Alby's Words

in no particular order

Alexandria Dobkowski

Alexandria Dobkowski
Austin, Texas, USA
August 03
I was born and raised in Maine, where I attended a small private prep school and was taken into foster care at 16. Post legal majority, I spent time traveling the US, staying with friends and living out of my car. I settled in Memphis, Tennessee for several years, working for a book publisher. I am currently a writer, editor, and mother in Austin, Texas. Via Salon, I once debated with Camille Paglia over whether girls can rock.


Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 8, 2008 11:37PM

A Call From the Darkness

Rate: 31 Flag

It was winter in Maine and dark early. Clear still in my memory, all the landmarks of the house I grew up in: vast rows of tall windows, the sheen on cedar planks gleaming under track lighting, a plethora of houseplants hugging the corners, all the green and gold making for a warm and inviting atmosphere that belied the inhabitants of this address.

In the middle of it all was a pine kitchen table, more long wooden boards built and finished with care by my grandfather. His son, my father, was taking up one of the chairs against the wall, next to the front door, so that he appeared as a large black knot in a sea of gold. He was shaking. But that came after.

Dinnertime was often volatile. Yet I was beginning to dare a great deal more with my opinions, standing my ground; feeling perhaps that having so little to lose I may as well enjoy using my wits when I could. My mother frequently stayed out of political discussions, but on this particular evening the banter took a different turn. It began when my father, frustrated with some smugness of mine, responded with a physical threat. I flinched, half expecting him to immediately knock me out of my chair. My mother huffed impatiently.

“Oh, stop it.”

Stunned by her sharp tone, my father just stared at her. She was smirking now.

“Whaddya think you’re some kind of hero, smacking your kid because you can’t win an argument? What a fucking dope. As if it’s the kid’s fault: you couldn’t win a debate with a fucking paper bag. Why don’t you just do us all a favor and just die already?”

And with that, my mother just looked away from my dad, didn’t look at me, wasn’t looking at anything as far as I could tell but the pale green refrigerator in the kitchen. She was utterly motionless except for her left foot, which wagged back and forth with an intensity that was the only indication she was at all angered by my dad’s behavior. He was, as I said, a huge knot, shoved by my mother’s words against the wall, straight-backed and rigid, his mind working over her words like a cow chews its food. Suddenly, as if finally arriving at their meaning, my father launched himself out of the chair and stumbled into his bedroom. A man as large as my father can cross a room quickly but not without incident, and there were several crashes and curses as drawers were opened and emptied.


I was terrified. To me, John’s anger could mean anything, and I must have been especially wide-eyed as I crept next to my mom, because she responded to me with an uncharacteristic reassurance.

“Mom, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

“Oh, just forget about it. He’s just being melodramatic. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”

Just then, John came storming back to the kitchen table, screaming.

“Everything is NOT fine! You want me fucking dead? Fine! You got your wish! Here you go! Is that what you want? Huh? Is it?!”

John held out a plastic white plate, modern and flat, like the kind sold in Scandinavian housewares markets. It was piled with an assortment of red and white pharmaceuticals. He started grabbing small handfuls of pills and swallowing them, looking at my mother all the while. She neither moved nor changed her expression, just sat there, stone faced.

“This is what you want, isn’t it?”

He was now bawling. The emphasis was on the “is” as if he had only now come to this conclusion. I was standing behind my mother, watching in breathless horror, sure only that this particular gambit was original to my experience.

“I’m not going to answer such a stupid question.”

All of us sat there frozen, my mother with an imperial force behind her antipathy; I following her lead by saying nothing but with a million thoughts rushing through my mind: what if he died, what if he didn’t, was he really sad or was he just faking it, will things be even worse later…and so on. My father, although still vibrating with shame and rage, was almost triumphant when he finished his flat plate of pills, like a child who was getting the best of his elders. Nothing happened for awhile, and then he started to droop in his chair. When he was asleep, and clearly alive, as he was audibly snoring; my mom’s foot stopped shaking back and forth and she got up from her chair. As if she had seen the ordeal a thousand times before, she mechanically walked over to the phone and called an ambulance, providing all the relevant details in a flat voice. She went into the bedroom, put all the medicine bottles into plastic bags, and put them on my father’s chest.

