My Silent Childhood

I didn’t know my name until I went to kindergarten. Then I became a writer.

Maureen Sun
chalkboard with yellow line along top and bottom
Lisa Kereszi, Chalkboard, Mrs. La Luz’s Classroom, Public School 26, Building 711, 2003. Courtesy of Lisa Kereszi and Yale University Art Gallery.

On the first day of kindergarten, my grandmother led me outside the house to the curb and, I think, instructed me to stay there. I followed her back in, innocently, stupidly, like a needy dog that has an inkling of the meaning of the command but can’t find a reason for it. The scene repeated itself several times until finally my grandmother fetched my mother for help.

It was strange to see my mother outside the house. I rarely saw her even inside—she shut herself in her bedroom day and night. On the rare occasions she ventured into the kitchen or the living room I was usually out in the yard, where I spent most of my time with our dog. Outside she looked deranged and exposed, discontinuous with the human activities happening in all the other houses along the street. She and my grandmother tried, again and again, to make me stay at the curb. At first my mother laughed at my confused clinging. Then her fragile humor melted into wrath, into the soul-sickening bitterness that weighed her down in bed most hours of the day; and I finally understood the sense of her command.

The bus arrived. My grandmother, who didn’t speak English, led me to its door. She and the driver must have repeated my name to each other to the driver’s satisfaction because he gestured for me to board. My grandmother crossed the street, motioning at me to go, and shut the front door of our home.

I took my place on the empty bus, sobbing as other children clambered on, more and more of them coalescing around me, filling the bus with sound. When we arrived at our destination, they merrily dismounted. The driver gestured for me to exit too. I found myself in a large unsheltered yard containing a wilderness of lively, babbling children.

A teacher kneeled down to ask for my name. I was still crying and didn’t answer. She must have guessed my first name was attached to the only Asian last name on the roster. I remember her studying the list in her hand, her face close to mine.

Every day we sat in a circle and took turns “sharing” an object brought from home. Who wants to share today? the teachers would ask, and dozens of arms would shoot up and strain, and a shrill sparkling chorus would fill the room: Me me me me!

During one of these frenzies of volunteering and importuning, I had my first epiphany. I grasped something fundamental about language: say the syllable, me, yes, me, and make yourself stand out within a web of symbols that is at once intimate and wholly impersonal, of which one is but an incomplete participant.

But it was an epiphany based on error. I misunderstood the meaning of the new word; for the next few weeks, I thought that my name was “Me.”

Not long afterward, my mother came to the kindergarten classroom. I could understand what was said between her and my teacher. This might be my first memory of understanding English; it might even be my first memory of following two people talking to one another at some length, moving beyond a statement toward something approaching a dialogue.

I was very surprised to see my mother in the classroom that morning and went up to her. She stood silently with crossed arms, staring ahead without acknowledging me. I was still drawn to her; she was not affectionate with me, but she and I shared a home. My teacher coldly stated her concerns, her voice mounting in indignation and disbelief: I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years of teaching. She doesn’t know her name!

My mother spoke just twice in her competent, stilted English.

“We do not know English, and we want you to teach her.”

“But I can’t teach her her name. She doesn’t even know she has a name!”

My mother didn’t respond. She was glaring at my teacher with an expression of naked fury and shame. I think at that moment she would have offered up my life, and ended her own, in order not to feel what she was feeling.

My teacher’s voice softened. “Does she have a Korean name? Is that why she doesn’t know her American name?”

“Yes,” my mother lied. Then she left.

The gentle dog, a Doberman,
with whom I spent my nameless years in the backyard, had disappeared by the time I turned five and started school. I don’t know precisely why or how he was disposed of, and as with nearly all questions about the past, I’ve never received a straight answer from my parents. I’m not sure he had a name, either.

I took naps with him in the doghouse, clung to him, tried to ride him like a pony, tortured him in my childish way. He was devoted to me; I don’t remember loving him or any person, only holding him in ways he probably didn’t enjoy. But he was, I see now, the warm body I needed in order to grow. I also don’t remember persistently pursuing the neighbor’s cat as a three-year-old, or being bitten by it, or my father calling my grandmother in Korea to tell her that her daughter, my mother, was so negligent that I spent my afternoons outside alone, crawling after an animal making the bizarre sounds “Bwah bwah!” It’s too pathetic, the pitiful name I made up for the creature I wanted to touch at any cost. Or maybe it wasn’t a name, but a cry, an appeal; I don’t know.

I learned English quickly,
but I didn’t speak in sentences or chat with classmates for another year.

