I grew up in a Don’t Tell home, the kind where the father says, “What happens in our house, stays in our house.” That was what my father said, anyway. He wasn’t an easy man to live with: a violent alcoholic, prone to taking his anger out on my mother, and later, me.
I wasn’t supposed to talk about the fights (both verbal and physical) they had, how he chased her down the stairs to the basement, and threw a green glass jar of pennies at her (which missed and shattered on the steps). I wasn’t supposed to talk about my bruises or how I got them, or a slap-mark on my face. My father told me how to lie to my teachers if they asked. There were plenty of taboo subjects: my father’s DUIs, my mother’s bipolar disorder, her moving away to live with her parents in Florida, both of them smoking marijuana; these secrets were not to be shared with anyone.
Sharing my feelings also became taboo. How do you tell your scary father you’re mad at him? or afraid? You don’t. When your mother has been committed to a mental health facility after a suicide attempt, who do you tell that you’re feeling scared and isolated?
If no one knows, no one asks. So you don’t tell, just like you’ve been ordered.
I might have found solace in a diary, but my father started reading mine when I was twelve. There was a joke entry about a sexual encounter with a fictional boy, written by my cousin, who thought my diary needed spicing up. She signed my name to it. The cold fury with which my father confronted me was terrifying. Luckily, I was able to convince him I hadn’t written it. But this event showed me I didn’t have the privacy to discuss my feelings, even with myself.
When I was fourteen, I wrote a poem. I didn’t get in trouble. I didn’t have to defend myself or endure an embarrassing lecture. Maybe it was because the poem didn’t say, “I.” The poem follows:
Newspaper pages in the wind, scattered words,
forgotten by all,
a lost cause—good to no one.
dancing in the breeze
skipping, playing hopscotch
until the wind stops.
are unaware of the sudden death
that comes with the pull of a plug.
A whole world opened up. My writing grew out of my inability to tell, to share, out of my living situation with my father and distance from my mother. I found that I felt better when I wrote, and metaphorical poems became my emotional outlet. I wrote and wrote and wrote. There was no real craft to the poems, I knew nothing of craft: only that I felt miserable and needed some way to get the miserable-ness out. I had found a way to tell.
About to start my sophomore year in high school, I made the transition to living with my mother and escaped my father. She still had her own mental health demons to exorcise, and depressed myself, I filled notebooks with deathly poems and doodles of the Grim Reaper and other oddments (I still recall one drawing, the Acme Box o’ Despair, fondly. I know I have it somewhere!). My friends told me that if I ever published a book there’d likely be nationwide spate of suicides. But I kept writing.
When I went for my undergraduate degree at the University of Connecticut, I went with the intent of learning the craft of writing. In my classes there, I began to tell stories from my childhood I had never told, in creative non-fiction essays and poems like the following:
When she was new she was tiny;
She was so delicate; I could feel her heart
beating in my hand, fast with fear.
A year later, my father found her
in her cage in the basement,
told me she was dead between
mouthfuls of orange juice.
I was thirteen; I didn’t think about the damp
or the dark of the basement; how my father
wouldn’t allow her in my room.
It was my fault; I hadn’t spent enough time with her.
My father told his workmates, said
“Timmy felt bad for you so he drew this,”
poster paper, black marker, RIP on a tombstone
with rabbit ears, a cartoon.
When my father unrolled it to show me
he was trying not to laugh.
I wrote poems about the green glass shards in the new penny jar; about a time my father raised a shovel towards me like a bat, but didn’t swing; about my mother’s repeated attempts to kill herself. I read these poems in the classroom to my peers. It felt good to tell. A weight began to lift.
Just before graduation, I self-published a collection of my work, titled Flowers for the Dead. The book included black and white photographs (many of cemeteries), several poems, two short stories, and an essay about my childhood, comprised mainly of Don’t Tell stories. I titled it “What Haunts Me.”
I had one hundred copies printed, and put them on sale at the college bookstore. Friends and colleagues (I worked at the bookstore part-time) bought the book in support of my efforts. I sold 88 copies and gave the other twelve away.
Those who read it told me what they thought. One co-worker simply said, “You’ve got guts, kid.” Another told me how very sorry he was that such things had happened to me, how he had never known, how I seemed so normal, how I must be so strong. Others came to me with their stories, telling how reading about my experience had made them feel better about, or had helped them confront their own.
I didn’t feel very strong, but I was glad to have helped others.
I dedicated the book to my mother and gave it to her on her birthday. There were things in it she hadn’t known, she told me later. She’d had no idea my father treated me the way he did after she left. We compared notes and giggled about my father’s “King Kong face,” the fierce, red-faced grimace he made when he was furious. She apologized for not being more available to me, and she cried. Out of one act of sharing grew another.
I don’t really know what I was trying to accomplish when I began telling secret stories from my childhood. For a time I wanted revenge: for the world at large to point a finger at my father and call him a monster. Then I began to move past that, to move through writing the experience as a way of dealing with it, of coming to terms. By telling what happened, I enacted standing up to my father for my child-self.
People’s reactions weren’t always what I expected; I don’t know what I expected, but making people feel sorry for me had never been a part of it. I think what I got out of writing those stories was a sense of not being quite so alone, of not having been the only one to experience what I did. By telling, I refused to be solitary and afraid. I told and I wasn’t punished. Instead, I opened up and so did the world.
After graduating from UConn, I served a stint as the editor of a plumbing and HVAC catalog, crafting unglamorous descriptions of toilets and vents. After a year and a half, I quit before it drove me mad and went off to get my graduate degree at Brooklyn College, earning an MFA in creative writing with a specialty in poetry. I left with a manuscript of poems I’ve steadily added to since. That manuscript, now tentatively titled Making Out at the Buddhist Monastery, is currently with a publisher. I’m hoping to see it in print in the next year or two.
As I earned my MFA, I began teaching, and taught for eight different colleges in the greater NYC area for thirteen years, from 2003 – 2016. I taught composition classes, and literature, and creative writing at the university level. Teaching the art of writing and reading brought me closer to literature and the craft. The close reading of texts that I taught students? It taught me as well. I also began teaching creative writing to children through summer camps and volunteering with community centers in an effort to give back—to help kids struggling with their emotions find an outlet like I did. Currently, I do this through Austin Public Library’s Badgerdog program.
These days I’m most interested in writing fiction with themes of monsters, mental health, and death, telling different stories than my own, though with themes like that, they’re definitely still mine. I’m still writing and telling, and the world is still open. I plan on keeping it that way for a long time to come.