Cover Photo: Modern Love by Bee  Lavender

Modern Love

In which I take a short break from a book tour to play Find a Junkie at Disneyland

I was standing in Arianna Huffingtons’s living room in Los Angeles, staring at Gore Vidal. He was sitting on a plush couch, and he waved away a waiter with a tray of mojitos. He grimaced as a line of people formed to introduce themselves, say hello, offer tribute. I had no intention of talking to him, though it was interesting to watch as others made the attempt. He palpably did not want to meet to these people—he probably didn’t want to be at the party at all—and I wondered why he had condescended to attend. I was there because my publisher said I had to go, but Gore Vidal must surely exist beyond such trivial human concerns. Though maybe, like me, he needed a ride in order to escape.

My phone rang. It was my mother. “I’m in Anaheim,” she said. “We’re going to Disneyland.”

This was unexpected, since she lives twelve hundred miles away, in the rural Pacific Northwest. “Um. Okay,” I said. “But you’re not allowed to come to my event.”

“I’m not going to your event. You can come out here,” she said.

“But mother. I’m on a book tour. I have readings, interviews, meetings, a schedule. I’m working. Wait. Who is ‘we’?”

I was still staring at Gore Vidal. He rose ponderously and walked out of the living room, leaning on his cane. Several of the people waiting to speak with him followed. He opened a door in the hallway and stepped into a bathroom. The strangers following him fell back, nonplussed, and hovered near the door.

My mother said, “I have Mary with me.”

“What? Why?”

My mother sighed. “She’s sick.”

“Is she sober?”

“Yes. But she’s dying.”

“What is she dying of this time?”

“Hepatitis.”

“Which kind of hepatitis? No wait. Let me guess. Hep C, otherwise known as the junkie plague.”

“This is the last time you’ll ever see her. You have to come.”

*

My first conscious memory, age three. I am standing up in the back seat of a big 1970’s car, all shining metal and hot sticky vinyl seats. I am small, tiny, and the grownups loom over me talking in hushed tones, smoking cigarettes, angry and arguing about something I don’t understand. We’re in front of a big white angular building in Tacoma, the vastness of it scaring me more than the angry adults.

There are glass walls, and a wheelchair is coming through a glass door. It is a vision from a Saturday night horror movie on television, the kind of film my teenage aunt and uncle like to torment me with when they are babysitting. It is a phantasm, a mummy, a figure wrapped all around with white bandages. My mother pulls me out of the car and sets me down on the pavement. My grandma and mother put their hands on the mummy, pull it out of the wheelchair, start to slide the figure into the back of the car as it twitches and groans.

I have been scared before—I am a timid and cowardly child; I hate slugs and being held upside down. But this is something entirely untoward and unknown and I start to cry. My mother releases her grip on the mummy and turns to me. “Why are you crying? Stop. It’s Mary. Your aunt Mary. She’s hurt, but she’ll be better soon.”  

*

Mary was sixteen years old when she went out on a joyride with her older brother and some friends. They were drunk, and they were driving fast on rural roads with ravines on either side, flashes of the bay beyond the trees. When the car crashed Mary was sitting on her brother Frank’s lap, in the front passenger seat. She went through the windshield face first.

Over the next six years Mary had nineteen surgeries to repair the damage. My mother often drove her to the plastic surgeon’s office, and I would sit on the edge of a water feature holding a copy of Highlights magazine, staring down at the monstrous goldfish.

With each expensive procedure Mary was restored to some semblance of normalcy. Not beauty, though; the surgeons offered no hope of making her pretty again. Instead, they were building eyelids, cutting and yanking and grafting skin so she could open and close her eyes.

The brother who took her on the joyride had been in and out of jail since age fourteen. He was a drinker, carouser, car thief, and he might have already been using heroin; I don’t know, because I was too young to understand at the time. But the family narrative is precise in apportioning blame. The story goes like this: confronted with the specter of his faceless sister, Frank succumbed to guilt and was lost forever. Though it took him a few more years to work up the nerve to die.

*

I was telling the truth when I told my mother I didn’t have time to go to Disneyland. I was in the middle of a national book tour for my memoir and on a hectic schedule, flying in and out of cities, driving vast distances in a sleep-deprived scramble, answering bizarre questions posed by radio hosts and audiences who, after reading my tales of poverty and cancer and violence, always wanted me to say: yes, there is a happy ending. Everything is okay.

And, because I was still sick and still angry, I could not or would not concede the point. Every night, talking to strangers who probably deserved better, I said: sometimes there is no redemption, no grace. Life sucks; make the best of it. Then I would laugh.

