LA book lovers take note: Terri Cheney, LA writer and bestselling author of Manic will be reading and discussing her new memoir, The Dark Side of Innocence, a groundbreaking personal portrayal of the emerging phenomenon of childhood bipolar disorder, at two local events that you don’t want to miss!
Wednesday, March 23rd, 7:00pm
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Sunday, April 2nd, 2:00pm
BARNES & NOBLE, Westside Pavilion
10850 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064
In the meantime, learn more about The Dark Side of Innocence by Terri Cheney, and read an exclusive excerpt of her book below.
About the Author
Winner of the 2011 International Bipolar Foundation Image Award, Terri Cheney, was once a successful entertainment attorney representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. Now Cheney devotes her advocacy skills to the cause of mental illness. On the boards of directors of several mental health organizations, she also facilitates a weekly community support group at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Her writings about bipolar disorder have been featured in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, PsychologyToday.com, and countless articles and blogs. She currently resides in Los Angeles
About the Book
Cheney’s first book, Manic: A Memoir, a searing account of her mental illness, quickly became a New York Times bestseller, was optioned by HBO, and translated into eight foreign languages. Following Manic’s publication, Terri received hundreds of emails from parents of bipolar children, asking about her own childhood. In response, she wrote The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar, a truly fascinating exploration of her bipolar childhood.
Exclusive Excerpt: Read the First Chapter of The Dark Side of Innocence by Terri Cheney
*Reprinted by special arrangement. Copyright © 2011 by Terri Cheney from DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
A little boy died
When he was seven.
He went straight up
—My version of a nursery rhyme, age seven
Killing yourself at any age is a seriously tricky business. But when I was seven, the odds felt insurmountable. My resources were so limited, after all. We lived in a one-story house, so there was nowhere to jump. The cabinet where the good silver was kept—the one with the knives that could make a nice, clean slice—was locked, and my mother had the key. We did have a swimming pool in our backyard, but who was going to teach me how to drown? I’d only just learned how to dog paddle.
It all started two nights before my seventh birthday, after a fight with my brother, Zach. I was a delicate-looking thing, pale as porcelain, with long red hair that flowed down to the middle of my back. Zach was ten, and big for his age. I didn’t care.
“You’re sitting in my chair,” I said.
Zach didn’t stop eating. “So?” he mumbled.
I could hear my voice growing shrill. “Move.”
“No, you move.”
My mother intervened. “Honey, let Zach sit next to his dad for a change. You come sit next to me.” She patted the empty chair to her right.
Except for fancy occasions like Thanksgiving, we always had our meals at the L-shaped kitchen counter. My father would sit at the head; I’d sit next to him; then my mother; then Zach. I don’t know who had assigned these places, but that was how it had always been.
I felt my hand tighten into a fist. I could just go back to my room. I wasn’t that hungry anyway. But something deep inside me kept me standing there, transfixed. That something was so familiar, so real and omnipotent, I’d given it a name: the Black Beast.
I tried to negotiate.
“Not now,” I argued.
“Now,” the Black Beast insisted.
My fingers clenched tighter, so hard that my nails gouged into my palms.
Daddy hadn’t come home from work yet, so his chair was empty. There was still time to fix this, if indeed it needed fixing. You could never tell with Zach. Of everyone in my family, I felt that he was the only one really keeping track of things. At ten, he could already see straight through me. He knew I was not adorable.
I gave him fair warning. “Zach, I swear, if you don’t move now, you’re gonna be sorry.”
He ignored me and reached for a tortilla chip, his hand passing right in front of me. Big mistake.
I grabbed the nearest fork and stabbed, hard, into his flesh. There was a moment’s bloody satisfaction, like when you bite into a good, rare piece of steak and the juices flood through your mouth. The fork stood up straight from the back of Zach’s hand. I’d skewered him like a bullfighter.
My mother swore and ran to get the first aid kit while Zach screamed. Thank God she was a registered nurse and knew exactly what to do. I don’t remember much of what followed—just that I was sent to my room, where I waited in terror for my father to come home.
