Albums of Our Lives: Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls and Little Earthquakes

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I was fourteen when Strange Little Girls was released and I was fifteen when my parents decided to separate. No matter how amiably your parents split, no matter how flexible or how grounded you are, no matter how much they both tell you they love you and no matter how much you believe them—it’s inevitable that something dark does happen, because it’s proof in your immediate life that sometimes love just doesn’t work out. Love isn’t forever. And that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason. But you don’t know any of this at the time of it’s happening. While it’s happening, you just want the entire situation to go away.

Both of my parents reiterated how much they loved me, when they separately told me they were getting separated. My mother and I were in our pajamas. I sat on my knees in front of the woodstove and she sat in the butterfly chair next to me. My father sat on my bed while I stood, keeping myself busy, halfheartedly thumbing through a book or putting my clothes in my drawers.

My mother had a cup of coffee in her hand when she told me. My dad had his hat and jacket on. They both had tears in their eyes.

I knew, deep in my fifteen year old heart, that things would be better now. There was never a question of if this was my fault or not. (That concept has never even made much sense to me.) There was never a question of if my parents loved me. They told me that they did, constantly—in public and in private. They loved me. But they didn’t love each other. Or they did, but something wasn’t adding up. I’d already known it was going to happen. I’d been in bed the night before and heard my father say something along the lines of, “Well, tomorrow I’ll start looking for a place and I’ll move out.”

I stayed frozen in my bed. Did I just hear that correctly? Where would my dad live? What would my friends think?

I was a High School freshman. I watched TV shows on the WB like Gilmore Girls and One Tree Hill and Everwood. I watched dating shows like Blind Date and Buzz and Elimidate. I loved to masturbate and smoke weed from a seltzer can. I smoked a great amount of weed, and when my parents got separated, I suppose I smoked even more. One of my favorite things to do was stay up late and smoke out my window and listen to music. I wasn’t good at the academic world. I resented being in classrooms and I was scared of sports. I was a talented singer and my parents shelled out money for me to take voice lessons. I was social as hell. Our landline was always ringing. I was amiable with everyone in my grade and had a large circle of friends.

Things that happened after my parents’ separation, that may or may not be related:

1)      I began to fail school miserably. I was already doing poorly and didn’t do my homework or try at anything, but I got even worse because I gave up. I got Fs and Ds and 30s and 40s on my math tests and threw them in the garbage. I didn’t mind this. Failing school, math especially, didn’t hurt my ego. I figured there had to be a deeper meaning to life somewhere. Why would this affect me later? I had friends. I had pot. I had a future; even it was a blank slate.

2)      I kept taking voice lessons, took one guitar lesson and quit, took one bass lesson and quit, took some piano lessons and quit, took hip-hop dance for one year.

3)      I wrote extensively in my journal every night. Looking back through an old journal, I see that I wrote this statement: Well, I’ve somehow become one of the biggest potheads in the school. At my worst, I was smoking pot before school, during school, (blowing the smoke into the toilet) after school and before bed.

4)      I tried other drugs: ecstasy, acid, mushrooms. I loved ecstasy. A journal entry says: I want to live on the shit. If it weren’t so bad for your back, I would.

5)      I got my permit, then my license.

6)      9/11

7)      I started listening to Tori Amos.

My mother was the Tori Amos person. The one that turned up the radio when “Cornflake Girl” or “Crucify” came on. Tori Amos was tucked on our shelves of CDs with the Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Natalie Merchant, Aimee Mann.

I didn’t know what “Crucify yourself” or “Crucify myself” meant or what “Hanging with the raisin girls” meant but I think as a teenager it’s good to listen to and read stuff that you don’t fully grasp. I think teenagers crave that. I still do it. I read books I don’t quite understand so that maybe they will make me smarter. I remember being fourteen and in the car with my best friend and mom and “Crucify” came on the radio. Lindsay exclaimed, “This song came on with my mom in the car, and my mom said ‘Oh! I just wrote a book about this!’” We laughed. We made fun of her mother, the writer. I now apologize. A few months ago, I asked Lindsay what the book actually was and she said, “One of the novels my mom has been working on for 17 + years is about a Nun who is in prison for murder.”

