashbacks that sneak up and surprise me with the power they still hold over me. I learned years ago how to change my focus, to be positive and to let the past go, but maybe the telling of it is the catharsis that will let me put it away, never to be told again, and finally, to never revisit it.
In the beginning, there was World War II, and as so many couples did in those years, my parents met, quickly fell in love, and married. My mother met a man with whom she had absolutely nothing in common—no intellectual connection, no social connection, nothing but the best sex she had ever hoped for. They married just before he shipped out, and of course, again, right along with many women of marrying age at that time, she was pregnant.
Her next decision would set the course of events for the rest of our lives. How could she know what a price she would pay? And how could any of us, my father, my sister, and I, protect ourselves from what was to come? My mother tried to abort my sister by taking quinine, and for the rest of her life would blame herself for my sister's mental illness, and thus, happiness was not something that was allowed in our home. Guilt was at the root of all decisions, and it permeated our home like the smell of a dead rat buried deep in a wall. It was the common belief at that time that quinine stimulated uterine contractions. Although the truth is that quinine has little, if any, effect on those contractions until regular labor begins, that didn't stop the old wives' tale from persisting. In addition, there is no actual scientific evidence that taking quinine when pregnant can cause mental illness in the fetus. But guilt colored all future deeds.
And we were all destined to do penance. I didn't discover why we lived with so much sadness until years later when my father spilled the beans and casually dropped the bomb. "Your mom never got over the guilt of trying to abort Gail. She took large doses of quinine and soaked in hot baths. I was leaving for overseas, and she was terrified of being left behind with a baby. When Gail developed schizophrenia, your mom was convinced that it was her fault for trying to abort her, and she dedicated her life to making it up to Gail." My father made the disclosure as though it was the most normal, run-of-the-mill explanation of how to bake a cake. Just add one cup quinine and two tablespoons hot water, and season to taste with guilt.
So off to war my father went. He was a man with a tenth-grade education who was briefly trained to be a medic and sent to invade North Africa. Our government doesn't dish out its bad news equally. At the beginning of the war, there was no limit to the time soldiers stayed on the front lines, and my father had the honor of serving there for eighteen months. During this time, he lost all connection to his feelings, his humanity, and all forms of emotion. He didn't become physically abusive; his emotional cruelty was more devastating, though. He simply wasn't there for any of us. He did things that were unbelievably cruel—not because he meant to be mean, but because he had absolutely no empathy. He was unpredictable in his meanness and could go from adoring father to cruel monster on a dime. And he did.
When my father returned from the war remote and emotionally unavailable, my mother decided that a baby would solve their problems, that it would give them something in common, make my father intelligent and articulate, and make him love her in the way she wanted to be loved. She hoped that I would fill a hole in her heart. In the late forties and early fifties, divorce wasn't supposed to be an option. Divorced women were social outcasts, and there were no self-help books available to work out all of the frightening options. So, when my father came back from the war, after a year in a VA hospital for "battle fatigue," they made me. I was their "love child," except I didn't fix a thing.
My sister started acting out at a very young age, and when she hit twelve, her schizophrenia was full blown. I was nine and shared a bed with a sister who hallucinated, raved, saw demons and bugs crawling on the walls, and ran around naked, screaming at her tormentors whenever they appeared. By this time, my parents had separated a few times, and each time my mom would empty out the bank account, throw my father's clothes on the lawn, and create some other drama that would scare the wits out of my sister and me. In spite of Gail's insanity, she was still my big sister, and I adored her. She beat me up, humiliated me in public, and did whatever she could to subjugate me, but still, I loved her. We shared this strange world where adults were unavailable and locked in their own world of fear, shame, anger, and frustration. She found a way to get their attention, albeit negative, which left me totally and completely invisible.
