the grateful gulag

when i was quite young i learned that no matter what, one must always be grateful for what one had, and to show it overtly or stay out of sight.  there were many things that i did feel quite grateful for.  i was glad that i was smart and that i could easily read adults and modify my behaviour accordingly.  i was happy for the structure and opportunities of school, but most of all i was supremely grateful for my facility with language that enabled me from a very young age to escape into other worlds and spaces.

i was not, however, very grateful for the years of stressful terror that i spent living with an unmonitored mentally ill person.  one who insisted that events were somehow under my control and that i actually had some influence over her moods or actions.  when i was seven i remember being brought into my mother’s psychiatrist’s office.  he sat me down and told me that i needed to be a better daughter and not upset my mother so much.  i felt confused and betrayed sitting there with bruises under my clothing from some infraction the day before, but had learned not to contradict adults.  i agreed that i would do better.

words were my salvation.  i would read anything and everything, fiction, non-fiction, and comics.  but i always had to ensure that i was reading something enriching and enlightening in front of my mother, trashy things will rot your mind you know.  the library was like some kind of monastery refuge, a place to be closer to god.  i relished the times we got to go to the school library but getting to go to the public library was my pilgrimage.

i had some behaviour issues due to my tense home life but learned very early on to not tell anyone. in grade one i had told the teachers that my mum hit me but they turned around and called my mum in to deal with it.  after they met in the principal’s office for an hour, they emerged with the decree that i had a lying problem and needed some serious counselling.  so the behaviour book was implemented.  in a half ruled notebook, everyday my various teachers would watch me like a hawk and report any bad behaviour and give me a mark out of 5. anything less than a 4 would garner a spanking.  spanking in my house was torture.  first i was told i would receive it, then told to wait in my room for it.  i had to sit on my bed contemplating the pending punishment, no evidence of entertaining myself, or passing the time.  then i had to submit by turning over the side of the bed.  then she would hit me with a wooden spoon or a plastic and metal spatula.  she preferred the spatula because wooden spoons would break often.  i often did not want to participate in physical education because kitchen implement shaped bruises are hard to explain.  adults were not to be trusted, so i trusted books.

by the time i was in grade six i had read every single book in my school library, so my librarian, mrs. neale, brought me books from home.  kurt vonnegut and judy blume’s adult books soon filled my days.  no matter what went on in real life and no matter how bad i felt, i could always escape into a magical world.

like a prisoner in an internment camp.  i passed the time by doing the tasks that needed to be done, and maintained my sanity by traveling to far of places and learning life lessons from adventure stories.  when i was twelve i was deemed old enough to take the bus to the library alone, after school, and that was where i discovered the genre of fantasy and science fiction novels.  tad williams, robert jorden, anne mccaffery, joan d. vinge, and many more suddenly freed me from the dull toil that was my life and gave me something to be truly grateful for.

i had to hide the books from my mother, as they fell under the heading of ‘trash,’ yet i felt that there was real knowledge and real magic inside so i kept on reading.  it was what helped me decide that even though i was told i was a liar, that i was not, and that i could make myself something other than the poor, hungry, scared child that i was.  so when i was thirteen years old i decided that i would not live in that house anymore.  there was no way that any of the stories that my mother concocted could hold me in her care any more, there was no way that anywhere else could possibly be any worse than living with her.  i went to social services and told them the whole story.  they were suitably appalled and said i could stay with my grandmother instead.  and so after six years of internment in the grateful gulag that was life with my mother, i had found a faint light at the end of the tunnel.

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