Back then, hammered upon by fists, I took cover under fantasy. I clung to my imagination in order to survive. A brutal stepfather and bystander mother made life miserable-to-unbearable, and so my wish was to be someone else. As far as I was aware, no one my age was dealing with the outpouring of fire and brimstone I longed to escape, so I had no choice but to take flight in my head. Often, when I got a reprieve from the pendulum crash of my stepfather’s stumpy knuckles, I would daydream a normal life. More often, I’d dream about being Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee the character, he of Fists of Fury and Enter the Dragon fame: lithe, super fit, ready to enact punishment on his enemies with breakneck speed and assured style. I wanted to be a character—the character—that could readily defend himself and inflict pain on the man who entered his home like a wrecking ball, ready to leave it in ruins. Little, puny, bruised me found comfort in the reverie of revenge: scene after scene of me side kicking my stepfather’s face, slamming him to the ground with my extraordinary Kung Fu technique and merciless force.
But I was nurtured by a grandmother who thought revenge was the worst sort of failure—you were giving too much time to someone who had already taken away too much. Perhaps that explains why my other childhood hero was Charlie Brown. Here was a kid who, week after week when I met him in the Peanuts comic strip, with its funny gang of exuberant kids and their animal companions (plus, an additional delight for me, nary an adult in sight), was teased and mocked and bullied but somehow, insecure and anxious though he could sometimes be, he pressed on. Call him “blockhead”; pull the football away from him, time and time and time again; humiliate him—this kindhearted lovable loser would not contort from who he was to hotly confront the world. He would persevere, maybe even kick that ball someday. (Years later I read a remark made by an opponent of 18th-century preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards that reminded me of how my young eyes viewed Charlie Brown: his “happiness was out of the reach of his enemies.” Melancholy might grab the kid, but it didn’t have full hold on him—I looked at lil’ Charlie Brown and saw joy, found joy.) In him was a courage harder to grasp, near-impossible for me to imitate.
But fearful, flimsy me didn’t have the strength to mount a physical fight. Nor did I have the resilience and generosity to be untroubled by the blows that regularly rained down on me. So, much as I dreamt about becoming Bruce Lee or Charlie Brown, I couldn’t copy either. Who I did become, though, was another fictional character— the Jamaican trickster figure Anansi. This character, a spider who made his way from Ghanaian folktales—in Akan, the word ananse means spider—to Jamaican lore, was the star character in many of the folktales I heard as a child in Jamaica, where he was usually a symbol of resistance and survival, taking on his oppressors with slick talking and sleight of hand. The stories describe a world where Anansi encounters more dangerous animals—characters with aptronyms like Tiger and Snake—and cheats his way out of defeat and death. An Anansi story is a concealed proverb: a wallop of wisdom lies in wait at the end. But that’s not what I took away from those tales—what attracted me was that one could outmaneuver one’s oppressors through trickery. Not only could I get out from under someone’s rough grasp: I could also have the last laugh. I relished Anansi’s nimble deceit, and envied how he used his sly mind to giftwrap his opponents’ stupidity and cruelty and hand it back to them. By the time his predators recognized they were being fed their own bitterness, Anansi was gone, out of harm’s way with a grin. I yearned to evade like Anansi, and soon enough he became my patron saint. I decided that the burden of imagination, then, was learning how to manipulate: there was safety, after all, in being slippery. Anansi was a mental Bruce Lee, so to speak, and I began to behave like his overeager disciple.
So it became a cat and mouse game. I’d make a sly move, my mother and stepfather would try to trap me, I’d lie to escape and avoid harm. (My grandmother, the only safe adult, would usually be on the lookout, ready to provide sanctuary.) My home became, in my mind, a torture chamber, and I wanted to be away from it as much as possible. My rationale was that I could get home from school around 3 pm, like any normal ten-year-old kid, and get humiliated and pummeled for a few hours until bedtime. Or I could get in past bedtime, on the wrong side of midnight, and be greeted by my grandmother who would wait up to sneak me in, hear the truth of where I’d been, share laughter, and help me figure out a story that would sound believable to my mother in the morning.
