Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty's Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her first novel is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books.
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"This intensely powerful memoir touches depths yet unheard of in contemporary writing."
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"This is the book I've been waiting to read all of my life."
It’s fitting that yesterday we talked about fathers and Lidia’s attempt to humanize hers, because today’s chapter deals with a pivotal moment in their relationship. After yesterday’s chapter, in which Lidia unpeels the layers of her father’s story (his career, his time as an artist, his service in the war, and his own absent father), this chapter provides a startling jump back to the version of her father we’ve come to know.
In “How To Ride A Bike” Lidia is ten, her sister has run away from home, and, as a consolation, her father brings home a “hot pink Schwinn with a banana seat and streamers coming out of the handlebars” (pg. 107). But instead of letting Lidia’s excitement translate into determined practice, her father forces her to ride the bike for the first time, pushing her clumsily around the neighborhood streets, getting angrier and less patient as her feet fail to move, as her ten-year-old body fails to balance:
“Goddamn it, I said put your feet on the pedals. . . . I said look up, goddamn it. . . . Don’t cry, for christ’s sake. . . . Would you please pedal? For christ’s sake” (pgs. 108-109).
This is not the idyllic scene of a little girl learning to ride a bike for the first time. This is not the cinematic moment where the music swells and the frame slows while a father lovingly teaches his daughter how to ride a bike, gingerly brushing off her sweater in between benign falls. This scene is aggressive and violent: Lidia is scared and stunned at the hands of her raging father. It’s important to note that while what’s literally happening is that Lidia’s father is teaching her how to ride a bike, what is implied is a figurative rape: he forces her to relinquish control of her body, he forces her to engage in an act that is terrifying and physically painful, and he forces her to keep going even when she asks him to stop.
What happens when her father takes her to the top of a hill and lets her go without any real instruction on how to steer or brake is gruesome, humiliating, and culminates in a violation of Lidia’s girlish body. This, in a way, is Lidia’s loss of innocence.
The perversion of this typically idyllic scene is startling. We feel Lidia’s fear. We feel her physical pain. We also feel, when she steels herself against tears, how immensely this moment must have shaped her life. I can’t help but think of Lidia’s insight on page 76 that “damaged women . . . don’t think [they] deserve kindness” and how this moment must have confirmed that conviction.
I have a hard time explaining this to people who have never experienced it themselves, but I’ll try: when you grow up in an environment in which your comfort, safety, and happiness are not paramount, you grow up to be a person who believes that your comfort, safety, and happiness are not paramount. If your parents do not make you feel loved and safe and respected, you will never know that you can (or should) feel anything other than unloved, unsafe, and disrespected.
For Lidia, the trauma of learning how to ride a bike desensitizes her. All of what was innocent in her (her tears, her vulnerability, her thin skin) is broken. In the wake of her trauma, Lidia is left “Bleeding. Bleeding. But not crying. For years and years, after that” (pg. 111).
One of the wonderful things I learned in therapy was that we, as adults, can be our own protectors. So many of our behaviors are leftover defense mechanisms from childhood: how we were neglected, how we were abandoned, how we were made to feel unimportant. But the good news is that we aren’t ten years old anymore. We can protect ourselves. We can nurture ourselves. We, wonderfully, can be our own parents.
Of course, it’s not all hunky-dory, problem-solved. Even if you’re fully capable of nurturing and being kind to others, nurturing and being kind to yourself can be a constant battle. Here’s one way that works for me: I think of what I would say to my children if they were in a similar situation. What would I say to my daughter if she were in love with a man who had never loved her? What would I say to her if she were on the precipice of change and suddenly terrified? I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t say: I wouldn’t say, “Get over it” or “Stop being such a baby” or “You’re so pathetic” or any number of things I say to myself in moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. What I would say is something more along the lines of “Darling girl, be strong. You will be okay because you are kind, resourceful, resilient, and brave.”
I should clarify: I don’t actually have any children of my own.
So, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I will: sometimes I go as far as to write them letters. Instead of sitting on my couch and hating myself for not being strong enough, or smart enough, or perfect enough, I write letters to my unborn children telling them what to do if ever they find themselves in a similar situation.
Here is one that I wrote last year:
Recently I lost the most significant person in my life. Thankfully he is not actually lost. He is alive and well, living and existing just fine without me, and I am grateful for that. Grateful that he is not lost forever.
What I have felt since has been awful. It has been a combination of sadness and a sense that “this is all my fault.” Try as I may to dissuade it, it’s there: I am too fat, too quiet, too uninteresting, too indecent, etc. What all of that self-criticism distills down to is the belief that I am unlovable. Even while I put on a determined face and agree with my friends that he is an asshole and a jerk and all the other typical man-hating tropes, even while I feel angry and hurt and rationally right, what I feel underneath all of that is, “He doesn’t love me because I did something wrong, because I am wrong. He doesn’t love me because I don’t deserve to be loved.”
[See above re: damaged women not believing they deserve kindness.]
The dialogue in my head goes like this: “He wants to be with seven other women instead of me because no one would want to be with me.” Never do I question him. Never do I ask myself what kind of person would want to be with seven other women instead of me, the girl he called his “other half,” the girl he called his best friend. Never do I stop focusing so much on what I did wrong and ignoring the more obvious questions: What did he do wrong? What is wrong with him?
This is what I think: when someone who has always loved you—who is supposed to love all of you—suddenly, without explanation, does not, it is not your inability to be loved that is to blame, it is their inability to love.
People are inherently damaged. We come into the world pure: smooth skin, blue eyes, soft fingernails. And we harden. We scar. Our skin thickens, our nails crack. All we can do is try to map our scars. All we can do is try our best to be kind—to others and to ourselves. We are not responsible for anyone else’s inability to be kind or understanding.
You are not responsible for anyone else’s inability to be kind or understanding.
This is what I know: if someone is not capable of loving you the way you deserve to be loved (because, believe me, you deserve to be loved well), they do not deserve to love you.
OK. Your turn. What are the ways in which you take care of yourself when you are at your lowest?