written 4/21/2007 – (as I work on book writing August 19, 2011 I realize this must have happened when I was 8 before we left the log house the 2nd time my parents had rented it. This needs to be rewritten — )
JOHN AND THE CHERRY TREE
How could I have an internal working model of attachment when I had no attachments? Not to people – maybe if they had been moose.
Remembering a cherry tree, “I Think I Can,” at the log house in John’s bedroom, and the letter J for John – written by the boy who liked to make Zs on things – for Zorro.
She wanted confessions from me for things I didn’t do. I remember being in bed in John’s room. It stood as you walked in the door on the right, across from the window that faced the front of the log house. His modest plain dark brown dresser stood to the left inside the door, and has his little turtle in a plastic bowl with its little plastic palm tree, brown trunk, Kelly green top mimicking leaves.
Sharon must be taking a nap in the bigger room next door, for I am being punished at this moment in my brother’s bed. I see a flannel quilt. Tan with blue and red cowboy hats on it, hooked together by gold twits of rope. I am studying the horses and the horse shoes scattered throughout the pattern when my mother opens the door and enters the room saying, “Sit up, Linda.” She doesn’t have her mad voice on, which surprises me and I relax a little at this unusual sound.
Someone had written the letter J on the inside of a children’s book, what appeared to be a capital without the line drawn across the top. I had been accused of doing this crime, but the punishment had grown more severe when I denied the act. I had not written the J in the book, therefore it was impossible for me to admit to her that I had.
She talked to me of how George Washington had cut down a cherry tree with a sharp little ax in his childhood, but unlike me, when confronted with his actions he had supposedly stated words that were evidently carved into history, “I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.” Her lecture continued about how I should also tell the truth, and why was I lying to her? She had in her hands a copy of the book “The Little Engine that Could” which she proceeded to read to me, offering her own ongoing comments throughout. “You can be like this little engine that could, Linda. I know you can! You can try your hardest and tell me the truth. I will let you get out of this bed immediately if you tell me the truth. Come on, you can do it!”
Her speech was truly an inspiration, both in terms of its content and in terms of its unusual form of punishment-reprieve declaration. But I was not taken in by it, though I had no particular thought other than a sort of stunned incomprehension of even the existence of a possibility that I was not telling the truth, for I knew I had not written that J without a line on top inside whatever the book was she referred to.
After what she evidently considered an adequate time had elapsed for me to come forward with my own version of “I chopped down the cherry tree,” when I spoke no word but continued only to look at her with eyes freshly swollen red with tears, she called to my brother, John.
“John, come in here please.” She showed him the page with the J marked in it and asked him, “Now John, did you write this J in this book?” “No,” he of course replied. To which mother’s response was, “John, please go get a piece of paper,” which he did. “Please show me how you write the letter J.” Well, of course, or naturally, or expectedly, or however you might want to consider it, of course his J had a line on top. “Thank you, John. You may go now.” And out he went. To me she said, “Well, Linda, what do you have to say for yourself? Your brother’s name starts with a J. He has written his name many many times and he should know exactly how he makes his letter J.”
I have no idea who put the J in the book, but it is entirely possible that John had begun to make that letter J and simply had not finished it. It might have also been possible that an unnoticed intruder had entered our house and so defaced this obviously prized possession of a book. I did not know anything except the truth that I had nothing to do with it.
The gist of what followed would have been an escalation to her anger as the “sweet, kind, reasonable, caring, concerned and patient” mother that had first entered the bedroom disintegrated into the familiar mother who began to scream at me as she slapped my face and arms, “You are a liar! You know what happens to liars! You are a terrible and selfish girl! You are more trouble than all the other children put together! You are trying to get your brother in trouble for something you did! You are evil! You just want to make my life as difficult as you possibly can, and you are succeeding!”
When she finally left the room and slammed the door, I heard her say to the rest of the children in the living room. “All of you leave your sister alone. She is a bad apple, and one bad apple spoils the barrel. I don’t want any of you even speaking to her, do you understand me? If I hear you say so much as a word to her I will wash your mouth out with soap. I mean it! I don’t want to have to tell you again.”
