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About the Author

Catherine Gildiner

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After the Falls

Chapter 1

As we crept up the narrow winding road that rimmed the Niagara Escarpment in our two-toned grey Plymouth Fury with its huge fins and new car smell, my father pressed the push-button gear, forcing the car to leap up the steep incline and out of our old life. The radio was playing the Ventures' hit "Walk Don't Run."

I sat in the front seat with my father while my mother sat in the back with Willie, the world's most stupid dog. We were following the orange Allied moving van, and I kept rereading the motto on the back door: leave the worrying to us. Two tall steel exhaust pipes rose in the air like minarets from both sides of the truck's cabin. Each had a flap that continually flipped open, belching black smoke and then snapping shut, like the mouth of Ollie, the dragon handpuppet on the Kukla, Fran and Ollie television show. The smoke mouths kept repeating the same phrase in unison: It's all your fault . . . it's all your fault.
I pressed my face to the window as the car crawled up the hill in first gear. Lewiston, where I'd grown up, was slowly receding. The town was nestled against the rock cliff of the huge escarpment on one side and bordered by the Niagara River on the other. St. Peter's Catholic church spire, which cast such a huge shadow when you were in the town, was barely visible from up here.

The sun was resting on the limestone cliff, setting it ablaze. I squinted at the orange embers on the rock wall, but the reflection was so glaring, I had to look away. My childhood too had gone up in flames.


Yesterday I'd stood for the last time in my large bedroom with its wide-plank floor and blue toile wallpaper. My bed, which had been in my family for over 150 years, was now stripped naked, dismantled and propped against the wall. It was going to be left behind in our heritage home, no longer part of my heritage. My father said that the ceilings in our new house would not be high enough for the canopy. Where were we moving–a chicken coop?

I looked out my window at our sprawling yard and counted for the last time the thirteen old oak trees my ancestors had planted to celebrate the thirteen states in the union. The dozens of peony bushes near the wraparound porch had just opened. For generations now the church had taken flowers from our expansive gardens for the altar. I loved the part of the Mass when Father Flanagan would say, "Today's altar flowers are donated to the glory of God by the McClures."

As I loaded my new popcorn bobby socks into a box with my Lollipop underpants and turtleneck dickeys, I caught an unwelcome glimpse of myself in the mirror behind my door. I was twelve and very tall for my age, with white-blonde hair. I had no curves, not even in my calves. I resembled a Q-tip. When I'd told my mother I was hideous, she insisted that the early teenage years were an "awkward stage" and that soon I would "grow into myself"–whatever that meant.

I took a gilt-framed picture of my parents off my marble-topped dresser. It was an old photo of my father in his wool three-piece suit with his broad letterman grin, his arm casually draped around my lovely tall mother with her shy smile. It was taken years before I was born. Suddenly the words I'd overheard Delores, the cleaning lady, say to someone yesterday over the phone came back to me. She claimed it was a good thing that my mother only had one child, because two like me would have put her "in an early grave." As I glanced at the picture one more time before wrapping it in my eyelet slip, I realized how much my parents, who were in their forties when they had me, had aged. They now looked more like grandparents than parents.


As the car chugged toward the top of the escarpment, I, like Lot's wife, looked back at the town below me. I had no idea then that I was leaving behind the least-troubled years of my life. Strange, since I felt there was no way I could cause more trouble than I'd caused in Lewiston.

It was 1960. We were doing what millions of other people had done: we were migrating. The Okies had left the Dust Bowl for water and we were leaving Lewiston for what my mother had mysteriously described as "opportunities." Whatever the reason, we were leaving behind the chunk of rock that was a part of us.

What would I do in Buffalo in the summer heat? When I was working at my dad' s store in Niagara Falls, I would wander over to the falls and get cooled off by the spray. I couldn't imagine not being near the rising clouds of mist that parted to reveal the perpetually optimistic rainbow.

What would my life be without the falls to ground me? Losing the falls was bad enough, but how could I leave the small, idyllic town of Lewiston, where history was around every corner? General Brock had been billeted in our house during the war of 1812. Our basement had been part of the Underground Railroad that smuggled black slaves to Canada. And would I ever again live somewhere where everyone knew me– where I knew who I was? I would no longer be the little girl who worked in her dad's drugstore. Roy, the delivery driver with whom I distributed drugs all over the Niagara Frontier, used to say if someone in Lewiston didn't know us, then they were "drifters."


