Today my friend and I talked about how magical memior stories can be. You don’t have be famous, or smart, or interesting. You just have to honestly explain what happened. If I can read your story and understand a little bit about how it might have felt to be you, it’s successful.
I’ve worked up a few projects in the past that are memoir-like, but I’ve never wanted to write a linear one. I don’t think most people care about where my ancestors came from, or the exact hospital where I was born, stuff like that. That’s one of the beautiful things about a memoir: you’re communicating not just through your stories, but through what you chose to put in, plus the order you decide. Bob Dylan’s scattershot biography is a great example of this. He purposely didn’t talk about the significant years, and went deep on the background details of the albums that no one liked. That, in itself, is a choice that tells a powerful story.
So today I wondered what my first story would be. Would I choose my first memory? Maybe a story about how I was as a baby? Would I dive straight into a story from my adult life in order to frame things up?
Wait, I’ve got it. I have two stories that make one, and it’s my memoir story #1.
I knew it was coming. I was instructed to lie down for a spanking. If it was like every other time, one of my parents would cooly yank down my standard red shorts and my underwear around my bottom and smack me hard. Probably 5 or 10 swats each time. I remember writhing around, hot tears, and the awkwardness of my parents finishing and trying to make small talk afterwards. I’d usually just stay in my room sobbing while they ducked silently out of the room.
My parents are logical and smart. There was rarely a sense of them being out-of-control or angry during these sessions. Theirs was more of a paint-by-numbers approach, and the steely determination of two straight-A nerds trying to faithfully follow IKEA furniture instructions. That was the logical way they parented: when your dog is sick, you go to the vet. When you need to change a flat tire, you first get a jack. And when your child is out of control, you discipline them with spankings. Because this is what the books say to do. This is how you fix your child. Everything logical. Everything in its right place. Crying alone.
No one could understand what my problem was. I was impulsive. I was high energy. Everything felt so big, all of the time, so I cried a lot to relieve the crushing pressure on my mind. I often yelled at the teacher in frustration, which meant I was in the principal’s office nearly every day. I got used to the pitying way the other kids looked at me. I realised I was the problem child. At the same time, I could be charming, and there was something charismatic about a bad kid. I did make a few friends here and there despite it all.
I met my first real friend when I was 5. My family was new in town, so his parents must have invited us over to teach us the ropes of suburban Maryland. It only took about three minutes to drive to their house, because he was just down the street from the elementary school I walked to every morning. After going to his house a few times, he cornered me in his room and made me do sexual things against my will. It became prerequisite for playing. Before we could do something I wanted to do, we needed to go into his closet and fool around. I think it happened 2 or 3 times. I hated it, but I didn’t have other friends. Eventually it stopped. I forget how or why.
That was how my life felt in those early years. I was too much to handle, which got me in trouble at home and at school, and I hated being alone with my first friend. But all of that is just a background for my memoir story number one. On this day, it was my dad. And on this day he grabbed a leather belt, which was becoming more common. And on this day, I decided I wouldn’t cry. I refused to give him the satisfaction, and as I prepared for the challenge I felt a flush of satisfaction of setting an audacious goal I wasn’t sure I could reach.
It worked. As my dad hit me over and over, I felt myself go completely limp and inert. I didn’t even moan or sniffle, instead I just waited for him to be done. The pain no longer mattered, because I had won. My mind had found a safer harbour at last. By playing dead, I was born into who I was meant to be.
Years later, my dad told a family friend about how he experienced the beating. He said my stillness “scared him,” and I immediately spat out a mental retort, not daring to say it out loud: “Good.” I was proud of five year old me for finding my own way to fight back against Goliath. I don’t remember the sting of that whipping. But his mind had been sharpened that day. He’d never forget when his kid made him feel powerless. And that’s good.
The balance of power has never shifted back.