Come With Me to Boys Town, Baby

I failed to see my father for the predator he was until I saw him through my friend’s eyes.

It is summer and I’m at my parents’ house in Palo Alto, on the Stanford campus. I have a newly-minted MA degree in English from Brown.

I’ve hunkered down in my old bedroom, which is no longer mine, really, because the moment I left home, my parents rented it out to Stanford students as a kind of up-the-hill-faculty-ghetto-dorm-room. The room happens to be vacant for a few weeks because the paying occupant has gone away. My parents’ message is clear: you’re not welcome; and you’d better believe we’re going to recoup our costs for having raised you.

Located at the bottom corner of a two-story, modular Eichler on the side of a hill, my room, a corner with windows on both sides, overlooks a solitary olive tree set in circle of gray stones, like those found in sewage treatment plants. The house from the air looks like an ‘H’ on its back. My room is as far as you can get from the parental suite. All of our rooms became rentals once we left for college, with the exception of my older sister’s room. She, in 1981, is a miserable wreck of a young woman, in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.

For the time being I’m not alone. A friend from Brown has come to visit, and we’re both staying in my room, she on an ancient foldaway bed topped with a lumpy kapok mattress dating from the summer camp my grandparents owned in the 1950s. She’s a forty-year-old returnee to school following a divorce. She’s from suburban Connecticut and has never been to California. We’ve gone camping in Yosemite and Death Valley. We encountered a food-scavenging little black bear in Yosemite, not unfamiliar to me, as an outdoor Californian, but for my friend, a life-long suburbanite from Connecticut, an encounter with Nature ranging between horrifying and transcendent.

We’ve just returned from our camping trip. We’re planning our next few days, maybe San Francisco, maybe Muir Woods, maybe walking over Golden Gate Bridge. A few evenings with my old Stanford room mate, who lives in Palo Alto in a house with a hot tub. Mary has never been in a hot tub.

On our way back from the mountains we stopped at one of the roadside fruit stands typical of rural California of that era, and I’ve bought some fruit which I’ve put in a bowl on a shelf in my room, so we can have snacks, if we want.

Mary and I are in my room, talking about what our futures hold now that we’ve got our MA degrees when I hear footsteps in the narrow hall. My mother. We stop talking. My mother calls my name and opens the door without waiting for a response.

Although she and my father had met Mary when she arrived and in fact had dinner with her that first night, we’d left on our trip the next day. Since my arrival earlier in the summer, I’ve mostly elected to spend evenings with friends.

My mother greets Mary, asks how she enjoyed the mountains. She’s smoking even though she knows I can’t tolerate it. She looks around my room, as if searching for something. Her eyes land on the fruit the bowl.

“What are you doing with fruit down here?”

“It’s not from upstairs. I bought it.”

“What?”

“I didn’t take anything from the kitchen. We bought fruit on the way back from Yosemite.”

She looks at me, a gaze I’d characterize as hate-filled, walks over to the shelf, takes and bowl, and says:

“There’s food upstairs. If Mary would like some fruit, she can come up.”

“Please leave that here. I bought it, I paid for it.”

She looks at Mary watching her. She puts the bowl down.

She repeats: “There’s fruit for Mary upstairs.” Then she turns and leaves.

The food situation embarrasses me. From the time I was a child, I’d been led to believe I myself caused my parents to behave as they did. This is how abuse victims think: it was all my fault. If it hadn’t been for me, everything would be fine.

“I’m getting the creeps,” said Mary once my mother was out of ear shot. “You said you weren’t allowed to eat the food. Now she’s saying you can’t eat your own food you bought in here. I mean, if there were ants or something, I’d understand her not wanting food in your room. But really…” She looks at me. “What the hell was that about?”

On a previous visit perhaps a year before, I’d committed a cardinal sin when I misunderstood my father’s proffer of some raspberries. My father bought the berries at place called Webb Ranch, a little bastion of local agriculture off Page Mill Road, where a Mexican family grew raspberries, blackberries, and gladiolis. He exclaimed about the berries, their color, their deliciousness, enjoining me to “have some.” Busy with whatever I was doing, I said I’d wait til later. Later, I’d taken a few in a cup, and gone back to my room.

