Only recently have I come to realize that I am so familiar with the feeling of hunger, emptiness, deficiency, and inadequacy that I have come to accept this state as normal; during those rare moments when I am relieved of these burdens, I am so overwhelmed that I cannot help but weep at the brilliancy of color that comes when my hunger is satisfied, the simultaneous joy and terror that flushes through me like a splash of vermilion on wet, white paper. It is not my intention to place blame on my parents for this. I hungered in a family that had plenty; my hunger was secret; my hunger was special. I kept it hidden and told no one; it grew and grew until it became more than I could bear; even after I left home the hunger followed me, grew in me; what was a pressure or hiss became a grotesque and horrifying roar.
I would hear it at night. There was a maple tree just outside my bedroom window that had overgrown and was poking against the side of the house. I had plans to escape via that tree, on the big day when I was to run away from home for good. The branch was within feet of my window, and some of its leaves pressed against the screens, appearing as though they were painted on canvas. When the wind blew, and especially during storms, the leaves battered my windows angrily, over and over; they sounded like snare drums. And it was then that I heard the roar, a distant rumble of a semi truck on the Interstate, headed west, too far away to be heard by my human ears, yet I heard it calling me, over and over.
I was the oldest of three. I adored my two brothers and did my best to protect them from all the Evil of the World as I saw it. Evil was everywhere, and I knew this because I’d experienced it–at school, at home, in the world. I was the first to test the waters. It was my job to keep my brothers from falling into the traps I’d encountered, to shelter them from harm, to maintain purity in their day-to-day dealings, to make sure on all costs that my brothers were free from pain. If one was stung by a bee it was my fault, if one was teased at school I was surely to blame. I considered myself responsible for their lessons to an extent, and if one did poorly I chastised myself. I remember teaching my brother Ned, who was called Neddy, to read, the summer before he was to enter first grade, using large flash cards. We–my parents, brothers, and myself, were traveling across the country to see the world. While the cornfields flew by, Neddy read, “hare,” “dare,” “stare,” “care…” while Philip counted telephone poles, my father drove, and my mother dozed off.
We had plenty of food. My mother made a point of always having meals ready and the refrigerator was stocked–Kosher bologna, milk, fruit, ice cream, and cookies in the yellow plastic cookie box my mother kept on the counter. We had plenty to do; besides school there were lessons and activities of all sorts that kept us busy. We played musical instruments. Spiritually, our lives were plentiful: we attended synagogue and Hebrew school regularly and observed holidays filled with activities that were fun for children. We kept physically fit; we climbed mountains in summer and skied in winter. We had a beloved dog, Joffa, who dug holes under the fence several times a week, holes that had to be filled with rocks so she couldn’t dig there again. We talked, played, experimented, created. And yet I felt empty.
I craved, but my cravings became twisted and deformed. I am reminded of one of the clay pieces I attempted in art therapy groups years later. Like my mental state, the pot became dry and cracked over time. I tried to fill the cracks with slip, but that didn’t help. I remember my hands became as dry and cracked as the clay, and after a while, the pot didn’t fit together right anymore.
Imagine: you are building the Tower of Babel. The tower is progressing well until God scrambles your languages. Not just externally, but internally. Now, you need gloves for those cracked, bleeding hands, but when you try to ask someone to find them for you, you end up asking for a hot, heavy brick. But language, remember, is skewed. Brick means something else in another’s language, so you get handed a screwdriver. You ask for a drink of water, but what you really mean to say is that a whole wall of the tower going to collapse. You get a pat on the back. You excuse yourself, appearing to tie your shoe, and next thing you know the cops come to take you away to the nearest nuthouse.
My cravings worked that way. You see a lot of kids who crave approval from their parents, and they don’t get approval. Maybe the parents are looking the other way, or are overly critical, or even jealous of their kids’ accomplishments. Whatever the reason, the kids go elsewhere for approval, generally to their friends, which may influence how they dress and what music they listen to, but it can also influence which drugs they take and which dangerous activities they attempt. Popular books on weight management tell overweight people that when they overeat, they may in fact not be hungry at all. They may, for instance, be angry or lonely. Twisted cravings can go further than that. When my dog QB died recently, I was left with an unfathomable emptiness and loneliness that I could not handle. I tried to fill the loneliness with material possessions. I spent money, lots of money I didn’t have, on this and that (a radio I didn’t need, a useless pair of audio speakers, an expensive hat, computer mice), some of it was useful; all the stuff was excessive considering my budget.
