“My liberation is your liberation and your liberation is my liberation and my liberation is your liberation […]”
“But I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living: and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are.”
Looking back on my childhood in Inglewood is like pawing through a pile of entrails, searching for a pea that’s already been digested. But in this moment, and reading through James Baldwin’s essays, I feel the need to apply some pressure to past events that may have seemed, sitting in the background of my mind for years, to have had a sturdier interpretation than they have for me now.
My memories of growing up in Inglewood were stirred to the surface by a panel discussion on deconstructing the police and prison systems, which we went to a week before my birthday. The meeting was put together by the Community Democracy Project (CDP) and held at Omni Commons, and was as awkward as a conversation about the inherent racism and classism in policing and incarceration probably should be and inevitably will be. One person in particular, Tur-Ha Ak of the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), brought to mind memories of Inglewood in such a way as to denude my idea of myself as precariously positioned and expose the refuge I’ve taken in a kind of metropolitan middle class. I have been comfortable and willing to inure myself to others’ needs and pain, and my own pain.
Tur-Ha Ak made my memories surface by describing his neighborhood. He described how a secondary predatory culture (gangs, drug dealing, sexual assault) had arisen in his neighborhood in response to the primary predatory culture (police, prisons, and the wealth accumulators they support). He challenged those gathered, saying that his experience with discussions in “rooms like these” was that they were too easily satisfied with the theoretical, that those having discussions in “rooms like these” had no idea what was really going on where he lives. He did not want to let that ragtag bunch of grungy punk kids, bright-eyed CPDers, well-intentioned liberals, and career activists get away with soothing themselves with an ethical framework they had no clue how even to begin to apply. “While we’re talking here, someone in my neighborhood is getting killed. While we’re sitting here, someone is getting raped. Today, I tried to get this guy to stay inside my house while I went and talked to the people who were trying to kill him. But there he was, standing outside my house. And, meanwhile, my daughter’s inside. The other day, I stayed with someone who got shot and watched him die, waiting for the police to show up. A young woman in my neighborhood was raped, and did she report it to the police? No. To my knowledge, no police officer has ever helped save the life of anyone in my neighborhood.” (I’m taking the risk here of paraphrasing, but have tried to be faithful to the meaning and feeling of what he said.)
His witness set in relief my life now in gentrified Adams Point and brought back the fear of the years on East Brett Street between Gay and Chester. When we lived there, our block in Inglewood—the greater part of my world from kindergarten through high school—was nowhere near as violent as where Tur-Ha Ak lives now. But the few real explosions of violence were threaded together on a clay cutting wire of threat. The story is not so easily summarized as a good family in a “rough” neighborhood, though. From where I stand now, who and what the threat was is not easy at all, and is not centralized. Notably, the threat was not located solely in the gang presence on our block, as I might’ve believed when I lived there.
We moved to Inglewood when I was five or six because it was one of the few neighborhoods in the LA area where my parents could afford to buy their first home. My father’s father, a well-to-do choral arranger and director, didn’t want to front the amount needed for a down payment on the house my parents had been leasing near Marina del Rey, because he didn’t think the property was worth the ask. I don’t remember the move itself, but the main quality of the transition from Rubens Ave to Brett Street for me was one of shifting from a narrow focus on things of my body and things I could hold in my hands or fit on my fingers to a wider scope. Around the time of the move, I changed from nursery school to kindergarten, and, in Inglewood, I made friends on the block.
My first best friends on East Brett were three sisters—V, S, and R. These sisters and I once used their garden hose to flood a covered outdoor space in their back patio, to turn it into a sloshy ice skating rink. Another time, we schemed about stealing lemons from our neighbor’s backyard, but all of us were too scared to hop the fence and face the dog.
I can remember how it felt, the sisters and me sitting on the stoop in front of my house, one of the older girls playing with my hair. She’d pull my hair back tight till I whined in pain, and she’d call me tender headed. I didn’t reciprocate; that is, I didn’t play with their hair. I don’t think we discussed it much or at all. We just all knew that I wouldn’t know what to do with their hair, but also that I shouldn’t disturb what their mother had already done to their hair.
