#lessons Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: First, Face Myself.

Before my kid brother or true nightmares existed, I came across a blue jay on the sidewalk. Its plumage looked beautiful despite all the little bugs crawling all over it, and was it a problem its eye no longer stayed in place? I didn’t think so. I knew it wasn’t properly alive; a properly alive bird flies away when you get near it. But I really hadn’t thought too much about death apart from “Jesus died and rose again.” Death had no sense of permanence. When the time came, the bird would be properly alive again.

There is a difference, I think, in knowing something is not-right vs. knowing something is wrong. I knew the bird wasn’t alive like me, but I didn’t know it was wrong to put it in a dump truck and drive it around like any other stuffed animal. You better believe my mother made sure I knew after scrubbing my hands for several minutes. The disease, the dirt one can get from playing with the forbidden. It transfers. It festers.

telling-cover-3I still carry a dirtiness on me and in me, and I’ve never been able to scrub it off. Zoe Zolbrod used the same term: “my dirtiness, of which my victimhood was a part” in her memoir The Telling (71).

It was the first time I had seen the word tied to the Feeling. Experience. Person.

And through reading, that Person was me.

Zolbrod sent me reeling with the stench of old wounds and fears. When she recounted the first night her cousin came into her room, I remembered the hall light in my bedroom, and The Monster’s silhouette as my parents were occupied elsewhere in the house. Let’s play a game. His hands slipped under the elastic waistband of my pajamas. It felt wrong. It had to be wrong, but…but he’s family, so…so it couldn’t be THAT wrong, could it?

When Zolbrod wrote of the cousin’s coming in the day when her parents promised to be gone, all those afternoons pulled me back, those hours when The Monster knew my parents were bound to be at church for hours, got my kid brother to be quiet in the basement while he kept me in my room, knowing there was no way I could overpower him as he talked so damn calmly as he reached in. Pulled down. Slipped his tongue in. Put my hands there. This is what family does for each other. Don’t you want to be like other girls?

I didn’t. Yet The Monster spoke time and again, turning the wrongness into something normal-ish, practically traditional. It wasn’t properly wrong, just not-right.

Zolbrod takes readers through life after the abuse, including how she began to move beyond her cousin in a new “float of physical bliss” with the boyfriends of her youth  (76). She took back her sexuality, her body. I, on the other hand, retreated as far as I knew how. I wore sagging clothes that would have made my father look a wastrel, refused to do my hair or face. I was often mistaken for a man by strangers, and didn’t care. I didn’t want to be seen as other girls. I didn’t want to be seen. And no one could, not the proper me, so long as I hid it deep enough. Zolbrod calls it “personhood vacating” (121). I fled into myself where The Monster could never reach. Like Zolbrod, I discovered my own “inborn intricacies,” and thought that In Here, The Monster could never really hurt me (94). A body’s nothing, the soul everything. And he’ll never get that.

Until now.

Words make worlds, do they not? Writers create with language. And I had created a wall with the words of stories, metal so thick surely no villain could penetrate them.

But in reading Zolbrod’s memoir, words twisted into sinew and skin: the hands, calloused and hot, across my body. How does it feel?

Words betrayed me. They burned me so that every emotional poke from my children felt like an axe on firewood.

Little Loves, you’re better off tossing Mommy out with all that’s broken. I’m no good for you. You deserve someone whole. Clean. Better.

Does a phoenix feel like this when the fire finally comes and cleanses its rigid body of all the creepy-crawlies?

I have written of phoenixes before. They, too, live anew and beyond death. When I finished Zolbrod, I felt as she after reading Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: “I sensed some truth about armor and pure resolve arising from violence and shame” (41). For years I have struggled to make sense of why God put me through that pain. God’s plan is always sure and right, He never gives us more than we can bear, God knows best, etc. So apparently it was in my best interests to be abused?

At this point, a “Fuck you” screamed at heaven sounds near-logical. Sounds, but doesn’t feel. Perhaps it’s the preacher’s kid in me, who has always thought faith a second-breath, as important as blood and unable to be transfused if lost. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve already faced such horrible parts of myself during the years of post-partum that to look back on something even older and disown God on THAT seems…Petty?

Or maybe, and I think this may be the truth, it’s because I could feel the armor and resolve grow with me, and take me beyond the Monster’s reach. I have knowledge others do not: to be tortured year, after year, after year, to suffer on my own without hope of help, yet live. I fucking lived. My husband, my children, my friends, my masters, my teaching, my—well, this, here. MY words. They’re mine. And they don’t hurt.

Now the real duel awaits:

I must face The Monster, hands and all, in the present.

Click here for more on Zoe Zolbrod and THE TELLING.



I walk into the master bathroom and find a square present with “Happy Anniversary!” written in silver. Granted, Bo and I got married on New Year’s Eve, so to see such a gift on Christmas Day wasn’t outlandish. In the bathroom, though…anyway.

