Case History #1

I remember a freakishly "whole lot" of my very early childhood. These memories are mostly impressions and very episodic, but I have checked them with my mother as an adult - we didn't talk much about these things when I was a child - and the objective facts are accurate enough, so I trust the subjective ones as well. On the other hand, viewed through the retrospect of adulthood, they seem to make "sense" and carry a teleology which is somewhat illusory. Evaluate them with care.

The first, I think. I was born in New York, while my father was in college. Winter was cold, and I remember wanting to ask to go in but not being able to say so: just cry and point at the apartment building. I also remember sitting on a big rock and being afraid I would fall off. I wanted to ask to get down, but was not able to, I didn't know "down." These are purely visual/tactile memories, and memories of feeling the emotions that I now can call frustration and some fear.

I probably was a little older, when I remember riding in the stroller with the little girl across the hall in the apartment in her stroller, to my left. It was probably Spring because I was wearing my wool bonnet with the strings that itched under my chin, but there was no snow. My stroller was pierced metal with a wooden seat that had a piece that came between my legs, and a kidney-shaped tray with beads on a horizontal wire above it. I don't remember the color, save that the tray was cream-color. My little neighbor - I think we were too young to say playmate - had a stroller with a canopy, and I wanted a canopy too. I remember pointing to it and making some noise, but nobody understood what I was trying to say. I suppose I was still pre-lingual. I remember getting mad, and Mother not understanding what I was mad about.

An odd little incident, a month or two after the one above, and not long before we moved, first to my grandmother's in DC for a couple months, and then to the isolated lake where I spent the next several years. I was playing in the sand box, and one of the children had a very runny nose. I had never seen such a runny nose, and tried to ask why, or make a comment at any rate: the thing I remember is some wonderment at the phenomenon. I either pointed or stared, and one of the slightly older kids said something sharp to me. I don't remember saying anything at all, but I remember again the frustration, and some real irritation at the big kid for not explaining what I wanted to know.

Summertime, early early in the morning. I was in the crib, and I had been learning letters. (Mother hadn't anything else to do.) I was about two. I woke up and "my" letter, L was glowing on the wall. I was terrified, I had no idea how in the world an L had gotten on the wall, and was afraid. I cried, and Mother came to see what the matter was. All I could say was "L," when I clearly remember conceptualizing "There is an L on the wall over there and I don't know how it got there and I am scared of it." Mother looked all over the room, using my agitation as a guide to whether she was near or far from what had me upset, and finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she spotted the "L" on the wall. It was where the sun was shining around the edge of the roll-shade. She lifted the shade and showed me where the L came from, and that I was not to be afraid of it. And then I wasn't. But I do remember being quite peeved with myself for not being able to explain why I was so upset.

It was about this time that intensive talking training began. I learned to say my name, address, and telephone number, and of course the letters: I had a set of bakelite alphabets which I literally cut my teeth on. My family contains a large number of low-level professional and high-level amateur performers, and as a matter of course the children were all taught to recite as soon as they could be made to sit still for it. They were just short poems at this stage, long ones came a year or so later. To be honest I didn't even know what a lot of the poems were about.

(I will inject that though I hated reciting when I was little, the training in appearing well in front of an audience has been a lifesaver more times than I care to count. I would not impose such intensive drill on any small child, I certainly didn't do it to my own daughter; but I am glad to have those skills to draw on when I must.)

I guess my verbal abilities caught up pretty rapidly with my conceptual abilities during the following year, because I don't remember often being confused and unable to get my point across when we lived in Washington. I used to visit the old people in the house next to my grandmother's, and the big, noisy family in the house on the other side, which was full of teenagers. I visited by myself, and these people always talked with me: there must not have been much problem. But there were also a lot of times when I remember choosing not to say something because I didn't know what to say, or the words wouldn't form, and I remember then some tightness around my upper torso and neck, a tension which I still feel when I am really frustrated about something.

Then we moved to a remote lake in the Appalachian mountains, and while I talked to my parents and learned increasingly complex poems, I simply never spoke to anyone else. There was almost nobody to talk to. One other child lived on the lake all year but we seldom visted, and a few more summered there. On those occasions when we were together I was apparently very hesitant to speak because I remember being interrupted all the time, and finally giving up. This is when I first encountered the tease, "Cat got your tongue?" which I know was meant in good will but I felt demeaned by it.

