My first sexual experience occurred, as I remember at age four. I was in bed alone when an attractive young adult women entered the room, uncovered me, removed my pajamas, and addressed my bottom. She was very pleasant and soft spoken, and her touch was gentle. She required me to lie on my right side, facing away from her, and she ran her soft hands across my buttocks and into the cleavage between them until she found my anus. She spread some salve on it, then firmly pushed something in. I jumped, surprised, as this was new to my experience, but she told me to relax, that it was all right, so I eased my clench and let her continue. She reassured me as she worked it well inside me, and I was not really discomfited despite the strange penetration. In fact there was a special quality to the sensation, arousing my interest. It turned out to be the nozzle of a hose, sliding on and on in once the sphincter had been breached. When it was firmly set, quite deep, she lifted the other end of the hose high and used a pitcher to pour water into a funnel. I turned my head so I could see as she smilingly did it. The cool water coursed down the hose and into my rectum, filling me up. There was a transparent place in the hose, where I could see bubbles pass, so I knew the fluid was going into my body. This was a second type of penetration, with its own odd pleasure. But she didn’t have enough water; the pitcher ran out, and she had a pause to refill it, with a friendly exclamation of surprise, as if we were accomplishing something unusual. I was evidently taking in more water than expected, but there was no problem; she would keep it going until enough was in. That’s about all I remember, over half a century subsequent.
Years later I learned what this procedure was. It was an enema, done to clean out my bowel in preparation for a tonsillectomy. I’m sure I had to sit on the potty thereafter and blow and that water out again—I have a very obscure impression of that—and later I must have been given ether or something to render me unconscious, and later yet I must have had a sore throat. I vaguely remember being told I could eat anything I wanted, like ice cream, but for some reason I wasn’t very hungry. So it was done, and nobody thought anything of it. But I remembered that pleasant experience with the young woman who had touched me so intimately and shown me what could be done with that part of my body. My horizon had been broadened in a way I was never to forget, as this narration shows.
Another night, at home, I dreamed. I was with my sister and the nanny, and we stopped at a gas station. I thought the nozzle of the gas pump would be put in the car, to fill its tank, but suddenly I was lying on my stomach on the ground, my bottom was bare, and they were putting it into my anus. I was caught by surprise, just as I had been at the hospital, and exclaimed with protest, but to no avail. The fluid came, filling me, pumping me up, making my body expand, but the feeling was in its way pleasant, with a special extra quality. And so I remembered that dream.
When I was perhaps eight, I dreamed again, of being held in the arms of a lovely young woman who somehow had access to my bottom and was running something deep into my rectum. “Only ten minutes more,” she murmured reassuringly. I didn’t mind; the whole experience was pleasant in a way I wanted to continue. I did not understand either dream at the time I had it, but, looking back from the vantage of adult sexual and anatomical experience, I believe I do now.
I am thoroughly heterosexual; I love the look and feet of women. I like every part, and really appreciate long hair, but the sight of breasts or inner things truly electrifies me. Even a cartoon picture of a woman with her skirt rising attracts my attention. The idea a anal sex with a man repels me. But I think back on the lingering effects of that early anal contact with the hospital nurse, and I wonder whether something like this couldn’t make the difference, if a man were of borderline sexuality. If he oriented on the rectum rather than on the woman. Homosexuality surely has a strong genetic component, but there are cases of identical twins, one of whom is homosexual, the other heterosexual. Did someone, in the name of medicine, exploit the private parts of one, and lead him to an orientation that solidified in adulthood? The association of the enema hose, with its copiously jetting fluid, is obvious. I am as I mentioned in BiOgre, suspicious of the medical establishment’s seeming fascination with the anus, even using it to take temperatures. Is there a consequence no doctor would like to acknowledge? I have seen comments about men who do “like it in the ass” in the course of heterosexual sex play. I have no real evidence, but at times I do wonder.
There are other things. One of the most traumatic events of my childhood was not something that happened to me, but to my sister. I call it rape. I describe it in the “Reprise” chapter, but since it wasn’t it BiOgre and had a lifelong effect on my awareness, I’m covering it there too. My memory begins with me alone in a strange room, but I knew my mother and sister were near. Then I heard my sister’s voice, rising, protesting, saying no, no! So I walked through the short hall and came to a room where my sister was sort of sitting on a bench or table, and several adults were clustering around her. They held her and did something to her, and she screamed, but they did not relent. They held her arms and head, and I think I saw a splash of water. Mainly I remember her little feet thudding against the surface of the table, as she vainly tried to run away. But they were merciless. They made her hurt as much as they could, then let her go, crying. One of them turned around at that point, and saw me standing there in the doorway. “He saw!” she said. And the memory fades out.
It took me more than fifty years to fit that stark memory into the framework of my other memories, to piece the puzzle together. That was my sister’s tonsillectomy, a considerable contrast to my own. Mine was like pleasant sex; hers was like violent rape. It was in Spain, in 1939, time for what was routine minor surgery in those days, though today it seems there is no need for it. But in Spain, so soon after the Spanish Civil War, many things were lacking, including safe anesthetics. So, they said, they would do it without anesthesia; it was after all a small, quick operation. “Not on my child!” my mother exclaimed, and they agreed to find an anesthetic. So she brought us in, left me in the waiting room, and took Tersa on into the clinic.