My mother took me by the hand and said we were going on a little drive to the store. She left the front door slightly ajar, and she didn’t say anything on the way there. As usual she acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. It was hard not to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. When we got back to the house, the doors were closed, my father was gone, and the only evidence that dinner had not progressed apace was the minor plasticine detritus left behind by the paramedics.

My dad did not return the next day or the following evening, a development that caused me so much relief that I was afraid to comment on it. My mother and I had a miniature vacation of sorts, one that would ultimately continue for some time.

Later that week, we visited him in the psychiatric unit of the hospital. My mom had been asked to bring him some toiletries and she had grudgingly acquiesced. I watched the other patients shuffle around and roll their eyes while my parents quarreled in the hallway. The uncertainty of those disarranged minds was nearly as scary to me as what had brought me there. My father was sedated and not speaking very coherently, and my mother didn’t seem to have much patience for it. She told him he’d be better off staying there since she wasn’t going to deal with his nonsense and walked off grimly as I trotted to catch up. When I asked what was going on, she said that it had just been a call for help. At the time, I assumed she meant her own phone call to the medics, not my father’s attempted suicide itself.

Not too many years later, after my mother had left for good, my dad would wield the threat of institutionalizing me to get me to do all kinds of things. It was that place, those shambling hospitalized wrecks that would come to mind as a motivating, but easily overblown, source of terror.

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Wow! A harrowing tale. I have a lot of admiration for people with guts to stand up to weak people.
Oh, Alix. What a thing to live through. (Grr, every time I read about your dad my blood pressure goes up...) Here's to your resilience, your wisdom, and as always, the gift of your writing. Wish you were here and we could have a cuppa!
Oh, Jeez, honey. That sucks. I'm glad you made it through, glad you are writing it out, but sorry that you had such a rough time of it. Children should never have to endure the meanness and violence and neglect and cruelties--large or small.

I think to you goes all the credit for the wonderful woman you have become.
As always, a wonderful and moving post. The fact that your mother could just sit there while your father took all those pills speaks volumes. I could no more do that than fly to the moon, even with people I don't know or care for. Christ, I couldn't even sit there and watch George Bush do that (though perhaps Dick Cheney? No, not him either, damn it.)

I am beginning to dislike your mother and her callous flippancy and her unwillingness to do the right thing by you as much as your father for doing all the terrible things he did.

Damn, you're a wonder.
This is called a Number One trauma. That means it will probably be
"with" you in some form or other for the rest of your life--hiding behind your attempts to compensate. Writing about it, sharing it in whatever forum you can helps, and will keep helping as the onion is unpeeled. But perhaps you know all this and I am being presumptuous. I admire your courage sharing it here.
Donna said:
" (Grr, every time I read about your dad my blood pressure goes up...)"

Mine too.
Thank you for your personal essay. They motivate me to be the best father I can be.
Brilliant as always, Alix.

You never fail to take my breath away. I'm glad we're all reading these things knowing you're such a survivor.

But that doesn't make me want to smack your father any less.
Blessings to you for your honesty and will not only to survive, but thrive.
How horrible!

Yet vaguely familiar.
You're a great writer.
You took me into that room with you, and I could *see* the white plate and the pills and the plastic bag and you and your mother and the knot.
My appreciation isn't about "relating", it is about the absolute quality of your writing.
I am left with some questions: How old were you when this happened? How in the world did you end up in your father's custody?

@ PF: I have been disliking her mother for some time now.

Why couldn't you stay with your mother as a teen? Why did she leave you behind in the first place?

I think both your parents failed to protect you from themselves and each other. I know it happens, but it is really terrible. I hope you are doing OK, today. You have had to endure a lot -- it must be hard to write about things like this. I still cannot do it, and my experiences were not as harsh by a huge factor. Take care of yourself -- your OS family has your back!
Your experience is moving, sad, and so hopeful in the example of your brilliance as a writer. I tell my family members I love them as much as I can. My wife, my best friend and love of my life hears it endlessly, and returns it just as often,.......and that feels natural and good.

PF said: "Damn, you're a wonder."

You are indeed.

I have disliked your mother since she said no to your request for sanctuary with her in Florida.
Good God,.......I read it again and it knocked me down,............ again!
Wow. I am amazed how some human beings emerge better than their parents. What decides this? Is it the determination of the individual child not to be the people who raised them? I come from a very dysfunctional childhood too and I have many siblings. Each one of us emerged different. Maybe I ponder this question because I have some survivor's guilt? I feel pretty lucky.
Beautiful post.