leaving

[image: Mark Vanhoenacker]

Poor parent-child, and especially mother-daughter, relationships seem to put children at far greater risk for being sexually victimized. … children living with only one natural parent, compared to two, [are] at twice the risk for child sexual victimization…

‘Risk Factors for Child Sexual Abuse’ by Danielle A. Black, Richard E. Heyman*, Amy M. Smith Slep in Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 2001

There are lots of stories I could tell about the neglect of my early years. I was living with my mother, who had many problems, and then when necessary my beloved grandparents would swoop in and I would live with them for weeks and even months at a time. They were my lifelines, and made me who I am today, without a doubt.

My mother tried to commit suicide a number of times, and was hospitalised a number of times too, all before I was six years old. At six years old, six months after my birthday at the country club, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I was sent from Texas (my mother and grandparents) to Virginia (my father and his new family). What triggered this event? I now know it was that my mother had made up two syringes of drugs to overdose — one for her, and one for me. She kept them in her car. At some point she realised that she had to get me out. and she did. I never again lived with her.

I did however visit my mother and my grandparents occasionally. From six years old (the minimum age allowed), I flew between Virginia and Texas alone.

It’s probably not surprising that I eventually developed a fear of flying. By way of confusion around it, I always used to say ‘but I’ve been flying on my own since I was six!’. Little did I know — until much later — that this was precisely why I was afraid. I realised, years and years later, that I was most afraid to fly when I was leaving someone I loved. Somewhere, I still loved my mother, and I certainly adored my grandparents. Many years later, as I tried to tackle this phobia, I realised that this six year old just never wanted to leave.

Here are two extracts from Learning to Survive. One about the grief of flying when I was little, and the second about how I began to break the pattern of fear, after a dramatic and uncharacteristic ‘breakdown’ — and how I began to heal.

***

Flight  

We are standing in the kitchen of their house. I am watching Ommie make dumplings. Somehow she and I are on our own together. I think this is because I am back from Virginia for a visit by myself.

            She has posted me next to her in order that I might learn about the making of dumplings. She has a special wooden dumpling board. She narrates for me:

            ‘First, you break the egg into this dip in the centre. Then – and you’ve got to use the spoon, then your hands – you gradually pull the flour in, little by little, lightly, not holding onto it long, until it comes together – look, it’s coming together.’

            I watch her fingers, brown with age spots, the nails painted with frosted polish as they always are, her rings slipping, knocking together. She pulls in the remaining flour, satisfaction on her face. It is so easy, she’s telling me, to make something out of nothing, to do this for people.

            The dough finished, she rolls it lightly and quickly into a soft tube. The special knife comes out and she slices it in fast, short movements, on an angle. ‘You need to seal the edges,’ she explains, ‘or they don’t cook right.’

            Over on the stove, a big pan boils with chicken broth. She drops the dumplings in one by one. They disappear from view into the simmering liquid. ‘When they’re done, they float to the top.’

            Lunch is now ready. We set the table. Already I feel the familiar melancholy of knowing I will forget this. I will not be able to hang on to everything Ommie tells me. When I get back to Virginia, there won’t be any of this.

Another memory dovetails this. I am six years old again, the youngest age you can travel alone. I have no recollection of who leaves me at the gate. Perhaps it is my mother, but I doubt it. More likely it is Ommie and Granddaddy, after a visit, soon after I move to Virginia. More likely they have driven to fetch me in Virginia, taken me back to Texas, and now it’s time to return.

            I sense that I am smartly dressed: a navy wool coat with gold buttons. My hair is short. I am wearing a dress and patent leather shoes.

            The pretty flight attendant takes me by the hand. Whoever is dropping me off has a discussion with her over my head. I do not know who will be meeting me at the other end, but she does.

            Together we walk out of the terminal and onto the tarmac. The plane is waiting, its engines roaring, the hot air blowing. We go up the steps and find my seat in the front row, by the window.

            It must be a long trip from Texas to Virginia. Especially in those days, at least five hours. Perhaps with more than one stop. I never get off the plane, though. As an unaccompanied minor, I can only disembark at my destination.

            The stewardess is very nice. As is the captain, and all the crew. Mid-flight I go through the private door onto the deck. There I see 180 degrees of blue sky, and the surprisingly small nose of the plane behind which we are suspended.

            I must do some drawings, play some games. I think I remember those puzzles with small lettered squares inlaid. You can move only one square one space, up, down or across, and you try to find a way to put the squares in order, solve the puzzle. There’s a pointlessness to it, making the same limited sense over and over.

            Partway through the flight I get gold wings, or a pin. It is stuck into the lapel of my navy coat. By the end of my first years in Virginia, I have quite an array of these pins from different airlines, an old hand at travelling alone.

            There is, however, on this flight and maybe on every flight, a palpable sadness. As this flight is my first solo one, I know it is here. Perhaps I cry, I don’t know. Perhaps others cry around me. Perhaps the stewardess – and this feels almost certain – perhaps she looks at me pityingly, or with bewilderment. My feet don’t even touch the floor.

            I remember never wanting to leave my grandparents. They cajole and stroke me, reminding me of my bravery, my strength. And I am strong, I am brave: I go. I do not raise a fuss. I do not punish or shrink. I carry on.

            In my father’s house, the feeling is always that Ommie and Granddaddy, and my mother, spoil me. So when I come back to Virginia, the faster I return to their ways the happier everyone seems to be, the fewer silences or exasperated sighs. The less ‘arrogance’ I show, the less separate I feel. The less I talk about where I’ve been or what I’ve done, the less trouble I cause. And so, although over the years in Virginia I am time and again told I talk too much, I learn early to keep anything precious close to my chest, to camouflage; I learn not to speak about anything directly, not to tell the whole truth, not to open some things up.

then, later

I am aware, when R and I leave for London in 1988, that I am in all likelihood enacting my final and lasting escape. But it is one I undertake with real hope, with a sense of adventure, with my eyes open, rather than with an underlying despair, desperation, as before.

            We marry in Norwich in June. My mother attends to walk me down the aisle, and [my siblings] come too, as bridesmaid and usher. Ommie and Granddaddy, by now 80, decide that they just can’t make it. R’s family arrange everything; it is his mother’s last big event before she passes away the following year, and one of the best days of my life. I hardly know anyone in the 120 strong congregation, but it is a loving, generous day – a testament to, and continuing hallmarks of, this remarkable family, who have been my family ever since.

            We settle in London – me working at an estate agency, R undertaking his Masters, and later his PhD, at the Royal Academy of Music. We live in Westbourne Grove, in a huge apartment we have happened upon through R’s godmother, and for two years – without much money and with little real direction — we live in easy harmony. Serendipitously, the flat’s owner is another writer whom we rarely see, as during the academic year she lives in California. During her summers in London however she populates the flat with books, all recently-published, adding to the ceiling-high bookshelves already in every room. In this flat over those first two years, I read Ishiguro, McEwan, more Woolf, Auster, biographies and feminist and literary theory, and much more. Above all, and eclipsing everything else, I encounter Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which frightens me at first to distraction, but which I now consider to have changed my life. This book, alongside Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness — these books – seem to me to capture elements of what I want to do.

             I continue to write in the evenings, prose and poetry – R greets me with a cup of tea each day when I get home, and shepherds me into my room. So in 1989 I make applications to American MFA programmes. I am accepted by almost all of them, but am only funded by two, and choose to start at Purdue University, in Indiana, in the autumn of 1990.

            R goes with me at first, and we settle into an apartment in an old clapboard house with a bleak view of a car park and a gas station. I like Purdue itself however. I like the people there, and I love teaching freshman composition; my mentor is brilliant, and I feel good at it. But my creative work stalls. I feel more experienced than others, and that there is no room for experimentation or risk-taking in the fiction programme. I feel stuck. Nevertheless, R comes to see me in a break, and we decide to press on for a while. It is the first time I have ever lived alone, and I discover, quite soon, that it’s not very good for me.

            For a few years now, I have battled with a fear of flying. As a child of course I travelled alone all over the country, but as an adult, I am terrified. At Purdue, I realise this is a problem, and see a hypnotherapist about it, once. I have no memory of what we discuss or discover, if anything, but the flight home to the UK that first Christmas still looms.

            In the past, the image of a loved one waiting for me on the other end of a trip has been of some comfort – Ommie and Granddaddy, R, a close friend. This time, however, even the knowledge of my beloved husband waiting for me doesn’t seem to help. To make matters worse, the plane is flying with a tail wind, and I am sitting in the back. Time and again the plane swings from side to side, like a kite in gusty weather. I close my eyes and count, endlessly. I must look terrible, because the couple sitting next to me asks several times if I am alright. I know I am not alright, but I nod.

            We have a good, family Christmas, with a visit to the Lake District as usual, and much pleasure in the two new kittens R has just acquired, Kafka and Pushkin. However, as the Christmas holiday draws to a close, and the time to board the plane back to Indiana grows closer, one thought flashes over and over in my mind: I can’t get on it. I see myself staying just where I am, in our bedroom in London, with its view over Westbourne Grove, the sounds of traffic outside, and the winter light along the painted floor.

            But I make myself pack. My arms ache, seeming physically to fight the repeating message: don’t do it. The thought occurs to me that maybe I am having a premonition, that this flight is going to crash. And as soon as I think this, every minute I move closer to departure becomes absurd, almost negligent, like there is a cliff ahead, a sign warning about it, and I am going straight over it anyway. I feel doomed.

            I am not sure why I am unable to admit this fear, these voices, to R. In fact, I do not even hint that I am struggling, which he later mentions with regret; he’d rather have known, of course, have helped. But as it is, I start out to Heathrow with him on a crisp sunny morning in early January nonetheless. I remember travelling around the curve onto the M40, thinking, I could stay here, I need to stay here. And more: this is where I belong.

            I belong here. But we are driving into the multi-storey, we are parking the car. It’s too late.

            As R opens the door to get out, I start to cry. He shuts the door: ‘Are you okay?’

            I’m not, of course, and weep and weep and finally say I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go. He tries to convince me: ‘Things will be better when you get there. You want to do this; it’s the right thing to do.’

            We talk. Each time I settle down and think about getting out of the car, the tears start afresh, and I feel the rising panic, the physical sense of flailing, struggling to be free from something. I can’t breathe.

            Finally, despairing, as I cry on his shoulder, R says, almost crying himself, ‘What do you want me to say? What can I say?’. I sit up, look at him, and say the first thing that comes to mind, knowing as I speak that it is what I need to hear: ‘Say I don’t have to go. Just say I don’t have to go.’

            He holds his hands out in front of him. He shakes his head, bewilderment on his face. And then, as if he is simply repeating after me, he says, ‘Okay. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go.’

            Something deep inside shifts. I remember looking at him, knowing something is over, feeling the weight lift from me. I don’t have to go. I feel a rush of jubilation: I don’t have to go, I don’t have to go!

            And so I don’t go. I don’t even want to set foot in the airport; he goes in and lets the airline know. We lose the flight money, but I don’t care. Later, I phone Purdue and tell them I’m not coming back. I leave them in the lurch, but I can’t bring myself to worry. More than ever, and possibly for the first time, I know what’s really important.

            All the drive back to the flat that day, through the winter sunshine, I feel so light, floating. We are both so happy. In the months that follow, I write my first complete short stories, start a novel, and am accepted onto the MA in Creative Writing at the UEA. It takes me years, maybe even to this moment, to realise that on that day, a lifelong pattern is broken: I do not have to do what somebody else says I must do. I do not have to go places I don’t want to go. I can stay, always, with the people I love most.