My childhood sweethearts were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
We shared the same distinct fascination with the macabre. Teenage angst enveloped me–there was a sense of seclusion when I read their works billowing with sadness, sarcasm, and at times, despair. I didn’t think anyone understood me during my lonely moments of mania. But Sylvia and Anne helped me survive. I knew, with them, my writing (at the time, mostly metaphoric and confessional) would ultimately rescue me from my psychological demons which plagued me since an early age. I battled myself in secret; remained in seclusion so that no one else would know of my torment; then returned to my everyday life pretending I was okay. By 8th grade, Sylvia, Anne, and I had made a secret suicidal pact, which would eventually be broken.
My writing and attempt to capture the twistedness of man–our hidden agendas–predates my discovery of Sylvia and Anne. I still have the first story I wrote–in first grade, handwritten on ruled paper, now tattered and yellow-brown with age. Despite a childhood of undiagnosed dyslexia, seeing particular numbers and letter patterns backward (and even writing from right to left), I found a sense of freedom in words. On those tattered pages, at the bottom of my storage bin is a twisted tale of Cinderella I wrote.
We all know the story of Cinderella–a fairy tale most people truly wish could be true. However, I knew in my heart, people truly never lived happily ever after. There was nothing really real about that. However, in my story, though similar in its Cinderella premise, takes the reader for a slight journey. In my version, when the Prince looks for Cinderella, in search of the right foot to fit the glass slipper, we learn that he is angry. His anger shows when Cinderella is savagely beaten WITH the glass slipper because the Prince felt she should have stayed for the entire party. Then, he leaves with her evil stepsisters and marries them (yes! each of them), while Cinderella is left poor and alone.
Why would I, a first-grader, write such a tale? I had never witnessed abuse–as far as I could remember, at least. Similarly, I try to think of my happiest childhood memory and I can’t. Nor can I remember any great children’s stories that was read to me or that I may have read on my own–I don’t remember enjoying (or reading) any Dr. Seuss, for example. But I do remember the adult literature.
My mom was a librarian. My after school and summer time were spent in the library—though, then, I despised reading. Up until the mid-1980s, people could smoke cigarettes in almost any public area. And, even though mom worked at the library after the anti-smoking laws went into effect, the stale tobacco smell still clung to the books, their pages, and even the furniture in the library. With every page flip, the scent wafted into my nostrils and into my asthmatic lungs. So I had a hesitation of going the library for this very reason. Even today, I attribute the library to smoking in a confined area.
But there, in my mother’s library, Iaeger Public Library in West Virginia, I found a book–THE book! “The Clan of the Cave Bear”–an extensive novel depicting the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans coming in contact with each other. A wonderful novel which I truly didn’t understand—but I wanted to. A quite disturbing novel that, as a 3rd grader, I had no clue what a lot of the words meant—but again, I wanted to. But, I did recognize forced bodily contact (which I would later know as “rape”), and how the end result would be a child being born; and I learned about dominance versus submission. Though, again, at this age, my ability to express these things verbally was limited.
As children, we understand a lot of things that we just can’t truly grasp how to express verbally. And, by the time we realize what we can express, it’s nothing but a metaphor in a story.
I vividly recall a passage in “Clan of the Cave Bear” where character Ayla, an outsider, due to her blond hair and ability to only speak in gestures (is brutally raped by a clan member and gives birth to a son. And, interestingly so, the clan didn’t believe it was semen that made a baby, but rather a Spirit entering the body via the mouth–which, I guess, is what made it a bit ‘cleaner’ for me at that age to comprehend. It was just as believable as a stork bringing a baby.
This is what sparked my writing and reading. Subconsciously, I was affected. I didn’t want to read the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. I needed something real! Could have been real! Must have been real! With my newfound love of reading, I HAD to test out my own skills at writing–only to be shot down and humiliated whenever I attempted.
Not only was I physically different–the only black kid in the entire school–but I was born different. My difference somehow was always expressed in my art, my writing. I’d like to think, like most people would about themselves, that there was something special about me–though I’ll never be able to put my finger on what exactly made me special. The assignment in my third grade English class was to 1) use the paper finger puppets (after we cut them out and color them) shaped like a dragon, a prince, and a princess; 2) to build props; and 3) to write a skit to be performed in front of the class.
By myself, I built two castles out of small shipping boxes and decorated them with my Crayolas and wrote the script; the other students in my group colored in the finger puppets. There we were in front of the class. I read the script while the other students acted it out with the puppets. And, at this point, no one read the script–but me. In the tale, the Prince was at war with the Dragon; The prince slayed the dragon; the Prince and the Princess lived happily ever after (so the students initially thought). However, the skit ended with the Dragon’s twin brother kidnapping the princess and dragging her back into his cave; and, finally, the Prince searched for her for weeks. When he does find her, as the story ended, “she gave birth to a dragon baby who spit fire”.
At that moment, when I read those words, the entire class gasped and went silent.
I didn’t know why they grew quiet. Nor would I understand this until years later. This story was MY version of “Clan of the Cave Bear”–but no one else appreciated or understood it. It would be years before I shared my writing with anyone again.
Adult literature was real to me. There was nothing made-up about it–no elves, no sorcerers, no abracadabra tricks. I didn’t understand how my peers could dive into books to escape from reality when I wanted to reflect it in all of its beauty and disturbances.
I wouldn’t cross literary paths with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton–or have secret literary affairs with them, until much later—my teen years. But they would soon teach me that I was wrong—I was not special. There were others like me. However, no one else could ever be a cave bear, like me.