My clearest memory of the Doberman begins with my stepping into the yard with my father behind me. The dog was so excited to see me he leapt onto me, and I fell and started wailing. My father grabbed him and started beating him. I was about four. The tears stopped and I fell silent, confused, because at that point the dog was wailing and the brief companionship in suffering had become something startling and estranging. I recognized an awful suffering that was not what I was experiencing. But the recognition didn’t produce sympathy: I felt an obscure satisfaction in watching a living body experiencing pain as I was, and in that feeling I was both estranged from and bound to the dog. I was struck dumb, thrust into the confusion between the absolute otherness of another’s pain and the potent corollary sensations of another, boundless you stirring within your unfree body.

In his essay, “A Child Is Being Beaten,” Freud writes of patients who have come to him with fantasies involving a beating. Questioning the patients provides little clarity, at least in the beginning of analysis. The analyst might ask who was being beaten, the patient or another. Who was beating the child—an adult or the patient herself? To these questions he receives only the response, “I know nothing more about it: a child is being beaten.”

There are three stages of the fantasy. In the first phase, the fantasy involves witnessing the father beat a child whom the patient knows: My father is beating the child. In the third, the child is unknown: I am probably looking on. In the second, the only unconscious stage, and the most significant, the unconscious thought of the fantasy is a translation of masochistic guilt: I am being beaten.

My father is beating the dog, and I am looking on. What am I, to have first experienced otherness and empathy through a dog, in the veritable condition of a dog? In this moment that constitutes one of my first memories, I was not I; I was already like a dog, a feral body with no name, no words, no attachment to any person. The dog and I are dumb, and we are being beaten.

Who am I, as I remember, as I write this?

“I know nothing more about it: a child is being beaten.”

My teacher leaned over my seat.
I want you to write your name, she said. I wrote, as I had been writing for some weeks, Me. That’s not your name, she said. She dictated the spelling of my name, and because I had learned the alphabet from our daily chants and the caricatural letters lining the walls of the room, I could write it out on my own. When I finished she said, That’s your name. I pointed to myself in shock. Me? Yes, that’s your name.

For months afterward I wrote my name on everything I could: books, papers, pencils, toys, the desk where I did my homework— anything I used and knew was mine or claimed as mine. I was thrilled with my name, intoxicated even. It was like magic.

I didn’t understand English when I started school,
but I didn’t understand Korean either. Only a handful of words had ever been addressed to me at home. My father worked long hours, and my mother was trying, little by little, to annihilate the world by staying in bed. My grandmother watched TV all day. I had two sisters: one, only two, was too young to talk much to anyone; the other, then nine, was never at home, always either at school or outdoors. Of her from that time, I remember only slashing arguments with my grandmother that ended quickly, with my sister escaping the house; I didn’t understand the syllables within their screams.

There was no reason to speak. When my grandmother said in Korean, Come, eat, I recognized the sounds and constructed them only as a gesture to eat, not as words.

In my memory there is only a before and after: sounds, then words. The world of the after is like those grammatical moods in languages that require you to conjugate the verb, to really change it, if the context is shaped or created by emotion or the imagination. The subjunctive, the imperative, the optative represent the crossover from the expression of subjectivity to the transformation of the real: the assimilation of the real into the human condition. They constitute an instance in which words themselves perform an action, such as when one says, I promise. I was moved to my core when I learned, many years later, to say in French, “I want you to be here.” “To be” must change to a form that reflects the desire: Je veux que tu sois là.

Que la lumière soit: probably the most famous example of the optative or performative in any Western language. Let there be light.

I learned my name,
that I had a name, when I was five. I was six when I learned how to read. One afternoon my first-grade teacher turned to me and another student and asked us to read from a book. The other student was white; I was still, as far as I remember, the only nonwhite child in the class. He could read the sentences; I couldn’t read any of the words but “I” and “a.” I stuttered. She praised him lavishly and looked at me with awkward dismay. You should practice more at home.

The next morning, I woke up before the rest of my family. I checked the clock; it was a few minutes before six. I labored through the handful of sentences that made up Cheepy Chick’s Holiday. I sounded out all the words again and again, knowing already from the word hour that spelling could be deceptive, knowing that if I persevered I might hit upon a sound, a word enmeshed with others in a way that made sense. When I finished reading the book it was seven o’clock. I was triumphant. I felt as though I had a new power within me that was spilling into the room, a new richness that made the objects around me more substantial. Things were no longer merely things. The house was still sleeping.

A few years ago—out of bitter nostalgia or self-pity, or perhaps even pride in my precocity—I bought a used copy of the book online. It arrived, I unwrapped it, and at the sight of the once forgotten cover, I felt an indefinable tenderness, for myself in the present, perhaps, and for the book as a testament to the arc of my life.

The child whose early years were passed in relative material comfort and extreme social neglect did not become a failure. My father, an immigrant who spent his first years in the country selling fruit on a street corner of Manhattan, was far too ambitious on my behalf. He wanted me to have everything, and he destroyed something in me in the process.