Soon the escarpment was only a line in the distance, and Lewiston had disappeared. I would always remember it frozen in time: the uneven bricks of Center Street under my feet; the old train track up the middle, worn down after not being used for almost a century; The Frontier House, the hotel where Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper and Lafayette stayed and the word cocktail was invented; the maple and elm trees that arched over the roads, and the Niagara River, with its swirling blue waters that snaked along the edge of town.

As we began to head south, I thought about the tightrope walker my mother and I had seen, years ago, inching across Niagara Falls carrying a long balance pole. We stood below on the lip of the escarpment, holding our breath. My mother kept her eyes shut and made me tell her what was happening.

I felt as though now, as I headed into my teenage years, it would take all I had to maintain my balance. I knew the secret was to never look down at the whirlpools below, to focus on a fixed point at eye level and keep moving. I had no idea then how much I would teeter when the winds of change in the 1960s got blowing.

My father swung the car onto a new divided highway that looked like a construction site with mounds of dirt by the side of the road The journey had become so boring that I actually started listening to my parents' conversation. Sometimes I forgot that they too were moving to a new city and a new home. I tuned in just as my father was saying, "I know it is far less money, but when I looked up the census, I found that the average salary for 1960 is only between four and five thousand dollars."

"No one earns the average salary," my mother said.

This comment worried me because my mother was always unfailingly supportive of my father. No matter what he did, she acted like it was a stroke of genius and she was delighted to be part of the arrangement. I had never before felt tension between them. Suddenly it was as though someone had vacuum-packed the car.

In an effort to regain some air, I blurted out, "Are we moving because of me?"

"No," my mother said.

My father remained silent and pressed in the lighter to reignite his El Producto cigar, which was starting to make me carsick. He looked in the rearview mirror at my mother, sending her a glance with an arched eyebrow. Clearly he disagreed with her.

She said, "Well, it is true that we think you would be happier in a larger place. The world seems to be aching to change a bit . . . and Lewiston is having growing pains."

"Change? What needs to change?" I asked.

"I don't mean change exactly; I just think we all need a broader scope," she said. "Different kinds of people– looking out at the world instead of closing the world out."

My father was still looking in the rear-view mirror, and although he barely moved a muscle, I could tell he was shocked that my mother was saying such things. He had no idea what in my mother' s world could possibly need broadening.

When my father had announced the move, he said we were going for "new business prospects." He said that the economy had changed and that pretty soon there wouldn't be any more small, family-run drugstores. I had never thought our drugstore was small– I thought of it as enormous. He maintained that the world was being taken over by "chain stores." I didn't know what these were; I thought at first that he meant hardware stores that sold shackles. He explained how chain stores worked out better prices from the drug companies, how they didn' t make specialty unguents and didn't deliver. Most of the work was done by pharmacy assistants. He could no longer compete; it was time to get out before we were forced out.

Did he really think these chain-type-stores would catch on? Had he forgotten about loyalty? I thought of all the times Roy and I had risked our lives delivering medication on roads with blowing snow and black ice, or worked after midnight to get someone insulin. It was my father who always said that customers would appreciate the service and be loyal. But just days ago, when I'd questioned him on this, he said that people could be fickle and that their loyalty was to the almighty dollar. All the service in the world couldn't keep a customer if Aspirin is cheaper elsewhere.

When I said that was terribly unfair, he pointed out that that was just human nature. People did what was best for themselves at any given time. I'd never heard him speak so harshly. He'd usually espoused kindness and "going the extra mile." He put his arm around me and said that the world was changing and it was best to move on. You couldn't stop progress. After all, America hailed the Model T; no one cried for the blacksmith.

