In a diary entry on July 18, 2004, Martha at ten first showed signs that she was leading a secret life. “This diary is a front,” she wrote, “and all I can write in it is milestones, joy, and mock anger. Where can I express emotions?” I don’t know what emotions she meant because she didn’t write them down.
Martha at eleven in sixth grade, 2005
She went on to talk about keeping a mind diary, which may have been a record in her mind for feelings and thoughts she could tell no one. Then she hit on a new strategy of writing her feelings on a piece of paper that she threw away. This approach wasted paper, she said, but that problem could be solved if she wrote on junk mail envelopes. If she ever tried this strategy, the papers have long since been lost.
At the same time, Martha continued to appear to be a happy child. Her clothes looked merry—bright, beautiful dresses chosen by her mother. Martha enjoyed our visit to Disney World in August, including the Typhoon Lagoon trip with which this book started. We didn’t know it then, but it was our last visit to Disney World—Martha lost interest after this year—though we kept going to Florida every year to see my parents. That year, my parents had just moved from Port Richey to New Port Richey, and she had fun visiting them, especially the long games of dominoes she played with my mother. She loved playing dominoes at my mother’s club with her and a bunch of other retired women. “Why she likes playing with old ladies, I don’t know,” my mother’s friends would say.
In September, Martha started fifth grade, her last year of elementary school, but her mind was on other things. She had developed an interest in corporal punishment, something she never received from her parents but that was entering her fantasies. In her diary, she wrote in detail about the daily beatings the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe would administer to her children: with rulers on hands after breakfast, whippings with a switch on the back after lunch, and spankings with the hand on the backside after dinner. Soon she expanded this to six types of beatings, from which she randomly selected one by rolling a die, apparently for private games. She integrated the beatings with worlds she liked, such as the computer game and David Copperfield. Martha never mentioned these ideas to us, and evidently felt she would be in trouble if she did: “If this is discovered I’m toast,” she wrote, adding, “I hate myself.” But it seemed a clear precursor to her later interest in torture, which she did tell us about.
Around this time, I informed Martha that I would no longer accompany her and her mother to church. Even though I had stopped believing in God in June, I had kept my conversion to atheism secret from had continued to attend Mass with the family just in case I changed my mind. But now that my atheism seemed firm, I didn’t want to be a hypocrite about it by pretending to be Catholic. Martha took it , and we agreed that I would keep saying grace and bedtime prayers with her as if nothing had happened. But I think my switch to atheism was one of the sources of the atheism she too developed later in her life.
Popularity became even more important to Martha. Though she continued to tell us she was in the middle of popularity at school, she she was lower. Part of her trouble was due to her intelligence—smart kids couldn’t be popular, she told herself. But then she saw kids like Lorraine and David who were both smart and popular, and it rankled. Why couldn’t she be like them?
Under the influence of watching Disney Channel shows like That’s So Raven and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, Martha picked up a sneering, sarcastic tone that she liked to use on her mother and me. Driving her to an activity, I told her she had to cut that out. Teenagers on TV shows could talk that way to each other because they weren’t real, I said. In real life, she would alienate people and cause hurt and anger by talking to them like that. She burst into tears, admitting that she was talking that way and that she knew it was wrong, but didn’t know how to stop. Yet after that she did stop, reverting to her more polite and friendly way of talking. Martha hardly ever did anything wrong, but if she did, it only had to be brought to her attention for her to correct it.
Despite this conflict, Martha and I kept having fun. I took her to Madison Square Garden to see the Wiggles, a kids’ musical group from Australia whom Martha and I knew from their TV show. In 2005, she turned eleven and wrote her first fully accomplished poems, addressed to a fictional friend named Cathy. Among them was “Fulfillment,” which began:
I have been there, Cathy,
To the land of Absolutes,
Where unmarked joy reigns over all those good
And the evil soak in baths of
Absolute sorrow and hate.
We never reached it together
Though we came very close…
The poem was an early instance of a theme that would fascinate Martha for the rest of her life: the futile effort to reach an absolute ideal.
In May 2005, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the opened, the trilogy of Star Wars prequels George Lucas had been making. Martha saw it and loved it, building her interest in the Star Wars universe. With its gory outcome for Anakin Skywalker, it also spurred the obsession with torture that had been growing in her since her die-rolling punishment games.
In the summer of 2005, Martha acted in her final Cagle production, this time in the major role of the clock in Beauty and the Beast. Then we went to San Francisco for the wedding of Pete, my former housemate in Seattle who liked to play the Grateful Dead on his guitar, and there I saw Mary Ann again. My love for her had never entirely gone away since our meeting in Denver in 2003, and now it surged again, becoming intense after the wedding as she and I took a long barefoot walk on the beach. As we walked by the Pacific, wet sand digging between our toes, I told her about how I’d been diagnosed bipolar. I left out her role in the mania and depression that led to my diagnosis. Though I ached for her, I still didn’t feel I could declare my love.
