House Of Mirrors
When I was just a child, I read an article in the newspaper that I've never forgotten - in part due to the exquisite cruelty involved - and in part because I would eventually marry the man to whom that cruelty was meted out.
As often happens after a trauma, I can't help but remember every goddamn thing. The thin, gray paper crumpled and scored by my Father’s thorough folding. The smell of ink rubbing off on the pads of my fingers.
With great care I separated the wispy pages, each nearly as long as I was tall, one by one, and laid them out on a fine quilt my mother had made for my tenth birthday. With the pinky edge of my little hands I remember gently flattening the creases until the paper was as uniform as I could get it.
Then, with my pointer finger, I traced my way across the page, searching the headlines for something really adult to read. I remember the headline verbatim:
Boy, 10, Saved From Basement Nightmare
I knew right away that I shouldn’t read the article. It had nightmare in the title after all. Still, I read.
A boy had been held in the basement of his parents’ home, not half a mile from where we lived. The paper said he was found tethered to the furnace with a length of chain and a heavy padlock. A man from the gas company found him – just happened to see him through a small crack in one of the blacked out basement windows and called the police.
I think we’ve all heard this kind of story in the news – children, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents – each chained to a post or a bed by a supposed loved one, suffering for years, sometimes decades in the worst cases.
Normally, the victim is starved, beaten, forced to lay in their own filth. Terrible, to be sure, but horrifyingly banal in its relative commonplaceness.
But this little boys story was different.
When the police arrived they broke down the front door and stormed in to save the boy.
Only he didn't look, at first glance, like someone who needed to be saved. He wasn't malnourished – he was fully clothed and perfectly clean – and he didn’t show a single sign of having been physically hurt. He was not a feral child, he spoke excellent English, at or above what was expected at his age, nor did he seem panicked or relieved at first when the police arrived. He was just nonplussed and shot them that bashful smile of his.
Years later, he told me his parents came down there multiple times a day. They homeschooled him with surprising care. They fed him three square meals, and dessert after dinner. They kissed him good morning and good night on the forehead and tucked him into a small, comfortable, clean bed they had arranged in the corner of the basement. They even had an exercise routine they did together to make sure he didn’t waste away.
Even the air down there was pristine. There was a dehumidifier and a HEPA filter for his allergies. In fact, his parent’s had renovated the entire basement just for him. There was a working pinball machine in one corner and an arcade box his father had rebuilt and populated with hundreds of games. The basement was well lit and covered in bright, jolly paints, befitting any young boy’s room.
If you didn't know any better, you might think he was the luckiest kid on the block. He certainly thought so. When the police told him they were taking him away, he screamed like mad, even bit one the officers so hard the man nearly lost the tip of his finger. My husband fought so hard to stay in that basement, they needed EMS to sedate him so he could be extracted against his will.
Apparently, his parents had told him that the world outside the house was dead and full of monsters. He used to cry every-time they had to go upstairs to “guard the door” or “gather supplies.” He told me once that he even remembered feeling guilty.
“They’re up there,” he would think to his little self, “risking their lives for me” and then he would cry himself to sleep.
That's why they chained him. One time he nearly met the neighbors when he ran outside to protect his parents, who had bravely gone out into the "wastes" to buy beer at the local liquor store. They caught him halfway down the block and from then on, "for his protection," the chain.
It was all pretty fucked. But I haven't even gotten to the strange part.
There was only one mirror in the entire house – a fun-house mirror. A real antique, made in the 1920s - the kind that distorts the way you look. Somehow his parent’s had gotten hold of it and they used it to terrible effect.
From the first moment the boy could recognize his form in the mirror, he had only ever seen himself distorted. It was not an outrageous distortion – a fattening of the midriff and a subtly grotesque truncation of the face and forehead, along with the nearing of the eyes and the smashing of the nose and chin.
The newspaper had a black and white picture of one of the officer’s faces reflected in the mirror. The officer, like the boy who would one day become my husband, was quite handsome – but in the mirror, his face appeared deformed.
When my husband, as a small boy, awoke in the hospital after being forcibly liberated, he panicked. He thought his parents had died, perhaps eaten by the monsters. He raised as much hell as a little ten year old boy was able. No one could get him to calm down. He kept kicking at the nurses and screaming for his parents, now calling for them, now mourning their untimely demise.
