“Peeling Away the Mask” by Teresa Burns Murphy

Peeling Away the Mask
“Shaped by Hurricanes” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite.

The scents of Jungle Gardenia perfume and foam rubber tickled my nose as I held a pair of my mother’s discarded falsies to my flat chest. Giggling, I stuffed the falsies inside a bra I’d stolen from her lingerie drawer. Donning her white negligee and puffing on the unlit cigarette I’d pilfered from her purse, I pretended to be a movie star standing in the wings, waiting for my cue. I was a preschooler and playing dress-up was central to my life; I even dreamed of it at night. In one dream, I wore a pair of falsies beneath a costume that would have made a barmaid proud. As a child I was well informed when it came to saloon-girl chic, thanks to my steady diet of 1960s television westerns. Along with my fancy costume, I wore a clownish mask for an audience of adoring fans. At one point I turned from the audience and lifted my dress to reveal that my huge breasts weren’t real. I winked at the dreamer and said, “I can fool everybody.”

I remember few dreams from childhood, but this one has stayed with me. I grew up in the Bible Belt, where religion was cinched around the lives of everyone I knew. I had not yet heard that dreams were mirrors to the soul, but it was clear to me that having such a depraved dream meant my soul was filled with iniquity. Iniquity was a word I’d picked up from our preacher when he talked about the scandalous way American women dressed. Not wanting to be lumped in with those wicked Jezebels, I prayed for forgiveness for engaging in such bawdy behavior, if only in my dreams. I had faith that God would deliver me from evil thoughts, but I had no idea how firm a grasp my need to “fool everybody” had on my psyche.

Surrendering my soul to God left me more time to work on my body, an area over which I seemed to have more control. My first order of business was to reduce my weight. According to my older sister, I was a “fatty, fatty two-by-four” in serious danger of not being able to fit through the bathroom door. The advent of the super-thin models confirmed my belief that being fat was worse than any other physical affliction. After all, being fat was self-induced, which meant it could be self-cured. So, at the age of five, I put myself on a diet. Instead of coconut cream pie for dessert, I’d have a carrot or an extra helping of green beans. I gave up chocolate, a known fat magnet, for years. My early dieting efforts are documented in two photographs of me wearing the same dress. In the first photograph, taken at age five, the dress fits snugly over my plump body. In the second photograph, taken a year later, the dress hangs on my thin frame like a loose tent.

I now realize that I was getting in shape for school. I envisioned school as a golden place where I would be pretty and good and smart, in that particular order. Having internalized society’s recipe for being a successful girl, I assumed that I would be popular with my peers as well as with my teachers. The formula actually worked until I turned that unlucky age of thirteen. I hadn’t yet achieved my curvaceous figure, but I could see that if things kept going in the direction they appeared to be heading, I would. Physical perfection seemed within my reach, and I was angling toward it as rapidly as possible. I had no idea life was literally about to throw me my first real curve.

School had just gotten out for the summer, and my mother was in my bedroom helping me try on clothes I had worn the previous summer to see what I could still wear. I was about to ask if we could go shopping the next day for a shorts set I’d seen in a department store window when she said, “What’s that bulge on your right side?”

“What bulge?” I turned my head in an attempt to see over my shoulder.

Coming face to face with my mother’s anxious expression fueled my worst fears.

A tumor, I thought. I am going to die.

She ran her finger down my spine and said, “Your back’s not straight.”

Since it was late on Friday afternoon, my mother wasn’t able to get me a doctor’s appointment until the following Monday. She still describes that time as “the longest weekend [she] ever spent.” For me, the weekend couldn’t last long enough. The only spinal treatment I’d ever heard about was an epidural to diminish a woman’s labor pains. I struggled to banish the image of a doctor inserting a needle into my spine.

When Monday finally came, my mother took me to our family doctor. After I was x‑rayed and examined, the doctor told us he thought I had scoliosis.

“Curvature of the spine,” he explained when he saw our puzzled looks. “I’m not qualified to address something like this. I’ll get you an appointment with an orthopedist.”

