This Is to Mother You: On Caring for a Toxic Parent in Her Greatest Time of Need

Jane Demuth | Longreads | May 2016 | 11 minutes (2,632 words)

I don’t panic on the afternoon in August 2012 that my sister calls and tells me that our mother has gone insane and her boyfriend has rushed her to the ER. For the full four-week duration of her hospital stay, I don’t feel much of anything for her. Instead, driving to the hospital that first afternoon, I tell myself to keep my ears open in case she slips and says something important and true.

Three months before, she was diagnosed; two months before, she began treatment. Breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ, stage two, one sentinel lymph node affected, ER/PR/HER2 negative, BRCA gene double negative. I advised her on what to tell her doctor about her family history so Medicare would pay for the genetic test. She’s prescribed a lumpectomy followed by six months of chemo followed by radiation.

She tells me these things. She shares these details with me, the same way she did twelve years ago when she had an abnormal Pap result, compelling me to consider a part of her body I’m even more reluctant to think about than her breasts. She sends me her path lab reports, as though I were the parent and she was sending me her report cards to hang on the refrigerator. I don’t know how to ask her to stop. I understand all of these details. I analyze cancer data for a living in collaboration with some of the foremost epidemiologists in the world. I’ve been at my job for 13 years. I’ve long since finished my work on endometrial and ovarian cancer, and I’m now branching out from the cervical cancer projects that were my sole focus for almost a decade; breast cancer has become my new specialty. My mother has had a knack for developing personal connections with the cancers that I study.

And for reasons that have never been clear to me, my company has always assigned me to the lady cancers. The irony in this has been coming in waves which are about to break on my shores – my birth certificate describes me as male, and up to this point I have grudgingly embodied that identity as well as I could. Less than a year after my mother’s hospitalization, though, in June of 2013, I’ll have begun my physical transition to female, something I’ve secretly wanted to do since early childhood, long before I could articulate it.

My mother has had a knack for developing personal connections with the cancers that I study.

Even after I had the language skills to have said it out loud, though, I didn’t. My identity as female has always been the most central, immutable part of me; ground zero, my sine qua non – without this, nothing. But it is also the one thing I have always kept hidden, even from myself to whatever extent possible and at whatever cost necessary. From my earliest memories as a toddler, through my secretive childhood and teenage forays into my mother’s and sister’s closets, I learned to be as quiet and invisible as a ghost in my family’s enormous and isolated old farm house full of creaky floor boards and unspoken rules. Sharing any part of myself, especially this part, was unthinkable. Gender roles were very clearly delineated when I was growing up – men were angry and violent; women were victims. There were no exceptions, and there was no switching sides. I internalized this message almost as deeply as my core sense of myself as female, and it’s taken me decades to begin writing myself a new story; my own story. Now, I’ve finally begun sharing the public facing portion of this story with others – the part that says I’m a woman and have been all along; my name is Jane; my pronouns are she, her, and hers; and perhaps most importantly, ownership of this story is mine and mine alone. A few months prior to our mother’s hospitalization, I’d already given my siblings some intimation that my transition is coming. To my mother, though, I’ve said nothing.

Today in the ER is the first time I’m seeing her since she began chemo. Apparently, she hasn’t taken well to it. Her head is bald and covered with sores. The frail body in front of me belongs to the person who’s been telling me she’s dying since I was ten, shortly after her first major spinal surgery; the person who expected me to take care of her when I was still too young to take care of myself. I may not be panicking now, but back then, panic was all I knew. As a child, I had no choice but to take her fears at face value. Years later, though, when she still hadn’t died, I began to understand her behavior as a desperate plea for comfort; any port in a storm for a lonely, terrified woman with prematurely deteriorating health in a deeply troubled marriage she didn’t know how to leave. But because she sought that comfort from me, her child, my sense of responsibility for her became marbled with thick veins of resentment.

My birth certificate describes me as male. Less than a year after my mother’s hospitalization, though, I’ll have begun my physical transition to female.

In the ER, she ignores everyone else when I walk into the room. Her first words when she sees me are, “Boy, do I have a story for you,” and she’s right. She does. My brother and sister are already there, and she tells us in great detail about the hospital’s convoluted conspiracy to kill her, how she cannot trust those who care for her. This is not the profound truth I told myself to listen for. It’s simply a variation on what she’s been telling me for my entire life.

As a child, I remember her coming to me crying late at night after the hyperbolic melodrama of her violent, drunken fights with my father, telling me to get some money together because we were leaving. I was twelve. As the oldest “boy,” I got the message early and often that it was my job to take care of her. I remember the comfort she sought from me during her first year-long separation from my father. That period coincided with the onset of my adolescence – my first pass through puberty, the one that would change me against my will from a boy to a man. Any possibility of coming clean and telling her I was transgender (in whatever terms I would have used then) was obliterated by her own misery and need – there was no chance of going to her for help when she was coming to me for it.

I also remember the back massages and foot rubs she used to ask me for, and that I gave her. And I remember the moment when I abruptly stopped, when I recognized the sounds of pleasure she was making as something so wildly inappropriate for me to be producing in my mother that I backed away in revulsion. Twenty five years later I can still taste that revulsion. I remember my anger. I remember saying nothing. I didn’t know how to ask her to stop.

Here, now, in the ER, I watch her fumbling away from reality. I’ve known her at different times in her life to be rational, childish, nurturing, needy, calm, anxious, depressed, angry – but I’ve never before seen her delusional. Am I supposed to panic? How would others react at the hospital bedside of their mother, listening to her talk about the trees in the swamp behind her house giving her secret messages? Am I a monster for feeling so little? What do other people feel when a family member is in hospital? What do others go through when someone they’re supposed to love has lost their mind?

I’ve known her at different times in her life to be rational, childish, nurturing, needy, calm, anxious, depressed, angry – but I’ve never before seen her delusional.

I do know the answers to these questions, at least partly. But I did not learn them from her. I remember different hospitals and different emergencies, one of them so recent that it still replays in vivid technicolor horror whenever I close my eyes and try to sleep. Six years earlier nearly to the day, I paid my last visit to a dear friend who was dying of lymphoma. His wife told me months later that when she’d told him a group of us had come to see him, he’d said that he only wanted to see me. I remember standing outside the door of his hospital room after that last visit, leaning against the wall, sobbing quietly and uncontrollably. And less than two weeks before visiting my mother in the ER, I’d driven the woman I’d recently begun dating to a different emergency room because she drank herself into a blackout and slashed her wrist with a kitchen knife while I was watching her young kids. She spent the night in the ER and the next four days in an in-patient psychiatric unit. I went to see her every day. I bought us notepads so we could write to each other, because she wasn’t allowed to have her phone, so we couldn’t text. When I visited, we sat side by side on her bed and held each other without saying anything. It would be weeks before I could shut my eyes without seeing knives and blood.

These are the people I have loved and do love fiercely, with every bit of me. I remember seeing them covered by the starched sheets and cotton blankets of hospital beds, and I remember the icy cold fear I could not beat down and the boiling hot tears I could not keep in. Kingston General. Westchester Medical in Valhalla. (Sweet Jesus, why would anyone put a hospital in a place named after the Norse hall of slain warriors? Do doctors have any subtlety or humility at all?) But here, for my mother, I feel none of that.

She is connected to a profusion of wires, tubes, and machines. Heart rate monitor. O2 saturation. Respiration rate. The machine that goes “Ping!” While she rambles on and on about her boyfriend, a man so gentle that he won’t even watch violent movies, trying to poison her, and how she can only trust people with blue eyes, her heart rate is over 100, her breathing sporadic and well into the 30 breaths per minute range. Only her O2 saturation is normal – 94-95.

