Gaza From The Perspective of a Murderer's Daughter
A Black Eyed Story
I’ve been asked to post something, to record something, to speak for Palestinians, to stand with Israel, to use my voice, to use my platform, to say what I thought was obvious: hate in all its forms is bad.
You can click the play button above to listen to
an audio recording of my reading this Black Eyed story
But before I share my opinions about Gaza, I wanna take you back to where those opinions began to take form: in the hallway of my mother’s house in Cleveland, Ohio, a couple of months before I was born.
When I was seventeen, my older sister Debbie told me all about a man she called my “real” daddy: Daddy came home and your real daddy was there. I remember him leaving with the quickness and Mommie was crying. She had to be six, seven months pregnant with you around then. I remember her belly was way out there when Daddy was beating on her. He got her before she could get to the bathroom and lock the door behind her. He grabbed her and the next thing I knew, she was on her back, down on the floor in the hallway, and he was kicking her in the face and we was screaming and jumping on his back. He stomped her so hard—oooh, Marcie—you could see her two front teeth pushing through her top lip. We was all crying. Daddy had never laid a hand on Mommie before that or after. You know how Mommie gets. I think he was afraid of her. But your real daddy came and, well, I guess he’d had all he could take. Oooooh Marcie, I can still see her mouth. He only kicked her in her face. He didn’t touch her belly. You know Daddy always said no matter what you was his baby.
Let me fill in the narrative. Mommie was twenty-seven. Daddy was twenty-eight. My sister Debbie was ten years old. The father who left and never showed his face again was grown and shoulda known better. Shoulda known not to mess with another man’s wife. Shoulda known not to dare to have the audacity to step a foot into that man’s house and court his pregnant wife even if the unborn child belonged to him. There must be a law in the book of Leviticus against such things. My mother didn’t belong to him. Her place of residence, her marriage certificate, her four other children were all signed and purchased by another man.
With time, the indiscretion could have been forgiven, and perhaps already had been. For eight months, the man I called daddy watched me swell within my mother’s womb and let me be. When I was born he clothed me with his name, Alvis. He did more than what most men would. But the audacity of my “real” daddy’s disrespect? Followed by his cowardice to run and leave my mother there? Then to sit with that cuckold man’s children as if he had a right to be there? All of that was unforgivable. The rage that followed understandable. I do not condone violence of any kind and I cannot pardon my father. Hate in all it’s forms is bad. Even the hatred my father felt for that other man, my real daddy. But it was 1969. My mother didn’t have a leg to stand on.
And what happened then? How does this story lead to a murder being committed in the main bedroom by my mother with a hot iron twenty-five years later?
Well, it wasn’t the last time someone laid hands on my mother. But it was the last time she got licked, the last time she got the shit kicked out of her. Her second husband tried her and she came after him with a chainsaw. My daddy (not the one who ran off, but the one who did his best to stay) tried her again and she took a brick and busted out all the windows to his prized leisure van. Many others came and tried her. Every one of them left with scars.
My mother doled out as many scars as she received. Her scars ran like thick scabs across her brain. Plaited. Tight edges. Greased cornrows. Yanked and pulled. Bantu knots. Beautiful.
On Saturdays, she would disrobe her crown and let my imagination run its hands all over the rows and rows of lesions, telling me stories to remind me that my plight of a stiff chair and hot comb could be worse as she pressed my hair. “You so tenderheaded,” she’d exhale, floating the words on a river of smoke from the cigarette she held in one had and the sizzling hot comb she held in the other. “Do you know that my mother would tie us to a kitchen chair and beat us out in the backyard?” I’d straighten up in my chair, trembling, holding my ear as the hot comb neared my scalp. “So tenderheaded,” she’d repeat beneath her breath, so softly I mistook it for compassion.
In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke of memory and of hope:
Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living. Memory saved the Besht, and if anything can, it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope…
Of course we could try to forget the past. Why not? Is it not natural for a human being to repress what causes him pain, what causes him shame? Like the body, memory protects its wounds. When day breaks after a sleepless night, one’s ghosts must withdraw; the dead are ordered back to their graves. But for the first time in history, we could not bury our dead. We bear their graves within ourselves.
For us, forgetting was never an option.
Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered.