I was exhausted. I didn’t want to meet Gore Vidal, or any luminary from any professional field. I didn’t want to go to another party at Chateau Marmont. I wanted to go home. Maybe Disneyland was a good idea; maybe spending the day with two women who had grown up in the same place I had, with the same dangers and constraints, would be a respite. My mother at least had the right to make the request; I had written a book about my childhood without her consent. Taking a day out of the book tour to go to a theme park was not much to ask.

*

My cousin Holly lives in Los Angeles and she offered me a ride to Anaheim. She is the youngest of what is collectively described as the California Cousins—the daughter of my mother’s brother Joe. Her father’s decision to move away from our hometown was still reverberating thirty-five years after the fact. Every time the family gathered, someone would shake their head and mutter, “If only Joe had stayed here, everything would have been different.” The subtext is that he might have lived long enough to raise his children, or at least bring them home to grow up in the family. (Or that he might not have died in mysterious circumstances, leaving us to debate the finer points of murder vs suicide—but that is a different story.)

When I think of my family the major impression is of a geographic boundary: the majority of my blood relatives live within six miles of the homestead claimed by the pioneers who arrived in the Washington Territory in the 1890s, marrying and raising children and dying with only the occasional episode of military service to interrupt the progression. It is an aberration to leave.

On the drive to the park Holly caught me up on various facts about her life; we are the only two people in the extended clan to finish college, attend graduate school, establish white-collar careers.

I listened, nodded, asked questions, outlined my decision to leave the United States a few years earlier. But I didn’t really want to talk; I had a silent clawing fear about whether anyone from the family had read the book. I had warned my mother in advance that she would not like it, and that she should not share with the others. But I suspected nobody had listened to me; they never do.

We arrived at the hotel. Mary was standing in the middle of the room, holding a copy of the book. She said, “I can’t believe you did this,” and I flinched. She continued: “I’m so proud of you.”

I didn’t know what to say; had she read it? Did she recognize any of the characters, see herself in the stories? Was she proud of me because my name was on the cover, or did she think it was a good book?

Then I looked at her. The last time we met she had been sober, but now she was swaying, sweating. I looked at my mother, and she shrugged the helpless shrug of anyone who loves a junkie.

Mary took my elbow and pulled me toward the bathroom. “I need help,” she said. She started to unwrap the cheap sparkly fringed scarf covering her forehead. Her hands were shaking too much to open a packet of gauze, and she gestured at the nail scissors. I picked them up and started the task, half listening to Holly in the other room, talking to my mother about the plan for the day.

“You’re sick?” I asked. “What’s the deal?”

“I have an antibiotic-resistant staph infection,” Mary said. The scarf was off and she peeled away a bandage to reveal her forehead, mottled and pocked, oozing blood and pus.

I dropped the nail scissors and backed away. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I really can’t help you.”

Mary swayed, grabbed the counter, then corrected herself and laughed. “It’s okay,” she said. “I can do it myself.”

She leaned toward the mirror, carefully covering the wound with new gauze, her eyes rolling up, scar tissue wrinkling and straining. After the accident the surgeons had only been able to restore the flaps of skin partially. Mary had not been able to close her eyes since 1975.

*

Toward the end of his life my grandfather always called me Mary, a slip of cognition or affection; I was near the age she had been when the accident happened. I also looked like her, with the same round face, long dirty-blonde hair, blue eyes, sarcastic comments.

Mary was the youngest of seven, and treated like a baby far longer than any of her siblings. Twelve years separated our births, and Mary played with me like a toy, making mud pies in the kitchen garden, tumbling around with the farm dogs and kittens. Then she was a rebellious teenager, wearing clothes her parents hated, putting up bead curtains and velvet paintings, playing music way too loud, stealing drinks at their parties. I was an only child and Mary acted the part of the cool older sister; she gave me rock stickers to put on my Barbie van.

We were alike in other ways: bursting with a desire to be somewhere—anywhere—not there. She provided me with a soundtrack, helped me buy brightly colored thrift store clothes, handed down her science fiction novels. Once she had her own place she let me stay over and stay awake past my bedtime, watching as her friends smoked and danced.

Mary partied her way through her teens and early twenties. She had a husband, house, son, and dog. She had the life I thought I should have. Then one day she didn’t.