I was left alone with my misery.
I guess I was stubborn, though she didn’t call me that this time. No matter what the cost or consequences, it just simply never entered my awareness that I could concede or admit that I had done something that I had not. THAT would have been a lie, though I didn’t even progress far enough to identify this twist of affairs.
But no matter how long the duration was for this particular alleged infraction, no matter how hard she hit or slapped me, no matter what harsh and cutting words she flung my way, there is something else that must be particularly important about this memory, for it lies shining in my pathway as I look backward through the times of my childhood. What is it? What is it that is sticking my mind about this memory when I was 6? Is this an example of a METAMEMORY?
I keep hearing, “Speak to me! Speak to me now! I have a million other things to be doing! You are wasting my time!”
But still, I cannot leave this memory. I cannot turn away from this room. If this is a metamemory, I suspect that it contains within it a meta-awareness. Something more important happened here this day than just the abuse and violence. That was by far the common nature of my childhood. So what is it? I go in for a closer look.
Maybe at the instant I watched my brother write the letter J with the line on top I felt betrayed. He had the power at that moment, to save me. If he had written the “immature” J, why didn’t he tell mother that? Was he afraid of her turning her rage on him? Not likely that would have happened. So what is it?
I could be wrong, but as I continue to write the tears are beginning behind my eyes. I knew I didn’t write that J. I would have absolutely trusted my precious and cherished big brother who I worshipped as if he were my god, who I had loved absolutely since my birth, to tell the truth. And at this very moment, he reneged on the silen agreement that we’d had as he assumed the role of being the only person available from my birth who looked into my eyes and who saw me and loved me. Who reached me and touched me. Who knew me. He who was my protector. He had shown me by the shining in his eyes as he looked at me when I was an infant that I was shiny, too.
And at this instant of the writing of the letter J that light went out and I was engulfed in darkness. Without him, I was completely alone.
I did not have the ability to conceptualize that maybe he never wrote that J in the first place. I have no idea who else could have done it. My mother continued to remind me over the years that I had defaced her precious childhood copy of Raggedy Ann and Andy when she gave it to me to look at when I sat on the potty chair before I was 2. In her mind I had deliberately destroyed that book in order to personally injure and insult her. Hence in my mind the logic of her believing that it must have been I who had defaced this book with this letter J, which as I remember it was nearly an inconspicuous mark on some blank space between printing and picture on this book in question.
My mother would have drudged this book crime of mine at this time the same way she always dredged any crime from the past into the present when a beating was in order or in progress.
But this is where the hope of healing lies. As I write this and I cry and my stomach tenses and my body remembers the pain of this day, these echoes of what my body is telling me, the resonations between this me of the past and this me in the present tell me the truth about why this memory remains. The emotional memories can be this clear because the body holds onto them, the brain holds onto them, and they never go away as long as we are alive – for as long as we live.
Where there’s pain, it’s like another little piece of the plumbing was connected back then and back there. All these “mislead” painful connections that can destroy us from our inside out because they both ARE inside us and ARE us. They are the fabric we are made from.
There’s nothing my mother could have ever done to me – NOTHING – that could have so devastatingly altered my inner (though unconscious and hence unknown) world at this point as did this perceived betrayal by my adored and trusted brother John. He abandoned me as surely as if I’d been a tiny kitten he had let go of over the open hole of the deepest well – no string attached to guarantee only my partial fall – and hope of an eventual retrieval. At that instant that he wrote his letter J on that piece of lined tablet paper, he let go of me.
Of course I had no context for this experience when I was 7, 8 or 9 years old. At that age my fragile, vulnerable, damaged structure of “reality” had been built depending on John’s unequivocal affection, support, and alliance of and with me. When I perceived that he severed this alliance and traded sides, he had, to me, aligned himself with my mother against me. There was nothing normal enough in my childhood environment to lead me to believe or understand that any child not caught red handed will deny that they have committed any act contrary to the allowed. They will avoid getting in trouble if they can. This is natural.
