Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 2.1]

I was really excited about Halloween this year. Dad and Mom agreed to let me invite eight twelve-year-old girls over for a Halloween slumber party. Two days before, I came home from school to a dark house and Grandma Trailer waiting for me on our couch. The curtains were drawn and all the lights were out. Grandma said that she wanted me to gather my things and come spend the night with her. She said that, while mom was cleaning the tub earlier with bleach, her eyes began burning.

On my way to get my things, I passed Mom, who was lying in bed with dark sunglasses over her eyes. I had a scary vision of what Mom’s eyes might look like.

“Do your eyes hurt?” I leaned in and asked quietly.

“Yes,” she whimpered, “and your dad doesn’t believe me. He thinks I bleached my eyes on purpose.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I’d heard Dad tell Mom this sort of thing before—that she was “working herself” into another asthma attack, that she was “bringing on” her own nervous breakdown, that it was all “in her head”—and he’d called her a “hypochondriac” just like her mother. Mom would scream hysterically and sometimes beg for him to stop “psychoanalyzing” her. A horrible image of Mom on her knees in the tub staring at bleach until she felt her eyes burn made my stomach heave.

“I’m so sorry mom,” was all I could muster.

Once, when I asked Dad what he meant by some of his comments about Mom, he told me he thought she was neurotic from insecurity. He said Mom never bonded properly with her parents and that she spent all her time trying to get their love, but never felt she got it. Grandpa Martin’s “tough-love” parenting style was largely punitive, so he had yelled at my mom a lot, told her she was stupid when she brought home poor grades, and restricted her from participating in events, parties, and things she wanted to do with her friends to teach her a lesson when she did something he didn’t approve of. He was never pleased with her.

Also, Grandma Jane didn’t seem to treat my mom as well as she treated her other two kids. Grandma had favored Betty and Carl, which made Mom always feel unwanted as the middle child. Dad said when he first began dating Mom he noticed that Grandma was sometimes jealous of Mom because people were always commenting on how beautiful she was. Grandma Trailer had encouraged my mom to go to art school and had even helped her apply to the Chicago Institute of Art. My mom was accepted and had dreams of moving to Chicago and applying for a job as a Playboy Bunny, but she found out before graduation that she was pregnant. Grandma Jane and Grandpa Martin took the news with an “It serves you right—we knew you wouldn’t amount to anything” mentality.

So, in Dad’s analysis, this all made Mom feel like her parents didn’t really love her or want her to be happy. This caused her a lot of pain, but she couldn’t see the connection between her behavior now and her upbringing. Until she could recognize this and see that the problem was with her parents and not with her, she would stay insecure and unhappy. He felt she could get better perhaps with Psychoanalysis, specifically something like Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream Therapy, which would help her re-experience pain from her past, connect it with the source, and learn to feel better over time through therapy. He said John Lennon’s song “Mother” was an example of someone using primal therapy to express the pain he’d had bottled up from being abandoned by his mother. We’d listened to the song again and I could feel the raw emotion in John’s voice.

All this made me feel worse for Mom and I really wasn’t sure how I should relate to her after that. And I couldn’t help but wonder…if she’d had such terrible parents, why wouldn’t she try to be the best parent she could be and never let what happened to her happen to her child? Instead, she seemed to want nothing to do with me. To this, Dad had said, “I’m sure Mom wants to be a good mother to you, but she is a victim of her past. You’re supposed to learn what it’s like to give and receive love from your parents, and when you don’t, you grow up not knowing how to do either.” Hearing this was good in that it helped me learn to not take her emotional distance so personally.

Mom’s eyes were better by the Saturday of my slumber party, although she had made arrangements to go out with some friends to a costume party that night. Dad volunteered to man us troops, with the help of two of my teenage cousins, Jeff and Toby, who enjoyed hanging out with Dad, listening to Led Zepplin, and playing Ping-Pong in the basement. I’d invited seven girls from my fifth grade class, along with my cousin Mindy. The girls began arriving around 6 p.m. with their duffels and sleeping bags, which we heaped in a pile by the TV. I popped Cindy Lauper in the tape deck and escorted each girl to the bathroom to pick out her favorite color of neon hair paint. Only Bridget McDunn, despite much peer pressure and cajoling, opted out of the hair spraying affair.

We listened to our two favorite Michael Jackson songs, and then put on Purple Rain and staged a dance contest, for which Jeff and Toby would be the judges. Embarrassingly, some of us attempted to copy Madonna’s provocative moves and even some of Prince’s. My friend April, who had sisters in high school, was declared the winner after she did the splits between two chairs. By 8 p.m., we were whipped into a frenzy and wanted more action.