Of course I understand all of this. Of course I’m detached. Of course this is my reaction, and this is what I’m paying attention to. Before she retired, my mother was a nurse. She always wanted me to be a doctor. Instead, I became a medical researcher and yoga teacher.

I also notice the shift in her level of anxiety when there is discord in the room. My brother and sister do not know what to do. They are out of their element here. They are afraid for her, and they become short with each other. She picks up on this, and her anxiety increases. She doesn’t understand why she’s here or what’s going on, but she knows others are scared, so she is scared too. I’ve observed this sort of behavior before in young children and animals. It’s horrible to watch.

Despite my resentments over the secrets I had to keep and the care I was obligated to give her growing up – despite anything else at all – she is still my mother. I know that she has always tried to support me as well as she could. And I know without a shadow of doubt that when I do tell her that I am trans, she will be my biggest advocate. I cannot stand by as she suffers.

And this is where I come in and do the last thing in the world that I want to do: I help her.
The idea of ever touching her is repellent, but I take her hand. I never, ever want to look in her eyes, but I do, and I tell her to listen to me, to focus on the sound of my voice.

Bring your awareness to your inhale. Make it as long and steady as you can; and when it reaches its natural crest, simply let it go, allowing the exhale to exit just as smoothly. When thoughts arise, let them go, no matter how important they seem. Simply focus on the in and out of your breath.

I walk my mother through this simple practice for several minutes. I keep one eye on the monitors and watch as what I’m doing works. Breathing normalizes. Heart rate decreases. O2 saturation remains steady. She is calming down. When she starts chasing after insane thoughts again and the monitors jump, I bring her back to her breath and watch the numbers resettle.

I know without a shadow of doubt that when I do tell her that I am trans, she will be my biggest advocate. I cannot stand by as she suffers.

Jumping in and becoming part of her care team in this capacity (and in other significant but less direct capacities throughout the next month) comes as naturally for me as falling off a bike. Setting personal boundaries, knowing how to say no, is a trickier business. Every time I’ve tried in the past I’ve been either a complete push-over or a heartless bitch. I’ve lost people I love from my life this way, and the hurt and the shame of that never stop. As uncomfortable, as gross as I feel helping her, now is not the time to try to walk that tightrope again. My drama doesn’t belong here.

As she calms, she asks everyone but me to leave the room. Her mind is still not back to where it was six months before – nowhere near, nor will it be for a long time – but the storms have temporarily cleared enough that she wants to tell me something privately. Her boyfriend and my siblings leave. I am left alone with her and the beeping of machines.

“You just saved my life,” she tells me.

I didn’t, but I know it seems to her as if I have. All I did was stop her panic attack. My therapist taught me this technique more than twenty years ago when I was sixteen, and had begun having panic attacks of my own, falling apart under the pressure of trying not to be me. I’m simply passing the skill on to her now.
I don’t know how to reply to her, so I don’t say anything.

Jumping in and becoming part of her care team in this capacity (and in other significant but less direct capacities throughout the next month) comes as naturally for me as falling off a bike. Setting personal boundaries, knowing how to say no, is a trickier business.

“Your eyes are blue,” she continues, smiling at me. “That’s how I know I can trust you.”

I try not to look away.

The next day, after she’s been admitted, I will return to visit her a few floors up. Tangled up within further paranoid delusions, she will tell me she can see that I’m about to undergo a massive change. Months later, when she is home and returning to her old self, she will tell me that she remembers her nurse accidentally giving her a double dose of chemo at her last treatment visit prior to this episode. I will wonder if she is remembering correctly, why she didn’t speak up when it happened, and if that was what caused this. I will research the question on my own and find nothing but anecdotal reports and inconclusive evidence for chemo-induced psychosis. And years later, when I’ve begun actively withdrawing from people who knew me before and remain unwilling or unable to refer to me with my correct pronouns and name, I will realize that she is one of the few who never batted an eye when I did finally tell her of my transition, never stumbled over my name, and never once used the wrong pronouns.

But right then, at her hospital bedside, alone with her, the moment I’d been waiting for arrives, and she speaks the words I told myself to listen for that afternoon; confirmation of what I’ve suspected all along but never wanted to be true.

“You were always my favorite.”

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Editor: Sari Botton

from Longreads Blog


A Reading List for the Start of Summer

It’s unofficial: Summer is here. Here are the clues: The temperature exceeded 90 degrees in my Maryland hometown. Locals have fled for Memorial Day weekend. My partner installed our window air conditioning units. The cat willingly places himself near the two fans in our living room and avoids his favorite sun patches. My new Star Wars t-shirt was drenched equally in flume ride water and human sweat during my trip to Hershey Park last week. Finally, people enter the bookstore where I work anxious for my summer reading recommendations. I am all too happy to hand them my recent favorites. Time for flip-flops, sunscreen, and, of course, summer reading.

1. “5 Great Beach Reads, Wherever You Are.”(Bethanne Patrick, LitHub, May 2016))

This isn’t longform, but it is going to be a recurring column. You may know Bethanne Patrick from her delightful essay “I Am Jessa Crispin’s Problem With Publishing,” and her latest endeavor is summer reading recommendations that are actually fun. Her introduction is feminist literary criticism that’ll make you fist-pump.

2. “I Stayed at an AirBNB Bookshop and You Can Too.” (Dan Dalton, BuzzFeed, May 2016))

In Scotland, there is a town dedicated to all things literary. It’s named Wigtown, and you—yes, you!—can rent and manage one of Wigtown’s bookstores. On his trip, Dan Dalton meets an assortment of delightful locals, nips down the street for a pint, and even manages to sell a few books. Time for a working vacation!

3. “The Summer I Learned I Wasn’t the Exception.” (Jenny Zhang, The Cut, April 2106))

Writer Jenny Zhang also spent a stint in a bookstore abroad. Her best-laid plans transform into a love affair the moment she enters the historic Shakespeare and Company and sees Logan behind the counter: “It was a movie I wanted to watch again as soon as it was over, a movie I was sure I would one day write just so I could.” If you’re as entranced by Zhang’s frank poeticism as I am, check out The Selected Jenny Zhang at Emily Books and keep an eye out for Sour Hearts, Zhang’s forthcoming collection of short stories, published by Lena Dunham’s imprint.

4. “The Fierce Triumph of Loneliness.” (Helena Fitzgerald, Catapult, May 2016)

This piece isn’t about summer, exactly, but it brings to mind the stretches of school breaks I spent reading alone or walking to the library. My solitude always felt like an adventure, like I was transgressing some sort of nameless boundary. These are microcosmic examples of the lifestyle Helena Fitzgerald embodies and explores in her essay.

As Fitzgerald began to describe her choice to leave loneliness behind to live with her boyfriend, I had a visceral reaction to this quote in particular: “A paired life is not an aspirational state, but a compromised one. Loneliness is not the terror we escape; it is instead the reward we give up when we believe something else to be worth the sacrifice.” As a lumpy weird teenager in my parents’ home, my bedroom and its six distinct bookshelves were my sanctuary. I could close the door to focus on my schoolwork, read for hours, or shut out the chaos that comes with having a family. In all of the apartment I share with my partner, there are only two doors: the front door and the bathroom door. We live on the third floor of a historic house; there was no bedroom door when we moved in and we didn’t think to ask where it was. As my partner installs our window A/C units I am grateful we have this life together, but I readily admit it is a daily struggle for me to share space. I come back to Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous quote: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” I think Fitzgerald would agree.

from Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

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1. Sunk

Mitch Moxley | The Atavist | May 23, 2016 | 50 minutes (12,528 words)

A Chinese billionaire’s dream of becoming the next Steven Spielberg results in a big budget movie fiasco.

2. 13, Right Now: Growing up in the age of likes, lols and longing

Jessica Contrera | The Washington Post | May 26, 2016 | 12 minutes (3,178 words)

The story of a child in 2016, whose life revolves around her phone and social networks.

