By Julie Gregory
(Bantam, 256 pages)
On the surface, things seemed perfect, as these sorts of "wish you here" family postcard portraits do: A '70s family fooled by its own appearances of stability. But the world of Julie Gregory, author of the painfully funny yet steamrollingly tragic memoir, "Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood," was anything but that of the Brady Bunch hair-flip that caricatured '70s-era ambitions.
Born prematurely and forever sickly (even when she wasn't clinically sick), Gregory travels through a series of ripe vignettes that underpin the failures and paranoias of a family life composed of already-broken pieces. Her father's daily Agent Orange regurgitations ("Buick!" he would exclaim. "Get it? I'm selling Buiiiiiccccks!" mocking the sound of his retching); her mother's inexplicable need to spin herself into a knot of neuroticism that would find her displacing her inner dissatisfaction onto Gregory's meek body; Gregory's own revolving door of exasperated physicians and barium enemas -- the author had to live through it all in order to escape it.
While these events are symptomatic of the current onslaught of backwoods autobiographies depressing the American literary scene, they are more specifically -- and more troublingly -- illustrations of a peculiar form of child abuse: Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a disease that takes hypochondria out of its victim's hands and places it squarely into the insecure, often shaky hands of a parental oppressor.
A child of failed ambitions herself, Sandy Gregory was literally sold into the circus at the age of 17 (marrying a man 35 years her senior), pinned to a spinning wheel, smiling while 19-inch knives swooshed past her performance-white teeth and nearly exposed breasts. Shortly after the night her circus husband sat up in bed, screamed and died, Sandy met a new man -- a Vietnam veteran with a "mild and questionable case of paranoid schizophrenia" -- in a gas station parking lot. The two were oddly inseparable and, married three months later, were fast on their way to the suburban American -- make that West Virginian -- dream. A two-story flat in a cardboard-cutout neighborhood seemed like a fine place for a while, but after the birth of Julie and a second child, Danny, the cracks were beginning to show. A fear of black people and a desire to hide away, literally, sent them fast to a double-wide trailer buried deep in the woods.
The balance was already off. A hinted-at homosexual affair on father Dan's part afforded Sandy a license to constantly question his manhood (often calling him "faggot") as a means of forcing him to discipline the kids, when he would rather watch "M*A*S*H*" and forget he was alive. In truth, none of the four were really alive. Sure, there were the appearances: the "yes'ms" and "no ma'ams" papered over the vacuum with an odd sense of dignity. But the family was as likely to go after each other as they were to hug each other, as illustrated in one particularly agonizing scene. Guns were pulled, loose statues raised, as a broken family enacted its dying ballet:
And there we are, slammed into the corner of the broken hallway, glued together, our throats scorched from the violent force of words meant to save each other, the four of us one tight coil to spring or wind in tandem. And as we reach a crescendo, we hover timeless; resonating in the glass-shattering acoustics torn from our chests, and then, almost in perfect unison, the tension breaks. Dad's shoulders deflate, his hand eases off Mom's neck, her feet float dreamily to the floor, the gun slides out of his temple leaving the perfect round indent of a bullet's path. Danny unhinges from Dad and there we stand, dazed, unwound, eyes glossed with adrenaline.
Later in life, Julie Gregory comes to terms with the fact that she was never sick at all, except by virtue of proxy, and has to rebuild a world in which she can live and trust again, and stand alone. Sadly, her parents deny the whole thing to this day. "Sickened" is a gloriously rendered vindication, however, for a beauty that can finally breathe clearly.
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