Then when I was almost five we moved suddenly to an apartment development in a big city. I became utterly disoriented, having to learn new surroundings and get used to big, competitive crowds of kids. I seldom spoke in a crowd. I could not answer bullies except by crying, I really did not know how. I had missed that part of child socialization altogether, and was years and years catching up.

From about this time on there were the constant incidents of adults either condescending or literally not listening to me. Mother was convinced that I told lies, which I didn't - I suppose she must have been a real fibber as a kid. The occasions when I froze under attack became very frequent from this time on, and I began to get in trouble for not answering bullies back, and for not being noisy and ebullient enough. I was usually OK with one or maybe two other kids, but was not an aggressive child at all and must have seemed pathetic in a crowd to parents who really wanted a child who would stand out in all ways. I began to acquire the labels "sensitive" and "fragile." I learned later that a neighbor whose husband was developing symptoms of schizophrenia asked Mother to take her daughter for a while -

She was my best friend at the time - but Mother refused saying she didn't think I could take the competition.

I began reading training in earnest at this time, and writing. I had to copy a page a day, and solve reading puzzles at breakfast, where we had a chalkboard hanging next to the table. My day's reading would be on the board in Mother's big, clear printing. However, the memorization and recitation was abandoned pretty much, to my great relief.

There was one incident that became terribly inflated in my child-mind. One of the mothers in the neighborhood often gave apples to whatever kids happened to be in the crowd if we were at her house in the afternoon. Mother got the idea that I was begging these apples, and she gave me a lecture on Asking For Things - which phrase I cannot think of without capital letters. I could not make her understand that I had not begged. This is the first time I remember experiencing a full-fledged stuttering block, though I understand it only in retrospect. There might well have been others before, but this was such an intense experience that I remember it in vivid detail, including the feeling of not only frustration but of loss of control and of contact with myself. (Dear me, I think I am not being very clear. It is so awfully hard to put words around a sensation which is necessarily wordless.) As a result, I was unable to express a want, or to Ask For Anything, for years and years. I was physically incapable of nagging - which I suppose was comfortable for Mother, but I sort of stopped desiring things because I could not for the life of me express it.

It was about this time that I learned to read, and while I was allowed to buy almost any nonviolent comic book in the store, I was not allowed to buy any featuring our friend Porky. Mother said that they were not nice, and all those extra alphabets in his words were also not nice. But that oddment disappeared very shortly because the Senate comic book hearings began, and I was not allowed to buy comic books at all. That was OK, because I had my Oz books, and TV was new, so I didn't miss them too much.

I started kindergarten the next year, and that was the year I had a very significant dream (of all things.) I had received a new suitcase for Christmas. I dreamed that my suitcase and I were in a long, narrow, dim, and dirty room, populated by little devils and a big one, who was the "teacher." I wanted to leave, but the devils had my suitcase captive, and I had to say "suitcase" to retrieve it. Every time I tried, the big devil made the word come out wrong, broken, stuttered, mispronounced. With a massive effort I produced a creditable (but not perfect) "s-suitcase" and with that the devils exploded and I woke up feeling very relieved. That dream has stayed with me for more than forty years.

I have never had speech therapy. Stuttering, as well as other unpleasant things, were not discussed in my home. I really only became aware that these hesitations and blocks had a name when I overheard my mother discussing the matter with a neighbor when I was about eight or nine, but she never mentioned it to me. That made this naturally cautious child even moreso, and I turned my considerable powers of observation on professional speakers, such as newscasters. I realized that most of them speak very slowly, and even overpronounce their words a bit. I learned to do that by myself, and probably saved myself very considerable embarassment and distress by so doing. But that was never something I could fully internalize: it is reserved for times when I'm "on" and must appear well in public.

There is so much nonlingual in these memories, especially the earliest ones, that I wonder if language is even the correct medium to describe them. If I had the skill, I think it would be more appropriate to render them as a movie, a largely silent movie. I have no skill in that, though. Which is too bad.

added January 31, 1997, with permission