The first orthopedist I saw was fat and cranky, but the distaste I felt for him wouldn’t have diminished had he been fit and charming. Of course I didn’t want him to have a low opinion of me, so when he clasped his meaty hands around my neck and lifted me off the ground, I smiled and said nothing. The entire time I was in his care, I never complained. He said I was the best patient he’d ever had. Maybe he said that to all the girls.

Following my initial visit, I was admitted to a children’s hospital for further evaluation to determine the best course of treatment. Part of that evaluation included a “conference” with a team of twelve orthopedists. On that day, a nurse took me to a small room and asked me to undress. She handed me a sheet and told me to wrap it around my body. Completely disrobed and wound in the sheet, I shuffled along behind her to a large room where twelve orthopedists were seated at a conference table. I was told to stand next to a screen displaying an x-ray of my crooked spine.

The nurse, a plump, middle-aged woman with kind blue eyes and a cap of brown, curly hair, and I were the only females in the room. When she helped me unwind the sheet, I caught a flicker of sympathy in her eyes. As I stood in front of the orthopedists and followed their directives to bend forward and from side-to-side, the nurse attempted to hold the folded sheet in front of my nascent breasts. I avoided eye contact with the men seated around the table and used every ounce of imagination I could muster to forge an alternate reality.

The orthopedists decided the best treatment would be a rigid regimen of physical therapy for several months. After that, I would be put in traction and placed in a body cast. The summer between seventh and eighth grades I did exercises—pelvic tilts, sit-ups, and push-ups—ten minutes out of every hour I was awake. When I began the prescribed program, I could barely do a single sit-up, much less a push-up. My dad worked with me every day until I could do several sit-ups. In order for me to do even one push-up without collapsing, my dad supported my stomach with his hands, gradually letting go, the way he had let go of my bicycle when I was learning to ride. By the time I began eighth grade, my abs were as taut as any athlete’s.

I continued the exercise program on a less rigorous basis after school started. That fall the orthopedists decided my spine was limber enough for traction and my first body cast. I thought I was ready, but as my spine was pulled straighter and straighter, I felt as though my jaws were coming unhinged. During the procedure I was naked except for the stretchy, form-fitting undergarment that hugged my body from my upper thighs to my chin. When the medical team began fashioning the plaster cast that would hold my stretched-out form in place for the next six weeks, I felt as if I were suffocating.

Once the cast was constructed, I was taken to a hospital ward, where I was told I would need to lie still for the next twenty-four hours so the plaster could fully dry. My mother had been with me all day, but she was told she couldn’t stay overnight. Had I asked my mother to stay, she would have, no matter the hospital rules, but I didn’t want to be perceived as needy.

After my mother left, a nurse came in with supper—meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Since I couldn’t move, she fed me. The nurse had large, white hands, and she shoveled food into my mouth as if we were participants in a speed-eating contest. By the time she whisked the tray away, I was feeling queasy. The smell of wet plaster, along with the tension of the day and the rapid intake of hospital food, proved too much for me. Held immobile by the cast, I couldn’t sit up or turn my head to one side when my supper began coming back up. Fortunately another nurse came to my rescue and rolled me onto my side so I didn’t choke on my own vomit.

I was placed in the body cast in the 1970s, a time when girls in my junior high school were not allowed to wear pants. Wearing a miniskirt over a cast that encased my neck, torso, and hips was not a viable option for me since I couldn’t bend at the waist and was prone to falling. My clothes also needed to be durable enough not to tear easily when they came into contact with the rough surface of the cast. My mother’s solution was blue jeans paired with sweatshirts. It seems unbelievable to me now that my wearing jeans to school caused such a stir—not among the students but among the teachers! Some of the female teachers didn’t think pants of any stripe were appropriate attire for a junior high school girl. My mother was a teacher at the school, and she said I would be wearing jeans. The principal backed her up, and eventually all the other girls were allowed to wear jeans to school as well.

I hated wearing the cast so much that getting a back brace was almost a relief. At least I could remove it for an hour each day. I was so grateful for that hour, even though it was spent exercising and bathing. The brace I wore, a Milwaukee brace, consisted of a flat metal bar that extended from my chin to a leather corset with a built-in metal plate that kept my stomach flat. Two smaller bars attached to a neck ring stretched from the base of my skull to the corset, which was laced tightly around my hips with a pair of heavy nylon straps. Attached to the front bar on the right side was a wide, leather band that fit around my right ribcage to correct the protrusion that was forming as my spine curved in that direction.