We bear their graves within ourselves but also we carry their light. I remember the good my mother received. Marvin Gaye playing on the stereo. Celestial Tea’s Red Zinger rising and purifying her like incense from her cup. A constant clatter of confabulations and urban legend singing in rounds around her dining room table until the room levitated with laughter. She and every husband, every lover, every friend who crossed her threshold had suffered. But oh my, did they live to come and hang their tales like unwashed laundry on the clothesline in her backyard, letting the sun bleach away the stains. Gayle, the woman my mother murdered, was also a friend.
No. It wasn’t an accident. But it also wasn’t pre-meditated.
No one wakes up expecting death to come. Not even the dying. My husband’s grandmother was 94 years old the morning she died. She got up like she’d done for at least 60 years in the same little English house in Bournemouth. She’d just made her first cup of tea, settled into her chair when death interrupted her.
Gayle’s passing wasn’t so easy but just as unexpected. She couldn’t have been more than 50 or 60-something years old. Didn’t have a chair or a cup to sit with. Didn’t have a home. Yet on a Saturday afternoon in late September she’d appeared like a ghost, a bad history forgotten at her family’s reunion. No one knew how she’d got there. How’d she even know they’d be there beneath the reserved pavilion, every picnic table serving up food and folks and lore? Nobody imagined this day would be the day they’d been holding their breaths for, the day they worried about, which is why she’d been uninvited. This was the day they knew they had coming. Such hurt wouldn’t stay hidden, and Gayle was a hurting hurt. Multiple visits to the multiple state facilities. They could check all the boxes: detention home, check… county jail, check… juvenile home, check… group home check… prison, check… mental ward, check. The county morgue would be her last.
It was a wasp nest that took the first stab. She’d got stung by one and, offended, attacked back. Woman against a pestilence, she swung and swung until her face was so swollen, someone called an ambulanc. But the ambulance didn’t want to take her back with them. The family pleaded and they relented, strapping Gayle to a gurney, their sighs of relief louder than the sirens.
My mother loved a broken thing. She took the covers of broken records and used them like subway tile to cover the walls from floor to ceiling in our spare bedroom. She turned the styrofoam insert from our new microwave into a decorative frame for a mirror, a porcelain pedestal sink into a planter that she placed in our front hallway. My mother saw a potential future in discarded, scratched and dented, burnt-out and run-down, used-up and tossed-out possessions… and also people.
Once, when she was released from a psychiatric facility, she came home with gifts as if she’d been on an extended holiday. The privately-funded facility had amenities such as ceramics and music therapy. She came home bearing cookies she’d baked, an orange lamp she’d made, and a new houseguest who’d had nowhere else to go. “I couldn’t just leave him sat there on the curb.”
Gayle was a friend of a friend of a woman whom my brother, Dennis, claimed as his wife. “She’s good people,” they told her. And she was good – until she wasn’t.
Gayle was a large woman with “hands thick as meat pies” my mother told me. When she attacked my mother, who was now older and grayer and done with brawling, my brother and his woman-wife told her to file a report. All three of my sisters begged her to call the police and say something. “She coulda killed you, Mommie… don’t let there be a next time.”
But to my mother, all the altercation had done was reveal the rust and cracks and broken glass within her new found friend. All she saw was another broken thing that she could upcycle. A tossed away thing that she could reimagine. And so, no report was filed, and Gayle came and went as if nothing had ever happened.
From then on, every time Gayle appeared at my mother’s door, all my siblings could see was a hefty body flying a Jolly Roger reminding them that my mother had invited Black Death to come and sit with them at the table.
About the dark day, the day of wasps and ambulances and death, I asked my mother why she let Gayle in. “‘Cause she didn’t have a friend in the world,” she answered, disappointed in me, her one child who she thought for sure might understand. How could I ask such a question?
“Baby, everyone had left her. You ain’t never been left with not a soul to care if you lived or died. How come you ask me that? Why would you ask that?”
The ambulance rushed Gayle to the nearest hospital. They tried to keep her sedated enough to have her admitted. But every time she roused, she beat her fists at the nurses, the doctors, the orderlies, the security guards. The hospital refused to treat her. So the ambulance released this furious, estranged woman with a swollen, mutilated, wasp-stung face—a woman twice my mother’s size—to my mother’s doorstep.
