Collage of multiple tic tac toes games with a rooster in front

First Person

The Game Was Rigged All Along

The DSM removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973. So why did the author's mother lose everything—including her kids—when she left her abusive husband for a woman in the late 1970s?

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The chicken stood inside a two-foot-square box with a smudged glass window, under a sign that read “Bird Brain” in a jaunty yellow font. She had white feathers and a red comb, and she was listless enough that onlookers at Edgewater Packing Company—a Monterey, California, warehouse turned tourist trap—believed she was a statue until they dropped a quarter into the slot beneath her window and activated a Tic-Tac-Toe game on the wall beside her. Only then did she rouse herself and bend to peck a hidden lever in her box, illuminating a bright red X or O.

The hen always went first, guaranteed by the electronic circuitry within the game to win the match, or tie, leaving players devoid of their spare change and self-esteem. But I knew this from outside observation only. My mother, outraged by the chicken’s imprisonment in a tiny workplace, forbade me and my siblings to get within six feet of the game. “I’m going to call the manager and file a complaint,” she fumed each time she took us to Edgewater. And then she’d march us through the warehouse and out to the chilly, dank beach.     

Whether she actually called the manager or not made no difference. This was the Wild West 1970s. PETA wasn’t founded until 1980, and anyone could own an animal and teach it to do their bidding for financial gain. The Bird Brain chicken was one of hundreds of hens across the country trained to sit in a box and peck at a flashing light for a food pellet in an arcade game rigged to rid rubes of their quarters. Down the street at Fisherman’s Wharf, a monkey in a red sailor suit and a tiny straw boater plucked dollar bills from enthralled tourists’ hands and surrendered the cash to a grinning organ grinder in plaid pants, while up in a Tacoma mall, a silverback gorilla named Ivan lived for 27 years in a 14-by-14-foot concrete pen and painted pictures for onlookers to purchase.

“We’re all caged,” my mother muttered each time we left our father to fend for himself in our posh Los Angeles suburb, and drove up to Monterey to visit her parents.

My grandfather owned a hardware store, and my grandmother owned a costume shop; they had time for family dinners, and that was all. Mom inevitably ended up driving us to Edgewater and using the allowance my father had given us to buy tickets on the wooden carousel with its eerie calliope music. She allowed us to play the fortune-teller game, exchanging coins for a generic prediction delivered by an animatronic gypsy in a display case framed by rows of flashing light bulbs. But we could only gaze from afar at the chicken in the box before our mother grabbed our hands and stalked away.

The Bird Brain game disappointed her deeply. Poultry ethics aside, it represented the gentrification of all her old childhood haunts in Monterey—the seedy streets she’d wandered with her hippie friends, the beaches redolent of decaying fish and seaweed, the echoes of Steinbeck and his hard-drinking cronies out on the ocean. She’d been a wild teen, she told me wistfully, pointing out the water tower at the Navy base that she and a girlfriend had once climbed and covered with lipstick messages to the soldiers in their barracks.

Ten years later, she was mother to three little kids, expected to lead Brownie troops and host Tupperware parties and sangria-soaked happy hours for the neighbors. In a show of rebellion, she kept a flock of chickens in a tiny backyard coop. When I, at 8, observed that their digs weren’t much larger than those of the chicken in the Bird Brain game, she folded her arms tight across her polyester floral-print dress. “At least they have space to turn around and spread their wings,” she snapped.

I fled to that coop whenever she and my father argued—cradled the heavy birds in my arms and tried not to hear the yelling, the shattering of dishes, the thud of fists against skin. Battered wives in our neighborhood didn’t have much recourse; husbands who brought in six figures a year and chauffeured their families to the Baptist church each Sunday were heroes, unshakable on their pedestals. Once, my mother neglected to put enough foundation over her black eye, and the next-door neighbor narrowed her eyes over the back fence and said in an accusatory tone, “So what did you do to provoke him?”

Mom might have stayed with my father forever if she hadn’t gotten to chatting with my little brother’s school-bus driver, Jan. They met the year I turned 9, and talked for an hour every afternoon—my mother barefoot on the lawn in front of our house, Jan gravel-voiced and graying in her pressed blue button-down shirt. Gradually, my mother stopped ratting her blonde hair into a beehive; she let it fall around her shoulders and return to its natural brown. Encouraged by Jan, she enrolled in a community-college art class and disappeared with her textbooks for hours in a makeshift attic office next to the bathroom.

One morning after a particularly loud and violent night, she appeared at the breakfast table with another black eye and a cut across her nose from my father’s class ring. That afternoon, she bundled my siblings and me into our station wagon and headed for scrappy little Silverstrand Beach, half an hour north. “I’m leaving your father,” she told us. “We’re moving into Jan’s duplex.”

My mother became, overnight, a woman who smoked Marlboros and drank Budweiser from bottles on the balcony of the duplex where she could keep an eye on my siblings and me in the sandy volleyball court below. I dispensed with my Sunday-school dresses and kicked off my Mary Janes to run on the beach in T-shirts and cut-offs with packs of the neighborhood dogs. I didn’t miss my dad; I barely knew the man who woke up before dawn to commute to downtown L.A. He returned home at dark, and spent weekends washing the car and watching the game. What was there to miss except for money, which my mother had to borrow from her parents so we could eat while she searched for a job.

In the weeks before our father found us, she and Jan took us to beaches, to mountain lakes, to the library. One afternoon, an animal trainer stood at a table among the Ramona books and Winnie-the-Poohs. He’d been hired to entertain for an hour, part of the summer reading program. A semi-circle of children watched wide-eyed as he flipped a Rhode Island Red over on her back and snapped in front of her beady black eyes. “Voila!” he told us. “She’s playing dead.”

