“Cannibals and Clowns,”

A Memoir by Brooke Allston

I heard a joke a long time ago that reminds me of my mother. It goes like this: Two cannibals are eating a clown and one says to the other, “Does this taste funny to you?”

I could never decide whether I was the cannibal, sitting with my mother, the cannibal, discussing the taste of the funny clown. Or perhaps I was the clown being chewed up by my mother. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why it reminded me of her, but something about our relationship felt funny.

It stayed in the recesses of my brain, floating in ether, until I went to a psychiatrist while suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of my I.V.F. twins. I didn’t know I had it that bad until one day when I was driving with my husband. I burst into tears about six weeks after the birth. When I say tears, I mean tears that come from nowhere, no fight, no crying babies, no sore boobs, and not even a bee sting. Just sobs coming from my gut filling my mouth with wet saltwater, choking me.

He banged on the steering wheel when he looked at me and said, “Isn’t this what you wanted? I don’t understand why nothing makes you happy. When will you stop crying?”

“I don’t think I can stop. I can’t see a point in the future where I will ever stop crying.”

I felt I was a horrible person. My husband and I tried everything to have these babies. I had a 3-year-old boy and maybe he should have been enough. My husband said he was, but I had wanted siblings for him. After two years of medical procedures, I had pulled the twins with every last bit of stamina I had from the universe to make them mine, and now I couldn’t lift up the small muscles in my lips to make a smile. It made no sense.

My internist put me on Paxil and said in Texas they ride horses for this sort of thing. I got the pills; they did nothing. The horse comment made me angry. Who rides horses in New York City, particularly when you are walking around the supermarket in stained pajamas and a coat?

Then he referred me to Dr. Rachel Woods. She was the only person I ever met who could pick apart the mess of my mind and lay all the pieces out for me in an orderly manner and have everything make sense. She made me look at my thoughts like the child’s game of pick-up sticks, lining up each thought evenly next to each other before putting them back into the tube of my brain, neatly.

I saw her for five years. I would go to her office across from the Museum of Natural History in a fog while we titrated my meds and worked out what exactly was making me so miserable. It wasn’t my newborn twins or my 3-year-old or my husband, it wasn’t even the lack of sleep or the drastic crash of hormones in my postpartum life. It was my mother.

After about six months she asked me the simple, clichéd shrink phrase: “So tell me about your mother.”

“You are not really asking me that, right? This is not about my mother, I’m the problem, not her.”

“Just tell me, what is she like?”

I sat in the leather chair in her office with a box of tissues on my lap, feeling for the sharp edges on the box. I looked at her salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair and her simple black top and pants, stalling for time, as I didn’t know where to begin. I had to start somewhere, as Dr. Woods was a champ at staring at me directly, for what seemed like forever, waiting for me to answer.

“My mother is a former beauty queen, she won a bunch of state contests qualifying her for Miss World, Miss Universe, and Miss America. She married my dad after meeting him at college and then had me. I am an only child.”

I went on about her second marriage to my stepfather, who was 60 to her 30. She divorced him for a younger lover who said he would never date a married woman. She took this to mean he would marry her if she left Eugene, my stepfather. She left. The lover, Andrew, dumped her. What Andrew didn’t make clear was he didn’t want to marry her, ever.    We moved many times after the second divorce and even during her second marriage. My mother and I moved four times from 1974 to 1980. We probably moved another 10 times over the next 10 years. She probably moved another 10 times after I left for college, until I got married in 2000. She would move in with boyfriends and move out when the relationships ended, into cheaper apartments. She lived with a con artist who served time in prison for counterfeiting. He washed dollar bills in his basement and printed 100s on the ink-free money. She dated another guy, who, when his clothing business tanked, later went to prison for tax evasion.

She vowed, though, to never leave Manhattan in spite of its steep rents and its staggeringly high prices for everything. She would find someone. She would get married again.

“What else? Anything recently?” Dr. Woods said.

It went like this for many sessions. I told her that in 1998, after my second year of working as a national correspondent at Fox News Channel, I was making decent coin, nothing fantastic, but enough to rent a small studio in the city. I had just moved in with my boyfriend, Stephen. My mom, perpetually short of money, had asked me to sign a lease for her in a building on Third Avenue. She had a job selling ad space for a small local paper, but she did not have enough income to rent what she wanted to rent, which was a brand-new apartment in a full-service, doorman building on the Upper East Side. I signed the lease, in my name without her co-signing it. I happily gave away my pay stubs to her landlord thinking I was doing a good deed. What daughter wouldn’t help her mother?

Over the next few years, I married Stephen, had a baby, and moved into a very large yellow brick rental building. The building was a block long, stretching from 72nd to 73rd street, across from my husband’s office. It was filled with hundreds of white cookie-cutter, box-like apartments. We had signed the lease right after 9/11 when people were fleeing New York City. We managed, because of this grim fact, to score a great deal on the rent.

After I had my first son, my mother and I would often eat lunch together with my son in tow. During these lunches she would tell me what a fuck her landlord was. The people in the apartment above had flooded her closet, ruining $15,000 worth of her shoes. The management wouldn’t pay her back and she didn’t have renter’s insurance. Could I sign these documents for her because my name was on the lease and she wanted to sue for damages? Could I? Of course! This is what daughters do.

I signed without even looking at the documents. This became a pattern. I scribbled my name on countless papers without a question. I wanted to help. These papers were always presented during lunch where she would pick up the check. Once I got a phone call: Could I leave a check downstairs because she was short on cash and needed to pay her lawyer $300, whose name was so and so? I forgot his name immediately after the call. I made the check out to cash and left it downstairs.

She called after picking it up, asking why didn’t I make it out to Mr. So and So.

“Isn’t a check made out to cash fine? You can pay him in cash, right?”

“Why is this so hard for you to understand? I needed you to do this correctly by writing out the lawyer’s name.”

“I don’t know, Mom, I forgot, pregnancy brain.” She hung up on me.

I never ever asked what was going on with the lawsuit. I wanted to forget the whole thing was happening. I prayed she would get married. I wanted the prince to come save her and me, by taking her off my hands. He would take her out of the studio, resolve the case of the $15,000 shoe collection, and move her into some glamorous digs overseas, in a different time zone, making it difficult for her to figure out when to call me.

One of the other things I didn’t ask myself was why did someone who didn’t have the income to sign a lease in New York City have $15,000 worth of shoes? There were so many questions I never asked her or myself. On a different occasion, I co-signed a loan for $15,000 because we didn’t have the money on hand, and she needed the money. She was behind on rent and she assured me the landlord would be paid.


Brooke Allston lives in New York City with her husband and three children. She is working on a novel.