Hannibal Lecter stands to greet Clarice Starling. The other inmates strangle the bars of their cages or pace laps as if something about her body, carefully hidden beneath several layers of shapeless suiting, has sent a charge through them. They jump and groan, eyes skittering to the breasts rising beneath shoulders artificially widened with pads like an animal arching for height against danger. “I can smell your cunt,” Miggs slobbers in a viscous-sounding whisper.
But Dr. Lecter stands still to give Clarice Starling the gift of space, even though bulletproof glass between them provides all the separation they’d need. He wears a powder blue prisoner’s jumpsuit, but it’s as well tailored as Savile Row, gently tracing the lines of broad shoulders curled politely toward Agent Starling’s voice. His round blue eyes do not blink. For all the attention he gives her, Hannibal Lecter could just as easily be a world-class butler as an incarcerated doctor; his every reaction is cut to her leads the way a well-made suit seems like another layer of skin, responsive to movement without hindering it.
I was nine the first time I saw Silence of the Lambs. My mother and her husband had rented a blue and white wrapped Blockbuster copy and sent me to the room I shared with my sister when they caught me listening in the hallway. I waited beneath the covers until the house was still and watched with my nose inches from the TV screen, volume so low screams turned to whispers.
During the day, my house was rarely quiet. We shouted each other to tears over missed school buses and wet laundry left to mold in the ancient yellow machine beside the kitchen sink. We raged over dirty dishes scrumming in a half-inch of grey water and the clean ones waiting for attention. “You didn’t help me” ratcheted to “No one ever helps me.” The flat sound a hand makes against a cheek is less jarring than the one a scream makes as it exhausts itself to sobs.
Once, a snake snuck into our oven and wrapped itself around a coil. As the oven pre-heated for our dinner, the snake beat its body against the closed door. Through the glass, my mother, sister, and I watched the animal blister and broil, screaming in unison until it was impossible to tell which body was making what sound. Later, I’d press a fork clean through the blackened remains with a brittle crunch. The dead smell hung in our house for days.
At night, I did adult things while the rest of the house slept: popped silver tabs on cans of cold soda without even bothering to finish an older, warmer one or tentatively licked the plastic rims of my stepfather’s vodka bottles, shuddering at the bitterness in front of a screen glowing soft-core pornography on pay cable with the volume muted. The bisected bodies choked with moths in the movie didn’t bother me, but they didn’t stay with me either. From the first moment he quietly greeted her, I wanted Dr. Lecter to notice me the way he noticed Clarice. “You’ve brought your best bag,” he tells her in the screenplay, which I’d later buy in high school and memorize. “It’s much nicer than your shoes.”
Our living room carpet reeked of dog piss topped with a scratchy layer of carpet deodorizer that watered my eyes and raised red rash across the backs of my legs and the bottoms of my feet. In the dark, I felt at home in the underground bunker where the hospital stored its violent men. It looked wet and dank, a perfect trap for piss smells and chemical cover, the decrepitude a perfect hatching place for the kind of fear and rage that breeds crazy.
“Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but I’ll bet you’re not more than one generation away from poor white trash,” Lecter tells Clarice, and her square jaw clenches, then unclenches as if she’s chewing the words. In about two minutes, Miggs will hit her with a handful of semen, but that’s not about her; it’s about the proximity of her cunt. Dr. Lecter can see Clarice, past, present, and future. When I first watched Silence of the Lambs, I hadn’t been alive a decade and had no idea what story my shoes and bag might tell. I wanted Dr. Lecter to tell me; I wanted him to see me. After that night, I’d watch the movie dozens more times, read the books and ignore the TV show, preferring Anthony Hopkins’s round blue eyes and barrel chest to another actor’s elegant but soulless imitation. At some point, I began to imagine what Dr. Lecter might see when he looked at me, what I might tell him, and before I’d even left elementary school, Hannibal Lecter would become my therapist.
