Monday, January 23, 2006

In the deep freeze

Time for a new story, I think. And this is one I've wanted to share for a while. It comes from a student I'll call "Tessa" and something she wrote for my class when I asked them to do one of those "moment in time" pieces of personal nonfiction. She ended up rewriting it several times and she earned an A for the final draft. But the stories she told me about the "behind the scenes" stuff of the event she chose to chronicle were even more interesting that what she put on the page.

Background needed. Many of the sorority girls who deign to take part-time jobs opt to become nannies to the wealthy families in the exclusive neighborhoods around the campus. We're talking estate-like mega-mansions, not the shoddy McMansions of the ugly suburbs. Even a teardown in this area can go for half a mil, with a $5 million, three-story behemoth taking the place of a 1950s one-story brick cottage.

So who lives in these places? Movers, shakers, big deal makers. They are still young, very ambitious and have children who still need minding. To help look after their offspring, lawyer-mommy and mogul-daddy hire a Tri-Delt or a Kappa to pick them up at school, haul them to soccer practice or gymnastics, and maybe get them fed and medicated (they're always medicated) before the parents get home late from their offices.

Tessa worked for such a family. She said the mom was a control freak extraordinaire. Left Post-It notes everywhere about everything. "Put Justine in the pink and black leotards for ballet. NOT the purple ones." Or "Phillip has a birthday party at the DeWildes' on Tuesday. Be sure to ask about peanuts. NO PEANUTS ALLOWED!" Another note said simply: "No TV--Enrichment activities only!"

Trying to raise her children via notes to the hired nanny, the mom rarely interacted with them herself. Tessa said she never saw either parent hug or kiss their kids. Or, for that matter, each other. They were an emotionally chilly family and the kids sometimes acted robotically emotion-free.

Besides trying the humanize the little ones, Tessa, a sweet and still refreshingly naive young woman, was also put in charge of pet care for the family's rather elaborate menagerie. On the third-floor of the manse, in an enormous play area the parents avoided, were many cages filled with small furry things and several large aquariums containing frogs, fish and other aquatic beasties. It was the kids' favorite place to be.

So one day Tessa brings them home from school and little Justine heads straight for the third floor to check on her animals. Tessa climbs the stairs a bit behind her and by the time she gets to the playroom she wonders why the little girl is so quiet.

"I got to the door and saw her standing in the middle of the room, holding something brown and still in her hands," said Tessa.

It was Jelly, one of Justine's prized ferrets.

"He's dead," Justine said dispassionately. She didn't appear the least bit upset, Tessa recalled.

"I thought she might cry. I remember how much I cried when my pets died. But no, she just held it like an empty sock. Then she started toward the stairs, still holding the dead ferret. I followed her downstairs, not sure what she was doing or where she was going.

"She went all the way to the kitchen and back into the gift-wrapping room--the mom had a separate room filled with fancy papers and ribbons on spools, like you might see in a store somewhere--and I decided to play along and not ask questions. And this is where it started to get weird. Here's this 7-year-old girl, with a dead ferret in her hands. And she lays it out on the countertop and pulls off a big sheet of plain white wrapping paper. She puts the ferret in it and carefully wraps and tapes it up, like you've seen a butcher do with a steak or a piece of salmon. She was very deliberate, turning the corners just so and sticking the tape up and down the seam of the paper. Then she grabbed a black marker and wrote `Jelly' and the date on the outside of the little package.

"So I'm thinking she's going to bury it in the backyard, that we're going to do one of those little kid pet funerals like the little girl in Poltergeist. How sweet, I'm thinking.

"But instead of going outside, Justine heads for the garage and goes over to this big deep-freeze in the corner. And you're not going to believe this, because I wouldn't have if I hadn't seen it. She opens the door of the freezer and carefully places Jelly on a shelf. And as I look closer I can see that there are lots of white packages in there, each carefully labeled in black ink with names like `Puffer' and `Snowy' and `Bonkers.' And I realize that I'm looking at a pet cemetery. They've got all the dead bodies of all the pets the kids have ever had. In the freezer."