That’s where it changed. The personnel snatched my sister away from her mother, put her on the table, held her in place, jammed a fixture in her mouth so she couldn’t close it, reached down her throat, and cut out the tonsils, one, two. Done. My mother was horrified—and so was I, understanding nothing of it except the savagery. So sharply was the memory isolated from the rest of my experience that even when my sister told me later how a man had cut into her throat, I didn’t realize that it was that she referred to, and years later when my mother told the story, I still didn’t make the connection. They say that traumatic memories can be buried for decades, to surface later in adult life, such as in cases of incestuous rape. Well this memory remained with me throughout, unburied, unconnected, until the isolated puzzle piece suddenly snapped into place, and I understood the meaning of the horror. So I am inclined to believe in the reality of buried memories. Had it happened to me, it might have been submerged completely. But no, my sister remembered it, in fair detail. She doesn’t call it rape. What horrifies me additionally in retrospect is that this is the way children are often treated by adults, across the world, and some is more brutal than this.
As a general rule, my early experiences with doctors were negative, as detailed in BiOgre. They seemed to exist to hurt children. They jammed spoons down throats to make a child vomit, they stuck painful needles into flesh, they poked tender orifices uncomfortably. Once I was taken to a female doctor, in America. She uncovered my uncircumcised penis, saw that the foreskin covered the glans, took hold and forced the skin down so hard that it split. This had to be done every so often, she explained, so that the skin would not close in again. In the following days my penis slowly healed; a scab formed over the end, causing the urine to splatter, but finally that cleared. I had been punished by another doctor, this time for having a natural pens.
Only when I was about sixty did I learn the manning of that, listening to Dr. Edell on the radio: doctors have this notion that the foreskin will never be able to retract, if not forced to in childhood. But the fact is, he said, that it loosens naturally at puberty, and should not be interfered with before then. Nature does know what she is doing, and should be allowed to take her course. Apparently this isn’t more generally known because so many boys in America are circumcised—a ritual, Dr. Edell explained, which they try to justify on the grounds of hygiene, but which has no real effect other than to reduce sexual sensation. And there’s the true unspoken agenda: it is intended to prevent boys from masturbating. If doesn’t, of course. With the increasing recognition that masturbation is natural to the human condition, the medical urge to cut away the offending skin seems to be slowly fading.
When my wife was pregnant, the subject of circumcision came up, and I said I would not permit it. We were not Jewish or Arabic, so there was no religious reason. The doctor said, in that forced reasonable tone reserved for unreasonable folk, that he would have to have a talk with me. But as it happened, both my children are daughters, so that battle never was fought. There are countries where they do worse to girls, infibulation, cutting out all their external genital anatomy, apparently without warning or anesthesia, just holding them down and carving while they scream, sometimes killing them in the process. Those cultures have no more sympathy for the “unreasonable” ones who protest this barbarism than certain American doctors have for those protest circumcision. Culture tends to override reason, and ignorance abounds, in medicine as much as anywhere else, ironically.
So how did this all come about? My grandfather’s Quaker family left Ireland because of the onerous vaccination law. In those days it wasn’t simple matter of a quick needle; they sliced open the flesh, and deaths sometimes occurred from the process. When my grandfather, Edward H. Jacob, got established in America, he married Edith Dillingham. They had five sons and a daughter, of which my father Alfred was the fourth.
Alfred graduated from an American high school and went to Dartmouth College. His brothers advised him to make a good effort at the start, to impress the professors; thereafter he could coast. He also chose one of the rarer musical instruments to play, the bassoon, to be more certain of a place in the school orchestra. After breaking in at college, he learned that he ranked something like sixth in a class of six hundred. He hadn’t even been trying to learn much, just to make an initial impression. He thought about that, and concluded that American education was not for him. So he set his sights on a better educational institution, the University of Oxford in England, widely considered the finest in the world. That decision was to change his life in more than the academic sense.
First he attended Woodbrooke, a Quaker institution which had no examinations and no pressure; students were there to learn what they wished, in the way they wished. He was interested in biographies, and was studying about Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist. He was happy there. And there he met Joyce Maybery, a quiet girl. Her family had experienced its own tragedy, when her father had gone on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, and been lost with the ship, in 1912. Thus Joyce’s youngest sister had been born during the absence of her father, whom she was never to know. The relationship of Alfred and Joyce was tentative, subtle rather than overt; they did not even go as far as holding hands. The high point was when they rode to the end of the train line, got off, and walked up a hill there, and talked for the afternoon, just coming to know each other better. But for him, his future had become apparent. He wrote up the experience in detail in his journal of the time. Joyce was the one.
The summer break came, and he didn’t see her. He lived for the fall term, when they would be together again. But when in came, she wasn’t there. He inquired, for surely she could not have changed her mind about school.
