There’s a photograph my mother keeps on her bedside table, next to her vertigo pills and paracetamol, water glass and mobility alarm. An old black-and-white picture of me and my best friend, Clare. The two of us, not yet out of primary school, are in fancy dress, wearing matching white polo necks and black leggings. Our arms are slung around each other, so we’re pulled in close, and we’re holding an outsized pair of cut-out cardboard glasses across our chests. Along the top of them is written: ‘We’re making a spectacle of ourselves’. Clare is head and shoulders taller than me and the specs are askew.
In 1974, when this picture was taken, I am ten. I am toothy, bony, birdlike. Whenever I plunk myself into the lap of an adult relation they complain about my bones digging their flesh and push me off again. Out and about in the neighbourhood, strangers assume I’m six or seven and offer to walk me home. My mother worries constantly about my lack of growth. She thinks I don’t eat enough – I don’t – and she’s terrified that I might, not to put too fine a point on it, be a midget. She blames herself.
Twice a year she takes me to see a growth specialist at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, where I am measured and weighed and pinched and pricked by white-coated technicians, then waved through one cavernous Victorian room to another to get a ‘Bovril test’. Sometime in the 1960s it was discovered that the high amino-acid content of Bovril, especially l-arginine, stimulates the anterior pituitary gland into releasing growth hormone, and the team at Great Ormond Street want to find out if I am Human Growth Hormone deficient. Can the Bovril I am made to drink get my pituitary gland to wring out a few precious drops of endocrinal gold? Not until I turn twelve do they decide that it can – that my body’s ability to produce HGH lies within the bounds of normal, albeit at the squashed end of the bell curve.
In the consulting room, the doctor tells my mother that most likely I will catch up with my peers during adolescence. But this doesn’t happen; instead, I develop scoliosis, which means my spine spends half as much time growing sideways and roundabout as it does growing upwards.
These noisy, traffic-filled hospital visits, my mother speeding through Bloomsbury in her sky-blue Cortina, were great adventures – evidence of the big world impinging on my small life, throbbing with action and intent. I remember sitting on a chair in the half dark of the corridor beyond the consulting room, legs swinging impatiently, and wanting part of it. Maybe I’m nine and wearing a navy-blue pinafore, calf-high socks and red Start-Rite shoes, my short black hair a messy crop that’s been cut at home by my mother using kitchen scissors. Or maybe I’m ten and I’m wearing a pale sleeveless dress, hair longer now and tucked behind my ears. Or this is a winter visit, and I’m in corduroy pants and a stripy polo neck, hugging that polystyrene cup of hot yeasty broth to my concave chest. ‘Drink up’ my mother tells me, but I dawdle, enjoying the fuss.
Such images come back to me now in glimpses and snatches, fuzzy round the edges. But I recall very well how I burned to grow. I had fantasies about shooting up mysteriously overnight, waking one morning to the breath-catching delight of finding several missing inches suddenly there. Astonished, I look and look again at my legs, bones miraculously elongated, before leaping into a world transformed, the magic of it extending even to my lungs, letting me breathe more freely. In these fantasies I am wobbly with the newness of experiencing height, like a street performer on stilts; giddy with the thrill of it, as if air bubbles had formed on my brain. I long to see over people’s heads, envy the luxury of being able to slouch. I want to be the willowy sunflower that dwarfs its greenhouse companions and has to stoop to greet them, the way Clare has to bend from the waist to whisper in my ear.
In idle daydreams, I project myself into near futures in which people don’t muss with my hair as if I were a pet, or call me Titch, Midge or Morris – after the car – though, in fact, I don’t mind this particular moniker because at least cars have zoom. In our garden in North London, I hang from the climbing frame that my parents bought thinking it would mop up my excess energy, until my arms feel as if they’re about to spring free from their sockets. I am attempting to extend my spine. Hanging there, I imagine its train of toothy little bones pulling apart so the shock-absorber discs between them can fill out like wet sponges.
It so happens that our garden abutted a small orchard attached to a convent school belonging to Les Filles de La Sagesse, or the Daughters of Wisdom, and while I hang, sometimes from my fingertips and sometimes upside down like a bat, I watch nuns in full habits, starchy wimples angled out like wings, pluck apples from the trees. They work in pairs, industrious and silent, one carrying a wicker basket, the other a trim set of wooden steps.