There are all sorts of reasons to go hungry: because the only food in the refrigerator is a pot of something crusted black at the edges and baked grey and brown in the center, meant to last all week, globbed on top of hardened white rice and reheated to hot, runny goo in a microwave where roaches dart across the gummy insides, legs sticking to squirts of months’ worth of runny dinners. To see how long it takes for someone to notice the untouched plastic baggies full of slimy lunch meat that accumulate in a lunch box, warm to the touch by the time they return home uneaten. To become so thin the wind might catch flaps in a too-large tee shirt and send a body someplace else, like a balloon loosed from a bunch. When I was a baby, the doctor measured the length of my spine and promised my mother I’d be tall, she likes to tell me. Instead, I stopped growing right smack at average, never claiming the length of bone that serves as a reward for being one generation away from poor white trash.
“Was your daddy a coal miner? Did he stink of the lamp?” Dr. Lecter asks Clarice Starling.
“Would any amount of success and attention ever be enough to make up for the perceived insult of your poverty?” Dr. Lecter asks me one day as I pace the streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn beneath oriel windows glimmering like new-cut gemstones, shielding the grey smoke of my burning cigarette from babies in prams that cost more than a semester of the second-rate college no one told me I’d one day be ashamed of.
Outside my imagination, I’ve only been to two therapists. The first was an Eastern European doctor who dispensed Xanax out of the top of a downtown Brooklyn building with walls so thin the noise of flushing toilets plashed into the waiting room. Our meetings never lasted more than five minutes, and curly black loops atop a prescription pad were the only indication he’d seen the flaming specks of panic rash wrap round my throat and strangle off my explanation of how I’d just been diagnosed with cancer on the day I took my stepmother off life support. Without looking at me, he told me I couldn’t have any more pills unless I talked to someone whose job it was to listen. I decided to never see the drug man in the toilet office again.
The second was a man named Dr. Shimmer, whose website was a drab mix of forest colors backgrounded by a clumsy template of bright green leaves clunkily unfurling the way I was supposed to in therapy. In his photo, he was kind looking, with a big tea-stained smile and long grey beard. A nurse called me a few days before my appointment. “If you’re just looking for Xanax, he’s not that kind of doctor.”
“That’s okay,” I told her, because I didn’t know how to say that the drugs were the only thing that stopped nubby, puss filled boils bubbling from the backs of my lips every time I tried to speak about my grief. If he wanted a chat before he gave me what I needed, I’d tell him whatever he wanted to hear.
He practiced underneath a brownstone in Crown Heights, meeting me on the sidewalk at the head of a stairwell leading to a basement door situated between two heaps of grey foundation. “I don’t like my patients to meet each other coming in or out.” He wore a yarmulke pinned with the kind of metal clips I used to wear in middle school. His office looked like the kind an overtaxed social worker has on TV: stacks of papers, coffee cups, a desk, and wobbling, metal-legged chairs. A box of tissues sat waiting at my armrest. I searched the walls for hand-etched portraits of the Duomo as seen from the Belvedere.
“Memory,” Dr. Lecter had said in his own cave-like cell, de facto office for his sessions with Clarice Starling, “is what I have instead of a view.”
“You look like you’re about to cry,” Dr. Shimmer told me.
As a child, I thought I saw ghosts. The first came to me as I stood in front of the bars of my crib, feeling sleepy and longing for the bare Raggedy Ann and Andy mattress, discolored in places from my older sister’s and cousins’ bodies. So much of my childhood was spent in the dark behind my eyelids; I was always dragging a blanket behind couches or beneath tables, searching for a quiet place to rest. Sleep, which melted space and time into a blackness where whole sections of my life passed in temporary snatches of pleasant death, was the first drug I ever loved. I longed for the Raggedy Ann mattress that day when I wasn’t much more than a baby, but I wasn’t strong enough to climb the bars to reach it. The next thing I remember was waking to my mother’s screams—for me, this time, not at me—along with feeling her relief tempered by bewilderment at how I could have scaled the bars without help. I filled the gap between the moment I longed for the mattress and the moment my mother found me with something benevolent and gentle, a ghost that also wanted only for me to sleep.