The was when he learned that she had caught a fever, and died. It may have been typhoid fever; she might have drunk tainted water when camping. It may have been misdiagnosed, or she may have been given the wrong medicine. There isn’t much way to be sure. Thus suddenly, she was gone.
More than sixty years later it remained difficult for him to talk about Joyce, and I never knew of her till that time had passed. We cannot know how things would have been. Perhaps their acquaintance would have ripened, and they would have married and been happy. I wish it could have been—yet with a certain selfish reservation, because then I would not have existed, and all those who came to know of my novels and the magical land of Xanth would not have encountered them. It is tempting to think that there was some higher purpose in the loss of Joyce, and that it was necessary for the greater good that the well-adjusted child she might have had—not come to exist. So that the gnarled, depressive, imaginative creature later to be known as Piers Anthony could come to be. But I am more cynical than that. I see no higher purpose in the devious and sometimes savage twists of the threads of fate, and I wish my father had not had to suffer that loss.
It is also possible that had Joyce lived, her association with Alfred would have passed. Romances come and go, and there can be many trial associations before the more binding commitments are made. Sometimes relationships don’t work out. There was just one small hint, in a comment made by Joyce’s mother, “Perhaps that was best,” that Joyce’s feeling for Alfred did not at that stage match his feeling for her. Yet the relationship was nascent; much could have changed in the next term, had she lived. Women tend to be more cautious about love than men are, but they do achieve it in their own time. And if they were not fated to love and to marry, surely it would have been better to play that out in life, instead of bringing such grief to both Alfred and Joyce’s family. They could have gone their separate ways in friendship, without interfering with whatever larger order was destined.
Coincidentally, at that time, Alfred met another young woman, Genevieve. They were acquaintances and friends, but Genevieve was not Joyce, and in due course they moved apart. But there was a good deal more to come, between them, in due course, despite the lack of bells and whistles at the time.
Another time he was to go on a triple date with two friends, but the other two men were unable to make it, so Alfred found himself with all three girls. One of them was Norma Sherlock. As time passed, and he was with one and then another, a friend inquired “Why are you bothering with those others? They aren’t close to Norma’s quality.” He realized it was true, and became serious about Norma.
Normal was the daughter of a doctor, and granddaughter of a Church of England bishop. Her father, Dr. Sherlock, had been devising tests for intelligence, and used his little girl as a model. He assumed she was ordinary. That’s why she was named Norma—for normal. Unfortunately for the validity of his norms, she was not; she was an extremely bright child, somewhere in the top percentile of intelligence. She grew up to graduate from Oxford University, talking two Firsts in languages, French and Spanish, an unusual feat. There were four levels, which Americans might see as grades A, B, C, and D. So she had made, in our crude analogy, a double A.
I have a picture of her as she was as a cute child of perhaps three, and another as a young woman of perhaps twenty-three, with typically English floating hairstyle. As a child she had grown her hair so long she could sit on it, but at age twelve decided to cut it. There is said to be a picture of her with her mother, with her shorn hair all on the floor and her mother, with her shorn hair all on the floor and her mother on a woman and wince at the notion of such glorious tresses being cut. But my mother was ever a creature of her own will.
Here is an example of her independent mind, quoted from her journal of memories, the entry dated April 21, 1982:
Something I heard today on the ratio reminded me of another Oxford memory: the entrance examination I took for Somerville in 1928. There was one paper which was designed to test the applican’t ingenuity rather than knowledge, and this contained a question which struck me as so silly that I’ve remembered it from that day to this. It was: “If you were compelled to fight a war, how would you finance it?” Well, Margaret Thatcher was also at Somerville quite a few years later an I find myself wondering whether she too was asked that question and if so, how she answered it. I didn’t; there was a choice and I passed that one up as totally irrelevant to any possible future for a bright girl applying for admission to the world’s best women’s college.
How many young women would risk their admission to a highly regarded college in a highly regarded university by declining to answer a question they considered irrelevant?
When she met Alfred, things moved swiftly. “I had forgotten what a handsome man he was,” she remarked decades later, when seeing an early picture of them together. Their relationship soon progressed to consideration of marriage. But Alfred was then in therapy, and his therapist disapproved of a patient marrying during therapy. “We’ll see about that,” Norma said, and went to talk with the man. Thereafter the therapist withdrew his objection. Later, Alfred inquired about their dialogue. “Oh, we didn’t talk about it,” the therapist said. Then why had he withdrawn his objection? It turned out that the moment Norma walked in, he realized that there would be no compromise with her, so debate was pointless. He yielded to necessity.
