Growing Up Sheltered In New York City

There was once a girl from Arcadia. To the public, her name was Genie. She spent the first 13 years of her life strapped to a child’s toilet. Her father put her there and forbid her mother and brother to talk to her. That was until the scientists came: they rescued Genie, fought over her, studied her and gave her up when they lost NIMH funding. Then she was released into the care of another abusive family.

Genie’s story is a tragic one. She was an abused child failed time after time by the adults charged with her safety. Hers is also one of the most extreme cases of social isolation ever documented. That’s why it resonates with excitable whiners like me.

I was raised in a loving broken home. Mom really needed me to watch my little brother and not be a jerk about it, so I wasn’t. I took him on roller coasters and read him Louis Sachar novels. She also needed me to carry two cell phones to high school. (One of them was her own.) “At least I know you’ll hear one of them,” she’d say, dropping them in my Jansport each morning. Sometimes I’d turn them off. I soon learned not to do that.

The thing you need to know about Mom is that she had a scare 19 years ago. She was in labor when Dad barged into her hospital room, screaming, and had to be fended off by nurses. Three months later, he was gone — or so we thought. He would pop up every now and again, suing us for money he claimed we owed, despite the fact that Mom had paid for his education and his psychotherapy herself. He’d also follow me home from school. (Restraining orders really are just pieces of paper.) As a result, my freedoms as a kid were curtailed quite a bit. I wasn’t allowed to go to the playground with the other neighborhood children. An unspoken rule dictated that I wasn’t allowed to sleep over at my friends’ houses. Mom would say, “Why can’t she come here instead?” And somehow, she always did.

The real difficulty arrived with high school. Mom was more or less a pushover about things like homework and room maintenance, but if I didn’t pick up my phone at 3:35 p.m. (five minutes after dismissal), I could expect a tearful fit. Sometimes hers, sometimes mine. Once, I stayed after school for an AP Euro study session with nearly 30 students from both of Mrs. Goodman’s sophomore classes. A phone went off in my bag. I was afraid to turn it off, so I just held it a while. The boy in front of me thought I just didn’t know how to turn it off, so he kindly did it for me.

About ten minutes passed. Then the closet rang.

Puzzled, Mrs. Goodman walked across the room to open the closet door and put the ancient receiver to her ear. She listened. A knowing smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, and I knew.

“Oh, she’s here. Everything’s fine,” she said to the unknown caller. “I understand. I have daughters too.”

“You should have answered your phone,” the boy in front of me said.

Just as often, answering my phone could get me into trouble. For one thing, there was that heinous NY1 story about my school’s lax cell phone policy. Someone in a van got a close-up of me having an intense conversation about my 8 p.m. curfew. And I distinctly remember the Valentine’s Day dance I didn’t attend.

While my friend Jessa stayed to dance, I left to ride the 4 train with some guy. He was a musician who pretended to know more about Oscar Wilde than I did. I thought he could distract me from this mess, a la that sleepy-faced grungebag from Welcome to the Dollhouse. When the call came at 3:35 p.m., I told Mom I was at the dance, dancing, when I was actually in a subway car watching this guy spit gum off an overpass. This guy told me I could get the 7 from Grand Central and take it all the way back to Flushing, walk home and pretend I’d taken the school bus back. Mom didn’t have to know a thing.

I asked him where Grand Central was. He looked at me with genuine surprise, which surprised me because it is supposed to be hard to surprise a guy like this.

“You really are sheltered,” he said. “Your mom probably thinks she’s keeping you safe, but she’s not.” It was the kind of remark that sounded novel and wise to me at 15.

I came home that night completely certain that I would lie to Mom. Life would be simpler if I could pull it off, just this once, I thought — but my plans fell through when I realized I’d taken the wrong bus. It only went as far as the neighborhood library. Since I was a feral child, isolated from society for many years, I had no idea how get to my house five blocks away. I had to call Mom and ask her to pick me up. That meant telling her the whole tale.

She was worse than I thought she’d be. Crying, red-faced and screaming, she accused me of being loose. (“That is preposterous,” I said, sadly.) She accused me of selfishness. “How can I ever trust you again?” she sobbed. “Trust was all we had, and now it’s gone.”

She would trust me again. Probably more than she ever had, seeing as I’d shown her I could take the 4 out of the Bronx without winding up under it. But I didn’t trust her anymore. That night, I learned that parental love and tortured fear were a combustive mix that could do more harm than good. Mom loved us. She loved us a lot. She was also morbidly anxious about losing us because we were all she had. I didn’t cry that Valentine’s Day because she was upset. I cried because the odds against me suddenly seemed insurmountable.

She needed me to stay docile. It was getting harder to do that. I felt helplessly simple around everyone else, these teenagers who knew how to make eye contact and small talk. I lacked an intuition that even the ones dumber than me had. Once, when I was 11, I prided myself on coming up with the perfect bluff. I’d say something, then apologize for it. Whatever it was. That way, all bases would be covered, whether it was friendly banter or faux pas.

Meanwhile, the lawsuits didn’t stop until my dad’s rather glorious bankruptcy fraud faux pas in 2010. By then, he had tried to sue us more than 50 times. I still consider my childhood a happy one. Happiness has little to do with preparedness for life: growing up in that climate is like being spun around and around and then asked to walk a straight line. It’s disorientating. I still remember being shuttled out of the kitchen to let Mom talk to her lawyer in private. While I don’t remember much from the early nineties, I do know that, up until the Valentine’s Day Massacre, that was the only time I’d seen her cry.

Unless you count the time I skipped school to get lost in the suburbs. I was 13 and needed glasses quite badly. We had a half-day because of the Spanish Regents exam, and instead of going with my friends to iHOP straight away, I thought it might be fun to take a walk and meet up with them there. Then Mom could pick me up at the library around 4 p.m., just like always. I purposefully left my phone in Mom’s car so I wouldn’t have to be on standby.

I didn’t go into any shops or restaurants during my three-hour walk — except once, to ask directions. It didn’t help that the street signs were all blurry. I saw a completely flattened squirrel and took it as an evil omen. Oh, and I was wearing a parka in springtime with tapered pants and a teddy bear backpack. There was nothing cute about it; I thought people were idiots and I wanted to be an affront to their values — thongs, homophobia and the Black Eyed Peas. I’m starting to think I would have been much happier had I ignored it all and dressed like Poly Styrene.

Anyway, the “teddy bear backpack” raised a few eyebrows in the description Mom gave to the police. I was sitting at my usual table in the library at 4 p.m. when Mom rushed in, the tears just starting. And when I saw her crying, I started to cry, but only because my plan had failed, and not because I felt guilty. She’d called my friends at iHOP and must have known what I’d decided to do. It didn’t matter. Mom not knowing my whereabouts amounted to instant emergency. To some extent, that’s as true today as it was then, except that I can turn off my phone when it gets old.

I suppose I’m still a little angry at having been kept like a pet by someone who’s bad at taking care of pets but good at instilling them with family values. I love my family, but I know they should have laid off. A sense of unease would have permeated my life anyway; I didn’t need Mom’s anxiety on top of it. But that’s kind of what growing up is, in a nutshell. Adults are helpless to change. Too bad that’s all you need them to do. TC Mark

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