By Díre McCain
I was born rootless and restless, the youngest child of six, three of each kind. I materialized in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, and on the eighth day, found myself in Memphis, Tennessee.
The first phase of my life was spent in excruciating discomfort. Midway through the gestation period, my pill-popping mother was stricken with pleurisy and pericarditis. Due to her already delicate condition, she was hospitalized and infused with a cocktail of medications. I arrived late, and the birth itself was long and difficult, but she fought for both of our lives and prevailed. Between her addiction, the illnesses and related treatments, I was afflicted with a number of chronic ailments, including severe intestinal problems that affected my appetite and growth and caused me to scream in agony for months on end. I eventually developed into a healthy toddler, but it’s been suggested that the early trauma permanently rewired the circuitry in my brain, and who knows, perhaps there’s some validity to that theory.
By age three I was living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and it was there that my inner hellion came to life. I was recalcitrant and mischievous by nature, and the quintessential tomboy. I truly disliked being female, it felt completely unnatural. And no, I wasn’t suffering from Gender Identity Disorder, I simply couldn’t relate to girls at all. Although there were some exceptions, I generally found them prissy and boring, and our dissimilar interests didn’t help. While they were into dolls and tea sets, I was into Snoopy, mud, and frogs. I also enjoyed eating flowers, paper, crayons, Silly Putty, and Play-Doh. For obvious reasons, the little lambs thought I was weird, which made it difficult to make and keep friends. My mother enrolled me in a handful of girlish activities, hoping I’d find some playmates, but to no avail. The prospective companions wanted nothing to do with me, or I with them. I felt like the lone Socialist in a roomful of Birchers, and it wasn’t long before I returned to my solitary existence. I wasn’t entirely friendless, though. My brother, who was closest in age, was more than happy to be my pal. In fact, he was one of my best friends until I surrendered to the false gods. Then he was unceremoniously dumped, along with every other member of my biological family. Unless I needed something from them, that is.
As you can imagine, my asocial, insubordinate nature made it nearly impossible to function in most controlled environments, including school, which I hated intensely from day one. So deep was my hatred I routinely refused to attend. It began with preschool and continued for the duration of my compulsory education. Early on, my parents attempted to intervene, but it proved to be frustrating and futile. They ultimately gave in and let me play hooky whenever I chose. I didn’t take to the authoritarian atmosphere of a classroom, and the daily dose of ridicule I received from the female students only exacerbated matters. I saw school as an indignity with no redeeming qualities, and was certain I could learn far more on my own. My keen instinct overpowered any sense of obligation, and thankfully, my mother enjoyed having me at home with her.
Conveniently, she was running a daycare center out of our house, while my father taught full-time at James Madison University and served one weekend per month as a Naval Reservist. By economic standards their combined income was decent, but in truth, it was barely sufficient. Children are expensive, and my parents should have stopped after four, because they were already strapped. I won’t hyperbolize, we weren’t poverty-stricken, starving, and living in a car, but definitely struggled to make ends meet. With the exception of Christmas and birthdays, my siblings and I went without nonessentials. New clothes were rarely in the budget either. Our wardrobes consisted mostly of hand-me-downs, bargain-basement duds, and homemade garments, some of which were shabby, stained, and downright hideous. In Harrisonburg no one thought much of it. It was an unassuming and idyllic place that suited our family perfectly, but our time there was to be short-lived.
It was on a spring day that my father received a promising job offer at California State University of Long Beach, which he eagerly accepted. After making all the arrangements, we pulled up stakes and headed west. Ten days and several stops later, we pulled into the driveway of our new residence. Since a Southern California home was way out of my parents’ price range, they’d settled for a modest, single-story, four-bedroom rental on the east side of Long Beach, the second largest city in Los Angeles County.
After eight months of living in cramped quarters, my mother happened upon an uncared-for, two-story, five-bedroom rental in an area about five miles away. The place was an eyesore, and on the cusp of being uninhabitable. It looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned in years, let alone renovated. The paint was faded and peeling, the carpet soiled and threadbare, the tile and counters chipped and grimy, the asphalt driveway cracked and riddled with potholes, both yards were impenetrable jungles, and if that weren’t enough, the property was teeming with rodents, inside and out. On the positive side, the house was large enough to accommodate us, the rent was affordable, and the neighborhood was safe. The stingy, negligent owners refused to spring for an exterminator, but did pay for new carpet, paint, and tile, except my parents were stuck doing the labor. Once the rattrap was relatively livable, my mother went back to work as a nurse, while my father began teaching part-time at three other schools, in addition to his full-time job and Naval Reserve obligations.