*

The act of writing a memoir is a tricky, sinister business. I don’t believe any book that purports to tell a true story of childhood, because I for one don’t remember my childhood. This is partly because I was often sick, but mostly because children are unreliable narrators. They have singular focus, huge imaginations, no life experience, and a limited education to provide context. They see stuff, but they don’t always know what they are looking at. Childhood memories are a jumble of impressions, not a litany of facts and pithy quotes.

Out on tour the chapter I read to audiences was titled “Fighting.” It is a short chapter and good for public events because it contains funny punchy anecdotes. The only problem is that, at some point early in the show, I have to tell the strangers sitting in front of me that they are allowed to laugh.

The chapter pivots on a description of a family wedding, which ended in a fantastic and macabre surge of alcohol-fueled violence. In the book I discussed in some detail other episodes of aggression and retribution, but I did not iterate all the times I saw my teenage aunt attack her husband in crazed incoherent rages. I did not list the times I saw Mary pinch and smack her baby, nor any of the times I witnessed my other aunts and uncles beat children senseless.

I left out the bits where my cousins were held under burning hot or icy cold showers, hollering for help that never came, until they choked and passed out. I refrained from mentioning small hands held over open flames, kids shoved onto tires against their will and sent hurtling down snowy hillsides, screaming. The children in my family were thrown into pools or lakes without swimming lessons: a literal interpretation of the aphorism “sink or swim.”

I didn’t tell these stories because most of the people were alive, and I respected their right to privacy. It also seemed voyeuristic, somehow wrong, because I was protected from the worst of it.

On my twelfth birthday I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and rendered fragile, precious. My mother placed her body between me and the others, set me aside to watch from the margins. It was loathsome and the cousins who grew up near the homestead hated me for it: one tried to break my arm, and when he was thwarted, attempted to kick out the windows of my parents’ car. Another cousin put me on the back of his dirt bike and drove at the electric fence, ducking at the last second so the wire clipped me across the forehead, sending me flying backwards into the mud. Periodically over the years he would corner me in a dark hallway and whisper: “I can kill you any time I like. Just remember that.”

I didn’t write about any family member who might object to the published version of events, or more significantly, would wish to harm me after reading it. I made a decision not to write some of the stories because I don’t remember enough of the details, and would need to fictionalize the way the rooms looked and smelled.

But I do remember Mary. She was there when I was recuperating on my grandmother’s couch, watching General Hospital. She was the babysitter who let me stay up late to watch SNL, and took me to Laser Floyd. I remember camping trips, and her record collection, and her purple Converse high-tops. But I also remember the addict years, when she was on the street or strung out or in a jail cell. I remember her nodding off during Christmas dinner.

When I wrote the book I left this out, or changed the details. I was protecting her identity, and protecting her son, and making a conscious decision not to contribute to the canon of junkie literature. But the main reason I didn’t write about my aunt was that I was angry. Excluding her from the narrative was a vindictive act; I exercised the ultimate revenge by not telling the story.  

*

One year after the cancer diagnosis I was still alive, so my parents decided to take me to Disneyland. There was no Make-a-Wish Foundation to supply the funds, and my mother would not have accepted charity if it had been offered. The trip was a significant cost for a family on the brink of medical bankruptcy, and both of my parents had to make big sacrifices to make it happen, but the holiday was viewed as not just important but obligatory. The illness had taken away too much of my childhood; my mother wanted me to feel the magic and wonder of the Peter Pan ride.

On the way to Los Angeles we stopped in the Bay Area to visit Mary. She had a new boyfriend, a military guy stationed in Oakland. He had been remanded to a drug rehabilitation program but had a one day pass to visit family.

My aunt put us in the back of her pickup, turned up the stereo so we could hear Bowie singing “Modern Love,” and drove us to Alameda. She dropped us off on the beach and disappeared with her sailor. There was no shade, and we had no sunblock, and no way to escape. We had no idea when she would come back, so my parents and I sat on the beach for hours, our pale Northwest skin turning red and blistering. By the time Mary picked us up, we were so badly burned we had to go to the emergency room.

During the worst of the cancer treatments and the shock of the aftermath, through the pain and humiliation and even losing my hair, I had not cried, because I wasn’t allowed. I had never prayed; we were not that kind of family. Sitting in a bath of cold water staring at the bubbling sores on my legs, I knew that I would not be able to walk well enough to enjoy Disneyland. Mary had ruined everything, and so I cried. I also prayed to any random god who might be listening for release, an end to the pain.

I was thirteen years old, and my fervent prayer that day was for my aunt to die.