3. Ethics and the Eye of the Beholder

Katie J.M. Baker | BuzzFeed | May 20, 2016 | 21 minutes (5,303 words)

A federal civil rights complaint claims that prominent Yale professor Thomas Pogge, a leader in the field of global ethics, has used his influence to manipulate young women.

4. The Keyhole Seven

Grayson Schaffer | Outside Magazine | May 24, 2016 | 21 minutes (5,389 words)

In September 2015, a group of canyoneers were swept away in a flash flood at Zion National Park in Utah. Grayson Schaffer reports on the worst disaster in Zion’s 97 years.

5. Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?

Chuck Klosterman | The New York Times Magazine | May 24, 2016 | 15 minutes (3,762 words)

What will the history of rock music look like in 300 years, and which artist best represents the entirety of rock ‘n’ roll? Chuck Klosterman makes the case for one musician.

from Longreads Blog

Beautiful Nowheres: ‘No Man’s Sky’ and the 500th Anniversary of ‘Utopia’

June 21, 2016, is one of the most anticipated dates in recent gaming history: it’s the day when No Man’s Sky, a galaxy-exploration game in the works since 2013, is finally released in the US. Raffi Khatchadourian wrote about the game’s genesis in the New Yorker last year; the game will allow players (at least those fortunate enough to be immortal) to visit no fewer than 18 quintillion planets, each with its own distinct biomes and landscapes. I haven’t touched a console in almost two decades, yet the promise of endless virtual worlds to wander around — taking flânerie to the cosmic level, as it were — sounds incredibly seductive.

In its own way, this virtual cosmos — unexplored, gorgeously designed, and effectively empty (its scope ensures you could avoid other players forever, if you so wished) — is yet another iteration of our contemporary drive to project real-world longings onto virtual spaces. Second Life, the shared, multiplayer virtual universe, has capitalized on similar desires (though with a more obvious layer of social interactivity), and shows no signs of slowing down well into its second decade.

But what is the desire fueling these elaborate constructions? At first, they might strike us as virtuously non-political: you just traipse around these beautiful pixels and set your brain on auto-pilot. But that sounds like a far too facile explanation. Has any mission of exploration, real or virtual, ever been divorced from expansionist fantasies? Not to mention that virtual reality was enmeshed, from the beginning, in a tension between its military potential and the progressive politics of its developers. It’s a point made clearly by VR pioneer Brenda Laurel, in an excellent oral history of the medium by Adi Robertson and Michael Zelenko: “I think everyone was hopeful, and looking forward to a change in consciousness. Either that, or they thought we were a bunch of crazy hippies.”

Perhaps what is at stake in these worlds is a particular type of aestheticized politics: a game of “what if?” in which we get to experience harmony and beauty unavailable to us in the world we actually inhabit. In other words: these games are part of a utopian tradition.

That tradition is as at least as old as Plato’s Republic. In its current version, though — as a narrative of world-building, in which the worlds being built always straddle the line between the antiseptic and the irresistible, the futuristic and the nostalgic — the tradition starts with Thomas More’s Utopia, which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. More’s work has been delighting and perplexing readers since it first came out — in his invented island, chamber pots are made of gold and meals are eaten at Brooklyn-ready communal tables; genders are surprisingly equal (for 16th-century England, at least), but slavery is still alive and well. It’s a place where justice and prosperity alternately feel wholesome and sinister.

As Terry Eagleton declared in a recent essay on More at the Guardian, “Alternative universes are really devices for embarrassing the present.” And Utopia certainly pokes one pointed finger after another at the stratified, violent chaos of Tudor England (initially published in Latin, the first English translation only came out years after More himself had been beheaded for his religion-based dissidence). His book laid the blueprint for all literary alternative-world creators to come later, from Swift in Gulliver’s Travels to second-rate sci-fi movies: keep it strange, keep it familiar, keep it fun.

The question utopias pose to us, according to Margaret Atwood (writing on one of More’s literary great-great-grandchildren, Huxley’s Brave New World), is twofold: “What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?” What is new in the more recent crop of virtual worlds is that they answer the former through an embodied experience, not a literary escapade, and their price is literally whatever it costs to buy the hardware and software they require. For the right amount of money, our senses will experience utopia in both its beauty and its sublimity. Until we switch it off. But what happens to us when we “return?”

Leaving utopias behind is as tricky a process as constructing them in the first place, if not more so. We’ve seen these scenarios play out with all-too-real consequences in American history. Julia Scheeres reconstructs, with terrifying precision, the gradual collapse of Jim Jones’ community in Escape from Jonestown, all the way to the unspeakable violence that ended it. And almost two centuries before it, the wave of utopian fervor that took hold over vast swaths of the United States left many more broken lives. As Chris Jennings reports, in his book on American utopianism, the “real” world becomes all the more unliveable to those who have tasted perfection: “one young communard wondered how, having known such intimacy and freedom, she could possibly face the ‘chilling cordiality of the world.’”

Many of us still remember the awe we experienced when we first plunged into the 3D jungles of Pandora, in James Cameron’s Avatar, where a naive, spiritually connected society fought to preserve their corner of the world — which just happened to sit on vast reserves of the precious, terribly-yet-aptly-named mineral, unobtanium. At the time, sensationalist reports were circulating about people experiencing post-Avatar depression, a syndrome triggered by the impossibility of ever moving to Pandora full time. Six years later, the highest-grossing movie of all time seems to have been largely forgotten (at least until the sequels start rolling out). Can a clumsy post-9/11 political allegory claim a spot in our memories when we have 18 quintillion planets to check off our bucket lists? (Now there’s a mission for an enterprising digital nomad — not that the utopian promise of digital nomadism is itself exempt from the thornier aspects of logistics, or politics.)

More’s Utopia gives us a model to rework and adapt, to rail against or to push towards. Our latest utopias, even when they’re shared with millions over screens of all sizes, seem to have a shelf life constrained by our free time and attention spans (anecdotally: both are dwindling). They (likely, hopefully) won’t lead to bloodbaths, but even at their most connected iterations, one can’t escape the knowledge that what we’re herding — what we are, once inside — is just pixels.

Stories discussed:

from Longreads Blog

A Liberated Woman: The Story of Margaret King

Emma Garman | Longreads | May 2016 | 16 minutes (4,200 words)

In October 1786, 27-year-old feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft journeyed from London to her new temporary home: an imposing Palladian-style mansion in County Cork, Ireland. Set in 1,000-plus acres of woodland, flanked by colonnades leading to outbuildings, and featuring statued terraces, vineyards, and conservatories, Mitchelstown Castle was the seat of Robert and Caroline King, who as Lord and Lady Kingsborough were the country’s largest landowners.

To Wollstonecraft’s radical sensibilities, such aristocratic excess was anathema. (As, no doubt, was the depiction of The Rape of Proserpina that graced the mansion’s entrance hall ceiling.) Still, she needed to financially support herself, as well as her two sisters, so had agreed to join the Kingsborough household’s 80-strong staff as governess to three girls. Caroline, it was rumored, had dismissed Wollstonecraft’s predecessor for sleeping with Robert. But she viewed the new hire as trustworthy, a principled woman of intellect unlikely to catch her husband’s eye. And Wollstonecraft, who had already written her first book—the soon to be published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters—wasn’t about to start batting her eyelashes at his lordship. His “countenance,” she wrote sniffily to her sister Eliza, “does not promise much more than good humour.”

