Our daughter steals from us. June isn’t subtle about it. I’ve adapted—learned to hide cash or keep it always on me. I hardly ever leave more than ten dollars in my wallet, and on the rare occasions I do my purse is never out of sight. Sometimes I feel like I’m in an airport, obeying a voice that directs me over loudspeakers: “Never leave your luggage unattended.” In those moments, loading the dishwasher with my purse slung over my shoulder, I watch June watch me. I try to decide, given my airport analogy, in which role to cast her. The hijacker? The security guard?
When I teach Frankenstein to my eleventh grade Honors English class, I have them compare two passages side by side.
Here is Victor Frankenstein, as a child, imagining his relationship to his parents: “I was their plaything and their idol, and something better—their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties to me. With this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to whom they had given life . . .” Whereas here’s Victor as a would-be parent, imagining his relationship to the creature he is making, for all intents and purposes giving birth to: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent creatures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”
We discuss how, in both instances, Frankenstein stacks the deck to serve himself. He is always the person owed. When he’s a child, his parents owe him happiness because they have produced him. When he’s an aspirational parent, his “child” owes him gratitude because Victor has bequeathed the spark of life.
My students nod and grumble. This is one of our most animated discussions all year because they are so well acquainted with the hypocrisy of progenitors. “Fucking parents,” Antonio says. Though normally I’d reprimand him, I let it go. Conversation veers wildly off course, everyone chiming in. “As if they’ve never done drugs! As if my dad doesn’t pour himself a scotch every night!” They’ve half-forgotten me; I’m all ears.
Birch, my school’s guidance counselor, loans me a book to read about adolescent girls. The author recommends volunteering to be the parent who picks up kids after a party. No one wants that particular carpool, but she says it’s where you learn all the crucial information. Though only if you play perfectly your role of silent chauffeur: break character, pose a question, and your teen passengers will clam up and move all conversation to their phones.
The other thing I learned from Birch’s book that made me cry-laugh: the author tells a story about needing to check respondents’ ages when evaluating Rorschach blots. Perfectly normal teenagers receive identical scores as psychotic adults.
I am full of nostalgia for the halcyon days of two years ago, when June was in middle school, before she came to Bridgeway. I used to tell my students stories about her, how as a three-year-old she complained that her father was “antagonizing” her. I was such a humble-bragger.
On my test to my ninth graders: define hubris.
Two years ago, I couldn’t wait for June to enroll here. I recused myself from the admissions committee last year when she applied, but I imagined what Jim Sundberg and Tenley McTeer would say reading June’s essay: “Wow, she’s so bright.” I told colleagues, “It will be awkward having June here,” but I didn’t mean a word of it.
On my test to my eleventh graders: define schadenfreude.
June’s gotten craftier about stealing, as I’ve gotten more careful with my cash management. We match each other perfectly. She sold the green suede jacket Matt got me for Christmas on eBay—I found out when I got the email alert. She took Matt’s credit card to the pot dispensary on Mission. He found out when the cashier from Grass Roots called him. “Stoners are so ethical,” Matt said. “Excepting our child, of course.”
When I pictured June at Bridgeway, I pictured her reflecting well on me. “Well, no surprise she’s so sharp.” “No surprise she writes such good essays.” Of course she would never be in my classes, but I assumed I’d hear from Tenley about June’s imaginative metaphors, her clever insights.
Instead, when I enter the faculty lounge, conversation stutters. Tenley stirs honey in her tea. Jim won’t meet my eyes.
When June was a newborn, every single thing that could go wrong with breastfeeding did. Within ten days, I’d plowed through every chapter of The Nursing Mother’s Companion. A clogged duct escalated to mastitis escalated to an abscess escalated to, finally, quitting breastfeeding altogether. My first “failure” as a parent, caused because I had too much milk—it would spray across the room, actually hit the wall. June’s demand could not keep up with my excessive supply. The breastfeeding book promised that eventually one’s milk would adapt to one’s baby’s needs, but mine never got a chance to regulate. I remember the shame of quitting, and the ungodly relief.
I remember tearing through those “what can go wrong” chapters now, reading the book Birch loaned me about raising adolescent girls. “When to worry” is the conclusion of every chapter.
Now. Now. Now.
“So,” says Matt, calmly-grimly, “our daughter is a liar, a thief, and apparently an addict. What’s next?”
“Are you actually concerned about me, or just embarrassed?” June asks me in the kitchen.
This is what we get instead of answers to our questions. (Why is she failing English? English of all subjects!) I am struck by the irony of June’s question, since lately I am the one who is embarrassing. I’ve morphed from Cool Mom to Dowdy Mom to “Did you really say ‘Spill the tea?’ to your class? Oh my God, you’re so mortifying, I want to die!” Mom.
“It’s so unfair,” I whisper to Matt in bed. These days we whisper (June the security guard).
“And true. It’s okay to be embarrassed. Of course you’re embarrassed,” says my sensible husband.
Freud is very funny about parents in his essay “On Narcissism.” The reason parents are so delusional about their children, so overestimate their talents, Freud maintains, is because we see our children as extensions of ourselves. Consequently their failures are our own.
Freud’s daughter was the psychoanalyst Anna Freud—never of course as famous as her father but an icon in her own right, and a particular expert on teenage girls.