It is fair to say that I craved love in a family where there was none. I didn’t find love in the refrigerator, or the television–not even Perry Mason satisfied me–or at the dinner table, where my parents read the paper during mealtimes over pot roast and watery gravy; I certainly didn’t find love at Hebrew school, or on the top of a mountain, no matter how beautiful the view, no matter which of my father’s arbitrary 4,000-footer classified Appalachian White Mountains of New Hampshire it was (they all looked alike to me). To make things worse, I did experience little teases of love, enough to show me what love was; I am thinking of a time I rode the chairlift with my father and he shared a Chunky bar with me, one that my mother didn’t know he had–he was allergic to chocolate but ate it anyway–while the snow whirled around us and the wind rattled our ski poles.
What I craved was not simply the provision of material goods, assistance, and fulfillment of needs. What I craved was love.
It is also fair to say that it took me 50 years to figure this out. I spent the first 40 years of my life searching for someone I couldn’t put a face to, something I couldn’t name, a magic word never uttered, a God. My search for love was the undercurrent of my life. I engaged in risky behavior, joined a religious cult, slept around, tried drugs, experimented with relationships, faked a hell of a lot of orgasms–these when I was quite young, and I did these things because I thought, quite unconsciously, that in doing so, I would become closer to the love I craved. It didn’t work. When I was older, I engaged in risky behavior around food and starvation, altering my appearance and body size because I believed that my fat was to blame for the rift between love and myself. I took risks cutting up my arms to purify the road with my own blood, the road that led to love. I even made my cuts in the shapes of arrows. The hospital wasn’t the answer; love wasn’t there. Medication wasn’t the answer. I even took up smoking. It didn’t work, and the Miracle Doctor was always a quack laced with a hefty fee. None of these quick fixes worked. A near-death experience brought me no closer to the love I desperately craved; it only earned embarrassment and more desperation.
Around the time I turned 32, I found my way into a stable relationship. We were rocky people who found solid ground and a place to take root together, and over the years, we grew. We went to concerts, had coffee (I put up with Dunkin Donuts), went to movies; mostly we hung out. I remember the rocky, unpaved parking lot where were caught in his reliable Buick, like a couple of high school kids; by the time we saw the police lights flashing we had very little time to dress. “To be honest with you, officer, we were “parking,” he said. What I had found was love, but the Evil undercurrent was still there. I tried to beat it down, to smash it with two-by-fours, with sledgehammers, finally by throwing my whole body down upon the undercurrent, but it would not quit. In my late 30’s, I became quite ill. I became psychotic.
A reader might assume that I am less ill now that much time has passed. A reader may also assume that because I have such grand perspective on my quest, I must have moved somehow away from all this trouble, and this is true. I am no longer the desperate seeker of love that I once was. The process of stoppage began when I turned 40, and has been one of continual diminishing over the years. At this point I can say that the desperation is near eradicated. I no longer seek love from my parents; my father has passed away, and my mother has never had the will or the ability to quench the thirst I felt, the thirst that, due to my own mental defect, had seeped into my adult life. The hole has since been plugged, not due to any action of myself, or any action of any doctor, medication, or therapy. It was a matter of chance. I am not the great achiever who overcame adversity. I didn’t achieve anything–I just got lucky. The long, wild search for love got called off, the dogs put in their kennels, the headlamps switched off; the roaring ended and only a sweet darkness remained. I have learned to accept the silence. Compared to the maniacal pursuit I had endured, it is a peaceful, lonely, and more temperate way of life.
I believe most people are on similar quests, searching for something; most have no clue not only what it is they need, but they are unaware that they need anything. It is like watching a blindfolded man sort through the shelf of bestsellers at a bookstore. He doesn’t know one book from the other, and madly fingers the covers, searching for clues, but it is near impossible to figure out authors and titles. Once the blindfold is removed, however, he may decide that the book he wants to read isn’t on that particular shelf, or that he doesn’t want to read at all, and walk across the street to a coffee shop where he can enjoy a cup or two, or simply go home, and read another day.
