There is something I have always wondered about life: why is it that, throughout history, some of the brightest, strongest and most talented people alive (and some I know personally) so often arrive at success only after a series of brutally traumatic early life struggles? What makes it possible for these people to overcome such dire obstacles? Is it their very struggles that cause them to become so talented?
In school I always excelled in English and writing. I loved to read and write, as I do today. During one year in elementary school, each of us had to write a paper on a historical author. I chose Mark Twain because I happened to be reading Huckleberry Finn at the time. While researching his biography for the term paper, I realized that he went through this absolute monster of a life before becoming the epic writer whose stories we still enjoy. Four of his six siblings died as children, and his father died when he was eleven. Then, his close brother died as a young adult in a steamboat accident, for which Twain always blamed himself. And that was just the first half of his life.
Fascinated, I started to examine the early lives of other brilliant historical figures and found that many of them also had some pretty sad beginnings. Eventually what I learned was enough to form a theory in my mind, that those of us who are cursed with a rough and tragic childhood are thereby given the gift of learning how to endure, persevere and gather insight more aptly than most regular, well-adjusted people ever do.
Lately as I’ve been busy living the course of my adult life, I haven’t thought much more about that theory. But then last week I started reading Scott Jurek’s memoir “Eat and Run“, a story about how his early life prepared him for the triumphs of his running career, and it has reintroduced me to my original wonder and awe at the strength of those with unusually harsh childhoods.
Similar to Scott Jurek, Mark Twain and many others I know and admire, a huge chunk of my life has been downright tragic. And like them, I have been granted the gifts of profound insight, inner strength and creativity. Then again, it was a gift I had the choice to either recognize and take advantage of, or leave behind. My younger brother and I were both given this choice, and the years since have shown how differently we have each perceived it. Sometimes, like Twain, I blame myself. But that’s a story for another time.
But now I will tell you, in a few truncated parts, the story of how it all began for me.
I arrived to this world by inconvenient, if not sadly commonplace circumstances. My mother and father were dumb, wild and barely out of high school when they fell pregnant with me. They weren’t really serious about marriage or each other, they had no money and when my dad’s father found out, he ordered my mother to go get an abortion.
They didn’t listen to him, but having me around didn’t make their lives any better, either. Both of my parents loved to party and get high, but my mother was into it more. They got married a few months after I was born, and had barely given birth to their second child before their loud, cocaine-clouded fights attracted police officers to the house on reports of domestic abuse and public intoxication. Soon after, my mother decided to head for the hills and leave us all behind. She moved to Florida and I didn’t see her again until I was a teenager.
By then I was almost four and my brother hadn’t even celebrated his first birthday. My father needed help with us so we moved in with my paternal grandparents.
My dad and grandfather were a volatile pair; they fought ceaselessly, and sometimes we would be caught in the middle of the arguments. I remember once being dragged out of a dead sleep at 3 a.m., to be told that we were getting thrown out of the house. There was clothing and a mattress lying out on the lawn and my father was punching walls. The only thing that could settle the two men down was my grandmother. She was always so soft-spoken, but reasonable enough to keep them from killing each other for one more day. But when she wasn’t around, my grandfather often took his stresses with my father out on us. If I didn’t clean my room to his satisfaction he would grab my hair by the nape of my neck and toss me down the hallway toward my room to go fix it.
When I was nine, my grandmother died of a pulmonary embolism. My six year old brother was the one who found her body, naked in the bath with the cordless phone receiver in her hand. That was the first time I ever saw my grandfather cry, and it terrified me even more than losing the only maternal figure I had left.
Without my grandmother around to calm the angry tides, the fighting became unbearable. Eventually my grandpa no longer wanted to live in the house among the sad memories of his lost wife, and knowing that my dad had no savings, he gave the house to us and moved out. Now we were on our own.