It was the night of December 5, 1966. It was a good time to live in suburban Southern California. Building was booming,
but you could still drive a mile or two out of town and picnic in orange groves. The smog was bad, but it produced brilliant sunsets. Out in the real world—the grown-up world I only caught whiffs of now and then—trouble was brewing: in four years, words like “Kent State” and “Cambodia” would enter the national consciousness. The Beatles would break up, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix would die.
But in Ontario, the little corner of the world where I lived, some forty-odd miles east of LA, none of that seemed to matter. Euclid Avenue, the eucalyptus-lined main street of town, was named one of the seven most beautiful avenues in the United States, and a good Sunday still consisted of church and a stroll beneath the trees. No one knew then that a blight was about to kill them all off, one after the other. In 1966, all was green and thriving.
Things weren’t exactly perfect at 1555 North Elm Court, but you couldn’t tell from the outside. The garage was freshly painted, the pink geraniums my mother had planted on a whim were blooming, and a brand-new fire-engine red Dodge Comet stood in the driveway, waiting for us to hop in. But come around midnight, and you might hear a different story: voices brittle as icicles, aiming for the heart. I could hear them through my bedroom door, although I couldn’t quite make out the words. Something about money, usually; and sometimes, when the frost was particularly thick, the single word Rebecca. On those nights, I fully expected to wake up and find all the pink geraniums withered and dead. But to my surprise, they continued to bloom, and the neighbors looked on us as a fine family.
And so we were. Zach was tall for his age and strapping, with a shock of red hair even more vibrant than my own. My mother and father were both handsome people, trim and photogenic. In the few pictures I possess of us, we look like a Kodak commercial: smiling, smiling, smiling. I remember hating being photographed as a child, and perhaps that accounts for my awkward grin. But even I could look angelic when I chose.
“There’s something wrong with her.”
My mother’s normally cool, firm voice quavered. She was either on the edge of tears or extremely angry, I couldn’t tell which. I pressed my ear up against the crack in the den door, trying to listen harder.
“There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s only seven. Besides, she’s number one in her class.” My father’s Kansas twang was followed by a crackle; no doubt a page of the Daily Report being turned.
“Put that goddamned pa
per down and listen to me. You call what she did to Zach tonight normal?”
Another crackle, then silence. “She won’t do anything like that again. I’ll make her give me her word.”
My mother laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. “She’d say anything to get you to forgive her. I mean it, Jack, I’m worried.
One minute she’s sweet as pie, the next she’s a little fiend. And all those days she claims she’s sick when she really isn’t-”
“That’s just to stay out of school. All kids do that.”
“Not for weeks at a time. I tell you, something’s wrong with her.”
I heard the sound of a cup or a fist banging down on the table. “Nothing’s wrong with my baby. Christ, she’s number one
in her class.”
“You already said that.”
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”
There was a moment’s silence, and then my mother began to cry. She rarely cried, except when she was so frustrated shecouldn’t find the words to express herself.
“You always take her side,” she said.
“There are no sides here,” my father said, his voice softening.
“It’s just us.”
“I don’t know how to handle her anymore. And it’s not fair to Zach.” My mother was openly sobbing now.
“Shhh,” my father said. “If there’s a problem, I’ll fix it. You know I always do.”
I was glad I was only eavesdropping. I couldn’t have stood the sight of my mother’s tears. I crept back to bed, deeply ashamed of whatever was so clearly “wrong” with me.
Wrong with me, wrong with me. I knew my mother was right, of course; I’d always known I was different from other kids. I just didn’t realize how much it showed. How was my father going to “fix it”? What would they do to me if they ever found out how bizarre I really was? It wouldn’t just be a matter of being grounded then. They’d take me away and lock me up somewhere, and I’d never see my daddy again. I’d have to be more careful.
“Careful,” I whispered into my pillow.
My father stood in my bedroom doorway. There was a crease on his forehead that I’d never seen before.
“Why did you do it?” he asked.
