Contaminated

Janette Turner Hospital

  • Colour is the Suffering of Light: A Memoir by Melissa Green
    Phoenix, 341 pp, £9.95, April 1996, ISBN 1 897580 43 6

‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ Melissa Green’s mother says to her nonchalantly on the subject of having babies. ‘The doctors will be there and they’ll put you to sleep. I almost miscarried with you. The doctor wanted me to stay in bed, but I didn’t and you were born just the same.’ Melissa, on the verge of puberty, baffled by and anxious about certain bodily changes, is neither greatly enlightened nor particularly reassured by this information, but her mother, in the time-honoured patchwork mode of ellipses, imprecision and embarrassment, barrels on regardless with the lecture on birds and bees. The one thing Melissa is spared is euphemism.

‘You were so tiny when you were born,’ my mother continued, ‘they thought you were going to die. They put you in an incubator for six weeks. It was like a little glass coffin, and you were blue, and everybody thought you were going to die.’ She laughed, a raw, glittery sound out of her red mouth. ‘In the old days, they would have taken a sickly baby girl like you to a mountaintop and left you to die in the wind and the rain. Eagles would have come down and plucked out your eyes. Here,’ she said, thrusting a brown paper bag in my lap. ‘You’ll need these.’

The bag contained a box of sanitary towels and an explanatory pamphlet with diagrams, and that was the end of Melissa’s first lesson on menstruation and birth. As on so many occasions in her childhood, she learns only that any explanations given by her family are misleading and partial. They raise more questions than they answer, though the questions they raise are full of fearful interest and point down byways where more disturbing knowledge lurks.

A similar lesson is quickly learned by the reader of this memoir, which, we are told in a prologue to the Prologue, ‘is more than the story of what happened to me as a child. It is about how I was saved by language.’ This is an explanation as deceptive as any given to the young protagonist. Indeed, there are moments when the reader feels that the author comes closer to being damned by a self-indulgent infatuation with words. There is a preciousness to many passages, a quality of the ‘set-piece’ and of an over-contrived ‘poetic’ style, that can be both irritating and embarrassing. It would be nearer the truth to say that this is the story of someone born into a family riven with contradictory myths about itself and torn by competing needs and narcissisms. The child Melissa becomes the battleground for these competitive versions of past and present, and is almost destroyed by the clash. This memoir is about how she was saved by a remythologising of herself and of her family, and by the evolution of a new and less self-destructive form of narcissism. In other words, although the explanations which Green gives her readers are frequently unsatisfactory, they do tell us something. Her own exegesis of her life tends towards psychobabble; but the explanations not articulated, the anecdotes never completed, haunt and fascinate.

‘When I lived inside books, I was safe,’ Green writes in the prologue to the Prologue. ‘When I lived outside books, I was not ... It is not only that we make metaphor; metaphor makes us.’ That much is certainly true, and the defining metaphor by which this family sees itself, and by which, also, the narrator sees herself until the final line of her memoir (‘Now I can begin my life’), is one of deprivation and of a total helplessness malevolently inflicted. As flies to wanton boys are the members of the Green family to the gods, and to maintain this myth of martyrdom haplessly endured, they are willing to be scrupulous editors of memory and careful selectors of fact.

Melissa Green was born in Massachusetts by the Squanicook River, close to the New Hampshire border, on a farm that had belonged to her family for five generations. The family’s fortunes had been up and down, but by the time of her birth, they were definitely down. The lifestyle is hardscrabble poor, with bitter memories of former glory. Melissa and her younger siblings seem to suffer a childhood of hard knocks in every sense of that tired phrase. There is sudden and unpredictable violence; there is a relentless cycle of heavy labour for which the children are never praised or thanked. Their poverty, both material and spiritual, seems almost absolute. Indeed, the publisher’s blurb tells us, ‘for most American people, the extraordinary events of the Sixties changed their lives for ever. But for the Green family, on their remote Massachusetts farm, the cycle of thrift and hardship remained unaltered, ... their future ... determined by the forces of nature, leaving them untouched by the uncertainties, or the opportunities, facing their fellow Americans.’

