Because extinction shouldn't be an option!

Friday, October 15, 2010

When Writing Really Is The Only Way to Survive...

I haven't written on the blog for a few weeks. Last month, my mother died. It was an expected surprise. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2005 after a relapse from a five year remission from her first bout of cervical cancer. She was told she'd probably only have a year to live. Since then there were a half-dozen close calls, where the phone rang and my brother told me "this is it," only for her to pull through and go another year or more before her next close call.

I stopped believing it was ever going to happen, even as she lost the ability to digest solid food, and needed a wheelchair. My mother was only 52 when she died. As mentioned the other day, her passing coincided with the second week of a new job and the crunch time of a deadline. I couldn't focus on my freelance work, so took a brief hiatus from it to attend to logistics and her funeral. At my other job, with the exception of my boss (who I told only to excuse my sense of preoccupation and to take a day off), I did not inform the other co-workers.

I didn't tell a lot of people to avoid the usual condolences, the displays of sympathy that are inevitable with such news, but don't really fit this situation. My mother was not a nice person. She was abusive and manipulative. She was an addict, and has been one since I was seven.

I grew up surrounded by drugs and addiction, where any and all of my dreams or desires for a better life (starting with going away to college) were not only openly dismissed and mocked by my mother, but were under constant attack. My mother seemed determined to destroy any future for or will I had to achieve something. I've tried to desperately to make sense of understand how a mother could so willingly and violently try to take the light from her own child, to want to mold her own child into herself, while knowing herself to be diseased and despicable.

The only conclusion I can come to, and have come to again and again, is that my mother needed to validate her addiction by proving it was an inevitable outcome in the family, due to genetics or our class, or whatever other excuses she came up to justify herself to us. By doing this, she could avoid the responsibility of changing or seeking true rehabilitation. Also, of course, misery loves company. She was a sinking ship and wanted us on board all the way till the water was above our own heads.

When I was a child, I loved my mother, despite the almost constant onslaught of cruel abuse. When I became a young teenager, and the abuse became too much to bear, I almost lost it all. I started thinking about ending it all, while still desperately wanting to live. (I think about the recent rash of bullying-induced suicide. I was also bullied, both at school AND by my mother when I came home from school. It was everywhere for me. There was no escape).

I wanted to live, just not with her. But I was stuck. The thing that had to happen, is that I had to hate my mother to survive. When I loved her, her words and fists hurt. But I started to see her as someone who wasn't the woman who gave birth to me, but a stranger who was, for whatever reason, trying to destroy me. And something stony crept under my skin, and gave me some kind of strength to survive. For the next four years, until I went to college, our small apartment was a battle zone...when she spit at me, I spit back. When she hit me, I hit back. I grew taller than her (if only by an inch), and stronger. She even became a little scared of me. At the same time, I took my new attitude to school. The other students' words bounced off me, as I locked them into long menacing glares and a few cutting rebuttals that made them look away first. I stopped caring what they thought. And they knew it. They became powerless.

I lived in a neighborhood where it wasn't that exactly safe to go wandering around at night, so I didn't have the luxury of going out for walks when things got rough at home (often after dusk). I didn't have a car (couldn't afford one of course, and the age for driving in NYC was 17 anyway). I didn't have my own room, or even a door. In fact, my mother slept only about five feet from me. Of course, it was not a necessarily a 24/7 situation. When you live in quarters that close, it can be exhausting to be enemies the entire time. But bad things happened on fairly regular basis. To go longer than a week or so, without a large fight full of screaming, cursing, broken glass and at least an attempted swing or two, was a miracle.

I did what I could to survive. When I was a bit younger (10-12), I took up music. I played the flute and the keyboard. My mother sold my $400 flute that my grandmother saved up a year to buy me for my birthday for $50 worth of crack.

I then took up writing.

Paper and pens are cheap and have no resale value. I had loved words and reading and had also been dabbling in poetry for a couple of years prior, so I then turned to it full-steam. I joined drama club at school, which not only allowed me another artistic outlet that couldn't be stolen and sold without my knowledge, but kept me out of the apartment longer and often till later at night, but somewhere safe and off the streets.