At nine, I had no accountability, no rules, and only vague parental ranting when I did something that some outsiders considered wrong. But as long as I didn't bring anyone from the outside into the game, I could come and go and do as I pleased. About this time, my mom's mother died. I believe that is when everything changed. My mother no longer had any parental pressure to guide her behavior. Her mom had been the center of her world, and now she was cast out to sea without a rudder. This is also when my parents divorced. My mom was working full time, and my sister was hospitalized on the locked ward of the Wayne State Mental Hospital on a regular basis. My mom and I dutifully went to visit each visiting day, and that's where I saw what insanity really is. In the early fifties, shock treatment and very heavy medication were the regimen of the day. My sister's brain was fried and drugged, and the friends she brought home were usually her buddies on short leave from the institution. When I saw the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, it felt somewhat nostalgic.
By nine, I started waking up in the middle of the night to walk the streets for hours. I had so much on my mind, even then. I worried whether I would become insane like my sister. I wondered what would become of me if my mother just ran away in one of her angry rages. I was such a sweet-looking innocent that most people didn't bother me. The streets were pretty deserted at three or four in the morning, and interactions with strangers were rare. The police would stop me and drive me home, but they never woke up my mom. They just shook their heads in disbelief that I chose to wander the streets of Detroit in the middle of the night. With my angelic charm, they couldn't resist my heartfelt request for privacy, and they would routinely drop me off at the corner of my block so as not to disturb my family. Wandering the streets was a habit that stayed with me.
I was very isolated and had little adult contact, but I did have a best girlfriend, Juanita. And we spent a lot of time together. We made our own world, as young girls do. We discovered boys, told each other our secrets, and giggled all night when we had sleepovers, which, of course, were always at her house. One day I got ready to ride my bike to her house, and my mom asked me where I was going. I told her, and she said, "Oh, they moved away." Many years later, after spending a lifetime trying to figure out what I did to make them "move away" without so much as a, "Fare thee well," it came to me. My mother thought I was a lesbian.
If my memory serves me correctly, at my last sleepover at Juanita's house, she and I were showing each other how we kissed boys. This was not a sexual experience between us. We were showing off. She wasn't sexual about it, and I wasn't sexual about it. It was show and tell. Apparently, her mother or father must have overheard and been shocked and called my mother. My mother's way of dealing with something of that magnitude was to lie. And now there were none. My loneliness was suffocating. I remember, from that day on, there was an orchestrated push to feminize me. I started ballet lessons. I started acting lessons. And she took away my only friend. Am I more feminine today because of it? I doubt that one's sexuality is so easily influenced.
By the time I was about ten or eleven, my hormones were just starting to kick in. I had bizarre dreams of being kidnapped, tied up, raped, and ravaged. It was always guys on motorcycles who were very similar to the guys my sister was hanging out with. Sometimes it was Elvis. What can I say, other than that I was a creature of the times in which I lived? By the time I was twelve or thirteen, when I went for my walks, I got in cars with strange guys. By some miracle, I wasn't murdered. I never had sex. I was a tease. I just wanted to have some human connection. I didn't understand that I was so disconnected from the human race that this was my feeble attempt to be touched and held, and as misguided as it may seem now, cared for. Although I remained a virgin, I became adept at blow jobs, hand jobs, and rubbing against anything to get that wonderful sensation that I'd come to really want. I didn't know that I was having orgasms. I didn't know what I was doing, but I was driven to do it. Sometimes I'd get slapped around when I refused sex and sometimes worse, but I was Clintonesque in my definition of sex, and I stuck to my guns with a fanaticism that could have easily gotten me killed.
By fifteen, we had moved more times than I can count, and I'd gone to more than ten schools. I was working as a car hop for a local Big Boy restaurant and living as an adult in a world that was a total mystery to me. My recurring dream was going to school and forgetting what class I was going to and where it was and of course, the classic dream of noticing I was naked or having all my teeth fall out, or, frequently, of being paralyzed and unable to move, wake up, or save myself. All these I've since learned are classic. But at the time, they were constant and frightening, and I was convinced that they were precursors to my eventual insanity. I would be insane like my sister, and it was just a matter of time. I waited for insanity to come every day of my life until I was thirty-one, when I finally understood that I was okay. If I wasn't insane yet, I probably wasn't going to be. I look back in sorrow at all those years lost to that secret fear. Even to this day, when I find myself overreacting to some slight or feeling angrier than the act against me might deserve, I wonder if it isn't some ingrained genetic reaction. That's not to say that my behavior throughout my adult life hasn't bordered on neurotic on more than one occasion. But then, who among us can say they've never fallen back on what they learned from their parents when there is no other behavior in their emotional repertoire?