Four years later, I blindly knocked shins against table ledges in my grandfather’s pitch black house, clinging skin to their sharp edges, wearing their bites in jagged rips tracing the furry lengths of my seven-year-old thighs. I was lost in the dark, disoriented and reaching for my bed on the couch, where I slept when I visited because I was afraid, not of the quiet in the guest bedroom, but of the sound that might break it as something got in. I reached for the couch in the dark living room but only met corners. Finally, a riffling light, undulating like the swish of a ladies’ dress, guided me back to my bed and soft cushions, where I laid exposed until morning.
“Dog must have got your blanket,” my grandfather said when light finally found the room, and my cover laid puddled on the floor in a spot I was sure I’d reached for as the ghost settled me back to sleep.
“Did the rancher sodomize you? Did he force you to perform fellatio?” Dr. Lecter asks Clarice. But he doesn’t sound titillated. For a second, his unblinking blue eyes almost look scared of a question he’s certain he knows the answer to.
“It says here you a have a history of domestic and sexual abuse,” Dr. Shimmer said, looking at the boxes I’d ticked before our appointment.
“I don’t want to talk about that right now,” I told him.
Twice, Dr. Lecter guesses wrong. Clarice Starling’s father wasn’t a coal miner, and the rancher never touched her. But there’s something about a guess that goes unanswered, when he says, “And oh how quickly the boys found you. All those tedious, sticky fumblings in the backseats of cars while you could only dream of getting out, of getting anywhere, all the way to FBI,” that hits her with the force of the back of a hand. Her eyes water, and it’s unclear if the root of her fear lies in him being right or him being wrong.
No one, save Dr. Lecter, gives a shit about how poor girls get touched. In our MFA programs, we cluster together, either ordering new drinks before we’ve drained the ones in front of us or abstaining altogether, depending on what was done to us when bottles were empty and how those memories have fermented in the dark breach between the days when we wanted love and the present, where we put either too much into our bodies or not enough because we can’t shake the feeling of being both sodden and completely dry. When we laugh, our lips curl back like feral dogs, bearing teeth full of fillings whitened with drugstore goo to trick people into thinking we understand exactly what it means to have done a semester abroad. We’re the ones who got out, clawing our way first into state school and then into second-rate graduate programs: sanctuaries to us, consolation prizes to the upper middle class kids who once hoped they might have gone some place better.
The trash girls were all punched, fondled, slapped, and handled. We tell each other these stories in flat voices out earshot of people who might make sympathetic faces. A cousin in the backseat of a sedan while dad kept his hands on ten and two in the front with eyes only for the road. A father who promised that all daddies did this with their little girls and, years later, confessed he’d been too drunk before and since to even remember the touches his daughter would spend a lifetime trying to un-feel. A grandfather who didn’t even put the fucking covers back on. Is Clarice Starling one of us or just scared she looks like one of us, with our too-loud laughs and a yearning for the feel of men’s eyes up and down our bodies because fear and repulsion will never not mix with our desire?
“Do you choose to remember ghosts swaddling you to sleep to avoid thinking about the adults who cast you aside?” Dr. Lecter asks me on the garden deck of a three-story New York home whose owners have asked me to care for their rescue dog while they’re abroad, an animal made so nervous by his former life that he can’t eat unless I sit on the floor beside him, telling him stories about dogs that never have to go outside, without looking at him, only listening for his tentative crunches.