The blurb-writer, it seems, feels some need to account for the complete absence in the memoir of any reference to the world beyond the Green family drama. Quite apart from the matter of that ‘remote Massachusetts farm’ in a state whose ‘remotest point’ is about two hours by car from Boston, the comment does serve, unintentionally, to highlight the fact that for the Greens, being cut off from the world is as much a question of choice as of geography. ‘I felt that our farm was fixed at some terrible extremity,’ Green represents herself as thinking when she was a child, ‘a shabby, surly outpost of civilisation before the wilderness began, a way station en route to something inevitable, beyond the broken granite hitching post that marked the boundary between New Hampshire and Massachusetts. We were at the verge, the edge of something profound.’ This metaphor of deprivation invested with high and tragic meaning is clung to vehemently.

We were alone and apart because we were other than those who lived below us. We were contaminated in some way and dangerous to other people. An undiscovered contagion infected us, and though we were allowed to go to school, to church, to McNabb’s drugstore, and Fred Tenney’s haberdashery, it was only to visit and never to stay long. In turn, we were never visited except by the bravest, most intrepid travellers.

Such skilful weaving of contradictory evidence into the chosen pattern is typical. When Green writes of me family as lepers made exemplary by suffering, and of colour as ‘the suffering of light’ – a mawkish and pretentiously sentimental tittle – she is mapping the metaphor that is the cause of so much misery. The grave consequences of this misery, especially for the children, are undeniable. From the beginning, however, confusing bits of evidence creep into the narrative, and there are many traces that do not fit the controlling myth. ‘I opened Shakespeare at the age of nine and was electrified,’ Melissa tells us. ‘I finished [writing] my first novel at the age of seven,’ she tells us elsewhere. ‘My mother ... taught us the Our Father in Old English.’ The children duly recited Faeder ure, thuthe art in heofonum; they learned to count to 50 in German; they were told the stories of the knights of the Round Table and of Joan of Arc; they were addicted to tragic endings. None of this is the normal stuff of rural poverty.

Here is the myth of herself as Melissa receives it and cherishes it, at great cost: she was born premature and unwanted, weighing only 31bs, 13 oz. She spent the first six weeks of her life untouched by human hands. Her parents, apparently, had little interest in whether or not she lived. From the dawn of consciousness itself, she had a precarious sense of her own existence: ‘I am alive, I am alone.’ In her entire childhood, she writes, she was never held in anyone’s arms. She craved touch, but also feared it. Once she screamed when a shoe-shop manager tried to measure her feet because she could not tolerate being touched, though four pages later, she is recalling the day when Roger St Cyr, an older boy at school, buttoned her coat and tucked in her braids and took her hand to lead her home through a snowstorm while she swooned with pleasure. All that is clear among many contradictions is that physical contact was a matter of intense ambivalence.

Childhood on the farm is remembered as endless hard labour, punctuated by frigid lack of interest from her adored, beautiful, book-reading, story-telling mother, and by arbitrary physical violence from her father. Through nightmares and illnesses, Melissa is left unattended. Her sense of her own worthlessness and ugliness are constantly reaffirmed by both her parents. She wakes screaming in the night, but no one responds. She feels invisible. She doubts the power of her own voice.

From such harshness, Melissa is intermittently, capriciously rescued by Granny, her father’s mother. Granny appears unpredictably and carts her off to the ancestral home in Winthrop, a harbourside suburb of Boston, where Melissa gets far more touching and pampering than she wants. These visits vary in length from days to months, determined by Granny’s whim, with no attention to Melissa’s desires, or to the chaos that might ensue in the child’s school life. Granny dotes on Melissa and considers her the most beautiful child in the world, thus earning Melissa the hatred of her younger siblings. (For Melissa and the Greens, good things tend as readily as bad towards martyrdom.) Melissa feels effaced by her grandmother’s love. But Granny is a hoarder of trinkets and artefacts from the past, a preserver of five generations of family legend, of the case-histories of virulent family schisms, of all the hard-luck stories of immigrants doomed to defeat. It is when Melissa collates this ancestral data and enters the skin of her forebears, retelling their stories, reshaping them as stories of pluck and of triumph against harsh odds, that she begins to reshape her own life as a tale that could have a happy ending.