Earlier that morning, my mother had called each of my three sisters and told them, “I ain’t been feeling too good. I’m gonna go ahead and check myself into hospital before I have another episode.”
Later that day when the paramedics brought Gayle to her doorstep, my mother asked, “Can’t you take her to her people? I’m not fit to care for nobody today.”
Gayle’s ever-swelling face stung to look at. Her high cheekbones were non-existent. Her eyelids weeping and bulging with the wasps stings, closing them as if preparing for the death to come. What was my mother to do? Leave her to sit like Job in a pile of ashes and dust?
I think if the paramedics had been asked to place a bet on who’d survive the night, they would’ve put their money on Gayle. She was bruised but blistering with venom. Like a subdued cobra, they knew she’d strike to kill as soon as the snake charmer’s back was turned. They knew the minute the meds they’d administered had worn off, she’d rear her hooded head, hissing. They knew this and wanted no part of it.
The whole morning long, they had witnessed the steady stream of vitriolic, caustic discontent funneling from her as they escorted her from the park to the hospital and, finally, to my mother’s door. No sedative could quiet her long enough for them to heal her. So they handed my mother the pills, crossed their hearts, and wished her luck.
As soon as they left, through her swollen, marled, fleshy lips, Gayle spat at my mother, “You’re gonna die tonight, bitch.”
The first time my mother called 911 that night, she told them, “You better get here. I don’t wanna have to kill this big ol’ bear.” My mother’s phone number was familiar to the dispatchers and came with a moniker: “Crazy Nada.”
In a state of deep psychosis, Crazy Nada, my mother, had a history of calls alerting them that Christ was outside her window but St. Paul had blocked the door and doubting Thomas had moved the stairs and Lucifer and Beelzebub were eating her house like locusts.
They had my mother’s whole history of voices and hallucinations right there before them. And yet they chose to name her but not remember her. She was as discarded and forgotten as Gayle. My mother called four times and each time they scoffed, “Crazy Nada.”
Her last call, she said, “I killed her.” They sent a parade of sirens.
Did you know that the Supreme Court ruled that the police aren’t obligated to protect you?
In a 2005 case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, a woman called the police for hours pleading for them to find and arrest her estranged husband who had kidnapped her three little girls ages 7, 9, and 10. But the police failed to act. Hours later, her ex-husband arrived at the police station with the dead bodies of her daughters in the back of his truck. He fired a gun and the police killed him then and there.
Gonzales sued the police for failing to protect them. She sued and she lost. Based on a similar 1989 case, the justices ruled that police officers had no such duty.
When the officers arrived at my mother’s house, they asked her, “Why didn’t you leave?”
“I tried. I couldn’t get past her.”
“Why the iron?” they asked.
“I didn’t have nothin’ else.” Then she asked, “What took you so long to get here?”
In the end, though the judge and the jury understood my mother’s predicament, they couldn’t understand her choice of weapon. They explained that Gayle’s already pus-filled face had been scorched with iron marks to such a degree she was unrecognizable to her family. My mother explained that her face was already unrecognizable when she arrived at her doorstep.
“Looked like she swallowed a hornet’s nest,” she’d said. Her lawyer told her, “If you’d only strangled her with the cord, they might’ve ruled it was self-defense. Things could’ve been different.”
My mother was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to serve 8 to 25 years in prison.
In his memoir, Night, Wiesel wrote:
To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
I can’t forget Gayle. I will not kill her a second time.
I’ve heard the phrase “hurt people hurt people” too many times from the mouths of people who haven’t known institutional or political hurt.
In the past, I tried to unburden myself by telling my mother’s and Gayle’s story. Each time, I was offered this discomforting deflection—hurt people hurt people—as if it was a comforting kind of compassion. I heard it so many times that, for a while, I stopped telling their story.
No one wants to know the daughter of a mother who scorched and strangled a woman to death. However, they would very much like to know the daughter of a mentally ill mother who scorched and strangled another mentally ill woman to death. It better fits their narrative of why and how such things happen. Then they can say, “hurt people hurt people,” and then, they can forget.
But it’s not only hurt people who hurt others. In fact, most of the time, hurt people love and care for other hurt people better than anyone else.