As Tessa told me the story--and she later wrote it with all the details intact--she kept shaking her head in disbelief. I asked her to wind up the piece with a conclusive device, something that would give meaning to what she'd witnessed. And I'm probably paraphrasing a little, but as I recall, she came up with something that sounded like this:

"On the outside they look so normal. They're rich. They live in a beautiful house. Everything about them--mother, father, son and daughter--is shiny and perfect. But there is something missing. They don't feel. They are cold as ice. And I realize now that the truth about who this family really is lies not in how perfect they look to the world but is hidden at the back of the garage, in a freezer filled with little corpses carefully wrapped in white paper."

I praised Tessa's work, read it aloud to the other classes and encouraged her to compare her story to Truman Capote's short titled "A Lamp in the Window." I liked hers better. Because I was sure hers was true.


Anonymous Ethan said...

Wow, what an amazing story. I don't think I'll ever look at Highland Park the same way again.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Terminaldegree said...

That. Is. So. Creepy.

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy crap. That's beyond creepy.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Ed Fuller said...

I have done extensive tutoring for such families and also dated a nanny for such families. I have to say, the two-parent super-rich families are by far more dysfunctional than any single-parent, economically disadvantaged family. The kids often go unsupervised because the parents are at work or the stay-at-home mom is busy with junior league and other groups every night. They always put up a great facade though. One would think they are the perfect families, but most of them are emotionally damaged more than most people would believe.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like my HP niece and her 'pet-of-the-month' club.'
No wonder she's seeing a shrink....
But those trips to the Galapagos, Tahiti, and Egypt will make everything better.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

Google "dead pets in the freezer" and see what you get. Its not as uncommon as it would seem. Another one is Munchausen syndrome which makes up a percentage of all foster placements.

This is sad, only because borderline autism is presented by some as a rich person's disease. It is not.

As a foster parent, I see the debris from all walks of life, rich and poor. The common threads are drugs and mental illness. Both single parents and couples are well represented.

Parents that use nannies and tutors are already outsourcing their child rearing. Families that are close would not even think of getting a nanny or tutor.

Poor parents who dont want to raise their kids can't afford nannies - they just get drunk, get high, or go out and party and leave the baby with grandma or all by itself.

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just FYI, the Capote story is "A Lamp in a Window".

Wow. What a story. Thanks for sharing it. It makes me shiver.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Maja said...

How sad.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Morgaine said...

More evidence for my theory that we are raising a generation of sociopaths.

6:21 AM  
Anonymous homebru said...

Little Justine will enter SMU in ten years.

She may already be there under other names.

8:24 AM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

thanks, you are right! "lamp." will make change. my readers are the smartest!

9:22 AM  
Blogger Angel, librarian and educator said...

Hmm, that is spooky, but somehow I am not surprised. Like some commenters have pointed out, it seems those uber-rich folks are dysfunction personified. I find it striking because I am a parent, and one of those that could not afford a nanny. Even if we could, we just don't see ourselves outsourcing the raising of our daughter. And no, we don't just leave her anywhere either. I guess money can't buy happiness, but it sure knows how to lease it at least. Best.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a mother to an almost two-year old daughter. Having a child has changed the way I feel about many things, and my career is one of the biggest changes. No huge mansion or stacks of money can replace the love and joy of my daughter. We're not poor. We live comfortably. And I'll take this life over any cold, emotionless family life and a $5 million mansion any day.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Ragman said...

My wife and I can't afford a nanny, but even when we play "if we could afford it", we'd only want a nanny to cover the nighttime feedings so we could sleep.

The pets in the freezer thing is uber-creepy.

The parents sound like people who had kids b/c everyone else expected them to.

3:53 PM  
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4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the anonymous mother of the two-year-old daughter:

More power to you. As my mother said: You can either drive your BMW to daycare or your Honda to the park.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous jilbo said...

I wonder if they are saving them for a stew. Just a thought.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To the anonymous mother of the two-year-old daughter:

More power to you. As my mother said: You can either drive your BMW to daycare or your Honda to the park."