This image is another hazy fragment drifting up from the past. But it is impossible to fix (could those apples really have been so green?) because that particular yesterday has vanished: the convent closed in 1978, and not long after that the building was pulled down and a Jewish care home built in its place. On Google I find a photograph that makes me queasy because it reminds me of something I’d forgotten: that jagged pieces of broken glass were cemented all along the tops of the convent walls to stop anyone from getting in or out. Once jogged into view this dangerous frosting is crystalline. I can picture the exact way the shards were configured, their size and muddy colours, like the remnants of beer bottles smashed against the bar.
Whenever I pass the convent on my way to the sweet shop, I am mesmerised by that broken glass, my mind hostage to unstoppable imaginings of the damage it could do to someone who liked to climb.
Digging around further, I come across testimony from a woman who boarded at the convent in the 1950s, describing a loveless place run entirely on fear. The girls were made to attend mass in silence every morning, and were not permitted anything to eat or drink until it was over, leading some of them to faint during the long service. If the younger boarders wet themselves they were made to wear their damp underpants on their heads, and paraded around the school so everyone could witness their humiliation.
As a child I have more in common with these young boarders than I know. I never see them, but at playtime their voices scatter on the air like diamond chips.
No matter how I fixate on the thought of growing taller, I do not do the one thing in my power to make it so. I do not eat. Mealtimes at home regularly descend into the ping-pong of pantomime: You have to eat – No I don’t – Yes you do – No I don’t. I can’t explain it, or not in any way that will satisfy my parents, but the feel of food in my mouth causes me to recoil as though I’ve ingested something living: warm, wet, slimy, too hot, too cold, not resistant enough to the tooth or else too resistant. I chew because I am made to, but without appetite or enjoyment, then I wait for whatever morsel I’ve forked in to turn to a tasteless paste I can roll up with my tongue and flick into the side of my cheek for storage.
If I am banished to my room to sit alone with my hunger and contemplate the folly of refusing whatever my mother has lovingly prepared, I lose myself in books about the Earth’s geology and the planets. I’ve seen the Apollo missions – the grainy pictures overlain with scratchy stop-start communications, the heart-stopping re-entry footage – and I am set on being an astronaut. Alone in my bubble world, high above the sky, floating. I picture myself inside a metal space capsule, endlessly circling the globe and pretending the comms is down (‘Do you read us? Copy please. Do you read us? . . . Ffzzzzz . . . ’) What I am searching for is the escape velocity that will get gravity off my back once and for all.
My mother always hated cooking and was indifferent to the pleasures of eating, preferring to take her nutrients in tablet form. She would have gladly photosynthesised her food if she could, and yet it was vitally important to her that we, her family, ate well. She tailored our meals around my father’s preferences (yes please to chicken, no to lamb) and boxed us around the dining table with rules. No talking with your mouth full; no elbows on the table; if you help yourself to a portion you must eat it; never leave anything on your plate. ‘Think of all the starving children in Africa’, said my father, like a stuck record. She was an early health freak, too. While other households in the 1970s were discovering TV dinners, McDonald’s burgers and chemical confections such as Angel Delight, our cupboards were filled with oaty cereal bars and biblical grains. We had the Cranks Recipe Book on the kitchen shelf at a time when vegetarians were regarded with the same suspicion as members of an out-of-the-way religious cult.
Looking back, I think my mother relished reading up on nutrition because she thought of it as a science. She felt robbed of the higher education that she’d dreamed of as a girl, and which never materialised, a casualty of exile and migration. She could list where every vitamin she popped was naturally found and deliver chapter and verse on its role in maintaining bodily health. She even had a guru, an older man called Emile who lived round the corner and ran a meditation class that my parents attended together. Emile was ascetic, vegetarian, a dabbler in homeopathy, and he gave my mother recipes for making cashew nut fritters and salads with sprouting seeds. She duly tried these out on us. He also convinced her to drink raw potato juice every morning for three years in order to cure her arthritic hands. I suspect that my mother was a little in love with Emile.
