Memoirs and Diaries of a Marked Woman
THE TOOTH WITCH
New York, June 1994
Excerpts from diary
Tues. 06.14: I wake up with a slight toothache. The tooth concerned is the back one in the upper right. It supports a 4 or 5-tooth bridge and by noon the whole upper right side of my jaw is throbbing with pain. I call Dr. Herbin's office and explain the situation and ask for a painkiller prescription. I take a cab to 94th and Columbus, rush to pick up my prescription and rush back out to the nearby drugstore to get some Tylenol with codein. The handsome pharmacist asks my date of birth and I say it was so long ago I forgot. I ask him to give me a pill right away and I walk back home and spend the rest of the day on my bed reading newspapers and the Brothers Karamazov (I'm almost at the end).
Around 4 pm the club starts playing loud salsa music and I'm beginning to hate the voices of the singers, finding they exploit a natural ability but in spite of sentimental lyrics do not convey any feeling.
...The pain doesn't go completely and at night I take two pills at once before going to bed. The club's music sounds distant and faint and I acknowledge that my talk with the guy did the job without anybody losing face. I wasn't bitchy or gesticulating, I was just determined as hell. I congratulated myself.
Wed. 06.15: I slept well and the toothache has notably receded, as well as the swelling around my tooth. But I want to check it out and call Dr. Herbin in the morning, asking for an emergency appointment. The secretary tells me to come at two and to wait. I ask if it isn't possible to ask a patient to give me his but she says this isn't done, patients have been waiting for their appointment day. I ask if there is no provision in the schedule for emergencies and she says that it's every day at two pm but one has to wait. I say I'll come today at two. Around one, the prospect of waiting maybe for long with my nerves frayed, discourages me from going and since I haven't taken any pain pills since the night before and the condition seems to take care of itself, I don't see the emergency anymore and I go out to call and ask for an appointment even if it's in a few days. This time the secretary sounds like she wants me to come, she says that there is an opening at two and that I should come because Dr. Herbin won't renew the prescription for painkillers and I might run out of pills before the appointment. Since she insists that there is an opening I say I'll come at two. The waiting room is almost empty and shortly after my arrival a woman in her early twenties calls me for x-ray. It reminds me of a former assistant who would talk to me as one talks to a child, on a cheerful and too loud tone that sounded completely insincere, and got on my nerves so much (as if one needed extra aggravation at the dentist's) that finally I told her not to speak to me like that. She also agitated furiously the saliva pump in my mouth while Dr. Herbin worked on me, and I had to tell her that she was hurting me and that my mouth was dry anyway and to take that thing out of my mouth. And subsequently she didn't deal with me anymore.
This time the woman is matter of fact and does not increase my headache with useless chatter. After she leaves to get the lead apron, I get up and go to the ladies’room to get some towel tissue to wipe my lipstick off. She returns before me and I meet her outside the room while she's saying "Where did she go?" as if she were afraid I had escaped.
After a brief wait Dr Herbin receives me and asks how I'm doing. I say that generally when I see him it's because I'm not doing too good and I have a problem. He says he didn't see anything wrong on the x-ray. I indicate to him where the swelling is and he probes a little with a pointy instrument and scrapes the tooth around the gum. The tooth itself is not painful, it's the gum around. He explains that I have pyorrhea, or in plain English gum disease. The second he pronounces this word "pyorrhea" I remember the first time I heard it. It was my sister Veronique, many years ago (or was it when I went to France in 1987?) saying that she had this problem.
The dentist grabs a skull and shows me the corresponding tooth, and shows me the jaw bone receding around the teeth and he says it's called "bone loss" and he says that's what I have, and that bacteria thrive in the space under the gum tissue, and he covers the jaw bone with a piece of cardboard to show where the gum is so I can figure all the empty space where bacteria thrive. So looking at this skull with a complete set of teeth I am asked to identify with it but the difference between me and the skull is that I don't have a complete set of teeth. Besides Dr. Herbin said that he didn't see anything on the X-ray, so he didn't see any bone loss.
Dr. Herbin says that the remedy to my problem is to scrape the whole area along the jaw, on the lengths of several teeth (maybe five or six) because generally those problems do not limit their spread to one tooth but infect the whole area. "That's true, I say, because when the pain was at its worst, I felt like the whole bridge was throbbing". He gives me a strange look. "So this is what we are going to do for you" he says. "That's surgery. Dr. Levine will do it, he's very good at it." Shit, having my gum cut open and the bone scraped, the blood, the pain, the discomfort, even with anesthesia, the days of recovery, and the count-down!
