Memoirs and Diaries of a Marked Woman
1955: age 2 1/2
That was something that affected me very much when my parents let me understand that I was hopelessly unfit for society, and all along it was a leit-motiv that came up every time I did something that they found objectionable. Because of the absence of privileges due to my young age, or rather to my low status as the fourth born in the family hierarchy, I looked forward to growing up and be on my own and integrate the wide world outside, but this hope was crushed every time my parents made me feel that there was something inherently bad about me, that they were ashamed of me and would keep me away from society to hide my flaw, not so much to protect me as (and that was the stinger) to protect society from me and that without them, I didn't have a chance. This was a very depressing thought.
I remember going to a child psychologist. In the waiting room there were small chairs for children and big chairs for grown ups, but I wanted to show mother that I was big so I sat on a grown-up chair, because at home I was considered too young for the good things.
The psychologist was a young friendly woman who asked me to draw trees and houses and people and she gave me a lot of color pencils, a lot of paper, and I had a great time. It lasted all day and I had never had such a great time in my life. I hoped that I would return to do it again but nothing came of it. Maybe the psychologist told my mother that she was the one who had a problem, when she had taken me there to have confirmation about my defect.
While all this was going on my mother helped my father in the store. She left a little before him to prepare meals and take care of us kids when school was over. She was always in extreme hurry, had absolutely no patience for the slightest delay and we had to do everything on the double. I watched mom while she was busy, hoping that even for a split second she would look at me and it could take until dinner time before she acknowledged my presence.
When dad arrived after closing the store she asked him how he was feeling. My dad had come out of the sanatorium cured of tuberculosis after a one year (or so) stay, but he was not exactly in tip-top shape when he started "La Maison de l'Electricité" selling electric appliances. So many an evening when he returned, he answered my mother's question by saying "Je suis mal foutu" and from the look on his face I could tell it meant that he was very tired and not feeling well. So this put a damper on the already strained atmosphere and we had to be quiet and go to bed fast.
She had a cat-o’nine tails (she called it “le martinet”) that she showed us sometimes, threatening to punish us with it if we didn’t obey, then she put it back in the space between the dresser and the wall. To enforce silence after lights-out, mom dangled the cat o'nine tails in the opening of the door while hiding behind it. The first time it happened I felt betrayed by her for the first time because I knew that it was her behind the door threatening physical violence with this terrifying instrument. [It was the first instance of a double pattern of a) threatening violence while b) not owning up to it, a pattern that she would resort to time after time after time to control me even after I became an adult and I had a right to make my own choices, to prevent me from doing what I wanted to do and make me do what I didn’t want to. It was because she knew that she didn’t have the right to interfere that she hid her hand, and also because she didn’t want to be associated with the horrible threats that she made: it could have marred the pristine image of herself that she wanted to maintain. After her latest orgy of threats in the summer of 2003 I realized that I have lived with this form of terrorism my entire life because of her.]
I observed mom getting ready to go out into the world, that is, helping my father in the store. She was a beautiful woman and I adored her. She put red nail polish on her fingernails and took care of her hair, having it bleached and permed and set in rollers, and I understood this was part of being a woman. She also put creams on her face, foundation, lip-stick. I noticed that seen in profile, her mouth had the exact shape of a heart lying on its side and sometimes I tilted my head to see it straight. I tried to persuade myself with this contrivance that since there was a heart on her mouth there must be love in her heart. She also accentuated her eye-brows with a reddish brown pencil in a continuous line that exaggerated the arch and gave her a mean expression. Many times I watched the transformation from sweet-looking to mean-looking while she traced her eyebrows, amazed at what little it took to completely alter the emotional landscape of her face. I wanted to tell her that everything was great except the eyebrows and that she shouldn't arch them at such a sharp angle and not so heavy, but I didn't have the words.
One day she put red dots of her nail polish on each one of our fingers, that is forty little nails to paint a red dot on. So she started with my sister Agnès because being the oldest, she always had first turn and first choice, and we all waited for our turn and of course I was the one who waited the longest. But when my turn came, I had had the time to think and I asked mom that instead of painting a red dot on each nail, she paint completely one nail only. I didn't think the little dots were pretty, and this thing had lasted long enough already. She did as I asked but I felt that she resented me my request.
...About the nail polish, I was wondering why mom sat us down to go through the little dot-painting scene, and I think now I've got the message: it was part of her privilege thing. Personally I had never envied her the privilege of painting her fingernails, but she made it a desirable prerogative by dispensing it sparingly to us and making us wait for it, while giving us the impression that she was breaking the rules in our favor. Maybe she had intentionally painted big dots on my elder sisters' nails, and she intended to paint only tiny dots on mine, expecting that we would compare later to see whom mom loved the most, but I saw it coming and I upset her plan when I requested only one fingernail completely painted. But what she made clear also was that she had control over the nail polish supply, that she held out of view inside her hand, and control over its dispensation.
She was saying that depending whether one was in her good graces or not made all the difference. Then all you had to do was find out what it was that pleased her.
...Thinking further about the nail-painting episode, I saw again the four of us girls sitting in line and all of us looking at mom. It seems that this is the only kind of situation where she feels comfortable: everybody's attention focused on her. And she, feeling in control because she holds our life in her power. And us, taking cue from her facial expression, to know how we should feel.
When she started the dot-painting, I didn't find it pretty, and I knew that only mom could take it off with that liquid in a small bottle. So if I allowed her to put some red on each of my fingernails and I didn't like it, I would have to ask her to take it off and she wouldn't like it. So that, not daring to ask her to remove it, I would have to suffer every day with this ugly paint job on my hands and it would go away only with nail growth and chipping. Because this was an ugly paint job. She could always say that because there were so many little fingernails to take care of, she didn't have the time to do it right at all, that's why she was not painting a dot, but more exactly just giving one tiny brush stroke on each nail, dipping the brush in the red bottle from time to time with as much solemnity and exaltation as would require a ritual, giving intense emphasis on exactly what quantity of red landed on whose nail and how thick the coat, how intense the red, depending whether the brush had just been dipped or not.
Now I see this red paint as a symbol for blood and guilt. You want to wash it off and it just won't go away! And while appearing to do us a big favor, she actually forced it on us (mental imprint) by making it look like something great.
POLITICS IN THE NURSERY
I believe that she posited many of her actions, making her face up among other, as privileges that she had because she was grown up and our mother. She positioned herself vis-a-vis her children as the one who had the power to give or to deny everything that we needed and to decide the quantity of what she gave. It made our survival a matter of politics right from the start. Beside earning privileges, there was not much about life. Since I was at the bottom of the totem pole as the fourth born, even after Veronique was born because newborns have newborn privileges, I started the race with a severe handicap and besides, I had an inkling that I didn't really want to compete for privileges. I found it demeaning. I knew it was a time consuming activity that could take a whole life and then there would be no time left to do the interesting stuff. But I tried to earn privileges anyway as a matter of survival and kept count of at what age my elder sister got what she got, so that when my age came, I could expect to have the same. But it happened that after waiting several years, the expected privilege didn't materialize and then I found out that it had not been a matter of my being too young but of simply being. Their whole attitude towards me was one of resentment for my existence.
INITIATION TO RHYME AND SINGING
During the same period, my mother taught me to sing and on that occasion, I discovered the world of music, my ability to make music, to sing words, the concept of rhyme and how pleasant it is to the ear in addition to the pleasure of pitch. It was not a children’s song that she taught me. The lyrics of that song went like this:
Brave marin revient de guerre, tout doux (repeat)
Tout mal chaussé, tout mal vêtu,
Brave marin d'où reviens-tu?
Madame je reviens de guerre, tout doux (repeat)
(bla bla bla bla)
Brave marin se mit à boire, tout doux (repeat)
(bla bla bla bla).
From what I could make out, it was a man who arrived at the woman's door after walking for a long time. I asked what it was he was coming from, and he was coming from war. His shoes were worn out and he was ill-dressed. But didn't one say "habillé" for dressed, and not "vêtu"? The word I knew for "dressed" was "habillé", not "vêtu". And God knows, with all this fuss about dressing and hiding one's body, I was positive that the right word was "habillé". I didn't like "vêtu" at all. So I had an idea. If the man had been walking for a long time with worn-out shoes, he was probably very tired, and instead of singing "Tout mal chaussé, tout mal vêtu" I sang "Tout mal chaussé, tout mal foutu." But then I saw my mother's face lose its relaxed expression and her eyebrows came close together and there were three deep vertical furrows between them and her mouth was pinched and she looked overall very displeased. What had I done? I had replaced one word with another that ended the same and didn't destroy the rhyme, and the meaning was even enhanced. I was rather proud of myself.
I wasn't sure why mom reacted that way and we started the song again, and again, and every time I sang "mal foutu" there was the same reaction. What was wrong with that word? Dad said it almost every night when he returned from work. I had learned it from him, this word. I was utterly baffled. She looked at me as if I had deliberately done something very wrong but she didn't say what it was.