Yet that was perhaps a warning signal, because marriage was not the only thing Norma refused to compromise on. She tended to be very sure that she knew what she was doing and that others, when they differed with her, did not. She let Alfred know at the outset that she was the intelligent one in the family, and would brook no argument when she made a decision. This is not the smartest attitude to bring to a marriage, ironically, and indeed, the marriage did’t last. That attitude was to cause trouble with me, too, and unlike my father, I do not gracefully yield when I know I am right. Indeed, there were times I set my mother back by not only asserting myself, but proving that I did have the right of an issue between us. If that bothered her—and it did—at least she knew where I got it from, and perhaps appreciated the kind of a trial she had sometimes been to her own parents and grandparents. But there was a difference between us, because I do my best to make certain that I am right before I make my stand, while she tended to proceed on her own certainly. Substituting certainty for judgment can be disastrous, tempting as it evidently is for many folk.
But at the outset of their association such subtleties were invisible. Love swept away all objections. Well, most of them. Norma had finished at Oxford, but Alfred had not. He was in contention for a First, but was distracted by the romance and did not perform well, so took a Second. That was perhaps part of the basis for Norma’s claim that she was smarter—though she was the one responsible for his distraction. In my observation, there are different kinds of intelligence, and those who score high on one kind are apt to have a weakness in another, somewhat in the manner that a hand of cards with strength in spades may be weak in diamonds. Often academics seems to prosper at the expense of social savvy. I think this was the case here.
Actually, I don’t regard such unevenness as necessarily bad. Each card is worthy in its own right. Kings have power, but deuces have their role too; most games could not be played without them. I understand that originally aces were the lowest cards, but with the French Revolution, where royalty was slaughtered by the common folk, aces came to be ranked above kings. When deuces are wild, they may be more useful than aces. People are more complicated than cards, and a given person can be a king in one respect and a deuce in another. Each person must be judged in multiple ways, if judged at all. I remember an item in Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, wherein he was scheduled to speak at a “Black Tie” event. So he put on a black tie. When he concluded his speech, he noticed that every person there was dressed far more formally than he was. He had never before caught on to the meaning of “black tie”; he had taken it literally. I would have made the same mistake. Asimov was without question a very intelligent and knowledgeable man, but some of his spades were at the knowledgeable of diamonds. And his first marriage, too, didn’t last, suggesting imperfect social savvy.
And this, also, is not necessarily a fault. One recent study suggests that the human kind is geared to a four-year romance: time enough to generate a child and see it through weaning, which is when the mother is in greatest need to support. Thereafter another romance can commence. So many marriages founder in emotion if not always in appearance at that time. Those that endure longer may have become another kind of association. I suspect that the half of all marriages that end in divorce are merely the more extreme cases; the remaining ones have varying degrees of separation. “Until death do us part” is an unrealistic commitment for the majority. Sometimes it is better simply to recognize that a given marriage is not working, and to dissolve it. That was the case with my parents, who had an amicable divorce after nineteen years. But that action had its price. More on that anon.
Today only a minority of couples seem to wait for marriage before indulging in sex. In was different for my parents, sixty years ago. In fact Alfred, still a student at Oxford, had a curfew; he could not stay out all night. One time Norma was visiting him, and had to go home alone, because the curfew prevented him from going with her. That was all right; she had a bicycle. But let her tell it in her own words, from her journal entry of March 13, 1980:
We certainly did manage, in that time and place, to enjoy being young, and Oxford was the place to do it. Another of my memories is of the evening when I was visiting Alfred as his lodgings in Headington and missed the last bus home. It was too late for him to drive me back, since as an undergraduate he had to be in by midnight. So he mounted me on his bicycle, which was difficult because I was wearing a tight skirt, and gave me a push at the top of Headington Hill, and down the hill I went and all through the center of Oxford, unable to stop for any red light because once I got off I’d never be able to get on again. Luckily in the middle of the night there was very little traffic and no police, and I finally managed to fall off outside my own door.
But Norma’s sexual education consisted of a quiet briefing by the mother on the eve of her marriage, of the “just close your eyes and think of England” variety calculated to render a young woman frigid. It did.
And so they married in 1933, and though they were in love and meant well, that was probably the beginning of the end of their relationship. Norma was simply unable to enjoy sex, and had to struggle to participate at all. Nevertheless I was born the following year in the Oxford hospital. They found a thatch house nearby to live in, and my sister was born in that house. I have a painting of the house that my sister commissioned on my study wall, constantly before me as I work. I don’t remember it, but appreciate the significance of it in my life, as does my sister even more strongly. But quaint as it was—it remains one of the last such houses in England—my mother hated it. It was primitive, and I think lacked such amenities as running hot water. She was caught there when the labor pains for my sister’s birth started, and couldn’t get to the hospital. She said Alfred had to carry her upstairs to the bedroom, and she bit him on the arm. Teresa arrived in just twenty minutes, in contrast to the seven hours it had taken me to enter this world. Our subsequent lives followed those examples. My sister was swift, while I was slow. Though she was a year younger, at one point she was five inches taller than I was, and she entered first grade with a sixth grade reading ability, while I took three years to get through first grade because of my inability to learn to read.