He puts his instrument away in a tired and disgusted way. I lean back and a blink later, he's standing near me, towering above, and says "Rense!" in a tense voice with a disgusted air. I'm surprised and ask him to repeat. "Rense!" he repeats. I'm taken aback by this commanding attitude and still don't understand what he said. I raise my head, incline it a little bit and closing my eyes a little I ask slowly "Whaaat?" He says the word a third time and this time, seeing that I still don't get it, he tells me to get up and rinse and gestures at his sink behind me. He has a look of utter disgust as if he had seen something really yucky and shameful in my mouth, although I know there is no suppuration and I don't have anything to spit out. That's why in the first place I don't feel the need to rinse my mouth and that's why I didn't understand his order to "rense".
I finally understand that he told me to rinse my mouth. In the past, this function had been performed as follows: an assistant had proffered a paper cup in one hand and a narrow-mouthed funnel connected to a vacuum pipe that I could spit in after rinsing my mouth in the other hand, and this time the assistant and the apparatus were absent, so I didn't understand that Dr. Herbin wanted me to rinse my mouth, particularly since I didn't hear the "I" of "rinse". Also I was baffled by this sudden change of attitude, from helpful and comforting to threatening and rejecting. I would never have expected that a dentist could show disgust at his patient. Maybe he's in the wrong line of work.
After I get the message I get up and find a paper cup with blue water in it for me to rinse with and I rinsed twice. While looking at the myriad teeth around me I think about the tooth fairy as a kind of queen bee with a myriad of tiny fairies, each one accountable for one tooth from the birth to the death of the person. Each fairy must know the entire story of the tooth and do her best to preserve it and account for it to the Queen Tooth Fairy.
When I'm finished rinsing Dr. Herbin asks me to follow him to the office, and once there asks me to sit down on the client's chair. He says in a flattering tone that he's sorry he doesn't know the French word for the gum disease I have although he actually said it, pyorrhea and "pyorrhée" being the same thing and I say it doesn't matter, I'm losing my French myself. Then he asks the receptionist to schedule a half-hour appointment with Dr. Levine. The receptionist gives me an appointment at 11 for the 27th of June. While she's looking for a date, Dr. Herbin writes a few lines on my chart and I see my chart is several pages long. No wonder. After he's finished writing I ask if I could take a look at my chart and there's a brief silence and Dr Herbin says "sure." I see I started being treated by him in march of 87 and spent an awful lot of money on my teeth but before I can go any further I feel two taps on my right shoulder and dr. Herbin, standing behind me says "You should take better care of yourself". What am I doing in his office if I'm not taking care of myself? And haven't I done everything I could for my teeth short of implants? I think maybe I misunderstood him and repeat "Better care of ...myself?" and he says yes. Either he was saying this out of concern for my well being, or he was saying it with hostile intent. But why should he be hostile? So I take his words as well-meaning although I feel under attack, and it's this concern for me that starts me crying. I get up and say to him "You know what?... You know what?.... as tears suddenly pour out of my eyes. He motions to me to follow him to his room. I say that I'm taking care of myself emotionally, that I've been taking good care of my emotional life for the past several years, and that anyway how could you expect anybody to take good care of themselves when their mother didn't teach them to do so? That people learn to take care of themselves from the way their mother took care of them when they were children. (It had popped up recently that it had made my mother feel angry and vengeful every time I did something that was positive, what could be called taking care of oneself, and on the contrary that she had silently approved when I was acting out self destructive and antisocial impulses.) "Nobody ever tells me to take care of myself, nobody cares for me" I say, reaching for the tissue in my pocket.