“He made me do it,” I said with as much bravado as I could muster. How could I begin to explain what I didn’t understand myself? My father couldn’t possibly know, because I couldn’t possibly tell him, that “he” did not refer to Zach. “He” was the Black Beast, the monster that ruled over me and manipulated my moods. The Black Beast didn’t live under my bed or in the closet, like a proper childhood monster should. He lived inside my heart and head, leaving little room for hope or joy or any emotion lighter than sorrow. Sometimes he weighed a zillion trillion tons, and it was all I could do just to breathe.
But then at other times, the Black Beast switched my mood in exactly the opposite direction. I’d be agitated, irritable, giddy, and silly, all in quick succession. One minute the prick of a tag on the back of my sweater would make me writhe and cream; the next I’d be roaring with laughter at my own private jokes and pirouetting down the aisles of the supermarket. Those were “Disneyland days,” as my father called them, and although life in an amusement park can be exhausting, I still preferred them to the days in the dark.
Most children have a secret friend. But I never considered the Black Beast my friend. He was bigger than any mere childhood whim: he was a living, breathing creature that inhabited my body. I couldn’t just stuff him away in the toy chest and sit on the lid.
We fought constantly. I didn’t always want to do or say or feel the things that he commanded, because they often got me into trouble. But he was stronger than I was, and very persuasive. I’d originally named him “Black Beauty,” after one of my favorite bedtime stories, in an attempt to make him seem more like a pet. It didn’t work. When the Black Beast wanted his way with me, there was simply no stopping him. I didn’t dare tell my father about this—or anyone else, for that matter. I thought that no one could possibly want a child possessed by a beast. So I cried that night instead: big, gulping sobs, bigger than my mother’s, because I needed my father’s allegiance more than she did. She was so attractive, she could get any man she wanted. I was a scrawny almost-seven-year-old, and there was nowhere else to turn. I shook off the covers and held out my arms. “I’m so sorry, Daddy,” I said.
He came over and sat on the edge of my bed. “Do you promise never to do anything like that again?”
I nodded, crying harder. Daddy looked around and picked up Toto from the foot of my bed. Toto was the tattered stuffed dog I’d had since I was three, my constant ally, my dearest friend.
“Swear on Toto,” he said.
“I swear,” I said. The sobs were coming so thick and fast by then that I could barely get the words out. And then at last—at last—my father took me in his arms and pressed me to his chest. My breathing slowed down instantly, the throbbing in my neck and temples eased. But just as my tears began to subside and I felt the universe slip back into its proper orbit, he held me out at arm’s length and shook his head. “You know, I’m very disappointed in you,” he said. “I want you to lie here and think about that for a while.” Then he got up and went back to the den.
I clutched Toto and thought about it. Thought about it, hard. There were really only two avenues open to me:
1. I could win back my father’s love, or
2. I could die.
Don’t ask me how I knew about suicide at such a tender age. The Black Beast knew all sorts of things that were better left unknown. I was fascinated by death; always had been. The nuns thought it was wonderful that I studied my catechism so intently, but the truth was, to me the Bible was just a great grisly story. The same was true of fairy tales: I wolfed them down. Not the saccharine Disney versions, but the unexpurgated Grimms, with their sawed-off heels and lopped-off heads and altogether dark and nasty vision. It satisfied something deep and hungry inside me to know that there was a way out of this life.
At the moment, though, it seemed easier just to try to win back Daddy’s love. I’d done it before—I knew how. Winning back my father’s love meant getting an A-plus at something. Not an A, mind you. Mere As were for ordinary folk who didn’t have that extra special something it took to rise above the pack. My father made it clear to me: every A-plus earned crisp dollar bills, while straight As merited only pocket change.
I applied desperate logic. It seemed to me that all my father really lived for was my outstanding progress in school. He never talked much about his work as a real estate developer; he had no hobbies that I knew of; and when he came home, my mother greeted him with warmed-over argument. But he’d sit for hours in his brown leather chair, listening to me talk about my latest achievement, his face intent and a proud-to-bursting smile lighting his eyes. Nothing my mother said could disturb him then. “Jack, the gas bill’s overdue.” “Jack, your meat loaf’s getting cold.” “Jack, did you hear me? I’m talking to you.”