*

Holly’s sister Amy was waiting in the parking lot. She had driven from Arizona with her three teenage children to spend the day with us. They stood in a row, a towheaded visual reference to the photographs of my aunts and uncles. I had never had the chance to spend time with this generation, wondered if they had anything in common with my own children, raised in another country. These kids had never met my kids, and none of them had even visited the family farm.

Amy said they were not going into Disneyland; she said that she and the kids would be happy to wait for us in the parking lot, if we wanted to come out and have lunch.

I looked at my mother again, she shrugged again. I didn’t know if Amy’s claim that they wanted to spend the day in the parking lot was about money, religion, culture, or pure eccentricity. I told them to wait a minute and went off to buy tickets for everyone. My mother tried to shove some money into my hand but I shrugged her off.

My budget for the book tour did not include eight individual day passes for Disneyland, but the money was just a token to obviate my guilt over writing the book. I have no justification for the decision to write it, no philosophical or practical defense: I wrote it because the stories wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote it because I’m a bad daughter and worse human. I wrote it because I was trying to understand, remember, testify. I wrote it because writing is my job. I wrote it because I couldn’t avoid writing it. Who knows.

Inside the park we stopped and Holly asked a stranger to take our photograph. My mother has never willingly allowed her picture to be taken, my aunt was disheveled, and the photo shows me grimacing and squinting into the sunlight. Holly and Amy smile for the camera. The teenagers look dazed. Someone photobombed in the background, making lewd gestures.

I turned to Amy and asked what her children wanted to do in the park. I suggested we split up so they could go on more big rides.

“Oh, they’re fine,” she said. “We’re just here to see you. They don’t need to go on the rides.”

I looked at the teenagers and they stared back at me, silent, passive.

Mary said, “I want to go to Space Mountain.”

Aside from the scarf not quite covering the gauze bandages on her forehead, Mary’s accessories included a foam neck brace and a cane. She was in her mid forties, a bit young for so many maladies, but I didn’t ask why she needed the devices, or if they were props. Her desire to ride the roller coasters seemed  insane, but I opened the map and started to plot the route.

The others clustered to one side, talking. We were occupying roles: Holly the professional woman needed to drive back to the city on a work errand, Amy the nice mother fussed over her kids, Mary the wild child swayed in her Fleetwood Mac ensemble. My mother poked through her wallet, trying to pay for all of our snacks, take care of us, make it better. Throughout her life, she has been making futile attempts to organize her rowdy relatives into a normal family enjoying at least one day together. I took control of the agenda and felt myself slipping into the same family position I had always occupied: the know-it-all bossy brat.

*

By the time I was sixteen Mary’s bohemianism had congealed into a mess of addiction and crime. My grandparents were too old and sick, everyone else was either working or tired of her antics. Her husband was long gone, and her child had been taken away.

I had a license and a car because I had to drive myself to cancer appointments, and it became my job to pick up Mary when she was in trouble. The task was an ordinary feature of my life, mixed in with after school clubs and study groups. I would drop off a carload of exchange students at a school play, and then drive to the ER, psych ward, or jail. Mary would be waiting in the lobby, shoes in her hand, bandaged or lurching, and whether she was high or not, always giddy and charming, full of stories, happy to see me. She was never apologetic, or contrite, or ashamed. I would unlock the passenger door to my rusty Toyota Corona, shove her in, and tell her to fasten her seatbelt.

As I drove her back to the group home, or the latest boyfriend, or sometimes my grandparents’ house, I would lecture her about the statistical risks she faced if she was using needles or sleeping with strangers. I told her she should feel guilty when she stole from her parents or neglected her child. I was a scourge and a scold, and if she wanted a ride in my car she had no choice but to listen. She put her hands out the window, made patterns in the air, told me I didn’t understand.

I stopped using her name, referring to her instead as “my junkie auntie” or “your sister the crack whore.” I wondered aloud when she would overdose, or pick a fight with the wrong person, or cross paths with the serial killers stalking prostitutes in our state. My mother and grandmother frowned and changed the subject; everyone else ignored me. It didn’t matter what I said, so long as I was available to make the long drive to drop off the care package at the penitentiary.

I was conscientious, Mary was reckless, but neither of us were docile or obedient. We were each in our separate ways breaking the rules of how working class girls are supposed to act, and what we could reach for. There was a sense in the family we reflected and deserved each other.

We might have been born with the same face but I was determined that I would not repeat Mary’s mistakes, that I would not end up in the same place. I rehearsed the distance between us, assembled a dossier of difference. I thought it would be easy.