Actually, I drive an Acura, but this isn't about how much my car cost. It's about having a decent life and raising a well adjusted child vs. only having money in the bank. I choose the first option.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous watercat said...

There are a great many children, from all walks of life, that I feel very sad for. These kids come from rich, poor, or middle-class families, and the one thing they all have in common is their lack of parents. Parents who don't care, parents who are workaholics, parents who overindulge, parents who are unemotional themselves. Don't make the assumption that only rich families are dysfunctional - many families are, and as Morrgaine said - more evidence of us as a culture raising a generation of sociopaths.

So many children don't have a childhood anymore, and what makes it worse is that they don't even have the emotional support children NEED in order to grow up to fully functional citizens.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phantom Prof- Could not resist emailing the Deep Freeze blog to my father- a former Army drill Sargeant and Pysch nurse. This was his response:

"Psuedo-empericism takes folks with lofty goals for rising above "the human condition" to the rigid, cold place the child in this story had found to "freeze" her feelings of loss. Education was the panacia from the post WWII set for assuring that such a world wide tragedy never happened again. Oops. That worked about as well as religion did in taking us closer to a peaceful world. Maybe we have to slow down some, and love each other & ourselves for the subjective, imperfect, impractical souls that the Center of the Universe spat out into the primordial ooze. We is what we is. It just doesn't get better than the your mother's model for world peace : LOVE, LOVE, LOVE.

Love, Dad

12:55 PM  
Blogger Eddo said...

Interesting story - as always.

And so unexpected.

I have a story posted over on my site. I am working on my writing, I need to come back here and go through your workshop again. But the story I posted is 1002 words and is a good start I think. I also registered so I could post some of my short stories there and hopefully some from others as well.

Holler if you need me for anything, you know where to find me.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Martini said...

WHAT?! Okay, am I INSANE here? That story is the opposite of creepy. Am I the only one who thinks that's normal? Me and my sister used to put our dead gerbils in the freezer, in the kitchen - for years. Okay, maybe I am insane. People tell me I'm a little weird. I guess I am!

5:09 PM  
Anonymous highschoolkid07 said...

I don't think I'm nearly as mortified as Tessa was.

Well, why would you put a dead animal in your freezer unless you're going to eat it? That's weird and gross!

But not cold. Though, I would probably enjoy reading it, I wouldn't be able to write it because I really don't feel the same way.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Dee said...

This entry reminds me of the novel, "The Nanny Diaries" by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. The novel has its funny points, but there are moments when the truth bares the sad bones of these people's lives.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait until she grows old enough to swing an axe. There will be two more large-sized packages in the freezer labeled 'Mommy' and 'Daddy'

1:30 AM  
Blogger Lizett! said...

I thought you might like to know about another private religious school that is threatening academic freedom under the guise of religious integrity. The University of Notre Dame, under the new president John Jenkins, is restricting the performance of the Vagina Monologues this year to a "classroom setting" and severly limiting the Queer Film Festival. Last year, I was the stage manager for the play the Laramie Project there, and the whole point was that it would be in conjunction with The Vagina Monologues and the Queer Film Fest as a part of Tolerance Month. I guess they're going the opposite direction this year. By denying the Vagina Monologues being performed for an audience, not only is Notre Dame denying the often sheltered student body a frank discussion of sexuality, it is also denying the women of the battered women's shelter that the proceeds of the ticket sales usually go to. Read the speech here:

11:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lizett, could you please stay on topic?
We're discussing dead rodents and macabre families, and you want us to care that a private Catholic university wants to limit an over-rated and over-performed play and keep a bunch of cake-eaters from showing dirty movies?

C'mon. Dead rodents. Freezer.Madison goes nuts with her Mom's Henckel's four-star...
This is good stuff.

5:24 AM  
Anonymous J said...

No big deal, really.
I reside in Highland Park and am sure I know which family "Tessa" nannied for.