And this memory took place within his kingdom. His palace, his world – that WAS him to me as much as if it were an extension of his body itself. My attachment to him was the kingpin of my internal world. He was my I beam. He became a “turn coat,” a vacancy took his place within me. It was if a part of me had died.
This really is a flashbulb memory. An instant of time frozen and standing still. Innocuous at first glance, but I trusted these words, one written after the next, as a beam of light I could follow down a trail, trusting that it would show me and I would find a truth, that turned out to be THIS truth. My truth within this memory – that my only attachment in my universe was broken this day. It explains to me why I have never bonded with “people” because I see people as adults and my infantile bond formed between myself from birth and a 14 month old baby. This attachment never had a chance to mature. It did not undergo a natural metamorphosis. Nor did I have any adults to attach to, nor was I allowed to attach to my sisters. My attachment to my brother had been a secret one, formed from my birth between John and I when my mother was not looking.
A wound was opened within me this day of the J at my core. A core wound, unlike and deeper than I knew. John had saved my life and sustained me from birth. He had prevented me from disappearing into oblivion long before this day. Here he left me alone – with her and with no other. When he left that room that day he left me behind him and I was a changed person. I see that now.
It’s been nearly 50 years since that day, yet within this flashbulb memory, this metamemory, the light shines as I sit in that bed in my brother’s room, like I am in a in a sacred moment within a sacred shrine, enshrined within myself is this moment of my living entombment.
This memory is like a silent physical PLACE that I needed to come back to and sit in to re-member myself. It feels central and pivotal. A foci point, a fulcrum point, a turning point, a place and a moment of monumental change. This was an “As the World Turns” soap opera moment. My world turned on its axis.
There’s a skeleton key that fits the lock to this memory. That key also fits my earthquake menarche memory and the memory of my vision. These were life changing events for me.
I called my brother and he says he puts the line on top of the J and always has. He also sounded shocked, stunned, appalled, surprised, incredulous that there ever could have possibly been something significant to mother about a small J written in a book, “What’s the possible big deal about that? How could that have mattered to anybody?”
This is an example of how divergent my childhood experiences were from those of my siblings. In this instance, he would have entered the room, played his part in denying he wrote the J, put his version of a J on that piece of paper, been excused, and then left the room, probably going back to whatever he was doing and not giving me another thought. The significance of the insignificant. It is a world of contrasts between adults and children that no doubt happen naturally all of the time. But to me, this experience was fundamental and devastating. My life was a setup for disaster with every breath I took.
A child’s model of the world is meant to be precarious. It works, and then it doesn’t work, and then new information is included and old information is either revamped or discarded, and a new more complex and accurate version of self in world results. The childhood infrastructure is meant to be this flexible and adaptable. We call it development, learning, maturation. As we gain greater insight and wisdom and understandings, our version of the world, of ourselves, and of ourselves in relation to the world is always changing throughout our lifespan. Or at least it is meant to. This is advancement and progress according to the natural order of things – in a sane and safe world.
John ensured his own escape from consequences (it could be that he didn’t write the J and was telling the truth, though I can’t imagine who else did it). He was being a child. He should never have had that response-ability of being his sister’s keeper in the first place. He was too young. He loved me, but there would never have been that central-to-my-survival weight that he assumed of being my sole attachment figure. That was not the correct link to have been formed between us, even though he assured my survival.
If children are not supposed to be capable of altruism or guilt until the age of 3 years old, then he was forced far too prematurely to “care for my soul.” So while age 3 might be the landmark age for generosity and choice in this regard, it has nothing to do with a child’s ability to love and to have compassion.
Such experiences are not simple or insignificant to and for a small child. These events have great power and can crush a heart and deeply wound their souls. Obviously I was ready to stand on my own two feet. I survived this alteration in my attachment relationship with my brother. But I believe the next step was not far into the future. The homestead was about to be born into our family and into my heart.
