Monday, June 18, 2007

The girl in the chickenwire cage

When I was eleven my best friend was Kami. Looking back we must have been an odd pair...she was sunny and sweet and very, very straight, and I was Wednesday Addams in flowered bell bottoms.
Both of us were on the artistic side, though, and we were both profoundly angry little girls from two very different but very dysfunctional backgrounds. Our sixth-grade art projects reflected this: one was a riotous collage of unclad women and strategically placed flowers- Freud would have had convulsions!- and the other was a triptych depicting an Aztec priest removing the heart from a live victim with an obsidian knife and taking a bite out of it (guess which one was mine.) They had to put them both on display out in the hallway case because kids kept sneaking into our classroom to see them and disrupting classes.
This was us.
This was sixth grade.

Kami's family were straight out of a Jeff Foxworthy monologue. They had a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall that lit up when you plugged it in, didn't read and were all related to each other several times more than was usual even for Milwaukie. My first exposure to ecstatic religion came when I was invited to stay overnight and attend church with their family. One minute the congregation (mainly older, well-dressed people) were sitting quietly being lead in prayer, the next minute a sixty-year-old man was standing rigidly at attention, shuddering and shouting " KayANDA falala ragananda taraWARA! A WUNDA kerra shafiroonda! RegeVANDA wanolo darANDA!" at the top of his quavery old voice. At the end of his pronouncement he went completely rigid and fell over backwards like a caber into the arms of his family. We spent the next 45 minutes or so quietly praying for someone to be given a translation. During this time a few other people gave way to yips and exclamations and one was carried out vibrating from head to toe in some kind of ecstatic state.
It scared the crap outta me. It was also incredibly interesting to an eleven year old, lemme tell ya. I couldn't wait to go back. It certainly was more entertaining than watching Father Wachter, half asleep and fighting a hangover, startling like an infant when the altar boys rang the chimes during Consecration.

One weekend Kami and her sisters were teasing hard to visit their Aunt Margie's house. I was invited along, and everything was set, when Kami's mom said 'Now you know, Margie's daughter is retarded. Did you guys tell her that?"
Yes, I'd been told. Anyway, hell, Kami's oldest sister had Downs' syndrome. I was used to her. Beside her, my only other experience of special kids included the ones in the mainstreaming program at school.
I was not prepared in any way for Margie' daughter.

Margie lived with her husband and daughter in a small house at the bottom of Stanley hill...roses in the yard, curtains in the window, a house I had passed hundreds of times in my life.
The three of us girls rode our bikes into the driveway and knocked on the door.
Susan and Kami were grinning. 'It'll take her a couple of minutes to get to the door" she giggled.

Inside the noises were rather alarming. Thumping, chairs falling over, a heavy table being pushed across the floor. Cans falling from shelves. "I'll be there in a minute!" a woman called.
A screen door slammed. Metallic scraping noises. Thumping on the floor and the walls, as if someone heavy were running laps in their bare feet. A scream of some kind, almost like a tropical bird. "Now you be quiet!" the woman said again.
More slamming and thumping.

Heavy breathing and coughing came closer to the door. The floorboards under our feet flexed and I looked down in surprise while Kami and her sisters giggled into their hands.

The woman who opened the door was the fattest human being I had ever seen up until that point in my life.
" Well hi!" She smiled cheerfully. "You're Kami and Susan's friend, huh? Come on in!" she said, turning away.
Her turning away was a motion like a huge container vessel at dock slowly moving against it's mooring lines as smaller ships pass near it's hull. Nothing happened quickly but flowed in a smooth, huge progression of waves and troughs. Her first step started at her shoulder and moved down across her fat like shifting grain, until her impossibly small child's foot lifted from the floor and moved forward under the impetus of all that momentum. That foot landed with a creaking sound, raising the flooring... planks glued with linoleum so ancient that it had torn along the lines of the floorboards and looked like separate stripes of pattern. The next step had already begun at the opposite shoulder while the first pink foot was still in midair, so that when it came to rest the motion merely continued to flow tidally across the enormous lobes of fat. Her midsection came around halfway to greet me-carried her starboard side arm around in its wake, and back, and then the next little foot met the floor and raised the planking.
I let Kami and Susan go ahead of me so I could watch.

