I taught myself to read as a toddler to be close to my momma. My momma loathed me. I was, as she described me, her "sissy child" or the "changeling." Any admiration she had, arose from guilt. She was more business manager, army general, and torturer than momma. Which was worse: her violence against me (verbal, physical, sexual) or the violence that she allowed others (including siblings and my theatrical manager) to exact on me? Still, strangely, I loved her. Most of all, I did not want her to be hurt. I would hide underneath her sewing machine under the castoff cloth when my father would beat her.
One time after he beat her through the window out onto the roof, I holed myself so far under the sewing machine that my hand got caught in what turned out to be a secret compartment where she kept two of her most treasured books: Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck. Both novels are about orphan girls. My grandmother (a ruthless prostitute and madam despite coverups told by some in my family) disowned my momma: my grandmomma placed my momma on a Pullman Porter's car on a train out of Philadelphia and shipped her to live at a private black children's orphanage in Washington, D.C. My momma's favorite novels (and I still have the exact copy of Imperial Woman today) told tales of brutal girlhood and womanhood about which she inimitably understood. By the time I was three, relying foremostly on those novels, I could read.
I was aided by a special ability: eidetic memory. Eidetic memory is the capacity to intensely recall phenomena only seconds or minutes after exposure. The ability actually decreases as a child moves into adulthood. The first book I ever held in my hands was a copy of the King James Version of the Bible. At church, I would hold it open and when the deacon read aloud the passages to which the preacher referred, I connected the text with the orality and remembered entire passages. That's how I came to learn almost all of the Psalms. A brother and I were briefly tutored by a religious couple named the Morgans. Mrs. Morgan was shocked to discover that I could already recite long Biblical passages from memory. She gave me thrift copies of "classic" books and poems to "test" my recall. At three I was also unusual in that I spoke in complete sentences. But, my speech went deeper. My eidetic memory empowered my structural recognition of language. I wanted to know how it all ticked. I began to understand the language that I recalled as vocabularies set within sentences.
My goal was to learn vocabularies and glean the mechanics of sentences. I taught myself vocabularies using the Britannica encyclopedias and thick bound dictionaries in my home. My immediate family was poor, violent, and lacking in college education, but they were intensely literate, especially in Christian texts. I began to understand the weight of simple, independent subject-verb declarative statements when I honed in on Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd. He leads me in paths of righteousness. I will fear no evil. I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." I reached a milestone when I was able to differentiate between the present tense of "The Lord is my shepherd" and the future tense of "I will fear no evil."
I recognized verb tense by figuring out the intelligibly within the preacher's reference to Psalm 23: the Lord's care of us meant that, in the future, we would be blessed without fear and homelessness. I connected meaning with recalled oral images, and recalled oral images with texts. By the time I tackled Heidi and Imperial Woman, I knew vocabularies and sentences. I then proceeded to move beyond the basics of declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory states from the Bible into a style of expression that seemed limited in that Christian text: descriptive expression. At their best, whether nonfiction or fiction, stories thrive on vivid narrative description. The Bible's religiosity seemed governed by a different order--less storytelling and more rumination, exaltation, questioning, imprecation, vituperation, invigilation, and praise.
Then, just after turning three, I began journaling. I used pieces of paper torn from the legal pads on which my momma wrote out monthly bills, organized chores, and kept track of her menses. My first instinct was to document the systematic burning done to me by a sibling so that I could show my pediatrician, Dr. Margaret Mary Nicholson, a piece of paper that described the atrocities in lieu of speech. My momma beat me and made me swear never to utter what my elder brother was doing to me or anything else in our family. Writing seemed a means to express my struggle without disobeying my momma's commands.
As you may know full well by now, I was no ordinary toddler, and I felt very close to death. I thought that there may surely come a time when my momma or any family member might actually kill me. So I was very conscious of mitigating my behaviors so as not to cross them while still exercising my own will. My eidetic memory posed a threat to my momma. She warned me repeatedly that if I told what I remembered (with the enormous precision and depth that it came to me) that I would be responsible for the break up of my family. "You could go to an orphanage," my momma threatened. "Or we could be homeless." All of these horrors did indeed befall me: soon I would be removed from my mother's care and placed in foster facilities. Soon I would be homeless. Our family would indeed be broken up and it is a testament to my good mental health as a person today that I have moved beyond the castigating guilt that I once felt for simply telling the truth about the violence.
And then it came to pass that my momma discovered my journals. She also discovered that I had been removing, reading and then returning her novels to the secret compartment in her sewing machine. She dragged me into the upstairs hallway by the bathroom and struck me again and again in my face. Then she handed the novels to me and told me to go downstairs and put them on the bookcase shelf in the den because they were obviously no longer a secret. I stood at the top of the steps, collecting myself before descending. She berated me for taking too long at the top of the staircase. Then, with a tap on my back, she pushed me. I tumbled down the steps like a rag doll. I knew I had injured my head as soon as I hit the bottom step. This was the first of a series of concussions that I endured through violence over the course of my childhood. My momma lied to Dr. Nicholson about the true source of my injury from that day. She lied about most of my injuries. As a toddler, I taught myself how to read and write. But at that moment, at the bottom of the steps, I began to cloak my reading and hide my writing. What good were my literary efforts if I was dead?