My brother’s act was self-preservation. If a person is precariously positioned at the edge of a cliff holding the hands of someone else who has slipped over the edge, and if reality is that if one does not let go both will fall and perish, the options become both limited and life changing. This is where my brother let go of me. He could not save me, and he had to save himself. Carrying me had been his burden. He had taken on this obligation that had to have cost him his own life energy that he now needed to complete his own growth process through childhood. He had to release both me and the burden he had carried from the moment I was born. Nowadays perhaps he would have known the option and used it to contact the authorities on my behalf, but back then no such alternative existed.
Our attachment had been inappropriate and ultimately inadequate to carry us past that moment in time. John had to himself “go on being” and get on with his life’s work. His choice was a life and death choice, and he made the right one.
In the larger picture I was doing the same. I chose, though not consciously, not to admit doing something I hadn’t done. Perhaps it is not even within a child’s mental repertoire to think in any other way than I did. I did not comply with my mother’s merciless pressure to “fess up” to something I had not done. Perhaps this came from some inner source “down under” within me. As always, I did not see that I had a choice or an option.
It also never occurred to me to feel anger at my brother. I just felt heart broken. I felt the devastation of oblivion without him at and on my side.
You can get so close to some memories that they burn. One must return to the solace of the present to decompress and scan the present for better things. But these excursions into the past can give a tenderness and an easy forgiveness like a strumming feather soft against the heart. We did not ask for the brutal harshness of our childhood. Nobody does. It just found us. And it is, I believe, through our memory work that we can claim (not reclaim for it was never claimed in the first place) what was lost to us back then and back there.
This was a shiny glistening memory. I could see that when I started into it today, though I did not know what that meant. Now I know that it held something crucial within it. I had a vital piece of my attachment disorder puzzle within it. It is not that I cannot form attachments. I believe that the ability that my brother had to form one with me resulted in my corresponding ability to form one with him. But only up to this point, this memory’s point. I am only comfortable with children and with the natural world. But I honestly do still have an attachment with John. I can feel it, though back then I perceived that he was gone to me forever. That was not true. I was, first and foremost, safe with him. He was my “safe keeper.” Then he quit. Because he had to. And I went on to form my attachment to the mountain, and in particular to the angel on the mountain.
There is more for the exploring, but this is enough for now. I need to let these insights illuminate my being in the present. This will take some time.
It is like shutting your eyes and stretching your arms out beside you and spinning in a circle knowing there is nothing to bump into. You are perfectly safe. Then you imagine yourself growing bigger and bigger and bigger, still spinning. But there’s nothing to stop you, no matter how big you get.
I could not name the loss of the felling of the attachment I had with my brother. I doubt I had any idea something had changed. I had no “internal working model” of attachment, nor of rupture and repair, or of separation and return or reunion.
But when it came to my next attachment, to the homestead, I was more fortunate because I happened to find the model in a book called Heidi. Of course her parents were dead, and although she was very fond of both Peter the goat herder and her grandfather, it was to the mountain itself that she was most attached. It was the mountain that she could not live without.
My sentiments mirrored hers. This book became my bible. I did not care about the characters. I just knew that how Heidi felt about her mountain was exactly how I felt about mine. If either of us were removed from our mountains for very long, without it we would sicken and die.
When the experts talk about infant attachments, they speak of separation and distress calls. This is not unique to humans. Heidi’s distress calls were in her sickness. Somehow I knew that it was in the body of our beings that she and I were in love with our mountains and could not live without them. People cared about her, saw her distress, and took her back. Nobody cared about me, and certainly not about how I felt about anything. It just happened that it was a part of the cycle, rhythm and pattern of my family that every time we moved away from our mountain, we always came back.
In its own way, these patterns were about separation and reunion, a form of rupture and repair. Although this never happened with me in relationship to or with humans, perhaps some part of my brain adapted this rhythm of separation and reunion into itself regarding my attachment to and love of the homestead, and this was enough to get be through and get me by.
Secure human attachments have a lot of rupture and repair – but not too much. Infants need caregivers who are paying attention to them, and are mostly in synch and in tune with them, and notice when a rupture has happened. Before the age of a year old, it is always the parent who causes the misattunement, misalignment, and rupture, so it is always this caregivers turn to make things better and repair this rupture. It is not an infants job to do this when they are very young – no matter what.
