My daughter is a stripper.
From the first minute I knew of her existence, on some preconscious level, when her microscopic sub-cells were still climbing out of the primordial slime of my uterus, dividing, expanding exponentially, I was aware of this incomprehensible joy that seemed to stand on its own, a separate entity apart from both me and this inch-long creature.
I wanted to climb into my own womb like a lover and protect her from pain. I wanted to fight dragons and turn chaos into cosmos. The birth itself was fast. I had the urge to push in the car, so she came in a rush of panting and blank forms to fill out. Too late! Straight from the delivery room. No doctor. Never mind. He arrived in time to stitch me up. Fond memories. I nursed her on the delivery table vowing death to all tyrants who might threaten her happiness.
She tells me ten minutes before I go into a classroom of seventy students to give an hour and a half lecture on the Mannerist artists of the sixteenth century. Enrolled in the college I teach in, she is waiting, as she often is, sitting on the worn carpet outside the door of my office. Most days we go in and she chats about life while I organize my thoughts for the coming lecture. But today she sits down and right away says I have something hard to tell you. My brain immediately pulls up the file of Probable Fates to be Suffered by My Teenage Daughter: 1) you’re pregnant; 2) you were pregnant, but have had an abortion; 3) you have some weird disease, sexually transmitted of course, that the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta wants to study using you as a victim/guinea pig; 4) you have joined a South American cult but they only sacrifice virgins so that you have been spared thank God. I see now (foolishly) that my files have not been updated lately, so this particular fate, the fate of being a stripper, has not yet been added, has snuck up on me unprepared, was never considered. She says her stage name is Jubilee.
We took her home nameless because her father looked at every name on my list as too foreign, too pretentious, too reminiscent of past loves. Only after we received a letter from the state Social Security Office threatening some bureaucratic disaster that would surely befall us if we did not immediately name the afore born child, did we agree on a name.
For the first year of life, my girl child lay peacefully wherever she was put: in her crib, on a blanket in the middle of the floor, on the wooden pew at church, a fact that made her cry when I told her sixteen years later. On her first birthday, she decided she had enough inertia to last a lifetime. She crawled out the door and down the street, to be rescued by a neighbor who looked with complete derision at my inability to keep track of a one-year-old child. When she discovered my make-up drawer she began her serious study of art, making fingerpaints from Clinique eye shadow.
By age two she had decided to study medicine, at least the medicine cabinet, wearing my diaphragm on her head because she had heard a British friend call it a Dutch cap thingy. By three she had organized the neighborhood into quadrants geographically according to the quality of snacks available at each house. At four she began ballet lessons, only to discover on the eve of her debut as a dancer that she did indeed have some talent but invariably turned into a still life in front of an audience. She started first grade full of quiet hubris and practically every teacher after that tells me with knowing nods that she is the Most Creative Child they have ever taught. Their smiles, as they tell me this, reveal a satisfaction that only comes with great discoveries, such as the Holy Grail, Albert Switzer, Queen Elizabeth’s Dutch cap thingy.
We look at each other. I wonder if I have time to cry and still be ready to teach. She speaks first, telling me she is dancing at the Blue Venus. My mind busily conjures up images of Venuses. Titian’s Venus of Urbino: too modest; Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus with Cupid coyly fondling his mother’s breast: too Freudian; Botticelli’s Birth of Venus: yes, rather ephemeral, not even erotic really. Okay. We are on safe ground; we can deal with this. The fact that my daughter looks nothing like Botticelli’s Venus, has cropped pink hair even, has little to do with my relief. She laughs and tells me she is finally losing her fear of dancing.
In middle school she wore a long, black trench coat and read Bukowski. She wrote poetry of such incredible machabaeorum that, Mrs. Verble, her English teacher, sent her to the guidance counselor in order to share responsibility should the strange student decide one day to slit her wrists while conjugating verbs. The guidance counselor (who considered herself in possession of a broad sense of humor as well as a practical knowledge of the pubescent psyche) declared the poetry brilliant but said the trench coat sadly must go as it was frightening the band students.
I look at my daughter in her baggy tee shirt and jeans, remembering the ambivalence her developing body stirred in me over the years. Watching it grow from a pink wrinkled prune at birth into that adolescent vessel, virginal, full of tender erotic beauty unfettered by guilt. At times I could hardly bear to look at her. At times I almost hated her for all that freedom and sensuous energy.