So I figured I must be the reason he kept coming home. Narcissistic? Perhaps. But there must have been some truth to it. No doubt he loved my mother and Zach, but he seemed to love those A-pluses best of all. I don’t know what they meant to him; I only knew the light in his eyes.
But how to get the A-plus? I looked over at the blank sheet of construction paper lying on my desk—my latest homework assignment—and shuddered. How could I possibly ace it? Everything was wrong, all wrong. The paper wasn’t supposed to be white, it was supposed to be manila and marked across with thin blue lines so that I could print neatly between them. That was how it had always been; that was how it was supposed to be.
I’d told my parents ab
out my dilemma, calmly as I could, and they’d searched the local stationery stores for lined manila paper, with no luck. Finally, my mother wound up buying the offending blank white paper, and for a moment I considered blaming her for my predicament. But deep down I knew it wasn’t her fault—it was mine. I was the one who had claimed to be too sick to go to school for the seventh day running, so I wasn’t there to pick up the special paper that went along with the assignment.
All my mother knew was what she had heard over the phone from Sister Mary Bernadette: write a story about yourself and draw a picture to illustrate it. But how could I tell a proper story without the little blue lines? My handwriting wasn’t anywhere near good enough yet; it would sprawl all over the page. The result would be . . . catastrophe. I’d get a C—maybe even a C-minus.
No. Never. Death first.
It never occurred to me that my thoughts might be a little extreme. I knew what I knew: I had to stay the head of my class. That was what held the fabric of my existence together: I had to be the best. The smartest, the most promising, the one to keep an eye on, the one to come home for. So there was really no other option left. If an A-plus was impossible, I’d simply have to die.
A shiver of fear ran through my body. I knew what death looked like, from having come across my pet mouse Jitsy last year, lying stiff and motionless in her cage. Her little red eyes were closed. I poked her and tried to shake her awake. When she didn’t respond, I ran to find my father.
“It’s not that kind of sleep,” he explained, gingerly picking her up by her tail and laying her in a shoe box. “Jitsy won’t be waking up.”
I was only five then, and I didn’t understand. “How come?”
“She’s gone to Heaven,” my father said.
Heaven I understood. We’d learned all about it in school. Heaven was the place where good souls went to eat as much nice cream as they wanted the whole day long. Of course, there was that other place, but I didn’t want to think about it. Zach had shown me pictures from his third grade catechism: bodies twisted and tormented, writhing in pain while the flesh on their bones roasted as crisp as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I jumped into bed and jerked the covers up over my head. In spite of my mother’s frequent warnings about wasting electricity, I didn’t turn off my lamp. Some things, like bad grades and Hell, were best left to the light.
I slept fitfully the rest of that evening, with snatches of dreams that would have made the Grimm Brothers proud. Then all at once my eyes fluttered open, and I was wide awake. I glanced over at my bookshelf, at my rapidly growing collection of the lives of saints. Not that I expected to be named a saint after my death. That dream would have to die along with me, because I knew full well that killing yourself was a sin. It was, after all, a terrible theft: the theft of God’s power over when to end a life. But I was clever. I had a plan.
It was all in the timing.
The way I understood it, before the age of seven, a child is considered free of sin. The soul is virgin territory then, innocent and unblemished. And here’s the kicker: so long as the child dies before she turns seven, she goes straight to Heaven. No messing around with purgatory, no chance of the devil getting a taste. Straight. To. Heaven.
I figured that qualified as an A-plus at death, and I was going to get it. Which posed a problem: I had only one day left to do the deed. I twisted around to look at the clock: just after five in the morning. Normally, I liked to take my time with things—figure out all the angles, meticulously check for errors—but I didn’t have that luxury. This would have to be a smash-and-grab operation. I knew where my mother kept her pills, the little blue ones she took every morning. They were in the very top drawer of her bureau, where she kept all her “unmentionables.” I wasn’t allowed to go in her bureau. I wasn’t even allowed to go in her bedroom, which she kept locked. But every once in a while, when she was in a particularly good mood, she’d let me in to watch her dress.