Then Alfred and Norma went to Spain to do relief work during the Spanish Civil War. Their effort is detailed by my mother’s narrative in an appendix to Bio of an Orge. A scottish nanny took care of the children. She is actually the first “parent” I remember, and I think my separation from her was the beginning of what turned out, in its various forms, to be a lifelong depression. Apparently there were two of them, sisters, and one may have been named Bunty Stewart. That’s all I know. When I think of the happiness of childhood in England, it may actually be the limited time when that competent, gentle young woman was always there. I don’t even know whether that was at Oxford, or London, where my mother’s parents lived. Probably London, because I remember seeing a double-decker bus, and going to the park, and the vine-covered dead end of the street. And the way my sister and I imitated our grandmother Sherlock, as she held the serving utensils vertically in her hands, ready to serve the food. I’m not sure I remember Oxford at all, unless that was where I had my tonsils out.
Then we went to Spain. I remember seemingly endless train rides, where periodically men would come through and check through all the suitcases, customs inspection. At one point there was revealed something wrapped in light paper or cloth, and my mother indicated what it was by waving her hand. It was a hand fan, the kind that opens out. We don’t see many of those today.
Most of my memories of Spain were covered in BiOgre, so what remains is scant. I believe it was there that I had my first ice-cream cone. The thing about it is that it was square rather than round: that is, the man put a block of ice cream into the cone. I was surprised, when later in America I found that the ice cream put into cones was round. I conjecture that in Spain they lacked the bulk ice cream and scoops, so the man used a packaged cube instead.
Another memory is trivial, yet it assumes significance now that any memories of the time are precious. Norma had a nice little set of cooking pots with matching lids, perhaps a wedding gift brought from England. One day I saw the cook using one of those little pans on the stove, with a huge foreign lid on it. I was disgusted, that such a sweet little pot should be so abused. In a way, now, it symbolizes the situation of my into the appalling situation of war.
When we went to Portugal to catch the ship to America, we had to drive through a high mountain range. There we stopped so we could go out and touch a cork tree. All that cork, just growing as back! Perhaps that gave me a notion that was later to manifest as the magical trees in the Land of Xanth, that could grow just about anything. We also drove to the very to of one mountain—I remember the road winding around and around, finding its way up the steep slope—until at the top we found some kind of amusement park. There were many entertaining devices. My mother put a coin in a model train set, and we watched the train run along the tracks, as winding as the road had been. In fact, I thought it was a model of the mountain we had just come up. Then the train went into a tunnel, and didn’t come out the other side. The game was over.
In Lisbon, Portugal we stayed at a hotel. At one point my mother walked across the room naked, and I was surprised; I had never seen her that way before (and never since), and marveled that she had some hair low on her belly as well as one her head.
We were leaving Spain because the newly victorious Franco regime had arrested my father, perhaps by mistake, and couldn’t admit any error. He had smuggled a note out of prison, and my mother used that, and the leverage of an influential Quaker friend who was in a position to cut off substantial relief funds for Spain, to get him out—on condition that he leave the country. I think dictatorial regimes do not understand folk who try to help suffering families to survive the ravages are alien concepts to them. I did not know the reason for our stay in Spain or our departure from it, at the time, but later as I learned, I came to hate dictatorships, and indeed, all dictatorial entities, whatever names they go by.
Here are Norma’s notes on the matter, made January 2, 1982:
There is a report today of a train accident in Spain, on the live which goes from Barcelona up to Zaragosa. I have good reason to remember that train ride, which I took in July 1940, after Alfred disappeared on one of his field trips during the Franco period. As far as we can tell, he was arrested because he was near the frontier with a large sum of money given him by the British Embassy; this was at the time when Hiller’s forces took over most of France and British refugees from the Riviera were supposed to be arriving at the Spanish border on their way to Lisbon (I was in Barcelona meanwhile trying to collect enough non-perishable food for a party of perhaps 400 refugees, men, women and children including young infants, for a journey of several days across Spain in a sealed train in August). After several days of trying in vain to find out where Alfred had gone, Mercedes and I received a grubby picture postcard which had been smuggled out of the prison by a fellow prisoner who was being released. I at once took the train ride and went to the prison, only to find that he had been moved to Madrid. So I took another train, at night this time. My chief memory of that is that it was bitterly cold and my fellow-travelers insisted on having the carriage windows open (it’s usually supposed to be the English who insist on this). They were very friendly people and shared all their bread and other provision for the journey with me.
Mercedes was their secretary in Spain, who took pride in being completely competent though I understand she was only seventeen years old. I remember once being in the office when suddenly one adult woman fled, and Norma ran after her. Only decades later when I read my mother’s journal, after her death, did I piece together the elements of that scene and realize that that was the time when Norma had jokingly teased Mercedes about not knowing where something was, and Mercedes fled in tears. Norma had to chase after her to make it up. Though she worked for the Liberal Quakers, I understand that that Mercedes was a sympathizer for the revolution, believing that much good would come when General Franco won the civil war. But as time continued, and the realities of that government manifested, her idealism took a beating. I think of Coleride’s comment on the French Revolution, here rendered as prose rather than poetry: “The sensual and the dark rebel in vain, slaves by their own compulsion. In mad game they burst their manacles and wear the name of Freedom—graven on a heavier chain.” Perhaps there were revolutions other than the American one that brought lasting benefits to their people, but I think not many.