But then, when I was seventeen, I went out on a drive and had an accident that ripped my face apart.

It didn’t matter that I was clean, a good driver, an honors student: I ended up in the same hospital Mary had been taken to after her accident, with many of the same injuries, and the same shame. Hooked up to a heart monitor in the ICU, my body smashed, I thought of my aunt.

The nurse came with a hypodermic needle and I covered the shunt on the IV. “No drugs,” I said. “I don’t want any drugs.”

“This is just a little pain relief. You’ll feel better if you take it.”

“No.”

*

We arrived at Space Mountain. My aunt took off the neck brace but brandished the cane to cut to the front of the line (Disneyland has generous albeit slightly odd disability access policies). Holly pulled out her cell phone and begged off for work. Amy repeated that the kids didn’t need to ride, that they were only in California to spend time with family.

My mother loves roller coasters but can’t ride them because of neck and back injuries. I don’t ride them at all, but it looked like the only way to get the kids on would be to lead them there. I sighed and waved the group forward. When they had passed through the turnstile I called out that I would meet them at the end, then ducked behind strangers so they couldn’t follow me out.

My mother was waiting at the exit. I said, “You told me she’s sober, but she is obviously on something.”

My mother shook her head. “She had a car accident. She’s just taking pain medication the doctor gave her.”

“Junkies can’t take pain medication. There is no difference between street drugs and prescription drugs when you’re an addict.”

My mother ignored this contentious point, debated too often through the years. She said, “I read your book.”

Wincing, I said, “I told you not to.”

“I was worried that I was the villain.”

I knew that she didn’t want me to expose family secrets, but it had never occurred to me that she would be worried about how she would be portrayed; her behavior, especially compared to her brothers and sisters, had always been exemplary. She was the good kid in her generation. I said, “No, you are the hero.”

My mother started to talk. Not about the book, but instead about all the things that are absent from the book. Do you remember was prefaced by a torrent of information I could not recollect, or had never known, or would never be able to fully comprehend.

Addiction. Beatings. Rape. Stolen babies. Suicide. Murder. I didn’t remember any of it: I never knew. I was protected, special, the sick kid. I never had to do chores, or cut a switch for a whipping, let alone clean a bedroom splattered with blood.

It was hard growing up in poverty. It was hard to live with cancer. It was hard to watch my relatives rage their way through short painful lives. But I was a child. I had books, school, imaginary friends, and long stretches of annihilating pain to distract me. My mother had gone through it all as an adult, or an approximation of such: a teenage mother with a teenage husband, hard-drinking parents, suicidal siblings, a job cleaning hotel rooms, a sick expensive baby who just got sicker every day.

She was so busy surviving she never had a chance to talk about any of it, until that day at Disneyland.

Mary came off the roller coaster with the scarf covering her forehead slightly askew but otherwise in good spirits, laughing, exhilarated. She said, “I want to go again.”

At each ride I walked Mary, Amy, and the teenagers to the front of the line. Holly stood somewhere nearby but out of earshot, talking to clients or colleagues. My mother waited at the exit for me, with more stories.

I had never heard most of the them before and I couldn’t take notes so they floated away, with only fragments remaining: “Do you remember how we would take Frank and Charlotte to the methadone clinic, and they would come out with their mouths full and sell the dose to people waiting on the corner, just opening their mouths and spitting the drugs straight into strangers mouths . . . ”

“Do you remember . . .”

The roller coasters at Disneyland all feature warning signs: people with heart conditions, back and neck injuries, dizziness, or any other disabilities are told not to ride. They are informed that sudden and dramatic acceleration, climbing, tilting, and dropping could exacerbate the condition and lead to complications.

Mary laughed when I pointed at the signs.

*

By the middle of the afternoon the crew had been on at least a dozen big rides.

Everyone looked tired, and Mary was leaning against a pillar, her eyes rolling up in her head. It was impossible to tell whether she was asleep or in pain, and unlikely she would be honest anyway. I pulled out the map and saw that we were near the Mark Twain riverboat ride.

I said, “Why don’t we take a break on the river? We could all use a rest.”

Mary’s head snapped up at the word “rest” and she almost bounced off the pillar. Without a word, and demonstrating more agility than she had all day, she started walking fast toward the Enchanted Tiki Room. She was pushing her way through the crowds, stumbling into strollers, and then she was gone.

I felt like I had been kicked in the chest, but I didn’t know why.

My mother said, “We have to find her.”

