To me, nobody writes of the pain that can be found in childhood like Margaret Atwood. Just as I felt when I read her novel Cat’s Eye, I find myself seared by the words I’m reading in Surfacing. I’m only halfway through this novel, but I have to post these thoughts now.
At first I ran away, but after that my mother said I had to go, I had to learn to be polite; “civilized” she called it. So I watched from behind the door. When I finally joined in a game of Musical Chairs, I was welcomed with triumph like a religious convert or a political defector.
Some were disappointed, they found my hermit-crab habits amusing, they found me amusing in general. Each year it was a different school, in October or November when the first snow hit the lake, and I was the one who didn’t know the local customs, like a person from another culture: on me they could try out the tricks and minor tortures they’d already used up on each other. When the boys chased and captured the girls after school and tied them up with their own skipping ropes, I was the one they would forget on purpose to untie. I spent many afternoons looped to fences and gates and convenient trees, waiting for a benevolent adult to pass and free me…
“If you don’t do it right we won’t play with you,” they said. Being socially retarded is like being mentally retarded, it arouses in others disgust and pity and the desire to torment and reform.
It was harder for my brother; our mother had taught him that fighting was wrong so he came home every day beaten to a pulp. Finally she had to back down: he could fight, but only if they hit first.
It must be something Canadian mothers tell their children. My brother and I were also taught not to fight by our Canadian mother. So unlike the American mothers in my experience, who said, “Someone hit you? Who hit you? Well, make sure you beat the crap out of them next time.”
I wasn’t teased or left out because I was ugly. Or, stupid. Or, anything wrong. I was teased because I wasn’t mean. I didn’t fight, and neither did my brother. We didn’t know how to handle teasing because the words spoken in our home weren’t unkind. We were vulnerable in the face of neighborhood bullying, schoolyard taunting, the cruelty of children everywhere.
This is part of why Margaret Atwood’s writing is so very poignant to me today.