As we drove along the ugly, detour highway, weaving between gigantic rust-coloured generators that obscured the view of the rock cliffs and the river, I asked why, since we must be getting near the city of Niagara Falls, we didn't see the silver mist of the falls spraying in the air like a geyser. My father told me the highway we were on was being built by Robert Moses (who would coincidentally name it the Robert Moses Parkway, though I never saw a park). Moses designed it so that tourists would be diverted from the downtown core of Niagara Falls and forced to drive by his monument of progress, the Niagara Power Project. No one would drive through the heart of Niagara Falls any more, which is where our drugstore was. My father predicted, accurately as it turned out, that the downtown would soon die.


After about a half-hour, my father circled off the New York State Thruway onto a futuristic round basket-weave exit marked Amherst. "Wait until you see how convenient this home is for getting on the highway and travelling," he said.

I wondered where we would be going since my father said travelling spread disease.

A minute later he swung into a suburban housing development with a sign that read kingsgate village, and then onto Pearce Drive. When he turned into a driveway, I was too taken aback to say anything. In front of us was a tiny green clapboard bungalow with pink trim. All around it were identical houses with slightly different frontispieces. My father had picked out this place, but I felt his mortification at having to show it to us. It started to sink in that our historical colonial home with the huge wraparound porch was now history.

Why my mother had not been included in the house hunt was a mystery to me. It wasn't like she was busy. She'd never in my memory cooked, cleaned or held a job.

She was trying to find nice things to say. "Well, this should be easy to look after. No big yard to rake."

But I could feel her slowly withering, cell by disappointed cell.

A man in the next yard, which was hard to distinguish from our toupée of green turf, was outside cutting the lawn in his tank-style undershirt. Suspenders held up his pants, forming a kind of empire waistline directly under his surprisingly large breasts. He waved and said, "Howdy."

"Who is that– Humpty Dumpty?" I asked.

My mother shot me a look that said it was best not to make fun of anyone who would be our neighbour in what was to be our neighbourhood.

We got out of the car and I stood in the driveway, peering inside through the kitchen window. The floor had linoleum with a design of faux pebbles, the kind that would surround the moat if you lived next door to Sir Lancelot. The walls were covered in fake brick contact paper with fake ivy growing up it.

The moving van pulled up. As one mover chomped on a hoagie, the other jumped down from the cab, looked at the house and said to my father, "There's no way you are ever going to fit these huge pieces of furniture into this place. What am I supposed to do with them?" The front door was obviously too narrow for the French armoires and early American dressers.

My father said nothing. I had never seen him look as though he was not in charge. He just went and sat on the porch, which was actually a cement stoop. My mother, who'd inherited these antiques and cherished them, ordered the movers to unload everything onto the driveway. Then she said to my father, "Not to worry, Jim. Some of these things have been in my family for far too long. It's progress–we'll clear out some of it– deadwood."

I braced myself and followed my parents inside. My room was tiny, and now I knew why my father had said I couldn't bring my canopy bed. A single bed could barely fit in this cubbyhole. It was the size of my walk-in closet in Lewiston. Cheap cotton curtains printed with faded red Chinese pagodas adorned two small sliding aluminum windows that were too high to see out of. Since there was nothing else to look at, I went back to the living room, where my mother stood looking lost while my father was in the bathroom. Even with the door closed we heard everything, as though we were standing next to him. I just stared at the floor and so did my mother.

During the move the men broke a silver and marble ashtray, the kind that stood by an easy chair and opened like a yawn to swallow still-smouldering butts. My father said, "You'll pay for that. I' m making out a report on it right now and I'll be sure to mention your lack of care." It was unlike my father to get rattled and speak to people in an impolite tone.

Later, in the driveway, I overheard one mover, who wore his disdain in his every gesture, say to his partner, "The guy's worried about his precious ashtray?"

The other said, "He told me this place is just a stopover till his new split-level is finished."

The movers exchanged glances.

Once the weensy rooms were filled, my father, bewildered, stared at the ocean of antiques in the driveway. He said to my mother, "When I saw this place it was empty. I don't remember it being so small."

My mother refused to watch as the movers hoisted the furniture into the attic of the garage. Marble tabletops were removed with crowbars and stored in pieces. Most of the pieces would eventually warp from freezing temperatures and moisture. My parents would never sell them or look at them again.


