When I turned 7 in March of that year, seismic change was gearing up in depth. My parents decided to return to the US, the land of my sister, of everything uncontrolled and unprotected. I, of course, did not want to move at all. I had become a French child, a happier child-more outgoing and life-participating. My language was French and the US loomed strange and very dark indeed. I told my parents that I didn't wish to go. To leave me with Donnie, the terrific governess...I could live with her and continue to be. Well, as my responsible parents, they could not accept this
desperate arrangement nor could imagine the devastation that I already experienced that generated such a request.
I felt both powerless and doomed and it was time to get my invisibility cloak out for a very, very long time.
I forget much of the preamble of family consultations and preparations- a desired hole in my memories. What I do remember is the day of departure in July. My home of 34, rue de l' Universite held in its lobby a terrified and grieving child sitting on a suitcase or trunk repeating to herself, " This move is going to be bad for me." My parents,
after over 10 years of expat living, were looking forward to being part of a community, contributing, creating a new life. As for me, it was a day of tragedy and loss that I never fully recovered from...I was the little angel of The Tuileries that was going to fall painfully to the ground and whose wings were going to be clipped so that I wouldn't fly away...The 5 day journey on the Queen Elizabeth went by in a haze...On the morning of our arrival, I woke up and heavily went to the top deck to witness our "progress" into NYC harbour. It was hot, sunny and hazy and the little tug boats hugged the great ship past the Statue of Liberty. Passengers cheered around me. I believe I sank down and felt such heaviness...I felt as if in another world separate from passengers, crew and my family. I watched everyone in a kind of slow motion with no sound and the Statue was most certainly not a sight of liberty to me. For a couple of days, we stayed with my step-father's relatives on Fifth Avenue. The one event that I recall is going for walk in Central Park with my step-father who cautioned me not to go too far because " it wasn't safe". From the donkeys and puppet shows of the Tuileries, we had come to Central Park with its a heart of darkness.
The myriad details of travelling to and settling in to our final destination escaped my sadness and trepidation. We reached Marlboro, Vermont and our lovely house surrounded by silent mountains, no cathedral bells, no little shops...
Just a dusty narrow road with no neighbours in sight. Now, I am sure that not every moment felt so bleak, but the contrast was absurdly shocking to a 7 year old Parisian child. No civilisation, no history or culture, no people who revelled in aesthetic dress or food, NOTHING. Plus the sound of the English spoken was ear-numbing. But my family did settle into a life, my parents found like-minded souls-a few even had considerable experience abroad. My step-father found work at a local college teaching French and European history. My mother slowly gathered her rural threads- dogs and horses. We even adopted a life-saving presence to me- a small kitten abandoned by the road whom I called Minette. We became the closest of friends sharing a similar history in unknown territory.
During this time, my sister had been moved from Devreux to a hospital outside Boston. My parents would arrange visits, of course and some included my brother and myself. I felt understandably ambivalent about all this, but
I had realised from the very beginning that my life was no longer my own, that I had no choice any more and thatfamily obligation rode over my heart like a careening tank. Things were explained, scenes described and the appearance of my sister hinted at...And so we went...Two children into the cuckoo's nest teeming with disturbed souls,
a seemingly suppressed atmosphere and my sister's private room to enter upon one's peril. My sister herself looked other worldly-a beehive hair-do, make up that made her look nothing but ominous and black leather from tip to toe.
Her walls were plastered with her angry, amazing art...Huge horses breathing fire and rebellion, haughty riders trying to control the bridled power under them...My sister's artwork has always been astonishing and the intensity of it
couldn't be handled by most. Except by the family who knew her and the fathom-depth of aggression in her behaviour.
I remember a couple of visits-not too many were inflicted upon two siblings wrestling with newly-found powerlessness and ill-fitting adaptation. Let's just say that the succeeding years, my sister would occupy a threatening and unhappy background, especially on her visits home. Any requests for her to assist in family activities or chores would be met with either black sulks or aggressive comments. She hated dogs and she would kick at them any time she could-boy, I knew how they felt. Meals became potential land mines-she would snap at anything it seemed...Unless, of course, the topic was horses...This would assuage her mood and these times were peaceful. She was in control. Anything for peace....
What added further damage to my already blown-apart childhood was the living situation for the children. My mother always apologised for this in later years. Because of how the house was built long ago, there was a bedroom at the end of the house with a room that acted like a corridor for the occupant to walk through. And that was where I had to live-right next to my sister with her living back and forth through my room. Can anyone imagine a greater Hell? Again, by then, I was buried under such powerlessness and my erstwhile cocoon gently encased me into a child who spoke English, adapted to survival in the New World and who slept fitfully every time her sister would come home. The separation between myself and my own country of emotion had begun and I was just 8/9.
My few years at the local elementary school simply amplified the shaping of distinct continents-myself, my family, the teachers and the other school children. Not to go into too much detail, life at school often reflected dynamics at home when my sister was around. Teasing and downright bullying mostly from school girls made the bus rides long and stomach-clenching. And the classes were no better. Some other girls were subjected to the same treatment and the idea that this behaviour was to be expected and tolerated struck me right to my core. Adding insult to injury, I was referred to a local child psychologist ! How absolutely twisted was that? Why weren't the girls who found it necessary to insult, the threaten and render lives miserable day after day sent for correction? The people in authority became people never to be trusted and, once again, like the polar bears of today, I felt stuck alone on an ice floe with my entire identity being melted away.
Luckily, the psychologist became a friend and ally. But worlds had been drawn like swords and I tried to fight even though my hands were tied and my heart gagged. The final straw was when a boy insulted my sister and her mental illness before everyone and I simply charged at him and hit him. And guess who was driven to the psychologist? And for defending someone who had tried to kill me, who burned me with cigarette butts and who made family life so heavy and unpredictable...I was right to defend her on the principle that no one with either a mental illness or emotional trouble should be laughed at. But, within a year of this and continued unhappiness coated with deep misunderstanding of me, I was given the choice to go to boarding school or to remain with the local children.
By now, what is called " learned helplessness ", became a way to stay alive. Frequently associated with animals who are repeatedly subjected to adverse events or treatment with no ability to escape or change the situation in which they find themselves, this phenomenon can be applied to any living soul trapped in an iron-clad labyrinth of guilt, anger, confusion, loss, violence and so much more. Perhaps this is why I have such an unconscious heart-bond with animals, especially those in captivity of every kind who must endure such suffering in silence and with no understanding of why this way of " life" has been visited upon them. The injustice and sadness is without measure and the consequences as convoluted or tortured as each individual becomes.