TMI Tuesday—Books, a Love Story

*Trigger Warning* there are accounts of domestic violence and child abuse. If these topics harm you, move along. I wrote it and damn-near moved along, myself.

My parents fought, like, a lot. My stepfather was a violent ex-con. My mom had an undiagnosed/untreated personality disorder. Obviously, they lacked the skills to discuss issues and vent emotions rationally or constructively. 

After a week of high-functioning alcoholism my old man would go on a bender every weekend. My mom was violently jealous so she went on the bender right along with him. Most of their fights were slap matches but swollen eyes and lumpy noggins were not uncommon. At least once a year things would get bloody. There was a stabbing and a shooting. 

As a result of witnessing 95% of this dysfunction, I developed what I thought was a sixth sense or super power. Somewhere a day or two before, I KNEW when a bad fight was coming. I could feel it in my gut. Literally, I got physically ill and agitated. As soon as I got home from school I would unload the guns, hide the ammo, and the large knives. I stashed jugs of water along with a blanket in one of the wreck cars behind our house. 

Something-something-decades later I realized that what I felt was an anxiety attack. Those attacks still plague me to this day. What was true then and remains true now is the anxiety is much worse than the event itself. Though the aftermath is no fun either. 

With no close siblings and no friends, it was comic books that got me through the scary hours before it all started. Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Michelinie and Layton’s Iron Man, Simonson’s Thor, et al, sustained me through those horrible, horrible anxiety episodes and the bomb-crater aftermath. 

Fast forward five years and my folks had split, we had lost everything to the “Reagan Recovery,” (different trauma, different time) and my mom was attempting a start over. The only problem was that my strong, resilient mother, who managed restaurants and bars, who won the knife fight and did the shooting, (in case you were wondering) still “needed” a man. So she found one even worse than my stepfather. 

Meanwhile, I was no longer cute and cuddly, no longer her baby. A brand-new teen I was antagonistic and demanding. Selfishly, I expected consistent utility service and food. Unreceptive to that noise, my mom got me a fake ID, told a restaurant owner I was sixteen-years old, and suddenly I had a job to buy my own food and and electricity with.

After too much administrative attention, (they tend to notice black eyes and split lips on 8th graders) I dropped out of school. Upside: I did look older than the average truant so no one called anyone. Also, Denton, Texas had a SPLENDID library. 

I still LOVED the comic books but I became curious about references to other stories. By that point I had discovered references in Neal Peart’s whip-crack smart lyrics, too. Ms. Jewel, the nice librarian I had a crush on, helped me find the novels and epics referenced in the pulp pages and prog-rock songs. Many mornings, I walked directly from the all-night diner to the library, still funky from cooking and cleaning all night, rather than go to my mom’s house. Once the library opened, I could get a book, find a chair near the heating vent, and read/nap until the boyfriend sobered up enough to go “look” for work and I could go to bed without a fight.

Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Octavia Butler, and countless others gave me the benefit of other people dealing with much worse crap—and coming out the other end. But Frank Herbert gave me more than hope. Frank gave me a plan. 

Herbert’s seminal work of science fiction, Dune, broke ground in all directions and is widely loved for the author’s incredible vision. Some love Dune for Herbert’s mind-bending take on prescience, others for his finger-on-society’s-pulse in evolving views of sex and drugs and genetic engineering. Others love the book for Frank’s decades-forward depiction of women as strong competent leaders, (who knew?). Others still for Frank’s fearless indictment of humanity as willing subjects to all of the boogie-men we’ve staked up for millenia. Politics, religion, sex—Herbert showed the yoke in each, the harness we willingly cinch into as beasts of burden or cinch-strap others into as manipulative masters. Duke Leto had marketing packages. 

Honestly, 75% of all of that was lost on 14-year-old me. I was weepy for tragic Leto, (first and second) Paul, the once and forever king, inspired by the galant Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, (far more pragmatic) and simply HEART SICK for Lady Jessica. But like a fly in the library, one word, Simulflow, continually cut through the prose and took me out of the scenes. 

A process of following multiple threads of consciousness, Herbert’s sublime sisterhood, the Bene Gesserits, developed the foundations of simulflow in their novices. They hammered it and tempered it like steel in their acolytes. They polished and honed it in their adepts. Once the adept uses the spice melange to unlock genetic memories, the newly-minted Reverend Mothers perfect the simulflow process giving them computer-like memory and computer-like processing abilities. 

But the root of simulflow is imagination. When Bene Gesserit novice, Darwi Odrade dreams of escaping the Bene Gesserit Chapterhouse and returning to her foster family by the sea, the sisterhood encourages her daydreams. They are rudimentary problem solving and rudimentary simulflow. 

Between the kitchen and the library, the bed and back to the kitchen, I dreamed of escaping. I wanted away from the fights, the burns, and always being cold and hungry. Mostly, I wanted away from the goddamned misery. Herbert taught me to question those daydreams to ask, “but how would you really do it?” and/or “What will you do if…?” I began to do more than just dream, I began to plan. 

I left Denton after a particularly bad beating. But I left with a few dollars in my pocket, a pack of clothes, and provisions for my dog. Hitchhiking is tough under normal circumstances and with a mashed up face it took me nearly three days to get to Houston. When I got home, I knew where I would stay, who I would contact for a job, and how I would get my own place. Neal Peart and Victor Hugo wrote that “anything can happen,” but Frank Herbert showed me how to make it happen for myself. 

Remember that when you think your story is going nowhere. Because I promise you that if you put it out there it will give comfort, if not aid, to someone in desperate need. Other people’s stories sustained my spirit and Frank Herbert’s stories taught me how to dream-up a ladder. Never quit.

The photo above, books and lifelines, by yours truly.

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