Eventually, my mother started to stay up, suspecting that I wasn’t always showing up a few minutes after she turned in. Sometimes, in the wee, quiet hours as I scaled the front gate or scurried up the grill that led to the second-floor balcony by my room, I’d hear a shout: “Yes, Mr. Bloodcloth Tarzan!” Anansi had met his opposition, and would have to talk his way out of a less severe beating than the one the truth would attract. But my mother refused to settle with the fictions I weaved. She would match my trickster with her detective. Days later, like a psychic who had suddenly regained lost powers, she would confidently declare me a liar, unspool my concealed activities, and pile on punishment or beatings—or worse, send me to my step-father, who was like an executioner who was only sated once he fulfilled his sadistic role. I couldn’t figure out how she knew what I did—I was half-convinced she went to an Obeah practitioner—until my grandmother, who decided to play counter-detective to her daughter’s detective, figured out that my mother would put questions to me about my whereabouts and wanderings after I fell asleep. When semiconscious I had a habit of answering anything asked, only to be unaware of the conversations when I awoke. Now tipped to her device, I began to pretend to sleep for the first hour or so after I turned in; when poked and questioned, I repeated the deceit I told with eyes wide open. Sherlock Holmes was no match for Anansi.
My lies were armor. They protected me by keeping me a step ahead of my mother and stepfather after my peregrinations got me home late. They protected me from bullies at home and from bullies outside. But they didn’t protect me from the bully within: soon enough, what began as self-defense was now a way of life. Anansi was no longer a persona. I stopped playing a trickster and became one. The truth had painful consequences and being a trickster, I reasoned, was a life-and-death matter. But the delight in outmaneuvering others brought with it a corrosive element: I was all too ready to deceive.
In my first year of high school I received a bad report card; I had been treating school like a social hangout, and homework and study as suggestions to be ignored, and had the grades to show for it. My stepfather beat me bloody. I was unable to sit for weeks, had wounds that needed dressing, had scars that took forever to fade. As a result, I decided he’d never see a bad report card again. So I did what made best sense to a young slacker—intercepted and hid my report cards. With the help of my grandmother (who stashed them), he and my mom stopped receiving my report cards (and, not paying attention to my schoolwork, they never seemed to miss them). I had gotten report cards that showed such low academic performance and high disciplinary run-ins that I needed a parent to come speak to my teachers at my school’s regular parent-teacher meeting. I paid the neighborhood drunk to come in as my dad. He put on a bravura performance. Weeks later, a teacher bumped into my mother while she was shopping. She expressed sympathy over my mother’s home situation. My mother explained she wasn’t married to a drunk. The teacher assured her that she needn’t feel ashamed; she, too, was married to a drunk. My mother repeated that her husband wasn’t a drunk. The teacher, an embodiment of sensitivity and insensitivity, asked: Why, then, did he come drunk to school to discuss your son’s report card?
I worried about my lies catching up with me, not recognizing that they already had. In a home where the truth would often lead to pain, I practiced lying—until I didn’t need to practice anymore. I was a liar. I too much enjoyed having the last laugh, too much worried about disapproval, too much cared what others thought. Worse, I loved an audience. (To love the crowd is to love untruth, warned Søren Kierkegaard, a lesson I ignored to my peril.) I lost the thing worth protecting—my very self. The ingenious child became the duplicitous adult. And he couldn’t imagine himself out of this state, dominated by an internal bully. But, thankfully, he made friends who would not put up with the fictions, friends who insisted and reassured him that he could disappoint them with no dire circumstances to follow. Disapproval, they constantly reminded me, was nothing to shirk from—especially not when it meant I would dodge the truth.
I decided to throw off the trickster because I made friends who demanded honesty from me, and they modeled it beautifully. Around the same time, embarking on my twenties, I developed a love for reading—I finally learned to sit still—and my imagination wandered to new worlds, rushed to new models. My grandmother, who always knew the true stories, who was never made to interact with the trickster in me, and friends who were like family, made me despise and combat the trickster I’d become. And the books I was reading taught me new ways of being. (“Reading makes immigrants of us all,” writes Hazel Rochman, speaking of readers’ imaginations. “It takes us away from home, but, most importantly, it finds homes for us everywhere.” In books I found new homes that gifted me the solitude I craved; reminded me, too, that I was not left alone.) I had grown past Bruce Lee, Charlie Brown, and Anansi. I was now being reshaped by new models, real and imagined.
Later, when I took to the page to start writing about my life, the old fantasies reappeared—well, not exactly. They came back not as fantasies so much as they came back as potential muses. As I wrote, I found myself wanting to take revenge on people who had hurt or oppressed me. Bruce Lee was vying to be my muse. (Some days my friend Philip will remark, after reading some intemperate remark of mine that should never have left my brain, “I saw that Bruce Lee wrote on Facebook today.”) But I also recognized myself wanting to write in a spirit my grandmother would have approved of—to write as one with a capacious, generous heart who doesn’t try to get even but who meets the world on open-minded terms. Charlie Brown beckoned to be my muse. And so, draft after draft, essay after essay, Bruce Lee and Charlie Brown duke it out. And perhaps, for the only time in the history of the world, Charlie Brown, that lovable loser, kicks Bruce Lee’s ass.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, will be launching tonight at the New School, featuring readings and stories from contributors.