I read a book about Sylvia Likens over the summer, but I think they got it all wrong.
Me, I feel possessive of Sylvia. I feel like I understand her. We have a lot in common.
Being fat is like being Sylvia after she left the basement. Except, Sylvia never left the basement.
I guess I never left the basement either. I left, but then I got sick. Two or five months of bronchitis and I was sleeping in my parents’ guest room. Which became my room, after my mother took over my room and made it her home office. While I was busy being homeless. Because “she didn’t know if I would ever be back.” And clearly my sister’s room was too precious to use.
Sometimes my mother asks me what she can do to help me. She means, how can she make me feel better. About being sick roughly 50% of my total life. She means that I’m depressed, or anxious, according to her. She means, what is my crazy mind on about.
My mother is one of those passive-aggressive Ruth Fisher mothers, except she forgets that she never actually took care of anyone. My mother is 100 pounds soaking wet. My mother refuses to do anything, so everything must be done for her. I carried the heavy groceries from the time I was 10 years old. I carried everything heavy for my family. They expected me to.
I carried everything heavy, and then I went back in the basement.
It’s mildewy, and there are spiders. But the basement is where I belong. When people tell you a thing like that, often enough, you start to believe them. When there is pain attached, then the rules of torture apply. You start to say anything, think anything, believe anything about yourself. If only the pain will stop.
When I went away to college, the pain stopped. Temporarily. I returned for a visit and I really did feel I was going crazy. I saw black snakes swarming around my head. My father made me an omelette the next morning and I threw it right back up. I think that’s when I officially became an anorexic.
Eight months later I was down to 103 pounds thinking, why not just keep going? Just a few more. Give me some leeway. Then maybe I can finally start eating again.
I started to face my demons and I decided I did not want to die and then I started eating. And gained weight. Fast. Especially after I sprained my ankle and did-well, whatever it was I did to my ligament. And that boy dumped me for that tiny blonde girl. Because apparently every Jewish boy I will ever want would prefer a bite-size barbie look alike he can fit in his pocket. A girl who will never ask questions. A girl who comes with no pain of her own, no baggage to weigh him down.
We get that baggage from the things people do to us. My baggage is not because I am a bad person. My baggage is not because I have failed to do therapy or yoga or macrobiotic or religion or atheism or or or. Familial violence strikes individually but is a product, very often, of social pressures. And marginalized identities tends to determine which kid gets the worst of it.
My blonde sister was not spared, but compared to me, she was spared.
Sylvia Likens’ cherubic sister was not spared the horror of that house, but she lived to tell the story. That’s the difference.
Skinny white blonde girls talk about their experiences with sexual violence. I talk like every other disabled/fat/poor/Jewish i.e. ethnically marginalized/queer girl, about my experiences. We’re using the same words but our experiences take place on different planets.
I don’t know why I think I can talk the men of my own community into loving me. I try to be nice, and appeasing, and accessible. Or I try self-respect. Or I try explaining the reasons why I cannot trust them the way they believe they are entitled to be trusted. Or, eventually, I stop trying to speak at all.
The basement is not where I belong, but it is the only place I feel safe. From prying eyes. Because walking around fat is like walking around being Sylvia Likens, and someone tattooed “whore” across my belly, and someone else burned cigarettes into my arms and my thighs, and someone else shoved coke bottles into my cunt until I bled and more and more. And now I have to live with it. While women look at my body and say ‘why did you do that to yourself, crazy bitch’ and men look at my body and say ‘that’s disgusting’ and always my Jewish community is not concerned about the impacts of internalized antisemitism and attachment to white supremacism and patriarchal religious precepts. Always I am the crazy one and also I am the bad girl and also I am the prodigal daughter of my own community, which does not know how to respect and love me both at the same time.
And men, the men who think I belong to them because I am Jewish and so are they. To them I am a horse who is being difficult and they try to ride me anyway, to prove they can. Or they decide I am too hard and find someone easier, someone who will let them do whatever they want without complaint. I won’t let men boost their egos or prove their masculinity to themselves at my expense. I must be crazy, they say, the way they say queer women are crazy, when we talk about the difference between coercion and sexuality.
Some women are Sylvia Likens, and do not make it out alive.
I don’t know how to be outside the basement and survive. But I wish I would stop waiting for someone to arrive who loves me enough to show me.