Wednesday, December 21, 2005


We dance around in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

-- Robert Frost

I read Robert Frost compulsively, obsessively in the winter; I discovered him on a cold Christmas night when I was a very unhappy girl. That day I'd gotten Frost's Complete works as a gift from my grandmother (who had left us a month earlier to spend winter with other relatives.) Later, my future brother-in-law, a cop who liked his beer, got angry at me during the big dinner. Without warning he reached over and slapped my face, hard enough to leave a handprint and almost knock me off my chair.

I remember being stunned that a strange man could hit on me (only Moms, Dads, and the occasional nun or teacher gave you the back of their hand in those days.) He outweighed me by about 150 lbs., and he was armed, so there was no hitting back. Besides, I was twelve. Like I had a shot.

No one said anything for ten seconds. No one defended me. No one told the cop to get out. Everyone stared in horror at me for my criminal act of provoking future-bro into losing his temper, then rushed to chatter as if nothing had happened. After dinner, Mom demanded in whispers to know what I'd done to make him angry, and when I wouldn't tell her, scolded me for ruining Christmas dinner.

You know why I got slapped? Because he was fairly drunk, and tried to joke with me, and I didn't laugh or say anything. Because I was a nervous and horribly self-conscious kid. In other words, I got slapped for being shy.

But I had Robert Frost, and my flashlight, and all night to read under the bed covers once everyone had gone to sleep. By that age I had started writing my own poetry, too, so there was plenty of fuel for the next several hundred verses. That made up in part for that awful Christmas, and what at the time seemed a terrible embarrassment. I forgot about the drunk cop and lost myself in the snowy woods and the birches and friends stopping by stonewalls to talk.

Moral of the story? None. Just a thought: if you have to give a kid something at Christmas, make it poetry, not a slap.


  1. Please excuse the language, but what a complete an utter wanker!

  2. Well said, Mr Stuart.

    I can think of very few reasons for hitting a child that aren't completely inexcusable. Perhaps a parent might be justified in slapping the hand of a youngster who repeatedly tries to put his fingers in an electrical socket or somesuch, but generally to resort to violence is to admit defeat.

    I was beaten as a child, by my father occasionally, and by the headmaster of my first school far more frequently than I could understand. All it ever served was to make the world a more bewildering and frightening place. I didn't have Robert Frost to turn to, but I did find solace in books.

  3. We grew up in the same era, and I can't imagine anyone doing that. It was an era when people hit children (a lot, sometimes) but there was a line, and people didn't hit other people's children.

    What a strange thing to have happen.

    I didn't have Robert Frost, either. I had CS Lewis.

  4. Anonymous7:52 AM

    Odd how poetry serves as a comfort - more so than other works of literature, sometimes. When I was that age, the abuse was from peers and was primarily mental, and I lost myself in William Blake. Every time the kids would start up, I'd recite "Tiger, Tiger" over and over in my head. To this day, those words surface in my mind whenever things are particularly bad.

  5. Wow, how awful. My step-father was an abusive drunk and I always felt like the world was a crazy place because everybody smiled and pretended that everything was okay when it definitely wasn't.

    We could always count on Christmas being a horrible time. The tree knocked over and the ornaments broken, lots of drunken screaming, accusations and manhandling.

    I turned to Stephen King when I was 12. Thank God for him. I also wrote bad poetry and had been writing spooky stories filled with murder and monsters for years by then. Gee. I wonder why. *grin*

    When I was 17 an ex-boyfriend smacked me across the face hard enough to knock me backwards during a BBQ dinner at his house, in front of a bunch of our friends. The dinner was supposed to be to bury the hatchet, as I'd broken up with him.

    But it was the same thing. Everyone just sat, wid-eyed and shocked. I hauled off and smacked him back before storming out and caling him a f******* A******

  6. Once, when I was about five, I was working on a colouring book. I'd coloured a horse green. My father took exception to green horses and smacked me across the face. Who knew drunks had such delicate aesthetic sensibilities?

    Stephen King was my escape.

    Give a kid a book: poetry, prose, whatever...make a reader.

  7. Anonymous1:42 PM

    To my mind, the bystanders are by far the more guilty ones in that situation. Fine, brother-in-law ought to be punished in some suitable way (Say, turned into an 80-pound asian lesbian polo survivor with acne and a bad lisp and dropped into a small-town Alabama junior high school for a year...) but he's an outsider. He's violating his general obligation to act human, but he doesn't have a specific obligation to be decent to this particular child. The bystanders, on the other hand, are her FAMILY. It's their job to teach her how to live in the world. Blaming her for someone else's bad behavior is not on the to-do list for them, eh? He should have been out of that house so fast he left his testicles in the chair (assuming he ever had any).

  8. Holy cow. If a sibling's fiance had smacked me at a family gathering my dad wouldn't have had a chance to toss the guy out on his ear (cop or not), because my little old mommy would have done it already! Please tell me he didn't actually make it in to the family.

    Books under the covers. Me too. CS Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, LM Boston...those were the days.

  9. Anonymous4:51 PM

    I thought I was the only one who got hit by a b-i-l. I was told I ruined Christmas too! All the years my sister and him have been married nobody in my family ever stood up for me.

    Books, all my life, my salvation.

    A joyous holiday to you!


  10. It wasn't Christmas that I worried about. It was all those other days in the year that were an adventure.

  11. Anonymous12:50 AM

    Andi wrote: Odd how poetry serves as a comfort - more so than other works of literature, sometimes.

    I, too, had this experience, and I was reminded of it the other day when there was an article in the New Yorker about aphasia (a condition where a person loses the ability to use language because of stroke or other brain injury). Apparently this happens fairly often, and often to people whose ability to think is not impaired. And it's not the same as a brain injury that, say, paralyses the jaw so that the person is mute (but still thinks in language). An aphasic person stops thinking in language.

    Anyhoo, there were two things in the article that I found striking. First, that often people with this kind of injury can still sing. That is, they can sing songs with words, and use them to communicate. Making the leap that formal poetry is more like song than prose, this suggests that prose and verse are actually handled by different parts of the brain.

    Which feels right to me.

    The other striking thing was this: aphasics are thought to be more emotionally perceptive than speaking people. For example, they score better better at tests where you watch a video of a speaker and say whether or not he's lying.

    I wonder whether this has anything to do with the consoling nature of poetry. If, in some way, reading it activates the emotional intelligence, and makes us better able to cope with crazy people.

  12. The hurts of childhood do linger, don't they? What a horrid thing to have happened! No one should ever be treated so.

    The written word has been the solace and escape for many -if not all- of us as we grew in worlds that did not understand or tolerate us. Take this bit of consolation: your words now comfort other hurt and lonely children who are, at this moment, huddled under their blankets with a flashlight.

    It won't wash away the past but it makes it easier to bear, no?

    I hope this Christmas is a wonderful one for you and all your loved ones.

    Merry Christmas!

    Jim C.

  13. Wow. Your stories bring tears to my eyes. I hate it that people treat kids this way. And I hate it even more that other people, too "civilized" to make a scene, let them get away with it. I had bad stuff in my childhood, too, but books always took me someplace else. I guess that's the sliver lining--that lifelong escape into fictional worlds fueled my own love of storytelling through the written work. :)



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