In my twenties I learned that the infinitive of the verb was "foutre" and "foutu" was the past participle. The word was very vulgar and used as an insult, for instance "Vas te faire foutre". But still later I learned that the meaning of this verb refers to homosexual anal sex and Sade used that verb in all its variations. So when one said "Vas te faire foutre", as an insulting way to say "get lost", one was in fact calling the insultee a she-man. But what then did my father mean when he said that he was "mal foutu"? From his outward appearance he meant that he wasn't feeling well and was tired, not that he was badly fucked in the ass. So finally, many years later, I understood why my mother had been so upset when I substituted the words "vêtu" with "foutu". It was because she had assumed that I had made the substitution not to avoid a word I didn't like, but with the guilty knowledge that the word was an extremely vulgar one and with the intent to use it because of that. And when I asked that we sing again, she believed that I repeated the word not to make sure which word it was that upset her, but to deliberately shock her.
In fact everything that I did of my own free will was received by my parents as an affront to their sense of propriety, it was as if everything I did was offensive to them, and in self-righteous indignation, in the name of the greater good of society compared to my own welfare, they ruthlessly retaliated for any affront to their sense of propriety. In my early twenties, it seemed to me that my very existence was an affront to the world and I was ashamed of being alive. I thought that the world wouldn't miss me if I died. But I never actually contemplated the idea in the how-to of it. I felt as if any contact I had with a fellow human being was like a cactus prick, and I wasn't sure, at the same time I felt I was the walking cactus that helplessly pricks everybody who comes into contact, but I felt the pain of the pricks too and every human contact hurt me.
When I saw myself through the same lens as my parents did, this feeling was very strong, of being an unwelcome liability to society, but at the same time I was writing movie scripts for short and long films, bubbling over with plot ideas, camera movements, one-liners, writing synopses feverishly and believing that I could make a career as a film writer. But I could find no legitimacy to my existence in my parents's opinion, and having to support myself as a beginning secretary, I didn't have much time to launch a career in the seventh art.
Speaking about shit, and music: I had taken to singing like a duck to water. Now I had a toy to play with that was my own voice and that, unlike toys you can see, nobody could break. (At least I believed so, but I realized later that someone can actually break your voice. In my late twenties I had lost my singing voice.) I learned the songs my sisters learned at school.
There was a rather silly song that went:
"En été j'men irai dans la Martinique"... and the song went on saying what the person would do there. He would ride a dromedary and he would eat what? "Des carottes à moitié cuites", that is, don’t ask me, half-cooked carrots. So one night getting ready for bed, Sophie and I were jumping in rhythm on our bed while singing this silly song. Mom came to put us to bed but we were having a good time and kept jumping and singing, wanting to show her our little song and dance. She sat down on the bed and all of a sudden she grabbed my sister by the arm and jerked her body so the dance stopped, and she gave her a not very heavy but a very angry slap on the arm and in a split second the ambience was changed from relaxed play to a disaster situation. What had Sophie done? I was with her, we were just playing innocently. What had she done? "Qu'est-ce que j'ai fait?" The eternal question. "Qu'est-ce que j'ai fait?" One always did unknowingly terrible deeds which warranted severe punishment. Life was like a booby-trapped place where the most innocuous thing can blow up in your face. In fact it even took the turn where one felt one had done something bad no matter what one did, even if one's motivation was legitimate. And in the end, it seemed, there was nothing at all that was legitimate. One felt guilty for being alive.
So what was Sophie's sin? She had said "des crottes" instead of "des carottes", mother said. I was positive she had said carottes because I was singing with her. But mom was extremely upset and insisted that Sophie had said "crottes" which means “droppings”. Even if she had, what was the big deal? But it was a very serious offense and Sophie cried and we went to bed downhearted.
Several years later Sophie and I still spoke about this incident occasionally, but we could never make sense of it. It was a sense of great unfairness, good time ruined, unexpected chaos, but we couldn't acknowledge that our own mother had deliberately caused us such distress. Basically she had wanted to put us to bed fast and she wanted to make us stop playing, and she made up my sister's use of a "dirty" word just to have an excuse to put an end to our play. After we were scolded, we were very obedient. Silent and fast, doing what mom asked us to do, trying to make up in obedience for whatever misdeed we had committed.
In fact this incident bears a striking resemblance with the "Brave Marin" song incident: in both songs, mom pretended that we had put a "bad" meaning in the lyrics, or she had heard a bad word that was related to shit or sex which were taboo and in both cases the enchantment of singing, the wonder of words, music and movement turned into a nightmare.
In fact is seems she spends a good deal of her life reminding people what they shouldn't think or talk about. Like "It is forbidden to say shit" or “Don’t think about a pink elephant.”
But if it was a PRIEST saying dirty words and telling obscene jokes at the family table when I was pubescent and shy and pure, then it was ALL-RIGHT!
* * *
I was two or three years old
and my mother took me to Mme Féminier, the wife of my father’s insurance agent, and with whom my parents were friends, so that she could
baby-sit me. Mme Féminier showed me a book with the story of Snow
White and I was extremely upset that a mother could hate her
daughter. How vicious she was, this evil queen, trying time after time under different disguises to kill her daughter! Finding her even after the poor girl had gone far, far away! Something increased the impact of the story: the book was a pop-up book and I had never seen pop-ups before and was amazed that three dimensions could come out of a book. Since I was unhappy at home, the fairy tale explained to me why I was unhappy.