In 2001, the album Strange Little Girls was in our home. My mother must have bought it. It confused and intrigued me. At the time, I didn’t realize it was a CD of covers. I thought it was a CD that contained some covers and some originals. I’ve never been one to research music. It’s very rare that I watch videos or that I give a shit what the musicians look like or where they grew up. Some people are disappointed in this quality of me, and I understand that I might be losing out on some good stuff. I deal more in how the music makes me feel. Since then, I’ve found out that Strange Little Girls is actually a concept album. The songs on the album were originally written by men, and reinterpreted by Amos from a female’s point of view. Amos created a female persona for each track and was photographed as each, wearing a different wig and makeup in each photo.

But before I knew about any of that, I thought that the song “Enjoy The Silence” by Depeche Mode, was written by Tori Amos. With black sharpie, I wrote the lyrics of it on my cream colored bedroom wall. My wall looked like this, in my scrawled uneven writing:

Words like violence
Break the silence
Come crashing in
Into my little world
Painful to me
Pierce right through me

My dad picked me up for school in those days and let me drive because I had my permit. I remember the day after I got my permit he turned the car around for me in the driveway, and I was to drive to school. I’d never driven on a main road before. My mom was stunned and pissed. Now I see what an act of kindness that was, from my dad. Driving to school with me was completely out of his way. Now I see that it was a way for us to spend time together, to see each other five days a week, even if it were only for that ten minute drive. One morning when he came to pick me up, he came into my room, because I was still getting my stuff together. He sat on a stool in his jacket and hat and the lyrics on the wall caught his eye.

“Pretty depressing, isn’t it?” he asked, looking afraid, like I’d never seen him. He looked like a man who didn’t know his daughter. I felt sorry for writing it. I didn’t want to make him feel bad. I shrugged. “I like that song,” I said, trying to sound upbeat. “I think it’s pretty.” I didn’t want my parents to think I was sad or depressed. I feel I was always counted on to be mentally healthy, so when they saw these dark parts of me, I felt guilty.

When we drove to school, we didn’t listen to Tori Amos, (though my father did endure a lot of my other music obsessions in the car when I was a teen: Shaggy, No Doubt, Shakira, Jack Johnson and Lisa Loeb come immediately to mind.) Tori Amos was more like my guilty secret pleasure—something I did alone. Sometimes I was high while I drove– (I’d smoked in my bedroom when I woke up) –so my father was actually teaching me how to drive stoned.

During this time, I ate an eighth of mushrooms with my friends Michael and Amy. When the mushrooms were in full effect, we were uncomfortably sitting in the living room with mom. Finally she went to bed. I was having a bad trip and Amy and Michael both claim I kicked them out of my room. I remember the red power button on my stereo system looked like a tiger’s eye. Amy was out in the living room but Michael just would not leave my room. All I wanted to hear was “Enjoy The Silence.” “Will you please stop putting that fucking song on? It’s scaring the shit out of me. Please, Chloe, please,” Michael kept begging me, laughing in fear. But it calmed me, and finally he left the room too.

That’s the fascinating thing about music, isn’t it? That it can calm you. Shut you off or turn you on. I use music as a tool to make me calm as much as I do to make me manic, as much as I do to make me write; clean my room, have an orgasm.

Michael has never let me live that scenario down. Years later, at bars, he’ll come up behind me and creepily sing, “Words like violence…” into my ear. He was right though. Listen to this and tell me if you would want to lie in a bed and listen to it while tripping your face off on mushrooms. I can’t blame him. It’s terrifically disturbing.

That was the year I realized how powerful words could be. When I was fifteen. That they could comfort and terrify you, inspire you, and make you smarter. I was going through something painful, and Amos, well, so was she. (Wasn’t she always?)

Then there was Rattlesnakes,” originally by Lloyd Cole. I don’t know why I didn’t write this one on my wall, but this was the one I loved best. It’s gorgeous. It’s profound. It’s blatantly about love and pain. And I didn’t understand it. Here’s a version, though without the drums, which is unfortunate.

During those days—those Tori Amos, hip-hop class, and pot smoking days—my parents had me try going to a therapist. Maybe I would benefit, they thought. Her name was Ariel, and she was tall and black, with short hair. I wore a tight fuchsia t-shirt that showed a lot of cleavage. My best friend at the time, Jack, came with me and read magazines in the waiting room. I cried my eyes out and never went back. The line that gets me in “Rattlesnakes” is, She says all she needs is therapy–all you need is love is all you need—what’s more true than that? And the last line of the last verse:

Her heart’s like crazy paving, upside down and back to front, she says oh, it’s so hard to love when love was your great disappointment.