My grades in school were exceptional. I'd been an A student all of my life, and books were the wings on which I could, from time to time, fly away. And then, my parents decided to remarry—well, not just remarry, but remarry and move to California where my father was now living. Oh well, what's a little more change? Nobody was interested in what all this was doing to me. As anyone could have predicted, the happy couple lasted one semester. My poor sister was so out of her mind during this time that I've blocked out most of her psychotic episodes. Then, just as abruptly as we came to California, back to Detroit we went. Unfortunately, the semester in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles produced all A's without my ever opening a book. I gave absolutely no attention to anything going on in school. When we returned to Detroit, I was behind in my classes, now more than half-crazed with adolescence and hormones, rebelling and acting out, and still, no one noticed.
The day I turned sixteen, I quit high school, and the day I quit high school, my mother made me move out of the house. Although I rarely went home, preferring to spend my time with whichever friends' parents were willing to put me up for months on end, my safety net, flimsy as it was, was now officially gone. What was she thinking? Was this a misguided attempt to get me out of the house and away from the influence of my sister? Or am I giving her more credit than she deserves? I'd like to believe she at least thought she was doing it for my own good. And so, there I was, sixteen years old, living in my imaginary world without a single social skill and without any identifiable view of myself other than that of an invisible person more alone than if I'd been dropped on an island in the middle of an ocean.
Initially, I rented a room in an elderly woman's house and started working full time as a waitress at Big Boy's, but it took only a few weeks for me to go back to school via adult education and complete two years of high school in six weeks. I was motivated after the head cook approached me and invited me to work as one of his "girls." He told me, "A virgin is worth a fortune." My intellect and ability to analyze has been my one saving grace throughout my life. No matter how emotionally lost and beaten down by the world I may have been, my brain never stopped processing and analyzing. I thought, I can only be a virgin once, and who gets this fortune? Somehow, I knew it wouldn't be me.
Finally, I turned eighteen, and I was eager to marry. I wanted Ward Cleaver to take care of my every need. For those of you who don't remember who Ward Cleaver was, you may well be much more grounded in realistic romantic expectations than are I and nearly all women of my generation. Ward and June Cleaver were the patriarchs of a sitcom called Leave It to Beaver. The parents were squeaky clean and perfect. They were rational in all things and expected their sons, Wally and Theodore, to be clean and well behaved. The younger son, Theodore, or the "Beaver," as he was called, was the mischievous ten-year-old who explored everything, ignored convention, and lived in a way that every ten-year-old dreamed of mimicking. This fifties sitcom set up a generation of young people to imagine that this was real, achievable, and desirable. My entire adult life has been spent fighting this image in creating my own persona. It has not been easy.
Between my mother's constant drama, and my father's emotional absence and abuse, I was never able to identify what it was I really wanted for myself but rather was left to chase a dream of television fantasy that replaced the very real need for parental guidance. I married a short order cook from the restaurant and was very surprised to find that this was not happily ever after. Sex took about two minutes. For reasons that I couldn't fathom, he had male friends spend the night. They slept on the Murphy bed, and I slept across the room on the couch. I was somewhat relieved, though, since he never wanted sex when he had a friend over.
Very soon after we married, I stopped getting out of bed. I stopped cleaning house. I stopped doing much of anything. I hid the dirty laundry in the closet and ignored the dishes in the sink. I stopped going out. I stopped functioning. Today we would recognize these symptoms as depression. The response I got from my husband was a variety of yelled obscenities, or he'd have a "blackout" and attempt to strangle me. I was smart enough to know that this was a bad thing. The first time, I forgave him. The second time, I started considering ways to escape.
At the same time, one of the wives of one of his overnight visitors phoned me and explained what our husbands were doing. Wow, I couldn't believe men did that. I didn't have a clue. But once I knew, I moved out. I was eighteen, divorced, and beyond lost. Time spent in the marriage: three months.