Things just got worse for me in school as well as at home, after that. Without my grandmother around for me as a guiding motherly figure, my grades went down steadily, along with my self-esteem. I became overweight and my classmates routinely made fun of me for it. My father didn’t allow me to join the cheerleading squad because, as he told me, nobody likes a fat cheerleader. But he also wouldn’t let me join a street hockey team like my brother, because he didn’t think girls should play boy sports. However, I was still expected to find a way to lose the extra weight, even though we were getting our dinner at McDonald’s three times a week.
In addition to the daily brow-beating I would receive plenty of real beatings, too. At age 11 I learned how to make my father’s White Russians, and learned how to drive his motorboat, on the occasions when we were out on the lake and he had gotten himself too drunk to get it back to shore safely. Eventually I became fully responsible for keeping the house, doing laundry and taking care of my brother while dad was at work, playing hockey, out getting hammered or away for the weekend with one of his many girlfriends. If he came home to a messy house or a hungry son, I would pay for it handsomely.
Obviously, my brother was spoiled and favored by our father. But he also had ADHD, and I believe, a touch of bipolar disorder. After awhile he caught on that he could get away with a lot more than I could, so he would play Nintendo all day while I picked up after him. And then about twenty minutes before our father was due home he would make a disaster out of the house, just so he could watch me get slapped around with a satisfied grin on his face.
Over time my father got drunker and more lost to the real world. He kept his day job at G.E. without much of a problem, but mostly because my grandfather worked there and would straighten him out when needed. He made good money too, but he would spend it all on booze, dope and hockey. One night when I was about 14, he came home after getting trashed at the bar and was moving about so loudly that he woke me up. When I came out of my room the house was filled with smoke, all the way down to the hallway where the fire alarms had been disconnected years before. In his stupor, my father had put a dry pot on the stove at high heat, with a frozen package of meat inside it. The pot was on fire now, the flames rising less than two feet from the ceiling. And there was my blitzed father in the living room, busy tripping over himself and giggling like a school girl. I screamed and cried for his attention, but he was too out of it to help. Finally I ran into the kitchen, lifted the burning pot off the stove and doused it under the sink, lucky as hell that there was no oil in it. By the time I was able to put out the fire and open all of the windows he had passed out halfway on his bed, fully dressed, both feet still on the floor. My brother and I sat outside on the swing-set for the rest of the night, because the house was too smokey to breathe.
When I was high school age, my father could no longer afford to send me to Catholic school, where I had been sent by my grandmother to avoid the terrible public schools in the area. A newbie and a Freshman at Leominster High, I was routinely beat up by tough girls who interpreted my terrified quietness as Catholic school snobbery. One morning I came to school and my locker had been spray-painted with the words “TRISHA IS A SLUT.” This was because I had unknowingly sat next to someone’s boyfriend on the bus to school the day before.
No doubt, all of that was a terrific recipe for my upcoming teenage rebellion.
With nobody else to accept me at school or at home, I made friends with the kids from the local projects about a mile from our house. These kids’ parents were absent enough that they would easily get away with every kind of bad behavior under the sun. They stole cigarettes from the corner store, smoked pot, drank their parents’ liquor and stayed out late without repercussions. Not surprisingly, I wanted to do all those things too. I would walk up there after school to hang out with them until it got dark, and then I would sneak out of my bedroom window a few times a week to cause trouble all night. Then I would skip school the following day and forge my dad’s signature on school paperwork.
And things kept getting worse as my rambunctious teenage years ensued. My father arrived home earlier than expected a few times, and caught me with boys in the house. He would chase them out the door, hurling death threats at them. One time the police had to call him home from a vacation with his girlfriend of the month, when they arrived to answer a public disturbance call. I had been hosting a 30-person house party that had gotten completely out of control. There were people on the roof throwing snowballs at cars, somebody had put my dog into the oven, and my father’s truck had gone missing for almost two hours.
When my dad got home that night and the police officers left, my father beat me so hard that he left bruises all over my face. After his rage lulled he made me get into the car with him. The way he was driving (drunk) made me fear that he meant to kill us both. But he didn’t kill us. He just didn’t want me to run away from home while he was out at the liquor store buying more booze.