I am not sure how to begin this series, but I’m just gonna roll with it.
As you may know if you follow me here or on Tumblr I took a trip back to my home state of Michigan in August. During this trip I visited my paternal grandmother, who aside from my half-sister, is my only living blood relative. I also dug through some of my late parents belongings. Before I continue I would like to point out that I absolutely despise the trend (especially on Tumblr) for bloggers to provide a grocery list of their entire family history, ethnic background, religious background, and medical history especially as it pertains to their mental health. No one is entitled to that information, and for people with backgrounds like mine, we don’t like to talk about such painful subjects. People on the internet love to talk about “triggers,” but I have seen very few use the word in a legitimate context. A trigger isn’t something that makes you uncomfortable, it is any kind of stimulus that gives you post traumatic stress flashbacks and full-blown parasympathetic panic shutdowns—both of which are incredibly physically painful experiences—not squeamishness at something that offends you.
Going back north was pretty triggering for me. This story that I am about to share with you, as hard as it will be for me to tell, is the context for my entire magical practice. I also hope that in sharing this I will be able to encourage those younger than me who find themselves in similar situations.
When I moved to New Orleans at 19 I was running away, not from my adoptive parents (they kicked me out while I was still in high school), but from nearly my entire past. I say “nearly” because I was also trying to “get back to my roots” in a way. My biological parents met in New Orleans. My father was a Vietnam vet who, after becoming disenchanted with both the government and his parents’ Christianity, became a pagan traveling street musician and magician (the illusionist kind) with a pirate-themed variety act. My mother was a disowned and disinherited Jewish feminist whose progressive ideas about religion and sexuality cost her her parents’ love and the custody of her first child decades before I was conceived, causing her to redefine her spirituality within the context of the Pre-Judaic Ancient Near East. One day when my mom was attacked by a dog while riding her bike in the French Quarter she limped over to the guy in the pirate costume and asked him if he had any alcohol or napkins so she could clean up her wounds. Dad ended up carrying her to his apartment where he bandaged her up properly the way he was taught in the military. Predictably, these two hippies fell in love and started dating, and dated for several years according to my half-sister (my dad’s older daughter). They were in their forties when I was conceived.
I don’t know when my mother was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, but I found it in her CMH papers. She self-medicated with alcohol, though, that much was clear. I suspect that a lot of her issues stemmed from her parents’ emotional (and possibly physical) abuse that she told my dad’s mom about. She, like me, was kicked out of the house in her teens. Mom almost never talked about her feelings, I remember that even as a small child. According to grandma (my dad’s mom), dad said that in all their years of dating she never told him she loved him. I never heard her say she “loved” anything, actually, except for me. Somewhere between 7 and 8 months before I was born my parents broke up and my mom moved out. At the time neither of them knew she was pregnant. In a letter I found dad said he felt bad for kicking mom out, but that he was worried about my sister, who needed quality time with him and less time around alcoholics. My sister liked my mom well enough though, if only for the fact that my mom was still less messed up than her own (who was on some hard drugs at the time).
In a letter dated the day after I was born, dad wrote about how he kept calling her old apartment and all their friends in New Orleans, but no one knew where she was. This was, of course, at letter to my mom that he never sent because all the letters he had previously sent kept returning. In the letter he talked about a brick near the fountain in the French Market where they used to leave each other notes and said that even though he was sure she was not in Nola anymore he left her some notes there anyway. The letter was full of a bunch of sappy stuff, some depressing stuff, and a little bit of sexual stuff. It was sad to read because it was easy to feel his emotions through his words. He missed her terribly, and I suspect from the date on the letter he was subconsciously aware of my birth. Mom was actually in Florida at the time, I don’t know why she was there in the first place, but she told me she got stuck there because of Hurricane Andrew. Mom never wrote or phoned my dad in all that time, except on her way to Michigan six months after I was born telling him to meet her at the train station in Ann Arbor and said she was bringing a surprise. Grandma and Dad were relieved to find out my mom was alive and well and they both waited for her at the train station and were shocked, but delighted by the “surprise” which was, of course, me. My half-sister was probably the most excited, and many of my baby photos are of her holding me.