Peter Paul Rubens - The Rape of Proserpina, 1636-1638. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Peter Paul Rubens – The Rape of Proserpina, 1636-1638. Via: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, literary scholar Janet Todd—author of Rebel Daughters: Ireland in Conflict 1798, a fascinating study of the Kingsborough family’s enmeshment in history—suspects that Wollstonecraft did end up falling in love with Robert. If so, little came of it except gossip; for Caroline, far more disastrous was the extent to which the governess’s brief tenure shaped the fates of the Misses King, especially 14-year-old Margaret. Thanks to, in the adult Margaret’s words, “the extraordinary woman to whose superior penetration & affectionate mildness of manner I trace the development of whatever virtues I possess,” this six-foot-tall scion of Anglo-Irish Protestant nobility became a political agitator, a cross-dressing rebel, and—long before women were allowed to qualify as doctors—a practicing medic whose 1823 child-rearing manual influenced generations. Published in the United States, Britain, and Italy, and still in print today, Advice to Young Mothers On the Physical Education of Children By a Grandmother offers Margaret King’s authoritative instruction on the evils of corsetry, the particular uses for a laudanum enema, the superiority of female midwives, and many other topics both relevant to modern readers (the benefits of breastfeeding) and less so (young children’s wine drinking habits).

Margaret’s virtues may be credited to Wollstonecraft, but her preoccupation with female reproductive health and childcare can be traced to much earlier in her life. When her parents married in Dublin in December 1769, Caroline was fifteen and Robert was sixteen; it was a union of cousins brokered, by their respective fathers, as a financial transaction between two great Irish estates. After the marriage, the bride kept her governess and the groom, rather than returning to school at Eton, engaged a secretary-tutor. In theory, these attendants would prevent the couple from consummating the relationship until they were older; in practice, the stable door was shut after the horse had bolted. According to Lyndall Gordon, author of Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, it seems that Caroline was already five months pregnant at her wedding, hence the precipitate walking of two virtual children down the aisle. “It was not customary,” Gordon points out, “for boys to leave Eton at sixteen to be married.” Baby George likely came along in 1770, followed by Margaret in 1771. In an attempt at concealment, the family gave Burke’s Peerage false dates for both arrivals, and there is still confusion over when, exactly, Margaret was born.

Over the subsequent years Caroline had ten more surviving children: altogether the Kings had seven sons and five daughters. This remarkable prolificity was boosted by the practice, then widespread among the upper classes, of using wet nurses. Freedom from “suckling,” so convention dictated, allowed a mother to immediately recommence her social activities, travel schedule, and sex life. (It was believed that a nursing woman should be chaste, a myth going back to Ancient Greek physician Claudius Galen’s edict that sex disturbs the blood, and therefore the milk.) Yet it is breastfeeding, Margaret would later counsel her readers, that delays the resumption of ovulation after childbirth, thus avoiding the near-constant pregnancy she witnessed in her mother.

Furthermore, admonishes Advice to Young Mothers, for a woman “to throw her infant on the bosom of a stranger, for that nourishment which nature commands her to administer from her own…is often injurious to the health of both mothers and children.” Margaret was almost certainly thinking of her own constitution, delicate throughout her life, and of Wollstonecraft’s anti-wet nurse stance as put forward in her magnum opus, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published in 1792 when Margaret was a newlywed, the book contains scathing depictions of Caroline as the “fine lady” who was “reckoned very handsome, by those who do not miss the mind when the face is plump and fair,” who “has only been incited to acquire accomplishments that rise a degree above sense,” and who, perhaps most lamentably, “took her lapdog to her bosom instead of her child.”

That Caroline doted on her little dogs and ignored her children hardly made her unusual. As Margaret put it, people in their “rank of life” were “too much occupied by frivolous amusements to pay much attention to their offspring.” Indeed, when she was a toddler, her teenage parents left her outside of London for eighteen months while they went on a grand tour of Europe. For the rest of her childhood, Margaret—along with her siblings—was shuffled between various grand family houses and cared for by “hirelings.”

Little wonder, then, that when Wollstonecraft first encountered 14-year-old Margaret and her two younger sisters, twelve-year-old Caroline and six-year-old Mary, she thought them “wild.” But she saw how they feared their cold and condescending mother, and couldn’t help but sympathize: she too had been starved of affection as a child, with a violent alcoholic father and a mother who only had love enough for her firstborn, Ned. So Wollstonecraft set about befriending her charges, and devised a program of learning based on their interests, instead of what she disparaged as the “heap of rubbish miscalled accomplishments”—needlework, French, music—meant to enhance the marriageability of well-to-do girls.

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Tate Gallery, John Opie. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Tate Gallery, John Opie. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Before long Margaret, unused to being shown affection, much less respect, was enamored of this unorthodox creature who railed against income inequality, let them read novels (a pastime Caroline disapproved of), extolled the spiritual comforts of Anglicanism, and—to their astonishment—took them for daily walks in the fresh air. (In a recommendation that was still fairly outlandish in the early 19th century, Advice to Young Mothers states that adolescent girls should “have as much air and exercise as possible.”) For Wollstonecraft Margaret felt “an unbounded admiration,” she later reminisced, “because her mind appeared more noble and her understanding more cultivated than any others I had known.”

Whereas Caroline might spend five hours a day dressing, styling her hair, and applying make-up, Wollstonecraft disdained fashion and feminine frippery, an outlook that deeply resonated with Margaret. The elaborate costumes then in vogue—with their satin flounces, puffy sleeves, and artificially pulled-in waists—did not suit her large, athletic frame, and she bridled at the physical restriction and discomfort they imposed. “Lacing,” she would come to believe, was not only unnecessary, it was hazardous to health:

the worst of all pressures is what is frequently inflicted on the bodies of female children, by that most detrimental of all fashions, the use of stays—and the origin of a thousand deformities and diseases, and the cause of many fatal accidents. Where it even true that an excessively small waist was a necessary part of beauty, and that great sacrifices ought to be made for the acquisition of it, we should first consider how far this mode of squeezing the stomach and bowels is likely to have the desired effect; or whether it is worth while, for the doubtful chance of obtaining this end, to run the risk of producing certain ugliness, by crookedness and bad health. I have very good reason for believing that this mode of acquiring a slender shape does not always succeed.

To the horror of her mother, who was making a shortlist of possible husbands, under Wollstonecraft’s guidance Margaret’s “disgust to the follies of dress, equipage & the other usual objects of female vanity” deepened. Like her mentor, Margaret craved appreciation for her mind, not her appearance, a ruinous attitude from Caroline’s abidingly traditional perspective. With relations between her ladyship and the governess already strained—Wollstonecraft thought her employer shallow and haughty, while her own mopey moods and prickliness infuriated Caroline—their creeds clashed irreconcilably over the molding of Margaret. Yet in the heart of the defiant teenager, not the merest conflict dwelled. She mutinied against her mother at every turn and remained a devoted disciple of Wollstonecraft, who with obvious pride wrote to her sister Everina: “I govern her completely—yet her violence of temper teases me though I myself never feel the effects of it—she sees her mother’s faults.”

Possibly the final straw for Caroline was Margaret’s open anguish at the prospect of Wollstonecraft leaving for a short visit to her sisters. To Caroline such emotional display was both indecorous and irrational: the destructive spell cast by the insubordinate tutoress must, she decided, be broken once and for all. Less than a year after Wollstonecraft entered the Kings’ lives, she was dismissed. Margaret would never see her again.

* * *

Caroline worried that her daughters’ characters were already warped beyond saving—and ten years later, public reaction to a series of shocking incidents corroborated her fears. Margaret’s younger sister Mary, at age 16, had begun an affair with a married man of nearly 30: Henry Gerald Fitzgerald, their mother’s cousin (probably—accounts vary, with some even making him her illegitimate half-brother). A drawn-out debacle ensued, one involving a pregnancy, an elopement, advertised rewards for Mary’s safe recovery, and a pistols-at-dawn duel between her lover and her second-eldest brother. Finally, the wayward girl’s honor was avenged by her father, who shot Fitzgerald dead—and was soon arrested.

