Editor’s Note: First Person Singular showcases personal stories related to mental health. Contributions via email are welcome though we don’t guarantee we’ll use every submission. The following is a true story, in the form of creative non-fiction. And yes, we do know it is not written in first person singular. We think it fits just fine.
By Goldienne Campeau
The year is 2002. The month is unclear– the weather outside is reminiscent of an oven. Those final moments when the temperature is turned to broiling to give that golden brown look that is indicative of being done. In Oregon, this can mean that it is anytime between August and October.
Dust clouds up like a tawny spectre around the white, State of Oregon car as it trundles down the dry and ruddy road. On her left is an assemblage of antiquated, crumbling and decayed plantation style school houses, an over-grown field and a down-trodden and wood rotted corral. She glances down at the brochure in her hand; if she uses her imagination she might be be able to envision the stately “Farm Home” that this place once was. Even so, she is not reminded of country life, simple and sweet. The image in her mind instead foreshadows tales of miserable servitude performed by cast out and long ago forgotten children.
Straight ahead she sees an entourage of clapboard houses peppered across the expanse of the tillage. Although they are not as dilapidated as their school-house brethren, they are…rustic. Certainly not representative of the “Family Style Cottages” described in her glossy pamphlet. Most unsettling are the myriad of spired, chain-link fences enshrouding the perimeter of these supposed cottages.
The car comes to a noiseless halt in front of an average and mundane office building. All of the pleasant hopes and expectations of a safe and loving haven, along with the fantasized days filled with horses, and kind, motherly, protectors softly speaking words of reassuring wisdom, while cuddling up on over-stuffed couches have absconded; quick as the flick of a riding crop.
She sits pale and dizzied, the warmth of hope replaced by the harsh and gangrenous gnaw of fear and futility. It sits like a lump of cud in her belly and rises up to her chest. There it will stay, releasing its insidious poison like a tick in the nape of a stallion.
Under normal circumstances, had she been a normal fifteen year old girl; it is likely that she would have found herself sprawled on the grass–or perhaps poolside, drinking in the last few drops of sunshine while idly flipping through some mindless periodical. Actually, those would have been abnormal circumstances for her. More accurately portrayed; she may have been perched in a tree somewhere, voraciously studying Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or some copylefted zine, worn and tattered from being read and re-read on the school days she spent hiding out in bathroom stalls.
But this is not a normal circumstance. Not even for her. This goes far beyond even her comfort zone of slightly strange and peculiar. She has traversed the borderlands of peculiar and found her self shipwrecked in utterly unfamiliar and terrifying. The car door jerks open with an alarming click and a creak. She does not make eye contact with her chaperone, and for a split-second her body tenses as her instincts tell her to run from this place as fast as a race horse at the bang of a gunshot. Her momentary hesitation is met by a firm hand on her upper arm and her grandiose thoughts of escape are rescinded. She follows the unspoken orders of the state worker and steps cautiously out of the now dusty white, late 90’s model Ford.
The sunlight is startling and makes her appear even more severe than she is. Against the blue sky backdrop, the contrast of her raven-black hair and snow-white, fragile frame are more prominent than ever. She is led into a frigid and overly air conditioned reception area. Her chaperone approaches the desk and exchanges a few inaudible words with the desk clerk. She gathers by the look on her captors face that acquiescence is expected. She sits quietly in a metal framed chair that is obscenely masquerading as something more comfortable, with its cheap, floral upholstery.
The moments that she spends sitting in the waiting room with the bones of the chair pressing fiercely against her own spine, drawl by as slowly as an afternoon spent sipping sweet tea in a porch swing. The state worker shifts in her chair and then stands and crosses the small room, extending a hand shake to another woman who has just stepped out of an office. Another inaudible exchange occurs. The girl imagines it to be something like “One hundred dollar bid, now two, now two, will ya give me two? Two hundred dollar bid, now three, now three hundred, will ya give me three? Two hundred, two and a half, two fifty! How about two-fifty? Fifty? Fifty? Fifty? And SOLD to the Good Doctor! She’s green now, but once you break her, she’ll be a beaut!” The Good Doctor greets her and she is herded back to an office with disorienting fluorescent lighting, more hard, metal framed chairs and an out of place Dali poster hanging on the stark, white wall.