He was violent, intransigent, indecent, controlling, sadistic, monstrous, my mother’s nightmare and her children’s nightmare. I wanted to escape, but I didn’t want to tell others what happened to me at home. I didn’t want to appear strange: wounded, deformed. Then, as now, I was ashamed of what I suffered and how it shaped me.

It is a miracle to have a name,
to identify with a word whose poetry exceeds its dry nominal function as a mere marker. My father brought a German shepherd puppy home when I was seven. I named the dog Eliot; I really can’t think why. The next seven months were the happiest I’d ever known.

One afternoon, my sister and I were outside with Eliot when our father ordered us to come back in. I begged him to let us stay with the dog longer. He yelled and cursed viciously, a prelude to another explosion. First the back of my neck and then the rest of my body began to tingle with the heat of knowing he wanted to hit me.

Eliot reared up, interposing himself between my father and me with my sister at my side. He barked, growled, and fixed his eyes on my father’s. And he didn’t stop. Eliot, what are you doing? we said. I was confused: I accepted my father’s violence, which I didn’t understand in terms of justice, but as an inevitability, the course of nature.

I know now that Eliot would have lunged at my father if he’d taken another step toward us. My father knew this then. He lowered his head and said we could stay outside. Eliot calmed down and wagged his tail.

After learning to read, I was a different person. Not only could I read, I was talking to other kids, truly engaging with them, playing and learning with them. I was happily integrated: I belonged to the world made by other people.

I also found a companion in my younger sister, then three. I taught her English, talking to her as no one had spoken to me at her age. I taught her hide-and-seek, and that the woman in the other bedroom was our mother.

Soon she, our mother, emerged more often from her room, my father spent more time at home, and I finally began to understand their Korean. I never understood it fluently. I didn’t learn until I had left home that I’d long misunderstood the Korean word for “girl” to mean “bitch,” a word that itself was often slung at me by my father, and which I did correctly interpret. The two words were conflated in my ears.

Just as I hadn’t understood the words “Come, eat” as words with concrete meanings, I didn’t recognize until I was eight that the specific acts of pain inflicted and received in my family were not self-contained—that violence and pain were the miasma in which we existed. Until I was eight, pain was acute, episodic. The inner resilience of the very young set my dominant mode to a state of basic contentment that was easily reset. But even hidden resilience must receive, according to a mysterious economy of emotion, sustenance, and relief if it is to remain what it is, if it is not to change into something else entirely—the permanent, deafening dissonance of impassivity that is more dehumanizing than any original silence.

When I was eight, I began to recognize the pattern behind the distinct episodes of violence. The pain became dull, diffuse, ongoing. Suffering was untraceable, inarticulable, common as air, and, paradoxically, the touchstone of my consciousness.

It was then that I first suffered at the thought of my future. I stepped outside myself to see my situation; I narrated all my actions in my head in the third person.

I also started what I envisioned as a book with proper chapters called The Story of Animals. It was to be an epic creation story about the introduction into our fallen world of the animals that were the true denizens of heaven.

Though I never mourned the loss of the nameless Doberman, I did mourn Eliot. It was for him that I wanted to write The Story of Animals.

I started dreaming daily of escape and a life of my own. I knew that a college degree could further my dreams of writing and freedom.

My mother, unlike my father, was educated. When I was about twelve, I asked her if I could buy Dubliners and Anna Karenina, and she told me quietly she had read them and liked them. I was surprised because I thought of literature as hopeful and of her as a hopeless person. I didn’t try to talk to her about the books, not only because she rarely conversed with me, but mainly because I didn’t want to be like her.

But my father is partly the reason I am now literate. Despite his failure to finish high school, he was committed to Confucian ideals and believed a scholar was a figure to be honored by society. He made enough money to send me to a private high school and wanted me to read the thousands of books I bought with his money over the years. I went to college in New York City. I learned other languages; I traveled in Asia, Africa, and throughout Europe and earned an MA in Paris before coming back to earn a Ph.D. All of my degrees were in literature.

I placed my faith in books. I wanted to confirm what I desperately wanted to be true (subjunctive, optative, imperative): that the meaning of life was the existence of a sacred and inviolable soul. Only it could guarantee that there was an “I” separable from the ongoing brute experience of suffering and emptiness. I would learn what it was made of in books; I wanted, at the same time, to fill it with words.

Otherwise there was nothing, I would be nothing, living as one buried alive. I would be trapped forever, not in Plato’s cave but in a darkened room designed by the same hands that had made me suffer for so long.

But I couldn’t learn from books what I hadn’t experienced in life. When I read Russian novels and poetry by exiles and refugees, the term “homesickness” remained abstract, something I brushed over the way children automatically overlook the sexual content of books and TV. I processed it as a purely literary device.

