I’ve been trying to write this essay and failing. Instead of calling it “writer’s block,” I prefer to think of it as “having escaped the Muses.” Some facts: (A) Thamyris, the grandson of Apollo, thought he was a pretty great poet, until the Muses stripped him of his ability to write and play the lyre. Also: they blinded him. (B) Procne’s only son was murdered as a sacrifice to the Muses. (C) When Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music competition, the Muses ruled in favor of Apollo and Marsyas was flayed alive, his skin nailed to a pine tree. No note on what was done with the rest of his flesh.
So, then, I’ve escaped. With my skin.
The problem isn’t that I have nothing to say so much as it is that I’m used to making shit up—and all of a sudden, I’ve been handed a whole lot of facts. I do not feel that I am the kind of person who should be trusted with facts.
“Here,” my father says, dropping a stack of manila folders into my lap. This is his way. He is always answering questions you didn’t ask, and handing you things you don’t want. He is a physicist and concerned with what he calls “self-actualization for everyone.” SAFE is a lofty concept that involves re-educating us all so that we model our lives on the processes seen in nature. Anything that does not fit within the theoretical construct of what the world should look like according to my father is a waste of time. I could tell you more about his theories, but you can just ask him. Anything. Ask him if he’d like the croissant or the muffin. He’ll tell you about self-actualization for everyone. Ask him if he really meant it, years ago, when he said it was your fault your brother is a fuck-up. He’ll tell you about self-actualization for everyone.
The files he hands me contain legal documents from the three-year-long period of his divorce from and custody battle with my mother. From when I was between the ages of seven and ten and my brother was between ten and thirteen. Buried inside one of the folders, like a little cereal-box prize that is colorful and shiny and made of small parts that will most certainly choke you, is my father’s journal.
October 10, 1991
“I told [Onnesha] that I had done nothing wrong so everything would be fine, but she insisted, ‘You don’t understand anything.’ I remain very impressed that she has the capability to assess these situations better than me.”
I have impressed my father only rarely in the course of my lifetime. This appears to be one such instance. The situation he refers to here was a fight between him and my mother that my brother and I witnessed. The facts as best as I can recall: At one point, my father put his hand on my mother’s shoulder to help accentuate the delivery of some unkind line. My mother, who loses her sense of humor when angry, told him she’d call the police if he touched her again, at which point my father, who only seems to have a sense of humor when angry, poked her shoulder with his finger. She called the police.
“I told her that I had done nothing wrong so everything would be fine, but she insisted, ‘You don’t understand anything.’”
My brother and I on the stairs, watching a cop put my father in handcuffs. Disorderly conduct, the summons reads. October 9, 1991, 10:15 PM. I plumb my memory of the scene, but I cannot find my mother in it. Or perhaps part of me chooses not to remember.
I like to think of myself as a person who can recognize the value and purpose of forgiveness, but I am occasionally haunted by a question: Are there things that we should not forgive? If there are such things, I would like a list of them. I would like to laminate this list and keep it in my wallet for cross-referencing purposes.
My father was released the same evening he was arrested, and charged with nothing. But the next day, my mother filed an affidavit requesting a restraining order. That order states that she was afraid my father would kidnap us to India. It also stated this: “Yesterday (October 9, 1991), my Husband and I argued over taking the children to counseling and he put his hands around my throat and choked me.” The “h” in “husband” is inexplicably capitalized. My father was not allowed to return to the house for over a month and so stayed in a nearby hotel. This is when his journal began, typed up at work and printed out on old computer paper that unfolded accordion-style – the kind with perforated edges that peel off.
Of course, there are many more journal entries I might mention. Take, for instance, December 12, 1991, a date by which my father had moved back into the house:
In the early morning I was mad at my wife for not keeping the ghee outside of the refrigerator. The ghee gets hard and unusable for bread spreading. I told her for last ten years that ghee is preserved at room temperature for a long shelf life. She must have learning disabilities.
