Mother Said, Nobody Becomes An Artist Unless They Have To

TW: rape. This essay appeared in Yes Poetry, thanks to Joanna C. Valente.

In this life, you will have many mothers.

My mother said she’d kill me if I wrote about her. She laughed, because it was a joke, because of course she’d never actually kill me. She’d just make me wish I was dead.

As an adult, I have written about many kinds of mothers—I have become a mother, myself. But I have left the place in my heart where my real mother lives wild, unexplored, and dark.

I believe that she wants it that way.

My mother, for better or worse, finds her way into my stories. I’ll start a new story and there she is, looking at me over her glasses. She’s a great reader, my mother, perceptive and sharp. She misses Michiko Kakutani’s column in the New York Times and hasn’t bonded to the new book review editor yet. My mother is a critic, like me: she’s impossible to impress.

She doesn’t read my writing. It upsets her too much.

Yet, when I write, she is often the reader I’m envisioning. I practiced my first stories on her, after all. I keep offering her things when I know she won’t take them. I can only make one thing—sentences—and I bring them to her like dead birds, watch her step over them, watch her carefully bury them in the rubbish heap.

I revisited the unidirectional relationship between mother and child when I picked up a battered copy of White Oleander from a free library box this summer. I read the novel in 1999, right before it got selected for Oprah’s Book Club and became a #1 national bestseller. It represented everything that I wanted: everything I wanted to experience, everything I wanted to be as a writer and a person. Janet Fitch and I were alumni of the same college: she graduated in the same class as my father, when he went there. Her prose was fiery, floral, packed with images that dripped like LSD trails. Astrid, the main character in White Oleander was the same age I was when I first picked it up, and as I read it, I felt myself maturing, hardening.

At night, I prayed for a life worth writing about. I didn’t know what I was asking for.

Yes, I got what I wanted.

What I didn’t get was a mother like Ingrid Magnussen: the white haired Viking poet whose bond to Astrid prevails through a decade-long separation. Serving a life sentence for poisoning a lover who jilts her, Ingrid sends Astrid letters from prison. Her sections of the novel, I remember, felt flat to me, and when I first read White Oleander I admit that I skimmed those scenes, flipping through Astrid’s visits to the prison and the strange notes she received from her mother at her many addresses. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those letters were missives from my future.

She writes, “Remember, there’s only one virtue, Astrid. The Romans were right. One can bear anything. The pain we cannot bear will kill us outright.”

When I revisited this novel, I realized that Ingrid was the mother I wanted, back then. She was also the mother I had become.

My teens and twenties were the kind of miserable that breeds artists or suicides. I overdosed on heroin at 18, lost my virginity to a rapist in a Mediterranean hotel, saw a few gunfights, learned how to take a punch. I survived myself, as Astrid did, and those experiences became a patchwork of scar tissue that covered my heart. Like Astrid, my pain protected me from the way the world continued to batter me, the way the first slap will numb your whole face, overstimulate your nerves, so that the next one and the next one feel like nothing, not even when his ring catches your lip, it’s nothing, just impact, and you’re used to that, you know the feeling, you’re tired of it before it even gets going.

When I was 19 years old, I came home from college and went to a party, where someone put a roofie in my drink. Drinks. I remember standing near the bonfire on the beach, surrounded by people I used to know, and then the next thing the whumph of my body hitting the sand, rough hands hauling me up, touching under my arms, my breasts. I remember trying to find my feet as they pulled me down an alley—who did this to me? I stumbled, and then everything was grey, and then everything was black.

I came to with my friend Scott on top of me. It was dark, early morning.

“Scott, are you fucking me?” I said.

He didn’t answer. He hauled me on top of him and continued, although I pushed him back and turned my face away from his kisses. He put his mouth on my breasts. He smelled like leather that has been soaked in speed and salt, dried in the sun. I knew he was injecting—I tried to think about HIV transmission, Hep C, how the barriers of my body had been breached without my knowledge. I could be dying, right now. This could be the thing that killed me.

My voice shrank in my throat. This is my friend, Scott, I said to myself. What had I done to deserve this?

When he was finished, he said, “Be grateful I didn’t cum.”

He hadn’t used a rubber. My physical self woke up one limb at a time. There was the nightmare feeling of panic, and being trapped in a body that is not responsive and can’t run when you need to get away. I eased myself out of bed, onto the floor. It took a few minutes to stand up, and although I was ashamed and wished I could wrap myself in the sheet at least so that he could not see my nakedness, I felt a terrible, tearing heat between my legs and it was more important to get away so I did, and there was some blood on the toilet paper and on my lip where it had split, how did that happen, what did I do? What was done to me?

I put my hands on the bathroom sink for balance and tried to wash my face without looking in the mirror. I didn’t want to see myself as a sick animal. Next to my right hand were the dozen hairpins I’d used when I got dressed up for the party. They were laid out in a perfect line, each one square and symmetrical to the others. Who did that? I scooped them into my palm and held them. More than anything, I wanted my mother.

