“I’ll be the heavyset one waiting for you in the hall,” she said over the phone. Ruth doesn’t mince words. She speaks the truth, unadorned, and looks slightly askance at me, dubious, as if she doesn’t expect a connection. Ruth practices medicine in Boston. A physician who, in addition, is completing her psychiatric residency, she is dressed informally today, wearing a kufi—an African skull cap—and jeans. We talk in the steeply raked lecture room at the university and sit alone amidst hundreds of empty seats, our voices echoing softly in the amphitheater. Ruth is a curious combination of guarded and forthright, thoughtful, yet ready to laugh and enjoy my company for a moment or two. Her's is a powerful story about loss, the inability to grieve and ultimately, enormous resilience.
Ruth was raised in Harlem by a stern and sometimes abusive grandmother. Her mother, a prostitute and drug addict, lived nearby. Her father, also an addict, had long since left the family. Ruth grew up smart and streetwise. She survived by hiding significant aspects of her life from others. Against her grandmother’s wishes, she discovered who her mother was (Ruth had been told she was a distant aunt), and would sneak off for forbidden visits after school.
My mother was in the drug world, so I would see her at times when she was bloodied and beaten up by her pimp. She’d fawn all over me—tell me I was her princess. It was the only time in my life I felt special. I didn’t realize until much later how irresponsible that was. I just thought my grandmother was keeping me away from her.
Ruth also hid the fact that she was being molested. From the age of six to thirteen, she surrendered to sexual contact with her mother’s boyfriend’s son, a teenager who had also been taken in by the grandmother. Her grandmother was unpredictable in her affection, and this left Ruth feeling that, aside from stolen moments with her mother, the only person who really cared for her was her “stepbrother.”
He would take me out to play and stuff like that, so when it came around to him wanting sex, I felt, “Sure, whatever...”
Lonely and confused, Ruth became a tough and intimidating teenager. Exceptionally bright, she maintained good grades with little effort. Yet her school days were often spent in detention after having fought with classmates. No one seemed to understand her pain, and she decided that there was not likely to be anyone in the future who would either. So, Ruth covered the tender and vulnerable places within her with a sharp tongue and quick fists.
I had a big mouth. I didn’t take anything from anybody. If they yelled at me, I would punch them in the eye! They used to call me “Blackie,” you know, ’cause that was the early sixties and being black wasn’t cool. I ended up feeling I didn’t want to be black either, so I would start a fight when someone called me that.
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