It’s not really the infant’s job to do this repairing when it starts crawling and walking around, either. It is so excited about the world it might accidentally get into something the caregiver does not want it to, but the caregiver can help the infant to understand these things in a repairing fashion. The infant will expect the caregiver, its attachment person, to be as excited about everything as it is, and when this doesn’t happen, starting at about one year of age, the infant will experience its first shame.
This is not guilt or embarrassment or humiliation. Shame starts first and has up to 2 years head start on these other feeling states. But shame feels like distressing despair to an infant, and it is best if the caregiver helps the infant by reconnecting to it in a caring fashion as soon as possible so that the infant can get on with its business of being happy and curious and excited about exploring the world. But as the infant is doing this, it is also learning that it is not the only one in the world. Others are there who see things a little differently. Shame and its repair help us to negotiate this whole new level of learning.
No one knew the private hell our family was in. Like most such families, our misery, certainly my own, was invisible to the outside world.
But this was especially true for us because we lived in a land of wilderness and isolation that had always lived by its own rules. Where there re no fences upon the land there are walls around its people. Those walls, if nothing else, were made of space and distance. And when we were on the homestead we didn’t need to be friendly to our neighbors. We didn’t have any. And we didn’t want any. We didn’t even want a sign that people existed.
So if I was going to be a faraway child with a faraway look, at least my context fit me. I lived in a faraway place with others who did the same. Of course eventually, after a whole bunch of people want to live in that same faraway place, one either has to adapt or leave.
I lived in a faraway place inside myself, too. At least that way I felt at home. There wasn’t any contrast between how I felt on the inside and how things were on the outside as long as I was on the mountain. When we moved into town, up and down the mountain, I lost those alone echoes I had with the world until we returned.
I never really knew there would come a time in the future that I would have to leave the homestead for good and forever. We had each been promised 5 acres of our own, and I accepted and believed that without question. How I would survive, what I would do in the future was never a REAL thought. My future never went beyond an inner knowing that Thanksgiving would come and go, Christmas, Easter, summer and my birthday and then school and then summer again. Cycles that just keep repeating themselves without missing a beat, without thought, without question. There was some vague understanding that I would go to college. Just that. Nothing more. It was the reason I could not take an art class in high school. I had to take the courses that prepared me for college. These were just words, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know much of anything, and I didn’t think about anything at all. I guess I was as close to being a flatliner as a person could be and still be alive, like I was in a coma all my own.
One could be alone, empty and faraway and not think about it, and the holiday cycles would still find you, though. It’s not something a person has to make happen.
I didn’t think about my brother John once he left home about a year before I did. He just vanished. He disappeared. I knew factually where went and what he was doing, but I did not miss him. I never thought about him, either – and now I think about how sad that is. One moment he was there and the next moment he was gone. Other than the fact that his body was not around us taking up any space, nothing else changed once he left.
I don’t even know if that is normal, for siblings not to miss one another once they have left home. How close and attached can they be if this is what happens?
I guess everyone was so far away from me that when he left he just went farther away. But once something is distant, it makes little difference how much farther away it goes. It’s still gone. Whether you move away from it or it moves away from you, gone is gone.
I didn’t care that my brother left, because I could not. He was no more real to me than next year’s raspberry if I thought about it in the dead of winter. Which of course I never did. What would be the point of that? I guess my ancestors might have thought of such a thing as they planned and anticipated for future harvests. But not me. Each bush was simply rooted where it grew in the dirt, and bushes don’t go anywhere unless someone digs them up.
I knew people weren’t rooted into the ground. They were more like rocks on the surface of the earth, but I never saw a rock move itself, either. I guess people were more like the wind, only you could see them. But people could come and go like the wind. I certainly never wondered where the wind was when it wasn’t blowing around me. I wasn’t remotely interested in where the wind came from or where it went when it left or what it was doing when it was gone. When the wind was gone there was just plain air. I never thought about that, but I don’t suppose most people would. I never thought about it, just like I never thought about my brother. And it wasn’t because I was busy out there having some kind of life of my own, because I wasn’t. It wasn’t that I was selfish or self absorbed, because I wasn’t. I just didn’t think because I didn’t really exist.