In the run up his lordship’s trial for murder, many commentators were eager to identify the real villain of the piece: Mary’s former governess. By strange synchronicity, Wollstonecraft had died after giving birth to her daughter, Mary, in the same month, September 1797, that Mary King ran away. The following January her widower, political philosopher and writer William Godwin, published his Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Following coverage of the book, a correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine wondered if

Miss K whose unhappy story so lately engaged the public attention, be one of the daughters of Lord Kingsborough, in whose family the late Mrs Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was a governess. Whether this may have been the fact or not, is not every degree of indiscretion, and even of profligacy, the natural consequence of such principles as Mrs G maintained in speculation, and exhibited in her own conduct?

Those same contaminating principles also exercised a contributor to the Anti-Jacobin Review. “How far a woman of such principles was qualified to superintend the education of young ladies,” he wrote, “I leave to be discussed and determined by circles of fashion and gallantry; intimating only, that Miss W was a governess of the daughter of Lord Viscount Kingsborough.” These were not idle musings. As the scholar N.F. Lowe has argued, conservatives mobilized to exploit the scandal and present it as proof of the danger posed to Church and State by Wollstonecraft’s school of thought.

Mary was sent off to spend her confinement in secret, and “according to some,” reports Wollstonecraft biographer Claire Tomalin, “her baby was killed by her family.” Meanwhile, in May of 1798 Robert King was acquitted of murder—but not before Margaret, now a key player in the movement for an independent Ireland, tried to use the trial to advance her Wollstonecraftian political vision: the ending of British monarchical rule and the formation of a republic. Since Robert, newly promoted from Viscount Kingsborough to 2nd Earl of Kingston after his father’s death, had opted to be tried by his peers at the Irish House of Lords—and since the affair obsessed high society—the House would contain the entire Irish aristocracy as participants and spectators. Tickets were sold to the trial, which had to be moved to the larger House of Commons. What better time and place to launch a French-style revolutionary uprising?

In the end, the machinations of an informant led to the revolt being postponed at the eleventh hour. Yet the trial, observes Janet Todd, represented such a unique opportunity for republican forces to grab power that, had the original plan gone ahead, the future of Ireland would have taken a very different course.

Margaret continued her political maneuverings, writing pamphlets and campaigning against the union of England, Scotland and Ireland—“an unfathomable abyss”—proposed in the wake of the bloody battle for Ireland’s soul that waged throughout the summer of 1798. Her efforts were in vain: in 1800, the Acts of Union bill was passed, spelling the abolition of Ireland’s Parliament, which was located in Dublin, and with it the country’s semi-independence. Twenty years later, in a letter to Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, Margaret described this event as a shock from which “my nerves have never recovered.”

* * *

Margaret’s husband, Stephen Moore, Earl of Mount Cashell, did not share her political idealism, nor her intense intellectual engagement. She had married him at nineteen, uncharacteristically bowing to familial expectation: he was rich, titled, and eminently suitable. And she longed to escape from Caroline’s control. Given time, however, she realized her mistake. In an account of her life written for her two youngest daughters, and reproduced in The Sensitive Plant: A Life of Lady Mount Cashell by Edward C. McAleer, she explains that

Stephen Moore Earl of Mount Cashell was about one and twenty, a handsome man with gentle manners & the appearance of an easy temper. His education had been of the meanest sort; his understanding was uncultivated & his mind contracted. He had an aversion to literature, was incapable of comprehending the feelings of a noble spirit & respected nothing but wealth & titles—how he came to think of me for a wife God alone knows. To my shame I confess that I married him with the idea of governing him, the silliest project that ever entered a woman’s mind.

Nevertheless, she had seven children with Moore (including a little boy who died young). She was pregnant with the eighth when, during a tour of Europe in 1804, she began spending time with George Tighe, a handsome, cerebral Irishman four years her junior, upper-class but of slender means. Their affair led to the breakdown of Margaret’s 14-year marriage. Consumed by a passion which, she confessed, she lacked “sufficient resolution to withstand,” she didn’t foresee that splitting from her husband would mean losing her children. At his vindictive but legally-sanctioned insistence, they all went to live with him in Ireland; his friends, Margaret was convinced, had persuaded this “weak man” that “his character would rise on the ruins of mine.”

Margaret embarked on a new and very different life with Tighe. An Honorable at birth and a Countess on her marriage, immense privilege was all she had ever known. Now she was unprotected by status and title—she renamed herself Mrs. Mason, after the governess in Wollstonecraft’s children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life—and had relinquished all the trappings of social respectability. But for the first time, in her early thirties, she was in love. Moreover, she was free to follow her dreams: she attended medical school in the German town of Jena, obeying A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’s precept that women “might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses.” Of course, society did not yet agree with Wollstonecraft, but that was a problem easily solved: tall, muscular Margaret simply went to lectures dressed as a man. (Interestingly, it was around this time that her namesake and fellow Irishwoman Margaret Ann Bulkley—aka James Miranda Barry—began passing as a man and trained as a doctor. Her uncle was friends with William Godwin, suggesting that Wollstonecraft’s legacy was again at work.)

Liberation came at a cost: Margaret and her lover, all but ostracized by friends and family, endured a long stretch of near-indigent wandering fraught with “anxieties and difficulties.” For extra money, she turned her hand to writing children’s fiction, and in 1808 her Stories of Old Daniel was published by Godwin’s Juvenile Library, the press set up by William Godwin and his second wife, Mary Jane. (Some years before, Godwin and Margaret had met in Dublin. Though they didn’t particularly hit it off, they began a cordial correspondence.) Several subsequent editions, with additional new stories, appeared. The couple’s finances continued to be tight, however, especially with the arrival of a daughter, Laurette, in 1809. And yet, as Margaret would later reflect in a letter to Mary Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, being “a vagabond on the face of the earth” habituated her to do without the typical comforts, or “thousand little wants,” of everyday life.

A happier era dawned in 1814, when Margaret, Tighe, and their 5-year-old daughter moved to Pisa, drawn by the small Tuscan city’s warm climate and calm beauty. By now Margaret had obtained a legal separation from her husband (though not a divorce) and an agreed yearly income, allowing the family to move into a modest but comfortable house: Casa Silva, set among orchards on the south side of the River Arno. Margaret took up her medical studies with Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri, a renowned professor of surgery who was also a freethinking liberal and atheist. The doctor became a good friend, and under his guidance she ran an infirmary and dispensary for poor locals. Ahead of her time in the medical arena as in others, she championed preventative and alternative medicine, counseling against unnecessary drugs and interventions; she also began researching the book that would become Advice to Young Mothers. Tighe, for his part, spent his days experimenting with growing potato, both in the ground and, to the amusement of neighbors, in pots. A second daughter, Nerina, was born in 1815. Their life was one of obscure tranquility.

Claire Clairmont. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Claire Clairmont. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Yet try as she might to embrace obscurity, the currents of history were determined to pull her back in. In September 1819 a notorious ménage arrived at Casa Silva with a letter of introduction from William Godwin: it was his daughter, Mary, her husband, Percy Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont (the daughter of Mary Jane Godwin). The itinerant trio was en route to Florence, having left London five years earlier under a cloud of slander and disrepute. Shelley, wearing the mantle of poetic genius at age 22, had abandoned his pregnant wife to abscond abroad with two 16-year-old girls—whom he purchased for cash, so scurrilous rumor had it, from the perpetually impecunious Godwin. Many tribulations and adventures followed, including the night of ghost story writing at Lord Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva—still endlessly mythicized centuries later—when Mary began Frankenstein. Now all were mourning the loss of children. The Shelleys’ son had died that June in Rome, less than a year after the death of his sister, and four years after a premature baby girl lived for only weeks. And Claire had been forced to give up her daughter to the permanent custody of the girl’s father, Byron.

