Mercy           (Published in Evening Street Review)


            When I was an infant my mother threatened to kill me.

            I didn’t know this until I was in my early thirties and an aunt who was not fond of my mother told me. I do not know her motivation for telling me and it makes no

difference. My oldest sister thinks it’s terrible that she told me. I, however, have always been grateful for the knowledge. The truth will set you free. Or not.

            She told me this during a time when I was having no contact with my parents. It had been close to a year. They were beside themselves with something akin to grief. Sobering up and benefiting from therapy had made me so angry with both of them. My Aunt Maxine and I had always been close. But how does one respond to learning that your mother had threatened your life as an infant? I only knew what my parents had chosen to tell me about my infancy.

            How much did I want to know? In retrospect, I really wish I had questioned her further, and now she is no longer around to ask. She also wanted to inform me that her family (she was my father’s sister) did not want my father to marry my mother Agnes because she and her family were unstable. My mother’s mother died a few days after childbirth and her father had drunk himself to death by the time she was in fifth grade, leaving her and her three siblings orphans.

            Piecing things together, I know that my father really wouldn’t have known much about what went on at home as he almost always worked two jobs. Mother also had two other children besides me to care for. I know that she neglected me because I can feel the results of that often in my adult life, but I also feel that she assaulted me in some way. I know enough about my father to know that something serious had to have happened for him to institutionalize her.

            What I knew: my mother was hauled away when I was seven months old to Mercyville, whose claim to fame at the time was that Judy Garland “visited” there. I have had this scene too often in my head: my mother angry and intransigent, her face red. She swears at my father and Uncle John as they coax her like a reluctant dog into the car.

            I remember when One Flew came out. I envisioned my mother undergoing the brutal treatments they used back then to shock one out of severe depression and psychosis. It was 1953 and the cocktail of psychotropic drugs I have taken for so long were not on the scene.

         It was my father’s family that came to the rescue. My great-aunt Esther took me in. I actually have no idea how this arrangement worked. I don’t know if she came to our house or if I were at her place or a combination of both. Although we were not together all that long, I bonded with her. When I grew older, I sent mother’s day cards to my mom and to her. I have a photo of her holding me. She has a big smile on her face and I am very carefully dressed. I wrote a poem that was published about this photo titled “The Whole Picture.”


my aunt holds me

in camera range


the pull of my weight



Forty years later

my mother

has given me

this piece of myself:


a picture of her absence.


There are no pictures

of them charging her

like a battery


pumping her full

of insulin in 1953.


Someone leaves

a space

someone fills it.


What a photo shows

is what

you do not



            I also know no details about my mother’s return home from Mercyville, but at some point I heard or overheard someone talking about how she took after Esther screaming that she was trying to steal her baby. I assumed this meant she was not what one could call “cured.”       

            My mother made it a mission to form a close maternal bond with me for the rest of our lives. This was done both with verbal praise for my accomplishments and through nurturing hugs and smiles; she worked hard to convince me that our bond was special. A part of me always held back, untrusting.

            In a way, as an infant I became dead. I stopped waiting to be responded to. As an adult nothing makes me crazier than feeling someone is not responding to me. It triggers how my mother did not respond to me. I can still withdraw deeply into myself like that baby did.

            It is an ongoing daily challenge for me to stay connected with people. I go dead like that infant. This can take numerous forms; often it is being unable to respond to emails from people I really do want to respond to but don’t. Sometimes it is avoidance, but mostly it is just being incapable of connecting.



            I’ve always wondered why everyone focuses on the mother who suffers from post-partum. I have seen or read much on the mother’s half of this mother/infant equation, especially when a mother murders one or more of her children.  Experts and laypeople condemn the mother in one way or another, but they are only stabbing at the truth.

            Marilyn Lemak of the Chicago suburbs killed all three of her young children and then tried to kill herself. She survived and many question how serious the attempt was. Not long ago a French video journalist culled an hour-long interview by speaking with her. She said she was so depressed that she felt totally helpless and hopeless.

            What was her truth?

            Does it makes us feel better to condemn these women for tearing the fabric of the lie that motherhood is always synonymous with nurturing and protection. The 1950’s mother in her apron smiled monthly from magazine pages. Could there be another truth? Could a mother kill her infant or child and she couldn’t have kept herself from it?

            Both of my parents accused me of being too sensitive as if that were a fatal weakness. Was I sensitive or suffering from PTSD? It took me until recently to understand the truth of one of Louise Gluck’s lines: “…in childhood, I thought/that pain meant/I was not loved./It meant I loved.” This is the miracle of living: some innate instinct to do more than survive.

            Up until she died, when she hugged me, part of my body went stiff as if it were a physical threat. I don’t know why: Had I been shaken? Hit? I could never bring myself to ask.

            The body remembers. As Edna O’Brien stated: The body contains the life story just as much as the brain. I inhabit the same body I had as an infant, a colicky baby who screamed incessantly in the ears of a woman suffering from post-partum depression. A woman who sat on the porch steps crying.            

            Everyone focuses on the mother who commits such a murderous act because people want to hold someone culpable; they want to be simultaneously shocked and to judge more than they want to understand.

            Marilyn Lemak cried once during her interview—when she said she would look at the stars in the belt of Orion and think of her three dead children. She never called them by name—just “my first or my second, or my youngest.”

            Where is the interest in the children who live for months with a severely depressed mother before she is put away for the baby’s safety? Who interviews and documents them? Where is the research on these survivors and eventual adults?

            Can it be everyone wants a dead baby more than a damaged one?

            We then think we know whom to blame.





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