The ship to America was the Excalibur, and I understand it was the last passenger voyage departing Europe before World War II cut off such transport. The former King of England, Edward VIII, was another passenger on it, on his way to govern the Bahamas. I got seasick and had my sixth birthday on that ten-day voyage. The sheer immensity of the ship impressed me, so big they even mounted a canvas swimming pool on the deck. But I don’t remember out cabin or meals, apart from a vague impression of some tiny cubicle with a round porthole-window.
In due course we reached New York City. I think I remember passing a big statue rising from the water, which would have been the Statue of Liberty, but can’t be quite sure. I believe I also remember being met by Alfred’s father, Edward H. Jacob, and his wife Caroline Nicholson Jacob. I’m sure I remember the long drive to West Chester, Pennsylvania, where my grandfather lived. His business was mushrooms, and he had been known as The Mushroom King, before selling the business in 1929. Now he was retired, and lived on a nice estate opposite a golf course. I found it to be a fascinating place.
But I was beginning to come to terms with the strange land of America, a long nemesis struck: school. I was six years old, and it was time. There was trouble from the start. “What’s your name?” “Piers.” “No, what’s yuour last name?” I had not heard of any other name. “Piers.” “Piers Piers?” I was asked derisively. So when I got home I inquired, and learned that I had two or more names. The papers I did were messy and somehow wrong; I remember being shown one and lectured, I suppose the teacher’s effort to shame me into trying harder, but I didn’t know what the problem was.
It took me three years and five schools to get out of first grade. Not every school was bad, but taken as a whole, it was a nightmare. I remember sitting beside a boy the teacher didn’t like, and seeing how she changed the rules, such as being allowed to use the bathroom, to exclude him. Once she went after him with a ruler, but he avoided the blow. That made her angrier. “Didn’t feel that, eh? Well, take this!” She wasn’t satisfied until she knew he was really hurting. I had not seen such violence before, and hardly knew what to make of it, but the clarity of my memory over fifty years later shows the impression it made on me. A girl told of the worse school she had come from, where they made kids vomit, and then made them lick it up again. I wasn’t sure I believed that, but wasn’t sure it was untrue, either. Once my sister Teresa, who was now in the same grade I was, encouraged me to go with her to join a throng of children who were playing in a school field. I was doubtful, having experienced some of the new-student syndrome, but went along with her. But they quickly drove us away with epithets.
So did I ever stand up for myself? Well, sometimes I tried. Once I was visiting a neighbor boy, who had been friendly before, but then he had some other friends, so he told me to go away. I demurred, not liking the change in attitude and not yet understanding the gang syndrome in children. He became threatening. I kicked up with one foot, not really at him, just threatening to. He stepped in and punched me in the face. He was bigger than I was, and completely demolished me. I fled in tears, to some jeering. This was my out of first grade I began to learn to fight, and as time went on I got better at it, though inevitably my opponent was larger than I was. When it got also that I could take just about anyone within ten pounds of me, the bullying mostly stopped. But I did take some lumps from those who were considerably larger. One boy outweighed me by about thirty pounds, in ninth grade, when I weighed just under a hundred pounds. I wrestled him down to the floor, then let him go. He got up and started swinging, and his reach was so much longer than mine that I couldn’t get at him at all, and got beaten. After that he pushed me around constantly. Another was my own size. So I knew I could take him—but he palled around with a larger boy, and when anyone stood up to him, he brought in the larger boy and they both went at the one. The bullies ruled the roost. I was not the only one who stayed out of trouble mainly by not resisting, though sometimes this meant allowing the bully to copy my homework. I didn’t like it, but it was easier to yield my homework than to get beaten up. The school administration was oblivious, as always. That was a Quaker school preaching the virtues of nonviolence, but those in charge wouldn’t have approved of the price of nonviolence had they taken the trouble to look into it. Reality can differ sharply from idealism.
In adulthood the arena became more intellectual than physical. While many boys finish their physical growth at fourteen, I did not; I gained almost a foot thereafter. All physical bullying stopped. Along the way some tested me, and that was as far as it went. One of the notorious bullies wrestled me in a friendly match; he offered to take on two of us together, but the other boy demurred, so I took him on alone. He was older, larger, and stronger, and he did beat me, in a clean match, but evidently he respected my effort, because he never bullied me. Oh, he could have, had he chosen; he could demolish much larger boys. There was a case when another bully was going after one who wasn’t fighting him; he kept snapping and snapping with a wet towel, the kind that can leave scars on bare flesh. No one could stop him, being afraid of him. Then the one I had wrestled came on the scene and told the toweler to get the hell out, and the other had to go. I didn’t see it, but another boy told me that the toweler started to turn back, to resume his attack—and the other simply swung his straight arm around and cracked him on the side of the head. That ended that. But he and I always got along. I think it was that he respected my attitude: I had tackled alone what another boy had not dared to as a pair, and I had fought cleanly. So he had tacit respect for one who was no threat to him. And I, with a lifelong hatred of bullies, make an exception for him.