Within an hour, I heard his stomp in the hallway, his characteristic roar. He burst through my bedroom door in a rage, demanding to know what happened to the raspberries. He wielded the little cardboard half-pint carton in his hand. Since there were no other offspring at home, he’d rightly concluded I’d eaten some of them. My mother, hearing the commotion, came down. What followed was not unfamiliar, a brutal excoriation, accompanied by the demand I go out immediately and replace them. By the time I arrived at Webb Ranch on my bike, they’d all but closed shop for the day. That day’s harvest was sold out. My parents’ unique brand of hell ensued. The following morning, I biked back to Page Mill Road early and returned with raspberries, tucking them carefully into the paniers so they didn’t get squashed, knowing I’d never touch one again.

The day I arrived at my parents’ house this summer, my father gave me the low-down about food. Any food from the fridge or cupboards I consumed had to be replaced the same day. My mother, he said, found it profoundly difficult to stock the fridge, and have items had been eaten without her knowledge. Since there was a fridge downstairs in the room that had been our playroom — now a small kitchen for the dorm students — I figured I’d just keep my provisions in there. No grocery store on campus meant a bike ride to Palo Alto, a few miles away, to go shopping.

My comprehension of my parents gesture meta language around food and resources had faded since I’d left home, kind of like forgetting Swahili, a language I’d once spoken almost fluently when we lived in Kenya ten years before. None of the rest of the world I’d encountered since leaving home behaved the way my parents did. I’d come to understand that most people, when they offered me something, actually meant for me to have it. Away from my parents, I discovered the giving and receiving of gifts was kind of magical. People I knew didn’t use gifts as weapons. I started to forget how special the Leidermans were in their private universe, their gamesmanship around who could control whom with what, with impunity.

Mary lets me know she finds my parents’ food strategem unhinged. Because I feel somehow responsible, I defend it. Mary has children in their teens, seven, eight years younger than I am. She cannot for the life of her imagine her children not feeling free to eat the food in her house any more than she can imagine going to visit her own parents in Massachusetts and not eating what she likes.

“If there’s something about my presence adding to it, I am happy to leave,” she said. “Should I leave?” she asks. “I can change my ticket.”

“If you want to leave, I can understand it. I’d prefer you didn’t.” I myself am not scheduled to leave for another week. “It’s nothing you’re doing. It’s about me.”

“Should we go upstairs?” she asks.

“Yes, probably. I’d better stay down here.”

Mary sits down on the bed. “I didn’t come to spend time with your parents. I came to spend time with you.” We agree it may make things better if we go upstairs for a little while.

I sit awkwardly in the living room. My mother offers Mary some coffee, which she refuses. She smokes. I sit silently. The conversation is awkward. My mother quizzes Mary, who isn’t inclined to offer up information about herself.

Then I hear my father’s footsteps on the stairs coming from his study. He sits down on a sofa, manspreading, before the word existed. He asks Mary about her life, her family, her pursuits, personal questions which to any normal person are intrusive and none of his business. He starts talking about his job, his connections. He drops names, which, although they may be names that strike awe in his tiny universe, are unknown to either of us. He mentions Boys Town numerous times. After a few awkward minutes, Mary stands, says she isn’t feeling well, should probably go have a rest. My mother says:

“If you need anything, please feel free to ask.”

My father says: “Join us for dinner.”

Mary says: “My host, Erica, is taking good care of me.”

Mary heads down stairs. Because I want to give her some privacy, I head towards the front door. I plan to go outside, across the street, as I often do when I am at my parents, and sit in the little park beneath a dawn redwood. I head down the stairs and out the front door and cross the street. I sit under the tree for a little while, then I go back inside. The front door opens into the middle of the stairwell, a two story glass gallery. One flight of stairs leads up to my parents’ suite on the west side of the hill. To the east, opposite on the downhill side, a flight of stairs leads down to the bedrooms, and another up to the main upper floor. Two separate buildings connected by a wonky stairwell. My father appears at the top of the stairs outside his office and bedroom.

“What are you doing?”

“Going down to see how my guest is feeling.”

“Mary’s a nice woman. She’d probably like to see Boys Town. Ask her if she’d like to go to Boys Town with me.”

“We’re going out this evening. Sarah is coming to get us pretty soon.”

“You’re not eating here.” I can’t tell whether it’s question or statement.

“We’re eating at Sarah’s.”

“She’s welcome to eat here. Ask her if she’d like to come with me to Boys Town.”

“She’s not feeling very well. I suspect she’d rather not.”

I went down stairs.

Mary is reclining on the the bed, reading a book. She’s pale and doesn’t look very well. I ask her if she’s okay. She suffers from chronic digestive disease, and was very ill at one point shortly before she started at Brown. She takes replacement digestive enzymes and has to be careful around diet.

She looks at me.

“I’m okay. Just the runs. Everything is going through me. Are you okay is the question.”

