Below is an excerpt of the novel we’re working on. It’s fictionalized autobiography — fiction based on personal experience. I don’t seem to write straight-out autobiography. Until I get some distance from it, turning it into a story, it’s hard to have anything to say. It’s simply what happened. Once I start turning experience into story, I get that critical, objective distance that makes patterns and turns what was scary or tragic at the time into, very often, comedy. There is humor there, but I can’t see it if I’m too close to it — I need to back up until it’s clearer.
This is a story about growing up in a family where people are mentally ill. It’s about mental illness as an experience, not as a clinical diagnosis, or a “condition.” It’s about the adjustments people make in order to live in a situation that an outsider might find impossible. Human beings are flexible, and it’s surprising what they can manage to adapt to, especially kids. And if some bits of that experience are sad, or frightening, there are others that are funny.
It’s written from the point of view of Minerva, a precocious little girl who gets “mental crushes” on things — at the moment it’s food and recipe books. She knows she is “different” and is coming to see her family is really different, but she’s not so sure society is all that sane, either. I hope you enjoy this bit of “East-West Crazy.”
EAST-WEST CRAZY (excerpt)
I avoided looking at anyone, hunched over my desk, intent on my work, printing each letter and number with as much care as a monk illuminating a copy of the Bible. Show and Tell was forgotten, but the bottle, which I’d wanted to show to Laurel privately, was still in my pocket. When Mrs. Beauchamp told us to put our books and pencils away and fold our hands on our desks, I glanced at the clock, confused that the clock had marched so far around the day.
“Does anyone have anything for Show and Tell?” Mrs. Beauchamp asked with forced enthusiasm. She smiled stiffly through the procession of rocks, toys, and dilapidated bird nests which followed. When the stream seemed to have dried up, Mrs. Beauchamp looked around the room. “Anyone else?” I, bored, stuck my hand in my pocket, and winced. The little bottle was a lump on my hip. I silently debated taking it home without enduring the Show and Tell process, decided not to raise my hand. If there was one thing I didn’t feel like doing at that moment, it was calling attention to myself.
Mrs. Beauchamp surveyed the room, stopping on me. Something on my face drew her, and with the instinct of teachers everywhere, she spotted a reluctant pupil who needed nudging. “Minerva?”
I shook my head.
“Minerva,” Mrs. Beauchamp said with smiling force, “do you have something?” I’d once overheard her telling another teacher that little Minerva was, “an odd one, very bright, but positively leaden in social situations. Given her way, the girl would avoid speaking up at all. If someone doesn’t help her, she’s going to end up strange” Mrs. Beauchamp beckoned me to the front of the room.
I passed by Nancy’s desk, and although I avoided looking her way, could hear the little snort she gave whenever she wanted to make her contempt clear without being caught by adults.
Up at the front of the room, I stared at my shoes, hand clenched around the bottle in my pocket.
“Eyes up, Minerva,” Mrs. Beauchamp said, a hint of pleading in her voice. “Stand up straight.”
I nodded miserably, holding up my mandolin bottle. My first few words were lost in a choked whisper. Before Mrs. Beauchamp could prompt me, I took a deep breath, my voice coming out too loud as I focused my eyes on the bottle in my raised hand.
“This is a bottle of wine,” I said.
Mrs. Beauchamp gasped.
“I made it myself,” I continued proudly. “Wine is made from grape juice that has…” I paused, going slowly to pronounce the word correctly, “fer-men-ted. That means it’s started to rot, kind of. If it rots the wrong way, it gets moldy, but if it rots the right way, it turns into alcohol.” Several kids looked interested.
Nancy huffed, “It’s not real.”
“Sure it is.” I handed the bottle to Kevin, the first kid in the first row, and fixed my eyes on Laurel’s encouraging smile. “My Dad gave me the bottle. He got it on an airplane flight.”
Leaning toward April, Nancy hissed, “I bet she stole it.” April glanced quickly from me to Laurel, turned back to me, and laughed. My face, always red during presentations, felt ready to burst into flame. I glanced at Mrs. Beauchamp, waiting. This was the point where Mrs. Beauchamp would, with comforting predictability, smite the offender for interrupting. She would also land on Nancy for being rude, and lying. A simple phone call to my Mom would restore my honor, and Nancy might not see recess again for weeks. Stiff with humiliation, I waited for the justice I knew was coming.
The look Mrs. Beauchamp turned on Nancy held, at best, distracted annoyance.
Confused, I continued in a rush, “They give you all kinds of things to drink on airplanes, but I don’t know what all of them are, so I don’t know if the stuff I put in them looks right, except for wine.” The bottle passed from hand to hand, some pausing to sniff it. Mrs. Beauchamp’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly. I stumbled ahead, “I know what color wine is – it’s like grape juice. I didn’t mean to make wine – I just put grape juice in there so it would look right, but I know what it smells like, and after a few weeks…”
Mindy Shaw unscrewed the metal cap and took a careful sip. Her face screwed up. “Eeew!” Mrs. Beauchamp shook her head quickly, hand outstretched. She jumped to her feet. “That will be exactly enough!” Giggles escaped a few children before they got a good look at Mrs. Beauchamp’s face, but by the time she strode across the room to Mindy’s desk and held out her hand, no one seemed to be breathing, let alone laughing. Mindy surrendered the bottle meekly.
“I didn’t get to the part about where I put the bottle so it could…” I was confused, uncomfortable. Mrs. Beauchamp was clearly angry, but I couldn’t figure out why.
“I said,” Mrs. Beauchamp growled, “that is enough! I want you to go to the Principal’s office.” She wrote out a note, pencil moving in sharp, angry strokes, ripped the paper from the pad, the sound loud in the silent room. I stood where I’d been left, in front of the class, my face burning. Nancy smirked as I accepted the note and exited the room without comment.
I tried again and again to explain to Principal Turner, to Mrs. Beauchamp, as they stood over me, frowning. Someone else had put grape juice in the bottle and turned it into wine before me. The airline had put the bottle on the plane and given it to Dad. Dad had brought the bottle home. Dad had drained the contents and given the bottle to me. If it was okay for someone else to make wine, okay for the airline to give it to Dad, and okay for Dad to drink what was in it and give me the bottle, why was it wrong for me to put grape juice in the bottle again?
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