All this baggage, all this investment in the ceremony of mealtimes, meant that my mother took my refusal to eat as a personal affront. She laboured hard at cooking, which she was neither good at nor fond of, so that we could dine together and all she met with was rebuff. Pinned to the table I chewed, unaware of the high emotional stakes, while my mother waited on me, her face growing darker as the clock ticked slowly down.
I have no words for why swallowing food is a feat that lies just out of reach, can’t explain how my throat constricts whenever I attempt it. Aided by a few gulps of water, I can just about force down a bite under my mother’s watchful eye. But left to my own devices I prefer to spit things out. I linger at the table until no one is looking, then eject a sticky bolus into a tissue. These balled-up packages of food live in my pocket. I finger them from time to time, then bury them in a plant pot.
I remember a recurring dream from around this time. In it, a band of gorillas wearing brightly coloured tutus soundlessly lift the sash windows on the ground floor of our house and climb inside to find me. They enter the kitchen and living room and breakfast room simultaneously, so there is nowhere to run, and they begin their search. I am hiding in plain sight under the breakfast-room table, watching the gorillas’ balled fists swing inches from the floor as they creep and prowl. I am rooted to the spot, scarcely able to breathe for fear of being discovered, and yet somehow the gorillas cannot see me. It is as if I possess a cloak of invisibility. When I think back to those jungle beasts combing our house for my scalp, outsized against our dinky furniture, I can practically taste the bitter drip of terror at the back of my throat that tore me out of sleep years ago.
There is another, very different dream that I recall having at this time, one of those prosaic dreams where nothing much happens and yet something important is revealed. In my dream my father is naked. He’s standing next to his side of the big bed he shared with my mother, towelling himself dry after a shower. I am there, too, hovering near the doorway, my child self, waist high to an adult, and unnoticed. As he drops the towel and turns to face me, I see his male nakedness close up. But instead of a penis he is sprouting a daisy on its stalk. I am fascinated by this sensitive plant, bobbing on its thin stem. And by my father: half man, half vegetable.
Even then, even in childhood, my brain unmanned him. I seem to have made a lifelong specialty of doing just that, and although my father loved me, I don’t think he ever forgave me for it.
Old age made over my father. Turned him into a genial creature with smiling eyes. Spun him definitively away from the man I knew as a child, when, above all other emotions, rage was what animated him. It was as if, upon arriving at eighty, someone just pulled out his plug.
During the years of not eating and not growing I seemed to anger him every few days, or every couple of weeks, or at weekends when he wanted peace and quiet. I can’t say for sure because the memory won’t stay still. What I know is that when I talked back he would detonate. Cursed with a quicksilver tongue and having, as yet, no filter, whatever insolent response to his endless edicts formed in my head simply popped out of my mouth. Swifter, smarter, and more left field than he, I tongue-tied him and drove him nuts. From the outside looking in, my father, so enflamed, appeared to be seething with some motive force that could not be contained and that caused him, like a cartoon character spitting heat, to redden and swell, sending him jumping to his feet with his arms windmilling madly, going slap, slap, slap at my face.
Sometimes he would fling me to the floor, bending down to pummel me there, and then my head would bang out the rhythm of his body blows on the slatted wooden doors of the full-length coat cupboard. From where I lay, neck twisted on the carpet, I yelled at him to stop. Or I think I did. Perhaps I was begging him, saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I cannot tell because I don’t know how it ends. There’s only a jump cut, then I’m under my bed in the dark with the bedroom door slammed shut, trying to decipher his shouts as they carried up from below, listening for his foot on the stair.
The puzzle is my mother. Although the more indomitable of my parents, she did nothing to rein in my father. He simply adored her. He deferred to her on most matters – financial, domestic, existential – and was forever marvelling at her cleverness. He bought her fancy jewels, sprung her flowers from behind his back, sewed her gorgeous garments by night (he was a couturier, and she his muse). He set her on a pedestal. ‘Your mother is the most beautiful woman I know’, ‘Your mother deserves a gold medal’. She was queen of the domestic domain, prideful, yet abashed, at the string of home-grown honorifics bestowed on her, knowing her power. Yet she almost never interceded on my behalf. She did not physically wedge herself between my father and me, as I would have done in her place. She did not ball him out, did not exclaim at the unfairness of throwing adult punches at a child. She didn’t threaten to pack her bags and leave. In exchange, a callus of resentment formed within me.