The next day, my father’s entry reports that I told him, apropos of nothing, “You are a very humble man.” And so it goes: The accuracy of my insights as well as those of my father’s, both stunted, hobbled things.
These folders my father gave me are also full of answers that raise a series of questions that, as an adult, I had come to think had no clear answers.
Answer: “We were supposed to have four children but she did not even want to get pregnant after [our son] was born [in 1979]. Her reasoning was that she does not love me anymore.”
Question: When did your parents allegedly stop loving each other?
Answer: Twelve years before they got divorced.
Question: How many years after realizing they weren’t in love did your parents stay together?
Answer: 2.5 years.
Question: How many years after realizing they weren’t in love did your parents get pregnant with you?
I know it’s more complicated than this. But there is something heady in these numbers, in these artifacts and the facts they contain. The delicious aura of objectivity.
The real trouble came after I decided to write something about the facts that I had amassed. I started making plans to take a fact-collecting trip back to the small town in Connecticut where I grew up, and where my family dissolved itself into its individual components. But then another fact emerged, a shrill, red, beeping fact that launched my sleepy hometown into the public eye. That small town where I grew up is called Sandy Hook, a village in Newtown, Connecticut.
Suddenly, the inexplicable tragedy of twenty-six people being gunned down in a place where I made bird puppets and first learned what a lie was rubbed against the tiny inexplicable tragedy of my family, a place where I learned the humbling lesson that a roomful of good intentions can still amount to disaster. There are facts that are not necessarily meant to be connected. They just end up in a jar together, jostling against each other like fireflies in a space too small for them to illuminate.
“Just as in the case of the utterly useless Borgesian map that reproduces an empire in one-to-one facsimile, the Borgesian archive of all historical information would duplicate history, not explain it.” —Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity
What is the difference between a story and the accumulation of facts? I mean this rhetorically and I don’t. I’m wrestling with a heap of facts, and I want to tell a story, but I’m paralyzed by the falseness of connecting and whittling. I am afraid of how I will alter the story to suit my desired narratives while at the same time understanding that there is no story that anyone will ever tell in the course of history, past or future, in which facts will not be altered, left aside, massacred, distorted, enhanced.
I’m familiar with the business of facts and their distortion. As the kind of person who cannot grasp the meaning of the word “career,” I find occasional employment doing fact-checking, a process whereby you verify any and all statements of fact that will appear in print. In exchange for an hourly wage, you may have to verify phrases like, “That was the year that Mr. B grew his beard to an absurd length purely as a joke.” This requires you to ask a series of questions that make you sound like a humorless dolt: What, exactly, is an absurd length? Is it accurate to say that you grew your beard to such a length in the year 2010? Did you do this only as a joke or was there some other motivation?
The more sobering stories require you to dig through legal documents. In one such set of documents, I read the transcript of a visit between a father named Esteban, and his infant son who had been taken from him by Child Protective Services. According to the transcript, at 4:38 PM, “Baby smiles at Esteban. Esteban bounces baby on his knee. Baby laughs.” But by 4:41 pm, the scene had shifted significantly: “Satan continues bouncing baby on knee.” It was a near-unbelievable typo or autocorrect mishap. So much so that I kept rereading it over and over to make sure I had read it correctly. It wasn’t until I showed it to a fellow fact-checker that I trusted my eyes. I became obsessed with this, the story of how Esteban became Satan within the span of three minutes. Yes, at its heart was a typo—an errant finger, overeager software. But it remains: the only documentation of this exchange leaves me with this fact of the devil sharing the room with a small child.
I was supposed to go to Newtown on Tuesday. The roads were too icy. I was supposed to go to Newtown on Wednesday. I had too much work. I was supposed to go to Newtown on Friday. I was too much of a chickenshit. It’s remarkable how long it can take to realize you’re scared. My realization came in the wee hours of the morning as I stared at the ceiling above my bed and told myself, in various ways, that I was useless. I called my ex—who better to talk to about being a total coward than a man you were once engaged to and failed to marry?
