CHAPTER TWO – THAT’S HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS
“I am sending you out like a sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”Matthew 10:16
The question I get asked most frequently about my past is how a girl born in Akron, Ohio ended up in East Hampton, NY. This is perhaps the only question about my life that has a simple and straight forward answer – my mother married The Rabbi.
When my parents told us they were getting divorced they had to explain the concept. I was nine-years-old. We had one television with three channels and I had never heard that word before. I didn’t know the dictionary definition, much less the connotation or how it was about to change my life.
By the end of that year, in a public elementary school with roughly 500 kids, there were five of us who had parents who were separated. It seems comical to me now. That a word which is so commonplace today could ever have been so foreign.
Studies have shown that children of divorce are more likely to have physical health problems including increase in injury rates, risk of asthma and cancer. Numerous studies have estimated that their lifespan is shortened by roughly four and a half years. Divorce is also associated with a higher incidence of several mental health problems in children including: withdrawal from friends and family; and aggressive, impulsive, or hyperactive behavior. In addition, children are more likely to experience mood disorders, bipolar I disorder, dysthymia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Do I wish my parent’s had stayed together for “the sake of the kids”? No, I do not.
The lion kept the ranch house and my sister picked out new furniture. Since my mother was gone she was usually the one who did most of the cooking at dinner time and I always made a salad and did the dishes. It was also during this time that I learned how to do laundry and clean a toilet. Riddle me this — why does a three-bedroom house need six toilets?
The ratio of chores I had compared to the other two people living in the house was astronomically high. It felt like I was being punished for something, but I didn’t know what I had done wrong. No one read me the charges and there was a severe lack of due process. But, I was trained not to express my opinions or emotions. And so, I accepted my fate with a tacit admission of guilt and served my penance. The household chores became my silent act of contrition.
After several years of separation, the divorce proceedings were finally coming to a close. The lion blamed the split on a rumored affair my mother was having and his temper grew worse with each passing day. He was like a pot of boiling water that needed constant care and attention to keep from boiling over onto the stove. He believed everything he heard. After all, if one person says something it’s a rumor, but if two people say it … well then it’s gospel!
My mother blamed the divorce on my father and I absorbed the criticisms of each as I shuffled the mail back-and-forth between their households. I never knew which one to believe, however, hearing these things about both parents fractured my relationships with both of them. It made each appear untrustworthy and it also left me feeling as though each one found fault with at least half of my genetic material.
Around this time my mother moved to Cleveland. The drive from Akron to Cleveland was about 30-minutes. My parents decided that this distance was too far to traverse and that my sister and I would have to choose a parent to live with full-time.
Looking back on it now I often wonder why they forced our hand? Maybe they were just sick of all the driving back-and-forth? Maybe they were sick of dealing with each other? They were each building a world in their own image and the sharp contrast of those worlds was jarring. And while my sister and I both had the ability to choose, we couldn’t escape the necessity of choice.
It was both a curse and the world’s most precious gift. Either way you were going to alienate a parent, but it afforded me the ability to get away from the lion. I didn’t have to think long at all before I chose my mother. But, sometimes when the gods wish to punish us … they answer our prayers.
By this age, there had been two people in my life who gave me the feeling that I was genuinely loved. One was my baby nanny (who was dismissed from my parent’s employ long ago) and the other was my great grandmother who passed away around this time. Perhaps we’re somehow meant to lose the ones we love, otherwise, how would we ever know how important they were to us?
I was devastated. I’m not sure if it was the divorce itself or the impact of her death or the combination of the two that was the trigger, but around this time my behavior started to slowly alter and mental health problems began to manifest.
I was attending a small private school and the two-years of education I received there would change the course of my life. It was a school that didn’t just teach you knowledge, but rather they taught you how to learn. They taught you how to study. And they taught you how to be resourceful. In hindsight, I believe the skills I obtained here made enduring the downside of the divorce worthwhile and most likely saved my life on more than one occasion. Perhaps luck like this is what happens when fate gets tired of waiting.
It was in the hallways of that school though, where I discovered that when most people saw my mother’s relationship with the Rabbi they didn’t see a romance. They saw a scandal.
The lion might have been the king of the forest, but to me this man appeared to be the Great and Powerful Oz. He wasn’t just a self-aggrandized king; he was a Wizard. People paid attention to him. People respected him. People went to him for answers and he always had them.
The true test of a man is how he treats those he has power over. The Rabbi was always at least 20 minutes late, usually closer to 30 or 45 in those days. It became a family joke and we tried to be good humored about it, but it was subtle behavioral queues like this one that continually reinforced his unspoken assertion that we were unimportant and inferior. And I believed him.
He quickly became another person in my life whose approval and attention I desperately sought. On the days when we had any type of shared experience I was elated and felt holy by association. But on most days all I felt was indifference and a single unanswered text message was heartbreaking.
While all this was going on, the lion became obsessed (like many people in America) with the OJ Simpson trial. He used to say OJ Simpson had what every man in American wanted … “a Heisman trophy and a dead ex-wife”. Maybe he got his lines crossed or maybe it was because he didn’t play football, but the lion got himself a trophy wife instead.
She was young. (Closer to my sister’s age than my father’s age.) I didn’t have much of an opinion of the woman and had even less interaction with her. Mostly, we stayed out of each other’s way and that seemed preferable to both of us.
My sister and her did not have the same good fortune. I wish I could say his new wife acted like an adult and tried not to engage, but she did not (possibly because she had not yet reached the age of adulthood). An altercation between them eventually shocked the lion hard enough that he got an annulment. In total, it took them 81-days to meet, marry and dissolve their union.