When I was home, I slept a lot. When I was awake, I kept my face constantly hidden behind a book or journal and kept headphones on. I even slept with them on, so that I dreamt in musical refrains that took me somewhere far from there. My living and dreaming worlds were all about the words on the page, on the stage or being crooned to me on the radio. In bed, I often kept my journal under my pillow, with a flashlight, in case I woke up and needed to write something in the middle of the night.

My passion evolved to a career goal. I wasn't going to become another welfare mom with a bad habit living in a tenament in Brooklyn. I wasn't going to just become some regular Jane either. I was going to be a writer. Just like I my feelings toward my mother had to no longer be love but not anything lukewarm to survive my home situation, my dream had to be big enough to wrap a large rope of hope around me and pull me toward the dawn of a different day.

I had to be something that mattered in a way that mattered the most to me. Words had saved me, both the ones I wrote down and the ones I read from other writers. And now I wanted to use words again and again to save others, whether those in sad scenarios like the one I grew up in, or the wildlife we victimize with stigmas that have the same grounding in the prejudice we show to people, or in the larger world. I want to use words as both weapons to destroy hate and helplessness, and as medicine to offer hope, comfort and strength.

When I say I am writing for survival, I mean it down to my bones. It saved me and gave me meaning and sense when nothing else could have. It still does today. And even when things seem dire, as the thermostats continue to rise, as wars and genocides ravage on, as we turn up the violence on ourselves and on the animals we share this world with, I will continue to write to make sense of it, to shine a light on the injustices, and to extend it as a lifesaver to those who need it as much as I did and still do.

Won't you join me and support me in my efforts?


  1. Thank you for all of your great writing, Laura. Your blog posts are inspiring and your intentions are pure. Keep up the good work!

  2. Why would teenage boys discuss girls in such terms? Of course, because the people in their circles of influence do it, but still why? What other vocabulary do they have to say that a girl is hot chick? Give them words and understanding of their meanings, not merely offense. Offense chalks up this experience to the female rights activist, not to the issue of vocabulary. I doubt that all boys who use such language intend it in a degrading fashion, those merely are the sexy words they know. Teach them, teacher, don't react.

  3. RMBIV-

    You are responding to the wrong post. I think you meant to respond to my other post "Is Throwing Rocks at Birds a Sign of Sexism?" not this one.

    These boys are not little kids. They are teenagers. They know the words they say are degrading and offensive to women, and they were not using them to express attraction.
    Perhaps, I am sure, they don't possess a mature form of sexist notions, but let's not excuse they're behavior. Both at the vantage point of a teacher, and having been their age and knowing full-well the maliciousness that abetted these words, what you are saying here is dangerous.

    I am a writer and an English teacher. I have many years of experience with words, and an extensive knowledge of our language's vocabulary. In fact, that shapes my identity as much as, if not more, than my identity as a "feminist."

    As such, there are many, many words that one could use to express attraction to a girl, and none of them include "bitch," or "ho," and even "hot chick" is at the bottom of the list.

    Society needs to stop making excuses and infantilizing and coddling boys in these scenerios (such as you are here), as though they don't quite know what they're doing or saying-as though they are mere victims of the culture. They are not stupid, and we create our own culture, it is up to us to address its wrongs.

    These boys listen to the same songs and read many of the same books as their female counterparts, and those books and songs are filled with many non-degrading words, intriguing words.

    If the problem was just vocabulary, you'd have the girls getting in trouble for the same thing: why is it that teenage girls do not have at hand a pick of as many degrading words to describe sexually promiscuous men, or men who are rude? Because hardly any such words exist, especially to describe the former....and why? Because our culture, which was and is still sexist, gave birth to our language.

    I did teach these students. I told them those words are offensive and prejudicial. That they are intolerable and bullying. I explained why. But I am sure they know why, which is why they were also punished.

    If these kids were using derogatory words against someone in the context of race or religion, at their age, I do not believe there would be a debate here.

    We need to stop falling back on stereotypes to justify behaviors, whether it be "boys will be boys," or that of the "overeactive" feminist. There has been a rash of bullying-induced suicide.

    Last year, a 13 year-old gilr hung herself in her bedroom because of the constant onslaught of sexual harassment in the form of verbally abusive words. The teachers ignored the bullying. I will not.