The emphasis on this sentence is on the word “heart.” It’s almost a yell. Her HEART’S like crazy paving. That last line was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. I hoped that love would never be my great disappointment. Was love my parents’ great disappointment? I hoped not.

***

 There were more perks than losses to my parents’ separation. My mom stayed in the house that my dad had built, that I’d grown up in, out in the woods, and my dad moved into the town where my high school was. This was fun because now I could walk everywhere. I could spend more time on pavement. On Friday and Saturday nights, as soon as my friend Mary and I heard my dad snoring, we’d sneak out the door and walk on the train tracks to boys’ houses to make out with them. My dad let me have small glasses of wine at dinner. My dad kept Cheez-Its and sugary cereal and ice cream and Freihofer’s cookies in stock. My mom’s house had none of that stuff. After school, my friends and I would go to my dad’s and smoke pot and then mix all of the different kinds of cereal into one big pot. (Never was a cornflake girl…) My dad worked until 6p.m. so my friends and I had the place to ourselves from 3p.m. on. We sat on the porch and watched the skateboarders and ate the cereal and candy from the gas station, like Circus Peanuts. My dad wasn’t onto my pot smoking the way my mother was. My mom said he was in denial. She always knew when I was high. It sucked. But on the days I didn’t sit on the porch afterschool, I took piano lessons and began learning the beginning to the song “Silent All These Years.” On my bedroom wall I wrote:

So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts
What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts

At my mom’s house, we ate salad with grilled chicken on it from our new Lean Mean Fat Grilling Machine and watched Gilmore Girls. I can’t really remember what percent of living with my mother was having fun and what percent we fought, because we did so much of both. When we fought, they were yelling matches, and we would make up a few hours later.

I’ve always prided myself on being adaptable, flexible, and well-adjusted. People always pegged me as easygoing. So that’s how I wanted to be perceived, that’s how I wanted to react, about the separation. But it wasn’t that easy. There was the night with my best friend Hannah when it was down pouring and I sobbed in her arms, sitting on a dirt road in a mud puddle. There were the times that my mother’s friends would take me aside and tell me they were there if I wanted to talk. I would go somber at those moments. My preferred article of clothing during this time was a black hooded sweatshirt. I wore it almost every day.

Then my cat got hit by a car. My mother’s best friend, who we call my “unofficial Godmother” found my calico cat Alice lying dead in the road one morning. She took me outside my house, onto the deck, and told me that she was there for me, that it must be a hard time, with the death of my cat and my parent’s separation, and being a teenager. She told me that if I needed to talk, she was around. “I’m fine,” I told her. “I’m okay,” I told her. I didn’t want to cry. They never put pressure on me for this, but I wanted to be strong for my parents. I didn’t want them to worry about me. I wanted to be the carefree child I was once was, for them.

Then the principle found weed and a bowl on me, and he made me call my mother at work and tell her. Then I got caught for leaving school too many times and had detention for an indefinite period of time.

Then I got my license and pretended to drive to school but creeped around back roads instead and when it was past 8:15 a.m. and I knew my mother was gone for work, I went back to the house and made toast and hung out. At seventeen I had sex for the first time. At eighteen I took Adderall recreationally, was even on it when I got my diploma. And at nineteen I was going to community college and dabbling in painkillers and dating a man named Jacob who had two young children.

Jacob was twenty-six, which was exotic and ancient, an adult world that I would never live in. It was my first “real” relationship, where I slept in his bed more than mine. On Saturday mornings we did errands, like go to the pet store and buy live mice for his snake to eat. The kids sat in the backseat and I helped buckle them in. We all sang along to Modest Mouse while I held the mice on my lap in a bag on the way home and held Jacob’s hand with my other.

As for the painkillers—first they were magic and then they were medicine. They made me  feel like warm tropical sunshine was instantly pouring over my mediocre life. They shifted me into another realm of affection and safety. They made me promiscuous. They made me skinny. The made me itchy. I kept the addiction a secret from Jacob. I wasn’t in love with Jacob the way I wanted to love, but I did love the pills, and they kept me from thinking about how I was unhappy in my relationship.