“I’m okay as I ever am here.”

“I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but your parents are weirdos. I’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t imagine someone growing up in a house like this.”

Yeah,” I say. “It’s really noticeable.”

“I’m not concerned about them,” she said, “but I am concerned about you.”

“Another week,” I said. I paused. “I’m sure I know the answer, but I’m supposed to ask you if you’d like to go to Boys Town with my father. He asked me to ask.”

“He sure couldn’t stop talking that place, whatever it is, like it was the Vatican or something. Isn’t that the same as Father Flanagan’s boys? In Nebraska?”

In the early 1970s, Nebraska philanthropic foundation Father Flanagan’s Boys Town began sponsoring a project at Stanford “on the effects of deprivation and neglect on the life chances of children.” They’ve built an expensive building tucked into the foothills. I have no idea what anybody does there. Except that my father has an office there, as did a number of Stanford psychology professors.

“I have no interest in going there. Unless you want to go, then I’ll come along. With you.”

“I don’t want to go. I could care less.”

A look I would describe as one of relief crossed her face.

By the time Mary arrived, I was about mid-way through a three week long stay. I’d known before I left Providence my decision to visit my parents’ house one last time was probably a mistake.

I’d always truly wanted to escape from my parents, yet childhood had kept clutching at me. Mine was not the childhood of dreams, of comfort, of happy endings, but one of horror and of excoriation. From my vantage point of several decades hence, I see that summer at my parents’ house as part of a series of death gasps marking the end of my relationship with my family of origin: everything they were, or did, or stood for.

A Brown student health services psychotherapist named Jimmy White I’d started seeing that spring tried to save me from myself. She let me know she thought going to my parents would be a bad idea. Jimmy, I realize now, could sense a danger I was as yet unable or unwilling to identify: the toxic hellscape I’d thought of as ‘home’ could do me in. I’d been briefly suicidal. I wasn’t sure what would happen. Jimmy had enlisted the aid of the Brown chaplain, a woman rabbi who lived in a large house in Providence. She asked if I’d like to stay with her for the summer. No rent, no obligations. I turned her down. Even a few years on, my fear of the unknown bowed to the destructive tortures of the world I already knew. To this day, I fail to understand my own absence of imagination when it came to my life at the time, except for this one insight: for abuse victims, it’s as if we’re fused to our abusers. Our survival is — or we believe it to be — dependent upon them. The painful, costly, emotionally and physically wrenching effort required to extract ourselves from this conviction takes decades.

My second year at Brown, I’d begun publishing short stories, which has produced a certain amount of awe on the part of my peers and teachers, who have no trouble envisioning a writing future for me. They see no obstacle to my becoming a successful novelist. They cannot understand why I am not joyful and optimistic. They don’t know my nascent success within the worldview of my family of origin was really bad. You can’t be the person in the family who got the talent. No fucking way. My parents cut my legs off at the knees by the time I was in my teens. For me, a creative path was prohibited. I’m Nabokov’s butterfly, pinned to a board, fluttering, immobilized, hopeless, awaiting my death. The only way I could be a success would be if I somehow became an agent of my father’s delusional narcissism. If by some magic he could locate the wellspring of my unbidden talent so that it could be made his, then things would be different. As it was, anything worth having — including my relationships with my siblings — he owned.

My father — not wealthy, nor intelligent, nor likeable enough to become anything in particular in the corridors of power — had settled for manipulation and abuse on a smaller scale. He was a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, a tenured professor at Stanford Medical School. His own life had been enabled by his devoted parents: his first house, his trips to Europe. Now he earned a respectable sum as an academic psychiatist padded by consulting work for state mental hospitals. An alcoholic and medical drug addict, he was incapable of holding onto money. Like all cons, he was nothing if not susceptible to other, more glaring cons — a quirk obvious even to children, like me. Like all profoundly insecure narcissists, he was drawn to those with more money, or social status. His dentist found him especially useful for schemes that always ultimately went belly up. A uranium claim. A gold mine.

My father had made sure I understood what kind of power he had soon after my first short story was published. He’d seen to it I lost half of my scholarship money my second year at Brown, a maneuver I learned of when my monthly stipend wasn’t deposited in my account.

I went to the Dean, who informed me they’d had to pull the part of my financial aid package based on need because my father had declared me as a dependent on his tax filing. I’d been financially detached from my parents for over two years. I asked what I was supposed to do.