Holly snapped her phone shut, and Amy quickly sorted her children into search teams. We discussed a strategy to divide the park, and spread out to find Mary.

Nobody offered a reason, and it didn’t occur to me to ask for one. I just knew we had to find her fast, and that the experience was eerie, familiar.

Thirty minutes later I located Mary in a bathroom that had been closed for refurbishment, under the Country Bear Jamboree. Her eyes were wide open, her scarf had been strapped back down, and there was white powder spackled under her nose.

I was so angry I could not even speak. I pointed to her, and then toward the door. She smiled, a brilliant happy smile, the smile of someone without a care in the world or, rather, like someone high out of her mind.

When we found the others I took my mother aside. “I am only going to say one thing: don’t hold her bag when you go through airport security.”

Then I turned to the cousins and said, “This has happened before.”

Amy nodded. Holly laughed. “Yes.”

I said, “We’ve done this before? Played Find a Junkie at Disneyland?”

“Yes.”

My brain flickered with a jumble of images: ice cream cones and anxiety, torn tickets scattered on the ground, beloved frightening faces. But I couldn't sort the memories into categories. The only thing I recall with any clarity about visiting Disneyland in childhood is that I was scared to be left alone with our uncle Frank. He knew that I was afraid, but he thought that I should get over it, and he tried to trick me onto scary fast rides. Once I stopped trusting him he would just hold my shoulders, fingers biting into flesh, forcing me forward in line.

*

Within a few hours whatever Mary had snorted during her rest cure in the Country Bear Jamboree bathroom had worn off. She was barely able to stand up, and the scarf on her head had shifted to reveal that the bandages were seeping noxious fluids. We all agreed it was time to go home.

Amy paused under the Happiest Place on Earth sign to say goodbye. She had to drive back to Arizona that night, and when I expressed concern about the long drive after a long day she just smiled. I hugged her collection of teenagers, waved as they walked away. Holly said, “They have to go back tonight because a family member is being arraigned in the morning on felony charges of stealing a refrigerator.”

I steered Mary toward the hotel shuttle bus. She was almost unconscious, head lolling, no longer aware of her surroundings. When we got to the hotel I sat her on the side of the bed, supervised the removal of shoes, told her to lie down.

Holly and my mother were saying desultory goodbyes in the doorway, and I gestured for them to leave the room. Turning to Mary I said, “We’ll go grab some food. You get some rest, we’ll bring something back for you.”

Then I walked away fast, without looking back, pulling the door shut without knowing if I would ever see her again.

*

During a BBC radio interview about the book the host asked why I never went to therapy.

I said, “Working class people don’t do therapy. Emotions? What are those? I couldn’t afford emotions until I was thirty years old.”

My parents spent every extra nickel they earned on the basic medical services that kept me alive. There was no room for pieties of any kind. We were trying to survive, and, like the majority of the worlds population, didn’t need a psychiatrist to confirm that our lives were seriously fucked up. When your primary concerns are finding food and shelter and medicine, there isn’t much to talk about.

Mary was different; she moved in and out of therapy as she ascended and descended the addiction-jail-recovery ladder. She was adept at the catchphrases, and really good at all of the attendant excuses. She viewed addiction as a disease, something that happened to her, and that therefore was somehow not her own fault.

Mary would have cited several reasons for her addiction: growing up in a violent alcoholic family, the car accident that destroyed her face, teenage pregnancy, the legacy of poverty.

I have no choice but to sympathize with those reasons on a moral and political basis. But my mother grew up in the same family, and she managed to protect her only child from the worst of it. I grew up in the same family, had the same kind of obliterating accident, a teenage pregnancy, cancer. I have also been diagnosed with clinical post-traumatic stress disorder, which is an excellent shield for all manner of weakness and indulgence.

By the time I was a grown woman I had developed all kinds of idiosyncratic ways to get through the day, do my job, be a good parent, pay taxes. None of my strategies involved reliance on self-help books, or therapy, or psychiatric medications, or street drugs, or excuses. Not because I am strong, but instead because I am weak.

My body has been thrashed by disease and injury; like Mary, I live with constant pain. I also share her genetic inclination toward addiction, the taste for oblivion. I figured out early that if I let myself drink, I would drink too much, and because that is true, I don’t drink. I have never willingly used narcotics, not socially, not prophylactically, not even when my doctors tell me I have to take something. Every time I am tempted, I think of my aunt.

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Bee Lavender is the author of Lessons in Taxidermy. She lives in London and New York City. For more information, go to www.beelavender.com.

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