Scott walked me home, as though we’d just been on a date, and when I staggered into the house my mother saw me and asked me and I told her. It was not my first rape, or my last one, but it is the only one she helped me with. She called the police, and she rode with me in the squad car to the place where they scrape cells from the inside of your body to see if they can find any incriminating DNA. My mother, who said nothing, sat by me and held my hand while the person collecting evidence from me—me, I was a crime scene—slipped a tiny speculum into my ass to swab for semen.

“Wow, yours is so easy,” the person said. “Most people, it takes more than one try.”

I was ashamed. Because my ass opened easily, maybe I was easy, maybe I was built for all kinds of violation. My mother passed me a piece of candy and I put it in my mouth, trying not to cry. We never talked about what happened. I blamed her, of course. I thought of all the things I wished she’d said or done. When I hear other people’s stories about their supportive mothers, I quivered with jealousy. My mother was not like other people’s mothers.

I didn’t understand that, in my moment of pain, she was as vulnerable and scared as I was.

Probably, she wanted her mother.

Nobody came with me to give my statement to the police. I brought a stuffed toy my mother had given me, a pudgy wad with string bean arms and legs and a Muppet nose. There was an advocate sent by some nonprofit, who sat next to me making faces of disgust when I described what I’d experienced.

“Did you say ‘no’?” the detective asked. She was young and pretty, with a high curly ponytail. She looked like she was going to coach a cheerleading practice after this. She made notes on her clipboard.

“I couldn’t speak,” I said.

She put the pen down. “In the state of California, it’s not ‘no’ unless you say ‘no.’”

“It was rape,” I said. “I’ve been raped before, I know what it feels like.”

The detective shook her head and closed the book of mugshots. Scott’s was in there: I’d pointed to him, identified him, and repeated my story into the detective’s tape recorder. I said things I couldn’t say in my mother’s presence, about my drug use and the other people who were there. Exactly the positions. Exactly the feelings. Yet, I resented her for not leaving work to be with me. The detective stood up.

“Are we done?” I asked. “That’s it? You’ll arrest him?”
“You didn’t say ‘no,’” she repeated, and left the room. I was numb. I sat outside the police building for a long time, crying and holding this silly, stuffed animal. The advocate stayed for a few minutes. I tried to put my head on her shoulder and she scooted away, until she was sitting a good three feet away from me on the concrete bench. Then, she also got up and left me alone. I was 19. A child. I needed my mother—where was she?

Ingrid said, “Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment.”

I cried until the bus came, and then I went home and lay down in my bed. When the winter break ended, I went back to college. I have never talked about this, or any of my sexual assaults, with my family. I believed that their silence meant that they did not care what happened to me. I treated myself accordingly. It was not the last time I woke up with someone raping me, or the last time institutional justice failed me. Like Astrid, I was hardening, losing faith. Every time I was hurt, my armor got thicker. I drank more. I was never not ready to die.

But now, when I revisit that memory, all I can think about is how my mother silently watched me bear the pain and humiliation of that exam. It never occurred to me that she was suffering too. I didn’t think about this until I had a child of my own. Loving him introduced me to real vulnerability. I couldn’t be weak anymore: I had someone to protect. For the first time, I understood how my mother felt about me, when I was new. It was an animal feeling. I loved him so much, I could have committed terrible crimes.

The first words I said to him, into his new, perfect ears, were, “If anyone ever hurts you, I will fucking bury them.”

My son has a ferocious mother. Before he existed, I was a victim: at best, someone who would survive. Six rapes, heroin addiction, overdoses. It was the kind of life that pounds you into the ground like a wooden stake. Then, I got pregnant, and my entire outlook on life changed. I had someone to stand up for, so I had to learn to defend myself.

Imagine my discomfort at opening White Oleander again, and seeing Astrid not as a reflection of myself, but as her ferocious, unforgiving mother. I saw her monstrousness and her total disdain for human weakness, but this time, I wondered what she’d experienced that made her so hard. I was learning how to be a single mother, an easy target for unscrupulous men. I knew what it meant to walk around in a woman’s body—the price the world exacted from us from being beautiful. I wondered where Ingrid’s mother was.

Part of being a good mother is letting your child learn to bear their own trouble. I couldn’t be with my son every moment: I couldn’t stand between him and the bully at school. I had to let go of him in small ways, at the right times, and it burned me like coals. I felt like my left hand reached for him and the right one restrained it. At the same time, I went through my own processes. My son saw me messy, tired, crying, out of money, scared. He saw me asleep and awake, laughing and mourning. He witnesses my vulnerability. I think that is the fear of all mothers: that we will raise a child who sees our weaknesses and shares them with the world. We trust them to keep our shortcomings to themselves. Yet, always, they see us and they hear us and our failings make indelible marks on them.

By the time Astrid reaches adulthood, she’s covered in scars, inside and out. She’s been chewed up by the foster system. She’s had many mothers. As I finished White Oleander this time around, I wanted to hug her. Pass her a piece of candy.

“You poor thing,” I’d say. As though she hadn’t just given birth to herself. As though she hadn’t studied, her entire life, how to be a survivor.