Tears are flowing down my cheeks but I'm not falling apart. I say: "Do you know what I've found out? Do you know what I've found out? "What, what?" he says excitedly. I say "I found out that when I was three or four years old my mother took me to the dentist several times and she had the dentist drill under my baby teeth and damage the germs of my adult teeth." "How did you find out?" he asks excitedly. "By putting together bits of information" I reply, "and because my adult teeth turned bad as soon as they grew and my parents didn't allow me to receive the care I needed." I say that I've had toothache all my life, that I didn't dare to complain, that my parents forced me to start working as a low paid clerk and that I couldn't afford... "Yes, you couldn't afford the expense of dental prostheses!" he put in. "...and they wouldn't help me financially either" I added, still wiping the tears from my eyes. "Yes, he said with a firm voice, but you must forgive your mother and get on with your life." "But I can't get on with my life because she's still doing it, she's still harming me. She pays people off to harm me, even today, I can't trust anybody, because every person who is in a position to help me, she pays off to harm me. And as I'm saying this, I vaguely wonder if this applies to him too. If a dentist could do what Dr. Capron had done to me when I was three, why wouldn't another dentist do something else now that I was forty?
I think about telling him about the accident but I decide not to. I tell him my father has died and he says "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." but I continue about how my mother and siblings won't let me have my share of my father's estate while I'm living in bad conditions here in New York and if I had the $300,000 I could have a much better life and take better care of myself. "Yes, he says, but you must forgive her because she's your mother." "But how can I forgive her? Some people go to jail for that, because what she did to me is a kind of ...mutilation." Now I was made to feel guilty for holding my mother responsible of the horrible thing she did to me. The concept of responsibility was turned inside out and what the law considers aggravating circumstances to an assault, when the offender is a parent and the victim his or her child, was used against the victim to make her feel guilty.
He moved towards the door and said "Well, maybe you need a lawyer." "I can't have a lawyer, I say, because all the lawyers I've had, she has paid them off to advise me against my interests. She pays off everybody around me so I am all alone, I have no boyfriend, no work relations, nobody who cares for me, you understand, nobody who cares for me." And I keep weeping. "And the reason I left my country in the first place is because my parents wouldn't let me live." "Well, maybe you need a psychologist." and I say that I've had a psychologist but that my mother had paid her off too to give me advice against my interest. He tells me that I don't need a personal psychologist, but that I could go to some service that's available to people like me... "Who don't have money, you mean?" I ask and he starts speaking about some service and mentions Roosevelt Hospital on 59th street. In other words he's telling me that (a) I should accept the situation of not having money and (b) that by going to a service that's free, it's going to eliminate the pay-off problem, which is no guarantee at all. I regain my composure and stop weeping. "But I've been working on my problems on my own. You know, I'm crying now because I never said this to anybody before, but otherwise I am able to see the situation clearly and dispassionately. I know what's going on." He remains silent. "Well", I say on a practical tone, to end the exchange. "You've said that it would be Dr. Levine who would do the job? and Dr. Herbin said yes. "OK, I'll see you then" I say and leave.
Once on the sidewalk, I'm disoriented, I don't know whether to go right or left, I'm dizzy and start towards Central Park, towards some silence and greenery, thinking I'll get home through the park. But then I'll have to fill my prescription for antibiotics at the drugstore on 104th and Columbus where the people are mostly Hispanic and the store is not too pleasant. But I prefer to have it filled at the same drugstore I went to the day before and I retrace my steps and walk to the drugstore still weeping behind my gilt five dollar shades.
The people in the drugstore don't seem to notice my weeping or at least they know how to handle a weeping customer, and a woman I have seen the day before comes to ask me the usual questions and she says there will be around fifteen minutes wait but in fact the prescription is ready in around five minutes. So maybe they expedited the matter out of sympathy for me. I wondered if it happened frequently that one of their customers would be weeping while having their prescription filled. It must happen every time people have just been diagnosed with some bad stuff. Maybe they thought I had just been diagnosed HIV positive.
After all, maybe you could think so from my face, although I didn't have any active or upcoming pimple at the time. The three of them were in a stage of dessication and healing, although there always was the occasional hard-as-stone matter that would come out, announcing itself with pain, coming up from unsuspected depths in the dermis. I mean there was no inflammation at this point, no red angry head threatening to burst out and spill its hatred around, just scars, old ones and newer ones still reddish.
For the past few days I had been wearing "spot" band aids to allow the ripest pimple to heal undisturbed by my nervous fingernails and thereby prevent the endless cycle of a new pimple appearing just as the previous one was healing.
As a matter of fact I had realized the enormous impact that this act of self-care had for me, because now, instead of covering-up the pimple with make-up, and pretending it didn't exist, by covering it with a bandage I acknowledged its existence and I was actively taking care of myself in the eye of the outer world. And just as I feel some pride and optimism about taking good care of myself, my dentist draws away from me with disgust as if my mouth stank unbearably and tells me I'm not taking good enough care of myself. Could this be mere coincidence?