It wasn’t long before my parents’ already strained marriage began to rapidly deteriorate. The inevitable showdown occurred merely days before my birthday, and in my young mind I mistakenly believed I was somehow to blame. In reality, it was a desperate attempt by my father to save his mind before it was lost along with my mother’s, and for my mother it was an equally desperate attempt to regain a semblance of control.
The five kids who were still at home remained with my mother while my father found an apartment in a nearby neighborhood. My parents had known each other since adolescence, and remained civil for the sake of their children, but it was clear they’d never reconcile. I think they both wanted to work it out, but my mother was incapable of even trying. She’d been plagued by chronic, debilitating depression, and unpredictable bouts of violent rage since arriving in California. When the blue devils hadn’t confined to her bed, she’d unleash her fury by throwing around furniture and whatever else she could get her hands on, while shouting and sobbing for hours on end. Needless to say, it was horribly upsetting and at times frightening, but so routine my siblings and I became somewhat inured.
My mother also attempted suicide on three occasions, but unlike many attempters, who are merely “crying out for help,” she was intent on dying and came dangerously close to succeeding, particularly on the final attempt when she flatlined. On the second and third attempts, some of her children and their friends were nearly taken along with her, when she swallowed a lethal amount of sleeping pills before getting behind the wheel of the family van. In addition to her undiagnosed mental disorder, she’d been addicted to prescription amphetamines and barbiturates for most of her adult life, and had finally reached a point where she wanted to get off the roller coaster once and for all. In her tormented mind she was already dead and nothing could resuscitate her, not even the love of her children. At the time I was too young and naïve to understand why she’d want to take her own life, I only knew that she couldn’t die because I needed her. Even though her volatility was a major mindfuck that could be devastating at times, she was still my Mommy, and the thought of my world without her in it was terrifying. I can remember visiting her in the psychiatric ward and begging her to come home. I was afraid they’d lock her away forever and I’d never see her again. My fear intensified with each attempt, and by the third, I began to question her motives. I never doubted her love for my siblings and me, but couldn’t help wondering if the responsibility was too much. I also wondered what would have happened if we’d stayed in Virginia. It seemed as though the whole world crumbled when we came to California. My mother was angry, despondent, and suicidal, my father was worried, frustrated, and stressed-out, both were overworked and exhausted, and when all was said and done, our once endearingly dysfunctional family was now shattered beyond repair. I felt helpless, frightened, and lost, as though I’d been parachuted into the depths of a dense, shadowy forest with only the clothes on my back. I wasn’t equipped with the skills to find my way out, so I curled up into a ball and buried my face in my arms, hoping someone would come along and save me, but it never happened. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Perhaps if I’d stood up and screamed for help, someone would have heard, but I was petrified. I eventually learned to deal with the situation by pretending it wasn’t real. I also barricaded myself behind a thick wall of artificial stoicism, where I’d remain for many years. I found that denial and detachment were by far the most effective coping mechanisms, but each carried a hefty price tag.
My father was diligent about paying child support and had full visitation rights, but his busy work schedule ate most of his time. I typically saw him once a week, if that, and even though I was living with her, I rarely saw my mother either. Again, kids aren’t cheap, and the cost of living in Southern California has always been astronomical. We probably had no business moving there in the first place, but it was too late to retreat. Survival was the only option, which meant my parents had to work as much as they could. When they were around, the older kids looked after my brother and me, but for the most part, he and I were left to fend for ourselves. We fed ourselves, did our own laundry, got ourselves to and from school, etc. It was a considerable amount of responsibility, but we didn’t mind, because it made us feel grown-up. The lack of supervision also allowed us to indulge in a favorite pastime with minimal interference. Both of us had a seemingly inborn craving for danger, and dreamed of becoming stunt performers. Whether it was jumping off the roof onto a mattress, riding down the stairs in a sleeping bag, or catching a treacherously humungous wave, as long as the activity involved a high level of risk, we’d do it. In hindsight, I suspect we both suffered from a serious behavioral malady. Throughout it all, my brother only fractured his arm, but I was far less fortunate. By age eleven, I’d broken my nose, cracked open my head directly above my right eye, snapped my right clavicle in two, fractured my left arm in several places, damaged a growth plate in my left leg, broken two fingers on my left hand, sliced open my left cornea, nearly severed my left pinky toe, fractured my coccyx twice, and sprained both ankles a few times each. Not bad, for a girl.