***

The day before Valentine ’s Day, Jacob and I both left the apartment at 7:30 in the morning. I was going to my psychology class and he was going to work. We walked along a shortcut to the church parking lot where we parked our cars. We trudged through the foot or two of the blindingly bright snow, lifting our knees high. We were holding hands. He was smoking a cigarette with his free hand and I was holding my schoolbooks with mine.

“Crack, crack,” Jacob said, mocking the noise our feet were making in the snow. I didn’t say anything. I used to not talk in the morning. He went on: “Did you know that when the snow cracks like this, it means the temperature is below zero?”

Jacob and I kissed. “Bye babe, see you tonight,” he said, and we climbed into our cars. I was hungry, so before I headed to school, I drove to a Café. They knew my usual order: a mocha coffee, and an English muffin with egg and cheese.

Now running late, I headed towards Albany. Everything was an ash gray: the sky, the road, and the color of the car coming towards me.

The Saab took off from under my feet. It was dancing across the yellow line. Back and forth, back and forth. “Fuck.” I was calmly thinking. And also, “I can handle this, it will be fine.”

I was debilitated. I could not brake and I could not shift gears. There was nothing that would save me and it was so very far from fine. We crashed head on, hard and swift. The other person’s car flew off the road. After multiple 360’s, my car finally stopped spinning in the middle of the road.

I could hear the wailing of a woman. The woman I hit. Her car was trapped in the trees and she was trapped in the car. I keeled over; I was choking from the latex stink of the airbags, choking on the stench of burning fuel, choking on my yelps, my gasps. Somehow I hadn’t choked on the bite of my sandwich I had taken prior to crash. It was still in my mouth. I spit fried egg, American cheese and English muffin into the middle of the road. Then I stood in the center of the road, in the February frost, repeating, “Fuck,” as if it were the only word I knew.

***

Foolishly, Jacob and I kept our Valentine’s Day plans to go out to dinner the next night. It was hellish. The accident had made all of the newspapers and there were pictures of the other woman’s mangled car in each one. That I mangled. I was famous in the worst possible way through dinner.

“Are you okay? I heard what happened.”

“Hey, Chloe! I heard you got in a crazy car accident!”

It was all I could do to keep it together while I asked to get my hamburger in a doggie bag. I shuffled on Jacob’s arm in silence as we called it an early night and walked back to his apartment, to bed. (Every finger in the room, is pointing at me, I want to spit in their faces, but then I get afraid what that would bring.—Crucify.)

Physically, you couldn’t see any scars on me from the crash. Only Jacob and I looked at the enormous yellow and purple bruises on my thighs each night after we undressed and climbed into bed. My dad told me that the car was totaled, and that there was a film of egg, cheese, and coffee, covering the windshield.

My guilt from the accident was paralyzing. I’d broken the collar bone and one leg of the woman I hit. I fell neck deep into what I was already knee-deep in. The combination of my addiction and the accident destroyed my confidence with a sharp ax. My vulnerability and insecurity was profound. (Got enough guilt to start my own religion—Crucify) Jacob could just speak to another girl and my self-esteem would plummet. Every time it snowed outside, I’d choke back tears. I stopped going to college altogether, because of the anxiety of driving. I started doing more and more pills and drinking and smoking to distract myself and fill up the long days. I’d wake up in the morning and count the minutes until Jacob would leave for work. Then I’d skip school; watch Saved by The Bell or E! or The Simple Life on his leather couches, and snort pills.

Winter was eternal that year. I was always in some form of crying and there was always some form of snowing. Jacob and I watched my bruises turn different colors and shapes, and eventually, fade. I went to court, was issued a ticket for reckless driving, and was berated and yelled at and humiliated by the judge. My mother was with me. I saw an email she wrote to a friend afterward, and she said something about how she thought I deserved it. That it was good for me. I deserved to be scared the shit out of. And she was right.

I was lucky. The other woman in the accident healed. Her family forgave me. I remember telling Jacob one night in bed, that everything seemed “too real.” “It will be like this your whole life,” he explained back to me. It was not what I wanted to hear. (And I go at sleepytime, this is not real, this is not real, this is not really happening. You bet your life it is—Cornflake Girl.)

So I began listening to Tori again. I’d always loved the song, “Winter,” and this was, understandably, the time for it to come back into my life. I love this video and the way she says, “This is, um. For my dad.”