It was shortly after this time when the whispers in Cleveland grew worse. What started slowly at first hit like an explosion all at once. I’d hear two Moms gossiping on the sidelines of a field hockey game, “I heard she’s been dating him in secret for years”.
“I heard they both divorced their spouses to marry each other.”
Jewish people in that town loved talking about my mother and The Rabbi and it never seemed to occur to them to look over their shoulder as to who might be in ear-shot.
“You gotta watch out for women like her, it’s always the pretty little blonde ones that swoop in to steal your husband. I wouldn’t let my husband anywhere near a woman like her.”
I stopped using public restrooms with stall doors and instead would only use water closets. I became a master of avoidance. You don’t want to hear what people will say when they think you aren’t listening.
“You know she’s got two little girls of her own, right? The woman has no shame. Way to set an example, how do you think those kids are going to turn out?”
“I mean, come on, you know it’s not going to last. She’s just the rebound woman. No man ever marries his mistress. I give it less than a year.”
News only tells you what people did, it’s got all of the facts, but none of the flavor. Gossip on the other hand, well, gossip tells you how much people enjoyed it. I speak from experience when I tell you that the east side of Cleveland enjoyed this information quite a bit.
“I heard they’re getting married at the end of August. Can you believe he’s actually going to marry her?”
“I heard they’re moving in together.”
“He’s moving her right into that same house he used to live in with his wife. And her daughter too, can you believe that?”
I was 12-years-old at the time and I learned a valuable PR lesson – serving up a story about a woman who makes other women feel superior is solid gold in the news cycle.
It was the type of small town wedding that made headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. That was also the year I became a Bat Mitzvah.
People always ask me what it’s like to be in the center of an entire city’s worth of gossip. It’s a feeling that starts in the pit of your stomach. It’s disorienting, almost like being dizzy. And it makes you nauseous. It’s kind of like getting seasick, but you can’t fix your eyes on the horizon and the boat never reaches the shore. Basically, you feel like you’re going to die while bystanders stare at you and laugh.
In typical fashion the only place this was not discussed was in our home. In those four walls we shared silence. It was an unspoken and mutually agreed upon delusion and perhaps one that I was happy to uphold as it provided a bit of respite from the bitter outdoors.
I was losing weight so rapidly from the stress and anxiety of the situation that The Rabbi used to make me chocolate milkshakes every night after dinner. It was literally eating away at me and I guess this was his attempt to get some extra calories in me. It was a ritual that made me feel special and the only thing that year that made me feel remotely cared for or seen.
The main effect of this type of gossip on the subject – is isolation. Most people don’t understand the true cost of isolation. But, let’s just say that in prison, when we want to torture people, the worst punishment we have is solitary confinement. And when they come out, they are abused and begin to long for the solitude again. I could never understand the full weight of those circumstances, but the experience I had gave me a newfound sense of empathy for people who endure that particular conundrum. I have a tiny slimmer of an idea of what it feels like to long for the torture you’ve been sentenced to regardless of the pain.
This gossip wasn’t all harmless talk though. It wasn’t just buzz around town. Information does not exist in isolation – it has consequence, context.
The intangible secrets that floated around morphed into the temple board’s not-so-secret meetings. And the tangible consequences were felt when they ousted my newly anointed step-father.
This was how I learned that religion is the safest place to hide from G-d.
It was also in that moment that I decided the only thing more ruthless and cynical than the business of politics was the politics behind organized religion.
Wasn’t it possible an entire town of people just drew their own thoroughly uniformed opinions about a few utterly innocuous events and started a rumor mill that churned out real life consequences? It wouldn’t be the first time in American history events unfolded in such a fashion. Just ask a bunch of teenage girls in Salem what happens when you gossip too much.
One thing I can tell you for sure, back then no one ever bothered to ask me. And I spared myself the embarrassment of expressing my unsolicited opinions as I already knew the exact value of them on my audience.
Not long after they found a new congregation in East Hampton, New York. And that’s how a Jewish family from a small town in Ohio (that no one ever heard of before LeBron James made it famous) found themselves living in the most exclusive beach town in America.
But, did it really happen the way people said it did? Some people think the only truth that matters is the truth that can be measured. Intent and what’s in your heart doesn’t factor into the equation. But, I believe life may be measured by the love you give and how many tears you shed as it passes. Just because you can’t count those things doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
What really happened? The truth is – I was just a kid and I don’t really know, nor do I care. These circumstances gave me a united pair who would provide stability in the years to come. And the only truth I can measure about the gossip itself is how much it hurt me.
Decades later, my mother and The Rabbi would look back on this part of their lives and say they took what they thought to be a curse and turned it into a blessing. I’ve always liked to focus on that part of the story, there’s a lesson there.
Everyone’s life is a plot that unfolds based upon their opportunities. Some of us, due to the socio-economic class or gender or race or geographic location that we are born into get fewer than most. Some of us know what it feels like to be playing a rigged game with a losing hand. But, this part of my life taught me about the importance of innovation and shifting your perspective, because with the right type of creativity, problems are really just possibilities in disguise.
Perhaps those of us who are most successful know how to take the obstacles that we are up against and turn them into our own opportunities the same way a phoenix rises from the ashes.
Check back next week when Chapter Three moves us back in with the lion and the loss of innocence begins…
The goal is to shed light on the current epidemic of narcissism in our country. It is also my most sincere hope that this story will help people who are survivors of abuse or suffering with mental illness to find not only solace, but salvation.
Bonus points if it also sparks a national dialogue about how the prominence of this destructive personality trait is shaping future generations, altering the fabric of our culture and impacting our society as a whole.
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