V, S, R, and I would also sometimes play house, taking turns being the mom, the dad, and the kid. Playing parents, we’d even have “sex” in the way we knew how. Or we’d play doctor, using my closet with sliding mirror doors as the operating theater; the patient would undergo surgery in the nude, lying among my shoes. I must’ve somehow intuited and absorbed the upbringing of my mom, a lapsed Catholic, because I usually felt the compulsion to confess to her when I’d had “sex.” In the beginning, she was so intent on saving me from the shame her parents had made her feel, through abuse, that she went too far in the other direction. She told me that experimentation was OK, that she’d done similar things with her friends when she was a girl. And still I’d confess, because I’d get this knotty feeling when I’d “do it.”
She and my father were generally too open about their sex lives and bodily functions and too permissive about my sexual experimentation and demonstrations of physical affection, and they exposed my brother and me to representations of sex that I wouldn’t show to a child knowing what I know now. I won’t go into the details and extent of their permissiveness around sexuality; I only needed to take this short detour to set the stage for the “crime” to come—a “crime” that was part of the central drama of my childhood and that, I’m beginning to learn from Baldwin, epitomizes one of the fantastical dramas that is the basis of whites’ fear of blacks in the United States.
How did my friendships with V, S, and R develop? At some point, I began to feel that they were coming over to my house just to play with my toys, not with me—I’d amassed a large doll collection over the years’ Christmases. At some point, they moved away. I made two other main friends on the block: J—whose grandma was Scottish; whose grandpa, Papa M, was a tatted, big-bellied, mustachioed pest control expert and the neighborhood watchdog; and whose biological father lived in England—and A—who lived with her younger sister, older brother, two uncles, and grandma, a stalwart Christian. (On Halloween, A’s grandma passed out pamphlets calling the day the Devil’s holiday and warning trick-or-treaters about candy filled with razors and glass and poison.) At some point, I understood these friends wouldn’t be going to college, and I would. At some point, my mom, after asking for our consent, decided to homeschool my brother and me, because my brother was being teased at our school, we couldn’t afford that school’s tuition anymore, and my mom didn’t want us in the IUSD. At some point, I understood one of the boys on my block—a boy who I thought was smart and kind—was headed for trouble; he was talking about getting a gun. At some point, I found a gun that had been tossed in someone’s front yard, and I brought it home to make sure none of the other kids took it, and the police scolded me badly for picking it up.
In the meantime, my parents were doing what they do best: they were reaching out to people, trying to make improvements to their house and the community in the way they knew how, exerting their influence on the world around them to bring it closer to their ideal. I gather that Inglewood Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS), the local resource center that made homes loans, saw them as a force for the good and was eager to get them rooted; they helped my parents refinance their house with a far more favorable loan, and, I think, gave them home improvement loans to add on to the house and xeriscape the front yard.
My parents organized a block club, inviting police officers and firefighters and other community leaders as guest speakers and setting up a phone tree to report threats and crime. Eventually, the club’s activities reduced to two potluck block parties—one in summer and one in winter. My brother and I would flyer the houses a week or two before. My parents would arrange for road blocks and a permit to close the street to traffic. For the summer party, my mom got a donation of three five-gallon containers of ice cream from Thrifty’s, and, for the winter party, we put our little fire pit out into the middle of the street. For both parties, we had a DJ in our driveway and piñatas we hung from a tree in the front yard of the house next to ours. I was so anxious for the attention of my crushes on the block at those parties, so desperate to be thought of as pretty, so determined to show I could dance.
By most externals, my parents became respected members of the community. One of the neighborhood families invited us to their daughter’s quinceañera. My parents got to know the mayor, Edward Vincent Jr., and went to civic events at the Hollywood Park Racetrack and the Great Western Forum. Some Inglewood official or neighborhood center or the like even engaged my parents to lead a group of community members in writing a song for the city—though, the project didn’t quite take off as hoped.
