Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Out of Control

February 22, 2011

So much of my education as a writer and a person of the female persuasion was rooted in the relationship between my mother and my father. Knowing this is one thing. Communicating it in writing is something else. Here's another one from To Be Rather Than to Seem.

By the time I reached teenagerhood, I was convinced that if I drank alcohol I would immediately turn into my mother. Turning into my mother was my idea of eternal damnation: my mother was an alcoholic, out of control, a sitting duck for my father's ridicule. I didn't touch liquor till I was 21.

I didn't smoke grass either, never mind experiment with harder drugs or hallucinogenics. This set me apart from my peers, especially once I got to college: radical antiwar activists were rarely teetotalers. But booze, marijuana, and acid made people lose control. Self-control was the only thing standing between me and eternal damnation.

I had my first glass of wine at a supper party thrown by a guy who lived upstairs from me in my dorm at Penn. I did not immediately develop an insatiable craving for alcohol.

The determination to distinguish myself from my mother, however, did not go away. And despite my determination, well, my mother and I have a lot in common. The older I get, the more of her face I see in my mirror.

How much of what I am is due to the genes I inherited from my mother and my father? How much is due to what I learned from them while I was growing up? Damned if I know. What I do know is that my parents, acting and reacting without conscious intent, created the environment that I had to live in. I improvised a way to live with it and in the process developed both my understanding of how the world works and my tools to deal with it.

In my family, if you wanted to be listened to and taken seriously, you had to keep your emotions in check. I most definitely wanted to be listened to and heard, to be taken seriously.

If you didn't get your facts right when arguing with my father, you were dead in the water. My mother misremembered facts, or exaggerated them, or made them up. Demolishing my mother's arguments was easy. I learned to build strong cases and to present them with authority. In my high school yearbook my advice to posterity was "Get your facts right, then always go through to the end with whatever you think is right, no matter what it is" (Harry St. John B. Philby).

At dinner one night, probably in the early 1970s, my father and I got into a discussion about the coup in which the colonels took power in Greece. I thought it had happened in 1966. My father said 1967. He got up to fetch the World Almanac, saying, "Because it's you, I'm going to look it up." He was right, it was 1967, but from him that was a high accolade and I've never forgotten it.

Little distinction was made in my family between what boys should do and what girls should do. My sister and I were not expected to help in the kitchen -- it probably helped that our mother wasn't much of a cook. My brothers weren't expected to fix things around the house -- it probably helped there that our father wasn't nearly as handy as he liked to think he was.

But though everyone said I was my father's daughter, I couldn't ignore the fact that I was my mother's too. She was female, and so was I. At my parents' parties, the men hung out in the living room talking about interesting stuff like politics and town affairs and architecture. Nearly all the women congregated in the kitchen talking about boring stuff like babies and cooking. I didn't want to be exiled to the kitchen.

From fifth grade through seventh, both boys and girls in my town went to dancing school, to learn how to fox trot and waltz and behave like junior ladies and gentlemen. Here I got a crash course in social expectations: girls had to wait till boys asked them to dance, boys got to lead even if they danced like oafs, girls weren't allowed to say no to the guy who came up and said, "You're almost the last one left -- I guess I have to dance with you."

For eighth and ninth graders, these classes were followed by less structured "socials." Here I saw my smart, funny, irreverent classmates acting like simpering idiots. I had no idea what was going on. It had something to do with the presence of boys, but what? I had two brothers, I knew my brothers' friends, and the kids who ran together in my neighborhood included both boys and girls. I'd never had to play a part with them; I'd always been myself.

Now, when I acted in ways I considered normal -- telling stories, talking politics -- these boys found me amusing. Not funny -- I liked being funny -- amusing. Something crucial had changed. I had no idea how to act.

I dropped out of those miserable socials in the middle of my ninth-grade year. My life revolved around familiar worlds with familiar expectations that I knew I could meet: school and the 4-H barn where my horses lived and where I hung out with other horsegirls after school every day. But the knowledge that there was an inexplicable adult world out there didn't go away. What prospects were there in that world for me, an intelligent girl who didn't know how to play stupid and didn't want to learn?

My mother's fate was out of the question. At the dinner table my father would ridicule her till she burst into tears, threw down her napkin, and fled to her room. When my father wasn't home, she'd get screaming drunk and yell, "I wish I'd never had you kids" and "You think you're so smart" and "What do you ever do to help?" (She had a point there: when my siblings and I couldn't manage to be somewhere else, we tended to make ourselves scarce.)

I fantasized having a mother who could guide me through the terra incognita that led to adult womanhood, but that wasn't going to happen. I remember at 12 years old sitting on the dryer -- in our house both washer and dryer were in the kitchen -- wearing green plaid shorts and swinging my legs back and forth so my sneaker heels went bang bang bang against the white metal. My mother told me she envied me because I was so strong. That's all you know, I thought. Some days I wish I was dead.

I wasn't going to suddenly acquire an older sister or a sympathetic aunt either. And if a guide had appeared who was willing and able to initiate me into the mysteries of adult womanhood, I probably would have refused the assistance. I wanted no part of those mysteries. I was on my own.

Vigilant though I already was about intoxicants, I was paying scant attention to food. I barely noticed when I started wolfing down candy bars during my sophomore year of high school, and it came as a shock when at the spring weigh-in in gym class I learned that I'd gained almost forty pounds since the previous fall. Forty pounds make a visible difference in a person's appearance, but I hadn't noticed the changes and if anyone around me did they didn't say anything.

Feeling my way through adolescence, I'd noticed that being physically attractive attracted boys, and in the presence of boys even smart girls turned stupid. I didn't identify with my physical appearance. The most important thing about me was my mind and the thoughts that swirled around in it. Safeguarding my mind demanded great vigilance. Fat was the strategy my subconscious came up with to keep boys away. It protected me against turning stupid, fluttery, and helpless.

Fat people are assumed to be out of control, and indeed my eating for many years was compulsive, but I wasn't out of control the way my mother was. New England WASPs are a circumspect people. Making scenes is a major taboo. My mother made scenes. I didn't. Drunk people, stoned people, people tripping on acid acted stupid. Out-of-control stupid. Stupid in my world was far more dangerous than ugly. The appearance of stupid was what got my mother creamed by my father.

I dressed to make myself invisible. I went through college in jeans and oversized shirts. This seemed to keep people from noticing that I had a body at all. My only flash of color was an antiwar or women's liberation button. If people read the writing on the button that was fine with me.


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