Snow can wait
I forgot my mittens
Wipe my nose
Get my new boots on
I get a little warm in my heart when I think of winter
I put my hand in my father’s glove

While my milligrams grew, my jean size shrunk. I was changing one day when my mom walked into the room and saw me. I folded my arms across my chest and tried to hide my stomach. A mother knows her daughter’s body, and it was too late. She saw. “Chloe, you’re fading away,” she told me. Mom, you have no idea, I wanted to scream while I self-consciously scurried to cover myself. Another time I remember showing up at her house and she was on the phone. “Mom, I need to eat something, can you please give me something to eat,” I was bitching to her, while she shot me looks of annoyance. Customers at my dad’s store were asking him if I was okay. “Who do you think you are, Twiggy?” He greeted me as I joylessly strolled into work. As long as I had a pill up my nose I didn’t give two shits of how I appeared. I had lost my waist, tits, and eyes. I looked dead.

I was obsessed with the chorus in the song “Winter,” particularly this line:

When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?

I felt Jacob’s frustrations toward me. I didn’t love or like or hate myself. It was worse: I just didn’t care about myself. When was I gonna love myself?

While playing hooky one day, I got film from a disposable camera developed of my friends and I hanging out at Jacob’s, drinking beer and playing cards. I didn’t recognize myself. In every single picture of me, from numerous nights, my eyes were completely glossed over, watery and tinted red. You could not see into my eyes if you tried. I had no window to my soul.

Years go by and I’m here still waiting

Withering where some snowman was
Mirror mirror where’s the crystal palace
But I only can see myself

Skating around the truth who I am
But I know dad, the ice is getting thin

My mother and I often fought during this time. She was angry with me. It was the same argument over and over. She called me a “risk-taker” and a “party animal.” She was probably right. But at the time I was defensive and upset. One night after a particularly bad one, I slammed the door, got into my car, and drove to my dad’s apartment where he was asleep. I cried myself to sleep on the futon.

In the morning, I went into the kitchen where my dad was. I leaned against the doorway, feeling just on the verge of unbearable sadness. My hair smelled like cigarettes. My jeans were baggy.

“Hey….dad?” I said, sheepishly, in a broken voice, trying not to cry.

He looked up from what he was reading.

“Um…I’m not doing well, dad.”

I’d been dying to tell someone that. I just didn’t know it until I said it.

I don’t quite remember what happened after I told him that. I know that I looked down at my light blue socks with clouds on them while he spoke. A hole was beginning to show in the big toe. I know that he told me not to go to school that day. He told me to take a mental health day. He told me to take the car to a place called Art Omi—a field that had a bunch of contemporary sculptures scattered around, like a humungous head, and an enormous piece of toast. I know that I spent the bulk of the day sitting on the back of my car near the field and crying and smoking cigarettes and listening to music. I know that there was a lot of sun. Winter was over, and I couldn’t hide anymore.

When you gonna make up your mind?
When you gonna love you as much as I do?
When you gonna make up your mind?
Cause things are gonna change so fast
All the white horses are still in bed
I tell you that I’ll always want you near
You say that things change, my dear

Things did change fast, as they do sometimes—like a car accident, like a divorce, like the way you can pack up and move from one place to another. I moved to New York City during the first week of June and it was there that I stopped doing morphine and Oxy-Contin. I gained weight and I relied on my feet instead of a car to get from point A to point B. I dropped out of community college and got a waitressing job in Brooklyn. When my mother visited me during that first month, she brought a plastic bag of some things I’d left at Jacob’s. He’d written me a letter. He said, “I know it’s cheesy, but I am going to quote the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s here, because it’s true: “They don’t love you like I love you.” Tears, I guess of relief, came to my eyes. In Brooklyn I began listening to indie bands and sort of forgot about Tori Amos.

I can see my eyes now, and I can drive again without being afraid. The drive I do the most often is back and forth from my parent’s houses. They live forty-five minutes apart, and it’s a scenic drive, full of curvy roads and farms. It’s my alone time, and more often than not, I slide Tori Amos into the CD player. I laugh at how seriously I took those songs, sometimes. Other times, I identify with the person I used to be, and my heart goes out to her—I want to wrap my arms around her.  I don’t write Tori’s lyrics on my wall anymore, because I have them all up here, in my head.


Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection "Legs Get Led Astray" (Future Tense Books). Her non-fiction can be found on The Nervous Breakdown, Freerange Nonfiction, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and The Rumpus. She lives in upstate New York. You can learn more at www.chloecaldwell.com. More from this author →