Margie sat down in a chair at a round oak kitchen table. This occurred in a series of amazing, practiced heaves, lifts, grunts and shifts in exactly the same way a sea lion moves, all shoulders, and the entire bulk of her settled into a new shape.
I was absolutely enthralled.

I had for this entire time completely forgotten to be embarrassed and appalled, but now as she greeted her nieces that all returned as I pretended not to look at her.

She was dressed in a flowered sheet with a hole torn in the center of it for her head. There was a pink chenille robe over that which settled across her shoulders and back like a bolero jacket. Her hair was a fluffy grey-blonde cap, on top of a head with a face tilted perpetually towards the sky so that she looked somewhat down her nose to see you. Her face was held in this position by a perfect 'C'-shaped wreath of fat. A crease began at one temple, circled just under her chin like a soldiers helmet band and ended at the other temple. From that her chins went down the front of her in perfectly graduated masses, widening each time until they completely encircled her at the equator. You ended with a very unusual impression of a small woman whose skin had been inflated from the ears down and was now dangling from this mountain of fat by her chin and drifting about inside it.

Something smashed loudly into the door behind me and I turned to get my first glimpse of Virginia.

It was quite a close view, in fact. Virginia's face was only several inches away from mine, and her fingers were reaching out for my hair.

The door behind me was a structure that filled the entire archway between the kitchen we sat in and the front room of the house. It was made of wood reinforced with metal gussets at the angles and was screened with chickenwire on both sides. The chickenwire was stretched to its limits and bulged out from it's moorings. The whole thing was locked shut with a huge hook and eye screwed into the wood frame of the archway, and both of these pieces of hardware were bent. The hook was almost straight and it's shank had a distinct curve. the eye was shaped like an egg. Old scars in the woodwork showed how many times it had been replaced.

The hand pressed against the chickenwire and never noticed the barrier. The wire skreeked against the staples.
"She likes your hair" said Kami. And just then Virginia caught hold of a handful and drew me towards her all in the same motion. It all happened so smoothly and so quickly it never occurred to me to resist; by the time it did my head was pulled against the chickenwire and Virginia had my ponytail in her mouth.

All three of them, Margie, Kami and Susan, gathered around me, speaking to to Virginia, pushing her back from the door, and untangling my hair from the chickenwire and from Virginia's fingers. Still, she'd come away with a nice lock of it, which she kept wrapping around her finger and sucking on as she looked at me out of the sides of her eyes.
The next time I saw an expression like this was on a woman suffering from extreme cocaine psychosis... her gaze shifting and glassy, unable to hold a point. Virginia looked like that, if healthier, and that gaze returned to me again and again and again like a record skipping.

I'd had a good view of the room Virginia lived in while I was hanging backwards and upside down from it's door.

All the windows were shut and wood screws fastened them into their tracks. The whole frame was covered in barriers made with angle iron and more chickenwire, tripled over to keep her from stretching it, tearing down the curtains and breaking the glass.
The front door was nailed shut with boards applied all around it's perimeter and screwed into the frame and the floor. The window was boarded over, the handset removed and that gap also covered with wood and nails.

Once everyone was seated again the visit resumed. I scooted my chair around a little closer to Aunt Margie and she laughed and patted me with the smallest little princess hand I had ever seen on a grown person. We all put our hands out and compared them on the table and laughed.

In the background Virginia circled and talked to herself. Occasionally she growled, a genuine canine growl like a dog at the fence, with her face pressed into the chickenwire behind me, making it bulge into the room. Occasionally she would call 'See you later, alligator!"
Mainly she rambled around the room, playing with her toys, scratching her nethers and smelling her fingers. She jumped on her bed and growled. Every now and then she'd take a running leap at the door and bounce off it a few times. Once she jumped at it and landed clinging to the wire a couple of feet off the ground. As she clambered higher her mother reached for a broom and shoved the bristly end at her. "If you don't get down I'm gonna tickle you!" she said. " You want to be tickled? I'll tickle your tummy!"
Virginia crowed and dropped off the screen onto the floor, making 'tickly fingers' through the wire at her mother while her mother smiled and said' Good girl!"

