Dominic didn't start writing until 2001, shortly after his mother's death. Resolved to unload his secrets about what she had done to him, he quickly realized he knew very little about the woman he refused to call Mother—a term of respect he reserved for his maternal grandmother, who shared parenting responsibilities. He knew there were times when Laverne would disappear for months on end, sometimes longer than a year. These were periods of joy for him, spent safely with "Mother." But each time Laverne returned, he was passed right back to her.

What he remembered most was how she treated him. When they were alone, her cruelty was severe. There was a blur of beatings. And then, when he was 7, one night he heard her calling "Do-mi-nic" in the singsong way that meant he had no choice but to go to her. He found her in bed, naked, and when he climbed in, as she demanded, she asked him to touch her breasts. Then her thighs, and between her legs where he was surprised to find coarse hair. Her breath was hot as she put her mouth on his tiny lips—she'd never even kissed him on the cheek. He became more and more frightened, he later recalled, when she touched his undeveloped penis and "rubbed it until I feared it was going to fall off." Then, "she lifted my whole body, all 70 pounds of me, and she kept moaning and mumbling and caressing."

He knew it was wrong—and feared it would turn him into "a freak of nature" or worse. It never happened again, but his terror "became almost devastating at times," he says. Much as he tried, he could never forget that night. "I would literally wave my hand in front of my face, as an 11- or 12-year-old kid, and go 'Boop.' That would mean: Put it out of your mind." The spell never worked.

Dominic approached the task of retracing his childhood as if he were investigating a news story. Relatives told him that Laverne's many absences were due to mental illness—she had been hospitalized repeatedly at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He sent away for her records. The first bundle arrived in 2003. Marilyn was with him at the post office when he opened the large package and poured out an astonishing stack of medical charts, 620 pages tall.

"You want me to step outside and give you your own private moment?" she asked.

"No," he said.

The pages revealed that Laverne had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. There were notes about straitjackets, long lists of her medications, and judges' orders regarding her detention. She received her first shock-therapy treatment when she was barely 15. The files also contained details of Dominic's life. Once, when he was 2, she folded her fingers around his throat and choked him until his cries snapped her out of her "dreamlike state"; another time, a voice suggested she throw him from the window—"Do it," the voice commanded. She told her doctors that she was afraid one day she might. Meanwhile, she beat him violently. His battered body was a familiar presence in the local emergency room, where he once arrived with swollen testicles after an especially severe spanking.


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