Mom got food stamps and an apartment in a “subsidised housing complex” which is I guess what they call “the projects” in Northern Michigan to be politically correct, but I kind of think it sounds worse. They were red brick buildings with a tiny kitchen and livingroom downstairs, and two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, too generic for me to guess when they were built. Dad visited frequently and would bring mom money, not because he had to, as he was not even on my birth certificate, but because he wanted to. (By that time my parents had established that their relationship was healthier when they didn’t live together.) I always looked forward to his visits because we would go fishing or ice skating or some other fun outdoor activity, also he’d demonstrate magic tricks from his show. When you are poor, but very young and surrounded by other poor people, you don’t realize that your situation is “bad”. A lot of your neighbors are single mothers, so you don’t know that there is any kind of stigma surrounding being one. You don’t know that there are people who hate you for collecting food stamps, because that’s just how food is paid for in your household. You don’t know that cable television exists, because you’re perfectly content watching cartoons on PBS. You don’t know that society wants you to feel ashamed for being poor, because you are a child and you are content with your mother’s love and happy to play with your second-hand toys and run around outside with the neighbor kids. I never felt bad about anything till the social workers got involved when I was in first grade.
From there on out adults in my life were infantilizing towards me. I despised their pity and the fact that they assumed I wasn’t aware enough to recognize their condescension. I knew mom wasn’t exactly psychologically sound. And when, for whatever reason, CPS got involved I became very guarded with what I said to adults. I felt like they were trying to entrap my mom. My first foster family commented on how protective I was of my mother. At home I would remind her of things the social workers wanted her to do, I didn’t want her to get in trouble. Of course any weird quirk or odd habit I displayed was immediately blamed on her, despite how common it is for small children to have strange idiosyncrasies. Trying to consciously “act normal” when you are in first and second grade is a difficult task, especially when you are too young to have any context for normal. This was all pressure I put on myself, of course, mom didn’t want me to be anything other than me. Dad’s cancer was getting worse, and his fatal diagnosis meant that he couldn’t get custody of me if mom lost it. Of course, neither my foster family nor my social worker told me that I was on the brink of never getting to see my parents again.
The last time I saw my dad before he died was at an Anishinaabe pow wow on Mackinac Island. He knew he was dying and he knew my mom was probably not going to get to keep custody of me. We had a really fun day, and towards the end of it there was a bunch of traditional dancing. At one point in the dance ceremony one of the tribal elders announced that all warriors who had seen battle were to join the circle, no matter what tribe they were from. Like most Vietnam veterans, dad never talked about it, so it was not until that moment that I was aware that he had ever fought in a war. Other veterans got up and joined the dance as well. I couldn’t help but notice that it looked like my dad had danced like that before. When the dance was over dad came back and sat with me in the grass and gave me a solemn speech about how he loved me, but was not going to be around forever, and that he was sad that he wouldn’t be there in person my whole life, but that he would always be watching over me in spirit. He gave me the handmade silver ring that he always wore and a leather pouch decorated with black and purple beads and Great Lakes seagull feathers.