My mother had inherited a large collection of historical lithographs of Niagara Falls that she had enhanced with her own acquisitions. She had spent much of my childhood going to auctions and purchasing lithographs from all over the world. In one antique lithograph journal her collection had been described as "stellar." She loved the scenes with Indians, as well as eighteenth-century ones in which European illustrators depicted their versions of explorers discovering Niagara Falls. About once a month she would get them all out and look at them. After we moved, knowing that these were relics from better times, I suggested she hang them up. She looked at me and said, "Where?"

Every once in a while there would be a flurry of activity as my father did some repulsive decorating. The basement had a rec room that the former owners had drywalled. As far as I could see the central feature was a dehumidifier. (The room always smelled of mould, so my mother called it the "reek room.") The first month we were there my father decided to build a bar, which was strange because neither he nor my mother ever drank. He used his old sliding glass pharmacy cabinets, which he dragged in from the garage, and decorated the bar with mortars and pestles left over from the drugstore. Since he didn't have any alcohol, he filled apothecary jars with coloured water and put them in the cabinets. He must have found a tavern that was going out of business, because he brought home signs like the one that said pink lady and had a picture of a pink cocktail with an olive in it perched at a rakish angle. He placed a dozen of these signs, with drink prices, in the display cases. I found the whole thing profoundly embarrassing– although how could it have been embarrassing when no one knew me yet? I guess it was just quietly humiliating. Back in Lewiston my parents had hosted an annual catered Christmas party, but I don't remember them having even one party in the reek room.

My father was always affable with the neighbours, talking over identical chain-link fences in the summer about chlorine tablets for above-ground pools and lawn mowers. Although my father was always friendly, most of the people on the street were younger. Our house was, as they say in the real estate world, "a starter home." Though for my parents it would be a finishing home– hardly bigger than the wooden caskets they would be carried out in.

In Lewiston my father had been used to giving out advice. People had come to him because he was the town pharmacist; he had a position in the church and community and he knew things. Here in Buffalo, people got advice from "Dear Abby." They weren't going to go to some washed-up old pharmacist. I noticed that he now exaggerated. I heard him telling a neighbour that I was New York State's high jumping champion, when in fact my title was only for western New York and my record was beaten before I even had a chance to get new track shoes.

My parents adapted to their new circumstances in their own way. My father bought a recliner in leatherette, smoked and watched television. He went to work for a large drug company. He described his research team as though it were the Manhattan Project; however, when I went to his building, which took up nearly a city block, people seemed to hardly know him.

My mother didn't do a thing with the house– she never even changed the carpets. She always acted like she was staying in a déclassé hotel. The only problem was that there was no room service. If she ever wondered how a college educated woman who was also a master bridge player wound up on Pearce Drive, she never once asked me.

Their new church was huge and they went unnoticed there. People didn't walk to church in Buffalo as they had in Lewiston. And no one waited around after church to go out together for brunch. Everyone drove to church and then, after Mass, they got in their cars and, with an altar boy directing traffic, filed out of the parking lot as though they were in a funeral procession.


Within the first few weeks of our arrival my mother and I began to venture out in our Plymouth Fury on reconnaissance missions. We decided to spread our wings a few blocks at a time. We needed to know exactly how bad it was. There were no sidewalks on the major streets, so we never saw people out strolling. The stores all had names that were so unoriginal as to be almost laughable. The convenience store was a chain called Your Convenience. The florist was called Flowers 'n' Things. Most of the stores were chains and seemed to be full of minimum-wage employees.

Once we ventured out of our cloned subdivision, which my mother and I clandestinely referred to as Tiny Town, I noticed that there was a positive correlation between distance away from Pearce Drive and how big the houses were. The majority were large, elegant brick homes with manicured lawns and built-in pools. Some were mansions with guest houses and elaborate gardens.

My father's decision to move to Tiny Town was slowly starting to make sense. When I was kicked out of Catholic school in Lewiston, Father Rodwick, the jejune Jesuit who had been my religious-instruction teacher, recommended the school in Amherst to my mother for its great advanced program. My father must have bought the only house he could afford in this swanky school district.