But there is more to my taking care of my face. I realized that the skin problems that have plagued me are heavily charged with meaning. One of them being that by covering-up the problem, I was re-enacting the cover-up situation endlessly, with the desperate hope that if I did it enough, I would finally convince myself that covering-up was the appropriate thing to do in life; I was re-enacting the way my family had always dealt with problems: pretending the problem didn't exist, and preventing anybody from speaking about it either by forcing them to participate or by threatening retaliation if anybody asked questions.
And the moment I decide to acknowledge the problem and deal with it corresponds to the period I understand the cover-up about my accident and decide to let the truth out.
It is a strange coincidence that shortly before my toothache started I had been thinking about my siblings' alleged dental problems: Veronique who said she had pyorrhea, Elisabeth, François had all said that they had serious dental problems. And there was also this woman who was an immigration client when I worked at Kleefield's office. We had met occasionally and she had always said that she had bridges and she fussed a lot about special floss for her bridges, and I remembered clearly that once she had said to me that she had undergone oral surgery to remove a gum infection, exactly what Dr. Herbin said I had, and what I couldn't have because this problem could occur only to real teeth. At this point I wondered if it wasn't like the people who said they had a broken limb when I was wearing a cast: to drown my problem in a multitude of similar problems. If it wasn't true that my siblings and this woman Michele had these dental problems, then they pretended to have them to make me believe that there was nothing special about my own, it was a manner to cover-up the truth, because the truth was that my mother had heinously created these problems in a fashion that made it difficult to lay the problem at her door.
Trouble is, I was born with a need to know the whys and wherefores of things and I finally understood the connection between the dentist's work when I was three and the endless problems that I've had starting around age seven. And at age three, I put my hand in hers for comfort while she betrayed me, while the dentist was officiating his criminal misdeed for her, and adding insult to injury by ridiculing me for being nervous and calling me "la pile électrique". The fact that he compared me to an item that my father was selling in his appliance store confirms my belief that my early dental torture was necessary only to my mother's diseased mind. How much did she pay him to destroy my teeth? To ruin my health, my happiness, my social life?
Walking back home the mist of confusion dissolves and all the elements fall into place nicely.
By acting disgusted, Dr. Herbin had made me feel rejected, unacceptable but most of all ashamed, so I was weakened to deal with what was going to ensue. His diagnosis of pyorrhea was a deliberate falsehood. I had an inflammation but not an infection. So there was no need to scrape my jaw bone. And besides, my problem was not comparable to the skull's he had shown me, because the tooth where the inflammation was, was supporting my bridge, therefore the problem, the alleged pyorrhea couldn't spread along. So that was why Dr. Herbin had given me this strange look when I had said that the whole bridge was throbbing. He wanted me to allow my gum to be cut open to scrape the bone around teeth that I didn't have.
But why did he want to deceive me, and make me undergo a painful procedure that was unnecessary? To prevent me from attending my case in court, of course. Maybe in addition to the oral surgery, Dr. Levine had been instructed to create a bit of infection so that with a raging tooth ache I would be in the worst possible conditions to deal with my lawsuit. Maybe I would have to return to the dentist's several times and in any event, the dental problem would take precedence over the legal problem.
Hadn't Dr Herbin spoken to me as if he was my mother's spokesperson? He had told me that I should forgive my mother because she's my mother, although he had an intimate knowledge of the devastation she had visited upon my teeth and by saying I should forgive he was laying a guilt trip on me. He was clearly acting on behalf of my mother. Maybe, with some devilish trick of hers, my mother had created the inflammation in the first place, to make me talk to the dentist, and assuming that I trusted him, to take his advice of forgiving her and have the oral surgery done to me. And the more there is to forgive, the more guilt is imposed on the victim. Logical. So the victim is hurt twice.
So just as I was telling Dr. Herbin that my mother had paid off a dentist to ruin my teeth and paid off everybody in a position to help me, Dr. Herbin had already begun a process of infamous betrayal. Now does he think I found out about him? Does he expect me to submit to the oral surgery on June 27? Is he willing to go ahead with it in spite of the warning he has received?.
Copyright 2003 by Brigitte Picart - May be printed for fair use.