“I can only suggest you take it up with your father,” said the Dean. He assured me the merit-based portion of my grant was still intact, all they had to do was adjust the amount, and I’d get paid. Even with the full amount, I could barely afford the rent in my shared apartment. I called my father. “It makes more sense for me to take you as a dependent, and just send you something every month,” he said airily. “How about $400. Would that cover it?”

I applied for an emergency loan through the graduate school.

A few weeks later, a little envelope with his return address appeared in the mail. On opening it, there was no check, rather a lined pink index card, with a note scrawled on it: “Andrea’s tuition.” The card was a kind of IOU, to be stacked up with other IOUs, other moments of personal flatulence on his part. My little sister was at Vassar. My parents had a way of pitting our existence against one another: either she can exist or you can, not both of you.

I was afraid to tell my boyfriend Rick about my scholarship. I was afraid even to see him because I was broke, and didn’t want him to feel as though he had to pay for groceries.

Unlike my parents, Rick’s mother wasn’t educated. She lived her entire life in a small southern New Hampshire rust-belt town. She’d raised six kids on her own after Rick’s dad died when he was eleven. They were on public assistance until she got a job as a dispatcher for the local police department. She remained there for the rest of her working life. I’d spent the previous Christmas with him. I was awestruck by Rick’s Ma, her profound kindness and generosity. I was mortified at Christmas dinner when the wine I’d brought as a gift at first couldn’t be opened for want of a corkscrew. They didn’t have one in the house because the wine they were accustomed to came with screw tops. Eventually one was borrowed from a neighbour.

Rick was the first in his family to obtain an advanced degree. An Ivy League degree on a Pell grant. Now and then, Rick’s Ma would send fifty dollars so that he could go out, so he could take me out, so we could go somewhere for the weekend. A woman who had no education, who worked as a dispatcher for the police who raised six kids on her own, doing something for him, and by extension for me, to make him happy — because that’s what you do for family.

It was at Brown, when I began to be liked and admired by people well outside of my parents’ universe, that my childood of night-time beatings, of abuse, of gaslighting, of terror at the hands of my parents, began to bubble to the surface. I’d had an abortion the year before I’d gone to Brown. I’d been about twenty-two weeks along before I even realized I was pregnant. That experience — and how unmoored from my own body I’d become — had caused an interior rupture. My steely, resolute control of my feelings, and my barely-submerged awareness had begun to seep through the cracks.

By the time I finished my MA, I was dissociating. I couldn’t tell whether what I felt was happening now, in the present, or was something that had happened twenty years before. I didn’t sleep for nights on end. Conflict terrified me. I didn’t understand normal anger, normal fear, and above all, real affection. I couldn’t commit. Rick and I broke up. I was afraid if I got married and had a baby, I’d abuse my children. Decades on, I view my mother’s efforts to annihilate me as part and parcel of her mental illness. Borderline personality, perhaps, and of course the alcoholism. I don’t have then qualifications to diagnose her. Her brutality towards me I can only conclude was her distorted approach to ridding herself of her own demons. My mother was a Harvard-trained psychologist who spent her entire professional career running a school for autistic children. It suited her, I think, being around powerless little beings who would never be able to make choices for themselves.

Mary and I spend the evening at Sarah’s. We soak in the hot tub in the back yard. Candles flicker in the darkness. Sarah takes us home at about midnight. We avoid the front door, and enter the house through the glass door in the downstairs kitchen, the dorm door used by students.

Mary says she’s probably going to leave the following day. She’s already called her brother in Boston. She makes sure to tell me she’s used her dialing plan calling card when she used the phone in the dorm kitchen. She also says she will be happy to pay my parents for the stay, if I think it’s appropriate. She encourages me to ask.

By the next day, Mary isn’t well at all. She has diarrhea. I make her some tea, and ask her if she wants to see a doctor. She says no. She’s found a flight and will go home the following day. Since it’s a weekday and my parents are working we’re probably okay, just staying there, hanging out, reading or talking. I decide to ride my bike into Palo Alto to go to a pharmacy for some Kaopectate. I’m at the top of my parents’ sloped driveway when my father’s car pulls up.

I wave and try to ride off but he blocks me.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“Where’s Mary?”

“Downstairs. She’s not feeling well.”

“Did you ask her about Boys Town? I can take her over this afternoon.”

“I asked her yesterday. She does not want to go to Boys Town. She said explicitly she does not wish to go to Boys Town.”

“Ask her again. Or I’ll ask.”

“She isn’t well,” I repeat. “She’s resting.”

He looks at me. I think: I shouldn’t leave her alone. She’s not safe. I wait. He turns and goes inside. I put my bike away, and go back into the house through the downstairs back door. Mary is still in my room, resting. She says she’s better, although she doesn’t look better. She says she has plenty of medications on hand for these kinds of eventualities. She’s found a flight which leaves San Francisco mid-day the next day. I suggest I can borrow a car to take her to the airport. She says absolutely not. There must be a cab service or something. There’s a San Mateo County Transit bus that stops at the corner of Page Mill Road and El Camino I’ve taken a few times. I figure I can ferry her down there in one of my parents’ extra cars — they have four between them, two of which are vintage Mustangs belonging to my father — while they’re at work. I know where they keep the keys.

Mary dozes off. I hear a noise at the end of the hall. I exit the bedroom and close the door behind me. My father, bordered by light from the downstairs kitchen, in the hall.

“I thought you’d left,” he said.

“Nope.”

“Did you ask Mary about Boys Town?”

“Mary doesn’t want to go to Boys Town. Mary is sick.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She has the runs.”

“Let me give her something for it.”

“She’s fine. She has her own medicine.”

He regards me with suspicion. He’s a short man, although he pretends he’s taller than he is. His face is marred by acne scars, by a permanent scowl. His skin is thick, doughy. He looks like a predator. He enjoys the suffering of others. He turns and leaves. I wait til I hear the car start and go back to my room. Mary has started packing her things.

“Your father?” she asks, not needing an answer. She asks if she should go spend the night at a motel, maybe at the airport. I tell her if she wants to, she should, although I’ve got the bus situation pretty well dialed in. I realize we have to figure something out about dinner. I’ve got pasta in the downstairs kitchen, which is fine, except I don’t want my parents to come in and start making a scene.

Towards evening, I’m in the downstairs kitchen boiling water, cooking pasta, heating spaghetti sauce when my mother comes down the stairs. I don’t look up at her. She’s smoking, always smoking. She’s carrying a drink. She’s already drunk.

“Your father called me and told me Mary was sick.”

“Yup. Mary is sick.”

“Does she need a doctor?”

“Nope. Just a passing bug. She’ll be fine if she rests.”

“He told me he’d asked you to ask her about going to Boys Town. Did you ask?”

“I asked. The answer was no. It was ‘no’ the first time, ‘no’ the second time and ‘no’ the third time.”

“Did you really ask her?”

“Don’t believe me, ask her yourself, Mom,” I said. “Just go ask her.” My mother heads back upstairs.

The next morning, I take Mary to the bus. I wait with her on El Camino Real at the bus stop. I say: “Do you think you’ll be okay on the flight?”

She says yes. She’s taken some medication. She says she’s worried about me. She asks if there’s any way I can get out of there. I tell her I’m going to go stay with Sarah in Palo Alto. The bus comes, lumbers off. She promises to call me when she gets to Boston.

I go back to my parents, put the keys away, go downstairs, start packing. I call Sarah’s house. Her room mate answers. Sarah isn’t there. The room mate wants to know if I’m okay.

“No,” I say.

“Okay,” she says, “if Sarah isn’t back in a half hour, I or one of the other room-mates will come get you.”

Half an hour later, the phone rings. Sarah’s room mate, again, calling to tell me Sarah’s on her way over.

I’m part way up the steps to the driveway with my suitcases when both my parents cars appear at the top of the hill. Sarah’s brown VW Rabbit appears, blocking the driveway, as if by magic.

Wordlessly she opens the hatch, grabs one suitcase, then the other. My parents, now beside her car, screaming.

“All we’ve done for you!” shouts my father, red faced, bellowing.

“What do you think you’re doing?” screams my mother. “You’re leaving? You’re leaving? Where’s Mary?”

“Mary left earlier. Now I’m leaving.”

Sarah opens the passenger side door for me, and waits.

My parents continue to bellow, inchoately.

“This,” I say, “is the sickest family I’ve ever seen. It’s the sickest thing I could never imagine, even if I had to.”

I get in the car. My mother pounds on the window. For some reason I roll it down.

“Sick?” She screams. “Sick? YOU HAVEN’T SEEN SICK!”

I think but do not say: I bet of all the people in the world you’ll be the one who will show it to me.

Sarah has started the car and we’ve pulled away from the curb, and are speeding down Lathrop Drive. I roll up the window, trembling. She takes my left hand with her right and holds it.

Writer for NYT, Sci Am Nat‘l Mag Award. Climate, mental health, wild things. erica.rex@gmail.com. Newsletter https://psychedelicrenaissance.substack.com/

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