I had already missed the placement exam, which had been given before Father Rodwick spoke to my mother, so I would have to take it the following year. Father Rodwick thought he had seen an intellectual side of me. I studied philosophy like a fiend for him for three reasons: one, he was a great teacher; two, philosophy, unlike "religious instruction," was innately interesting; and, finally and most importantly, I had a crush on him and was convinced that the way to his heart was through his mind. I was, of course, wrong (this turned out to be a pattern). My best friend, Miranda, who not only didn't care about philosophy but barely knew how to read, had figured out within five minutes of meeting Father Rodwick that the best route to his heart was not through his brain. She ignored the labyrinthine road and took the direct path through his tender flesh. While I had been contemplating the mind—body problem, she'd solved it.

I felt a bit sorry for my parents. I knew I was not going to study any harder here than I had in the past. Father Rodwick thought he'd discovered someone with special intelligence. He was wrong. I was only experiencing a motivational blip. A girl will do anything to catch the eye of a handsome man. But there was no point in telling my parents about my prophecy of academic mediocrity. They would get the drift soon enough.

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Good Morning, Monster

Good Morning, Monster

Five Heroic Journeys to Recovery
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The day I opened my private practice as a psychologist, I sat smugly in my office. Fortified with the knowledge I’d acquired, taking comfort in the rules I’d learned, I looked forward to having patients I could “cure.”
   I was deluded.
   Fortunately, I had no idea at the time what a messy business clinical psychology was or I may have opted for pure research, an area where I’d have control over my subjects and variables. Instead, I had to learn how to be flexible as new information trickled in weekly. I had no idea on that first day that psychotherapy wasn’t the psychologist solving problems but rather two people facing each other, week after week, endeavouring to reach some kind of psychological truth we could agree on.
   No one brought this home to me more than Laura Wilkes, my first patient. She was referred to me through a general practitioner, who in his recorded message said, “She’ll fill you in on the details.” I don’t know who was more frightened, Laura or I. I was newly transformed from a student in jeans and a T-shirt to a professional, decked out in a silk blouse and a designer suit with linebacker shoulder pads, de rigueur in the early eighties. I sat behind my huge mahogany desk looking like a cross between Anna Freud and Joan Crawford. Luckily I had prematurely white hair in my twenties, which added some much-needed gravitas to my demeanour.
   Laura was barely five feet high, with an hourglass figure, huge almond eyes, and such full lips that had it been thirty years later, I would have suspected Botox injections. She had masses of shoulder-length blond highlighted hair and her porcelain skin contrasted sharply with her dark eyes. Perfect makeup, with bright red lipstick, set off her features. She was chic in spike heels, a tailored silk blouse, and a black pencil skirt.
   She said she was twenty-six, single, and working in a large securities firm. She’d started out as a secretary but had been pro­moted to the human resources department.
When I asked how I could help her, Laura sat for a long time looking out the window. I waited for her to tell me the problem. I continued to wait in what’s called a therapeutic silence—an uncomfortable quiet that’s supposed to elicit truth from the patient. Finally, she said, “I have herpes.”
   I asked, “Herpes zoster or herpes simplex?”
   “The kind you get if you’re totally filthy.”
   “Sexually transmitted,” I translated.
When I asked whether her sexual partner knew he had herpes, Laura replied that Ed, her boyfriend of two years, had said he didn’t. However, she’d found a pill vial in his cabinet that she rec­ognized as the same medication she’d been prescribed. When I questioned her about this, she acted as though it was normal and that there wasn’t much she could do about it. She said, “That’s Ed. I’ve already ripped a strip off him. What more can I do?”
   That blasé reaction suggested that Laura was used to selfish and duplicitous behaviour. She’d been referred to me, she said, because the strongest medication wasn’t limiting the constant outbreaks and her doctor thought she needed psychiatric help. But Laura was clear about having no desire to be in therapy. She just wanted to get over the herpes.
   I explained that in some people stress is a major trigger for attacks of the latent virus. She said, “I know what the word stress means but I don’t know exactly how it feels. I don’t think I have it. I just keep on keeping on, surrounded by the village idiots.” Not much had bothered her in her life, Laura told me, although she did acknowledge that the herpes had shaken her like nothing else.
   First, I tried to reassure her by letting her know that one in six people aged fourteen to forty-nine has herpes. Her response was “So what? We’re all in the same filthy swamp.” Switching tacks, I told her I understood why she was upset. A man who purported to love her had betrayed her. Plus, she was in pain—in fact, she could barely sit. The worst part was the shame; forever after she’d have to tell anyone she ever slept with that she had herpes or was a carrier.
   Laura agreed, but the worst aspect for her was that although she’d done everything possible to rise above her family circum­stances, she was now wallowing in filth, just as they always had. “It’s like quicksand,” she said. “No matter how hard I try to crawl out of the ooze and slime, I keep getting sucked back in. I know; I’ve almost died trying.”
   When I asked her to tell me about her family, she said she wasn’t going to go into “all that bilge.” Laura explained that she was a practical person and wanted to decrease her stress, whatever that was, so that she could get the painful herpes under control. She’d planned to attend this one session, where I’d either give her a pill or “cure” her of “stress.” I broke the news to her that stress, or anxiety, was occasionally easy to relieve but could sometimes be intransi­gent. I explained that we’d need to have a number of appointments so that she could learn what stress is and how she experienced it, uncover its source, and then find ways to alleviate it. It was possible, I told her, that so much of her immune system was fighting stress that there was nothing left to fight the herpes virus. “I can’t believe I have to do this. I feel like I came to have a tooth pulled and by mistake my whole brain came with it.” Laura looked disgusted, but she finally capitulated. “Okay, just book me for one more appointment.”
   It’s difficult to treat a patient who isn’t psychologically oriented. Laura just wanted her herpes cured and, in her mind, therapy was a means to that end. Nor did she want to give a family history, since she had no idea how it would be relevant.
   There were two things I hadn’t anticipated on my first day of therapy. First, how could this woman not know what stress is? Second, I’d read hundreds of case studies, watched lots of therapy tapes, attended dozens of grand rounds, and in none of them did the patient refuse to give a family history. Even when I worked the night shift in psychiatric hospitals—where they warehoused the lost psychological souls in back wards—I’d never heard anyone object. Even if they said, as one did, that she was from Nazareth and her parents were Mary and Joseph, they gave a history. Now my very first patient had refused! I realized that I’d have to proceed in Laura’s weird way, and at her own pace, or she’d be gone. I remember writing on my clipboard, My first task is to engage Laura.

