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by Mathias B. Freese


The Montréal Review, October 2012


"This Möbius Strip of Ifs" by Mathias B. Freese (Wheatmark, 2012)


Winner of the 2012 National Indie Excellence Awards in the non-fiction category


The way we were treated as small children is the way we treat ourselves the rest of our life. And we often impose our most agonizing suffering upon ourselves.

-Alice Miller


SOMETHING BY SOMEONE CLOSE to me has been done to me so well and so insidiously and powerfully, systematically, slyly and cunningly and incrementally over eons of psychic time, that it has taken more than half of my life to become "aware" of it. It is analogous to being informed as a student that man originally came from the seafl uids, salts, renal systems, et al. Or that birds probably descended from dinosaurs, note their feathered "scales" and snakelike heads (think flamingo). It is difficult to imagine, much less believe, and it is equally disconcerting and smells of overripe fiction, yet the weight of fact and science bears it out-and what one does with this often is to put it out of mind, which leads me back to my point.

Consequently something was done to me and with me that immobilized, shocked and froze my infantile systems.

Essentially I am a shade of my former self, whatever that pristine self was. I am left with the Lebanese ruins of an internecine destruction not of my own doing. It is this remnant of a once coherent and whole clime and culture that devotes itself-in maimed response-to the world. The ruins behave as if they are the original selves, to wit, I am not an authentic self, delusively feeling that I am living reasonably and fairly well. Until I am aware of the havoc created within, until it is mirrored, I truly do not live my life. Damage, early done, leaves lifelong fissures. I am aware of a river system within, one fl owing with rage into all its tributaries and minor streams; it is my feeling it is not so much a defense as a symptom. It is so much more. Rather, it is the self-appalling inflammation of having been dammed at each and every outlet to the sea, shut down, long before adolescence. The backup, the flowing back upon itself, has created innumerable lakes and ponds of broiling, simmering fester and rage, night stirrings. Therefore, when I look back at and espy the torrent of rage, or dip my emotional hands into it to sample its waters, I am still deceived. I mistake the rage for the cause, rather than the symptom.

All this is a discursive way of saying that I cannot advance any other self to experiencing his or her self if I cannot advance my own. Client and therapist, as young children, were both soul murdered.

This essay itself is an intellectually orchestrated rodeo: broncos buck; calves are roped; bulls ridden; all an attempt to corral a feeling into conceptualization; that is, a thought-feeling, thinking a feeling, which is not the thing itself, for sure. I can write about feelings- fiction writers do it all the time; however, too much of our lives are a fiction. What is it to feel? The bitterest irony and commentary of all is that some of us have to be taught that first learning. And how does one face the bereft despair, the awareness that an incipient feeling-river system was paralyzed, its imprints, long since dry and sere, like Mars's canals, eerie lines on a far off planet, a fit subject for speculation, but an unexplored, unfelt and unlived experience.

When I was a young boy between the ages of eight and eleven, I lived in a veterans' housing project in Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn. Coney Island and Brighton Beach were a short bus ride to the west and Sheepshead Bay a few blocks to the north. I imagine that early Native Americans took much pleasure in the surf that grazed the pebbled shores. One afternoon a friend and I went to the farther reaches of the project to where private homes bordered the shore outside the limits of the postwar families within. At one sturdy home we set about blithely, aimlessly, and quite innocently, to fall into a rhythm, and we slowly began to displace a wall of rocks and boulders that were manageable to our young hands; we simply and earnestly mimicked the sea rhythms, and emulated the ocean's motions by moving one segment of rocks to another locale. We were, romantically, an extension of the sea. We had no idea that we were trespassing or doing wrong by removing a seawall designed as a breaker to protect the house within. It must be understood that innocence was afoot, almost edenic in its purity.

