My sister and I were afraid of the Monster Boy. Summer afternoons, we would walk from our apartment on Grant Avenue, Bronx, New York, to the new library over near Claremont Park. But about halfway there lived the Monster Boy. Something was wrong with him and we were terrified. I remember seeing him only once – he was cowering down an alley. He turned and looked straight at me. A little boy, with large black circles around his eyes. What was wrong with him, that we were so scared?
He was different. Somehow he was different and that is enough to scare people, to scare little girls like us. Deep in our genes, deep in our DNA, lies the fear of the Other. We know what is ugly – that which is irregular, which is different. We know that what is ugly, is dangerous. We feel that what is ugly is also bad.
As a child, I got most of my information by overhearing. I first knew that my new
baby brother had something wrong with him when I overheard my father telling
his mother – my Bubbie. My sister and I had stayed with my father’s parents, to
allow my mother to give birth without having to take care of us, too. I was not quite five years old.
Daddy came to visit after the birth. I heard the pride in his voice when he told his
mother he had a SON. The son had a deformed outer ear – a small flap instead of a fully formed ear – but that could be fixed later. My father kept smiling and was happy, but I
heard there was something wrong. A deformity. Something wrong. Just a little something. No bother. It could be fixed later with plastic surgery. But it registered with me. Our fear of the irregular goes deep.
My brother was disappointing as an infant because he slept instead of being an instant
playmate for me. My mother assured me he would play later, when he was older. I
wanted to play with him NOW. A new live-in playmate! Joy for joy!
All was on track until he was about six months and developed respiratory infections. The refrigerator was filled with antibiotic liquids for him. He cried all day and all night. Ear-splitting crying like he was dying. What was it? Colic? Sounded like death at his door and the greatest protest any human being has ever mustered. My parents desperately held him over their shoulders, walking him, but he could not be soothed. I was terrified. Surely he was going to die and the world would end.
Later I wished he had died. For surely he had ruined my life. My parents were never happy after that. Any joy was gone — taking care of Michael, worrying about Michael, paying the medical bills for Michael, took over. As the milestone target dates came and went without milestones. He walked — years late. Toilet trained, decades late. Talked – in three or four word sentences – years late. Never learned arithmetic. Learned to read and write a little – eventually. Learned to take care of himself – never. As the sadness of a living death faced them every day.
But, the first decade, I was his strongest ally. His protector. I wished I could
protect him from our mother’s rages, but I was too little, myself. How I hated her for her unleashing her frustration on him. She’d scream at him, “Don’t you hear me? Why won’t you listen? Are you deaf?” Well, later we found out, he IS completely deaf in that one ear.
I was his only friend, and he was my best friend. My sister says that the summer of 1961, every single day she and I took him on two buses (University Avenue to Fordham Rd, Fordham up to the Jacobi Hospital neighborhood) up to his special school, to save our mother the trip. I have no recollection of it. She remembers the shame of taking him out in public. “I liked it better in the winter,” she’s said. “When he wore a hat.” I don’t even remember those daily bus trips, not one. But I do remember, later, refusing to be seen in public with him.
He was a Monster Boy.
I didn’t want anyone to think I was a fellow monster. Same DNA. Same genes. Same ugliness. I didn’t want to be rejected. I stayed alone as much as possible, so I
wouldn’t be caught. I stayed alone to avoid rejection which would make me alone.
Well, I didn’t say it made sense.
When my brother was not developed enough to start school on time (they didn’t have
special ed classes in those days), the doctor told my parents he was mentally
retarded. (Now, people HAVE mental retardation. But then, they WERE mentally retarded.)
My parents debated the issue in the living room at 150 West 174th Street. Sedgwick Projects. Our apartment, 3F. My father was sure the doctor was wrong. “He will catch up.” I wouldn’t know the words “in denial” for many years. But inside, I thought, as I sat at the end of the couch overhearing the conversation in plain sight. Well, of course he is. Retarded. Anyone can see that.
I first realized what that meant – that it meant that Michael was a Monster Boy — when I
was getting on the elevator. 150 W. 174th Street. Why was I bothering to take an elevator? Normally I walked up and down the stairs. I was about eight, or nine. Crowds of kids, my age, were cramming into the elevator. A fourteen-story building, eight apartments to a floor. A very crowded elevator. One taunted another. “You’re retarded.” “No, you
What? Why were they saying that? Retarded? Was it an . . . insult?? My mind reeled and my stomach turned and my face burned in shame.
My brother was a Monster Boy. An insult. A dreaded Monster Boy. But I loved him and he couldn’t help what he was. There was nothing to fear. He was sweet. He was helpless. He was my brother and I loved him.
Until I hated him. My parents’ lives were absorbed in trying to cope. They became
depressed. Rhonda was made the permanent, live-in babysitter and caregiver.
I was young enough to escape that; later, when asked to back her up, I rebelled. The little money my father earned went for Michael’s special schools. My parents became isolated from their families. Their only friends were other parents of special needs children.
My brother ruined everything. I thought.
Of course, now I know better. Now I have accepted my true calling. I am his protector. Again. His best friend. His only friend.
But, how can I ever redeem myself?
As a teenager, I remembered back to when I would play with Michael. When I loved Michael. Looked out for him. And I hated how I had come to hate him. I tried to get back, to be friends again. Michael wouldn’t come to me. He pushed me away. He said,
“Barbara hate me.”
That was the greatest shame, the greatest stab to my heart. That I will never forgive myself.
“Barbara hate me.”
How I hated myself. And my mother heard it. “See,” she said. “See?” Her sarcasm dripping. Again, no empathy from her.
Yes, I see. I won’t admit it to her, but . . . Yes, I see it now.
I am the Monster Girl.
© Barbara E. Berger 2009. All rights reserved.