My mother broke down over these failings only once, many years later when I brought my resentment directly to her. She lamented how powerless she felt when my sister and I were young. She had no qualifications to speak of, despite her ambitions (her formal education in Iraq ended after she sat the brevet at her French school), no connections beyond family, and no confidence in her ability to fathom the hidden workings of professional life in England. The only future she could picture for herself, when she thought about leaving my father, involved humiliation: the shame of being a woman who bailed on her husband; the shame of being a single mother; the shame of being dependent on the state. Leaving him would be so threatening to the fragile norms upheld by her community of exiled Baghdadi Jews that it would precipitate a social free fall. She would be permanently ostracised.
Outside of the house, the queen of the domestic domain was nobody.
At Great Ormond Street Hospital, the men and women in white coats used pincers to pull the skin on my arm, measuring my body fat. There was never enough of it. They stood me against the wall to record my height, but I never measured up. They invited me to step up onto the scales, but I was a will-o’-the-wisp, a featherweight. While I longed more than anything else to acquire substance, my power of refusal – the one thing I could command in my private universe – was simply too important, too life-saving, for me to let go of it.
Refusal is the last recourse of the powerless, and it can be wielded to good effect. It’s how rape victims shut their minds to what is happening to their bodies, and why pacific souls would rather endure suffering than cause another person to suffer. It is also why prisoners go on hunger strike. To refuse what the world imposes on you when you possess no other means of resisting is a strength.
But refusal is a delusory power, too, because it divides you against yourself. Breaks you in two. One half of you submits to the ordeal while the other half protects the self by dissociating.
The machinery behind this magic trick of the mind was brought home to me not long ago while watching a spy drama box set. The world of international espionage is so wholly foreign to me as to qualify as a form of escapist fantasy, and yet I recognised a gritty truth that I already knew in a scene in which a secret agent, posing as a school teacher, gets his head kicked in in a Parisian street. As we watch him writhe on the ground in agony, passively absorbing blow after blow (so as not to break cover) – his face getting progressively more pulpy until, finally, he passes out – we are shown flashbacks to his spy training. Gloves on in the gym, sweaty with exertion, he’s fighting his trainer and he is winning. After being told that he’s now capable of tearing another human to pieces with his bare hands, our agent must learn how to play victim. The trainer tells him that on no account must he fight back. He must not resist, but endure all the punches. More important, there is a threshold of pain beyond which lies blackout: when you feel yourself arrive at this threshold, says his teacher, don’t fight it. ‘Go with the drift.’
As a child I nursed conflicting desires. I wanted substance but refused its means. Desired the presence of mind I needed in order to stand up to my father, but at the same time I wished that I could just rub myself out, dissolve away, whip on that cloak of invisibility. I badly wanted to engage with the world beyond my parent’s orbit, to override the bounds of their jurisdiction and break free. But even as I longed for contact with an outside that was bigger than the world they knew – bigger even than the planet – I withdrew inside the self’s innermost spaces and hid there.
I was in rebellion against myself. In order to not come apart, I went with the drift.
Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt therapy, viewed this kind of ‘splitting’ of the self in a positive light, the idea being that you learn to manage difficult experiences with whatever limited resources you have to hand. You effect a ‘creative adjustment’ that allows you to survive them. Even though that adjustment can be punishing – can look and feel like self-harm – its fundamental purpose is protective, because it functions as a bulwark against intolerable psychic assault.
No, I was not properly cared for as a child. That much is plain. But so too are the dynamics of care and its lack: the bald economy of give and take. It can be brutal.
I no longer hold my parents to account for their shortcomings. They weren’t monsters. They were flawed, as every individual is flawed, and hobbled by cruelties large and small. Both were exiles – my father moved country three times before settling in Britain, leaving Burma (where his Iraqi-Jewish parents had settled in the 1920s) for Palestine, when the Japanese invaded, then moving to France, where he studied couture. He was physically abused by his father, while my mother, who was bumped from Iraq to India to England, was unloved by her mother. In the UK, where they met, courted and married, my parents chased their dreams like any young couple. But more often than not they were frustrated by dead ends and invisible barriers whenever they tried to get ahead, and, sometimes, by deliberately placed obstacles: a bank loan refused, the house they wanted rented to someone else. Every day they faced the banal but deeply damaging reality of not belonging, and of not knowing how things are done. This, too, is a psychic assault, one on a slow burn.