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting insight from middle-class Texas: a practical reason exists for freezing dead animals. When the trash guy comes on Saturday and your husband kills the flea-invested, rabid-looking opossum that has nested under your deck on Monday (with a shovel, my hero!), you freeze that little critter and throw him in the trash at the last minute to keep the smell from filling the neighborhood under the hot Texas sun. The application to pets would be a little freezing until an appropriate burial service could be arranged. In my eyes, this type of animal icing is way different than the Highland Park frozen cemetary, but then perhaps we've just put our own lower class spin on dysfunction around here.

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it that only businessmen, lawyers, or doctors are accused of ignoring their families for their jobs? The Phantom Professor goes to plays and other "artistic" events where the performers work nights, weekends, and holidays in order to perform a function that is much less essential to society than what physician provides and do it for much less money. Yet, no one ever write a story about how actors, musicians, directors, etc neglect their home life and families.

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Hillary said...

To the anonymous above - I think something to point out is that today's corporate world is more wholistic, looking outside the business place into the lives of their employees - benefits, drug tests, family picnics. Perhaps this, along with religion, pressures these 'successful' people to have children for the wrong reasons.
I think you're wrong about no one writing a story on how actors / musicians neglect their home life. It's called the E Entertainment channel.

This is a great story Professor. I read it earlier this week and I can't get it out of my head.

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Hillary but the E channel reopresents having three ex-spouse and your kid in drug rehab as aspects of personnel color. Care to point out an E episode that where touring or location shoots are represented as being bad on kids?

7:17 PM  
Anonymous Hillary said...

The Osbournes

12:59 AM  
Blogger merc said...

That would have made a great ghost scene in Sixth Sense.

1:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mom has been putting dead birds, insects, and other critters in the freezer for years. "Honey, can you get out that package of ground beef? Yes, that's it - beside the cardinal in that freezer bag." Just recently, she pulled out a dead squirrel (which was unblemished roadkill), and took it, along with some acorns, to the taxidermist to have it stuffed as a gift for a friend.

That little girl was strange (and yes, downright weird), but maybe not that unusual.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Tiana said...

Oh my! Were they going to serve them to friends at a BBQ?

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Alex Bensky said...


Really. No one ever writes about how, say, actors neglect their families? You ever read or see "Mommie Dearest" or any number of other memoirs, articles, books, tv movies, and such where that sort of thing is detailed?

8:26 AM  
Anonymous gpo said...

I feel sorry for the anonymous poster above who feels that beauty, creativity, and passion are a "less essential" function within a society.

I am one of those artists who devotes my time to the creation of theatrical works for little or no money because without that creative outlet I feel my life would not be worth living.

I don't have children, but many of the people I work with do and I have yet to run into any parent/artist who neglects their kids for the sake of their art. In fact, the family relationships among my fellow theatrical artists seem to be much stronger than those among friends who are not engaged in creative pursuits. In addition, these children of artists are taught from birth to express themselves creatively instead of burying their emotions. (Wasn't the point of this story the lack of emotion that the child showed over the death of her pet? There's so much impertenent commentary in here that I can't remember now...)

If the anonymous poster could give us an example of an artist neglecting their parental responsibilities I would lend more credibility to the assertion.

As someone stated above, there is a wealth of documented dysfunction among those artists who have become celebrities as a result of their work, but I would place those celebrities more in the category of business people than artists as once a person reaches a certain state of noteriety the job becomes more about maintaining a lifestyle than about the act of creation.

Now, lest you think I am blaming material success (however it is acheived) as the root cause of parental neglect, I freely acknowledge that there is a wealth of neglect conducted by those who haven't acheived material wealth as well. The problem doesn't relate to material wealth at all. The problem is emotional poverty and my solution to the emotional poverty in this country is to invoke emotion through the creation of art.

"No, Sir, you are wrong: art does not exist to suit the moods of your majority! Art always existed to express the aesthetic feelings of a minority of noble-minded, superior, and more exquisite people from whom the reluctant, slow masses eventually shall learn what is beautiful and good."--Hermann Bahr

9:23 AM  

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