I’m not sure how the conflict began. P—my good friend A’s uncle and the main guy on the block who was a “known” gang member—didn’t like what my parents were doing. (It occurs to me that I don’t actually know to what gang P belonged, which fact should’ve been known to my family if we cared to know about him at all.) I wonder now if P was angry at the real threat my parents posed by being friendly with the police. It is, in fact, the job of the police to “find” criminals, and in “finding” criminals, they actually make criminals by pushing people toward desperation, fishing for incriminating evidence, bringing the poor and people of color into the system over and over again, building a case against them that shuts them out of job opportunities and our flimsy social safety net, and skimming wealth off them through asset seizure, until there’s no out. Maybe P saw the real threat my parents posed because they were “improving” the neighborhood, enjoying the favor of loan makers, easily accessing resources that were not offered to him as a possibility. Maybe he felt my parents challenged his hard-earned authority on the block, an authority he probably risked his life daily to maintain.
I don’t know if I overheard this or was told it, but P called my dad a “blond-haired blue-eyed devil” (an insult that carries a different weight for me now I’ve read Malcolm X’s autobiography). One of our cats disappeared, and my parents told my brother and me they suspected P or one of his friends had killed her. During one of the block club parties, P removed a road block and drove slowly through the crowd, making his presence felt by everyone there. The plants and irrigation system kept getting kicked up, and my parents alternately blamed kids who didn’t know better and P and his crew. Someone, a human, took a shit in our yard.
Our house came with security doors, along with the normal doors, on both the front and side entrances. The windows on the original house had bars, and my parents installed bars on the windows of the extension, which included my new room. The window on the northeast side of my room was fitted with bars that had a quick-release unit, so I could escape in case of a fire or attack. And my parents installed an alarm system that I was always scared I’d set off if I was in charge of opening the door.
During summer vacations in Mammoth, my father tried to train us how to use guns. Pal took to it, but shooting never appealed to me, and, at the shooting range, I would shut myself in the sweltering, airless car, overheating and dozing while I waited for them to finish. My dad wanted to train us for the sport of it, but also so we knew basic gun safety and to prepare us for a home invasion. He and my mother came up with a plan for us should someone break in. We were to run to my parents’ room, lock the door, get into their walk-in closet, lock that door, set up a ladder and climb into the attic, where the guns were. We’d then draw up the ladder, close the covering of the attic, and wait quietly, armed. We rehearsed this plan a handful of times.
I didn’t fear for my life so much as I feared for the lives of my parents. I’d lie in bed some nights wondering what I would do if my parents were killed. I imagined the scene: blood on the bedsheets, their bodies lying still. I’m doubtful now that my parents ever received an explicit death threat, but it’s not out of the question.
Even so, real threats did surface, sporadically. There were two, maybe three, drive-bys on our block in the twelve or so years I lived there. In the first that I remember, my recollection is that someone was injured—a young man who struck me as sweet and also in a tenuous and harassed position—but no one was killed. The other drive-by that I remember was intended to end the life of our next-door neighbor. I’m not sure he, the target, was home, but his wife and two children ran to our house immediately afterward for safety. We all lay flattened to the floor until it stayed quiet long enough.
It is strange to think of the atmosphere of the block, and how I felt, after these shootings. In their aftermath, I felt profoundly connected to my neighbors. Most of us would stumble out to our doorsteps to look onto the street. Some would huddle together and share what they knew of what’d happened, make sure that everyone was alright. I see myself in my dowdy nightgown at the front door’s threshold, my little chunk-of-coke heart on fire, longing to catch sight of the boys I obsessed over, two brothers especially. I didn’t want the violence that brought the neighbors out, but I wanted, extremely, the connection among us that appeared to be predicated on that violence.
Before I pursue what happened between P and me further, the story of the next-door neighbors, the ones who ran to our house for safety, bears telling. They were tenants, not owners, of the house next to us, and I don’t think they moved in until a few years after my family had established itself on the block. My memory is so muddled that I’m not clear on all of the relationships of the people who lived there. My sense of it was that they were all related to each other by the one twentysomething woman of the house, that she lived there with her brother, her partner, and their son and daughter, who were both younger than my brother and I.
