Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Girl with the Silver Eyes --- Growing Up Hidden

From a very early age, I knew something was wrong with me. I felt out of place everywhere, especially at home. I knew that my parents were barely tolerating me, and that my character defects or personality flaws were so egregious that I deserved every glance askance and snide remark that my mom made. I was certain that whatever was broken inside of me was so utterly broken that there was nothing I could do to fix it, and my only recourse was to hide as much as I could, for as long as I could hold out. My only hope was finding someone broken like me who would treat me well and keep me safe, as long as I promised to do the same for them. Reciprocal brokenness would be my only escape. (This clearly explains a lot of my relationships during my college years - sorry, guys!)

These days, I know the truth - that my mother is and was a narcissist whose very identity rested on me being less than she was - less smart, less pretty, less clever, and especially less aware of her issues. She compared herself to me every moment of every day, and she had to tear me down to feel better about herself. I was a smart, cute, empathic person who understood how people felt and why they did things. I was brave and outgoing, with things to say and a great sense of humor. None of that was okay with her, and she took every chance she could to put me back in my place, which was apparently under her thumb, or better yet, foot.

My favorite escape was reading books. Reading helped me ignore the reality of my life, where I was broken or wrong or just bad. Every time I opened a book, the rest of the world disappeared and I lived inside the story with the characters. If I was stuck without a book, I would daydream of the day my real parents would come and find me and take me Home, where I would be loved, accepted, and cherished by the people who were just like me. But mostly I made sure I always had something to read with me.

My favorite cover, and the one I originally owned
I was probably in fifth grade when I discovered The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts. In later years, I became a huge fan of her entire body of work, but back in the day, I only knew about this one book. This one book was Enough.

In the first chapter, you meet almost ten-year-old Katie, the main character, and you learn that she is different with a capital D. Katie looks harmless enough, except for her silver eyes, but she can move things using her mind. Katie's mom (divorced) complains to friends (with Katie overhearing) that Katie is too smart, too calm, and even as a baby, she never cried. Babysitters don't stay for long, saying that Katie is peculiar. Katie's grandmother died while caring for Katie out in the countryside, so this move to the city with her mother has been an adjustment, and Katie starts to realize that she may need to hide her powers more carefully.

An older cover for the book

Katie gradually makes friends with an older woman in a nearby apartment who becomes the necessary babysitter, and overhears that a particular drug (taken by her mother during pregnancy) may be the cause of her telekinesis. She also learns that there may be other kids like her, and she finds an address for one family in her mom's address book. Writing a careful letter to Kerri, who may be like her, she finds herself thinking about this being dangerous: 

Dangerous was a frightening word, and she was surprised, at first, that she'd thought it. And then she wasn't surprised, because it was the way she was feeling. Afraid, as if something dangerous was happening. If people didn't like people who were different, would they do something about it? Would they be more than just mean, in the way they treated the ones who weren't the same as themselves?

In grade school, I already knew I wasn't okay, but by seventh grade, I transferred to public school and learned just how sheltered I had been. I approached everything about the new school with excitement and enthusiasm --- I got to ride the bus! I had new classes with new teachers and new classmates! I had new playground equipment to play on! --- just as my classmates were adopting a jaded slouch and Who-Cares attitude so they could go behind the portables and make out with boys whose hair was as feathered as theirs. Being a year younger didn't help, but neither did being Me. During summer, I had made a friend who was in my class, and we rode bikes everywhere and hung out all the time. As soon as school started, she dropped me like a hot rock and made fun of me to her "real" friends. My intelligence and eagerness for approval got me nothing but derision from my classmates, and even some of my teachers were uncomfortable and scornful of my I'm Just Happy To Be Here vibe. And every day, I got on the school bus and waited for my nemesis to taunt and bully me for the entire bus ride home.

I gradually learned to pretend to be someone else, because being myself was Dangerous. I knew that if I showed myself, someone would make fun of me. Someone would find me out for the weirdo I was, and my broken parts would be all lit up, like a neon sign flashing, Mock Me! Call me out! Make sure everyone in earshot knows just how weird I am! Pushing the buttons my mother installed from birth wasn't exactly rocket science.

I could relate to Dangerous.

Katie sends the letter, but she's well aware of her precarious position. Just as she starts making connections, a too-nice, too-interested man shows up at the apartment complex and starts asking weird questions of Katie and her neighbors, all about Katie and anything odd that might have happened around her. After overhearing a veiled accusation about the circumstances of her grandmother's death, Katie panics and runs away.

She's still got the glasses and her eye color is spot on.
This book has everything I love. Katie is a classic misfit; though she isn't necessarily ugly (as I imagined I was), she wears glasses, like I did, and her plain brown hair was just like mine. I knew how it felt to be ostracized for being smart, for reading too much, and for just noticing things. (As much as I tried, I couldn't move things with my mind. BOY did I ever try!) She also communicates with animals, and growing up on a farm gave me ample opportunity to commune with the cows, horses, dogs and cats on our property. Her mother doesn't understand her and in fact, seems afraid of her. My mother was scared to death of my ability to see through her fa├žade, and hid it by abusing me, verbally and physically. Katie doesn't have friends in school, and I always felt apart from the other kids, even before I was bullied in middle school.

Katie hides out for a few days and eventually finds the other kids who are like her. There's a moment of recognition when Katie meets the first kid, Dale, who looks back at her with the same silver eyes, through his own glasses. That moment gave me hope, lo these many years ago, that I might someday meet my people. That recognition of a kindred spirit, someone who saw you and accepted you, or maybe even admired you - not despite your supposed defects, but because of them. Someone who saw those defects and said, "I'm confused. Those aren't defects, they are awesome qualities to have. You have powers and abilities. You are not broken."

That redemption. That fulfillment of hope and prophecy. That joy of recognition. Sweetness.

The kids finally meet up, and compare notes on their powers. They all have varying degrees of telekinesis and other psychic abilities. They all have silver eyes, and their powers are much stronger when they are together. The kids confront their parents together, and the too-nice man is revealed as a recruiting agent for a special school created as much to study them as to teach them. The book doesn't resolve everything, but the overall message is one of Finding Your People. Awesome.

The subplot of the book is also immensely satisfying, and uses the apartment complex to its full advantage. Miss K. is a nice lady who likes Katie, and Mr. P. is a complete jerk who is always hitting on Miss K. and complaining about Katie. There are many hilarious antics and satisfying moments, just in this B-plot.

As I mentioned before, Willo Davis Roberts has a substantial oeuvre that covers dozens of books. She writes mysteries and young adult books, and has won many awards for her work. I've enjoyed all those I've read, but I will always have a special place in my heart for The Girl with the Silver Eyes.