I was born in Chicago in 1948. I was born without a right hand. It had been amputated in the uterus by a strand of ruptured amnion. Newborn, I was brought to a room where there was a large pillow. My father was called out of the waiting area and taken to this room by the doctor. My father was left alone in there with me and the large pillow. He understood finally that he was being given the chance to smother me. But he didn’t do it.
The doctor knocked. “Are you finished yet?”
My father didn’t answer. The doctor came in and my father was still standing there.
Together they brought me to my mother. I don’t know what she felt. She has told me that this was the only time she ever saw my father cry. He wept. And then he went out and got drunk. It was probably the only time he ever got dead drunk.
My Aunt Winifred had a psychotic break at the sight of me, and my Uncle Harold insisted on always photographing me from the left side. In some of my childhood pictures my right arm is outside the frame or in the next room.
Cripples were mostly invisible back then. If you saw them at all they were begging on the streets, or they were the Easter Seal poster children inspiring pity and charity, or they were evil villains like Captain Hook. But they certainly weren’t anything you’d want to be, not just because of the physical loss or difficulty involved, but because somehow the whole thing was tinged with creepiness. Disability was one of those things you weren’t even supposed to talk about.
The central theme of my life was thus in place early: I was different, asymmetrical, imperfect, special. I was born without the hand that signifies purposeful doing. My life was about unraveling rather than producing, subtracting rather than accumulating. When I was very small and first heard about death, I dreamed recurrently about a person whose arm fell off, then the other arm, then each leg, until nothing was left. I was already on my way toward this mysterious disappearance.
I had a boyfriend in the second grade who loved my arm with the missing hand. He called it my power bomb. “Hit me with your power bomb,” he’d whisper, and I’d slug him gently in the stomach, and he’d grin from ear to ear with wild pleasure. In the third grade he proposed to me, perhaps because of my magical arm.
But more often this arm was a source of humiliation. Children would stare and point and ask me about it. Adults would hush them up. I was the last to be chosen by the boys in dancing school, and I felt that I would not qualify as a woman. Women were supposed to be beautiful. They were not supposed to be missing body parts.
My absent hand was a kind of ticket as it turned out. I was given a passport to marginal worlds, to the realms of the dispossessed, to the secret rooms of people’s hearts where something is always missing or misshapen. But it was many years before I realized this. In the beginning, I just knew that I stood out like a sore thumb and that nobody was supposed to mention it.
There is so much pressure to keep each of my identities, each of my labels intact. I think of all the pressure from the 12-step programs to wear those chosen addict labels for the rest of one’s life, the pressure in minority communities to identify oneself with the group. And in majority groups the same thing happens so automatically and on such a widespread level that it goes mostly unnotice—one is presumed to be white, heterosexual, or able-bodied, and if you whisper anything contrary to that, people ask you why you’re flaunting it.
Toni, on the other hand, questions all labels and images of who we are. She points to something beyond merely replacing negative images with positive ones. Flattery is as destructive as deprecation, she says. They go together like the two sides of a coin.
I told Toni how much her work scared me because I’ve worked so hard to get beyond the self-hatred and silencing of myself that comes from growing up female, disabled, and bisexual in a patriarchal society, and I’m afraid that if I really let go into what she’s talking about, this seeing through all images—of my self, even!—that all this progress I’ve made will be lost.
“You’re afraid you’ll go back to how you were in the past?” she asked.
I nodded. Her eyes lit up and she laughed her wonderful, warm laugh. “But you won’t,” she said emphatically. “Of course you won’t!”
A year went by. I sat with Charlotte Joko Beck and with Toni in California. I obsessed about moving to Springwater. And finally I packed up my things, and, in the summer of 1989, off I went. I was going to Springwater for six months as a volunteer.
“You’re going to northwestern New York for the winter?!” someone asked incredulously.
I moved to the middle of nowhere, a place tourists would avoid at all costs—northwestern New York, the foothills of the midwest. And now here I am in a place with ice storms and deerflies and mosquitoes, living with a bunch of heterosexual men.
On the third night of retreat I meet with Toni. Suddenly thought turns her into the authority figure, the teacher, and I begin talking about me and what I should do with my life, wanting Toni to provide the answers. I feel the aliveness of our connection die. I’m using her, projecting onto her, not listening anymore.
I am full of self-hate afterwards, as if “I” had somehow produced these thoughts. I toss and turn with nightmares. Someone in the next room wakes up screaming. I hear her roommate comforting her. The hours tick by. I lie awake biting my fingers in the darkness, unable to stop.
The next morning when I meet with Toni I speak to her about this horrible addiction. It may sound trivial, but I bite the flesh, not the nails, often drawing blood, and I can get so mesmerized by it that I cannot bring myself to stop, unable to do anything else, my entire body in a spasm of tension. The whole experience feels both numbing and torturous, and inevitably fills me with self-hatred and shame. I’ve tried every imaginable cure and nothing has worked.
Toni listens, and suggests not trying to get rid of it! Simply to be with it, she suggests. What is it? How does it feel? What are the thoughts, including the desire to stop, the belief that I can’t, the judgments of myself. Experience the sensations in my jaw, my fingers, my shoulder, my stomach, hear the sounds in the room. Just listen, to the whole thing, without judgment.
How exactly did “I” stop drinking, doing drugs, or smoking cigarettes? There were numerous attempts that failed, and then there was success. How did that happen? What shifted? Is there a person here, a “me,” who is capable of deciding to stop an addictive pattern? And, if so, why doesn’t it always work? Why do some people succeed and others fail? Why is it that someone like me, who successfully let go of many addictive behaviors, is still biting my fingers? Why don’t I stop? What brings a person to the point of stopping?