By high school she had exhausted the usefulness of grunge and Beat Poets. She instead became the Student of Fine Upstanding Character. She had the survival instincts of a presidential candidate and was able to act as the moral barometer of the whole freshman class without causing anyone of lesser morals to feel, well, lesser. In her sophomore year she birthed a literary magazine, raising funds by organizing nights of poetry reading and music. If sophomores voted, she would have been voted Most Likely To Do Whatever The Hell She Wanted.
I take a deep breath and ask why. She fiddles with her hair and says she is tired of part-time, minimum wage jobs that require the intellectual capacity of a mentally challenged baboon. She says she has an obligation to strike a blow for Third Wave Feminism. She says she is morally responsible to use her sexuality as a weapon against the property owning capitalist powers that would subdue the proletariat. She says this is something she has to do—to feel in control. She says she doesn’t know why.
In her senior year of high school she discovered Franz, a disgruntled intellectual who had barely begun to shave, but had read more German philosophy than was good for him. He smoked pot that he stole from his father’s secret stash while his father was in court busily defending the rights of juvenile delinquents. Franz was the first addictive substance for the Student of Fine Upstanding Character. It was the beginning of her life as a vortex, like a toilet flushing endlessly, always down. Weeks would go by when she would snarl at anything that challenged her hold on reality. Then suddenly the vortex would reverse, swirling upward, as if she had traversed half the globe in search of Truth. Then there would be whole months when she seemed almost normal; we would talk and laugh and I would think my daughter had returned for good.
I have five minutes now before class begins. She tells me she is not allowed to give lap dances or blowjobs. She smiles kindly, reassuringly, as she tells me this, as if I have been waiting for this exact information, secretly hoping she will divulge such details to assuage my motherly worries. My daughter pauses a moment, then tells me she is terrified. The men … want to touch….
At the end of her first semester of college, Franz had been replaced by a girlfriend named Leslie, a deeply religious lesbian whose parents sent her chemicals through the mail to help with test anxiety. By May, Leslie was history, but my daughter had failed two of her classes due to a lack of presence in the classroom. She said she freaked, while also developing a preternatural fear of leaving her dorm room. In June of that year her beautiful, brilliant, best friend from high school put on her prom dress and drank a cocktail of cranberry juice and Phenobarbital. After the funeral, my daughter began cutting herself. She worked at a bookstore for the summer wearing long sleeves to cover the growing roadmap on her bare arms. In September, she moved in with a slick man, ten years older. A bottle of vodka became the third leg of their triangle. I tried frantic forays into the dragon’s lair, only to find the princess in league with the monster. I had half-hysterical conversations with my husband who nodded and looked at his watch.
Our time is up. I hear savage mutterings from disgruntled students. All dates and places have retreated from my brain. I will have to pull out the heavy guns and threaten a pop quiz. I think of Vasari’s Perseus and Andromeda and see only my daughter’s scantily clad form writhing in front of a squint-eyed businessman in a pinstriped suit, or an aging computer repairman wearing mirrored sunglasses and a hat that says TGIF.
My daughter spent the next few months contemplating the trajectory of a falling body from the bridge that leads into the city. I wanted to weep with relief every time I saw her alive. I finally dragged her bodily to a psychiatrist who mentioned the possibility of bipolar disorder—the Condition Formally Known as Manic-Depressive Illness. Dr. Wise said her behavior was focused on getting her father’s attention. He said she had trouble keeping boundaries with men because they All had become her father—a shadowy figure to be conquered and forced to love her. My husband said I was exaggerating the diagnosis. He had no memory of our discussions about cuts and vodka, and any thought of bipolarity or suicide was ridiculous. Anyone could see how healthy she was.
After the divorce, she enrolled in the college where I teach. I look at my daughter one last time. She smiles brightly, looking like the pink-haired college student that she is. I hug her, tell her I love her, then walk into class and pull up the first slide. Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror stares back at me with a curious knowing. He was the same age as my daughter when he painted this. Nineteen. He looks twelve. I tell the class the artist later withdrew from society and became a recluse experimenting with alchemy. My daughter has finished experimenting with chemicals. Now she is experimenting with life. She is learning to dance without becoming a still life. She is discovering the possibilities of joy. Tomorrow my daughter moves into an apartment with a friend she met in math class. But tonight you can find her at the Blue Venus.
Author’s Note: I recently held my first grandchild in my arms and looked at his mother—my daughter and the subject of this essay. Although we talk constantly, there is a point at which no words can convey what we have been through. My daughter is experiencing her own version of that incredible connection of mother to child. Seeing her as a strong, loving adult fills me with a hope that I want to pass on to other mothers with troubled children. With my daughter’s encouragement, I have submitted this essay for publication.
This essay was originally published in Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. Accompanying artwork by Daniel Zalkus.