I recall being a relatively happy child of the sixties, until we discovered I was “exceptional.” Testing occurred in third grade, and they said they’d never seen scores like mine. My parents were contacted and told I was outstanding, possibly a genius. Apparently, Father’s first reaction was disbelief. “How can that be? She’s a girl.” Mother was less surprised. “Well, she’s a Virgo, so she’s always been a perfectionist.”
Before the revelation, I’d mostly spent time with Mother, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and sewing, though always surrounded by books. Also, of course, developing lovely little friendships involving jump rope, Beatles cards, and Barbies. They said I was too young for sleepovers. Sometimes Father tried enlisting my interest in Red Sox games, though since I’d been taught nothing about baseball, our interactions were mutually disappointing and, to him, further proof of female defectiveness. A boy would have just known.
But now, after Father accepted that I was (highly) intelligent, attention began. Initially just questions on what I was studying. Pleasant, if unused to. Explaining long division, I imagined it was like I’d become a boy. But too much to hope for. “Someone has to look after her mind,” Father proclaimed, and it was understood only he was up to the task. No one, including me, even thought to recognize I’d been doing just fine looking after my own mind.
Father developed new rules. With implications. He’d examine all homework directly after dinner. Which meant: 1. No longer helping Mother clear the table or wash dishes. I protested at unfairness to Mother. 2. Homework had to be completed before dinner. In fact, immediately after school. Mother protested at unfairness to me. “She needs time for fun and fresh air.” And listening with friends to growing collections of 45s.
“She needs to learn to excel.”
“She needs to be a regular kid.”
“She needs discipline. Test scores won’t last without hard work.”
What she needed was to not be discussed in the third person while in the room. What she needed was recognition that she already excelled, without Father, that she soaked up knowledge naturally, maybe like boys with baseball. Of course, I had no words like those for years.
My stomach tightened with every argument, like claws squeezing inside, forcing me to throw up. Which went unnoticed.
No surprise Father got his way. So Mother worked alone in the kitchen, and Father and I toiled in the living room, as he “reviewed” my work. Spelling lists were easy, but his insistent and repeated pronunciations made me nervous—“brreck-fahsst,” “ah-ro-mah”—and I stumbled. He recorded every hesitation, even if I spelled the word correctly. His list lengthened, and every night I had to spell what seemed like a hundred words, even if only three were assigned for the next day.
After kitchen work, Mother made me Mary Quant dresses from Simplicity patterns and Jordan Marsh’s exquisite remnants we’d bought on sale together before we knew I was intelligent. Father and I drudged on. He sighed at how Mother’s cleaning up and sewing machine noises distracted us from “our work together.” I loved Mother’s Mary-Quant-on-the-cheap but wanted her to make more noise, make him stop rather than make me that “Daddy’s Girl” white dress with neck and wrist ruffles.
Father couldn’t complain about my exceptional reading comprehension answers, but he berated my left-handed penmanship. Finger banging on my history homework, he yelled, “How will anyone know this says, ‘Kateri Tekakwitha spent most of her time in prayer’?” He obviously could read it. I wrote neatly, painstakingly bearing down on always-sharpened pencils, yet it never crossed my mind to defend myself. Instead, because I’d made him angry, I felt responsible for calming him down.
“I’ll write more carefully the next time, Dad,” I said softly, head lowered. “You’ll write more carefully now. Do it again. I said now,” and he threw my notebook at me.
I had to erase all those crisp, thin words and write over them since homework had to be done in bound notebooks where no pages could be torn out. But the indentation of my first writing wouldn’t completely disappear, so the rewrite looked messy. Once when a page ripped after I’d erased it for the third or fourth time and I got so upset (typical girl!), Mother made him stop.
“You’re torturing the child and teaching her nothing. She does her work well on her own,” Mother finally screamed and pulled the notebook and me away from him. Why hadn’t Mother helped me before if she understood? I asked her the next day, but she said arguing with Father would simply prolong our review time. She felt sorry for me, but it was best to let him be. My mind heard her say, “I cannot defend you every night.” My stomach heard, “He is in control, and he needs you, only daughter, because you are his single pleasure.” Only when vomiting over the toilet bowl years later did I ask, “What about my needs? My pleasure?”
My grades gradually declined. Teachers’ comments focused on new faults. Loss of confidence. Unusual reticence to speak. Inability to concentrate. Stomach pains. Stubborn refusals to see the nurse.
“Told you those tests were a fluke,” Father admonished Mother. “She can’t maintain her grades, even with my help. She needs more attention from me.” And it seemed I’d be stuck reviewing homework forever, with him continually finding fault, proving my weaknesses, and then my need for him.
I got sicker. My mother sensed the pain my stomach was in. He put it down to “female hysteria.” But when I couldn’t stop vomiting for three days and had to be hospitalized, Mother used all the kitchen money to buy me a small desk at the secondhand store on the corner. The owner gave her a chair for free.
She set the desk up in my bedroom and told Father I’d do my homework alone now. I went into my room directly after dinner but could still hear him.
“Her grades’ll go down further. She needs me to do well.”
I told myself I’d work until everything was perfect, that it would be better than what I did with Father. Though, by then, I wasn’t sure how. I kept worrying what Father would think. Whether I could be prepared for that spelling test in the morning without reviewing his long list. If my handwriting was clear enough. My answers sufficiently detailed. It was years before I could admit that what Father had really taught me was to doubt myself at every turn, to wonder if the tests had gotten it wrong, to imagine that I was as average as any other girl.
It took many more years to discover there was a whole set of literature on father-daughter relationships that were just like ours. There I was imagining myself to be simply a garden-variety neurotic—a little anxious and a perfectionist perhaps because of my star sign—when, in fact, I was suffering from the consequences of what is called “covert emotional incest.” No wonder I couldn’t stop vomiting.
About the Author
Kathleen McCormick’s writing has been published in armarolla, Green Hills Literary Lantern, South Carolina Review, Witness, phoebe, Kestrel, Superstition Review, Italian Americana, The Rambler, Rock & Sling, Northwest Review, Lullwater Review, Willow Review, Zone 3, Poemmemoirstory, Fugue, The Dirty Goat, Tiny Lights, Paterson Literary Review, Crack The Spine, Sweet Tree Review, Calyx, and many others. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including the 2016 Foreword Reviews Gold Medal in Humor and the 2019 TopShelf Book Award for First Novel (under 60,000 words), for her novel Dodging Satan. She has participated in many writing conferences and served as keynote speaker at a number of meetings, including the 2009 International Conference on Reading and Writing in Malmö, Sweden, and the 2015 University of Florida Writing Program Conference. She has a PhD in English from the University of Connecticut, was on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, and is currently Professor of Literature and Writing at Purchase College, SUNY. To view more of her work click below.