In Dr. Shimmer’s office, we exchanged pleasantries. I stole a glance at my phone to avoid looking him in the eye. “I see you’re from Louisiana,” he said. “I really liked that show, True Detective.” Happy for something to talk about, I launched into my True Detective speech. It bubbles from my mouth unbidden every time someone mentions the show, how I’m not surprised Rust and Marty are so sexist, seeing as they seem to have never met a woman who wasn’t a twenty-year-old gaping sex hole begging for balding, middle-aged men to give it to her, a vindictive shrew withholding sex from a frustrated husband only to bestow it on his best friend as an act of revenge, or a headless torso, punished for having had too much sex or not enough. I told Dr. Shimmer that when a man defends the sexism in his art by saying, “It’s a sexist world,” what he’s not saying is, “It’s a sexist world I live in and benefit from, so that’s the only sort of world I’m able to imagine.” In the worlds created by Nic Pizzolatto and a host of celebrated men whose bank accounts are bloated with money made imagining women’s dead bodies, it’s no wonder a veteran police officer would understand having a consensual threesome to be a symptom of mental illness in a woman. Who the fuck would consent to having sex with one of these men, let alone two?
When our time was up, Dr. Shimmer wrote me a prescription for Xanax without my asking. After my mastectomy, he’d like to switch me Klonopin. “It’s less addictive,” he said.
Dr. Lecter asks Clarice Starling if she thinks her boss imagines fucking her. He seems to be teasing, half smiling as the question trickles into the space he leaves between them, his accent complex and dry as crisp white wine.
“That doesn’t interest me, doctor,” Clarice says, too quickly, panic creeping not at the thought of her boss, who leers at her openly, treacly desire etched in every line of his middle-aged face, but at the suspicion that Dr. Lecter might be just another man seeing a woman’s body first, a detective second. “Quite frankly, it’s the kind of thing Miggs would say,” she adds quickly, covering her fear with feigned sass.
“Not anymore,” Dr. Lecter says, glancing toward Miggs’s empty cell. Off-camera, he’s convinced the semen-slinger to swallow his own tongue during an afternoon of hard truths and confrontation.
At a party in graduate school, a famous male writing professor presented me with two of my married male colleagues. The glow of tea lights through half-drained glasses of red wine gave our alcohol the jeweled look of stained glass. He was the only important person there, but we felt important for our proximity to him, and I laughed with my too-white teeth in the Florida heat like a dog panting in excitement.
“Which of these men would you let eat your pussy in hell?” he asked me. The men rolled their eyes away from me but said nothing.
“I’d wait for F. Scott Fitzgerald to offer,” I told him with a smile I hoped looked like bared teeth but felt like frightened retreat in the wake of smack from a rolled newspaper.
One night, in the half-dark of my Bed-Stuy apartment, where street lights and city neon mean it’s never truly night, I felt a tenderness for Dr. Lecter different from the respect I usually feel.
“I don’t want Hannibal Lecter to be my therapist,” I texted my best friend. “I wish he was my dad.” Dr. Lecter tells me this is classic transference, sounding a little bored. I wish the past was different, and I’m trying to build a new history with someone who absolves me of horrors that exist whether I’m reliving them out loud or chewing them back, leaving a jagged range of stress rash and mouth sores.
Clarice tells the story of her father’s murder with no hesitation or shame. “You’re very frank,” Dr. Lecter tells her. “I think it might be quite something to know you in private life.”
Later, she’ll continue retracing her trauma with the description of waking to the screams of new spring lambs. Her voice trembles but never breaks. By that time, Hannibal Lecter has been moved to a cell that’s more elegant than his underground digs. The gleaming bars separating the two of them look opulent alongside his stacks of Bon Appétit, and his careful charcoal drawings look like tasteful decorations in an Upper West Side waiting room, where a doctor might charge the cost of a plane ticket for an hour of talking. Clarice never stumbles over her story, and she’s strong enough not to cry.
I was a child who wanted to love so badly I imagined ghosts and talked to a fictional cannibal, but when my stepmother came into my life, around the same time I watched Silence of the Lambs in the dark, she became a safe space to release the crest of love that had built so long with no outlet I sometimes screamed out loud, a storm surge of rage flooding the levee I’d built to protect myself from yearning.