It went on that way for hours, until he needed to use the bathroom. He begrudgingly let the nurses point him in the right direction, and then stormed off, watching them with every step, until the door was shut behind him.
They waited for him to come out, but he never did. They called through the door, but he didn't answer. Finally, they gave one last warning and opened the door from the outside.
My husband was standing in front of the bathroom sink in a pool of cold urine, his tiny hospital gown clinging wetly to right leg. They tried to get his attention, but he would not look away from his own reflection in the bathroom mirror.
I’ve read that young children – assuming they have parents to look up to – for the first several years also have no way of questioning the reality their parents create for them. The capacity just does not exist, on a neurological level. The result is that a young child simply cannot conceive of the idea that their parents don’t love them, and so they’ll internalize any act their parent’s commit, no matter how cruel, as an act of love.
Moreover, even after they’ve grown up and their parents have changed or died, those children can never really forget what “love” came to mean for them. They can’t help but define themselves in relation to that meaning. Some psychiatrist or another thought this was the source of the majority of emotional suffering, but I can’t remember their name.
I finished the article, all the way to the end, and when I was done I hastily crumpled up the thin newspaper sheet into a ball, ran to the bathroom with it, and flushed it down the toilet with all the other terrible things. I had my nightmares and, over time, got better at pretending I’d forgotten ever reading the story in the first place.
Until, one day, as a freshman in college, I met the handsomest man I’d ever seen off a movie screen. He had eyes bluer than glacial ice; straight black hair; fine sharp cheekbones; a proud nose; and a dimpled chin. He took my breath away and, I would later discover, I took his breath away. Once we both got done taking each others breath, he set on me like a hawk, telling the funniest, oddest little jokes. He could break the ice with people faster than anyone I’ve ever met, my husband.
He asked me out immediately, and I said no because I’m a lady, and so he asked me again everyday for two weeks until I capitulated. Ours was a quick courtship – we were head over heels for each other.
So, imagine my surprise when he tells me his full name and I mention this tragic story I read in the newspaper as a little girl, years earlier, and he smiles and just points a thumb at own chest.
I was dumbfounded. I could not imagine, it seemed utterly impossible. How could the poor boy from that basement – chained to that furnace, trapped beside that fun-house mirror – have turned into this vivacious, well spoken young man? So vivacious and so well-spoken that I was falling for him! It was impossible and I told him so, along with a number of other choice things about how cruel a joke it was to pretend he was the boy and how he shouldn’t be so mean.
Then he showed me his driver’s license, and I still didn’t believe him. So he brought in his birth certificate to class the next day and I was floored. He was the boy. I was falling in love with the boy. Life can be so strange.
I could bore you with pages upon pages of our happy time together. We married after college and for several more years things were mostly wonderful.
Only, now and again, more and more as time went on, I would see a look come over his face, and for a day or two, or sometimes longer, all the beautiful parts of him that I loved would disappear. He would sink into immobile despair as if he’d just discovered he was living someone else’s life and had to give it all up – the life of a handsome, personable stranger who looked back at him from the bathroom mirror.
Sometimes he would wake up with the look on his face and I would know that was going to be a bad day and that he would need help getting out of bed or being convinced to eat. Other times it would settle upon him, like storm clouds, and he would go silent mid-sentence and look around himself in confusion as if he’d lost his way.
I tried to savor the good times – and I know he did as well. I loved him, and he loved me so completely. But, the longer we were together – the more perfect our lives became – the more often he seemed to disappear.
One day, we left the house together, as we always did, and started running toward the bus. We made it just in time, and I stepped on. But he stayed outside. He made a funny little a show of looking through his pockets – he made a funny little show of most things – and gave me a lopsided shrug. “Forgot my wallet.” Then he leaned up and I leaned down and we kissed, and soon I was watching him receding through the windows, one hand raised in a wave.
It’s so easy, in hindsight, to see all the signs, so that, in the aftermath, it all becomes your fault. I’ve replayed that morning, frame by frame, ten thousand times in my mind’s eye and in my memory his every glance, his every minuscule gesture becomes a cry for help.
For several years afterwards, I blamed myself. But eventually, I came to accept that I wasn’t the one who broke him. I was not the one who salted the earth of his soul. He tried – God he tried so hard – to become someone else. But some part of him, deep inside, was always trapped, always tethered to that furnace, always staring into that funhouse mirror.
Lead Image Source:
Gaius Cornelius, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons