My mother created the world.
She controlled her world with rules and schedules, the litany of demands I was born to heed. Rules and schedules reigned over even the most intimate and involuntary of bodily functions, from how a child must train herself to turn carefully in her sleep to avoid messing up the bedcovers, to how she must avoid sneezing or coughing in public lest people think her mother is neglectful of her health, to her bathroom habits. The rule in the area of bathroom habits was simple: If you have not had a bowel movement in more than twenty-four hours, you need an enema. And if you need an enema, you are going to get one. For Mother, frequent waste elimination was not just an imperative for good health; it was also a moral duty. Regularity of a child’s bowel habits was one of the marks of good mothering. Training a child to move her bowels on demand was one of a competent mother’s many duties. Failure to comply with her demands in this area resulted in one and only one consequence: You will get an enema.
And in this area, unfortunately, I was a frequent failure. As a child I was often unable to deliver satisfactory bowel product on schedule—the kind of feat that Mother celebrated in her Appalachian vernacular as, A whole pile! or A big job! as she cheered me on, directing me to Get all that old stuff out of there! I was, in her judgment, literally full of that old stuff, full of a toxic waste that threatened to sicken me and consequently to indict her parenting skills. From the time I was out of diapers until I was eight years old and underwent a tonsillectomy, the state of my bowels was a constant concern. From her storehouse of backwoods wisdom Mother once concluded, “When you got your tonsils out, you became very regular. It was those tonsils doing it.” But before the tonsillectomy solved the problem, I was often unable to produce one bowel movement per day, preferably at the same time every day, as she required.
Mother grew up in Depression-era Western Maryland among the rolling hills of Appalachia in a family of nine children. She was the third child, an undistinguished member of an expanding crowd. Her family was poor. Very poor. Her father fought to find menial jobs; her mother struggled to keep everyone fed. One winter, Mother has often recalled, the family survived almost solely on bushels of turnips given to them by a relative. To this day, she will not eat another turnip. In this large, poor family education was incidental, never a priority. Mother dropped out of school after fifth grade. At that time, her own mother taught her how to make herself up with rouge and red lipstick so that she would look like a teenager, and to lie about her age so that she could work for local merchants in downtown Cumberland, Maryland, to help support the family. Poverty instilled in her an unshakable sense of shame and a fear that became her compass as she fought her way through adolescence into adulthood.
Mother held educated people in a blind reverence that transformed them into demigods and their words into eternal wisdom. To her the worlds of the educated were brightly lit havens of safety and security. Ignorance prompted her to seize tiny bits of wisdom from the educated wherever she might: a few words about money management overheard at the beauty parlor; a snippet of advice on how to avoid heartburn in a newspaper advice column. For her the AMA Journal, Dear Abby, and even the Pocket Horoscope that she carried faithfully in her purse were equally reliable sources of the knowledge she lacked.
As an adult she plowed her way out of the deprived conditions of her childhood by marrying a series of men who provided at least barebones financial security. My father was her third husband. Daddy was a soft-spoken West Virginian and veteran of World War II who worked as a lunch counter manager for a dime store chain. After they were married, they moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where the two of them lived in a modest suburban neighborhood just outside of Pittsburgh. At age forty Mother gave birth to me, her first and only child. My birth was an event she had not anticipated because a doctor had once told her that her womb was tilted, making her incapable of becoming pregnant. When I arrived, she must have grasped for any bit of child-rearing wisdom she could find. And somewhere, in a doctor’s office or on a television show, she heard that children should have a bowel movement every twenty four hours, that if they do not they are constipated, and that enemas are the required treatment for the constipated child. When she discovered these bits of information here and there, she accepted them without question; they became a floodlight against the darkness that surrounded her, a holy thing, a law never to be violated.
After a twenty-four hour period had elapsed without my having produced a whole pile or accomplished a big job, swift intervention ensued. Step One: prune juice—lots of prune juice administered with the threat that if this did not work, she would move on to Step Two. As a five-year-old I grimaced, held my nose, and downed glass after glass of prune juice in an effort to avoid an enema. After prune juice failed, on to Step Two: deep knee bends. This will get your bowels in a mood to move, she would say. Deep knee bends performed by my rubbery, underdeveloped knee joints. Over and over. Next came Step Three: trips to the bathroom to sit on the toilet for a while and wait for it to happen. When sitting there failed to initiate a movement, I was told to strain, to push as hard as I could to get that stuff out of there. So much of it. I strained, red-faced and in tears, usually with no success.
When those steps failed, and they generally did, Mother became angry. I was made to sit on the toilet for long periods. “Just sit there and wait until something happens,” she instructed before rushing out of the bathroom to dust or iron or start preparing the next meal, closing the door behind her. I sat. I sat until my legs began to tingle from being pressed against the toilet seat so long. I sat and stared up at the bathroom window until my vision blurred and the patterns in its frosted glass seemed to revolve and shift like pieces in a kaleidoscope, and the room swirled and I felt nauseous. I sat and imagined being out there beyond the window, outside where the neighbor’s dog barked a distant alarm. Perhaps he was chasing a rabbit into the hedge or maybe warning of the mailman’s approach. I sat and imagined the backyard and my sandbox and the gritty cool of the sand running between my fingers, its satisfying scratchiness as I tunneled my bare feet into its damp depths.
When she returned to find that nothing had happened yet, Mother threatened. She told me what was going to happen to me if I did not produce a bowel movement immediately. I will just have to take you to the hospital. They’ll put you way up high on a big gurney, and they’ll wheel you down to the operating room. When the doctor sees you, he won’t believe how bad you’ve been, what a bad girl you are for not obeying your mother. He’ll say, “Shame on you, little girl! Look what you’ve done! Now I have to cut you open and dig the shit out of you.” Do you want that? Do you want the doctor to cut you open? Do you? All of your shit right there for the world to see? Is that what you want?
As she delivered this bathroom pep talk, the patterns in the frosted glass window cast shadows intricate as snowflakes on the wall behind her head. Tears in my eyes caused the shadows to blur into gray splotches on the yellow wall, long gray patches the shape and color of despair. While she spoke I pictured myself, my body swelled whale-like from the massive amounts of shit I must have within me. The strain of the nurses wheeling me on the heavy gurney, heavy with my body full of shit, to the operating room. The doctor standing in the middle of the room under the harsh lights, waiting. Once he sees me, scrambling for the largest knife he can find. Slashing my abdomen wide open. All the operating room staff joining in with their digging implements to shovel the shit out of me. Piles and piles of it from my huge belly. My ruined body laid open under the searing lights, my now emptied gut reeking with shame.
When even these threats did not work, next came the inevitable. Mother said it was time for an enema. She had done all she could for me, but I refused to cooperate. I was a bad child, and I should be ashamed of myself. But I will help you, she promised. I will save you even though you have been bad, because I am a good mother. Mother will save you.
When she said this, a stiffness overtook my body. It began at the base of my spine and moved upward, out across my shoulders, and down my arms until it contracted the muscles of my hands into tiny, useless fists. She said it would be a nice Fleet enema and it wouldn’t hurt a bit. I stood rigid, begged for time, more time. But there was no more time. How long had it been since my last big job? We were both in grave danger now. I of exploding from the volume of shit I was stubbornly withholding from her, she of neglecting to demonstrate good, responsible mothering by pumping fluid into her child’s rectum to flush out all that was bad about me.
Granted, the early years of my life during the 1960s were, medically speaking, a much more invasive time than the present. In the decade prior to my birth, doctors performed eighteen thousand lobotomies in the United States using crude icepick-like instruments. Also during this time, women across the country received “routine” hysterectomies when they reached the end of their childbearing years, strictly as a preventive measure against cancer. Disease-free tonsils, adenoids, and appendixes were removed in a similar proactive spirit. Invasion of the body by icepicks, scalpels, and enema nozzles were all considered acceptable medical practice. Perhaps mothers during this period were more likely to administer an enema to a constipated child than to wait out the child’s intestinal sluggishness simply because aggressive medical interventions were the norm. Today our assumptions about regularity are far less rigid. The current rule of thumb is that any variation from three times a day to three times a week is perfectly normal. Body rhythms vary. Not everyone’s intestinal tract operates according to the same clock. During my childhood the popular medical wisdom may have called for swifter interventions for constipation than are recommended today, but my mother’s unbending requirements grew out of another belief that she had acquired somewhere, from a conversation at the supermarket or a few lines in a magazine: Excellent mothering is achieved by maintaining perfect control of the child. Control over me, her child, became her goal.
When all of her other interventions failed and Mother deemed it time for an enema, she brought a bath towel into her bedroom and spread it on the lower corner of her bed. The homey room with its cool aqua walls, floral curtains, and peach glow from the pink light bulbs Mother used in her lamps to bring out the best in her complexion, a trick she had picked up from Good Housekeeping, transformed instantly into a clinic. Home, a place of safety and comfort for a child, became a chaotic scene in which health care and punishment merged.
From the shelf in the bathroom closet, Mother took down one of the boxes containing the Fleet enema bottle with the picture of a nurse all in white from head to toe, a symbol of inner and outer cleanliness and sound medical practice, and prepared the nozzle. That is when the tone of her voice turned to sugar. She called me into the bedroom and pointed to the towel.
“Take off your panties and lie down right here for Momma.”
The sugar turned to ice crystals. I froze, my legs poised for flight.
“No,” I said, once, twice, maybe more.
She cooed. “Come on now, be a good girl for Momma. Just lie down here on your side and tuck your knees up under your chin. Come on, it’s time. It won’t hurt.”
A sickening tension grew between the deep-rooted desire to be Momma’s good girl and the compulsion to run out the front door of the house and into the awful, menacing world to scream for help. I was paralyzed.
Her cooing lapsed into baby talk. “Come on now, Momma’s baby, Momma’s love, jump up here.” When that did not work, her tone changed abruptly.
“If you don’t get up here right now, I’m gonna pull down your panties and spank your bare bottom.”
“No!” I cried.
“Get up here, child, before I blister your ass!” When my mother was angry, “child” was my name. The way she shouted the word made it a curse word, as if it expressed all that was disobedient and full of shit about me. Someone so internally dirty deserved a blistered bottom as an emblem of guilt.
Power always prevails. Soon I was positioned on the bed, centered on the spread towel, my knees tucked into my chest, my naked bottom exposed to Mother. I heard her applying the Vaseline to the enema bottle’s nozzle, flinched as her fingers spread me open, felt the sting and scrape of the slimy plastic nozzle as it was pushed methodically into me, shivered as the cool fluid rushed in, causing my abdomen to clench into an all-consuming cramp. The wet sucking sound made by the bottle in its retreat from my rectum receded into a grainy distance as the light in the room grayed over, and I was a dense ball, like a watermelon, floating on waves of starlight and rushes of sound.
Years after these childhood episodes, I committed what was to Mother my most rebellious act: I went to college. She had gotten along fine without a college education, she said. I would, too. “There are things you are just better off not knowing.” But I desperately wanted to know. When, as an undergraduate, I took a course in developmental psychology, I learned that Mother’s parenting techniques were drastically different from what child psychologists describe as normal and health-promoting. I learned for the first time that toilet training practices differ from culture to culture, and that none of them mirrored Mother’s practices. My textbook included a description of the Digo mothers of East Africa who train their children very early to eliminate to a cue. I remember looking for a long time at a photograph in the text of a mother sitting, holding her infant between her outstretched legs as he urinated in an arc that splashed down at her feet. The book explained that the Digo mother speaks a gentle shuus-shuus sound that the infant learns to associate with urination and defecation. Gently, tenderly, within the reassuring embrace of the mother, the child is urged to release to the sound of the mother’s voice. Shuus-shuus. The infant learns and is rewarded with closeness, with touch, with acceptance. By the time Digo infants reach six months of age, they have learned to deliver bladder and bowel product effortlessly and nearly flawlessly to the tune of their mother’s prompting. They rarely release without the command, and they gradually learn to communicate the need to void and to take control of their own excretory habits.
My psychology textbook also revealed that in China children are held gently by the hips over the toilet as a caregiver whistles an imitation of the sound of pouring urine to cue them to release. Adult caregivers attune themselves to signals from the child that it feels a need to eliminate, and they respond to these signals by facilitating the process. Interdependence develops between caregiver and child: the child sends signals and the adult answers the call with cooperation. Caregivers learn to sense children’s natural rhythms and to react to them by holding children over the acceptable place for elimination and accompanying their need to release with the whistling sound. Caregiver and child learn to communicate nonverbally by these means, and potty training is achieved without conflict between the two or fear on the part of the child. Later, as they grow, Chinese children wear open-crotched clothing that allows them to squat and relieve themselves when they feel the need. Children enjoy authority over their own bodies, and they learn to keep themselves clean and dry by these means. These descriptions were a revelation for me. My education helped me find out that the terrifying world in which I grew up was not everyone’s world, but one my mother had created.