My mother, the great She, found us. She had walked across the entire width of the housing complex, past cottages and barracks, across small streets and alley ways between houses, across an immense baseball field that during the war sailors recreated themselves, past some outlying barracks to the outer perimeter, the outskirts of "town." (I can only imagine the fired fervor of her strides.) And like many mothers of that time she had an internal fix on kith and kin; it was as if she navigated by the stars to find her son and his friend at "mischief." I recall no words; my friend was dismissed. She was carrying a strap. Clearly I had misbehaved; perhaps I had stayed out far too long-that feels truer to this reminiscence. In any case I learned what I had done wrong was wrong; somehow I also learned that the line of rocks, somewhat disassembled, was man-made and this was really new to me, and how very interesting.

As punishment I had to remove my shoes-yes, remove my shoes. (Where had she learned this? What European mother did this to her?) I remember walking barefoot across pavement and pebbly walkways and across the baseball field filled with tar-like scree, like a lunarscape. I cannot recall if there was pain (I consciously choose not to?). Perhaps it is so deeply repressed I will never become aware of it. What I felt was overpowering-what I felt? Without words we headed home. My mother (the great She!) walked behind me, strap in hand, never used, her Roman fasces and emblematic authority, her sign. She followed me across the breadth of the project back to 729 Langham Court, barefoot son in the lead, Indian file. Mother shadowed behind like some ascending thunderhead.

Before you, reader, or I, give it words, or interpret it, before we smart-aleck it, into analytic expression, before we think it, and before we analyze it, allow me a moment to feel it again, over a span of fifty or more years.

Power . . . Intimidation . . . Mountain God . . . Yahweh . . . Force . . . Control . . . Boss . . . Thou shalt have no other god before me . . . You are less, and I am so much more . . . Insignificant thing . . .You are male, I am woman . . . You exist to obey . . . Serve me . . . Never cross me . . . Never violate . . . Never trespass. These are the rules, the limitations, the lined graph paper between us as mother and son. Stay boxed. Stay confined and pent up. Never leave the grid. Cross no perimeter. Orders and order. Above all, heed the nonverbalized conditions and conform.

And so the eruptive quality of a rent in the earth; I see a little into who and what shut me down. I was but a lithograph for a powerful parental imprint, an omnipotent one, a thousand run off, each numbered and then the stone broken. I wish I could see the fi rst few "artist proofs" before my feelings were numbed for all my life. In my emotional wallet a laminated card carries this admonition: mene mene tekel upharsin (Thou hast been weighed and found wanting.)

The long walk my mother and I had that day-the buzzing mentation I felt-diminished me without my feeling it. I went along, I assumed it was normal and fair, after all it had to be; this was my mother and she was right simply because she was who she was-"I am that I am." It is an acquiescence of a young self to soul murder. Grossly applied, it is Mengele in his white gloves selecting and one is given no choice, one is chosen, links, rechts.

As a little boy during and after World War II the local butcher with his stiletto knives and brown-slicked butcher paper gave me a cozy and nurturing feeling while I looked on by mother's side as he addressed the meat according to her specifications. Knives on maple butcher blocks, a post-killing place, are remembered rituals. Chopped meat was ground out by a metal device affixed to a butcher block table end in which gobs of hand-fed meat was pushed down a tunnel and exited into spaghetti-like strands from another end. This blossom of meat was scooped up, wrapped in paper and taped. How hard it is to feel oneself when one has been ground up, exquisitely, so eloquently and relentlessly in gesture, that to take issue, much less object, is to impair a perfect finish or ending, to be an insolent, eternal ingrate. And then . . . feel it . . . it submerges, like Atlantis, the full weight of a continent fallen to the bottom of the sea, all species exterminated, all culture erased, all awareness gone, except the faint, papery membranous tissue of what once was.

I cannot see.

I am unaware.

I can go no further.

I am spent.


Mathias B. Freese is author of The i Tetralogy, a Holocaust novel, winner of the Allbooks Review Editor's Choice Award, and Down to a Sunless Sea, a collection of short fiction, finalist for the Indie Excellence Book Awards. You can learn more about his work at www.mathiasbfreese.com


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