A Row of Pickets

Shattered glass at the foot of the small outdoor lamp and my first thought, vandals have hit again. Our house located on a plateau at the top of the hill that runs up from a pub that’s open till late. Especially on Saturday nights when people who have drunk too much and stagger upwards towards their home or wherever they might travel, reach the long stretch of neat pickets in front of our house. 

They decide it’s time for mischief, or so I’ve thought in years gone by. They might rip off a fence picket or pull down the branch of the white cedar on our nature strip. But as I leaned down to pick up the newspaper, which was earlier flung carelessly over the front fence, it must have dislodged the lamp’s protective cover, still intact on the ground, and shattered the globe. Not vandals at all but an accident of aim.

I have been at work on an essay that deals with childhood sexual abuse, incest and eating disorders and it troubles me. The way I have structured this essay, loosely and with a clear storyline, the way I have cobbled together thoughts from random places and the organisation of this essay is as unruly as disordered eating, as unpredictable and troublesome, too much here, too little there. 

Two nights ago, I dreamed that a friend who earlier read an incarnation of this essay and sent back helpful comments on how I might improve it, mostly positive comments, told me that my essay was appalling. The details of the dream have faded, only the sense when I woke up in the morning that I had more work to do. And over the past several days, in between work and other obligations, I have tried to tweak, and tighten, to get to the heart of my story with not much confidence as to whether it works. 

Keep food at the centre, my friend said, so that the reader is clear of my analysis. 

What analysis? 

The way our relationship to food is impacted by our relationships to our bodies.  And our relationships to our bodies come because of how they are treated when we are small. Whether cherished and nurtured or objectified by adults who seek to use their children or other people’s children for their own gratification. Mostly the people who so abuse children have themselves had bodies that have been used carelessly. 

I link the sexual abuse, and more especially incest with these eating disorders because of the connection between what we take into our bodies in the form of food and what we take in otherwise, or what is forced upon us by others who objectify us as commodities at their disposal.

It’s rife, patriarchal culture that uses women as the second sex, that treats children as fodder for their own troubled and tucked away internal children. An imbalance of power. 

Travel back to adolescence to that time when most of us begin to forge identities that take us out of the co-called innocence of childhood. 

One day I walked with my brother to church. This brother was 17 months older than me, and taller. I was fifteen and my body budding with womanly attributes. While his voice had long ago dropped, and he walked surefootedly in a world he seemed to despise. 

This was my favourite brother in those days. Favoured because of the way he looked to me, his neat clear face, resemblance to my uncles on my mother’s side, a full head of brown wide waved hair and a magnificent intelligence. He knew so much. He read so much. He scooped all the prizes at the end of year at St Patricks College and I wanted so much to be like him. Feeble girl that I was. 

This brother told me stories from ancient Greece and Rome, the stories of the Gods of Zeus and Thor and to this day I mix up the Roman and Greek versions of the Odyssey and Homer, of Ulysses and the Iliad because my brother told me the stories randomly, based on whatever he was reading at that moment, and never bothered to put things into the order of nationality. Or it might have been my careless brain that could not order these stories into Greece or Rome. 

It matters now as I try to remember which Greek or Roman god, but the colours of the man who carried the sheep on his shoulders, who pieced the one-eyed Cyclops with a burning firebrand, the one who travelled in the ferry to Hades to rescue Demeter, the dogs with eyes as big as saucers who guarded the entrance to Hades, the River Styx, all these places a mess in my memory. 

Strange then how they meld in my mind with the memory of the day we walked to church. I was thrilled be walking alongside my bigger brother when the thought crossed my mind he might suddenly fall upon me and drag me into the bushes to rape me. 

Nothing he had said, no single gesture from him led me to this conclusion, only my troubled mind that could not make sense of the world I occupied at home with my father’s heavy emphasis on sexuality, the way he leered at my mother, my sister and in time I imagined me, though I steered clear. Here I was in my mind turning my brother into a rapist.

This brother, who as the years passed grew more and more silent. A brother I no longer know. For a time, he too wrote stories built around his childhood experience, but he did not keep it up.

Or did he?

Does he have a cupboard somewhere filled with his writing, or a computer chock a block with memories and thoughts? 

Oh, to be able to access his mind and thinking.

Some structure, some sense to the person he became, this once young man who walked alongside me on our way to Saturday evening Mass. 

2 thoughts on “A Row of Pickets”

  1. The subject of your essay makes me think of referred pain. My wife is always rubbing parts of my back that aren’t sore because, she says, that’s where the pain is coming from. What’s the right way to respond to trauma? I suppose the easiest way to think about it is to move from such an emotive subject as sexual abuse and think about something we can all relate to like death. In my novel ‘Left’ the main character, if you remember, imagines people looking at her in the street, the woman who didn’t know how to grieve right. Why did I cry more when my bird died than I did for my parents? I grieved “in my way” and the grief found its outs but I’m sure most people would’ve imagined I shrugged off their deaths.

    I’ve never understood eating disorders. I enjoy eating well enough but I don’t enjoy being fat so I keep an eye on my weight. When I get close to 13st I start cutting back until the scales hit 12½st. I mean there is a part of my who’d like to just eat whatever I fancy and pile on the pounds but I keep him in check. I don’t think I’m especially body conscious nor have I known anyone who was. Maybe it’s a Scottish thing. We’re a pretty down to earth nation.

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