I passed the entrance exam to Wayne State University with no preparation and no problem. I ended up in a commune just off campus in downtown Detroit, and this is where I first encountered marijuana. Thank goodness there were no hard drugs around that early in the "hippie" movement. And thank goodness I had a major phobia of needles when harder drugs did begin to appear on the scene. There was no high on earth that could motivate me to stick a needle in my body. It was 1965. I was a teenager, divorced, sexually baffled, and afraid of everyone and everything. My car insurance was canceled because divorced women at the time were assumed to be loose. The insurance agent said that I was canceled because the insurance company wouldn't be able to control how many drunken men I would allow to drive my car. Insurance companies haven't improved a lot, but at least this kind of profiling has become a thing of the past.
Excerpted from What Now? by Patty Bialak Copyright © 2010 by Patty Bialak. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 We Are Not All Created Equal....................1
Chapter 2 The L-shaped Room....................10
Chapter 3 Husband Number Two....................14
Chapter 4 I'm a Seaman....................20
Chapter 5 Just Call Me Eliza (Doolittle, That Is)....................28
Chapter 6 The Story of Husband Number Three....................35
Chapter 7 And Then There Was Don....................43
Chapter 8 Remodeling for Dummies....................50
Chapter 9 When Denial is Not a River in Egypt....................56
Chapter 10 The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same....................59
Chapter 11 On the Road....................63
Chapter 12 More Change, More of the Same....................67
Chapter 13 Fears and Tears Leaving Oxnard....................73
Chapter 14 Newport Beach, California—Surviving Armageddon....................79
Chapter 15 Palm Springs and Preparing for Some Real Traveling....................83
Chapter 16 Fear of Reverse....................88
Chapter 17 Mount Shasta to Medford—Falling into a Routine....................92
Chapter 18 Caravanning—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly....................96
Chapter 19 To Banff, Bedlam, and Beyond....................102
Chapter 20 Sometimes It Really Feels Better to Be Alone....................107
Chapter 21 Reunited with My Car without a Direction....................112
Chapter 22 Key West or Bust....................118
Chapter 23 A Letter from the Morgue....................123
Chapter 24 The Family Plot and the Evil of Greed....................128
Chapter 25 The Story of B....................131
Chapter 26 Intimacy....................137
Chapter 27 Debbie, Death, Obligation, and Courage....................143
Chapter 28 Free at Last, Free at Last, Oh Dear Lord, I'm Free at Last....................147
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm happy to review Patty's 1st literary endeavor/achievement ... obviously as a distant friend/acquaintance, I'm biased ... however her 'Memoir of Self-Realization' universally rings true for all seekers of 'self' ... I'm not what one would call a 'reader' but if my interest is peaked, I read ... on receiving the book's release announcement/email, I ordered the book & anxiously awaited its arrival ... I devoured the first 4 chapters and was captured by her prose ... as I read, her voice spoke the words ... mind you, there was a hint of voyeurism involved in discovering more facets of this diamond 'Patty' ... I knew she was adventurous but, I really had no idea ... GuttZee lady, indeed! once begun, I continued, pages & chapters flew by [of course, they're short] ... I laughed, I cried, I cherished shared memories & embraced her growing awareness [people & RVs] ... her writing skill is excellent ... thoughts flow smoothly ... outcomes evolve ... her life's ups & downs, choices made, roles assumed then revised, goals achieved, challenges conquered, changes & adjustments along the way illustrate her growth and survival in 'self-realization' ... her easily communicated & shared story is her truth/wisdom borne from personal experience ... I'm grateful she shared her journey ... I'm so proud to call her friend - she's my 1st 'known' published author ... upon completion I hope fellow readers/future fans will embrace the overriding theme that "everything is still possible" ... live & enjoy life for as long as it lasts for life does indeed go on ... 'it's not over until the fat lady sings'* peace / shalom robt *sorry, but Patty's an opera fan & ending w/a chuckle is so 'me' - she'll understand ...