“I’m so excited! Open it, open it!” My sister-in-law Bev revels in all things special occasion. She’ll spend hours at work planning lavish parties and celebrations, the tiniest details settled weeks in advance. The fact she has been written up at work for not doing work is beside the point. Parties! She sucks in her breath a bit to fit between the half-wall and Christmas tree. “I did it at work. So easy, so fun, you know?”

That’s comforting, I think as I unwrap…a photo book of my wedding to Bo. It’s sweet, nice. I say as much.

Bev looks over my arm at the family picture which includes Bo, his brother, her. We do not comment on the change nine years and a child have done to her once marathon-ready body. We don’t have to. Tears once again well up in the corner of her eyes. I flip the page and comment on Grandpa Varinski, already losing the fight to Parkinson’s. Grandma Varinski, bless the old bird, swooped in and grabbed the book with her talons before I could turn another page. Bev could talk to her about all the pictures, about the smiles. About the niceties.

I can see the appeal of The Show. Sure, our house is always this clean. I’ve always got time to scrapbook. Oh, this ol’ recipe? Sure it took three hours to prep, but who doesn’t have the time? Care for a race car made of crackers and olives?

That Show, it proves to others you can manage work and family with time for you to spare. PROVES it, beyond a doubt. In Bev’s mind, that is.

No one likes to think about Life After the Show. Of an alcoholic family who doesn’t understand what decades of neglect can do to a person. Of a toddler who bites and screams and kicks the pet. Of a husband who doesn’t want another child. Far easier to close the curtain on the Real, and embrace The Show. Make it go on, and on…

With the help of wine and pills, Bev nearly did just that.

Bo turned on his phone when he reached work at 4am to find a flurry of text messages from his brother: Bev locked herself in the bathroom and tried to kill herself. Cops were called. Boy is with the Varinskis. She has to stay at a clinic for an eval. Not sure if she’ll be out by Christmas.

It is not a reality many can easily understand. Grandma Varinski still thinks it has only to do with alcohol. Sure, alcohol didn’t help, but it’s only a microphone for the voices already there. Few get how those Dark Solutions can speak up in the calmest, quietest voices, the same voices that tell you to wear shoes because it’s cold outside. I can still remember my own:

Put your shoes on. Dump your son on the side of the road.

Fix your daughter a snack. Break your son’s fingers.


It all flows together and makes so. Much. Sense. For Bev, the Dark fixed on her rather than her son. You don’t matter. You’re a horrible mother. Your own family could give a shit. Why should you?

Bo receives word from his brother: Bev is out. We’re coming Christmas Eve. She doesn’t want to be treated differently.


So, here we are, Christmas Day, happy smiles and bawdy jokes, and Bev on the verge of tears. Always on the verge of tears. Everyone knows, but no one comes to her, asks her how she’s feeling. She requested this be a happy Christmas, so by God, we’ll make it a happy Christmas.

Facades aren’t allowed to react. We’ll go through our designed motions, provide loads of accolades to her for her baking, for how well her son sang with his class. Remain fixed on the excellent, and nothing else.

Christmas lights are always so good at softening the world, giving it glowing warmth and magic. Bev endeavors to capture the tree in as many pictures as possible, to capture proof she did, indeed, have a happy Christmas after attempting suicide. When her son refuses to follow her directions for a sweet pose, I point out I don’t even try with Biff and Bash. I point out my own shortcomings, my children’s shortcomings, time and again, and the façade grows ever more real with my reality’s harsh details contrasting her perception of how her life should be.

Inside, I can’t help but think, almost bitterly: I am no façade.

Shut up, Jean. Today is supposed to be a good day for the kids.

So why am I bitter?

The book didn’t help. Seeing my father’s face, so alive, so joyful, knowing he won’t hear Blondie talk about Darth Vader or watch Bash fly up and down the halls like a helicopter or Biff go around looking for words, spelling them out, remembering them. Knowing who wasn’t with me, in my house, made me bitter, yes. Life wasn’t perfect. It’s supposed to be perfect.


That’s Dark Thinking, Thinking Bev invited, entertained, all too often. And that entertaining nearly led to her Last Show.


I accept Biff and Bash can be right little bastards. But they are amazing, too. Blondie frustrates me with her lack of imagination, but that is only because she doesn’t have what I perceive to be the RIGHT imagination. My life is filled with little glowing blessings that one harsh moment, feeling, can cut out. But just because they’re turned off doesn’t mean they’re not there. I need only find the source of the problem, untangle it from myself, and throw it out. The glowing returns, and I sit, and stare, and marvel at how such blessings could possibly be mine.