I often mispronounce names and words that I should, with my education, know by now. For example, I once pronounced viceroy as vick-er-roy before a classroom of English graduate students, hushed, I realize now, with surprise or embarrassment. The word humiliates me to this day. It’s become another confirmation that I can’t navigate the interpersonal realm of language as others do, especially the educated among whom I wanted to be saved. I imagine they glide on a rich verbal stream of shared consciousness as they read, think, and talk to one another. I picture myself differently: in the desert, perhaps, using words like apotropaic trinkets to protect me from the dust.

In recent years I have taught
Frankenstein and The Tempest to college students. I ask them: How do you educate a being that isn’t quite human—and how does it educate itself?

There is a long history in Western thought concerned with an original language—the pure, innate, universal language we would use if we were not fallen, born into a world of flawed tongues. Herodotus writes of an Egyptian pharaoh who isolated newborn children in the hopes of discovering this original language. For Rousseau, the original speech before the formulation of words was composed of musical chants. In Benjamin’s mystical vision, every living and inanimate thing participates in the mute language of nature.

I wept when I read
the BBC headline I discovered during a Google search I should have tried years earlier: “Why some children ‘don’t know their name.’” “I have talked to a lot of head teachers and they have an increasing concern both about that extreme end where children might not know they have a name but also about the children who don’t have many words, can’t express themselves or don’t understand what is said to them,” said an educator working as a government adviser.

I wept because I pitied myself, but also because I realized I was not alone. I was like the self-absorbed child of children’s stories whose unhappy wish to inflict her misery on the world, to her horror, comes true. To my horror, I was merely one person in a loneliness that compassed many others in reality.

In my memory there is only a before and after: sounds, then words.

Their silence and mine often taunt me as I write and disturb me as I read, so that I close my laptop and put down my book.

I have my degrees in literature, my career as a teacher of writing, my ever growing library, my own writing. But I have also, since adolescence, spent long periods reluctant to open a book. My past seems to me a desert of long days and nights alone, unable or unwilling to think, or to read; of weeks and months when I was, like my mother, afraid to leave my room, horrified to be so alone, yet also masochistically resigned to isolation. When I did leave my room, I spoke unnaturally: it was often painful to hear myself because I used odd phrasings, or repeated myself when talking to friends or strangers.

No longer young, I’ve given up on building up my interiority, my soul, with language. There is a languagelessness that is more powerful than the most brilliant poetry. I see the way it seeps into the rest of my life; I see how it has formed me. I know that language itself has not humanized me.

In tales and myths from around the world, lost or abandoned infants are mercifully saved by beasts. Their innocent feral existence is rudely interrupted by a representative from the society that originally failed them, the society of language and lies, political feuds and community, love and betrayal—corrupt but nonetheless redeemable. And in the satisfying conclusion to the story, the feral child is miraculously integrated back into human civilization.

The week after Eliot faced down my father in the yard,
a friendly disheveled man arrived with a pickup truck and took Eliot away. He’d come in response to an ad my father took out; he couldn’t believe his luck when my father said he could have the pure-bred Alsatian for free. My father said he just wanted to do the right thing, and we couldn’t care for the dog anymore. When the door closed, I pulled back the curtain to look out the window at Eliot, who had just leapt into the back of the truck. His face, his frozen figure, expressed a terrible ache. He knew what was happening, and I turned away.

The simplest phrases can appear to us as fragments of genius when they capture what we have long wanted to say. It seemed to me on first reading his work that Dostoyevsky was at his most eloquent when Dimitri Karamazov says of his father, Why is such a man alive?

I closed the curtain. I didn’t cry. I was reabsorbed into a reality in which things were blank and my body was a clot of dumb, dense matter. But I returned to this reality a different person.

I am much older.
I live with a person who loves me, and we are raising a happy dog who was weaned too early and abandoned at a shelter. When my animal is asleep in my arms, I’m flooded with peace and sweetness. I am writing more and more.

Yet still I feel that I am not fully human, a person with language and humanity. The original silence is alive in me. I haven’t ceased being the child watching others raise their hands. I am still turning away from the window.

I am afraid I will never escape the namelessness, wordlessness, and lovelessness of my first years living like a dog, or the unhappiness that followed and corrupted the animal goodness in me. I am afraid of losing my imagination, of not being able to find myself in words, of never cracking open the silent heart of me. But at the same time, I am afraid of losing myself in a book, of falling for the illusions of a kingdom where names always carry promise. And I am afraid that if I do manage to lose myself, I will close the book to find the world emptier than I left it.

The dehumanizing silence and blankness and despair—all of it unfailingly returns to me like a tide, and could surge back with a vengeance if I try to lift myself above it and beyond.

What is left to me is to work within this silence.

Maureen Sun is a writer and scholar. She teaches at New York University.
Originally published:
September 1, 2020


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