When I was a child, I believed that every time I was ordered onto the bed to receive my enema, children around the world, those who were bad and did not obey their mothers, were receiving the same treatment. Western toilet training practices may be different from those practiced throughout Africa and China, resulting sometimes in a contest of wills rather than a cooperative effort between caregiver and child. Western parents’ efforts to fit the child’s body rhythm to a prescribed schedule may compete with the child’s inborn need for autonomy, the urge to obey the promptings of her own involuntary impulses, to establish her own authority over her body. But my mother’s efforts were something else entirely. She created her own world and established her own rules. I was an adult before I realized that her world was different from the larger world that surrounded us, and that her rules stretched far beyond the norm. As a child, though, I thought that surely my mother was doing the right thing, applying the right standard of care. My instinct compelled me to resist her invasion of my body, yet I felt ashamed of my instinct. My instinct insisted that the thrust of an instrument into one’s rectum may not be the act of a caring, responsible parent. Yet it had to be. My shame at resisting Mother’s loving intervention had to be warranted shame. She was, after all, a good mother. She told me so.
My need to make sense of my childhood experiences have made me, for better or for worse, a student of enemas. I have gathered medical and popular wisdom concerning the practice, and have learned the ins and outs of enemas. I have learned that some regard enemas as a source of erotic pleasure. I once read about a married couple who reserve their Saturday mornings for just such erotic play. Husband and wife take turns administering and receiving the enemas, the receiver assuming one of a number of vulnerable positions as the other navigates the nozzle into the receiver’s rectum, one partner enjoying complete control over the other. The ritual goes on, with the promise that the fun will not end until the receiver achieves at least one orgasm. I have also learned that some who received frequent enemas as children regard them as their earliest experiences of sexual stimulation—excitement laced with fear. Pleasure heightened by pain. They recall female authority figures—mothers, grandmothers, aunts—administering the enemas with great relish, the nozzle as their phallus, engaging in a lusty frolic, a pedophilic adventure masked as medicine.
A child’s struggle for authority over her own body is exhausting. After my intestinal tract was purged by a series of flushings during which the instructions to hold the fluid in until I reached the toilet were spoken with the coldness of the fluid itself and the grip of the guiding hands that propelled my body into the bathroom stung like the invasion of the nozzle inside me, I slept on Mother’s bed, my panties somehow replaced and the enema equipment discarded before Daddy came home from work. I awoke slowly, my eyes gummy and my body sore, to the pink glow of the bedroom and the clatter of Mother preparing dinner in the kitchen.
When Daddy arrived home, he came into the bedroom, pulled off his tie, and tossed his jacket on the bed beside me. He scooped me up as I came fully awake and held me firmly against him, asking what I had done that day. Mother always had the answer. “We played crochet with the neighbor kids.” Or, “She doodled with her Etch-a-Sketch all afternoon and then went down for a nap.” Daddy carried me to the kitchen where dinner awaited in steaming bowls, its aromas restoring our home’s order, and we sat down as a family at the start of another evening.
I do not know if Mother experienced erotic pleasure from administering those enemas. But at the time, I knew by instinct that I was not to tell anyone, even Daddy, what happened to me on so many afternoons at home alone with her. Nice little girls do not speak of bathroom matters to their fathers or anyone else, ever. Little girls should be quiet and do what their mothers tell them because mothers know what should be done. Little girls will not grow up healthy unless their mothers take great care. You are very lucky. You have a mother who loves you and would do anything for you. Sometimes you are a bad girl, but don’t worry; Mother will teach you to be a good girl. If people knew how bad you are sometimes, they would tell me to give up on you. They would tell me to send you away somewhere where you would be all alone. But don’t worry. I will save you. Mother will take care of you.
I do not know if her actions are classifiable as pedophilia, or if Mother suffered from another diagnosable psychological disorder, or if she was driven simply by her own fear and shame. Did she believe that her imperative as a parent was to achieve complete control over her child’s body? Or did her domination and meticulous control help to tame the frightening unpredictability, the chaos, of a life lived in the thrall of ignorance? I do know that she exerted a power over me, her child, which was relentless. It reached inside me, groping its way along the dark passageways of my being, imposing itself into even the deepest ravines and gullies, the farthest reaches of the convoluted cave that is the self.
About The Writer
Georgia Kreiger lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches literature and creative writing. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Front Porch Review, Backbone Mountain Review and others. She is currently writing a memoir titled Keeping Secrets, from which “Home Invasions” is an excerpt.