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Look into the depths of your own soul and learn first to know yourself, then you will understand why this illness was bound to come upon you and perhaps you will thenceforth avoid falling ill.
—Freud, One of the Difficulties of Psychoanalysis
It's really embarrassing to admit, but I forget why I killed my husband.

The vast majority of people do not kill their spouses. I’ve faced that I’m in an extreme minority. Since I’m locked in here anyway, I decided to try to figure out what I missed that everyone else seems to understand. In a former life I studied Darwin and examined how drives become instincts. It was great for watching birds make their nests and fly south, but it didn’t give me any clues as to why I killed my husband, or help me figure out how to conduct myself when, and if, I ever get out of this cinder-block cell. I tried reading religion, but it didn’t grab me. Philosophy was interesting, but it only made me wonder if I was here at all.

However in 1974, about eight years ago — I’ve been in this cooler surrounded by frozen tundra for nine years now — I ran across Freud. I started with volume one of his collected works, because I’m that kind of person, and read all twenty-three. (I’m that kind of person too.) Freud’s theory is a turnkey operation. You only have to buy into the unconscious and the rest falls into place. It’s like buying the model suite: you may have quibbles with the furnishings, but you have somewhere decent to live.

My greatest interest was early Freud, in all the discoveries he made before he was famous. In his letters he would explain that he’d seen patients all day and was then alone in his small study working through the night. Even when he went to sleep, he had dreams of planing wood — still honing the theory. Freud called this first decade of his most original discoveries, before he had any followers except for one loopy buddy named Wilhelm Fliess, his time of “splendid isolation.”

I was also alone, reading Freud day and night in my six-by-nine-foot cell. Maybe it was the similarity of our splendidly isolated circumstances, but I felt Freud was writing to me. I even answered his letters in a notebook that I kept hidden in my cell. When I got on a real roll in the middle of the night after ten straight hours, I felt we were co-authors.

