The Canadian Olympian opens up about her dark childhood: anorexia, cutting and her troubled abusive mother
An Excerpt from Unsinkable by Silken Laumann
One scene from my childhood remains indelibly etched in my mind. I am standing, age six, at the top of the stairs in our house on Narva Court in Mississauga, Ont., carrying a beautiful pale blue dress with a navy sash that cascades to the floor. My dad gave the dress to me for my uncle Rolf’s wedding, and I utterly love it.
My mom looks angry. I feel confused. I’m so excited about this fairy-tale dress, but my mom’s face frightens me. Later, when we’re alone, she slaps me. “You’re always trying to get your dad to spoil you,” she scolds.
I’m ashamed. I know I must have done something wrong, but I don’t know what. I want Mom to know what she’s saying isn’t true, but now doubt has crept in. Maybe I am bad. Maybe I am trying to steal Dad’s attention, like she always says.
I remember another scene, this time on the day of Uncle Rolf’s wedding. My mom poses with one hand on a birdbath and the other on her hip. She is wearing a lovely white, flower-embossed gown with a long, light blue train draped around her. On her blond head she wears a sheer blue veil. Today, not even Uncle Rolf’s bride can escape my mom’s need to be in the spotlight.
My mom smacked me many times while simultaneously pummelling me with her words. Her attacks left me convinced that I was a devious, bad person. Her special weapon was a wooden spoon, but the scariest part of her attacks was their randomness. Since her rules felt arbitrary, she was always catching us off-guard. If I dared say something to her that was unpleasant but true, she would give me a puppy-dog expression of, “I am so hurt.” If I didn’t back down, she would tell me how mean and selfish and ridiculous I was, then taunt me about my hairstyle, or my friends, or my teachers—anything she knew I was sensitive about—until I was in tears. Then she would either become sympathetic or accuse me of being hysterical. I had nowhere to turn to legitimize my feelings, and no one to tell me this wasn’t okay.
When I was 10, [my older sister] Daniele was given permission to ride the city bus to the mall with a friend. Desperately wanting to go with her, I made a huge fuss about how unfair it was to have to stay behind. After shouting at me to smarten up, my mom dragged me inside, then beat me with a boot. I was crying and she was screaming. I don’t remember how badly it hurt, but I do remember the shame I felt about my behaviour, and how afraid I was that my sister was now old enough to leave the house on her own—she was becoming independent and I was left behind. When Daniele was gone, my mom’s focus was on me—and I didn’t want any more of her negative attention.
My [younger] brother, Joerg, was a cute, mischievous kid who could do no wrong in my parents’ eyes—at least when he was little. My mom used to take him in her arms, stroke his hair and call him her little liebchen, but I came to believe his upbringing might have been the most confusing of all, caught as he was between my mom’s mercurial moods and my dad’s great expectations. When Joerg was eight, he started sleeping with a knife under his pillow. He never needed to use it, but it lay close as he slept. Years later, when I asked him why, he said, “I didn’t trust Mom.”
I believe my mom loved us in her own way, but in her darkest hours, she would say things like, “I could kill you and then kill myself.” What seemed to transform her words into a frightening possibility was the fact that a distraught mother in a nearby neighbourhood had shot her kids, then herself. Another mother had gassed her family while they were sleeping. My mom would get worked into a frenzy—screaming and sobbing and throwing dishes. She would howl that she was going to gas us all. Her threat was that she would kill herself and take us with her. She never did anything to show that she’d go through with it, but I slept with my window open.
My mom later insisted her threats hadn’t been serious, yet I felt that we lived in an unsafe house. It’s hard to convey just how volatile the situation felt. I remember one day, when my father was out trimming the hedges. There was a woman suntanning in a bikini in the yard next door, and my mother was consumed by jealousy—she felt my dad was staring. To punish him, she went into the basement and pulled out the plug from his power cord so that my dad would have to head down to the basement and plug it in again. This was repeated a few times before my father raced to catch my mother on her way into the basement and lock her in there. Up to this point, it was almost silly—the plotline for an episode of I Love Lucy—but my mom’s rage bubbled over. She grabbed an axe from the basement and hacked her way out through the door. For me, every day felt like it could take that kind of unpredictably scary turn. Perhaps Daniele and Joerg felt the same way, as we schemed together about an escape, for which we created a kit with bandages and a flashlight. We also saved getaway cash and planned whose doorstep we would land on if we needed to make a run for it.
* * *
I was 16 the first time I cut myself with a razor. It was a Friday night and I wanted to go out on a date. So did my dad. If we both went out, Joerg would be left home alone. My dad, Daniele and I had already been butting heads over my desire for independence. They thought I was being too bold, attending events in Toronto and sometimes coming home on the midnight GO train. Since I was focused on training for the Olympics and excelling at school, I didn’t think I was being irresponsible, but this one night, it came to a head.
Furious that I was insisting on leaving, my dad demanded, “You can’t leave Joerg alone all the time. You’re being selfish.”
I was angry, but my dad’s approval was still desperately important to me, and I crumpled in shame. I did feel the need to take care of Joerg, and I worried that my wanting to leave made me a bad person. Everything was falling apart. My mom [had moved out] and my dad was out of the house a lot. The pressure on me felt unbearable. Shaking with conflicting emotions, I went out into the yard and sat under a tree with a razor blade I’d grabbed from the bathroom. I had been playing with this razor for quite some time; whenever self-doubt broke through my fragile facade of confidence, I’d fantasized about slitting a vein, just to end my anguish and confusion and self-hate. I would put its edge to my wrist, and its sharpness would feel so good that I wanted to go deeper to release the pressure building inside me so hard and fast that I felt I might explode. Now, with anger boiling through me, I was both desperate enough and ready enough. I didn’t want to slash my wrist in order to kill myself, nor did I want to injure myself so badly that I would have to go to a hospital—that part of my mind was still working. Instead, I cut lightly but deliberately and repeatedly to release some of my anguish so I could survive. It felt good to bleed, providing temporary relief. It also terrified me that I could do this to myself, and that someday I might possibly be tempted to go further.
Razors continued to attract me, and I would arrive at this place again a few more times after this episode. I’d toy with the razor, drawing it across my wrist in order to nick the skin. Even the thought of being able to do this served as a safety valve, making the pressure I felt more bearable. It became my secret, my private shame, never to be revealed to anyone.
Excerpt from Unsinkable by Silken Laumann ©2014. Published by HarperCollins Canada. Reprinted with permission