She sits with her hands locked in her lap, clasped tight around each wrist. Knees drawn to chest so tightly that one might suppose she was hoping to collapse in on herself. Eyes drawn to floor, lips sealed. A guerrilla warrior in the army of self-preservation. The middle aged psychiatrist in the room sits staunchly, wearing her red, home-made sweater, with her bad, frazzled perm and her odor of drug store perfume. Pen poised, note pad at the ready. This girl won’t talk about herself, so the Good Doctor will decide who she is.
A few more minutes of awkward silence and unanswered questions go by. Finally the Good Doctor surmises that any further attempts at conversation will be futile. The girl is beckoned to follow the Good Doctor, it’s time she saw the “cottage”. She walks slowly and quietly, a few carefully calculated steps behind. A shade of black hair hangs in her face, serving as a way to mask her fear as well as a screen from the overbearing sun.
They arrive at a gate, she watches the Good Doctor nimbly punch a code into a keypad while shielding it from view with a purposefully placed hand. She walks across the threshold, the gate shuts behind her with an abrupt and cacophonous clang. That clang awakens in her a previously unknown awareness of the finality of this situation. Her ears are instantaneously aware of every sound, her body tensed at the ready to fend off any proverbial predator, or tear away in a mad gallop to safety.
She must remain calm. Calm on the outside. She cannot let the predator sense her overwhelming and ever-growing fear. Her front teeth close down on her bottom lip; the more pressure she applies, the more her fear dissipates. She bites until she tastes the acrid tang of her own blood, folds her delicate arms over her chest, as if giving herself the hug that she has come to realize she will never acquire so long as she is locked behind this gate, focuses her gaze hard on the ground in front of her and follows the Good Doctor through another door.
It’s almost as if she has gone through a portal. The scene that lies before her is nether-worldly. A tangle of smells forcefully attacks her nose. The stench of urine, the eroding sting of bleach; the salty, soft smell of playdough, spoiled milk, disinfectant. Kindergarten incarceration. Through the black curtain of her hair she sees a large room. A barrage of young boys from ages five to ten, are sprawled across the aged, brown carpets. They are engaged in innumerable activities.
Surrounding the chattering boys with their brightly hued legos, puzzle pieces and nubs of many colored crayons are couches and tables. Sitting amongst the worn and dingy furnishings there is a pack of teenage girls. A few are playing cards, or scrawling words in journals. Most are sitting alone. All are quiet, withdrawn, unresponsive. Disheartened; broken. The Good Doctor introduces her to a rotund and miserly woman. This, she is informed– will be her skills trainer. Her trainer will be giving her the grand tour of her confine. She turns to see that the Good Doctor has silently made her departure. With a short and stern grumble the Trainer directs her to follow along up the stairs, where she will be introduced to her quarters.
She begins to drift towards the steps when she is jolted back by a hair raising scream of distress. The Trainer makes a quick dash towards the origin of the mayhem. She retreats against a wall; her heart thundering. Is this the marauding entity that her gut had attempted to apprise her of? From the stairs she witnesses a heap of body parts; flailing and fighting, screeching and strained grunts– orders barked from trainers, pleas to stop from the lips of the apparent source of the commotion; a girl with long braids and wire framed glasses. She hears a sudden crack ricochet throughout the room. An anguished yelp from the captive. A river of crimson erupts from the wild-eyed face.
The trainers retreat into a room with their trainee. A large metal door slams shut behind them and there is a hollow, magnetic click. She is trapped here. Captive. They will break her like an unruly horse. She is no more than an animal in need of training. Here at The Children’s Farm Home, it is the children who are the livestock.