Generational Trauma and Gothic Horror: a personal essay.
Generational Trauma and Gothic Horror: a personal essay.
I have written of my love for all things gothic time and time again. My longing for the past, for things I never knew and never experienced has been with me since I was a child. Born in New Hampshire to secretive and damaged (though still loving) parents. I always knew there were stories about their pasts that I was not told. There were things that I knew I was never allowed to ask.
“What happened to daddy in the war?” “Why are you scared of wind?” “Why does mom cry if I leave the orange nightlight on in the hallway?”
Childhood is a mystery, my parent’s childhood’s were a mystery. Truth be told, even the names of my father’s ten brothers and sisters were a mystery. They were people I didn’t know, and only saw most of them once when they all showed up at his funeral twenty years ago.
That is all of them except one—a brother who had gone missing. Someone who was mentioned only once to me, and then never again.
Maybe I had a gothic childhood. Maybe my love for gothic didn’t stem from the gothic romances I bought at a flea market. Maybe I inherited it, like an illness passed down from generation to generation.
Not knowing my father’s side of the haunted story, I had to look towards my mother’s family. Her beautiful and lost sisters. I still don’t know much, but I know somethings. And these things are more terrifying and haunting than any ghost story I have ever known.
My grandmother’s name was Irene, and I met her only once when I was 8. It was a humid Miami summer, and every television was playing the Seoul Olympics. She pinched my fingers. My nails were painted baby pink. She told me only whores pain their nails.
We slept on the floor of her living room, a painting of Jesus with crown of thorns and lifelike blood dripping from his face hung on the wall above the television. His eyes watching us always. She warned me not to touch myself because he could see me. She told me not to even think about touching my friend who was sleeping next me, our gangly legs always intertwined like we were one creature.
Irene was beautiful when she was young. When her husband was at work she would sneak into “black town” and drink in bars that played live music. Irene, a month before her death, was finally diagnosed as bipolar, with schizoid effective disorder. She had been dying of this for years. When my mother was little Irene would put a large unused door over my mother’s wooden playpen, like a cage, and would leave her for hours, maybe days. First getting my mother to finally sleep by hitting her repeatedly on the head with a wooden spoon. There is still scar tissue there, in my mother’s head. It started when she was a baby and even now my mother’s elderly skull still has those small indentations.
My grandmother never told me this story. Of course she didn’t. My mother told me once, but then when I asked again, she said I must have made it up.
She went upstairs, I heard her sobbing in the dark.
Irene got hit by a car when my mother was 5. She walked into the street and passed out. A bottle of gin in her body, and a gardenia behind her ear. She was taken from the family for two years. The kids, by then there were four of them, were put into an orphanage. Until a family moved down from New Hampshire, friends from back home. They came down. They could help. Their eldest son was 17. He could take care of the kids when my grandfather was at work.
This was when my mother was raped for the first time. These were the years that my aunt Diane said she had no real memories. The only thing she could remember was being chased around the kitchen table, and then something happening, and she was split in two.
My aunt Sylvia never spoke of it. She also never had sex sober, not once in her 42 years.
My uncle Richard was mercilessly untouched, but still scarred.
My aunt Sylvia always spoke in a whisper. She was a breathy Marilyn Monroe type. Her house had framed butterflies on almost all the walls. There were delicate pins holding their wings in place. Sylvia had epilepsy and a drug problem. In her twenties she was the lover of a professional football player.
Once she drove her car full speed into a building, a seedy bar a mile or two from where I grew up. She never hit the brakes. After that she lived with us. There is a suburban legend of Sylvia taking a lot of LSD and having a panic attack while a two-year-old me cried. Legend states she came at me with a steak knife, and my father brought me into the garage, made me hide under the car until he came back for me. By the time the cops took her away I was covered in oil stains and had a new love for the smell of gasoline.
She wasn’t allowed to live with us after that, but sometimes still she would come for a few days a few weeks. Mostly she called at all hours of the night, sobbing into the phone, asking me if I thought my parents really loved each other.
She died when I was ten and she was two years sober. She sent her husband to get her some coffee, she took a bottle of her heart medicine and never woke up.
Sylvia loved butterflies.
Diane was taller than all of them, she modeled in stores in Miami, a living mannequin.
When she was seventeen, she was pregnant no one knew until she attacked a man on the street, thinking it was her father who had died six months before. She was so angry he had managed to fool them all. So angry at his ghost.
By the time she was hospitalized they knew she was pregnant, by the time her once slender body was puffy and sour with medication, they understood she had schizophrenia.
She spent summers with us. We would swim in my neighbor’s pool. I was little and she taught me yoga. She told me that people thought she was crazy, but she wasn’t crazy, she was haunted.
The last few years of her life she was completely blind, being taken care of by that son she had while she was in the hospital so many years ago. She died of Covid, and no one paid for a funeral or a burial, we found out after it happened. She was dead just a couple days and we had no way to find her. When I think of her now, she seems lost in the dark, still swimming in my neighbor’s pool, still laughing, still haunted.
I read this essay in a workshop in December, I wrote it about generational trauma. I didn’t see the horror in it, though I could feel it pressing under my skin. The class saw it though, remarked on my family’s gothic nature. This line of mystery and madness in the blood of the women in my family, all of them convinced they are not crazy, just haunted.