We were sent outside while Virginia ate her dinner. This involved Margie going into the room, closing and locking the door behind her and then literally wrestling Virginia best two falls out of three until Virginia was tired out, when she was put into an adult highchair and fed with a spoon. I know because we watched through the windows. It was amazing. This huge woman fighting this burly, hair covered 32 year old woman, and I mean a real athletic workout, too, since Virginia had the muscle development of a man her age. It was something. And never a voice was raised, no tears were shed, and gradually Virginia got tired out. Finally Margie was able to keep Virginia seated in her eating chair long enough to fasten the feeding tray across her arms and Virginia went limp and compliant and opened her mouth to be fed each spoonful like a baby bird. Margerie sang to her while she spooned in the chow, 'la la, there we go, pop goes the weasel" just as anyone would sing-talk to a small child at mealtime. This one had an appetite like a horse. We were outside for a long time.

There was no wallboard left in the kitchen from years before when Virginia had torn it all off, so the spacers between the exposed wall studs were used as shelving for canned goods and what have you. There was one light high, high up in the center of the kitchen ceiling, and this had to do...all the electrical outlets had been boarded over and the only lightswitch was behind a locked door.

The story I got afterwards was that Virginia had become uncontrollable quite young, and that all their money had gone towards keeping Virginia in different institutions. They still owed huge bills all these years later. Virginia had been abused in several of these places, which explained why she fought at mealtimes, and after the last one had returned her so badly injured that she'd had to be hospitalized her father had modified their entire home and built the caged-in room for her.

I never smelled a thing in this house apart from the Comet cleanser under the sink that you smelled in everyones' house back in those days. I recall that clearly. The place was clean. I recall that too. Virginia was clean and combed and dressed and healthy. Mom was clearly up to the challenge and seemed to accept it head on, without anger.

The father I saw only briefly as he came home from working third shift at a plywood mill and went upstairs to sleep. Anyone familiar with mills knows how brutal that kind of work is, and back in the early Seventies it was far, far worse. He was deaf from the whine of the saws. He'd been working there for 30 years.
30 years in a sawmill is something I cannot imagine. Ten years can kill you. My father only lasted three years and came out with partial hearing loss then- and whatever else he was, 'weak' wasn't included on the list.

I never told my parents.

I can't begin to tell you how many times I have turned this over in my mind and examined every detail. And I've always wondered what became of that family, and what became of Virginia. She must have outlasted both of them.
She could still be alive somewhere. I bet she can still wrestle her weight class, too.


  1. Dear God, FN, how does this sort of stuff happen. I was appalled to find myself hoping the girl had died before her folks - what would become of her without them?

  2. I'm sorry to say I've been away so long I've forgotten what a great storyteller you are!

    Your memories are so interesting FN

  3. DayyyyyummmMMM!

    You had me so hard up against the computer screen I am near bout blinded! That was sooooooo intriguing...I was like reading every single word in such anticipation.

    Such a sad story when you think about Virginia...but yet, so excellently written, you admire her mother.

    And I thought I had stories to tell...if only I could tell them as you do!

  4. Let me guess, Pentecostals I bet, what a load of nutters, barely protestant I don't like to talk about it, combine that with a big scary tard and you have normality for Pentecostals I suppose.

  5. What a cool story, its amazing what some people just get on with , while others have a complete nervous breakdown if they cant get the right brand of breakfqast cereal.
    Strangley I found the story both depressing and uplifting at the same time.

  6. Beast is right - a bitter/sweet story. I often wonder about these kids as they get older and the parents must get increasingly unable to cope.

    Here they call turfing people out on the street with problems "Care in the Community".

    5-star post FN, thank you. What happened about writing for that magazine?

  7. wow. i was bracing myself to be appalled by some selfish family that caged their slow kid in the back yard so as not to have to bother with her. (that happens, you know.) but i have to admit, i can't find a lot of fault with these people. they were doing the best they could with a difficult situation where there was no support or help from the government.

    maybe someday you'll be inspired to go back to that part of the country and (clandestinely) look some of these people up. i'd love a "where are they now" follow-up! or perhaps that would just be dredging up too many painful mamories?...