I wasn’t merely a hyperactive adrenaline junkie, though. I was also a voracious reader and prolific writer. Besides being one of my favorite hobbies, reading was a means of escapism that could extricate me from the brutally real and often complicated world in which I dwelled. The first book I ever read was Fraidy Cat by Sara Asheron, and I wrestled angrily with it for weeks. My father used to tell me to relax, that reading was supposed to be fun, not exasperating, and in time I’d be outreading every kid in Harrisonburg. But I was impatient, compulsive, and stubbornly determined. I took that damn book wherever I went, and once I did get the hang of it, I embarked on an endless binge. When I didn’t have my nose planted in a book, I was busy creating my own literary masterworks, many of which I still have. The first was a novella called Black that told the “lachrymose” tale of a black cat named Henry who was ostracized by the feline community because of his color. Writing had an incredibly therapeutic effect. It not only gave me a sense of wellbeing, but also made me feel productive, so I set aside time every week to work on my projects. Having no parental discipline was a blessing in that I had plenty of free time to explore my interests.
It’s difficult to believe, but apparently, my mother was once quite strict. It wasn’t until my brother and I came along that her attitude toward child rearing changed. I’m not sure if she was sick and tired of being a parent, or in the throes of a midlife crisis, but by the time the family landed in California, she’d become more of a buddy than an authority figure. Although it was certainly detrimental in some ways, it was also beneficial, particularly for the older four. While the girls were nonentities at school, the boys were both big men on campus with an army of friends who, much to my mother’s delight, frequented our home, as though it were a tavern, or better yet, a frat house, complete with all the usual hedonistic activities. While it may sound like a horribly unhealthy environment for a child, my memories are only fond, probably because everyone seemed happy, including my mother.
Amid the debauchery, I developed an addiction to music and cinema, both of which played a vital role in my upbringing. My father was a musician, and my mother a music lover. I was exposed to an eclectic variety from the moment I was conceived. The same went for cinema, and aside from the feature-length Disney cartoons, I saw no more than a handful of family-oriented films as a child, which was fine with me. After tasting the other varieties, the kiddy flicks seemed bland in comparison. The small-screen fare was equally “mature,” for lack of a better word. While most girls my age were watching National Velvet, I was immersed in Russ Meyer’s Harry, Cherry, & Raquel! Like literature, I found temporary escape in cinema, and when the weekends rolled around, I’d affix myself to the boob tube for hours at a time, soaking up pictures from nearly every genre and era, as well as a variety of syndicated television shows. Thanks to the tutelage of my oldest sister, I was also an Alfred Hitchcock aficionado. My first Hitch flick was Psycho, and it’s still my favorite, with Rear Window coming in a close second. I was barely seven when I made the acquaintance of Norman Bates. While the film scared the hell out of me, I was left utterly intrigued and hungry for more. In the years that followed I watched every feature that was aired on television, and when a portion of Hitchcock’s oeuvre was rereleased into theaters, my sister took me to see the whole lot. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Elvis Presley. I’ve been a devout fan since birth. Even when it was not “cool” to like him, my loyalty remained unwavering. I’ve never been one of those rabid nutcases who view him as the second coming of Christ. In fact, I have to yet to visit Graceland. I simply respect him as a performer, and as dreadful as most of them are, I’ve always dug his movies, they make me feel good, which was precisely what I needed as a kid. Throughout my childhood, there were two enduring fantasies that never failed to pull my sometimes dejected mind out of the abyss: running away with the Marx Brothers and being adopted by Elvis Presley.
I had one other interest that was peculiar for a little girl: I was fascinated with boxing. I watched my first fight at age seven. Since I was viewing it through a child’s eyes, the technicalities of the sport went right over my head. I had no idea why these men were clobbering each other, and was even more perplexed by the audience’s enthusiasm. After seeing more bouts, I not only caught on, but became so obsessed with the sport I began making references to it in my elementary school writing assignments, which went over fabulously with the teachers.
As you can see, I was not a “normal” child. I’m not implying that I was better or worse, I simply marched to a different drummer, and that drummer happened to take after Keith Moon.
I was in fifth grade when my unusual predilections led to some trouble. The class was assigned a book report, and the students were instructed to read a biography on someone they admired. My classmates opted for the usual suspects: George Washington, Walt Disney, Helen Keller, and the like. Fully believing that I was following the instructions as given, I chose No One Here Gets Out Alive, which I’d received as a gift from my sister. My teacher, who I’ll call Mrs. McGillicutty, was not pleased. She left a note on my desk that read: “Re your book report: See me after class.”
I hadn’t the faintest idea what I’d done, and wasn’t too anxious to find out. When the bell rang, I tried to sneak out, but she caught me at the door.
“We have a serious problem, young lady” she said, leading me over to her desk. “I want you to sit down right now.”
“What?” I asked, plopping down onto the chair and crossing my arms. “I did the assignment right, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did,” she replied, “but there was nothing admirable about Jim Morrison. He was a horrible, horrible man.”
“Says who?” I asked smartly.
