Once a year, throughout my childhood and adolescence, my parents and I would make the long drive from our home in Tennessee to visit my father’s family outside Lubbock, Texas. On those visits, we would spend exactly one afternoon with my father’s sister Alene. Let’s get this over with, my father would say, jamming his key into the ignition as the three of us set out on the half-hour drive from his parents’ house in the country to Alene’s house in town. The farm-to-market highway cut through razor-flat fields of cotton and soybeans, and I’d go dizzy in the backseat watching the crop lines zip by.
Eventually we’d turn into Alene’s middle-class subdivision, brick ranch homes stamped in a neat grid. Her husband would appear in the doorframe wearing a yellowed grin and the standard work clothes of Texan men in the 80’s: a tight-fitting Barstow shirt and polyester dress pants. I’d hold my breath as he folded his angular body like a praying mantis to embrace me in a bony hug. Alene, come on out here! he’d shout.
We’d stand waiting in the living room amidst the dusty stacks of Life magazines, the stale air reeking of menthol and Aqua Net. Then Alene’s wheelchair would creak slowly down the dark hallway, her silhouette rendered in shadow even on sunny days, for sunlight never permeated the tightly-drawn blinds she duct-taped in the gaps to hide from neighbors. She dressed like a diner hostess, in a white button-down shirt and black pants. Her hair stuck out from her head in a loony beehive, and her face bore no trace of the former Meadow High School homecoming queen she’d once been. She rimmed her eyes in thick, black kohl as a child might spiral a tornado with crayon. A giant mole on the side of her nostril gave her the appearance of a storybook witch.
Weird as hell, my father called Alene, but I didn’t care. I loved her. She’d spend a minute fussing over me before delivering a random Q & A: What did we all think of her hair? (It looks nice, Alene) Did I like yogurt? (Yes) What was the name of that actor she loved? (Kevin Costner) Being around her was easy and surprising, like taking a walk with a child—she led the way and all you had to do was bob and weave behind her. Because I was a child, I found these walks fun; my parents found them exhausting. Often on my birthday or Christmas, Alene would send me a long letter written in feathery cursive, a window into her mind. Once when I was in my twenties, she wrote me a two-page meditation on her fondness for postage stamps. How I wish I still had that letter.
Days with Alene always involved a buffet lunch at Furr’s Cafeteria followed by a movie or a trip to the mall. Invariably at some point, she would get all googly-eyed and exclaim, “Aren’t we having fun?” She wouldn’t let up until we all agreed that we were indeed having fun. And I was.
Over the years her mantra became an ironic catchphrase between my parents and me, though as often the case with jokes, it’s been stripped of its irony. Sometimes it’s the perfect way to acknowledge joy without feeling like a total sap—without feeling like Alene. Perhaps I enjoyed her company as a child because she lacked the confusing sap-filter most adults had. There was no discrepancy between motive and expression with Alene. She said what she felt, even if that meant calling you a low-down, dirty whore.
Today Alene is 85, my father’s only surviving sister. Her husband died years ago, and she lives in a nursing home she hates, though it seems like a nice enough place to me. She has a tidy bedroom and living area, the walls adorned with colorful Mexican crosses and framed photos of happier days. The nursing home staff has greeted me warmly, but Alene claims they’re out to get her. They’ll steal anything that isn’t nailed down, she says, like her FM radio, which she has to hide under the bed. When Alene is feeling pissy about a nurse, or a banker, or the Satanists running the Democratic Party, she calls her older brother Pete, a 92-year-old retired cotton farmer with a generous heart. Pete has tried to appease Alene by moving her to another nursing home, but she insists on staying put and complaining.
Growing up, Alene was considered the prettiest among my father’s three sisters, with a willowy figure, wavy, chestnut hair, and a Roman nose—an uncommon beauty, unstable for this world. My father once told me how she was tortured by strange things as a child, like the sound of cicadas, whose jagged call so rattled her nerves, she locked herself in the bathroom with her hands over her ears and cried for hours. Yet despite her quirks, Alene was a popular teenager who “won every pageant or award there was to win,” according to my aunt Glena, Pete’s wife, and a former West Texas beauty queen herself. I’ve sometimes wondered if a kernel of rivalry still exists between the two women, six decades past their pageant days.
But in Alene’s twenties, she went through a split, began hearing voices and experiencing startling, often religious visions. The first time my father brought my mother home to Texas to meet his family, Alene took her aside and pointed to a water jug sitting atop my grandparents’ Formica breakfast table. In a low whisper, she told my mother how earlier that day she’d seen Jesus standing behind the jug, dressed in a flowing white robe. My mother, the product of a well-educated Wisconsin family, was stunned, and maybe a little horrified. Her new in-laws must have seemed like characters straight out of Faulkner: the strapping cowboy brothers kicking up dust, the plump matriarch bent over the ancient stove, and the beautiful, crazy sister with messianic hallucinations.