They say prison is hell and I suppose it is in most conventional ways, though I look at it as a monastic opportunity where all distraction is mercifully wiped away. Not many people share a cell for nearly a decade with one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Of course, I never said as much to my prison psychiatrist — he would think it was delusional — but I feel doing time with Freud kept me sane.

Fifty percent of female prisoners have a grade nine or lower education; forty percent are illiterate; the majority were unemployed at the time of their crime. Even though Native people make up two percent of the population nationally, they are thirty-eight percent of the Canadian prison population. Two-thirds of female prisoners are single mothers. Eighty percent have histories of sexual or physical abuse. Less than one percent of women in prison are there for violent crimes. On the rare occasions when their crimes are violent, the aggression is almost always toward a spouse who has repeatedly abused them first.

Not one of these statistics applies to me. And I’ve always been a fan of stats, since numbers pretty well paint the picture.

The only thing I’ve had in common with my fellow prisoners, as my psychiatrist likes to remind me, is that we’ve all committed crimes. Somehow I don’t find that an icebreaker. Now Freud, on the other hand, was a biologist turned psychologist, like me. In fact he described himself as “Not a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker . . . I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador — an adventurer, if you want it translated — with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.” These are traits I also have in spades. In terms of curiosity I’ve studied everything I could get my hands on since I was a kid. If you want to talk about daring, then let me remind you that I killed my husband. If these are the qualities that make a conquistador, then Freud was a great one and I, albeit pathological, am one as well. No wonder I bonded to him.

I was determined to read everything to find out why I was so unusual. Depending on what psychological assessment you read on me, you can substitute the word psychopathic or paranoid for unusual. I never got too riled up over those labels because, let’s face it, psychiatrists get paid to call you something.

Before prison, I liked science with all the bells and whistles — hypothesis testing, finding physical or numerical results, and measuring the difference. It’s called hard science when you have something hard or physical to measure. There’s a lot of comfort in measuring something you can see. Although Freud was a medical doctor, his greatest love was physiology and the biological research it entailed. When, at the age of forty, he didn’t get the academic research appointment he wanted, he qualified as a neurologist and set up a private practice. Back in the days before psychiatry was an official discipline, the psychotics wound up in insane asylums run by doctors who were called Alienists. As far as I can tell, they were fairly alienated from the patients. Their job was to make sure the doors were locked and the lunatics had straw in their cells. The neurotics of the nineteenth century had nowhere to go, and out of desperation wound up dragging their anxiety, hysteria and nervous tics into neurologists’ offices. Freud, one of the few neurologists who agreed to investigate hysteria, spent hour after hour seeing patients, mostly women, who had all kinds of symptoms with no apparent physical basis. Wanting to follow the rigours of the scientific tradition, Freud was in a quandary because he needed to study the mind in order to help his patients, but the hard sciences didn’t have any methodology for doing so. You can’t measure and quantify mental phenomena. Wanting to stick with the sciences, he had to invent his own science or method, which became known as psychoanalysis.

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Too Close to the Falls


Over half a century ago I grew up in Lewiston, a small town in western New York, a few miles north of Niagara Falls on the Canadian border. As the Falls can be seen from the Canadian and American sides from different perspectives, so can Lewiston. It is a sleepy town, protected from the rest of the world geographically, nestled at the bottom of the steep shale Niagara Escarpment on one side and the Niagara River on the other. The river’s appearance, however, is deceptive. While it seems calm, rarely making waves, it has deadly whirlpools swirling on its surface which can suck anything into their vortices in seconds.


My father, a pharmacist, owned a drugstore in the nearby honeymoon capital of Niagara Falls. My mother, a math teacher by training rather than inclination, was an active participant in the historical society. Lewiston actually had a few historical claims to fame, which my mother eagerly hyped. The word cocktail was invented there, Charles Dickens stayed overnight at the Frontier House, the local inn, and Lafayette gave a speech from a balcony on the main street. Our home, which had thirteen trees in the yard that were planted when there were thirteen states, was used to billet soldiers in the War of 1812. It was called into action by history yet again for the Underground Railroad to smuggle slaves across the Niagara River to freedom in Canada.