I grew intellectually, too. By the time I got out of high school I had a tested IQ of 131, after testing subnormal earlier. In college I was tested at 132 on a similar test. Sure, it’s not supposed to be that way; IQ is supposedly constant. Maybe so; as I said, I was always slow, so in effect in the early years I was competing with classmates who were well ahead of me mentally as well as physically. But in time I not only caught up, I went ahead—and stayed ahead, intellectually, in adulthood. But I had come up through a rough school, in more than one sense. I use the qualification “tested” because I question the validity of the IQ concept; a test is only as good as its mechanism, and it has been said an IQ test tests the ability to take IQ tests, rather than true intelligence. I agree.
So what was my problem? It could have been dyslexia. My daughter has it, and her early problems in school were eerily reminiscent of mine, though she quickly learned to read while I spent three years in first grade trying to learn, and never did become a fast reader. My grandfather Edward Jacob never got good at reading, though he was an excellent businessman. So it seems to be something in the family, which looks from some angles like stupidity but from others like intelligence. The evidence is growing that dyslexia is the inability of the language-processing centers of the brain to coordinate, so the dyslexic must think about what others do naturally, so is at a disadvantage until he learns to compensate. Once he does compensate he may go far, because it’s not lack of intelligence so much as lack of integration that is the problem. That seems to describe me. I was called stupid in early school, and was not great in later school, but more than one reader has called me genius for the way I write. Maybe I learned to compensate so well that now I do it better than those who never really had to sweat it. Thus my liability became my strength. I don’t know; it’t just conjecture.
There were other facets of my life, and these, too, were not necessarily good. The marriage of my parents] was dissolving, and though it was to take about a decade for the divorce to become official, the stress of it affected me. I began to wet my bed, for several years, and developed compulsive mannerisms, such as shaking my head or hands every few minutes. No one understood why. I was sent to a number of child psychologists, who I concluded did not know beans about children. Fear became the most constant nemesis of my childhood. I was afraid of being alone, and of the dark, and of strangers and of my own dreams, the most ravaging of all. Sometimes it seemed that my whole life was a bad dream; I wished I could wake up and find myself back in England with the nanny. But it became apparent that there would be no such reprieve.
There came a time when I declared my independence, in a fashion: I told my mother I would not see any more psychologists. She didn’t like it, but I was immovable. I date the onset of my recovery from, that point. Slowly I assumed increasing control of my own destiny, at first emotional, later intellectual and physical. In effect I cut the problem of my parents off from me, so that the ongoing struggle of their separation and divorce no longer tore me up. The bedwetting stopped, and the twitching. I began to grow again—I had stopped for several years—and my intellectual effectiveness increased. It was no overnight salvation; my problem had taken years to develop, and it took longer to abate. But my life gradually improved on every front. My mother was appalled when I once remarked that my parents were folk I knew and liked, but did not love; she did not understood why that had to be.
Another aspect of my education was sexual. I was originally naive. I remember once playing behind a shed with my sister and a cousin, and of course we came to the point of showing our private parts. I had seen my sister many times, and knew that girls were different The other boy, though younger than I, had an erection; his penis stood out at right angles, while mine was small and limp. Years later I came to understand that he had understood better than I the naughtiness of what we were doing. I was capable of erections, and sometimes had them, but had not been sexually excited by that scene. But when I sometimes stayed overnight at another house, and had to share a bed with another boy, he was always feeling for my penis, and asking me to feel his. I didn’t understand why. He kept working the skin up and down, up and down, interminably. It seemed pointless to me, but I let him do it to mine. One night I felt a strange sensation growing in that region. Alarmed, I asked him to stop, and he did. Only years later did I understand that that would have been my first orgasm. In my ignorance I had stopped it before it was completed. In retrospect, I wish I had been more knowledgeable. Similarly, once I was playing with a girl, and she wanted to share some genital exposure, and I refused. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. Once I dreamed I was playing with a girl, and she bared her cleft and invited me to enter it, and I was strongly tempted, but knew it would be wrong, so did’t. Then I woke, and cursed myself for not having done it, as all is forgiven in dreams; it would have been perhaps my first wet dream.
One misunderstanding was humorous. My cousin called an erection a “boner.” I remembered the term. Then one day I saw a book whose title was 10,000 Classroom Boners. I was amazed; I wondered just what kind of a class that was. I was somewhat let down later when I learned that a boner was merely a funny mistake.
Another episode was merely mischief, and I was the perpetrator. One summer at Hilltop Farm we got to know other kids out age, which was then early teen. We got a sixty-pound canister of honey by mail order. Now the problem was to transport it to the neighbors with whom we would share it, and on home, a total route of two miles. Two other boy was big and fat, and he carried it in a pack on his back without undue trouble. But when my turn came, it was rough, because I weighed a scant hundred pounds. When I tried to lift that pack, 60 percent of my own weight, I fell over under its weight. But I tried again, and did manage to hoist it up and walk my walk. It was balance that was my problem, rather than strength; at that time I was able to carry my sister, who weighed more than I did. We took it to the house of Marshall Smith, where his wife Lois supervised the pouring out of some of it. The hole was small and the honey was thick; it oozed out a blob at a time, the string thinning between blobs. Just when a blob was squeezing out, I made an ooomph! urgent grunting sound, as of someone getting out a load in the outhouse. That set off the other boy, who burst but laughing. The woman gave him a severe stare for that transgression. I had gotten away with one.
Back to sex. When I went to boarding school in ninth grade, my roommate straightened me out in a hurry. “Haven’t you ever played with yourself?” he asked incredulously. I didn’t know what he meant. So he told me, and showed me, and then it all began to fall into place. I was late maturing, being slow in that respect as in others, and didn’t reach puberty until age eighteen. But sexuality didn’t wait on puberty. The difference, my roommate explained, was that before you got hair on your balls you couldn’t ejaculate, so your orgasm was dry. And it was so. I, like most boys, would have been capable of orgasm at any time in childhood, had I known how to masturbate. Now I learned how. There was a joke going around: “Are you one of the 95 percent or the 5 percent?” That meant, the 95 percent who masturbated, or the 5 percent who lied about it. Indeed, it did seem to be universal. Some did claim they didn’t; presumably they were among the 5 percent. It was a nightly occurrence, and some kept at it until they orgasmed a second or third time. Some liked to do it in pairs or with several; some preferred alone. One boy would get into bed with anyone who let him, and message the other’s penis, expecting a simultaneous return of the favor. One once demonstrated how far he could spurt; he went into the closet to work himself up, desiring privacy for that, then emerged to jet into the air and onto the floor. But my impression diminished. I doubt that they were having sex with the girls, because the rules were strict and there was almost to opportunity, but they had a new orientation.
Girls. I was the shortest person in my ninth grade class, male or female, and this militated against much of a social life. I have been on only one formal date in my life, and that was an arranged one, required attendance, with a classmate, Nancy Horsefield. We sat together at a program, and I ha to take a brief leave to go onstage for a bit part, then return, That was it; there was no mutual interest. I never had further interaction with her, other than seeing her in classes. She was a fully developed girl, and I was far from the equivalent in boys; physiologically she was about five years ahead of me.
However, I was encouraged to attend some evening dances, and did dance with several girls. I was beginning to get into the feel of it. Then a couple of older boys told me that I should cut in on a couple they pointed out to me. In my naïveté I did. It was a practical joke, and they got out of there in a hurry. I had cut in on a senior boy and his steady girlfriend. He was nice about it, cutting back in after a minute, and never seemed to hold it against me. But it was a grievous lapse of etiquette, and when I realized the nature of my transgression, I was totally embarrassed. In four years at that school, I never attended another dance. My social life ended at that point, and did not resume until I was in college.
One of my unkind chronic awarenesses is of death. My two closest calls were a car accident I mention in Chapter 3, and the measles. Normally measles is just another childhood illness, but the later it comes the worse it may be. In my senior year at Westtown one of my friends came back to school with it, and sure enough, two weeks later I got it. I was, I believe, the second worst case among the boys; the worst was my classmate Han Broekman. As I recall, his temperature peaked at 105 3/4, while mine was 105 1/2. For three days I had no appetite, and ate nothing, and so nothing passed through my system. The nurse, whose book of instructions said that there had to be a BM every day regardless, gave me enemas each of those days, looking for what wasn’t there. Actually on the third day there was something, though where it came from I don’t know. But what bothered me more was the weakness. When I was moved to another infirmary room the poor nurses had to carry me, a difficult job for them, and the disruption made me vomit. I was allowed to take myself to the bathroom, but lacked the strength to get out of bed. I had a cough, and it came to the point where I no longer had the strength to cough, so had to lie there with that nagging tickle in my throat. Then, indeed, did I feel the deepening shadow of the valley of death. They gave me a sleeping pill, but I stayed awake all night until at last they gave me something to counter the pill, and then I slept; apparently the pill had the opposite effect on my metabolism. The night I developed a terrible thirst; every hour I woke and asked for water. It got so that the nurse was by my bed with a glass of water the moment I stirred. I felt sorry for her; she could get no rest herself, with patients like me. But slowly the crisis passed, and my appetite and strength returned—slowly. I remember when one of the other boys got up to go to the bathroom, ran out of strength, so lay down amicably in the hall for a few minutes to rest, before recovering enough to complete his trip. That was the way of it for us all. As I improved, I was moved back to the main infirmary, where I woke to find a wonderful basket of fruit by my bedside, sent by my Uncle Ed and Aunt Dorothy, the parents of my cousin Teddy Jacob, whose early death colored the rest of my life. It was like emerging into bright daylight after being lost in a dark burial cave. Thereafter it was as if my life had passed a significant marker; Teddy had died, but I was not destined to die just yet.
Copyright © 2001 by Piers Anthony Jacob