Thanks to my mother, Jesus behind a water bottle became a recurrent image throughout my childhood, one she invoked almost every time Alene’s name came up. I see now that this image was my introduction to mental illness as a child, the word crazy summoning in my mind a vision of Christ standing behind, of all things, a drugstore jug. As a child, I found this contrast of high and low hilarious. It made my mother laugh too, but not my father, who only shook his head and sighed, Poor old Alene. Now that I am a middle-aged mother, I recognize the cruelty of my mother’s joke.
Alene saw other things as well: Bible pages furiously turning of their own accord, or the whites of neighbors’ eyes peeking through her shades. As her visions increased, so did her anger. During one long-ago fit of rage, she called Glena a whore in front of the family. Glena: Pete’s devoted wife, mother to five children, surrogate mother to us all. Glena, who fixed the briskets and hosted the church suppers and taught the town’s first graders and never forgot a birthday. Of course, she wasn’t perfect. She could be judgmental, rigid in her Christianity. But Glena, a whore? It was flat-out crazy.
Maybe it was the whore comment that did it. My grandparents decided something needed to be done about Alene. But what? This was midcentury West Texas. If you couldn’t pray your demons away, good luck. According to my father, they consulted a lawyer about committing Alene to an asylum, but for reasons that remain unclear—perhaps legal, perhaps emotional—they never went through with it. Shortly afterwards, Alene married the smarmy Buick salesman and became his ward, not theirs. A paranoid, controlling figure, he was perfectly suited to his new role, affirming and expanding Alene’s neuroses. You think the man across the street is watching you, Alene? Then we better hide the knives.
Decades passed until one night in her early sixties, Alene complained over dinner that she was seeing double. Her husband should have rushed her to the hospital, but instead he sent her to bed and left for work early the next morning, oblivious that his wife was deep in the throes of a stroke. He returned that evening to find Alene lying unconscious on the kitchen linoleum. The stroke left her unable to walk for the rest of her life.
A few summers ago, I left my husband and three daughters at our home in Michigan and flew to Lubbock to attend a family function. There, I noticed Alene sitting alone, and so I pulled a chair up to her wheelchair and cupped my hands around her curled fingers. She launched into her latest nursing home complaint, something about shadowy men trying to jimmy her lock at night. For once I aimed to take the lead on our walk, veering her down a different path. I told her I’d been thinking about our family history, and how hard I imagined her childhood must have been, to grow up so poor in the wake of the Dust Bowl and Depression.
“Oh no, no!” she cried. “You’ve got it all wrong!” She told me her childhood was wonderful, just perfect. “All of us out there playin’ in those fields, running around barefoot from dawn to dusk. What fun we all had!” She gazed dreamily into the distance.
Yes, I thought, aren’t we having fun?
The following day, my flights back to Michigan were delayed, and I arrived home well past midnight. I collapsed into bed next to my sleeping husband, so exhausted I forgot to take my antidepressant, an SSRI inhibitor that metabolizes so quickly, skipping even one dose of it plunges me into sudden withdrawal.
I awoke to a beautiful July day, though I would have preferred rain. My husband had already left for work, and by some stroke of luck resembling grace, I’d enrolled my three school-aged daughters in all-day nature camps. I was sluggish from withdrawal, barely fit to make small talk, much less parent three children.
As I filled my gas tank after dropping them off at camp, I became animal in my hearing, detecting every frequency in the air. I could make out the grind of each passing motor, the gush of gas through the rubber hose, the tight Midwestern “heyyyy” of a woman answering her cell phone at the pump opposite mine, the cheerless tinkle of the gas station door opening and the whap-whap-whap of a man leaving the store, packing fresh cigarettes against the heel of his hand. The noises weren’t painful, but I knew they could be. I needed to be careful, I reminded myself. A child impatiently tapping her fork on the counter was enough to set my teeth on edge.
Is this what being crazy feels like? I wondered. What I used to feel like, before the meds? I thought of Alene, and what my father had told me about the cicadas. How many DNA mutations did our brains have in common? On that day, a field of cicadas would have nudged me over the cliff. Having grown up in the country, I know cicadas all too well. When I was a child, they provided the constant soundtrack for the long days on my parents’ farm, their call synonymous with empty hours of punishing sunshine. I know their intense rasping, their awful static reverb, their sickness to mate so urgent it reduces everything around it to nerve and pulse. In the wrong state of mind, a cicada chorus is like a million electrodes to the brain, especially if you have an auditory cortex cicadas can chew through like a leaf—the kind Alene and I do.
There’s a name for what Alene has, and possibly what I have, too: misophonia, which translates in Greek to “hatred of sound” (though mine is more sensitivity than hatred). A pair of audiologists coined the term in 2000 to describe patients who suffer extreme emotional responses to certain sounds, usually those made by other people or animals. The sound of another person chewing is one of the most common triggers.