I worry if in relating this I am honouring what happened, since everyone knows that memory is a slippery beast. It comes into focus then fogs up, or shapeshifts when you look the other way. I do not mean to suggest that I am guilty of anything so straightforward as misremembering, or of rearranging the facts to suit my story. In writing workshops, I sometimes tell students about ‘pillars and moveables’ – about how writers of memoir are beholden to truth in all its dimensions: dates, events, locations, who was present, who wasn’t. All of this is fixed and cannot budge. What can change – and what should change, because this is the writer’s gift – is how you tell the story. The angle of entry you choose, whose point of view you relate what happened from, when you decide to begin the action: this is where facticity ends and craft begins.
My worry, then, is not about pillars and moveables. What concerns me is the rather too neat idea that memory is something that floats up intact from the murky past, like some archaeological find you’ve unearthed and off which you merely have to brush the dirt. That notion, I think, can be discounted, as every time you recall something you rewrite it, unsettling the past in the process. All this organic indeterminacy makes memory troubling. Exposes it as something actively forged by a feeling self, who looks back from a point in the future, needing to account for how things came to be in order to inhabit their next slice of future comfortably. I worry, in short, about the psychic need for consonance.
There are things I remember from that long ago time, and things I’ve forgotten; things that have something to teach me precisely because they resist any neat tying up.
I remember one particular clash with my mother. There I was at the breakfast-room table, slouching in my chair, not eating. My mother had made Gormeh Sabzi, an Iranian dish she had learned from my aunt Marta, who made it when she lived in Teheran as a newly married woman. My mother switched the central ingredient of lamb to chicken, according to my father’s preference. I loathed the sour sting and slimy texture of her Gormeh Sabzi, courtesy of the dried limes she was always heavy-handed in using. I would not eat, and my mother forbade me from leaving the table until I did. Battle lines were drawn.
As the food dried into clumps it acquired a sickly sheen. Time took on a jellied stillness, and darkness began shading over the garden I’d been staring out at, my features doubtless as blank as the windowpane itself. My mother sighed heavily as she paced between the kitchen and breakfast room, wrestling with her own impatience. I remember feeling rather pleased with myself. My refusal, it seemed, was king. I relished the power I believed I exerted over my mother in that moment, the power of holding out. I revelled in my own inner resolve.
I didn’t see the next move coming. On impulse, and I know this because it happened so quickly, my mother strode towards the table, grabbed the plate of food and proceeded to grind cold meat and sticky rice into my face. I believe she enjoyed doing this. Or enjoyed the release it offered, since we were both of us actors in a stultifying script.
I remember the last time my father raised his hand against me. I was almost fourteen. There’d been another verbal altercation, and he lost control, precipitating a change in the atmospheric pressure, as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. He was a volcano, an earthquake, a typhoon, his individuality obliterated by a stronger, more elemental force. He caught me by my clothing and clipped me round the ear. Then he boxed my head. My ear throbbed from the reverb.
There ensued a miserable dance around the living room – a slow-motion chase encircling the big dining table, some push-me pull-you action in the middle of the carpet. In a split second’s confusion, I seized my chance and ran out of the house and into the dark, sprinting up the street in my nylon nightdress and bare feet. After a couple of hundred yards, evidently not far enough, since my father was right there behind me, I gave it another half-hearted burst. But then I stopped, sensing that defeat had already outrun me. I had nowhere to go. For the first time I felt the cold of the pavement. My father was loping after me, out of breath, as I stood stock still wailing the impossibility of it all into the night air. When he finally caught me, he sank his teeth into my arm.
The next day, two semicircles of bite marks welted red on my shoulder. I did something unthinkable. In the dark of the school cloakroom, where coats and gym bags hung on wooden racks and the smell of plimsolls mixed with wood oil, I whispered the secret of what had happened to a couple of friends. When I showed them my arm, they shuffled about and looked at their shoes, not knowing what to say.