“Do not give me any lip, or I will send you directly to the principal’s office,” she said, tossing my report into the garbage can. “I want you to choose a more appropriate person and redo the assignment.”
“Because I said so.”
“But that’s not fair!” I protested. “I like Jim Morrison, and the book report is supposed to be about someone I like!”
“I do not wish to discuss it any further,” she said curtly.
“How about Montgomery Clift?” I asked, after stewing in silence for a moment. “I just finished reading his biography the other day.”
“Montgomery Clift was an alcoholic and a homosexual,” she replied in a condescending tone.
“So what?” I retorted. “Your husband is a crossdresser.”
Yes, I actually said that, and it was tame when compared to some of the other utterances I spit out impulsively and liberally.
“That is quite enough, young lady!” she gasped. “That sort of talk may be allowed in your home, but I will not tolerate it in my classroom!”
I stuck my tongue out at her.
“Stop that right now,” she said sternly. “This behavior cannot go on any longer. No matter how many times I discipline you, you continue to act up. I do not know if you are starving for attention or in need of psychiatric help, but I intend to find out.” She removed a note pad from the top drawer and wrote a letter of summons. “You are to give this to your mother as soon as you see her,” she said, shoving the paper into my hand. “You can go now.”
Two days later, when my mother and I met with McGillicutty, the first words out of the schoolmarm’s mouth were: “There is something seriously wrong with your daughter. I strongly recommend that you seek counseling for her before it is too late.”
“There’s not a thing wrong with her,” my mother said, after taking a moment to analyze the allegation, “and I’m offended by the implication, you make it sound as though she’s retarded.”
McGillicutty was shocked, and so was I. My mother had never argued with any of my teachers before.
“I know all about the book report, and I don’t see what the problem is. She was told to choose someone she admired, and that’s exactly what she did.”
“Yes, I understand that,” McGillicutty argued, “but it is inappropriate for a fifth-grader to admire someone such as Jim Morrison.”
“I disagree,” my mother said, “and I also disagree with your pedantic teaching methods.”
Pardon the interruption, but I have to agree. I’ve always viewed our nations’ primary and secondary schools as indoctrination factories that discourage independent thought, and drain youngsters of their individuality. In my opinion, children should be taught to explore and express themselves rather than assimilate and conform.
“I will have you know that I follow the standard curriculum for fifth-grade students to the letter,” McGillicutty said in an offended tone, “the same curriculum I have been following for many years now.”
“Maybe that’s the problem,” I interjected. “It’s the 1980s, not the 1880s.”
My mother ordered me to be quiet.
“I have not had any complaints thus far,” McGillicutty argued.
“Well, she’s not going to redo the assignment,” my mother said firmly. “She worked very hard on that report, and I think she should be commended, not punished.” Then she paused for a moment and continued, “Besides, she can’t help it if she’s brighter than her peers. You need to learn to accept it.”
Bright? Hardly. Restless, bored, preoccupied, desperate for attention, and heavily influenced by my erratic home life and rich cinematic diet would be more accurate. I was continually penalized for tardiness, excessive absences, truancy, disrupting the class, using foul language, talking out of turn, disobeying orders, and nearly every other violation in the book. I was a holy terror if there ever was one, and spent a good deal of time sitting in the corner and at the principal’s office. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I revisited my school records, which thankfully, my mother saved. It’s miraculous I made it through kindergarten, never mind high school.
I detested school for a number of reasons, including the incessant teasing I endured from day one, which worsened significantly when I entered the Southern California system. In Harrisonburg the girls had picked on me because I was odd, but never because of my physical appearance. In the Wicked West, it was a different and more venomous story. I was told day after day that I was an ugly, grody, weird, white trash loser. The malicious snobs made fun of my cheap outdated clothes, my unkempt hair, my lingering hick twang, my curved pinky fingers, my banana-seated, whitewall-tired, metallic grape bicycle, my fascination with cemeteries, my obsession with Led Zeppelin, the “abnormal” way I held my pencil and wrote my capital Ts… the list went on and on. I always fought back both verbally and physically, but the bitches outnumbered me tenfold, leaving me no choice but to retreat. I was familiar with the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but thought it was a false platitude. Let’s face it, words do indeed hurt, just as much if not more, and I think anyone who’s been subjected to incessant teasing would agree. It’s not only painful at the time, but can also scar you for life. I’m not sure if I was permanently scarred, but my trust in the female gender was definitely impaired. I couldn’t understand why those girls despised me so. I never did them any wrong. Or so I thought. Apparently, being a broke, unfashionable misfit was criminally offensive and merited punishment.
“Six Buck” is the first chapter of Díre McCain’s book, Playing Chicken With Thanatos, which can be purchased here: http://www.paraphiliamagazine.com/playingchickenwiththanatos.html