She bought me a pair of jeans not too long after her first date with my father. They were jet-black and crisp as newly minted money. The numbers on the price tag were higher than any I’d ever seen in sequence. They were the kind the kids with two parents living in the same house wore, but they were too big, swallowing my hips and waist with wide gaps at either side. I wanted to keep them, so I puffed my stomach and slouched into the empty space, hoping she wouldn’t look closely enough to take them away.
“We’ll return those,” she said, “and get you more when you can fill them out.”
She was the first to tell me, cupped by leather seats in the privacy of her car, that she wasn’t happy with the way she’d seen me treated.
“I just don’t think they do you right,” she said. And in that moment, or maybe in some other, the love I’d been holding in broke free without rage, without darkness. It happened the way a river backfills some new, deep fissure: everything I’d wanted waterfalling into the space she created in my life until I loved her so much that, for years, it was as if the first nine of my life had never happened, and I’d always been the kind of kid who ate meals carefully arranged on clean plates. She moved me into a house with white carpets, and I snuffled myself around and around on them, curling into a contented ring like a dog fresh from the groomer, any mats and fleas from a former life rinsed away with money and care.
Before our next session, I try to think of a way to tell Dr. Shimmer that not a month before my first appointment, I watched my stepmother die. First from a brain tumor: half a shaved head and a seam of staples stretching skin into a lumpy, poorly tailored fit over a scabby gash.
“You’re not getting all your news from just one source?” she asked me during one our last conversations, confused by pain medicine and fear. I was driving her to the hairdresser, a French woman who carefully arranged neat blonde curls to hide the place where they’d cut the cancer out.
“You know it’s fine I never had a child?” she told me later in her bed as we watched true crime shows about women less lucky than us, the ones shot, stabbed, and strangled by men who chucked their dead bodies into rivers, hoping their waterlogged flesh would surrender to the press of rushing water before anyone missed them. “You were enough.”
There was an answer in me, but I picked at the skin on my lips until my fingernails were loaded with grey dander and fresh blood, preferring the pain to words I knew I should say but couldn’t. Though hers had been cut away, there was a tumor spuming in my right breast, but I didn’t know it then. Perhaps if I’d known, we could have had that bridge between us, but looking back, I think I probably wouldn’t have told her. There would have been no reason to burden her with my own white blotch clouding an X-ray as she steeled herself for the next frothing wave of brain cancer, which the doctors predicted was coming soon and would probably be deadly.
That was the month I watched her die slowly. Next came the stroke. Instead of a tumor, scar tissue dammed a passage in her brain, and the doctors’ forecasts ending up being wrong. The stroke death was much uglier: collapsed mouth and diapers full of shit. Our conversations stopped. First because she couldn’t talk, and then because she didn’t want to. “I sometimes have to convince her to answer your calls,” my father told me, drunk and morose in front of reruns of Star Trek on Christmas Eve, my stepmother alone and drooping in an ICU, kept company by warbling machines beeping count of her remaining seconds.
At the very end, even her skin failed her. It fell away in sheets, leaving wet red meat exposed. Bandages went on white and came away the colors of a sunset: yellow, red, and pink. Pneumonia had waterlogged her lungs, and she’d been asleep for two weeks, eyeballs darting under thin, vein-streaked lids. I wondered what ghosts might be trying to put her to bed.
“Her whole body is weeping,” a nurse told me.
But in Dr. Shimmer’s office, I was suddenly shy and telling the experience to a stranger seemed indecent. He wanted to talk about my upcoming mastectomy, which I had given no thought to. “When will your parents be coming?” he asked.
My parent is dead.
“They’re not invited,” I told him.
“How do we begin to covet?” Dr. Lecter asks Clarice. “Do we seek out things to covet? No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.”