Going into foster care with a Baptist family was spiritually confusing. My mom, though she was religiously secular/pagan, still identified strongly with her Jewish heritage. She would constantly remind me that we were Jewish and that that was something to be proud of. I suppose she would agree with the sentiment of Mel Brooks’s statement “I’m rather secular. I’m basically Jewish. But I think I’m Jewish not because of the Jewish religion at all. I think it’s the relationship with the people and the pride I have. The tribe surviving so many misfortunes, and being so brave and contributing so much knowledge to the world and showing courage.” Going to sunday school at a Baptist church nearly all the bible stories we were told featured Jewish protagonists, including Jesus himself, so I thought church was pretty cool. My Jewish grandmother did not think this was so cool, but by that time she had no legal say in what happened to me because both she and my paternal grandmother were ruled by the court to be too old to be my guardians. One lady from the Baptist church my foster family attended decided she wanted to adopt me. When you are up for adoption you go through a six month trial period where you stay with the family and they decide if they want to keep you or not. (It’s kind of a horrible idea in retrospect.) During this six month trial period she explained the concept of hell to me and I was completely horrified. (Baptist hell is the scariest of Christian hells, I think.) This was in 1999 and there were all kinds of apocalyptic rumors going around about how the world was gonna end the following year, which contributed to my newfound fear of eternal damnation. So this more or less coerced me into converting to Christianity, despite being too young to really know what that entailed. Contributing to my trauma, she ended up opting out of adopting me, after I had already been forced to switch schools to live with her.
I went back to my foster family, and by this time my social worker was in a hurry to adopt me out before I got too old to be cute. (No, really, that is actually a thing. No one adopts older foster kids.) And I ended up getting adopted by a large Episcopalian family who lived on an organic homestead farm sixty miles away in the middle of nowhere and already had a collection of adopted kids. I knew right away that there was something terribly “off” about these people, but my social worker ignored all my complaints and concerns, as she had since the beginning. Not surprisingly, as soon as the adoption was final, that’s when the abuse started. The mother was nice enough (I still call her “mom” and we talk, and I’m sure she even suspects I’m a witch and just pretends she doesn’t), but her husband was a horrible person. Once he even told me that the only reason he agreed to adopt me was because he needed more hands on the farm. What you may not realize about organic food is that if you do not use pesticides or herbicides then you need to remove insects and weeds manually. We weren’t growing commercially, it was just a homestead where we grew food for our family (which consisted of 5 children and 2 adults) and some of our neighbors. This is basically how we had enough food all the time while still being relatively poor. The wife was a stay-at-home mother and the husband was a schoolteacher, and in case you were not aware, school teachers don’t make shit in America.
How someone who was so terrible with his own children got licensed to teach other people’s is beyond me, but he beat all the boys they’d adopted, and then boys all basically deliberately got themselves arrested or placed in mental hospitals just to get away from him. Of course, the boys used to beat the shit out of me, too, and that’s where I learned to fight. They adopted another girl, and she stayed around til she was eighteen, but was emotionally broken when she finally moved out and requires a guardian to this day. I was the youngest and the last child in the house, so in my mid-to-late teens all of my adoptive father’s wrath fell squarely onto my head. Of course, he used his fundamentalist Christianity to justify it.
Though when I was first adopted they were Episcopalians, my adoptive parents left the Episcopal church when an openly gay bishop was elected. Even before then the progressiveness of the Episcopal church was an issue for that horrible man. My godmother (they had me baptized shortly after I was adopted) was a deacon who became a priestess within the church, which I thought was really cool, but a lot of people were opposed to it. My godmother being an Anglican priestess inspired me with clerical ambitions, which my adopted mother encouraged, but my adoptive father disparaged. I loved Strong’s Concordance and was (and still am) determined to learn Hebrew and Greek. My adopted mother’s Israeli friend encouraged this idea as well, herself being a historian and a secular Jew. When I was first adopted I put both my adoptive mother and her Israeli friend on the spot when I asked them what the difference between Christianity and Judaism was and why Christians believe all who aren’t Christian will go to hell even though they also believe the Bible which says the Jews are God’s chosen people. Needless to say I got a really awkward silence and an equally awkward answer as neither woman wanted to offend the other. I questioned theology constantly, which either delighted or horrified the adults around me.