Either the rumor mill started the story, or my parents elicited it from the next-door neighbors themselves, that the woman’s partner was a former gang member and was out on parole. We were also made to understand that the gang to which he formerly belonged was pressuring him to rejoin, and he was doing his best to ward them off and stay out of jail. But the pressure was mounting, and so was the violence with which that pressure was applied. The drive-by, I think, was either a culmination of this intimidation, retaliation for the role the other man in the house played in preventing his sister’s partner from rejoining, or an attempt on the part of the gang to eliminate a loose end. I can’t now place the drive-by on the timeline in relation to other events, which would help to clarify its motivation.
Regardless, no one died in that shooting. Another assault in this campaign of terror would end our neighbor, the father of the two children, indirectly. We heard that someone from his old crew came to his door and got into a yelling match with him, and the best way he could think to deter his persecutor was to pepper-spray him through the screen door. The police swung by later, after our neighbor’s persecutor left, to see what the trouble was about. And they arrested our neighbor for violating his parole, either for being in possession of the pepper spray or some other weapon he may have kept in the house for self-defense. Sometime in the following months or couple years, the news came to us that he’d been killed in jail, by other inmates. How this news was communicated to me, a child, I have no idea. Maybe my parents’ approach of selective radical honesty caused them to share, or maybe there was no way to keep these facts from us, or the conditions of our lives demanded that we know and prepare.
I believe it was after the woman of the house’s man was again jailed that my mom invited his children over to our house to play. While they were visiting, the younger of the two, the boy, stole a piece from the game we were playing. I considered his theft vaguely unjust, but my mother didn’t want to hold him to account, because she had an idea of how bad he had it. According to her, this boy, like the children who might have screwed up the plants and irrigation system in the front yard, “didn’t know any better.”
My mom had an idea of how bad both these children had it, not just because she knew of all the antagonistic forces aggravating their situation, but also because she could hear, from her bedroom and home office and the kitchen, their regular beatings.
My mom, with her Bronx aplomb, confronted the children’s guardians directly about these beatings. As a girl, my mother had been pinched, slapped around, and verbally abused by her parents; and when she was a young woman, old enough to fight back, she’d gotten into all-out brawls with them—one of which, she has described, reached such a pitch that she tried to rip her mother’s tits off. Along with loosing herself from her inheritance of shame, my mom was determined to put an end to her family’s legacy of violence. (My brother and I only got one major spanking each—at different times and for different reasons—in our entire lives, and both were at the hands of my father, and mine was with my mother’s approval and under her watchful eye.) So, to hear those beatings just across the driveway between our house and the next, was, for my mother, to experience them, or at least to force her to relive the beatings she’d had in her former life.
She called social services on the neighbors—trusting that the county would do more good than harm, willing to risk further rending the family—and locked horns with the children’s uncle over the report. But the beatings continued, and my mom couldn’t rest until something approximating justice was achieved. She undertook a sideways maneuver that confused me at the time and seems wholly understandable, and somewhat misguided, to me now. She started documenting the piles of leaves in our neighbors’ front yard, leaves shed in part by the piñata tree, to build a case against them as irresponsible tenants violating obscure municipal codes and devaluing neighboring properties, and get them evicted. Then, I was truly puzzled by my mom’s problem with the leaves—they were pretty to me, piled up and spread out over the neighbor’s yard. Now, I see that, in the absence of real justice, she would do what it would take to attain her own peace.
If I remember right, my mother’s efforts were successful—she’d learned by devouring the whole Nancy Drew series as a child how to be the consummate sleuth. The home’s owner evicted the family. The family was submitted to another destabilizing event. And I don’t know how this eviction affected their chances of finding another place to live, or how not having a stable place to live affected everything else in their lives.
I was going to signpost by saying, “To return to the scene of the crime,” but we never really left. We are returning to P, and my friend, his niece, A.