At Ann’s funeral, a priest who’d never met her talked about how much Ann loved all the children she taught at her elementary school. My stepmother disliked most children and never worked at an elementary school. “I got you at just the right time,” she told me, over and over, as we sorted through racks of stylish clothes in the teen section of department stores or waited for steak dinners in restaurants where blank white plates reflected warm light from table candles cupped by crystal. “I like kids to be old enough to reason with.” She was assistant superintendent of schools in our parish, and even after she retired, she worked as a consultant who laid plans for pulling struggling schools out of crisis.
“Fuck you,” I didn’t say to the sexist priest after the service because I was angry about so many things it was impossible to articulate my rage in any one direction.
Each time I flew back home while she was dying, the swarm of Ann’s aunts, nieces, brothers, and sisters-in-law, her real family, clustered around me in the hallways of hospitals, clasping their soft white hands over mine to thank me for coming to visit. At the funeral, they thanked me again for being so sweet.
“Are you angry because you feel like an orphan?” Dr. Lecter asks me one night when I roll from side to side in bed, fussing the sheets like a badly fitted gown. “Or are you angry because you can no longer pretend Ann is your mother?”
She comes to me in dreams as a ghost. Sometimes a mean one, clutching my wrists from her bed with her weeping hands so that her blood rings my forearms. Other times, she’s lying on clean sheets dressed in a beautifully tailored, cream-colored suit, her hair recently set in loose yellow curls. She wants me to take a letter to the post office, but doors slam and knobs won’t turn.
“Please,” I beg, not Ann’s ghost, but the ghosts of my childhood. “Let us sleep.”
Dr. Shimmer told me to come back when I was feeling well enough after my mastectomy. I never saw him again.
Clarice Starling has no family to watch her graduate from the FBI academy. What she has is a phone call. Before she can take it, she must politely smile away an empty platitude about how proud her father would be from the professor who imagines fucking her, but on the phone, Dr. Lecter offers no such artificially sweetened sentiment. He is calling after his escape and looks like a retiree on a Caribbean holiday: cream-colored linen and a panama hat cocked jauntily to the side.
“I have no plans to call on you,” he tells Clarice. “The world’s more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy.”
“You know I can’t make that promise,” she tells him.
“How can you like Hannibal Lecter?” a friend asks me on the beach over water bottles full of rum sweetened with Diet Coke. “He enjoys saying those awful things to her. He likes forcing her to tell her story.”
Laid out on stainless steel, the past is often bloated and badly decomposed. What Dr. Lecter understands, and what he taught me and Clarice Starling, is that the only way to get to the truth is to cut the corpses open and scalpel out the wet, red insides.
“Read Marcus Aurelius,” he tells us. “Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?” Autopsies aren’t for everyone, but if truth is your work, flinching is unprofessional. And if Dr. Lecter takes pleasure in that work, then isn’t the point of the movie that there are worse ways to enjoy your time with women?
Outside the living room where I cuddle the TV, watching Silence of the Lambs with the volume so low it’s a whisper, my childhood house is quiet. My mother and stepfather share one room; my sister and I share another. Tomorrow, we will scream, “I hate you,” but we cannot say, “You hurt me.”
Onscreen, Lecter asks Clarice Starling if the lambs have stopped screaming, but the movie isn’t about silencing her past; it’s about speaking it out loud. The gift Lecter gives her is a story, which he not only tolerates, but asks for. He wants to hear about her father’s murder, her trauma, the way she perceives a world that allows men to hit her and hit on her but disallows her to voice the pain and rage a world like that breeds.
It will be twenty years between that dark living room and the time I finally have the courage to tell my real parents about the ghosts. They are unsurprised; they already knew. And of course, I always knew the reason I didn’t speak was to make it easier for them to pretend they couldn’t hear.
“Have the lambs stopped screaming?” Dr. Lecter asks Clarice.
“Have you put the ghosts to bed?” Dr. Lecter asks me.
Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte.