The lottery

It began with that first leaf falling. No one saw it happen, but you felt it in the morning the moment you woke.

A chill, as though someone had left the door open in an otherwise heated room. Tendrils of cold crawled over your skin. And then before you knew it, goose bumps erupted on the surface of your skin. 

When I woke that morning, my sister could not get out of bed. Her eyes were glazed, and she groaned. No school that day so no one was fussed she did not get dressed, but over the course of the morning when my mother came to check the first spark ignited.

Something was wrong.

I bolted. 

Down the road to friends. My sister did not want to join me. An unusual move. Typically, she and I went everywhere together but this day she turned to face the wall when I suggested.

‘Let’s go play with Janice and Lesley.’ These two kids lived round the corner and down the hill in a red brick half house opposite the park. The perfect location for fun. More so because both their parents, who were from Scotland and spoke with the strangest accents, were away at work. Even on a weekend. 

Janice, the elder of the two, even older than meand at ten, I was old, was put in charge of her younger sister. And although they were allowed to entertain visitors in the form of me and my sister they were not to mess the lounge, go into their parent’s bedroom, or leave any dirty dishes unwashed and stacked away. 

Their mother returned every lunch time to check up on them and otherwise they were free to play. By the time I left my sister languishing in her bed it was mid-morning and more leaves had fallen.

Later in the day when the ambulance came to take my sister away, and Janice and Lesley had decamped to my house, I overhead my mother mutter the word ‘polio’.

I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was serious.

As serious as the girl at my school who had to leave in the middle of the day one day. Not because she was ill, but because someone else in her family was.

With TB and it was contagious. You caught it off one another. So it was best for people with TB to be taken away to sanitariums where they could get better if they were lucky.

Every member of their family had to stay at home and be tested to see whether they had the disease, too. Something that caught in your lungs and made you cough and cough till blood came up. 

My sister was just red in the face, and drowsy. Not coughing.

‘A fever,’ my mother said and hoped she’d be okay. We should pray for her.

You prayed for sinners. You prayed for the dead to keep them out of hell, or get them out of purgatory and into heaven. You prayed for the people already in heaven that they might see the rest of us when we joined them.

You prayed for the sick and dying in the same way, so they too might reach that perfect place. Where anything you wanted you could have. 

There were times I longed to get to heaven and other times I was terrified at my prospects of ever getting inside given all the stealing I had done over my ten years. All the lies told, all the times I’d harboured impure thoughts. 

My sister was different. If she did things wrong it was only at my prompting. She was young. God could not blame her for any bad behaviour if she were to die.

I did not want to think about this.

Her bed empty at night and the days and nights of her absence stretched into months and a whole school term passed before I went one day with my mother and two younger kids on the yellow bus though Ivanhoe to the infectious diseases’ hospital in Fairfield.

There was my sister in a bed in a room filled with people, grown up women, and looking for all the world like a queen.

To this day I have wondered why my sister was taken away. Why she was the one whose body was invaded.

How it is that illnesses decide to attack one person and not the next? Why some are born strong and others with weakened constitutions that do not allow them to live long? While others can reach over one hundred years. 

The lottery of life. And one I cannot fathom. But like all lotteries it is one of chance. Hence cruel and unfair.

As unpredictable as leaves falling first from the tree. And which ones last. 

On childhood abuse

It’s ‘impossible to explain to the healthy the logic of the sick.’ Hanya Yanagihara

So we understand from Jude St Francis, a man in his mid-thirties crippled with a disabled spine following a serious car accident in which he nearly lost his life. But that’s not the half of it in his Little Life, along with that of his three close friends, JB, Malcolm and Willem. All of them dogged by life’s troubles, mid twentieth century, but none more so than Jude. 

To read this book is to venture into the world of trauma and child abuse full on. 

We are privy not only to what Jude experiences at the hands of the cruel monks who raised him, presumably in a Franciscan monastery, and gave him his name, as an abandoned baby left beside a dumpster to freeze to death. 

The story continues in sequential flashbacks that pile one on top of the other, of abuse upon abuse inflicted on this young man throughout his early years. We get glimpses of his initial attempts to cope through tantrums and rage, which are only met with more punishment into an adult hood of self-cutting and other deprivations all hopelessly designed to rid him of the burden of his childhood experience. 

His constant insistence he has done bad, unspeakable things when we know that he was subjected to appalling cruelties on his young person. We can see the way they get confused even in his so-called happy times. 

This is not a book for people who can’t tolerate the imagined feel of a knife through the skin, the blade edging deeper, and the blood. There are times when I find myself groaning out loud at the horror of it all. But persevere I must. As persevere we all must in our own little lives, hopefully none as horrific as Jude’s. Though I know that’s unlikely.

Jude is a man who values friendship but is unable to use it fully as he can’t trust that anyone else will not be corrupted by him or even that someone good will not turn bad in his presence. It’s classic trauma, not just the theory but the full impact. 

Yanagihara’s imagination suggests to me she’s been close to these dark places. To know the depths of self-loathing a person can reach. Despite the efforts of Jude’s many friends to reach and help, he cannot get beyond the fundamental belief he is unworthy of love.

This story reminds me of Franz Kafka in his short story Metamorphosis. A boy reduced to a beetle, flat on his back and non-comprehending with disinterested parents, and a dispassionate sister. But I digress. 

St Jude is the patron Saint of lost causes. And Francis was both my mother’s and father’s favourite saint. He is the patron saint of animals. It’s said my father uttered these words before he died, that St Francis was a wonderful saint. Or some such words, but that might have been my mother’s wishful thinking. She was with my father soon before he died. My father was a master at self-loathing, despite his last-minute re-conversion to religion. 

St Jude, Patron saint of lost causes, of hope when all hope is gone.

Self-loathing. I suspect we all know something about it. The voice in your head telling you you’re useless, a blight on the landscape, a disgrace to humankind. Overdoses of shame then swamp you in a fog of self-criticism and the weird relief that comes from writing yourself off, before your conviction that others would instead.

When I was a child I loved Emily Dickinson’s poem:

 I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you Nobody too? 

She makes a virtue of this state: 

Then there’s a pair of us.

Don’t tell. They’d advertise, you know

How dreary to be somebody. 

How public like a frog 

To tell one’s name the livelong June

To an admiring Bog.

And a children’s verse comes to mind. I like to quote it out loud in sing song fashion to highlight the sensation. 

Nobody likes me
Everybody hates me
Guess I’ll go eat worms
Big, fat, juicy ones
Long, thin, slimy ones
Itsy bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms
Down goes the first one
Down goes the second one
Oh, how they wiggle and squirm!
Big, fat, juicy ones
Long, thin, slimy ones
Itsy bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms
Up comes the first one
Up comes the second one
Oh, how they wiggle and squirm!
Big, fat, juicy ones
Long, thin, slimy ones
Itsy bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms
Nobody likes me
Everybody hates me
Guess I’ll go eat worms!

The strange comfort we get from chastising ourselves, not in the modest way of recognising our mistakes and limitations, but in an all-encompassing and massive way that reckons we’re despicable. Despicable Me. Like one of the minions, only worse.

Yanagihara’s words about the logic of the sick appear after Jude in a wheelchair because walking causes him too much pain in his legs, arrives at his apartment after a long day at the office. He’s a whizz bang lawyer in New York.

He lives on the fifth floor but the lift has stopped working. He rings the few friends he’s prepared to call upon but none of them are available. His closest friend Willem, at a party, doesn’t hear his phone ring.

After moments of despair, Jude starts to lug himself up the one hundred plus steps. Dragging his folded wheelchair behind. He collapses midway and tries his friends again.

Half an hour later he drags himself up the final stretch, finally reaches his apartment, gets inside, then loses consciousness. 

When Willem reaches him, Jude’s out cold and drooling. Willem calls Andy, Jude’s doctor and a friend. When Jude wakes up hours later, both independently ask him: ‘What were you thinking?’

Why didn’t he call so or so and so. Why didn’t he wait for Willem to come. Then Yanagihara offers the simple words: ‘impossible to explain to the healthy the logic of the sick.’

So many layers of meaning here. This book is an attempt to explain to all of us who can bear to read, the ways in which the unmitigated abuse of a child can turn the life of even the most gifted into a never ending cycle of self hatred and cruelty. The book makes sense of self destruction in ways I can see more clearly than ever before.

We need books like these, despite the pain they evoke. We need to understand the lives of those so wounded they can never overcome their pain. We need to accompany them on their journeys so we can better understand and try to stop the cruelties that give rise to such lives in the first place.