Everything in our literate culture argues that the act of telling is cathartic, insists that speech acts are empowering. In certain contexts this is true. But when what is happening to you, and around you, does not feel like your story, when ‘owning it’ is the last thing you wish to do, the telling becomes fraught with danger and consequence. I told because I could not contain things any longer – though I well remember the rancid taste betrayal left on my tongue as I blabbed my hurt. In exposing my father as a madman, I felt worse, not better. Not just guilty of disloyalty, since in the act of telling I had made him into an ogre, but guilty of dissembling as well. Because the deeper secret I harboured, though I scarcely dared to acknowledge it, was my contempt for him: his palpable limitations, and the ongoing drama of his ineffectual struggles against them, seemed to me both obvious and pitiable. I had already won, in other words. I knew that whatever my father did to me I would rise above it.
Much later, when I finally found the courage to confront my mother about what had happened, she revealed that this was the night she issued terms to my father. If he ever touched me again, she told him, she would leave.
I came across a cardboard box a few years ago, while cleaning out my mother’s garage not long after my father died. I found it among a heap of boxes, on each of which my highly organised mother had written my name in blue marker pen. One box was a blank, and it turned out to be rammed with plastic body parts belonging to a least a dozen dismembered dolls. When I peered inside, their dead-fish eyes stared disconcertingly back out of a jumble of severed heads, tangled up with amputated orange-glow limbs that ended in nubby joints. The vision, discordant, fragmented, put me in mind of the uncanny faux-horror of a Chapman Brothers installation – that greyish human-but-not-quite-human territory between the real and not real. Between life and death.
Here was something I had forgotten. That dolls given to me as gifts never endured. I never groomed or cradled them, dressed them up or combed their locks, never pretended to feed them at my girlish chest. Handed a doll, I got down to a very different kind of work without delay. Up in my room, where the two of us could be alone, I’d scribble all over its face with blue biro and hack off its hair, leaving stumpy tufts. Then I’d pull off its head. Time and again, to go by the number of decapitations evidenced by the body parts in that cardboard box, I was guilty of defacing and mangling and destroying.
Why my mother made a keepsake of this carnage is a mystery.
And yet the unlikely souvenir tells me something about the nature of memory. It tells me that the past itself is a dismembered thing, its components splintered and scattered, its force dispersed; that re-membering, that act of piecing back together its disparate body parts, is perhaps a means of making oneself whole. This is remembering as repair, even reparation.
When I think about my violence to those dolls now, I see it as a kind of expulsive mimesis, a way of externalising and diffusing the harm done to me by reenacting it elsewhere. It was effectively another iteration of refusal. Because if care is being withheld, or is withdrawn, what greater show of resilience can you mount than to thumb your nose at the very concept of care?
I started to eat around the time my father stopped hitting me, which is around the time when other girls, pulled out of shape by puberty, stopped eating themselves. The irony is not lost on me, but I was ready to take up space.
If this were a fairy tale, this would also be the time when I would begin to grow. And I did, sort of, by increments too gradual to see, and to an extent that never amounted to much. I would always be much shorter than my peers, though I did manage to top the five-foot mark and overtake my mother, and I filled out a few discernible curves as well. Now, in middle age, I am shrinking again, courtesy of early onset osteoporosis. Apparently, I never laid down enough calcium in my bones during the years of not eating, milk being another foodstuff I could not abide. Even now I sniff it dubiously before use, wary of its animal smell.
Height is clearly an attribute I was not meant to possess. But the other kind of growing, the psychic kind, is a separate matter. It is the work of a lifetime. And it is difficult work, because it requires you to lay down the tools you have always relied upon for self-protection.
I would not, after all, be like the wily spy and unlikely hero of the box-set drama, who believed that his long apprenticeship in the art of feeling nothing made him invincible. In hollowing himself out all he succeeded in doing was to cut himself off from his own humanity. Shielded from pain, numb to joy. For all his bravura, he might as well have been beyond gravity’s reach, aloof and untouchable as an astronaut circling the skies in a tin can, trapped inside a vacuum, far from the pull of home. There are consequences to not feeling, and to refusing, and to self removal.
There is no oxygen where that astronaut lives. And where there is no oxygen humans cannot survive.
Image © Alexander Rabb