Watching my mother get dressed to go out for the evening was a bewitching experience. She’d start with a spritz of Arpège behind her knees and build from there, sliding into a pair of transparent silk stockings and snapping each garter shut with a satisfying click. Then she’d lay out a collection of slips on her bed: delicate skeins of silk and lace, too precious for me to touch. “Which one should I wear tonight?” she’d ask, holding them up against her body. She had lovely, luscious curves and hollows in all the right places. God had given her a body most women would die for, and then He turned around and gave her a face to match.
It wasn’t fair, I sometimes thought, surveying my own knobby
body and desperately hunting for cheekbones. Why should she
have so much and I so little—just a blaze of red hair that now
and then looked pretty in the sunlight? But when my mother
tried on her slips for me, all my longing was forgotten. I just
stood in awe of her, so proud that such beauty ran somewhere
through my own blood.
But the best part was when my mother got dressed for work. I didn’t usually get to see her then, because she left the house by six a.m. But I was frequently plagued by insomnia, and I’d slip into her bedroom with the dawn and watch her in the mirror, eagerly waiting for the crisply starched, immaculate white uniform and cap that transformed her into Florence Nightingale. She worked at a big blood bank in Skid Row LA. I couldn’t imagine what she did down there, amongst the homeless and tormented. Floated above them, no doubt, like the angel of mercy she was.
Everywhere, that is, except in our house.
“I take care of sick people all day long,” she’d snap if I came home with the sniffles. “Do you expect me to do it here too?”
For a nurse, she had surprisingly little patience with imperfection. Once when she came home rather later than usual, I noticed a stain on her apron and made the mistake of pointing it out. Right in the middle of serving the spaghetti, she ripped the whole thing off and flung it in the trash. “Filthy mess!” she said as she kicked it away. I wasn’t sure, but I got the impression she wasn’t referring only to the apron.
I rolled out of bed and grabbed my favorite flannel robe, the short one with the big yellow daisies. It wasn’t quite warm enough for December, but it was a gift from Daddy, and I loved it so much it was worth the shivers. I glanced again at the clock: ten minutes past five, which meant that my mother would be in her bedroom, getting ready for work. I tiptoed past her room, past the bathroom, to the kitchen. I couldn’t risk turning on a light, so I fumbled around in the spice rack until I found what I was looking for: the economy-sized box of black pepper. Steeling myself for the bite, I sprinkled some into my hand, brought it up to my nose, and sniffed hard.
Wham! A firebolt erupted inside my brain, and I began to sneeze convulsively—ten, twelve, fourteen times in a row.
Before the spasm could quiet down, I ran back down the hallway and knocked on my mother’s door.
“It’s me,” I said in broken gasps.
“What do you want? I’m getting ready.”
“I’m sick,” I said, letting loose a volley of sneezes for emphasis.
I could hear her exasperated sigh all the way through the door. She opened it up and stood there, one hand on her hip.
“What is it?”
I couldn’t really blame her. I was sick a lot, sometimes genuinely so, with a bad case of asthma and allergies, but more often than not with the pepper-induced kind. I knew how to hold the thermometer up to the lightbulb just long enough to fake a credible fever. I knew that sticking my fingers down my throat would make me throw up eventually. A swipe of my mother’s taupe eye shadow
underneath my eyes created a convincing pallor. All good tricks that a lot of kids knew, but the right attitude was key: listless and lethargic, so bone-numbingly weary that the only proper place for me clearly was bed.
If you had asked me, I think I would have been hard-pressed to explain why I pretended to be sick so much. I loved my classmates, loved my teachers, loved the church. Just two weeks before, I’d been elected class president—surely St. Madeleine’s was the best school in the whole wide world. And I loved my parents, like a good child should: my father, who had never said no to me yet; and my mother, whom I sometimes confused with the Virgin Mary when she came to kiss me good night. I even loved my brother, although Zach lorded his three years’ seniority over me and kicked me under the table when no one was looking.
But all these wonderful things meant nothing to me when the Black Beast came to call. On really bad days, he stole my eyes from me, so when I looked at my mother’s prized pink geraniums, all I saw were the unpicked weeds. I saw the small strip of peeling paint on the garage and the dent on the Comet’s fender. What I saw when I looked at myself was so frightful that I refused to look in the mirror. I even covered my spoon with my napkin, for fear I might catch a glimpse.
