That dangerous place…

‘That dangerous place, the family home’. Adrienne Rich.

One twilight, as my brother and I walked towards the church for Saturday evening Mass, the thought crossed my mind, I might not be safe with him. 

The church was a good half hour walk from where we lived, up Cox Street to Robross and then through to Centre Dandenong Road. My brother walked close by, close enough for me to smell his sweat against the neighbouring roses that were heavy with the scent of late spring. 

My brother knew things. Lots of things. He read books on Teilhard de Chardin’s palaeontologic explorations. He knew all there was to know about the Greek and Roman gods. He knew about numbers. 

We did not talk about feelings. We did not talk about our life at home with an unpredictable father who might at any moment lash out. We spoke of the things that existed in the past or across the sea in countries I could only imagine or saw in images from the pile of National Geographics my mother collected from the Old Peoples home where she worked. 

I looked to the ground as we walked. To keep an eye on any bumps in the ridges between pavers that ran across every footpath. Not that I feared tripping but there was a rhythm to our footsteps, a rhythm to the steps we took one after the other that held me. 

My brother told me the story of a Cyclops with his one giant eye, and the way the only chance Odysseus had of getting past him was to take a sharp stick and poke it straight through. 

I saw the blood red wound in my mind’s eye and something of the horror of that moment left me unsteady on my feet. Fearful of the unknown. 

Could my brother become as unpredictable as my father? Could he decide on a whim to grab hold of me and push me into the bushes. Could he decide to treat me like an object there to give him pleasure? 

I did not know how, only that men preyed upon the bodies of women to feed their lustful appetites, or so the nuns taught us. And as women, we needed to be careful not to lead them on. 

But this was my brother, and brothers and sisters were different. We had a sacred bond. We left each other’s bodies alone. We did not even notice one another’s bodies, though my older brothers had taken to calling my older sister fat. They called her ‘compost heap’, as if she was full of all the rubbish people threw out to rot in piles and in time feed to their gardens. 

I saw my sister likewise, as fat, not because she was but because her body was changing, much as my own was firming up. The dresses I wore in grade six were too tight around my waist and I grew worried about my increasing height. I was taller than my mother by then and feared I might become a freak and grow as tall as my tallest brother and people would peer at me, at this unsightly thing, a tall girl whom no one would ever want to marry. 

There were girls taller than me in my class at school, but their height matched their shapes and they held themselves well, as though they knew they were ready for the world and would not grow any taller. They would stop then and prepare themselves for womanhood, while I was still a scrawny though thickening insect and my brother in my imagination had become a lizard with a long tongue who might soon swallow me whole.

Such thoughts when they slipped into my mind were troubling for their ferocity, for the way they left me breathless, as if they were accurate, even as I knew my imagination had travelled into overload.

On the cusp of summer, the twilight extended through to our arrival at church. As we walked through the door, I saw shadows on the wall as the sinking sun behind us left pink smears across the skyline. 

Everything was infused with the celestial light of in between times, between darkness and light and we were shifting from that space of seeing things with clarity into blurred images of uncertainty. 

I knew nothing in those days about the unconscious or the way things might sneak into our awareness. ‘Beta elements’ as the analyst Wilfred Bion describes, unprocessed experience from past trauma that sits inside a person’s mind and can erupt at unpredictable times. 

I cannot say for sure now why those times were so unpredictable, only they were, as unpredictable as when a person drinks too much alcohol and their usually steady mind slips into a fug of paranoia and delusion. They no longer feel safe and trusting and can lash out at the ones around them, the safe targets, like wife and children, as in the case of my father.

And these beta elements exist in all of us. Usually, we keep them in check. But there are times – in between times when twilight descends, or when the moon is full and there is too much brightness on an otherwise dark night, or when a person alters their brain chemistry with alcohol or drugs, or grief or rage or an excess of emotion – when those undigested elements are shot into the atmosphere. 

And any small and vulnerable creatures in their sights are swallowed whole. 

2 thoughts on “That dangerous place…”

  1. I like the idea of beta elements although the poet in me would opt for the term cud. Chewing over things is a common enough expression but, like many similar terms, I doubt many of us think about what precisely goes on during the physical act of rumination. I have to say the process sounds most unpleasant. My sister is six years younger than me—three years younger than our brother—and so, for all my childhood, I barely noticed her. I took little interest in my brother too to be fair. I never really got to know my sister until I was in my early twenties and, surprisingly, we had a good relationship and could open up about most things (more things than my brother and I felt comfortable discussing) but, sadly, not everything. We haven’t spoken in over twenty years and I won’t pretend I don’t miss her on occasion—more than I do my brother—but there’s nothing left to ponder and no nourishment in the past.

  2. You’re a first born, Jim. In my view first borns tend to adopt a different approach to life from those of us middle born and last. They had a time in their lives, however brief, when there was not so much competition. Though of course family chronology is only one aspect and not to be taken too concretely. Other things can be far more influential on how we turn out. Thanks, Jim.

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