Margaret, who otherwise refused contact with English people, welcomed this band of outsiders with open arms. She empathized with their agonies: after all, she herself had lost a son, and was permitted no contact with her other Mount Cashell children. And she was bound to feel maternal toward Wollstonecraft’s daughter, the intellectually gifted but spectacularly unlucky young woman who never knew her own mother, and who was soon to give birth to her fourth child. After leaving again for Florence, the group exchanged letters with their new friend, and soon accepted her exhortation to return to Pisa to live.

More than 30 years after Wollstonecraft had guided and nurtured Margaret, she did the same for the Shelleys and Claire, all of whom she regarded as honorary family. Assisting them in any way she could with the practicalities of settling in Pisa, she also gave medical advice to Shelley (who was both illness-prone and a hypochondriac), helped Mary with the new baby, and—for everyone’s sanity—broke up couple’s dysfunctional love-triangle with Claire. Margaret saw that as long as Shelley carried on a pseudo (or perhaps not so pseudo) romance with his stepsister-in-law, the women would fight and tension and ill-will would reign. As Charlotte Gordon describes in Romantic Outlaws, her masterful dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, the determined countess-turned-doctor had no qualms about stepping in. She arranged for a reluctant Claire to relocate to Florence, where she stayed with friends of the Masons. The young woman’s health depended on her getting away from the Shelleys, insisted Margaret, and so did her reputation and, thus, opportunities for gainful employment.

Though lonely in Florence, Claire was ultimately grateful for Margaret’s interference, remarking, “God only can tell me from what gulf of ruin, the counsels of that dear Lady saved me!” And Mary was pleased to be left in peace to work on her historical novel, Valperga. But tragedy was, as ever, beckoning: in July 1822, Shelley drowned in the Italian Riviera when his boat, sailing between Livorno and La Spezia, was hit by a storm. It so happened that Margaret was one of the last people to see him alive. The day before the accident, a Sunday, he had paid her a visit, looking unusually happy and healthy. Then on Monday night Margaret dreamed of a pale, melancholy Shelley, whom she encouraged to eat. “No,” he replied. “I shall never eat more.” She woke up disturbed and worried; it would be another ten days before his body washed up.

A few months later came another death: that of Margaret’s estranged husband, Stephen Moore. Though it meant the end of her annuity payments, it freed her to marry again. She and George Tighe, aging parents who had lived together for nearly two decades, finally tied the knot in 1826, in a ceremony at home. Yet by then, it seems, they were already growing apart. In 1823, Margaret had successfully, albeit anonymously, published Advice to Young Mothers, which she followed up with a well-received two-volume novel, The Sisters of Nansfield. In her fifties, she was becoming less hermit-like, and desirous of intellectually stimulating and varied company. Tighe, on the other hand, was increasingly reserved and reclusive, mostly preferring agronomy to people. While he retreated to a quiet life in the country, his wife spent much of her time at their apartment in Pisa, where she hosted a literary society: the Accademia dei Lunatici, or Academy of Lunatics, attended by poets and future revolutionaries. “It cannot entirely be a coincidence that many of the forty-six members later played important roles in the history of the Italian Risorgimento,” writes Margaret’s biographer, Edward C. McAleer, “and one is tempted to trace the liberalism of Mary Wollstonecraft into Italy by way of Mrs. Mason.”

Oil portrait of Margaret King. Via New York Public Library Digital Collection

Oil portrait of Margaret King. Via New York Public Library Digital Collection

In 1832, after a decade of drifting between Russia, Dresden, England, and Italy, Claire came to live with Margaret. “Hers is the only house,” she wrote to Mary, “except my Mother’s, in which all my life I have always felt at home. With her, I am as her child.” Together with Margaret’s lively daughters, Laurette and Nerina, they fostered an almost utopian atmosphere of female frankness and solidarity. But Claire’s happiness was marred by fears for her surrogate mother’s health, which was failing, and in January 1835 Margaret died in her early 60s. She was buried in the Old English Cemetery at Livorno; after two years, she was joined by her husband. For the rest of their lives, though mostly separated by geography, Claire and Mary would stay in touch with Laurette and Nerina.

Long after her death, Margaret’s books continued to be read. Posthumous Italian editions of Advice to Young Mothers, translated by her personal physician, were published under the name Contessa di Mount Cashell—Irlandese. And while Italian children were being raised according to Margaret’s teachings, so were the English children and grandchildren of a famous Italian: Gabriele Rossetti, whose copy of Advice to Young Mothers was passed down to his son, the Pre-Raphaelite writer William Michael. Perhaps the book’s stern injunction against ever “wounding a daughter’s sensibility, or mortifying her pride” helped paved the way for Olivia and Helen Rossetti to become precocious revolutionaries. (Their anarchist journal, The Torch, was founded when they were teenagers and published work by Emma Goldman, George Bernard Shaw, and Emile Zola.)

As for Mitchelstown Castle, that emblem of feudal barbarism described by Wollstonecraft as possessing “such a solemn kind of stupidity…as froze my very blood,” in 1823 it was torn down and recreated in Gothic-Revival style by Margaret’s older brother, George. A century later, during the 1920s Troubles, republicans stormed the castle and destroyed it with fire. It was never rebuilt.

* * *

Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, Words Without Borders, The Awl, Tablet Magazine, and many other publications.

from Longreads Blog

First Chapters: The Veins of the Ocean, by Patricia Engel

Patricia Engel | Grove Press | May 2016 | 14 minutes (3,331 words)

Below is the first chapter from The Veins of the Ocean, the new novel by author Patricia Engel. Thanks to Engel and Grove Press for sharing it with the Longreads community.

* * *

When he found out his wife was unfaithful, Hector Castillo told his son to get in the car because they were going fishing. It was after midnight but this was nothing unusual. The Rickenbacker Bridge suspended across Biscayne Bay was full of night fishermen leaning on the railings, catching up on gossip over beer and fishing lines, avoiding going home to their wives. Except Hector didn’t bring any fishing gear with him. He led his son, Carlito, who’d just turned three, by the hand to the concrete wall, picked him up by his waist, and held him so that the boy grinned and stretched his arms out like a bird, telling his papi he was flying, flying, and Hector said, “Sí, Carlito, tienes alas, you have wings.”

Then Hector pushed little Carlito up into the air, spun him around, and the boy giggled, kicking his legs up and about, telling his father, “Higher, Papi! Higher!” before Hector took a step back and with all his might hoisted the boy as high in the sky as he’d go, told him he loved him, and threw his son over the railing into the sea.

Nobody could believe it. The night fishermen thought they were hallucinating but one, a sixty-year-old Marielito, didn’t hesitate and went in after Carlito, jumping feet first into the dark bay water while the other fishermen tackled Hector so that he couldn’t run away. The police came, and when all was said and done, little Carlito only had a broken collarbone, and Cielos Soto, the fisherman who saved Carlito, developed a permanent crook in his back that made him look like a big fishing hook when he walked until his death ten years later.

Hector Castillo was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison—you know the way these things go—but he killed himself right after the sentencing. Not by hanging himself from the cypress tree in the front yard like he’d always threatened since that’s the way his own father had chosen to depart this life. No. Hector used a razor purchased off some other lifer in a neighboring unit and when they found him, the floor of his cell was already covered in blood. But Carlito and I didn’t hear about all that till much later.

Since Carlito had no memory of the whole disaster, Mami fed us a story that our father died in Vietnam, which made no sense at all because both Carlito and I were born years after Vietnam, back in Colombia. But that was before we learned math and history, so it’s no wonder she thought her story would stick. And forget about the fact that Hector was born cojo, with a dragging leg, and never would have been let into any army.

