Chapter 1: Lonely Is a Child
In the mid-eighties, as a lark, I had a past-life regression. I was trying to find out why I’m a musician. Music didn’t run in my family, and I don’t believe that musical talent or ability is inherited anyway, so I just wanted to know if I was Mozart reincarnated, or something fun like that, in a past life.
So one day, my doorbell rings and in walks the classic Crone, a big old wise woman who sat me down on my floor and began talking to me, gently and quietly. It was hypnotic. The rhythm of her voice took me back to five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, and then ages three, two, one. I’m back in the womb, looking for a light to be born into. I follow the light and start talking about being a half-Indian man in the 1800s. A doctor who died of scleroderma, a disease that hardens the skin. Then I go back farther and I’m an actor in a German cabaret in the 1600s. I was a woman dressed as a man, performing for a group of townspeople.
Who knows where all this stuff was coming from? It was bizarre. But very entertaining, very amusing, clearly all in fun. I just went with it. Then the woman began to bring me back, step by step, pulling me out of the regression, part of which is to guide you back into your current life through reexperiencing your own birth. She starts talking me through, saying, “You’re in the birth canal.” And I was feeling it. I could feel what it was like to be in the womb and then in the birth canal. And then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. Out of nowhere, I was feeling this great pain in my legs. I started screaming and hollering and breathing really hard. The therapist was startled by my reaction, and she brought me out as quickly as she could for fear that I was really in pain. She said, “Whoa, okay. Okay, now you’re being born—one, two, three, four—five—six—seven, eight, nine, ten! Okay, you’re born. Whew!”
She asked me if my birth had been difficult. Not that I knew of. I had never heard anything about it. I called my mom as soon as I got home, and I explained to her that I had done this past-life regression and I wanted to know if there were any problems when I was born. “Well,” she replied. “You were held back.” Held back? What did that mean? My mom sort of fumbled through her words, and then, for the first time in twenty-five years, she told me the truth about my birth.
I was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, at Cushing Memorial Hospital, on May 29, 1961. My mother went into labor at home. As soon as she arrived at the hospital, they sedated her. That was the protocol in those days. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and all the doctors had just gone to lunch. My mother was ready to push and I was ready to be born, ready to enter the world and start my life. But it couldn’t happen without a doctor being there. Of course, this was before there were pagers or cell phones, so the nurses held my mother’s legs together so that I could not come out until someone could get the doctor. They held her legs together for fifteen minutes. Fifteen desperate minutes of struggling and straining to get out. Her uterine wall was pushing up against me and, as hard as I tried, I was not allowed to enter the world as planned. And so my first experience in this world was that I was being crushed. I was in terrible pain.
Mom isn’t the kind of woman who would make a scene. Not even if she were giving birth. Mother never wanted to make trouble, especially on an emotional or spiritual level, even though everything in her body was telling her to let me out! She acquiesced, and said, “Okay, we’ll wait for the doctor.” That’s right. She put the power in somebody else’s hands, and all the while,
I was born severely black-and-blue and bruised. I had a hematoma, which became a birthmark on my chest that was there until I was twenty. And my mother had never said a word to me about it. For twenty-five years. That’s my family: “We just won’t talk about it.” “Everything is fine.” I survived, so we never talked about it. Ever. And we would probably have never talked about my birth experience if I hadn’t had that past-life regression. I was born black-and-blue and close to death. I guess you can say that I was bruised from birth—figuratively and literally.
I was born on my older sister Jennifer’s birthday. I don’t think I was the present she was expecting that day she turned four. From my very first breath of life, I would be this “thing” that took attention away from her. Neither of us ever had our own birthday. We had to share the day like twins, without the joy of having a twin or the connection that comes from a twin relationship.
As far back as I can remember, my sister has been one of the most powerful influences on my life. Not in a good way, necessarily. But powerful. She was prettier, she was thinner, she was more tan, her hair was nicer. She took care of herself, she knew what clothes to wear. She had that whole girl thing I never really had. I was very much a tomboy, completely awkward in my body. I wanted to be like her. My mother never showed me how to do my hair, how to dress “right.” I still don’t know how to braid hair, I never learned to wear makeup and I never dressed especially feminine. I didn’t know how to do any of that girly stuff you’re supposed to learn as a kid. I longed for that and, on many levels, in a strange way, I got that from my sister. But, what I also got from my sister has affected my ability to connect emotionally in every way.
