“I don’t think you should read the new Sue Monk Kidd book,” my friend Melissa e-mailed me. “It’s too violent for you.”
For years—decades—Melissa has previewed shows and movies and books like Six Feet Under and The Kite Runner and Twelve Years a Slave, letting me know if there’s children being abused or women enduring rape or slaves getting beaten, because she knows I can’t read or watch anything violent.
I have a nearly irrational phobia of people being whipped. I had to leave class when my 8th-grade history teacher, Mr. Broggy, showed Glory; a movie about the Civil War where Denzel Washington is beaten for stealing shoes. Even Fifty Shades of Grey was too graphic, too aggressive, for me to finish.
I know exactly when and where this all started. I was six years old, and my younger sister, Sarah, had croup.
My father had left a few months earlier, returning to pack his things with such a vengeance that three-year old Sarah went upstairs to her dresser and brought down the pink sweater she’d gotten for Christmas, thinking he meant to take the gifts, too.
My mother was frantic, panicked as her youngest child wheezed and barked. From where I was sitting on our brown couch, I watched her open the front door and usher in the neighbor—a last-minute babysitter for me and my older brother.
Things seemed like they were moving so fast and my mother was barely more than a blur—a streak of curly hair and a blue sweater. It was as if I could feel her distress more than I could see her expression.
Someone had left the TV on. It was a movie about a ship, and the captain was tying a man up. The man was shirtless, and slowly, methodically, the captain began to count out the lashes while the man thrashed in pain, eventually sagging towards the deck. And throughout it all; my sister’s harsh cough, her gasp for air, her soft cries.
I thought she was going to die.
If my six-year old self possessed the language to describe this moment, I would have used words like vulnerable, afraid, confused. My insides felt like a whirly-twirly snowstorm; the icy cold flakes falling so fast I could barely catch my breath.
And now, whenever I see or read or hear someone being beaten, flogged, whipped, I physically recoil. I get nervous and my stomach clenches. I get very anxious if I see previews for a movie about a ship or a captain–I didn’t even want to watch Pirates of the Carribean.
And yet—strangely—I absolutely love the Rocky movies. When we first married and had no kids and were so busy we didn’t know what to do, Joe and I would get up around 10:00 on a Saturday, eat breakfast, shower, and flop back on the couch just in time for a Rocky marathon.
I was about nine when I first started watching them, and by now I can recite nearly every single line to Rocky III, the one where Apollo coaches Rocky to defeat Clubber Lang.
Right now, my nine-year old son, Jack, loves the movie Annie. He talks about it all the time and watches it as much as we allow—usually about once a week.
Because of autism’s hold on his expressive language, Jack can’t really tell me why he’s so fascinated with this particular movie. When we ask him why he wants to watch it again, if it scares him, his answers are usually disconnected and unrelated: “She wears a red dress.” or “Carol Burnett plays Miss Hannigan. She was born on April 26, 1933.”
But I recognize the way his mind is working, the way he’s is anxiously considering the idea of living without his family as an orphan. Sometimes when we’re driving to the grocery store or I’m helping him brush his teeth, he’ll blurt out a question. “How do you be an orphan?” or, “When you are an orphan. Do you have a last name?”
He is caught in the middle of his own snowstorm, only instead of a shirtless man tied up on a ship and a sister with a deep cough, the twirling white flakes resemble girls with no mothers and long rows of iron beds in a single room.
Two weeks ago, Joe and I saw Sting and Paul Simon in concert. The two dynamic performers opened the show together, and then they spent the next couple of hours changing places onstage, singing their own songs with their own bands. Towards the end of the night the stage darkened, and when the lights came back on they stood together, nearly motionless at the microphones, and began to play my very favorite from Paul Simon: The Boxer.
It was magical, and in an arena in Boston I was overcome with the harmony of their voices. Listening to the final verse of the song, my mind wandered back to that afternoon, when Jack had yet again slipped the Annie DVD back into the player.
I’d heard Mrs. Hannigan’s voice screeching from the family room, and I walked in to tell him to turn the DVD off, that he’d already seen the movie that week. But as I came into the room, I was drawn into the familiar tunes and the promise of tomorrow, and I sat on the edge of the couch and rubbed his foot. Eventually I scooted up next to him, and in an uncharacteristic gesture, he rested his head on my shoulder for a moment.
Maybe what Jack and I both like is the happy ending. Maybe we’re drawn to stories where the underdog triumphs; a little girl in a red dress is adopted by a millionaire and an untrained fighter from Philly defeats the seemingly undefeatable.
I can’t say I’ll read Sue Monk Kidd’s new book, or any book about slavery or ships or floggings, for that matter. Thirty two years later, the memory is still too raw, too tender. When I remember that early spring evening in my childhood home, I feel like I’m six again, like my father just left and our family is slowly eroding –first from divorce and then from croup’s seal-like bark.
But we didn’t erode. Sarah did not die of croup, and through the years we huddled on that same brown couch and read books and laughed and poked each other. Together we watched Rocky movies. The family that once was five became four, and the snowstorm quieted, even if the cold flakes didn’t fully melt.
I think maybe on that stressful evening three decades ago, a tiny seed clung to the frozen ground in the midst of the twirling snow. Over time the seed sprouted and blossomed, and on the really hard days, it gives me strength to fight, for my marriage even though my parents couldn’t fight for theirs, for the things that are rightfully mine, for my nine-year old underdog with autism.
Because, as Paul Simon sings, we are all fighters by trade; not just boxers, but slaves and orphans and young boys with autism. Mothers who stay, and a little girl with a small pink sweater in her outstretched hand.
In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
“I am leaving, I am leaving.”
But the fighter still remains.