In fact, the only clue we had about any of this mess was that Carlito grew up so scared of water that Mami could only get him in the bathtub once a week, if she was lucky, which is why Carlito had a rep for being the smelliest kid on the block and some people say that’s why he grew up to be such a bully.

But then, when he was fourteen and our Tío Jaime decided it was time for Carlito to get drunk for the first time, only Jaime got drunk and he turned to Carlito over the folding card table on our back patio and said, “Mi’jo, it’s time you know the truth. Your father threw you off a bridge when you were three.”

PatriciaEngel c MarionEttlinger (1)

Patricia Engel. Photo by Marion Ettlinger.

He went on to say that Hector wouldn’t have lost it if Mami hadn’t been such a puta, and next thing you know, Carlito had our uncle pinned to the ground and smashed the beer bottle across his forehead.

He was asking for it, I guess.

Mami had no choice but to tell Carlito and me the real story that same night.

In a way, I always knew something like that had happened. It was the only way to explain why my older brother got such special treatment his whole life—everyone scared to demand that he go to school, that he study, that he have better manners, that he stop pushing me around.

El Pobrecito is what everyone called him, and I always wondered why.

I was two years younger and nobody, and I mean nadie, paid me any mind, which is why, when our mother told the story of our father trying to kill his son like we were people out of the Bible, part of me wished our papi had thrown me off that bridge instead.

* * *

All of this is to tell you how we became a prison family.

It’s funny how these things go. After Carlito went to jail, people started saying it was his inheritance—que lo llevaba en la sangre. And Dr. Joe, this prison shrink I know who specializes in murderers, told me that very often people seek to reenact the same crime that was inflicted upon them. I said that sounded a lot like fate, which I am strictly opposed to, ever since this bruja on Calle Ocho, a blue-haired Celia Cruz knockoff with a trail of customers waiting outside her shop door, told me no man was ever going to fall in love with me on account of all the curses that have been placed on my slutty mother.

What happened is that Carlito, when he was twenty-two, heard that his Costa Rican girlfriend, Isabela, was sleeping with this insurance guy from Kendall. And that’s it; instead of just dumping her like a normal person would, he drove over to her house, kissed her sweet on the lips, told her he was taking her daughter by her high school boyfriend out to buy a new doll at the toy store, but instead, Carlito drove over to the Rickenbacker Bridge and, without a second’s hesitation, he flung baby Shayna off into the water like she was yesterday’s trash going into the landfill.

But the sea wasn’t flat and still like the day Carlito had gone in. Today it was all whitecapped waves from a tropical storm moving over Cuba. There were no fishermen on account of the choppy waters, just a couple of joggers making their way over the slope of the bridge. After Shayna went in, Carlito either repented or thought better of his scheme and jumped in after the little girl, but the currents were strong and Shayna was pulled under. Her tiny body is still somewhere down there, though somebody once told me that this water is actually full of sharks, so let’s be realistic here.

When the cops showed up and dragged my brother out of the water, Carlito tried to play the whole thing off like it was one big, terrible accident. But there were witnesses in sports bras who lined up to testify that Carlito had tossed the child like a football into the angry Atlantic.

If you ask him now, he’ll still say he didn’t mean to do it; he was just showing the baby the water and she slipped out of his arms—“You know how wiggly little kids are, Reina. Tú sabes.”

I’m the only one who listens because, since they arrested him, Carlito’s been in solitary confinement for his own protection.

If there’s one thing other inmates don’t tolerate, it’s a baby killer.

* * *

This is Florida, where they’re cool about putting people to death. After the Supreme Court banned capital punishment in the seventies, this state was the first to jump back into the execution business. I used to be one of those people saying “an eye for an eye,” even when it came down to my own father, who was already dead, God save his soul. But now that my brother is on death row, it’s another story. Mami doesn’t go with me to see Carlito. She’s over it. Not one of those mothers who will stand by her son till his dying day and profess his innocence. She says she did her best to make sure he grew up to be a decent man and the day he snapped, it was clear the devil had taken over.

“Out of my hands,” she says, smacking her palms together like there’s dust on them.

The last time the three of us were together was the day of the sentencing. I begged the judge for leniency, said my brother was young and could still be of use to society, even if he got life and was stuck banging out license plates for the rest of his days. But it wasn’t enough.

After she blew Carlito her last kiss good-bye, Mami began to cry, and her tears continued all night as she knelt before the altar in her bedroom, candles lit among roses and coins offered to the saints in hopes of a softer sentence. I heard her cry all night, but when I tried to comfort her, Mami brushed me off as if I were the enemy and told me to leave her alone.

The next morning she announced her tears had run out and Carlito was no longer her son.

Mami’s got a dentist boyfriend in Orlando who she spends most of her time with, leaving me in the Miami house alone, which wouldn’t be so bad if I had any kind of life to fill this place. But I use up all my free time driving down US 1 to the South Glades Penitentiary. We’re lucky Carlito got placed in a prison just a few hours’ drive south and not in center of the state or up in the panhandle, and that he gets weekly visitation rights, not monthly like most death row killers.

I want to say you’d be surprised by the kind of people who go visit their relatives and lovers in jail, but really you wouldn’t be surprised at all. It’s just like you see on TV—desperate, broken-toothed women in ugly clothes, or other ladies who dress up like streetwalkers to feel sexy among the inmates and who are waiting for marriage proposals from their men in cuffs, even if they’re in maximum security and the court has already marked them for life or death sentences. There are women who come with gangs of kids who crawl all over their daddies, and there are the teenagers and grown-up kids who come and sit across the picnic tables bitter-lipped while their fathers try to apologize for being there.

Then there are the sisters, like me, who show up because nobody else will. Our whole family, the same people who treated my brother like he was baby Moses, all turned their backs on Carlito when he went to the slammer. Not one soul has visited him besides me. Not an uncle, a tía, a primo, a friend, anybody. This is why I take visiting him so seriously and have spent just about every weekend down there for the past two years, sleeping at the South Glades Seaside Motel, which is really a trailer park full of people like me who became transients just to be close to their locked-up sweethearts.

I’m not allowed to bring Carlito snacks or gifts since he got moved to the maximum-security prison. If I could, I would bring him candy bars because, back when he was a free man, Carlito spent a big cut of his paycheck from his job at the bank on chocolate. I mean, the boy was an addict, but you could never tell because Carlito was thin like a palm tree and had the smoothest complexion you’ve ever seen. Carlito got it together late in high school, and even made it into college and graduated with honors. I’m telling you, even Mami said it was a milagro. He got into a training program at a bank and was working as a teller, but they said after a few years he’d be a private banker, moving big money, and his dream was to work at one of the Brickell banks that hold the cash of all our Latin nations.

Carlito would move our family up—make enough so that our mother wouldn’t have to paint nails anymore. That was the plan.

Carlito, now, is fat like you’d never have predicted. He says it’s a prison conspiracy given all the mashed potatoes they feed the inmates, and he thinks everything is laced with hormones meant for cows. He has to eat his meals alone in his cell and not in the chow hall like the regular lifers. He doesn’t get to work out in the yard with the other prisoners, he just gets an hour a day to walk laps around a small fenced-in concrete cage with a chicken-wire roof they call “the kennel.”

Sometimes he gets his rec time deducted because a guard decides to write him up for some made-up offense. So he mostly does his routines in his little cell—push-ups, sit-ups, and squats—but he still looks like a two-hundred-fifty-pound troll because Carlito’s hair started to fall out the day of his sentencing. That luscious, shiny Indian hair went straight into the communal shower drain and now my brother, barely twenty-five, looks like he’s somebody’s grandfather, with anxious creases burrowed into his forehead and a nose that turned downward into a beak the day he lost his freedom.