Looking at a family photograph of the Greens before her father was born, and before her uncles and aunts stopped speaking to each other and plunged into mutual adversarial litigation instead, Melissa wonders: ‘How did love get so mixed up with hatred?’ This question could stand as the core of the memoir and of Melissa’s painful life. It is precisely the point where the relationship between memoirist and memoir is most complicated and most interesting. Her anguish stems from the fact that the people she loves are the source of all harm, and that even in the adult writing of this memoir, she has to pull every punch. For what becomes clear is that this family, to use current parlance, is spectacularly ‘dysfunctional’, but also that father, mother and grandmother have weathered horrendous battles of their own. They are ordinary damaged people, coping as best they can; they are also monstrous. It is the triumph of the memoir that each is vivid, larger than life, and in a grotesque, Dickensian and purely literary sense, attractive. They jump from the page. By the end of the book, our feelings about them are as complicated as those of Melissa.

The most monstrous behaviour is given the most fleeting treatment, as though Green can still scarcely bear to glance at it. Her grandmother, for example, obsessed with her own painful childhood constipation, administers a daily enema, forcing the child, up to the age of nine, to lie naked on the cold sink counter for the invasive procedure. Then she dresses Melissa like a Barbie doll to show her off to the ladies of her bridge club. Melissa must stand on the piano and pirouette like a toy (‘You are my treasure, my princess, and I want them all to be jealous’), the liquid from the enema still trickling down her legs. Granny uses household bleach on Melissa’s hair to make her look like Shirley Temple. Granny dresses Melissa in the party dresses of her own youth, makes her pose as a coquette and takes photographs. Granny covers Melissa with cold wet plaster and makes a death mask of her when she is seven, ‘so that when you die I’ll have it to remember you by’.

The cost of these extremes of confusion about the body and the self is most vivid when Green does not comment on it, but glancingly alludes to the most cutting (in all senses) of subtexts:

I’d been cutting myself for a long time. I don’t remember how it began or how old I was when I began doing it in earnest. But when things were wild at the farm, or wild in me, I would slip into the bathroom (the only room in the house with a lock on the door), reach into the medicine chest ... and take out a rusty blade. I couldn’t help myself. I had to do it. The silvery blade shook in my hand as I slashed a bloody line across my inside forearm, but I didn’t feel a thing. There was only a white seam filled with scarlet threat, and an enormous sense of relief.

Melissa keeps her scarred arms covered under long sleeves; her family, including her grandmother, is unaware of her addiction. Practitioners of this horrific art always say that they feel no pain. Indeed, they speak of ‘easing the pain’, a paradox once explained to me by a self-slasher in a women’s prison (the incidence in women’s prisons is particularly high): the pain inside is just so had, the heavily-scarred prisoner said, that it’s soothing to let a little bit of it bleed away. Or, as Green puts it,

the scars crisscrossed, were opened, grew infected, and healed, and I thought of the way that prisoners chalked the walls of their cells so they wouldn’t lose track of time, so they wouldn’t go mad. I could look at my arms as if they were a desperate, private calendar and say, I have been here this many days, I was here then and then and then, I remember, I remember, I remember. No one ever saw my arms. It was my secret. It was how I saved myself.

It is a harsh salvation; and when she alludes to it, which is seldom and fleetingly, her writing is very powerful. Too often, however, she reverts lengthily to her myth of being saved by language, and then the power disperses itself in a marshy delta of ‘poetic’ words:

language was the only thing mat truly mattered to me. Language was a sunstruck, white-water river, full of aquamarine lagoons and dizzying whirlpools. The mountains of my imagination were brooding and immense ... my dreams were the rich grasslands of the Serengeti running with metaphors ... images filled the landscape like a pride of lions sunning themselves on a fly-heavy noon.

Unfortunate passages like this intrude too often – like a Serengeti bloated with metaphors, they are the essence of the memoir’s weakness and of its tendency toward overripe romanticism; but in spite of them, and partly because of them, this is a fascinating study in competing mythologies of the family and the self.