  8. er, mEmories. not mamaries.

    sorry. me and my freudian slip will be over in the corned, blushing.

  9. Oh.

    I'm really appreciating all the pre-natal testing I had during my pregnancies.

  10. I liked the fact that they had brought her back from the institutions, where she would just be one more squirrel who'd lost her nuts, and were looking after her themselves. it's all very politically-incorrect, and today they'd probably have their arses sued off them by all the social services. But then again, today, they'd have probably managed to hush it up about the abuse in the institutions with clever lawyers.

  11. Crikey.

    I think a lot of the mentally deranged were kept at home back then, mainly because the mental institutions were so dreadful.

    If anyone saw something like that these days they would deem it cruelty, when in fact it was the opposite.

    Top post.

  12. ...blimey. I don't know what to say except that I think I agree with beast. I've had such a boring life.

  13. Huh. I couldn't imagine living like that. Like any of them.

    Great story, though.

  14. that's really sad - but I guess they wouldn't want or need our sympathy - I think it's an amazing story - I hope to god if she's still alive she's being cared for. You have an incredible gift for the narrative I was with you every step of the way!

    Now about the Wardolf Salad and when you were abducted by aliens please.

  15. Another wonderfully written post, FN. While reading your words, it's like seeing a movie in my head. You have such a way with words.

  16. Ooh, and I thought Gilbert Grape was fiction....

  17. awesome yarn FN!

    I would hate to know what happened to Virginia if she outlived her large mum....

  18. Terrific, FN. Definitely bittersweet, and not what was expected. (But when do you ever do the expected?) ;o)

  19. Anonymous12:20 PM

    it's sad that she had to go through all of that. sweet that her parents loved her enough to go through everything they did.

  20. Anonymous2:51 PM

    I guess they loved her....

    I knew those mad churches in the UK, kept saying I was a back slider. Yup! i slid back so far I went out the door.

  21. You really are amazing at weaving visual images together. What a fantastic, if horrifying story.

    I'm with Mangonel, I hope Virginia didn't outlast her parents, but it seems that it would be unlikely. What an incredibly hard life her parents had.

  22. Amazing writing, so vivid. I felt as if I were there. If I could present you with an award I would.

  23. The Handsome Family should set this to music.

  24. BRAVO. i laughed out loud which hardly ever happens here at work. and of course am filled with compassion as well...

  25. You had me from chickenwire!
    Silence of The Lambs meets Carrie via Forrest Gump ala Slingblade with the Grapes of Wrath Joad family!
    You are an amazing descriptive writer and I cannot believe that you aren't rich and famous. Do you have any idea of how good you are?

    Look FN, whatever else you do in Life please make a sincere effort to share your storytelling to people who will pay $30 and beg you to sign a copy. I feel guilty for having the chance to read anything this good fer nuthin'.

    Seriously I love the way you tell a story. This was so real. So authentic. Wonderful.
    Thank You.

  26. HE is right you know, FN. You should be getting paid for this!

  27. That is fucked.
    Have missed you.
    Come on over and see me... lives on but in more secrecy.

  28. Happy First Nations Day, First Nations!

  29. You are the modern day Carson McCullers - you write incredibly. That is a beautifully written extraordinary story. x

  30. Yes, what an utterly brilliant bit of writing, incredible story, fantastic observation. God, you're good. Thank you, thank you.

  31. Glasgowgirl9:56 AM

    Awful...but wonderfully written as usual.
    Too many people are missing out -You MUST get published!

  32. I read this the other day and was just awestruck reading it. It was sad, horrifying yet very poignant. And you told the story so very well. It said a lot about the strength of the mother in how she was able to physically and emotionally deal with her daughter. Beautifully told.

  33. Wow. Coming from a career working with adults with disabilities I'm horrified by a woman being kept like an animal in a chickenwire cage.
    There's more than meets the eye of course, and it would seem like this family was doing the best they could after the system failed them and their daughter.
    Yikes. Serious Yikes.

  34. What a beautiful writer you are, thank you for sharing your story. I've placed our post on my "top 13" list this week.