I read the essays in Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life yesterday, pretty quickly after having received the book. It amazes me, even now, how much I identify with many of these writers and the events of their lives.
It inspired me to write my own essay about my trauma, and the things that saved me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t superheroes or comics, but it was still fiction and it is still important for me to write about it.
By most standards, I had a normal, middle-class childhood. My parents worked hard; they ran a business together. My mother did accounting and sales, my father did marine electronics repair. We traveled a lot, sometimes for my parents’ business, other times for holidays, once or twice for family shenanigans.
I became a reader very young. I remember the first Christmas where I received a set of Hardy Boys books. They were among the first things I opened, and I started reading immediately. My mother had to continuously remind me to come back to the other presents. My love of reading never dimmed; I spent a lot of time in my school library, and when my rural town finally got one, my town’s library.
When I was about six years old, my mother fell ill with brain cancer. I only vaguely remember this. She had surgery, a tumor was removed, and life went on.
Then the Rule of Three struck a couple of years later.
My parents’ business ran in peaks and waves. Spring and summer were very active times; fall and winter were not. To conserve money, they raised and lowered their insurance rates accordingly, since they’d have more or less customer equipment (and new equipment or replacement parts) in the shop during certain times.
If you know the human brain, you know what a fickle thing it is. Add in a dash of brain cancer (i.e. A GIANT SQUISHY THING PRESSING BETWEEN YOUR SKULL AND YOUR ACTUAL BRAIN) and you might understand why my mother (the aforementioned accountant of the family) failed to raise the insurance rates before the business’s busy period started.
That’s when the shop burned, or immolated, or whatever it did. It didn’t burn to the ground. It just kind of… melted. The structure was left intact, but everything inside was destroyed.
Thankfully, no lives were lost. Just the business and my parents’ livelihood.
Because of all this, my parents went through bankruptcy. My brother and I lost significant college savings accounts, my parents lost their business, my mother’s insurance was maxed to the hilt for her cancer. We had to sell my childhood home and move.
My world was rocking. My once-wide circle of friends shrank to just one (who became my adopted brother, and his family my adopted family). My books became my escape. I was going through puberty, fast. I was already taller and heavier than most of my classmates, some of my teachers, and my father. By the time my mother died, I was eleven years old, over six feet tall, and weighed easily two hundred pounds.
The last few months of my mother’s illness started me down the path of escapism into fiction. There was too much I didn’t understand in the real world. Cleaning up my mother after she wet the bed, picking her up out of shattered pictures frames because she’d fallen down, babysitting her in the car while my father fought with the pharmacist over prescription refills. The worlds in my books were nicer places to be.
The escapism continued even after my mother passed away. After her death, my father changed. Where once he was kind and caring (with a side of harsh criticisms), now he was emotionally abusive and tyrannical. It took me over a year to cry about my mother’s death, at which point I was told she was gone, move on, shut up.
So I did. I moved into outer space. I moved into fantastical realms. I found a place where I could be okay, even for the briefest moment. I learned moral codes, found people who treated themselves and others the way I wanted to be treated. I found fathers and mothers that I could temporarily believe could be mine. I found siblings that might have valued me for me, rather than as a tool to gain a tyrant’s favor or as a shield against his wrath.
Whenever I wasn’t escaped into a book, I lived in literal fear for my life. According to my father, if I talked to my mother’s family and friends (or didn’t clean my room, or do my homework), my mother’s family and friends would take me away from my father and brother and destroy my life. I’d just lost my mother, how could I contemplate losing my remaining parent?
Drugs and alcohol were becoming problems in my hometown amongst teens. I can’t recount here the number of times I heard the phrase, “You’re mother didn’t like drinking. So you won’t.” or “If you get involved with that shit, I’ll kill you.”
Outside of my books, I became invisible. It became my quest, between reading sessions. Don’t talk unless asked a question. Avoid my younger brother, lest I be drawn into an argument that draws father’s ire.
I made the mistake, once, of telling my father of the treatment I received on the school bus. Because of my early onset puberty, many of the other males on my bus liked to harass me. This particular day, one of them had their girlfriend with them. She had a panty liner with her. They thought it would be hilarious to attach it to the back of my shirt, right where I couldn’t reach it.
My father listened, and dealt with it. The school kicked the kids in question off the bus for a week.
When they returned, the harassment turned to full-fledged physical assault. One of the kids punched me in the lower back until I blacked out. Luckily, I woke up in time to get off at my stop.
When I told my father about it this time, he told me I should’ve taken care of it, that he was done. Apparently, I should’ve fought back.
So I shut up, went quiet, strove for invisibility. The harassment didn’t end, the assault didn’t end. Reporting to teachers was laughable: I was over six feet tall, and outweighed my harassers. Surely I could take care of myself? My brother even got in on it (when we started at a new school, at my father’s insistence, my brother told everyone I was the “mentally challenged” brother who was at the school to fill some sympathy slot on the school’s admissions roster).
The only safe place I had was my books. I didn’t have a particular favorite. No characters spoke to me. I just needed a good plot, good writing, and off I’d go. I’d escape into that world and enjoy my stay for as long as I can.