When I was thirteen months old, my mother killed herself. I didn’t know my mother, except as infants know. At the beginning of my life, the world acquired a hole. That’s what I knew, that there was a hole in the world. For me, there still is. It’s a singularity. In and out of a hole like that, anything goes.
So begins A Hole in the World, An American Boyhood, the remarkable memoir of Richard Rhodes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Critic’s Circle Award for The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
On C-Span recently, I came upon a replay of a book discussion in which Rhodes talked about his 2010 book The Twilight of the Bombs.
Having read A Hole in the World some years before, I watched and listened to Rhodes intently. He was confident, at ease with the audience, knowledgeable, speaking fluently to his subject. Knowing what I did about the darkness of his childhood, I wondered at the man he had become.
My mother [Georgia Saphronia Collier Rhodes] shot herself in the bathroom of the little white bungalow house where we lived, on Alden Street in Kansas City, Kansas, on Monday morning, July 25, 1938. She slipped the stick that weighted the linen bathroom window shade from its slot, sat on the toilet, put her mouth around the muzzle of a 12-gauge shotgun and used the stick to push the trigger.
Arthur Rhodes, the boys’ father, was a boilermaker’s assistant with a third-grade education. Speaking of the couple’s relationship, Georgia’s older sister Espy recalled that Arthur was “hard on her, didn’t give her enough money for groceries” and suspected that Georgia had been pregnant when she killed herself. They had quarreled the weekend before and Arthur had threatened to leave her. Rhodes writes in the book, “I’m sorry for her pain, but what pain she inflicted on us all with her suicide.”
After the death of their mother, the oldest of the three sons, Mack, went to live with relatives in Washington state. Arthur kept two-year old Stanley and the baby, Richard, with him. For the next nine years, Arthur and his two sons lived in boardinghouses. Life was not easy. The boys were always hungry, as “barring the kitchen is the first principle of boardinghouse cost control.” And Arthur was a firm disciplinarian who did not hesitate to employ corporal punishment when he thought it necessary. But father and sons were together, the boys had him to themselves, they had a protector, the hole receded.
Richard learned to read at the age of four, taught by a boardinghouse owner’s wife who had an enormous supply of love and a devout belief in education.
Once I learned to read, I was launched, adrift in dreamtime half the rest of my life. Now I saw – because Mrs. Gernhardt started me, and my vernacular brother guided me to fluency – that words could boil up worlds that towered overhead like a spring storm, splashed light and shadow the length and width of a city, drove crowds under cover, crashed lightning, uprooted trees, flooded streets, stopped traffic, rumbled away in a passage of cold wind and abruptly dissipated, pure energy, nothing left but clean air and the bright sun shining. That real, that profligate, that leviathan, and all of it open to me without restraint in the pages of books, pouring out into my child’s life like Niagara. Books embellished the hole to a window, worlds beyond the world where the mysteries of the world had explanations.
In February 1947, Arthur Rhodes and his two young sons moved into the home of Anne Ralena Martin. Anne and Arthur would soon marry. They had been seeing each other and it was obvious that Arthur wanted his boys to like her. “I don’t think we did,” says Rhodes, “after nine years of boardinghouses we had sensitive bullshit detectors – her voice was Southern and honeyed, cunning, edged with menace.”
Anne had been married four or five times prior to her marriage to Arthur Rhodes. She was “small, heavily made-up and perfumed, with white skin, a full head of dark hair, large breasts, very curvy, very feminine, and evidently a man-trap, someone who bushwhacked husbands and cleaned them out.” Their father became her plow horse, said Rhodes, and she worked him for more than fifteen years until he died of cancer of the stomach in 1964.
“Your Dad’s let you run wild,” she said to the boys, “we’ll get along just fine as soon as you two learn that we have a few rules around here.” Thus began the 28-month concentration camp of Stanley and Richard’s new stepmother. The coercion and control began almost immediately. The “rules” were myriad, some simple, some complex and incomprehensible, and the consequences of any infraction were unpredictable and capricious – “the capriciousness was part of the terror, so we scrambled to learn all the rules at once.” Physical abuse progressed to systematic starvation. But it was not enough for her. “More effective control required undermining our boundaries from within. As diseases do, our stepmother sought to harness our physiology to her own ends.”
The boys were forbidden to bathe in the bathtub. Worse, they were denied access to the bathroom at night. As Rhodes wrote, telling someone not to do something is a powerful form of suggestion to induce him to do it.
Every night, I dutifully went to the bathroom before climbing into my bunk, but as soon as Stanley turned out the light and we settled down to sleep, I felt my bladder fill. I then lay awake for hours. I tried to redirect my thoughts, tell myself stories, recite numbers, count sheep. I clamped my sphincters until they cramped and burned. Lying on my back, hurting and urgent, I cried silently to the ceiling low overhead, tears running down my face without consolation, only reminding me of the other flow of body fluid that my commandant had blocked. When clamping my sphincters no longer worked I pinched my penis to red pain. Once or twice, early in the chronology of this torture, I wet the bed. That villainy erupted in such monstrous humiliation that I learned not to repeat it. Thereafter I added struggling to stay awake to struggling to retain my urine.