He’s not your typical inmate; he doesn’t try to act remorseful or even say he’s innocent anymore because really, after the first appeal to overturn his conviction was denied, we sort of lost hope. He did the whole thing of writing letters to Isabela before the trial, apologizing even though he says it wasn’t his fault, but even then you could tell Carlito’s heart wasn’t in it.

He blames Papi for all this, and then Mami. Says maybe Tío Jaime was right, if Mami hadn’t been such a puta all those years ago, none of this would have happened.

I don’t tell my brother that Dr. Joe, who works in Carlito’s prison and sometimes meets me for drinks in the lounge of the South Glades Seaside Motel, told me it probably all comes down to brain chemistry and Carlito may have just been a ticking bomb, and that homicidal tendencies sometimes run in families. I pretended not to be worried by this, acted nonchalant, and even went so far as to lie to Dr. Joe and say, “I guess I lucked out because Carlito and I have different fathers.” I believed this for a while, but Mami said, “Lo siento, mi corazón. Hector was your papi too.”

Dr. Joe is familiar with Carlito’s case. Not just from the newspapers but because he reviewed his files when assigned to the Glades prison, hoping Carlito was in need of some kind of counseling. He says he’s doing research on the ways solitary confinement can change a person’s mind over time. He got permission to scan lifers’ brains to compare the ones who are segregated from the main prison population and those who are not. I asked him if it’s right to run them through tests like they’re animals, but Dr. Joe said, “It’s for science, Reina,” and he can already prove being in isolation makes inmates nearsighted and hypersensitive to sound and light. Solitary can also make a person psychotic, paranoid, and develop hallucinations, he says, but it’s hard to tell who is being honest about their nervous breakdowns because, even if lots of inmates check into prison as mentally ill, some just want to be labeled crazy to take or trade the free pills.

Carlito wants nothing to do with Dr. Joe or the other prison shrinks and refuses to talk to any of them. Dr. Joe tried playing the insider, standing outside Carlito’s cell door, peering through the small reinforced glass windowpane, saying he knew Carlito was innocent, and he was on his side. If only Carlito was willing to talk, maybe he could help him with his next appeal. Carlito didn’t bite.

Sometimes I suspect Dr. Joe only acts interested in me so that I’ll soften Carlito, convince him to hand himself over for Dr. Joe’s research, persuade him the way Dr. Joe tries to persuade me that since they won’t let Carlito take classes or socialize like other inmates, submitting to his study is a small way to feel useful, give something of himself, and it’s also a way to have interpersonal contact those weeks when he doesn’t exchange words with a single human besides the prison guards, and me.

“All of this has to be so hard on you, Reina,” Dr. Joe said to me the first time we met at the motel bar. “You must be overwhelmed with so many feelings.”

Dr. Joe thinks I have anger toward my brother because when I was nine he locked me in my bedroom closet for hours, told my mother I’d gone to the neighbor’s to play, and I had no choice but to pee in a shoebox. Also, because when our mother was at work, he would make me take off my clothes and sit around watching TV naked, or sometimes he’d make me get up and dance, and when I refused, he’d pull out a knife from a kitchen drawer and hold it to my neck.

But I tell Dr. Joe my brother was mostly a good brother because he never did dirty things to me like the brothers of some of my friends. And when a girl from school started bullying me in the eighth grade, saying I was an ugly junior puta, Carlito went over to her house one night with a wrestling mask on his face, crept into her room, and beat her out of her sleep.

Nobody ever found out it was him.

He did that for me.

Joe—he told me to stop calling him doctor but I keep forgetting—thinks I’m confused. He buys me beers and told me he’s thirty-two, which is really not much older than my age, twenty-three. He’s from Boston, which he says is nothing like South Florida. He might even be cute if he got a normal haircut, not his side-parted dusty brown shag, and lost those round glasses that look like they belong in 1985. He has a condo in Key Largo and sometimes invites me there. Just yesterday he said I could sleep there if I wanted, so I don’t have to spend all my money at the prison motel. I said thanks, but no thanks. I make good enough money to pay for this piece of paradise.

“You’re real pretty,” he said last night when I walked him to his car on the gravel driveway outside the lobby. “You got a boyfriend up there in Miami?”

“No, I come with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean.”

I was thinking specifically about the last guy, Lorenzo, a plastic surgeon who picked me up at Pollo Tropical. We went for dinner a few times and when we finally fucked at a hotel, he told me he’d do my tetas free if I promised to tell everyone they were his work. Then he wanted to take me to Sanibel for a few days, but I said my weekends were reserved for Carlito.

I still remember his eyes when I explained.

“You’re Carlos Castillo’s sister?”

That was the end of that.

Joe laughed as if I’d meant the baggage thing as a joke, and then swallowed his smile when he realized I hadn’t.

“You’re a great girl. Any man would be lucky to be with you.”

I smiled at Joe, even though I feel like people only say shit like that when they know you’re already a lost cause.

* * *

From THE VEINS OF THE OCEAN © 2016 by Patricia Engel. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved. Purchase the book.

from Longreads Blog

Graduation Day: Five Stories About Commencement

This is a picture of me and my great friend Shannon on our graduation day in 2012. She is my first and last; that is, we were roommates our freshman year and our senior year. There are many things I don’t miss about my four years in higher ed, but living amongst my closest friends isn’t one of them. If I could go back to any moment in my life, I think I would choose walking into the student union and seeing a table of my friends, laughing and working.

College was brutal. I almost didn’t finish. My friends gave meaning to my pain. If that sounds dramatic, that’s because it was. College is nothing if not dramatic, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. For four years, my universe was a bucolic, neoclassical (and neoconservative) postage stamp in a part of the country I didn’t know existed until I moved there. Commencement was a blur, with a dull speaker and many, many photos. I wanted to sleep for a month and forget about the angst of my final semester.

What no one tells you about graduating is that it’s impossible to say goodbye, in both good and terrible ways. I have seen most of my college friends get married. We have vacationed together. Sometimes we ended up in the same workplace. We still exchange Christmas gifts and see each other regularly. That is the good. I still have nightmares about the bad—classic scenes of running late, getting lost, messing up on a final exam. These dreams so closely mirror my actual memories that my subconscious can’t differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t—at least, that’s my working theory. I am weighing fear against joy. The scale tips one way, then the other.

Commencement is fear and joy. Joy: You don’t have to do homework anymore. Fear: You need a job. But you got this, I promise. I promise, because I am doing it too, as hard as it is. If your commencement speaker disappoints, you can read these beautiful addresses from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ursula K. LeGuin and Joy Ladin. Just hide your phone under your robe.

1. “How the FBI Tried to Block Martin Luther King’s Commencement Speech.” (Martin Dobrow, The Atlantic, June 2014)

In the midst of imprisonment, wiretaps and nonviolent protests, Martin Luther King, Jr. has to travel over 1,000 miles to give a contested commencement speech in western Massachusetts.

2. “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Commencement Speech at UPenn.” (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Heat Steet, May 2016)

The creator of the hit musical Hamilton on the high stakes in the stories of our lives.

3. “Who Gets to Graduate?” (Paul Tough, The New York Times Magazine, May 2014)

“Whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t.” The University of Texas wants to reverse this trend, and a chemistry professor and psychology researcher may have the answer.

4. “Becoming the People We Wish We Were: An Address to the Graduating Students of Harvey Milk High School.” (Joy Ladin, HuffPost Queer Voices, July 2015)

“What can I say to a room full of superheroes?” Joy Ladin is the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish university. This is her stirring address to the students of Harvey Milk High School, which is dedicated to the at-risk LGBTQ youth of New York City.

5. “A Left-Handed Commencement Address.” (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1983)

Subversive, feminist, powerful—author Ursula K. LeGuin does not hold back. I want to paint this commencement speech on the walls of my apartment.

And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.


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