Soon after that, Martha started sixth grade, her first year of middle school. She developed a crush on a male English teacher, which made her even more interested in English than she had been. She kept writing poetry, including sonnets. One of them, “Abstract and Concrete: A Sonnet,” concerned her deep interest in her school subjects, especially mathematics, followed by science and Spanish, then English and social studies. She concluded with this heroic couplet:
In each free minute, hour, my mind strays
I now like weekends less than weekdays.
Martha began to “date” boys, though with quotation marks around the term. It may have amounted to having some sort of vague romantic connection to a boy that came and went. Thus she “dated” Billy for two days before they broke up.
Religious fervor bloomed in her and persisted throughout the school year. She prayed the rosary and read the Bible every day, played hymns on her violin, and studied the lives of the saints. On vacations, she often went to daily Mass. She felt tumultuous emotions related to her faith, including a dislike of the atheism common among her peers and a fear that she and her family might be damned—especially me, since I was an atheist then. A reviewing of The Ten Commandments affected her greatly. We watched the Catholic channel EWTN together, though sometimes with an ironic eye. We both found the antics of the teen heroes of the Knights of St. Michael to be unintentionally funny.
That fall, Martha started menstruating. I got a call from the school nurse, telling me that Martha had gotten her first period during school and was very upset about it. The nurse seemed to think we hadn’t prepared her well for it, and she was probably right. We had told Martha the facts of life from an early age, but we probably hadn’t done enough in a practical way to ready her for when the facts started hitting her.
Changes were happening in my work life. Freelancing had always been financially precarious, and I was getting tired of always running out of money. For a long time, I tolerated that so I could stay home with Martha and watch her grow up, but now she was eleven and in middle school, and I felt she could manage without me at home all day. Also, by then my depression, which had lasted eight months, had finally lifted. I was not happy, but I was in a stable, neutral state that seemed to make it possible to get and keep a staff job. Before I started freelancing, my emotional turbulence had been such that I had never kept a job longer than two years. Armed with my psychotropic medications, now I thought I could.
A staff job at , a medical publisher for which I had written freelance articles since I started freelancing in 1988. They knew my work well and liked me, so they hired me as a scientific associate in their new medical education division. My job was to write continuing education materials for doctors on subjects like ADHD and spasticity, paid for by grants from pharmaceutical companies that wanted to promote their products. On December 5, 2005, I started working outside the home for the first time in Martha’s life. I have spent most of the years since working at one staff writing job or another. Economically it has been much more rewarding than freelancing, but I have never liked it. I don’t like having a boss and don’t like having to be somewhere forty hours a week with no freedom to do anything but what the boss orders. I quickly came to feel that was a prison where I did meaningless work for no point and from which I was unable to escape because I needed the money. Every job since then has ultimately ended up seeming the same way.
Martha went through a brief depression shortly after I started at , but she seemed to take my working outside the home . In April 2006, she came to work with me for her first and only official Take Your Kids to Work Day. Unofficially, we had taken Martha to work every day, because she always saw us working at home around her. This was her first experience of an office outside the home.
In May 2006, I traveled alone to a JVC reunion in Seattle where I saw Mary Ann again—in fact, I stayed at her house with her and her husband and two sons. Being that near her for that long without saying what I felt was more than I could stand. After that I decided she had to know. I wrote a letter in which I told her for the first time that I was in love with her. I didn’t hear back from her for a long time. I didn’t mind. Somehow, telling her how I felt made the bubble of passion collapse, and for the first time in three years I felt free of my longing for her.
Around the same time, I developed another, milder extramarital interest in a coworker of mine named Sarah. Sarah was beautiful and skinny, with long, dark, curly hair and hazel eyes—sad ones, of course. Like me, she was an atheist, although a Jewish atheist instead of a Catholic one. Like me, she was a well-read, bipolar writer. We had lunch together once every three or four weeks for several years, ostensibly as friends talking about literature and madness, although I was secretly infatuated with her the whole time. A couple of times she came over to my house for dinner, where she met Martha; the two got along well. As with Mary Ann, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about Sarah, but my passion for her was smaller in scale than with Mary Ann and considerably less elevated. I didn’t picture abandoning my family to be with Sarah, as I had with Mary Ann, but I did picture having a fleeting affair with her. Of course, I was not the sort of man who had affairs, only daydreamed about them.
Even as my emotions continued to be rocky, Martha’s were too. Music often increased their turbulence. She was elated rehearsing for an orchestral concert in May, but during the concert her thoughts were intensely troubled, and she felt she played badly.
Religion also made her rocky. After sixth grade ended, Martha continued her religious fervor all summer. On a trip into Manhattan for a party at my workplace, she felt great inner peace on the trainGod’s peace,” she called it. It was a blissful feeling of euphoria. Afterward she felt depressed. This was common for her, to feel unusually good and then unusually bad. Later, it would be clear this was a sign of the bipolarity she had inherited from me.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.