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My mother's parents raise me. I live in their house until I'm seventeen. In it, my father's name is never spoken, his existence not acknowledged.

"Where's you're dad?" other children ask. "I don't know," I answer.

"Why?" they ask, but I don't know what to say to that either.

He and my mother divorce when I am six months old. I stay with her and her parents; he leaves.

My father is an absence, a hole like one of those my grandmother cuts out of family photographs. Rather than discard the entire picture of an event that includes someone she dislikes, she snips the offender out with untidy haste, using her manicure scissors.

I sit on the foot of her bed and watch her edit the family albums, a task she undertakes with the kind of grim determination that can only have been inspired by a fight with my mother. Often, she cuts out only the heads and leaves the anonymous bodies behind as a reminder of her displeasure, and her ruthlessness. No one is safe from her censorship; from the albums she excises unflattering images of herself as well.

The few snapshots my mother has of my father she keeps hidden. If I ask to look at one, she might show it to me. In every photograph, he is a tiny figure in a suit and glasses; the only person in the frame, still, he is never in its center or its foreground, he seems as incidental as a bystander. I can't make out his features.

The closed door to my grandparents' bedroom is visible from the entrance to our house. When a young man arrives to pick my mother up for a date, when my grandmother hears my mother greet him and go to get her coat, she begins to scream from behind her closed bedroom door. My grandmother has a talent for screaming. Her screams are not human. They tear through the veil of ordinary life—the life that moments before surrounded the unsuspecting young man in the foyer—and in rushes every black, bleak, and barbarous thing: animals with legs caught in traps, surgery in the days that precede anesthesia, the shriek of a scalded infant, the cry of a young woman raped in the woods, the long howl of the werewolf who catches her scent, who finds and devours what's left of her.

I am four, and when I hear my grandmother scream I fall to my knees and crawl to safety, either under a table or, if I can get that far, into the linen closet or the wood bin.

FROM: Shattering the Secrecy of Incest: Mackenzie Phillips' Follow-Up
Published on October 15, 2009

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