I grew my hair out to cover the back rods of the brace and wore turtlenecks to hide the bar in the front as well as the side pieces that wrapped around my neck. I tilted my head forward in an attempt to conceal the plastic throat mold that supported my chin. The brace was uncomfortable but the physical discomfort was nothing compared to the mental anguish over the way I looked. Like any teenager I was hypersensitive about my appearance. Everywhere I went I felt as if people were staring at me.

During the years I wore the brace, I never allowed myself to cry. I didn’t want to run the risk of anyone finding out I wasn’t taking this experience in stride. Shortly after I began wearing the brace, I discovered that writing could serve as an emotional outlet. The first story I wrote was about a female reporter who witnesses atrocities in the American war in Vietnam. My English teacher praised my story, but no one else ever encouraged me to write. Still, I held on to the hope that I might one day become a writer. Unfortunately I lacked the independent spirit necessary to pursue an unconventional life path, and I eventually suppressed my desire to be a writer, just as I had suppressed all my undesirable emotions.

The only record I have of how I really felt during the time I wore the brace is recorded in my little blue diary. While most of my entries are light and factual, one day I wrote, “My life is unhappy now, but no one knows it except God and me. I guess it doesn’t matter how you feel. It’s just how other people think you feel.”

In February of my junior year in high school, the orthopedist told me I didn’t have to wear the brace anymore. I’d heard the expression “feeling like a bird out of a cage” all my life, but I never actually knew the feeling until I was liberated from that brace. What I failed to realize was the emotional cage I’d built was still intact, and it would take me years, maybe a lifetime, to dismantle it. At the time I wasn’t concerned with my emotional well-being; I was obsessed with my looks.

The brace had given me a shapely figure, but I didn’t have large breasts. I assumed there was a remedy for that and was thrilled when I came across an ad for a bust developer in the back pages of a fashion magazine. The ad promised that the apparatus would add inches to the flattest of bustlines, so I sent off for one right away. When it arrived I used, or tried to use, the bust developer religiously. It consisted of two pieces of pink plastic connected by a heavy metal spring and a thin leather strap. Even though I could barely force the two sides together with my small hands, I tried to push, press, and pray my way to the breasts of my dreams.

I didn’t achieve those fuller, rounder breasts promised in the ad, but the path to perfect myself, body and soul, that had been established during my formative years was one I would pursue well into middle age. For years I pushed myself to acquire something I thought I should have—a fitter body, a better job, another advanced degree. Once I’d achieved my goal, it lost its pre-attainment glow, and I moved on to a new goal. My nerves were often frayed, but I concealed my inner angst with a veneer of socially sanctioned ambition.

Although I found some solace in writing as a young adult, I never viewed it as a necessity. By the time I was middle-aged, I took anti-anxiety medication to get through the day and sleeping pills to get through the night. Still, investing a lot of time in writing seemed too risky, and I believed I had a lot to lose if I failed. I was an award-winning college professor with a promising future in academia that left little room for “creative” writing. From the outside, my life looked perfect. Inside I was always anxious, wondering when my “real life” was going to begin.

I couldn’t say what prompted me to give up my “day job,” enroll in an MFA program, and begin devoting a substantial amount of time to writing. One day I realized I couldn’t, and probably wouldn’t, continue living the way I had been. Certainly there have been some moments of despair in my life as a writer, but there have also been moments of joy. A natural balance seems to have been restored. I no longer need the anti-anxiety medication I took for years. For the first time in my life, I am free to be honest, even if my honesty is couched, at times, in fiction or poetry. Though I will probably never get over my need for approval, writing has become my antidote for perfectionism—unmasking me in a way nothing else ever could.

 

 

Teresa Burns Murphy is the author of a novel, The Secret to Flying (TigerEye Publications, 2011). Her short fiction has been published in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press, 2012), Dreamstreets, Gargoyle Magazine, The Penmen Review, Southern Women’s Review, THEMA, The Tower Journal, and Westview. To learn more about her writing, visit her at www.teresaburnsmurphy.com.

Read more from Teresa here.

 

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