Freud’s grandson was the painter Lucian Freud, who notoriously painted his daughter naked, legs spread, tangle of indigo pubic hair.
“What are we going to do?” Matt and I whisper to each other. We make trips to the bank safe deposit box to store our silver, my jewelry.
Matt has begun researching wilderness programs. These involve paying people thousands of dollars to, essentially, confiscate your child.
That old misogynist joke: “Take my wife . . . please.”
A sign of patriarchal culture is to see daughters as liabilities, things you need to pay virile men to take off your hands. What else is a dowry? Cultures where men pay bride prices for their wives, even as they commodify women, at least treat them as things worth purchasing.
Take my daughter off my hands, for $4,900.
I am aware, of course, that these wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding schools are a sign of privilege. Rich fuck-ups learn how to build fires in the wilds of Montana; poor ones go to juvie and harden into adult criminals, all shellac. Look up “poor” in the dictionary: there’s a relationship between two of the definitions (economically deprived, suffering).
Fred Lattimer, the principal, calls me into his office. Fred and I have always gotten along. Matt and I have been to his place for margaritas. In the past, Fred would ask me about June: “How is that charming girl of yours?” At one Christmas party, he told a group of my colleagues about the time June, nine years old, said “accolade.”
Now Fred says, “Suzanne, June is out of control.” He says, “What are you and Matt going to do?” Fred extends his arms, open palms up, so I can see June is off his hands.
I do not tell him, I’ve taught at Bridgeway for ten years, and you fucking owe me.
I wanted a second child, so June would have a pal. So she would avoid what my Aunt Martha called “the loneliness of only-ness.” Avoid that artificial sense of the world revolving absolutely around her.
But Matt talked me out of it. This was a dozen years ago. We couldn’t afford a second, he argued. We owed June a sibling, I said. He countered: we owed her advantages. We owed her a good (meaning expensive) education. We could not spread our resources thinly.
Princess Diana, allegedly, referred to her two boys as “the heir and the spare.”
“You owe me,” I find myself saying to June. I am a pod creature; my body has been subsumed by alien invaders that possess my brain and manipulate my mouth with invisible marionette wires.
June shakes her head; her eyes are sharp and pointy as nail scissors. “I never asked to be born!”
In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the father and son, played by Roy Glenn and Sidney Poitier, reprise a debate similar to Victor Frankenstein’s with his creature, about who owes whom a debt. Glenn demands that Poitier break up with his white girlfriend, in recognition of all the sacrifices his father made. Poitier retorts that those were not sacrifices but obligations. His father is the one who owes him, Poitier claims, for parenting him, and he will owe his own future child the same debt: an obligation to provide because one has provided life, also joy.
I tell my ninth graders about Benjamin Franklin’s edit of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. In the original draft, Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths were “life, liberty, and property” (that triumvirate borrowed from philosopher and economist John Locke). Franklin revised the phrase to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“How American,” I tell my ninth graders. To see happiness as an inalienable right.
June is not immoral so much as amoral, I whisper to Matt in bed. She’s like the kid in overalls in that video game she used to play on my phone, Subway Surfers, sprinting down the railroad track and scooping up gold coins. Anything she wants is there for her taking: my green suede jacket, twenties hidden in my pocket, Matt’s credit card, drugs. The answer key for her chemistry test, stolen from Sundberg’s desk and then sold (sold!) to her classmates.
I want to tell Lattimer about Subway Surfers when he hauls me into his office.
“Suzanne, surely you see we’ve done all we can. Any other student would have been expelled months ago.”
I want to explain that these transgressions are not real to June: they are gold coins, just pixels, there for the scooping.
In the United States, it is perfectly legal (if frowned upon) to disinherit one’s children. This is not true in many European countries, where biological children, regardless of circumstances, are legally entitled to half of one’s estate (to be split between them, in the case of multiple children). But in the United States we are opposed to primogeniture and endorse free agency, even if its application is cruel. We held “pursuit of happiness,” after all, to be an inalienable right. Here, legally, we do not owe our children a debt.
“I’ve booked them,” Matt whispers to me, and we both cry. They will come at six in the morning, when June is asleep. Matt and I have been instructed to leave the house at once, to go to the café on the corner. They will grab June, sleepy and defenseless, and take her away. She will pack nothing.
“We will provide everything,” they have assured Matt, and he now assures me.
There is no preparing for this, yet somehow quitting breastfeeding fourteen years ago did prepare me for the perfectly divided shame and relief. My hand is shaking so much at the café that I spill hot coffee on myself. I welcome this. I want to be burned.
“I have to go to work,” I say to Matt, finally.
It feels strange to be talking in a normal volume again, rather than a whisper.
The first person I see when I walk into Bridgeway is Lattimer, standing centered in the corridor, like a statue in a fountain. He looks at me, I look at him. There is a conversation I need to have with him soon, about a partial tuition refund (from our already discounted tuition, which made Bridgeway, at least in the literal sense, affordable). Matt and I need that money to pay the people we have hired to abduct and now supervise our child.
We do not have that conversation now.
“Suzanne,” Fred says, and hugs me. I cry, as I did not cry hiding in the café, and he awkwardly pats my back. Pat, pat, like burping a baby. Fred does not say “Sorry,” he does not say “You did the right thing.” He does not say anything but my name, over and over, a mantra: Suzanne.
For that, I am grateful. I owe him, for that.