“Why do you think you’re afraid to go?” he asked, and through the sobs I tried to angle away from the receiver, I said, “Because it exists.”
What exists? An actual place. A physical geographic location where my childhood happened. I didn’t just make it up.
It was a sensation I had been experiencing a lot lately. I’ve always been preoccupied with fiction, picking and choosing certain elements or truths from the real world and assembling and building on them to create a new story with its own truth. And now, as I read through facts about my childhood by way of these legal documents, I kept thinking, I thought I had made that up. What I was experiencing was the realization that I’ve spend most of my life pretending I made myself up—usually the purview of gods.
I am a very humble woman.
The Pizza Palace. My father used to pay me a dollar if I finished my chicken parmigiana. On half days on Friday, when my mom picked me up from kindergarten, Reggie would bring me a grilled cheese sandwich, and the owner of the Pizza Palace would come out from the back and pinch my cheeks so hard that I wanted to cry. Every week. Those cheeks.
The parmigiana tastes the same as it did over two decades ago. Reggie is long gone, and my new waitress says the owner—who I wish would hobble out from the back and pinch my cheeks—has sold the restaurant and retired. After I leave my tip, I reach into my bag for the hand-scrawled map I made myself so that I could get from the Pizza Palace to my childhood home. No map. I’m painfully hungover. I drag myself back to the car and start driving, past the old comic store and ice cream shop with the “Gone Fishing” sign up for winter. Everywhere, green and white ribbons and signs that proclaim, We choose love.
While I’m driving in what I think is an aimless fashion, I discover that I’ve driven directly to my old house. I pull up the long gravel driveway and stare at it, tinier now through my adult gaze, and painted barn red.
By the end of that day, my notebook remains empty. Which isn’t to say that there were no facts to be recorded. I knocked on the door. My door. Their door. I spoke to a woman and her daughter who have been living in the house for sixteen years. I willed them to invite me inside, but they didn’t, and after asking and receiving permission to wander the wooded area in the backyard for a few minutes, I got back in the car and rested my forehead against the steering wheel. I thought about knocking on the door again. Asking if they could, at the very least, move aside slightly so that I could see the stairwell – the one that I climb in my dreams over and over again. But I don’t.
I did write a short piece on Newtown in the wake of violence. I mentioned some of my memories of attending Sandy Hook Elementary, but I did not mention my family, because what the hell does one set of facts have to do with the other? I write about the strange sensation of seeing a town rich in memories suddenly distilled to a single headline, a statement of fact: “Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 26 at School in Connecticut.”
On the drive home from Newtown, my mind is blissfully quiet. I’m exhausted, and the fatigue has drummed the questions of “how” and “why” from my brain. It’s an illness, sometimes, trying to find meaning and narrative in what has transpired.
The night I return from Connecticut, I meet a friend for dinner. She has just recently seen her father, a man who, like my father, tends to talk a lot, though rarely about anything she’d like to hear. But this time, he seemed more open than usual. She asked him about her grandfather, a man who had only ever been described to her in three short statements: (A) he was a drunk, (B) he had the heart of a poet, (C) he was suicidal. While they walked Prospect Park, her father elaborated on the latter point. According to the story relayed to me, one day, he told his wife that he was going out to the garage to kill himself, but before he could get there, his neighbors came over. He had a conversation with them about the weather. He never killed himself. And he never brought up suicide again.
“That’s it?” I ask, waiting for the part that explains the redemption of a life, the cathartic moment when her grandfather decides he wants to go on living.
“That’s it,” she says.
Apart from the fact that I always assumed that talk of the weather was what might lead one to suicide rather than save you from it, what surprised me was that this man, her grandfather, had been whittled down to this one anecdote. And my friend is left to build a life around it.
Listen to Onnesha read her essay:
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