I considered A my best friend for a time. I can’t come up with a complete explanation for the improbable fact that my parents allowed me to play with her when they were engaged in such a hostile exchange with her uncle and pegged her uncle as a professional criminal. My only weak explanation is that my parents, especially my mom, believed in the innocence and potential of children.
With A, I continued my sexual education. On top of doing the business I’d gotten up to with other friends, A and I discovered and examined her uncle’s porn collection in the garage. We also found a soiled condom in her backyard, orangish, from blood or shit or age, and crumpled.
A’s house felt full of minefields and contradictions. I feared A’s grandmother, who usually confined herself to her bedroom even though she seemed able-bodied and can’t have been very old. The grandmother’s intense religiosity obviously had no affect on her family besides creating a doomful atmosphere of self-hatred and cynicism; as I’ve said, A and I got up to no good, P was in a gang, A’s older brother B was rumored to be on the path to gang life, and A’s other uncle I’d heard was a gay choreographer working at some kind of a nightclub. (I’m suspicious of this last piece of information about A’s other uncle, because I can’t pin down its source, nor can I imagine what source, besides maybe A, would have thought it good to share with me.) The only person in A’s grandmother’s house who wasn’t yet firmly in the grip of sin was A’s little sister, and that could’ve been because she was still too young. My memory of this sister is mostly that she was scrappy; she was eternally interfering with whatever game I was playing with A, or getting in a tussle with me, leaving me with a few friendly, stinging scratches by the end of the day. At least once, she chewed on the playing cards from Milton Bradley’s Memory when A and I were in the middle of a game, and abruptly ended the game in chaos by swiping the cards.
One day, when I was around eight years old, I left for A’s house, wearing something unsuitable—a one-piece bathing suit and an oversize T-shirt that ended partway down my thighs. A and I played for awhile, probably alternating between mischief and so-called normal children’s games. Then both of A’s uncles came home, or came out from their rooms, to the living room where we were playing. They struck up a conversation with us—I know not what about—and got us to play a game with them. I think it was the uncle who was the supposed gay choreographer who designed the game: He had us take turns doing a little performance for him and his brother. A and I would stand with our backs to the two men, then turn around slowly like the girls do for “Big Spender” in Sweet Charity, and say with a “sexy” hiss, “Master.” After each take, all four of us would break down laughing. The joke was, of course, that A and I were not sexy at all. We were children pretending sexiness. So, in a way, even though this game was utterly inappropriate, P and his brother were recognizing that I was a child, unready for the level of sexual maturity to which my parents sometimes exposed me and permitted me to pursue.
But this playful act, even though A and I executed it fully clothed and without any physical contact, couldn’t have been more freighted if it had been a fleet of container ships. Two black men, one a possible gang member, getting a white girl-child to act sexy and suggest, in a one-word script, that she was their slave. And to add to the charge of the situation, the news media was still whipping up a frenzy over child abductions and sexual abuse, more than was their usual in previous years and probably not in a way that highlighted the real, systemic problems making child abuse possible.
As was my habit, I confessed to my mom, when I went home, what all I’d gotten up to that day. We were in the laundry room, the sliver of garage left after my parents converted the rest into an illegal music studio for my dad. Her reaction was immediate and fundamentally baffling to me. I’m not sure what she said. Whatever it was, or something in her delivery, made me know right away that everything as I knew it was suddenly wrong. She might have asked if either of the men had touched me. If she did, I hope I was quick to say no, but I could’ve been so confused by the question that I hesitated. All of a sudden, my mother was telegraphing to me a total reversal of her attitude of openness toward sexuality.
Some gnarly combination of miscommunication and paranoia that day and in the days that followed convinced my mother that I had been molested by P. (The other uncle receded from the narrative, because his sexuality made his role harder to pin down and my parents had less fodder for prejudice against his character.) She played me an educational video that described “good touches” and “bad touches” and showed actors doing skits about what molestation looks like—the creepy uncle and his little niece, for example, both parts played by adults. But the video only confused me further, because my family was far more affectionate and sex positive than the norm. If anything, the way that my parents talked to me and interacted with me for years looked more like the questionable behavior in the video than what P had done with me that one afternoon. Even when I protested, as I believe I did in the beginning, or was reserved in my response, my denials and reticence were interpreted as the typical responses of a child who has experienced sexual abuse. So, I was trapped in the interpretation that I had been molested, and I lived through molestation by being trapped in and psychologized according to this interpretation.
