“She really did a number on you,” he says. It’s your third session with him and you will spend three years trying to untangle your mother and her influence on your childhood. It’s a kind of paralysis she caused in you. He makes you practice talking back to empty chairs and getting stronger. He calls these “I” statements.
“I want, I think, I feel.”
“You are going to have to practice,” he says.
You are eight and it’s Christmas and she has given you a doll. It’s a witch. A huge stuffed witch like the witch in The Wizard of Oz that rode the bicycle. It would cackle if it could like she does late at night when her meanness shows after too many drinks and she rips you to shreds. Everything you try and do she shreds into little pieces either with her hands or her tongue. She wants you to keep the witch doll on your bed because she tells you it needs to be loved and it was all alone on a shelf and she thought that you could love it and so you have to.
For years you learned the art of accommodation. You become an adept at this.
You learn to put your mother first, always, even when she hurls the darts like barbs.
Years later you sift through your strengths. She stood you on the heating grates in Pasadena for punishment, and your father tells you this in whispers on his deathbed.
“I heard her over the intercom,” he says. “Your Uncle Spence and I were in the living room.”
It dawns on you that it wasn’t the maid who caused the scar on your leg.
When she gets drunk she goes into a rage.
“My only regret is that I didn’t adopt you, honey.”
“Tell the chair,” he says. “You can.”
It’s called the empty chair technique and at first you can’t. He has you imagine she is sitting in the chair.
“I want, I think, I feel.”
You practice for hours before the mirror in order to make statements after the sessions with him. It will take you years to understand why you started writing at age two. You had to learn to write because you couldn’t speak. You look at your childhood later in scribbles and little pieces of art that are leftover in a baby book. He had a mother just like yours and he tells you this while you watch the puppet theatres on the wall. He collects them from all over the world and he assembles them and he likes to write plays.
“I want to extricate myself,” you think later. “From pain.”
White girls are not expected to complain about anything…
Not the girls that come from your class, anyway.
The doll sat on your bed for years in her witchy tarty too-grown-up fashion. Your mother made sure of that. It was a carbon copy of her in that other persona she put on. You were only eight the night she swept all your possessions out the window into the ivy below. She was drunk out of her mind as usual and in the morning she said, “I didn’t mean to,” before she burst into tears feeling bad about it and blamed her friend for causing it.
It takes years to understand the effects of introjects.
They function like soul darts and you have to extract them one by one for the whole rest of your life. What is actually inside of you is a sea of beauty and you know how to express it in art because that was the only language she ever let you speak.
Your mother was a borderlander. A borderline.
Once you are strong enough to confront her at Christmas. You stand next to her in the wing chair she is sitting in and confront her about something like that scar on your leg and she tries to tell you it was Juanita who applied the iron to your leg and she was so worried that she was going to have to have it amputated. You start to raise your voice about something called Kip salve and why she was always asking you to go get it and finally she unfurls herself and she’s holding a glass of Scotch and she stands up and raises the glass above her head and the force of her hand breaks it, she just crushes it right before your eyes and her hand is bleeding and all of a sudden you feel yourself to be no larger than three and you are trembling like a toddler and you are so frightened you have no idea what to do except just stand there and then the spell breaks because suddenly she is screaming “get out,” and you do.
And you are shaking as you start your car, as if you are three but you aren’t. You are forty. But you feel three feet tall again, only stronger.
“See all these presents?”
She had pointed at them and told you she was going to take them all back, and you realized that was what she must have done to you in childhood and that you had had to grow up learning to avoid emotional minefields like she made.
Her only way to communicate her love was by asking you to store pieces of her.
Her furniture, her style, her world.
It’s years after her death and you can finally begin to discard all the things you don’t want anymore.
All of a sudden you can hear Dennis asking you to tell the empty chair again. It was only a miniature Mexican child’s chair anyway. Yellow with brightly painted flowers and a little rush seat.
And you realized he was right.
I want, I think, I feel are the three most important things you will ever learn to say.
“Just keep repeating those like a broken record,” is what he told you.
“It’s your ticket out of the borderlands.”
“borderlands” — copyright 2011 — by Valentine Bonnaire — all rights reserved