To this day, forty years later, once a month or so, pain wakes me. Falling asleep with urine in my bladder or unmoved rectal stool. I still reflexively tighten my pelvic muscles until my sphincters cramp. My stepmother, my commandant, still intermittently controls my body even at this distant and safe remove. I sit on the toilet those nights in the silence of my house forcing my sphincters to relax, waiting out the pain in the darkness, remembering her.
Rhodes writes “but for all her sadistic deprivations, even starving us, I despise her most for forcing us to live in filth. The dirt on my body disrupted not only my bodily integrity but also my fragile connection with other human beings, my classmates, my teachers. My ears were black. My neck was black. My armpits and my groin were black. My socks rotted off my feet. I stank.”
Incomprehensibly, in unforgivable cowardice, the boys’ father did nothing to stop the abuse. He was as terrified of her as they.
Once, for example, she and Dad had an argument that ranted on into the night, so that I fell asleep to it, and was still raging in the morning when I waked. I could see into the kitchen from my upper bunk bed on the sleeping porch. I opened my eyes to Dad standing bareass naked at the stove frying eggs. My stepmother then swung through the kitchen door in her bathrobe. ‘Aren’t you ashamed to be walking around naked in front of your children?’ she challenged Dad contemptuously.
‘Why should I be ashamed?’ he threw back. ‘You tell me I’m not a man. Let them see for themselves.’
‘You dirty bastard,’ she told him. ‘You ought to get some clothes on.’
‘I’ll get my clothes on when I’m damned good and ready,’ Dad blustered.
She grabbed the boiling teakettle off the stove and brandished it. ‘You son of a bitch,’ she shouted at him, ‘You think you can push me around? You go get some clothes on or I’ll scald your ugly prick!’
Dad stared at her. He believed her. He hung his head and walked out. She took over at the stove.
Rhodes notes that in her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry speaks of the prisoner’s steadily shrinking ground that wins for the torturer his swelling sense of territory.
“For two years,” he says, “our stepmother funneled us into smaller and smaller spaces of physical and mental confinement – less food, less room, less nurture, less hope – in order to swell her own. In time, under her vicious regimen, we might have come to occupy no space at all.”
Ultimately, it was Stanley who saved them. After a particularly brutal beating with a brass-studded belt, he ran. He hid for a day in the sewer tunnels, but realized there was nowhere to go, no one who wanted him. He also knew that he could not leave Richard behind unprotected. “Somehow, a 13-year old boy – starved to 97 pounds, bearing the marks of beatings, knowing that if he were returned to that house it could be fatal – found the courage to take responsibility for a frightened younger brother and two criminally irresponsible adults.” He walked into a police station and told their story.
The boys were removed from Anne and Arthur’s custody and admitted to the Andrew Drumm Institute. Drumm Farm, as it is known by locals, was at that time a working farm and home for orphaned and impoverished boys. Today, it is a community for all children in foster care. Drumm Farm is less than ten miles from my home. I drove there during the time I was writing this, on a beautiful summer day in August, about the time of year that Stanley and Richard were taken there. The main buildings sit high on a hill, quiet, narrow tree-lined lanes curving around the neat, red brick buildings, a pastoral island in the midst of the suburban communities grown up around it.
I tried to imagine what Richard and Stanley must have felt when they first saw it. Rhodes writes:
Food, work, terrain, weather and people surrounded me and passed through me. I absorbed the beneficence operationally, in and through my body, and the learning took years. There was a child went forth every day, Walt Whitman declares, and all that he looked upon became part of him. I was that child. At Drumm I was that child. I opened into the world and incorporated it. I deflated and solidified and filled.
A Hole in the World is a moving and eloquent attempt by Rhodes to “pack away” the poisonous memory of his stepmother years. It is also an exorcism of repressed anger against a father who failed his sons so miserably. Finally, it is a detailed, heart-wrenching account of how child abuse can progress unnoticed and unimpeded in a community, step by incremental step, not only damaging the child victims physically and psychologically, but polluting the essential human decency of every person touched by it in any way.
In a new epilogue to the tenth anniversary edition of the book, Rhodes says that he has stopped trying to answer the inevitable questions ‘Why didn’t your father do anything? Have you forgiven your stepmother?’
If family, church, school and community fail to protect a child from violence, why should a child credit their authority? Why should I? I rejected religion long ago and I have my doubts about family. Both institutions claim far more sanctity than they have earned. The brutalization of children is the initiating trauma that leads some children to choose violent careers – to assault, rape, and murder. I was lucky. Stanley’s courage rescued me. Surviving childhood should not depend on luck.
For Rhodes, there are no answers and no forgiveness.