Toby suggested we go “TP-ing” or “corning.” Dad, quite practically, said toilet paper always made such a mess for people and that stealing a farmer’s corn and shucking it would take half the night. Jeff suggested we go “spooning” instead.

“What’s spooning?” we all wanted to know.

Jeff said, “You’ll see.”

Rationalizing that he wouldn’t be condoning thievery or putting anyone out too badly, Dad agreed to drive us to the supermarket for the required supplies, which consisted of two 100-count boxes of plastic spoons, forks, and knives. It was a unanimous no-brainer that we should “spoon” Doug Mooney’s house, so off we went, ducking down in the back of Dad’s new tan El Camino. Parked around the corner from Doug’s house, we clambered awkwardly out of the back of the truck and followed Jeff up to the house next to Doug’s. He turned around and said, “Okay. Everyone take two big handfuls of plastic. Then, all you do is take a section of the front lawn and stick all your spoons down into the ground. Space them out and shove them about halfway in. Any questions?”

“What do we do when we’re done?” I asked.

“Run like hell back to the truck.”

This task passed surprisingly fast, even after Bridget decided to abandon the mission and give all of her plasticware to Toby. Soon we—well, all except Bridget—were screaming for my dad to drive away fast and laughing deliriously at the thought of Doug waking up to a sea of plasticware out front—a mini utensil-graveyard. Our laughing only intensified when we imagined Doug having to bend over and pull all 200 utensils out of the ground one by one. We headed home, enjoying the wind and darkness of the night. But then, Dad passed by our driveway and took the back roads through town and on to the old Catholic cemetery. We all giggled hysterically, anticipating the terror. Dad drove the car excruciatingly slowly up to the werewolf eyes, which were peeking through some overgrown bushes at us, glowing in all their redness.

The girls screamed “GO GO GO!” over and over, pounded on the cab window, and waved for my dad to keep moving. Instead, the car lurched forward and stopped. Dad got out and told us to calm down, that the car had died, and he would just take a quick look under the hood. With every nerve on fire, we watched him lift the lid. Suddenly, the headlights went out, my Dad yelled “Oh No!” and when the lights came back on, he was gone. Jeff and Toby jumped out and excitedly told us that a huge werewolf had jumped from the bushes and taken him. At this, we all completely lost it. The nightmare continued for about another minute until Jeff and Toby couldn’t contain their laughter anymore. My dad came jogging back into view, brushing himself off and shaking his head as if he didn’t know what had just happened. Our relief temporarily cured our panic, but we demanded to be taken straight home.

Once safely back in the house in our pajamas, with our sleeping bags spread out, we ate pizza and started watching the movie Halloween. Six girls with legs drawn up to their chests, arms interlocked, were squished together on the couch that faced the huge picture window between us and the cemetery across the street. Mindy and I were sitting on the floor on our sleeping bags, cradling stuffed animals. About thirty minutes into the movie, Shannon suddenly screamed and pointed to her reflection in the black picture window.

“What happened?” Dad jumped up and asked.

“There was just someone—a man in a black mask with white eyes—peering in the window at me!” Shannon hollered. She swore to it.

At this, everyone jumped up and ran to the back of the house, unaware that there were as many windows in the back of the house as the front. Jeff came to get us and said that my dad was going to go outside and look around. I flew back up front, noticed Dad was holding a huge butcher knife, dropped to my knees, and begged him not to go. Sensing how seriously upset I was, he put me out of my misery by winking a deliberately reassuring wink at me, which told me this was staged and to play along.

All the girls were back on the couch, standing now, hands over their mouths, eyes wide, watching the door. I stayed near the door and tried to peek around my cousins to get a glimpse of Dad outside. I heard him say, “Okay, YOU! Get in here. I’m calling the police.” And he pulled a large, scary-looking man, who stood over six feet two, through our front door by his coat sleeve. In the light, we could see that the man had slathered brown mud over his face, which was now crusted and cracked.

He was wearing a choppy brown wig, something that looked like a mechanic’s gray jumpsuit, and black boots. His eyes were huge and white, but they were smiling like his mouth. In fact, he was chuckling. He apologized for scaring us and introduced himself as my Grandpa Shultz from down the street. Everyone in the room exhaled at the same time, befuddled, but happy the tension had finally lifted. This party went down in the history books and kicked off an annual Halloween slumber party tradition that lasted four more years. Each year the thrills grew bigger, as boys our age caught on and either started all-out wars against us or joined forces with us in the delinquency. Only Bridget McDunn never attended another overnighter.

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