This trend of dissecting theology continued as my adoptive parents joined a strange Evangelical church that was absorbed as a branch of a larger church out west. (The name of which I will not disclose for reasons of privacy and safety.) These people believed that angels and demons were very real and very active in the world today, and that communication with these spirits was possible. They had a very black-and-white view of morality and the spirit world. They also believed that every Christian is blessed with a supernatural gift from God, and that through prayer, meditation, and practice theses abilities would become apparent and these abilities would help the church grow and fight the forces of evil. I thought this was pretty neat as, like my biological parents, I had natural psychic ability. It was determined through this church’s system that my god-given gift was the “discernment of spirits”. Basically, being able to tell if a spirit was beneficial or harmful, and whether it was truthful or deceitful. Unfortunately, some people didn’t like the results of my discernment.
It became very apparent to me within this church that only half of the people who would be “speaking in tongues” during worship service were actually channeling, a good portion of them were just speaking gibberish in hopes of impressing people with how “spiritual” they were. And some of the ones that were actually channeling, were not speaking some “angelic language” but sounded like they were speaking Aramaic. Which if, as the preacher said, “God communicates to you in a voice you can understand”, then why would angels be speaking to Americans in a dead language? I became increasingly aware of people’s hypocrisy and fakeness, but I was totally unable to call people out on it. The worst offenders were often the more wealthy and influential members of the church. I also got some shit from one of the elders about that while my prophecies were accurate, they were always predictions of disasters, telling me that “prophecies must uplift the church.” (Clearly she did not read the part where God told Noah that he was gonna drown the entire planet.) Then she went on to insist that I needed to start speaking in tongues to prove my faith or some shit like that, and I thought to myself ‘No fucking way, I’m not gonna stoop to speaking in gibberish to impress other people. That’s an insult to my own dignity and to God.’ And from there on out I was quite the skeptic.
I believed in spirits, but not in people. My adoptive parents left that church too, deciding that it was getting too weird. They ended up going to a small Pentecostal church near an apartment I would end up renting later. Not having my friends from that church for support kind of sucked because my final year on the farm was hell. I had no friends at school since being a female nerd in thrift store clothes is a social death sentence as a teenager. My adoptive father and I fought every day. His words did more damage than his hands, but it was getting to the point where I was starting to have noticeable bruises. I was also not allowed to cry in front of him. Which for a hormonal teenage girl is pretty much impossible. So whenever I started crying he would lock me outside and my adoptive mother was not allowed to let me in til he said she could. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of winter, it didn’t matter if it was past midnight, it didn’t matter if I had school the next day, if he heard me crying he would lock me outside. I wasn’t always crying because of him, either. I was bullied constantly at school, getting food and trash thrown at me in the halls and getting my hair pulled in class. I had a lot of angst and for good reason.
After this getting thrown outside thing became kind of regular, I started keening. I just had so much pain. I missed my late father more than ever, and I was angry that Death had deprived me of him. I was devastated that none of my peers had any kind of compassion. I was upset that my adoptive mother was powerless to save me from her husband. I was angry at God for being perfectly capable of miracles but being indifferent towards my plight. So I just wailed. As soon as he would throw me outside I would make the most horrible sounds from deep in my chest, from my belly even. I would just focus on the sound and nothing else, it became my hellish mantra. It was this horrible, sorrowful noise that hurt even my own ears. I used it to stave off hypothermia. I used it to keep me from thinking about school the next day. It made me numb. It shook my whole body and probably the windows on the farmhouse, too. Even when the catharsis of the screaming made my crying stop I would keep making the noise, just out of spite. I wanted to terrify the man who thought locking your daughter in the snow was a viable parenting technique. Because of this my adoptive parents started to refer to me as “the banshee.”
One night, either the last day of January or the first day of February, I was locked out in the snow without shoes and I curled up into the fetal position and I sobbed into the howling wind “Either kill me now or get me out of here.” Obviously the spirit who took pity on me responded with the latter. They kicked me out on Valentine’s Day, but they also agreed to pay for the apartment with the money that the state gave them to take care of me during school months until I was 18.
To be continued…
1. Dad performing in the French Quarter circa ’88-’89. I have his eyes.
2. A polaroid of my mom and I around ’95-’97. I have her nose.
3. Myself at 17 taking a selfie in the bathroom of my first apartment.