My parents longed for a child for many years; however, when they were not blessed, they gracefully settled into an orderly life of community service. Then I unexpectedly arrived, the only child of suddenly bewildered older, conservative, devoutly Catholic parents.


I seem to have been “born eccentric” — a phrase my mother uttered frequently as a way of absolving herself of responsibility. By today’s standards I would have been labelled with attention deficit disorder, a hyperactive child born with some adrenal problem that made her more prone to rough-and-tumble play than was normal for a girl. Fortunately I was born fifty years ago and simply called “busy” and “bossy,” the possessor of an Irish temper.


I was at the hub of the town because I worked in my father’s drugstore from the age of four. This was not exploitive child labour but rather what the town pediatrician prescribed. When my mother explained to him that I had gone over the top of the playground swings making a 360-degree loop and had been knocked unconscious twice, had to be removed from a cherry tree the previous summer by the fire department, done Ed Sullivan imitations for money at Helms’s Dry Goods Store, all before I’d hit kindergarten, Dr. Laughton dutifully wrote down all this information, laid down his clipboard with certainty, and said that I had worms and needed Fletcher’s Castoria. His fallback position (in case when I was dewormed no hyperactive worms crept from any orifice) was for me to burn off my energy by working at manual labour in my father’s store. He explained that we all had metronomes inside our bodies and mine was simply ticking faster than most; I had to do more work than others to burn it off.


Being in the full-time workforce at four gave me a unique perspective on life, and I was exposed to situations I later realized were unusual for a child. For over ten years I never once had a meal at home, and that included Christmas. I worked and went to restaurants and delivered everything from band-aids to morphine in the Niagara Frontier. I had to tell people whether makeup looked good or bad, point out what cough medicines had sedatives, count and bottle pills. I also had to sound as though I knew what I was talking about in order to pull it off. I was surrounded by adults, and my peer group became my coworkers at the store.


My father worked behind a counter which had a glass separating it from the rest of the store. He and the other pharmacists wore starched white shirts which buttoned on the side with “McCLURE’S DRUGS” monogrammed in red above the pocket. The rest of us wore plastic ink guards in our breast pockets which had printed in script letters “McClure’s has free delivery.” (The word delivery had wheels and a forward slant.) I worked there full-time when I was four and five and I suspected that when I went to school the next year I would work a split shift from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. and then again after school until closing time at 10:00 p.m. Of course I would always work full-time on Saturday and Sunday when my mother did her important work with the historical board. I restocked the candy and makeup counters, loaded the newspaper racks, and replenished the supplies of magazines and comics. I read the comics aloud in different voices, jumped out of the pay-phone booth as Superman and acted out Brenda Starr “in her ruthless search for truth,” and every morning at 6:00 a.m. I equipped the outdoor newsstand of blue wood with its tiered layers with the Niagara Falls Gazette.


My parents were removed from the hurly-burly of my everyday existence. My father was my employer, and I called him “boss,” which is what everyone else called him. My mother provided no rules nor did she ever make a meal, nor did I have brothers or sisters to offer me any normal childlike role models. While other four-year-olds spent their time behind fences at home with their moms and dads, stuck in their own backyards making pretend cakes in hot metal sandboxes or going to stagnant events like girls’ birthday parties where you sat motionless as the birthday girl opened her presents and then you waited in line to stick a pin into a wall while blindfolded, hoping it would hit the rear end of a jackass, I was out doing really exciting work. I spent my time in the workforce delivering prescriptions with Roy, my coworker.


One thing about a drugstore: it’s a great leveller. Everyone from the rich to the poor needs prescriptions and it was my job to deliver them. Roy, the driver, and I, the assistant who read the road maps and prescription labels, were dogged as we plowed through snowstorms and ice jams to make our deliveries. The job took us into mansions on the Niagara Escarpment, to the home of Dupont, who invented nylon, to deliver hypodermic needles to a new doctor on the block, Dr. Jonas Salk, an upstart who thought he had a cure for polio, to Marilyn Monroe on the set of Niagara, to the poor Indians on the Tuscarora reservation, and to Warty, who lived in a refrigerator box in the town dump. The people we delivered to felt like my “family,” and my soulmate in this experience was Roy.


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