One of my earliest memories of Jennifer is at around age three or four. We were playing in the basement of our house. She was trying to get me to drink a Coke. I did not like anything carbonated, and for the most part, I still don’t. I can tolerate champagne, but just barely. I kept refusing to drink the Coke. I just didn’t want to drink it. My sister finally decided to hold me down on the floor and forced the Coke down my throat. She just poured it into my mouth, choking me.
After all, she was angry at me from birth. I can only imagine that she was home, expecting to celebrate her fourth birthday, and her mother and father were nowhere to be found. She sat there alone—no party, no cake, no celebration—all because I was about to come into the world.
My family, who hid any sign of emotion, never explained to Jennifer that I wasn’t a threat. All she knew was that whatever little love and attention she usually got on her birthday wasn’t going to happen that day, and she has stayed angry and envious ever since. I felt cared for in my family, but I never felt safe. As a baby,
I never learned to crawl. I scooted. There are home movies of me scooting, but none of me crawling. Experts say that this is a sign of fear. I also used to stick my finger in my ear, and my parents were concerned that maybe there was something wrong, but there wasn’t. I guess it was just a comfort thing. Comfort and safety were two things I never really sensed when I was growing up. I think this lack of warmth and affection is the spine of a lot of issues that I still carry with me today.
Outside the home, of course, was a different story. Classic America. We lived about two miles from downtown Leavenworth, down a barely paved road packed with houses full of children. There were open fields and always something to do. Kickball. Baseball. So it looked perfectly normal. Except for the prisons. The Federal Penitentiary. The Kansas State Penitentiary for Men. The Kansas State Penitentiary for Women. And the Army Penitentiary. All of which were the main industry for the town. My best friend’s dad was a guard at the prison. He used to walk to work. So it never seemed like anything out of the ordinary. Not at the time. The Federal Penitentiary had a dome, so it always looked like the Capitol Building as far as I was concerned. And I thought that every town had one.
As I got older, Jennifer got angrier and more physical. She used to torment me by hiding in the closet, or under my bed, and there was always this awkward silence just before she would jump out and scare me half to death. I knew she was hiding there and I’d just stand in the middle of the room and wait. Wait for her to scare me. To this day, I still can get frightened if someone hides and tries to scare me, even if it’s just in fun. It was very manipulative and controlling behavior—two traits that today I find so attractive in other women, especially women I am romantically involved with.
When I was around six years old, things started to change with Jennifer. She began to want things from me. Things I was uncomfortable with. I know that all kids experiment and play doctor and that might have been all Jennifer thought it was, but it sure wasn’t that to me. At night, in the bedroom of our home, she would be gentle with me, talking sweetly to me, which was curious in itself. She would tell me what to do and I would follow her directions. I would do as she asked. I knew that touching her was wrong and I knew that it was something that would never be talked about. Not in our family. I felt tremendous shame, though I didn’t know what to call it at the time.
My mother’s family was from Arkansas, right on the border of Louisiana and Texas. Just Southern, Southern, Southern. We’d go down and visit my grandparents in their house in El Dorado (that’s El Dor-AY-do, not El Dor-ah-do). My grandfather was in the oil business and the whole place smelled like oil. The whole town. We’d visit for a bit. And then we’d all pile into the pickup, four grown-ups on the front seat, all the kids in the open back, and just drive down the freeway, eighty miles an hour. I’m surprised we didn’t lose one of us, going so fast. We’d head over to my grandparents’ cabin in Strong, Arkansas, which was in the middle of nowhere. We’d spend most of the summer there. Fishing in the pond. Playing. Just being out in the dirt.
In El Dorado, my sister and I would spend time alone. In the bedroom we shared. Or the playhouse outside. The same pattern repeated again. Where Jennifer would talk to me. Sweetly. Gently. Her pants would slide off and I would follow her directions. Her instructions: Do this, do that. The words sounded nice, but there’s nothing nice about it. She wasn’t my friend. It felt like something was being taken from me. And I felt horrible. Just horrible. I would step outside myself and just watch. I’d become an observer. Passing through.
And then, after it was over, I’d eat. My Grandma’s white coconut cake. I’d sit at the kitchen table and fill myself up. Fill myself up with something that felt good. Tasted good. I’d give myself pleasure in the only way I knew how. Food. It never occurred to me to talk to anyone about this—about my sister or the way I felt. We didn’t do that in my family. We didn’t talk about things. Not ever.