I couldn’t go to school then, of course. Everyone expected so much of me there: the teachers, the students, the priest. I was supposed to be the first one waving my hand in the air with the answer, but I could barely hold it up long enough to brush my teeth. Everything felt so heavy then: my arms, my legs, my heart. My friends wanted mischief and magic from me. I was the schoolyard sprite, the instigator of all grand recess schemes. No one wanted to hear how much it hurt just to smile, how hard it was to nod and pretend that I was listening to anything other than my own private howl. Or at least that’s what I assumed. I never risked the attempt. It was easier—safer, far wiser, no doubt—just to stay home, curl up in bed, and read. Bed asked nothing of me but inertia, which was all that I could deliver.
Worst of all, when the Black Beast was in this kind of mood, I couldn’t do the one thing that made life truly meaningful for me: I couldn’t snuggle up with my father in his big brown chair and read the evening paper. Daddy came home late at night, but it didn’t matter. He always found time to read to me, to explain who Robert F. Kennedy was, what the fight for civil rights was all about, and why the Beatles mattered. For dessert, he’d turn to the funny pages and make sure that I got every joke.
But the Black Beast would do something strange to my sense of smell, so that my father’s beloved aroma of unfiltered Camels and aftershave suddenly seemed noxious to me. It was easier just to plead sickness and go straight off to bed than to risk insulting him with my upturned nose. Plus I couldn’t seem to muster the exuberance required to scramble into his chair and bombard him with pertinent questions. Sustained interest in anything beside myself was practically impossible.
I slipped past my mother and sidled up next to her bureau. My timing was perfect—she was just about to take her pill. I watched as she uncapped the bottle, shook the tiny blue pill out onto her hand, then swallowed it with a sip of water. I imagined it traveling down the swan’s length of her throat, and I wondered if I’d look anywhere near as graceful when I downed the entire bottle.
She placed the bottle back in the drawer, then bent down to lace up her shiny white shoes. As soon as her back was turned, I rummaged around in her lingerie until, at last, I found it. I stuffed the bottle deep into my pocket and swung back around to face her, innocence engraved across my face. She was still tugging on her laces. So far as I could tell, she hadn’t seen a thing.
Now that I had the pills in my possession, I was eager to leave. Faking a couple more sneezes, I told my mother I felt dizzy and needed to go back to bed. She looked at me suspiciously. “What do you do there all day in bed?”
I blinked. What did she mean? What did she know? I never really thought that she’d noticed how much time I spent in bed—she was so busy working and making dinner and arguing with Daddy. I felt strangely violated somehow, as if I were being spied on in my undies. I decided to bluff, to play it cool.
“I read,” I said. “I rest. Sometimes I say the rosary.”
She frowned. “I don’t know why we pay all that fancy tuition if you’re never going to be in school.”
I’d heard this argument before, and a whine crept into my voice. “But Mom, I’m really sick.”
She ignored me. “Tonight, no matter what, we’re going to fix that hem. I won’t have you parading around in public looking
like a ragamuffin.”
I suddenly felt genuinely ill. She was referring to my First Communion dress, the lovely white froth in my closet, the hem of which had come partially undone. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, except of course for my mother. The big Mass was scheduled for this coming Sunday, five days away. And because I was the class president, I was certain that I would lead the procession up to the altar. Every eye in the church would be on me, which was surely how God intended things, except—
Except that if all went well, I would be dead by then.
It wasn’t fair. I’d tried on that dress so many times I knew every seam by heart. I had a makeshift altar in the corner of my room, and I’d practiced in front of it dozens of times: the graceful walk up the center aisle, eyes demurely downcast, face aglow with anticipation. Then I’d sink to my knees and tilt my head back, my mouth slightly open, eager for God to enter me through His sacred host. Somewhere I had picked up the notion that a girl at her First Communion was like the bride of Christ. True or not, I felt as tingly as if I were waiting for my very first kiss.