I only noticed it when it blew near me. That’s because I noticed lots of things near me when I was outside. That world, on the homestead, was real to me. That world mattered to me. I missed them when I was gone and longed for them. But I knew right where they were, and I knew I was the one who had gone a distance from them, and that they would be there when I returned. I trusted that.
My mother did not matter. She had been there since I was born, and fear of her actions toward me had always been real. But I had no affection for her. If I could figure out anything to do that would please her so she wouldn’t be mad at me for awhile, that was what I did. So I had to learn to do all the jobs she wanted me to do just right, and sometimes that was really hard.
I got in trouble for all sorts of things that just happened. All by themselves. But they were things I was supposed to know about and should have been watching out for. But that was hard because things happened and then I knew about them, not the other way around. I could I know about things before they happened? But I was supposed to. I guess if I’d known what was going to happen before it happened I could have done whatever it was I was supposed to do so that these things never would have happened at all. That would always have been better, for these things to never have happened.
But when they did, it was always because Linda was a bad girl. She was not paying attention. She was not being responsible. She was selfish and lazy. That’s why these things kept happening.
Linda could not be trusted. She wanted to be a baby. She didn’t want to grow up. She didn’t even want to be a member of this family. She wanted to be a spoiled and pampered only child. She couldn’t be trusted with the littlest thing. She liked getting into trouble and upsetting her mother. She’d been causing trouble since before she was born. She even tried to kill her mother then. That’s because she came from the devil. The devil had sent her to ruin her mother’s life. She wasn’t fit to be a part of this family.
“I curse the day you were born.”
“She does these things on purpose just to irritate me. She’s always blaming someone else and trying to get her sisters and brother in trouble. On top of that, she is a liar. She can’t be trusted to do the simplest thing the way I tell her to do it. Thank God the rest of the children didn’t turn out like her. I don’t know what I would have done. I must be a saint to put up with her. What did I ever do to deserve Linda as a daughter? If her grandmother only knew what kind of a girl Linda really is. But I’m not going to tell her. It would break her heart. I hope she never finds out the truth about Linda.”
” I am sorry we ever brought you into this world!”
I didn’t know what lonely was because I had never been unlonely. I didn’t know what “together” was, so I didn’t know what “apart” was, either.
3 thoughts on “*Age 9 – JOHN and the CHERRY TREE”
Are these actual statements your mom said to you? Or more like how you interpreted and felt like she was saying?
Said… But now I know why/how all tied into her mental illness and was caused by it
I woke this morning – as I am working to prepare myself for the inclusion of some of the ‘incidents’ of abuse in my childhood into the introductory volume of “The Demise of Mildred” book I am writing about my mother – thinking that there is something even fundamentally wrong with even needing to think of these as ‘stories’ or ‘vignettes’. They should have been written as police reports. But, of course, they weren’t.
I had thought I was going to publish “Demise” in part to free my own ‘story’ of abuse from the ‘story’ of Mother’s madness. I did not want to include my experiences within the words of ‘her books’.
Readers of “Demise” are not going to see her madness if I don’t point it out. They are most certainly not going to see her abuse of me, either. I am trying to compromise with myself – somehow – using my own advice I have written on this blog —
That abuse never belonged to us – to the children. It always belonged to the perpetrators. That there is a way to go back into memories of abuse – tear away the wreckage, find the child that we were inside these memories so that we can keep our own self – and let the rest of the horror go to whom it belonged.
In an abused infant-child’s world there was no justice (is no justice for those who are currently living in such hell). My mother did not receive the 15,000 year jail sentence she deserved for what she did. But – then – in Mildred’s case it was true that she was severely mentally ill. She would not have been found competent to stand trial – or would she have been?
So cunning was her mental illness, such power it had to control the minds of all Mildred came in contact with – so perfectly did it spin the truth into oblivion and invisibility that not even I can find a clear way to present the truth about what happened to me.
That fact makes my book writing task very, very difficult and frustrating….