My relationship with my sister went on this way for years. And it only stopped when I got up the courage to stop it. We were all of us going down to Arkansas one year, and before we got to our grandparents’ house, we stopped at a hotel in Eureka Springs. My sister and I were standing in the bathroom, brushing our teeth, and she hit me right across the face, really really hard. It was like pow! It didn’t make any sense at all. It was clear out of the blue. The television was on in the room. Bella Abzug was speaking at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. I was eleven years old. I just remember thinking to myself that this was all wrong. And that’s when it stopped. That’s when I said, enough. You have had enough of me. I stopped it. I removed myself from ever being in that situation with her again. I didn’t spend time with my sister alone. Not unless I absolutely had to.
But I still felt empty. I felt like there was this hole inside me that needed to be filled. So I looked for ways to fill it up. Food was one. Movies were another.
I’d watch a film and dream that life could be like that: a world where everything’s all nice and neat and people love each other, and then they’re sad and they’re angry and they’re happy, and then it either turns out okay or everybody dies. There’s always an ending in the movies, whether it is happy or sad. I thought, “That’s the way life is supposed to be.” I really believed in the fantasy of happily ever after and believed that you can find love that lasts forever. I believed in that Hollywood thing. Growing up, I had no other input on relationships, love, or life. Movies and television told me what it all should be and should mean. It was also a way that I could experience emotion. For two hours, sitting in a dark theater where no one else could see me—see me laugh, cry, or react to whatever was happening on the screen—I could escape the reality of my life and safely dream about my future. For those couple of hours, no one was going to say, “Don’t do that,” or “We don’t react that way.”
The one thing that did keep me safe, that gave me a feeling of comfort growing up, was music. Music took me somewhere safe—a place where I was happy and free and comfortable being myself. I knew from a very young age that music was something I wanted to be a part of. It was something that made me feel good and helped me escape to a place where life was how I always dreamed it should be. Where life was like the movies. Fairy-tale endings and unconditional love.
I remember hearing the Beatles for the very first time, in 1964. I was standing in my driveway and putting my ear to our tiny transistor radio. Even with the crackling, barely audible sound that the transistor radio made, I heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time, and I thought that I had heard the voice of God. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard, and it moved me in a way I had never before experienced. I became obsessed with music.
After that, I had the radio on constantly. Johnny Dohlens, WHB, Kansas City. They played everything on the radio back then. Rock. Pop. Everything. And I’d listen to it all. No judgment. I’d listen to my parents’ albums. They had everything from Neil Diamond to the Mamas and the Papas. Bolero to Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. My sister had much cooler albums like Humble Pie, Led Zeppelin, and George Harrison. Music was complete pleasure. Just like my Grandma’s white coconut cake. I’d get completely absorbed into it, focused. I’m just completely there and the world goes away.
I’d listen to the music and I’d watch it, too. The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Red Skelton Show. I’d watch all the shows that had live music on them. And I’d watch the people singing the music. Making the music. Mick Jagger. The Beatles. But it was the Archies who were the most influential. I’d watch the Archies and then I’d get the neighborhood kids together, get all the pots and pans out, and do a show in the garage. I never wanted to be Betty or Veronica. I wanted to be Reggie. I always wanted to be Rock and Roll. I drew a big sign that said Archies with a circle around it, put everyone in their place, and then we’d do a show. I was the lead guitarist of course. Jumping up and down with my badminton racquet. We’d play “Sugar, Sugar,” Tommy James and the Shondells and Steppenwolf. Every day after school became “Magic Carpet Ride” time.
One day, my father came home with a real guitar for me. I hadn’t even been asking for one. He just brought it home. I didn’t know that he knew I was playing the badminton racquet. It was a Stella, by Harmony, which is actually a pretty good first guitar for a kid in Kansas. He bought it at Tarbot’s Tune Shop in town. I would go down there late in the afternoons after school, and I would see my guitar teacher, Mr. Don Raymond, an old big-band jazz guitarist. I’m sure he had been a fabulous musician in his day, but a tragic accident cut off the fingers on his left hand, right at the knuckles. So he learned to play with his right hand. I was eight years old and it was pretty scary to look at his fingers, or what used to be his fingers, but he was a serious musician and he taught me to be a serious musician and to take my lessons very earnestly. I learned all of the notes on the guitar, one by one, string by string, every day, until I actually learned a song. It was a simple song, but it was the first song I ever learned and pretty soon those notes turned into chords and my chords turned into more songs. Before I knew it, I was playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Sugar, Sugar.” Playing them for real. I was making the music. Not pretending anymore.
Excerpted from The Truth Is . . . by Melissa Etheridge with Laura Morton. Copyright © 2001 by Melissa Etheridge with Laura Morton. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.