The hen lay there with her naked yellow feet in the air for a full minute. When the man snapped again, she blinked her tiny eyes and flipped over, then accepted a mealworm from his hand. “Did you see that?” I whispered to my mother, already planning how to train Jan’s Labrador retriever.

She nodded knowingly. Along with art history, she’d enrolled in a college psychology course. “That’s positive reinforcement,” she told me. “He’s using a reward to shape desired behavior—a mealworm in exchange for playing dead.”

Famed psychologist B.F. Skinner began arguing the merits of positive reinforcement over punishment in the 1940s; it was he, I found out later, who’d trained the inventors of Bird Brain … a game even he couldn’t win. My mother took his teachings to heart. She identified a powerful reward—her newly effervescent presence—which my siblings and I could earn for chores done, teeth brushed, and decent table manners. She put our undesirable behavior—philosophical discourses on our younger brother’s flatulence, lying, sibling bloodshed—on extinction by removing herself from the scene.

And then one afternoon in 1979, in a spectacular show of punishment, we were removed from her, permanently.

Though the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual had removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973, and feminist activists organized and debated and marched, hundreds of newly out women lost custody of their children, sued by outraged husbands left behind, and supported by homophobic judicial systems. One afternoon, weeks after we’d moved into the duplex with Jan, my father parked next to the sandy volleyball court in his Buick, flanked by his lawyer and two police cars. He knocked on the door and presented my mother with legal papers. “I’m taking the kids,” he told her and bundled my siblings and me into the back seat of his car and drove back down to the suburbs. 

I’ve wondered too often over the past four decades what the rest of that day looked like for her. Did she collapse on Jan’s couch and lie there weeping for days? Or did she snatch up a phone book and look for a lawyer, trading grief for rage as she planned how to get her kids back?

All three of us kids and our parents had to undergo separate psychiatric evaluations, and then we met up in court. I stood behind my father and his lawyer and waved shyly at my mother, who stood beside her legal counsel in a demure knee-length dress from her Baptist churchgoing days. She’d pinned up her hair and put on heels, but even this level of respectability wasn’t enough to negate the psychologist’s diagnosis of “mentally unstable.” Placed against my father’s six-figure income and the elegant house he’d just purchased in Los Angeles within walking distance of K-12 schools, she didn’t stand a chance. The judge awarded him full custody, and allowed us to visit her two weekends a month.

Shortly after my parents’ divorce, my father seduced his lawyer’s wife and married her and told us to call her Mama. Ten days at a time between visits with my mother, I slumped dazed in the confines of the bedroom my father had assigned me with its single window looking out at the neighbor’s tan stucco wall. I learned to earn straight As, to keep my head down and ignore the old familiar sounds of crying and yelling, of shattering china and fists on skin that woke me in the middle of the night. My reward was to be left the hell alone.

Each year, my mother was allowed to keep us for a week over Spring Break and a month during summer. When Jan left her, my grandparents loaned her money to purchase a quarter-acre full of fruit trees with a giant walk-in chicken coop. When she decided that even the coop was too restrictive, she fenced her vegetable garden and let “the girls” roam free. These were chickens as they should be, pecking and scratching around the citrus trees and pooping on the picnic table. I envied them. And then, as I got older, I ignored them altogether.

On those weekends, those rare months in summer, I ran wild and barefoot once more. But the calendar tainted my freedom; the reward of my mother’s presence became finite and fraught with moments I clutched too tightly. Time was my enemy. One moment, I was with her in the garden planting carrots; the next, I sat alone in my bedroom in my father’s house, listlessly staring out the window at the neighbor’s stucco wall.

Homophobia and misogyny destroyed families in the 1970s and ’80s—loving parents staggered under the weight of shame and guilt, and children navigated a new world stunned by confusion and loss. Stay in your box, perform as you were told, and no harm would come to you. But if you deviated, if you rebelled against the malignant status quo, you’d find yourself with a penalty beyond belief.

At 19, I moved in with my mother briefly, and then shared the same town—Sunday dinners and weekday coffee dates—for a decade. She earned her Master’s in Clinical Psychology, ran a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities, then reinvented herself as a journalist and the author of a murder mystery. She married a long-time girlfriend, as well. But the damage that had been done to her in 1979 remained for a lifetime. She suffered from anxiety, depression, insomnia, and an eating disorder. She passed away two years ago of ovarian cancer, still terrified that my father—who has Alzheimer’s—would somehow spirit her middle-aged children away from her.

Paranoid, yes. Still, I can’t blame her. She was a realist. She acknowledged social and political progress, but she also knew that the slightest shift in the balance of power could change public opinion on a dime, determining who got punished, and who earned a reward.

The last time my mother took us to the Edgewater Packing Company, I was 14—old enough to wander off by myself while she and my siblings rode the wooden carousel. Against the soundtrack of the eerie calliope music, I walked past the animatronic fortune teller, ignoring the recorded voice that urged me to step up and discover my fate. I headed for the Bird Brain game and stood in front of the white chicken. It stood still in its box, the only sign of life a slight tremble in its scarlet comb.

I had a quarter in the pocket of my jeans. I could have played Tic-Tac-Toe against the bird, freeing it for a moment from its stunning inertia. Instead, I closed my fingers around the coin and slowly walked away. The game was rigged, after all, the Xs and Os stacked against me. There was no point in even trying to win.

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