Though the terminology is fairly new, the symptoms have been around for centuries. Charles Darwin is said to have suffered from misophonia, as did Marcel Proust, who covered the walls of his one-bedroom apartment with cork to muffle noises. On hearing children playing happily outside his window in Prague, Franz Kafka wrote, “It drives me from my bed, out of the house in despair, with throbbing temples through field and forest, devoid of all hope like a night owl.”
Kafka’s description is characteristically gloomy, yet reading it I was reminded of the sunless February morning my antidepressants first kicked in a decade ago, soon after I gave birth to my second daughter. My doctor had prescribed the pills as a temporary fix to lift the black fog of postpartum depression, and that they did. But they had another profound effect on me, I learned that morning as I drove my minivan down our icy road, listening to my daughters’ voices in the backseat—my toddler’s off-key singing and my baby’s feline cries. Sounds that would normally grate became sweet harmony. I always want their voices to sound this beautiful, I thought.
In his sixteenth-century collection Essais, Michel de Montaigne practically defined the modern-day interpretation of misophonia: “The doctors hold that there are certain temperaments that are stirred even to fury by some sounds and instruments … on hearing someone chewing nearby, or someone talking who has the passages of his nose or throat stopped up, are moved to the point of anger and hatred.” As for himself, Montaigne claimed “a tender head and easily discomposed; when ’tis bent upon anything, the least buzzing of a fly murders it.”
Or in Alene’s case, a cicada. If I couldn’t numb myself with twenty-first century meds, I’d probably wind up on the bathroom floor too, though the bathroom Alene and my father shared was an outhouse used by two adults and six children, children who grew into teenagers—that part of the story goes unmentioned. Because it’s unmentionable. Because there’s no solace there, either, only the dank smells of menstrual blood mingling with piss and shit, everything sitting stagnant in the West Texas heat while the cicada’s death rattle burrows in the bloodstream, overtaking the heartbeat like a parasite.
And yet, according to Alene, it was fun. “All of us out there playin’ in those fields, running around barefoot from dawn to dusk. What fun we all had!”
Poor old Alene. She sees the world as black and white as her wardrobe, but she’s all kinds of mixed-up. How does one find hardship in a comfortable nursing home and joy in a Dust Bowl cotton field? Maybe she suffers from schizophrenia as well as misophonia. Though nostalgia can be its own type of schizophrenia, two a.m. voices from the past that no one else can hear.
Our families give us lenses through which to view the world, and as we age, we begin to take them off. I see now that in my childhood, Alene was the original “other,” separate from the rest of us—a gruesome joke for my mother, a source of silence for my father, her mental illness a burden to face one bright afternoon a year and then forget about. But Alene is one of us, not just in surname but in body, and mind. Now that I know more about the cloth from which I’m cut, I can trace her mental illness to her grandmother Ida, a wild-eyed saloon girl who abandoned her three young children, or to her great-grandfather Russian, an opium addict who died in a mental institution. Making those connections for Alene isn’t easy, because it means also making them for me.
I last traveled to West Texas in the fall of 2019. Prior to my visit, I mailed Alene a letter telling her I was writing about our family and would love to hear any memories she’d be willing to share. For the first time in my life, Alene did not write me back. Maybe she wants to keep her memories to herself, now that memories are mostly what she has left. Maybe she doesn’t want me tainting those memories with my knack for turning everything into a depressing Dust Bowl history lesson.
My parents joined me in Lubbock. Because it was a short trip, we decided to skip our annual visit to Alene and focus instead on my aunt Glena, Alene’s sometime-nemesis, who was recovering from knee surgery in a rehab center. Gatherings never stay small for long in my father’s family, and this day was no exception. Soon after we arrived at the center, Uncle Pete walked in, followed by three cousins with their spouses and toddlers in tow, until the conference room we’d claimed was overflowing. I sat next to Glena, who despite her poor health had managed to put on lipstick and paint her long nails cherry red. She is frail but sharp, with a keen memory for details and a knack for delivering zingers—one of those steely, Southern matriarchs whose presence reassures the room. I’d missed her. We sifted through our decades of love for one another, our memories plucked like shiny rocks from soil before we hugged a teary goodbye.
“Well, that was fun,” my father said as my parents and I drove away.
“Yes, aren’t we having fun?” I lobbied back. He glanced at me in the rearview mirror and chuckled. And in that moment, I wanted to thank Alene for giving us this joke, which is no longer merely a joke, but now a lived artifact from the history I share with my 83-year-old father. But Alene was in her own assisted living facility across town, probably sitting in her wheelchair under a painted cross, clutching her FM radio on her lap. I wondered if, for only a moment, she could detect our frequencies in the air, her ear tuned to the vibration of her family’s laughter.
Sarah Curtis’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Crazyhorse, Salon, the American Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her work has been noted in the Best American Essays series and anthologized in River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Michigan, where she is at work on a biographical memoir. More of her writing can be found at sarahcurtiswriter.com.