When my mother came to fetch me, I was still in a state of shock, unable to
speak, and without asking how we had spent the time, my mother
apologized profusely to Mme Féminier for the inconvenience. The lady
said there was no inconvenience at all. In fact we had had a great
time the two of us and she had been very nice to me. But in my
mother's eyes it was impossible that anybody could have a good time
with me and she apologized and apologized in spite of her friend's
protests. These apologies of my mother, that made me a nuisance,
confirmed my association between the evil queen and my mother, my understanding that she didn't love me, and we didn't say
a word on the way home.
From then on, every time I saw Mme Féminier, she called me "Snow
White", even into my teens, unaware that the fairy tale was so closely related to my situation, unaware that in calling me so, she put my mother in the role of the evil step-mother, and I remember my mother's unspoken
irritation every time this woman called me Snow White.
* * *
MOTHERHOOD AS A BUSINESS
There must have been a scene between me and my mother, of which I have no recollection, when I realized how evil she was, and maybe she had to restrain me physically and I looked at her in terror and it made her hate me even more, because my terror proved to her that I had understood what she was really about. But this scene must have been so traumatic that it is still buried in my subconscious, maybe making its slow way up. But I know that she must have been very upset to see fear and terror on my face and she must have punished me for it. Anyway...
She knew that I wouldn't give up my free will without a fight and that was going against her plans. So she decided around that time that she would put me on my way to the next exit. Because for her, motherhood was not a labor of love but a money-making enterprise, and her children just the most profitable kind of cattle, and in her view I was defective because I fought for my freedom and this jeopardized her plans. I made her waste time. I wasn’t cost-effective. She also used us as social props to enhance her status in society and her credibility at church. She obtained all the discounts allowed to large families. I remember the 75% discount on the train fares. She had all our photos stapled to her own card.
When she took me to the photographer to have my ID picture taken there was no way to make me smile. The photographer showed me a white stuffed rabbit and made it jump behind his camera and the black veil, but it didn't amuse me, I found it puerile and I wasn't even three years old! I was trying to act like a grown up because being little was the pits, so I wouldn’t smile at the rabbit. My mother was getting nervous and angry. I couldn't understand the concept of pretending. Why should I smile if I had nothing to smile about? And the more nervous my mother became, the less reason I had to smile. She probably thought that I didn't smile to spite her, to make her lose face. Finally a faint smile is on my face on the photos, my plump, chiseled lips slightly parted. Had she had my teeth drilled already or was it before?
And when the government agent, “l’agent payeur” was due with the "Allocations Familiales", the state subsidies for large families, my mother was waiting for him feverishly. She spoke sometimes of her “caisse noire”, her “black” cash box. On the other hand I wore only hand-me-downs from my three sisters. Once she bought three pairs of the same shoes for my sisters and when I grew into them I wore the same looking shoes for three or four years. I never had the school supplies that I needed and I believe she built her nest-egg, her “caisse noire”, on the money she saved from the allocations by not spending it on her children. Even in "Terminale", the highest grade in high school, I didn't have the Gaffiot Latin dictionary that everybody was using and sometimes entire verses and sentences could be found there already translated, but I had to reinvent the wheel, spend hours on the translations and make do with skinny abridged dictionaries that I had found, and I only found out the ready-made translations after I had done the work. Well, all right, it was good for me. But I thought that the Gaffiot cost a lot of money because it was so big, but in fact it was no more than $25 or so.
* * *
I realize that to my mother, I and my siblings have been
and are nothing more than money-making devices. Contrary to what
she said, she didn't have us because she didn't know contraception,
or because my father had premature ejaculation, or because a priest her mother trusted had said that a woman should have a child every year, but because she had found out that a child was the most profitable way to make money. If minks or pigs had been more profitable, they would have raised minks or pigs. They even considered quails after we were born, but they found out that children were the most profitable. My father used us for tax deduction while he didn't provide enough for our well being and our education, cheated the tax authorities and professed utter contempt for the government, while my mother used us to get all the benefits that parents of large families are entitled to. Both of them were interested in us only to the extent that we were profitable and didn't interfere with the profitability. So on one side they exploited us to get the benefits and on the other the money the government gave my mother to spend on us, she kept for herself and that's how she made her nest egg, or as she said, her "black cash box": at the expense of her children.
While I was thinking about all this I felt so sad and disgusted that my sobs forced me to bend over.
* * *
Copyright 2003 by Brigitte Picart - May be printed for fair use.
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