Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Black Flag

There’s another small problem with writing a memoir: If your family’s still living, there just might be lawsuits. This hadn’t even occurred to me till the phrase flew out of my older sister, Mrs. Pep’s, mouth. If I addressed certain family, shall we say, issues, I was, she told me, to expect lawsuits. Not one lawsuit, mind you, but suits in the plural. Which, I surmised, meant she planned to file one suit per issue until they constituted a modern “Bleak House.” Since I’d pretty much rather be shot than be sued, I deferred to all her restrictions but one. I asked if I could still mention the rooster.

“There was no rooster,” Mrs. Pep snapped.

Which brings me to the other hazard of writing a memoir: the flurry of revisionist history. As I told my esteemed shrink (and husband-to-be) Dr. Mars, I wanted to explain to my readers how my family had made me mentally ill. Without this explanation, I said, my book would never make any sense. I’d lived my life as a paranoid, yes, but only because both Mrs. Pep and my parents had, from the start, been out to get me. Mrs. Pep warned me daily that I would die before turning sixteen, and because she was eerie and five years my senior, I had no choice except to believe her. She never said outright what would cause me to die, but I figured it out after she told me what killed the rooster. Said rooster had tried to ruin Mrs. Pep’s country cabin Easter vacation by waking her up at the crack of each dawn, so she’d sprayed him with a can of Black Flag. Which, I was sure, was exactly how she’d take care of me. It might take several cans, but so be it.

“That never happened,” the adult Mrs. Pep had insisted. “I must have made it up just to scare you.”

“That’s even worse,” I’d said. “That is Gaslight!”

As I relayed this sisterly exchange to Dr. Mars, he seemed to take on the rosy French contours of the film’s leading man, Charles Boyer. Shrinks, I knew from experience, could gaslight patients without hardly trying. What would I do if Dr. Mars tried? Bring Black Flag to our next session? Did they still make Black Flag? Would I have to bring Raid?

Then I relaxed, which is almost always a dangerous idea, but I really believed only god, if she existed, could gaslight me at this point in my life. I’d been gaslit way too much in the past. By masters, by misters, by rascals, by roosters. Starting with my own mother when she served me a lunch of large curd cottage cheese.


  1. Any good therapist will support your theory. Family can make you crazy. I generally see people who are the victims of their family's crazy genes. But then I am a legal aid lawyer in a county that used to be the site of a rather large state hospital. But seriously, (or humorously), crazy families are a tradition: consider Hamlet and Chekhov wrote that all unhappy families are alike. And then there is the Oedipus thing. And if you want truly dysfunctional consider the Greek Gods. No my friend, you should not do the memoir that your "sister" fears, but I would recommend a "novel" as in the tradition of a "roman a clef". You're a writer, you can do this, and if its fiction, its some what constitutionally protected.

  2. Of course you should do the memoir that your "sister" fears!

  3. I didn't realize that you drew such a bloodthirsty public! I can picture them looking up at tall buildings, chanting "Jump.. jump...."

  4. Everyone thinks their family is the most dysfunctional ... does that mean ALL families are dysfunctional? Ms. G brings it out in the open and makes us laugh about it, so maybe we can laugh at our own dysfunction ...

  5. Rick said...

    "It might take several cans, but so be it."
    My God, you know how to make a point.
    I say you keep it up.

    Put me down for five pre-arrival copies.

  6. Dear Lily's Mom and Linda---in the interest of lessening family dysfunction, my sister has stopped reading my blog!

    Dear Kate H--I swear I have come across functional families. Remember, functional doesn't mean fabulous. It just means you can do things like get to a dentist.

    Dear Rick: Your comments cheer me immensely!