The biggest moment of my life, and I was going to miss it.
I walked back slowly to my room and sank down on my bed. The blank white construction paper taunted me from across the room. Maybe, just maybe, my writing skills were good enough. Maybe if I used a ruler, the lines would be sufficiently straight, and no one would notice it was the wrong kind of paper . . .
But what to write? I’d been so worried about my printing that I’d never even thought of the bigger problem: I was supposed to tell a story about myself. It would have to be so deeply engrossing that Sister Mary Bernadette would ignore the less than perfect lettering and feel compelled to give it a rousing A-plus. But look at my life: nothing ever happened to me. I got up, made my bed, had breakfast, went to school, came home, watched TV, ate dinner, went to bed. Fish on Friday, church on Sunday, dance class on Tuesday afternoons. Day after day, week after week, the same routine over and over again. The only thing of any interest in my life was the Black Beast, and of course, I couldn’t write about that. I’d be kicked out of St. Madeleine’s for good.
I curled up into a little ball, drawing my knees so tight against my chest that I could feel the outline of the pill bottle against my thigh. Just then I heard my mother’s footsteps in the hall. “I’m leaving!” she yelled.
“I’m asleep!” I yelled back, not realizing until I said it how silly that was. But the only answer I received was the sound of the front door slamming shut.
In spite of all the noise, my father still slept soundly in the guest room. He’d been sleeping in the guest room for as long as I could remember. My mother claimed he snored; he vehemently denied it. It was my job to wake him up so he could fix breakfast and take Zach and me to school. It wasn’t easy: my father could sleep through an earthquake (and had, several times). He told me once that World War II had taught him how to sleep through anything.
It wasn’t quite time to wake him yet, so I
decided to take a few minutes and figure out what to wear for the big event. I surveyed my closet: black seemed like the obvious choice. Then they wouldn’t even have to change me for the funeral. But my mother didn’t like how I looked in black, so the only thing I owned in that color was my witch’s costume from last Halloween. I worried how that might look to God—as if I were courting the devil. There was my Pop Warner cheerleading outfit, but the skirt had grown rather short this past year, and that didn’t seem very dignified. In fact, it seemed like I’d outgrown almost all my good outfits. Except—of course!—my First Communion dress.
I took it off the hanger and laid it out on the bed, taking care not to snag the loose hem. It was just the right white, like a freshly washed soul. Real lace covered the entire bodice, and there was a scratchy petticoat underneath that made the skirt stand out stiffly from my body. I loved the slight discomfort against my skin. It was my very own version of a hair shirt—it made me feel as if I were doing penance.
And then there was the veil. I spread it out carefully next to the dress; a long length of gossamer fabric. I’d wheedled mymother into buying me the biggest one the store had in stock, even though she kept insisting it was too dramatic. I knew it wasn’t. Somehow, at seven, I already knew the effect that exaggeration could have on an audience. I’d had to use it often enough, so that the Black Beast could get his own way.
But of course, no one was going to see it on me now. My exhilaration began to deflate, until I realized that the veil would make a perfect shroud. I’d wrap it around and around my body, just like Mary Magdalene had wrapped Jesus’s body when she’d taken him down from the Cross. I’d die in white, like a true bride of Christ.
*Reprinted by special arrangement. Copyright © 2011 by Terri Cheney from DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Keep reading The Dark Side of Innocence in Part 2
THE DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE: GROWING UP BIPOLAR
By Terri Cheney
Simon & Schuster/Atria Books
March 1, 2011
For the latest updates to Frank Mundo, LA Books Examiner, be sure to subscribe and follow me on Twitter @LABooksExaminer.
Frank Mundo is the author of The Brubury Tales (foreword by Carolyn See), which is available on Amazon.com in paperback and in eBook. The Brubury Tales won Reader View’s 2011 Reviewers Choice Award for Poetry Book of the Year and the 2011 Bookhitch Award for Innovative Poetry Book of the Year.
LA Books Examiner’s Author Interview Series
LA Books Examiner’s Five Favorite Books Feature
LA Books Examiner’s Pause for Poetry Profiles