Have you ever seen a girl with a death wish? This one is rocking cowboy boots, a Friday-night-on-the-town top, and sexy jeans—yeah, she knows exactly how sexy they are. Her straight yellow hair flows down her back, her smile is brave to compensate for those eyes, which betray a sadness that will break your heart. On this wintry night, she sauntersinto the Red Dog Saloon, a biker joint, her friends on her tail. She has just turned 21.
If you were in the bar that night, you would have seen her laughing with her friends, a cluster of innocents from the fancy college on the hill. You might be wondering why they chose this genuine biker bar and who is going to look out for them here. You might wonder what their affluent parents would think. You might bet—and you would be right—that this evening is not something their parents would imagine when they thought of their daughters “off at school.”
Occasionally, college kids did wander this far from campus. They sometimes eschewed the bars on Main Street, a much tamer scene, for this edginess here among the real characters. These girls had a fight to pick with the universe. Maybe something had happened having to do with a boy, or maybe the girl with the long, straw-colored hair always hurtled headlong toward things that might hurt her.
She’s the ringleader of her small group of friends—her energy is infectious and her friends love her, they bend toward her, push her hair from her eyes, finish her sentences. Shots all around: They’re drinking vodka, all of them except the petite one who drove them and intends to ferry them back safe.
And if you stuck around that January evening in the Red Dog Saloon on the edge of town, you would have been treated to that blonde girl, who was drunk as hell, standing on top of the bar, singing “You Shook Me All Night Long” at top volume. She didn’t need a microphone and she didn’t ask for one. She had the whole bar on their feet, but she didn’t even see them: eyes closed, whipping that pretty straw hair around, she’s got a weight we can’t see. In her drunkenness, she doesn’t know that belting AC/DC makes her a cliché. And maybe she isn’t one because she’s also electric. She would make any man want to save her, and she would probably have gone home with whomever promised to do so.
That night, she left with her friends. The tallest one paid the bill and they took the straw-hair sad-eyed one by the elbows and helped her into her coat. Out the door in the way to the car—some Japanese import parked next to shiny, all-weather bikes. Don’t tread on me. She took with her her evident pain, that voice she showed us with the scream-sing, those eyes, took them somewhere else. She would find a boy or a man who thought he could rescue her and that plot would be set in motion.
I had almost rewritten that piece of my history. I had almost convinced myself that my evening at the Red Dog Saloon was not an actual memory. On college reunion weekend last May, now that my oldest daughter is nearly the age I was that night in the bar, my roommate—the sober driver with the Japanese car—reminded me. It had really happened.
I did have a death wish. It wasn’t possible to slip too low. When I was low, I looked for the under. I dated seriously—for longer than I wish to admit—a classmate in college who was a coke slut and a sociopath. (His source of coke was another woman and he traded sex for the drug.) When my friends came to me, sat me down and told me he had slept with scores of women on campus who weren’t me, I left him.
I could hardly breathe in those days, for the fumes of self-hatred. I had seen therapists for years and I knew something was “wrong” but that was the extent of insight. I was just living in the pain and loathing, drowning in it, all the while earning A’s and appearing to be perky.
I deserved it, whatever it was. I was certain. I deserved to suffer and be miserable and be in danger. It felt … perfect. If you had pressed me then, I would have told you about my happy family back home, my mom, stepfather, and two siblings, and how I loved and missed them. And that was also true. Did they treat me like that? No. But I was still positive my choices fit what I deserved.
Once I gave the sociopath the heave-ho, I aimed to keep things mellow. It was junior year and I lived with kind friends: three solid housemates. It was merely weeks before the new boy I chose to date punched a wall when we argued and then threw my pair of skis at my head. I felt like I had a cloud over me, and that I deserved it.
If you had known me then, if you had watched me downing Jack Daniels straight up, you might have wondered what that sadness and desperation was all about. I wasn’t kidding around. But the cause of my misery wasn’t evident—to me or anyone who knew me. I was already a serious poet and plenty tortured and I might have been able to tell you that I felt haunted, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why.
The day I would remember and know the reason for the haunted feeling was still 18 years in the future. If the scene at the Red Dog was fall of 1990, it was April of 2008 before I could put my finger on the answer to that question: why the torture, why the haunting, why the numbing? By that time I had been married many years and was a successful mother and teacher. I had found other ways to numb myself: I’d keep myself very, very busy, throwing lots of dinner parties.
But it was catching up to me, that empty feeling I had been sinking into when I sang on a bar at the age of 21 where I had no business being. And one early spring night, while my husband and I were getting ready for bed, I started screaming and couldn’t stop because of what I saw in my mind’s eye, because of the video-like memories that were finally unscrolling for me to see.
What I remembered that night turned out to be an extensive and very violent incest history at the hands of my biological father, who had died in 1984, which finally put an end to the abuse. I was 14. I remember calling my therapist the next day, after that first memory, and describing what happened. I said to her, “It’s not me. It’s incest.” And she exhorted me to hang onto that insight: so easy to say, so hard to believe.
That young woman who had a death wish. That girl. She thought it was her, that the pain and loathing was her, was in her, was about her. And in her misery, in her mistakenly thinking that the garbage way she felt had something to do with her, she was lucky to get away with her life on more than one occasion.
The older version of myself—the teacher, wife and mother—could finally rest. She could finally stop running and numbing and trying to be perfect. She could finally see that she didn’t have to please anyone, that she had permission to heal. She also saw that the things that happened to that girl had nothing at all to do with the girl. Had she been a brunette, or quiet rather than chatty, or mean rather than sunny, all the same things would have happened in the same order.
On the day I remembered my abuse history, the weight of the cringeworthy scene at the Red Dog Saloon started to shift. On that day, I saw I had a chance of getting myself back and I leapt at it. For one thing, I knew it was the only way to be the grounded, connected mother I longed to be for my daughters.
I have to thank the girl on the bar. By engineering such a memorable scene, she bookmarked her pain for me. There were times, during my recovery from sexual abuse, when I wished to minimize the severity of what had happened and its fall-out. When I wanted to think it hadn’t really been that bad. But whenever I remembered that drunk girl singing on the bar, or the girl who chose the sociopath for a boyfriend and stayed with him, I knew it was all real and it was just as bad as I feared and worse.
I made myself look. I made myself keep that girl company. I took her vodka away, patted her, I helped her off the bar, tucked her into a warm bed, and treated her how I would treat my daughters if I found them that way. In my memory, she tells me everything—because of her song and her eyes. It’s where recovery begins. As a result, I have become the mother I wanted to be: wise, compassionate, warm and steady, a mother who listens, a mother who sees.