Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The pain splitting me

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | March 13, 2008 11:15 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Living, Politics
Tags: child abuse, God, incest, lgbt youth, memory, parental control, queer youth, upper-middle class lie, violence

I'm saying something to my sister about when she used to wake up every night screaming help! Help! And my mother would suit her back to sleep, our mother. Lauren says she doesn't remember that, which kind of surprises me -- there are the parts of childhood that I never forgot, so they don't seem as traumatic. Then there are the parts that I had to forget, in order to go on living.

Lauren's screaming went on for years, maybe it started when we moved to the new house, Lauren was four and I was six, maybe it went on until she was about 10 and I was 12. I'm not sure -- it felt like it was always that way, but now I'm thinking about how it was never acknowledged and how, when you're living somewhere where you're afraid for your life and that's your home you're a child that's the only thing you know of protection: it will never work. The way memory is so bound to emotion that the boundaries between the two are blown open, remain open until you can't figure out what is what, maybe never will.

I was scared too but I didn't believe screaming would help me. There were always so many monsters, even though I didn't believe. I didn't believe she was screaming again, sometimes my mother would come right away and sometimes it would take so long. Everything was always so tense, I learned how to jerk off by picturing myself dropped into vats of boiling shit, I was about to die, pressing deeper into the mattress until that wet spot I prayed to God even though I didn't believe. This was arousal and that was death or sleep, the beginning.

I was the good kid, my sister was the bad one -- that's the way it all played out, I mean the way each of us survived. Lauren would scream at my parents in the supermarket, masturbate on top of a plastic ball in the family room, tell my parents she was going to chop them up and put them in the frying pan. Why is it so hard to say our parents? I don't know, I can't even tell which way makes sense.

I wanted to be perfect because I knew that if anyone ever saw underneath my fa├žade they'd know I deserved to die. I had to do a really good job, or everyone would know I was evil. I didn't understand kids, they were so mean, so mean to me except for some of the girls. I thought I understood teachers better, I was four or six or eight and I believed I had the mind of an adult just no power. I mean, now I look at four or six or eight or even 15-year-olds and they look like kids, but that wasn't something I knew then. I just knew that I didn't understand them, and they wanted me dead.

Everyone wanted me dead except teachers, and some of the girls, and sometimes my sister but not usually and that's when everything got scarier I mean everything was already scarier I mean everything. I wanted someone to trust, Lauren was there I wanted to trust her. We told each other secrets, secrets like siblings, I knew how to keep secrets. Our parents were jealous, jealous of our closeness they felt threatened. They'd bait us to tell, tell, tell. Lauren would always try to stab me with anything I gave her, which meant I needed to learn to give her nothing. I couldn't learn this, because I wanted to give her everything. I wanted to teach. I knew we had nothing, and I wanted us to know this together, then we would have something.

I wanted to save everyone, everyone who needed something, something they would never get. This meant kids, the kids that other kids hated, kids like me. Lauren was one of the kids that other kids didn't hate, hovering just beneath the top tier of popularity that I could never get near -- I was the faggot the sissy the brain, these were things that set me apart, in the way that kids divide each other because they've learned that means safety, eventually it will get them somewhere.

I say that I wanted to be perfect, but this was no secret: everyone knew, and I was given two choices -- doctor or lawyer. Florence said stockbroker and my parents tried to keep us away from her, she was too materialistic. Rose said artist, but that was impractical. Two choices: doctor or lawyer. What do you want to be?

I wanted to be my sister. I wanted to play with dolls and wear softer sweaters and paint my room pink, I wanted to wear tights with cutoff shorts, I wanted dresses and makeup and moisturizer, I wanted to giggle and gossip and talk about boys and boobs and ask my friends if I looked fat, I wanted to eat nothing but carrot sticks and rice cakes and salads with no-cal dressing and have adults smile at me and think my diet was cute, I wanted to have a sexuality that I could express.

Sometimes I'd sit on my sister's bed and try to imagine what it would be like if I were her underneath the covers, would things be easier? She would scream and yell and tell my secrets and I would hope for the calm moments when I was reading to her, or we were playing with dolls, or telling stories. She would scream and yell and tell my secrets and eventually I hated her, but hated myself more because I couldn't be perfect. Somewhere deep inside I still believe I deserve to die because I hated my sister.

Once, when my sister was screaming, I had a dream that I woke up and went into her room and raped her, a dream I still remember, like I just woke up in her room and everything is over. Because everything is violence and she's finally quiet. This is when I think about how memory overlaps with feeling and it's so hard to tell the difference, especially when the difference means I don't know if I can go on living. I'm wondering now if my sister screamed when my father took me away, I mean around that time at night even though we were in different rooms, maybe when it happened or when it didn't, maybe when it happened to her or when it didn't. I don't know when it was over and when it wasn't, just my father's hands around my neck into my mouth his eyes his eyes his eyes are caves are claws are everything dark and blood everywhere the pain splitting me open the pain splitting me.

Mattilda blogs at

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okaaaay....that was disturbing. i looked you up and found out that i have a book that you wrote. i can't actually say that i was able to follow your thought all of the way through that, either. there were parts, though, there were parts...

i suppose we all want to be perfect, and none of us really are. probably what your sister was screaming about. and what still causes us all a lot of nightmares. consolation! you aren't alone. we aren't alone. and as bad as the screaming might be, silence can be just as frightening...

wasn't disturbing to me but then... I had that same kinda house growing up.

thank you.

Jerindc, you may guess that I don't necessarily think it's a problem if you can't follow all the way through, and lovely to hear that you have a book of mine :)

Sara, thanks for the support -- it's always good to hear from others who grew up in similar situations...

Dawn on sagebrush | March 14, 2008 4:08 AM

I am sorry for your pain, and for the shame of hatred that haunts you still.
But disjointed memory is still memory and a blessing I wish I had. In the mid 50s it was not uncommon for homophobic doctors to shock us so many times that only a few memories remained. I had only twelve left at ten, when we had to rebuild an identity with imperfect thought processes, trying to let no one discover how badly we were damaged. No hope of ever being perfect, even striving for merely adequate was especially difficult when adult on child rape remained recurring at my home. Home was never a place of safety. The streets were safer by far.
We are not alone, dear one. One child in five has been severely beaten or raped in the land of freedom. One child in five knows the horror of a parent's hand squeezing and the look of empty eyes.

Dawn, thanks so much for sharing -- so many different kinds of abuses, indeed.