So, I reject the saying. The truth is humans hurt humans, and an organized group of sanctioned, bureaucratic humans hurt humans more than any other entity on earth.
Think of my mother. Think of Gayle. They were not the first to fail one another. They were not each other’s first sign of impending doom. They were each other’s last resort after living their whole lives with a host of hurts powered by institutions. Literally each had been institutionalized several times before that night, and not just in psychiatric wards, but in segregated public schools, healthcare clinics, welfare offices, police precincts, and 911 calls from them and about them.
Many social media content creators have been asked to speak on the conflict in Gaza, to give something definitive that satisfies the Palestinian and Israeli communities grieving their dead babies. We’ve been called to speak for the millions of voiceless people both in Israel and in Palestine who, right now, are running for cover from terrorists and governments. But who are we to sit in our homes a million miles away? How dare anyone think that all this time we held the exact, perfect words to set the whole world right? If we did have such divine knowledge, we should have shared it a long time ago, long before this war started.
We can walk with you and cry with you, but we cannot save you from this pain that is ours to sit with. We are called to remember. To speak, yes, but mostly to listen to the cries and the screams and declare “never again.” We can only give you that. And because our own history is pockmarked with wounds and hurts that rub against this history that’s been in the making for decades, anything we offer can only be biased and myopic.
What do I have to say about what’s going on Gaza? I can only give you the perspective of a murderer’s daughter: I grieve all of it. I grieve everything. I grieve for the prosecutors and the defendants. I grieve for the oppressed and the oppressors. I grieve for the humanity lost.
I grieve for the innocent ones who never imagined that they might have to kill in order to save themselves. I grieve for the ones who have no place to go. I grieve for the angry ones who believe there is no other way. I grieve for the empowered ones who have no idea how dangerous power is. I grieve for the ones the institutions never wanted to care for. I grieve for the dead. I grieve for the survivors. I grieve.
But my heart stops cold at the idea of grieving the creators of all this chaos. I don’t grieve for the leaders who heard the desperate calls and failed to act. I’m furious with all the leaders who had all the information about this growing crisis right in front of them, but still chose to forget it, set it aside, ignore it. I hold not a single drop of compassion for them. I know they’re kind. I am the daughter of a woman who called and wasn’t answered. They’re the dispatchers who like to name things but not remember that the ones they name are human.
I know that I am ill-equipped to speak on the behalf of anyone in Gaza or Israel. But I can speak to the pain their pain causes me to remember.
This history-in-the-making deserves better than any series of posts I can ever offer. I’ve tried to put it in 2200 characters, but trust me, no Instagrammer, blogger, or influencer can do that. No post can sum up all this history remembered and dangerously forgotten. No post can capture everyone’s humanity or satisfy everyone’s need to feel understood and supported.
Palestine is occupied not only by Israel but by a history that involves many blood-soaked hands. Those hands have left devastated Palestinian fathers, Israeli fathers, Muslim mothers and Jewish mothers resourceless and dependent on one another to save themselves. Posts won’t fix that. But they can ring the bell, shoulder the grief, and strengthen the world’s resolve to do better.
There are stories beneath their stories—stories like mine and stories like yours, stories like my mother’s and stories like Gayle’s—and this story of war, genocide, of IDF and Hamas.
There are Jewish people in this country who are being attacked. There are Palestinian people in this country being murdered. There are Muslim people in this country being terrorized. There are Israeli people in this country being targeted. And all in the name of justice. But whose justice is it?
I can tell you my story, but I cannot tell you theirs. You’ll have to find and listen to them for yourself. You’ll have to go and sit with the pain and the horror on your own – not as entertainment, but as a practice of humanity.
Humans hurt humans when they forget that we are all human. We have to reach deep inside ourselves and touch our own wounds, not poke at the wounds of others. We have to learn how to show our scars without leaving scars.
I am a practicing human. I am a murderer’s daughter who is appalled at all this blood. I stand with the daughters of the bruised, the stung, the forgotten, the ignored and the innocent. I am on my way to being a better human, but well aware that I run the risk of someday having someone I’ve failed and who was in desperate need of me, ask, “What took you so long to get here?”
Palestine and Israel, I will not forget the dead. I will not kill them a second time.
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