After all, what blindfolded man can make use of a book? As a child, I had no picture in my head of what it meant to be close to another person, because closeness in my family was nonexistent. I didn’t think closeness among humans was possible or appropriate. Parents existed for the purpose of teaching and providing. All of the children outside the family teased me; that was the status quo. My brothers were busy being baby brothers. My role in all this was survival; closeness with another would be a luxury I figured I’d never attain and didn’t deserve to have; most likely it wasn’t even in existence between people. Why did I even think of it? How did it come into my head? Why did I long for it so?
Perhaps it was the occasional glimpse of my mother’s long brown hair as she brushed it in front of her full-length mirror in the bedroom, before putting it all on top of her head in a bun. Perhaps it was the occasional glimpse of her breast as my brother suckled. Or the casual pat on the shoulder my father gave to her while she consulted The Joy of Cooking, or a secret Kosher recipe passed down through the generations. Perhaps I tasted closeness when I read prayers from the Haggadah, not in Hebrew school, but when I’d taken one of our own Haggadoth when the meal was finished and we had all retired, and brought it upstairs to my room to secretly read and study, carefully holding the yellow cover and worn pages, and wished I was a boy.
Let us not forget Camp Kiwanee! When Mary, age 18, plucked me out of a group of giggly girl campers one summer, and took me by the hand and walked with me, I felt for the first time in my life that I was special. Certainly, my grandmother had forced a feeling of distinction and particularity upon me, at least that I was special to her, but I dismissed these remarks as the ravings of a fussy, overprotective old woman who truly didn’t think much of me. But Mary, flowers in her hair, dandelion chain around her neck, not only said I was special and meant it, but accompanying her affirmations I felt elevated in spirit for the first time ever, and I felt my heart join with hers.
To Mary, and only to Mary, I was able to admit fear, vulnerability, uncertainty. I was 12 years old and had never felt closeness to another person, and I was afraid. Mary calmed the crunching in my head, saying, “Julie, you’re growing up, you’re growing up, I know it’s scary.” I knew she connected with my fear somehow, could hush that fear, and I could let her touch something inside me that no one had reached before.
It was not parental love, nor erotic love, nor friendship exactly; it was the love of a slightly older person who guided me through my adolescence during the month of August 1971 and beyond. My parents came to pick me up at camp at the end of the summer, bringing with them a friend of mine named Robin. Robin had learned to play tennis over the summer, with an opponent and a net, and had been tutored at the art museum in Boston, on the urging of her parents. I questioned her, when we had the opportunity, “Who is the person you’re closest to?” Robin replied that she was closest to her father. I was shocked that someone could be close to a parent; I didn’t think that was what parents were for–especially Robin’s father, who was rather opinionated. I remembered that when he got angry, Robin’s father’s bald forehead became shiny with sweat. When I told Robin I was closest to “Miss Mary,” Robin gave me a look of perplexity; she didn’t think camp counselors were worthy of top rank closeness. At least “Miss Mary,” I responded, was against the Viet Nam war and had hair on her head.
She knew all the words to songs I wanted to learn, like “Suzanne,” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “She’s Come Undone” by The Guess Who. She could play guitar a little but wasn’t a good singer; I didn’t mind. I loved her voice; it was the summer of crickets and guitars and sunsets by the lake, and endless singing. It was the summer of gimp lanyards and suede moccasins and archery, and tetherball tournaments and rumors of younger girls crossing their eyes too much and getting them stuck that way, and getting bubblegum–contraband–in the mail, and when the bubblegum ran out, eating toothpaste, for in those days it was not known to be poisonous, so indeed, it wasn’t poisonous at all. And in the midst of all this, I was beginning to grow. I was beginning to appreciate what it meant to be profoundly and lovingly enfolded by the guidance of another human being, guidance that her mere presence spontaneously instilled within me; I didn’t want that summer to ever, ever end. But it did. And nothing was the same after that.