My mother started taking me to a therapist, who further substantiated the impression I was getting that my view of reality no longer could be trusted, and also that I was in the middle of a grave situation. The therapist told me early on that she was obligated to report to authorities any information I gave her indicating abuse. I felt terrified of getting P in trouble, and also, as I began to understand by inference the clinical definitions of normal and abnormal behaviors, I became terrified of getting my parents in trouble.
I tried to avoid talking in therapy, and took every opportunity to play games or draw. Eventually, though, my therapist became more insistent about bringing our conversations to a head. In one session, while I was drawing a face, she asked, “Don’t you think that nose looks like a penis?” There was only one answer to that question. Now that she had suggested it, it was a penis. All noses I drew could be penises. All touches could be bad. An accidental exposure of a body part could be intentional. There was nowhere safe from the implication of sex. I didn’t want to be touched anymore. I didn’t want to be alone in a room with most adults anymore. I didn’t trust anyone, least of all myself. Even the pussy willows in the therapist’s waiting room scared me. Pussy willow, the felty buttons on the stalks. I began to hear in the two-tone squeal of our dryer at home the words, “Help me. Help me.” The tick of the buttons on the dryer’s drum were the metronome beat to the plea.
After some time working with her, my first therapist decided I was intractable and referred me to a psychiatrist. In the psychiatrist’s sessions, I continued to be mute, because I could not give a definite assignation of guilt, because I didn’t want to implicate anyone, and because my thoughts and feelings were mucked up and contradictory. Perhaps becoming impatient like the therapist before her, my psychiatrist wrote me a prescription that she said would help me “tell the truth.” And there it was: confirmation from an adult, a highly trained professional in the field of mental health, that, without a drug, I both didn’t have access to the truth and would withhold the truth even if I knew what it was.
I came away from these sessions weeping so violently, I almost had the sensation of levitating.
A was not my friend anymore. P received one visit from the cops about the incident, but there was not enough evidence against him and my family stopped pushing the matter.
Throughout my life, this “crime,” the commission of which involved leading me to believe I’d lost my faculty for truth, has been the basis of other crises of meaning for me: a crisis of the meaning around being in a female body, during which I tried to make myself be less of a body, and a very literal crisis of meaning, during which I lost my sense of language and believed I didn’t know the definitions of words I had known well before. In that last crisis, I would look up words I had doubts about in the dictionary to find that the word I was looking up was defined by other words I’d lost the meaning for, and I was led to another dictionary definition and another until I damn well thought I didn’t know the meaning of “a,” “the,” and “and.”
I’ve written myself into a corner here. There is no way for me to tease out meaningfully all the themes that these stories touch upon. I am trusting that these stories will do their work on you with all their complexities intact and you will do your work on them with all your complexity intact. The context in which these stories and you and I exist won’t ever be anything but complex.
I’m also skeptical about the common impulse, which is calling my name now, to conclude on a positive note, with a triumph. But I do believe that the telling is a kind of triumph. We’re in need of witness, now and always. In these first few months of 2017, others’ witness has made me feel a love for people, and for myself, that I’ve been closed to for awhile.
As part of this telling, I feel a responsibility to acknowledge that I’ve kept in most of the omissions and confusions and possible revisions and achronological order of my memory. Because I think part of the task is to understand the apparatus of these distortions, which works both internally and externally on us. We also must trot out these distortions in order for others to be able to bring their witness to that distorted scene in the ongoing story and make it more correct or more complete.
I am worried about the reaction I’ll get for being open about all this. And I have been worried that I have shared information about my mother that is not mine to share, so I have asked her for her permission to include the parts of the story that have more to do with her than with me. This is love.