The Machete and the Cradle


Jason Voorhees first took up residence a few months after my daughter was born. Most think Voorhees = hockey mask and machete. Well, our relationship didn’t start that way. He came as he did in Friday the 13th Part 2, an ogre of a being with a bag over his head, one cut hole for a yellow eye to peer through. He came in, sat on our couch, and stayed there. No machete, just a second bag and some twine. He sat quietly as my daughter and I played, fed, or worked. If I turned to him, he’d hold out that second bag.

One evening, my husband arrived from work to see our daughter in her bouncy seat, bored, and me sitting next to Jason Voorhees with a bag over my head.

“What’s wrong?”

I tried to open my mouth, but the burlap felt coarse and painful against my lips. So I said nothing, sitting there with one eye on my daughter to make sure she was safe, and the other eye lost to woven doubt and self-loathing. My husband undid the knot, took the bag off my head, and handed it to Jason. Jason shifted himself down to make room. My husband held my hand and slowly worked me off the couch back to our family.

This routine continued on for a few months. All three of us grew tired of Jason, sitting on the couch, filling the hallway, losing the books and movies that we enjoyed for a little escape, hiding our daughter’s favorite snugglers so we couldn’t get her to sleep.

I’d show him the door. He’d hand out the bag. I’d take the bag.

In a rare outing where I actually sat somewhere with no baby (but with Jason), a friend revealed her latest endeavor in the classroom: NaNoWriMo.


“NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. It’s a challenge to write a 50,000 word story in thirty days. My kids are pretty excited.”

Something shifted in me. It had been years since graduate school, where I struggled to write proper literary stuff. If I could write what I really wanted and do my online job and raise an infant…

Jason’s single eye darted between us quizzically, coffee spilling onto his overalls.

I ignored him. “When’s it start?”

At 10:30 on the night of November 30th, I reached the 50,000 word mark. The door to our apartment clicked shut. I found a bag outside my workroom with a small length of twine.

Two years later, I gave birth to twin boys. Within the first month, in the midst of mud and lightning, Jason Voorhees resurrected, and this time, he came with a machete.

How do I describe what it’s like to fantasize killing my own children?

Jason said nothing, but that machete glistened in the softness of the boys’ nightlight. It sparkled like a magical wand. It promised peace with a mere knick knack, paddy-whack. I had to pass Jason nearly every hour of the night to feed one boy, then the other, oh of course one woke up, damn he shat everywhere, which one is this again?

Sometimes Jason held out an oven mitt above a boy’s face. Sometimes his machete pointed towards the stairs. Sometimes I heard a whisper, which could not have been me yet Jason never speaks so…If he wants to scream, give him a reason. Those fingers are so small, no one’ll notice if one’s broken. Drop the little fucker. These could not be my thoughts. But I knew they were me, they sounded like me when I’m thinking about what shirt to wear or what to make for my daughter’s lunch. And with every thought comes a lurch inside, an Honest-to-God turning of the stomach that made me want to take that machete and cut myself open to find whatever was whispering these things so it couldn’t hurt my sons, who in only one month of life had already shown such mischievous spirits.

Then came the colic. Jason Goes to Hell comes to mind.

The lowest moment: driving my younger son to the emergency room. A Wisconsin winter night, bitterly freezing, the road coated with black ice, and my son won’t stop screaming. We called yet again trying to understand why one boy’s colic subsided while the other’s grew worse, and finally a nurse said with a yawn that it could be acid reflux. Of course, there’s no good way to fight acid reflux with infants. You have to wait it out. Fuck you. We’re not waiting it out anymore. Give me meds to shut this kid up or…or…

Jason rode shotgun.

Dump him. Dump him and go home. He’ll freeze fast. He’s baptized. He’ll be happy in Heaven, away from you. You never wanted twins. You don’t want this one. He’ll always be like this. Stop there and dump him.


I stopped the car.

My son, asleep. His torso shook up and down to the jerky rhythm of his exhausted breathing. It was, by my meager standards, a miracle.

A few days later, another miracle: all three of my kids napping at the same time.

I opened my novel, the NaNoWriMo project from my daughter’s infancy, and started to read. And revised. Revised some more as I nursed my sons. Wrote notes while I played with them, brainstormed ideas with them aloud. Continued the story in whatever free minutes I could find.

There stood Jason, his machete’s sparkle gone. I came forward with dragons, trolls, shapeshifters, and goblins at the edge of darkness, where my worlds began. I held out my hand, and let the bag and twine fall to the ground at his feet.

My twins are two now, and adorably terrible to everyone, especially their big sister. Jason’s still out there, hacking at the darkness, bursts of spark-light about his face, a fragment of nightmare that will never vanish completely.

The boys climb up my legs while my daughter wraps her arms around my neck. I am bombarded with giggles and toddler tickles. I am armored with a love that no blade can nick.

I am also trapped in the chair.

My daughter bonks me with a hard cover. “Let’s read a story!”