Childhood Impressions Cut Deep

One Halloween when I was five or six, a rumor went around, shared by a couple of neighborhood kids, that some house was passing out caramel apples. . . with razor blades hidden in them. 

How did they know this? According to the rumors, one kid in particular ended up in the emergency room after he had bitten into one of the sabotaged apples.

“That’s ridiculous,” said my mother. “I’m sure you’re little friends are telling stories and that there’s no house passing out apples with razor blades.”

My mother never was great in making me feel any better. And the visceral and instantly graphic image stuck with me. I’ve never bitten into a caramel apple since. 

That year was around the time when my father left. He and my mom had finally had enough of each other after less than seven years of marriage and he was off to live in his furnished high-rise apartment. I was relieved the yelling and fighting were over, but every other Friday evening would never again be the same, when I would wait anxiously for dad’s car to turn the corner to pick up me and my sister for the weekend. And Sunday nights were a bi-weekly heartbreak, when I dreaded the end of the too-short weekend with my dad, and faced the agony and wait of another two weeks before I got to see him again.

The neighborhood meanwhile seemed both an adventurous and scary place. Like every neighborhood, we had that one house where no one ever seemed home, and another that had that mean ol’ man. There was the house four doors down, the one with the girl with the loose clothing who baby-sat for us just that one time, and the other house around the corner, the one with the kids who never came out to play. 

In our condo development, my sister and I knew not to go more than a couple of buildings beyond ours, we knew not to go near the main busy street, and we knew not to talk to strangers. We knew that we avoided that man who hung out in the front of the corner grocery store, when mom would squeeze our hands and hurry us through the front doors. And we knew to never play in the vacant lot with the mound of tires and dirt. There were glass and nails there, and something called tetanus that, as another neighborhood kid told us, could kill us or make us go crazy. 

All things being relative however, in our little corner of the world we were pretty safe. We didn’t have near the same worries that today’s kids have in some of our disinvested Memphis neighborhoods. We knew we’d get to school safely and we knew there would be dinner on the table – all we had to do was to come home before dark. 

What we did not, could not know was that our little brains were absorbing images and lasting impressions that amounted to traumas, large and small, that would last us a lifetime. 

Those neighbor kids who never played outside; I later learned they were beaten and wore clothes that hid bruises and lashes. That part of the neighborhood rumored for the caramel apple scare; we never again went over there. And those every-other week trips back from dads became a whole host of abandonment and approval-seeking issues later on in life. The yelling and fighting I saw before dad left the house – well that is an entirely other story. 

Not treated, childhood traumas manifest themselves into adulthood as anger, fear and resistance, and can hinder our growth and chances for success. They are why some fear change, have a hard time leaving the house, have social anxiety, choose the wrong mates, or stay with a bad job too long. 

In some kids, traumas become the fears that lead to drug use, to the joining of gangs, and in desperation, to criminal activity.  

In neighborhoods like South Memphis, Chelsea and Frayser, too many kids have already experienced the absence of fathers, and so much worse than razor blades in apples. These kids have experienced hunger, sudden evictions and displacement, unsafe living conditions, and worst of all, have seen friends and relatives fall lifeless to gun violence.  The traumas these kids have seen before middle school would shake veterans who stormed the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago.  

In my work to date as StoryBoard publisher, I have spoken to more than a couple therapists and social workers that specialize in trauma treatment, and the stories they tell are heartbreaking. “I’ve had to console one child too many, babies who saw their friend’s or brother’s brains splattered on the pavement,” one therapist told me. 

The childhood traumas these kids are dealing with – right now, today, as you read this – keep these kids from having the same chances that many of us take for granted. For them, it’s not a matter of trying harder in school or simply making better choices. For them, choice and opportunity have been removed from their collective plates. For them, their world looks and feels much different than yours and mine when we walk out of our front doors and into our neighborhood. 

For them, razor blades are all over, and they are hidden in plain sight.

But there is hope. There must be hope. In my same work as publisher, I have met, talked to or interviewed already dozens of passionate, resourceful, dedicated Memphians devoted to helping these neighborhoods, their communities, and these kids find paths to healing and opportunity.

Some of these Memphians and organizations have been chronicled in past issues, others have stories to tell in our June issue, the Shared Prosperity Issue. 

On newsstands and delivered to subscriber mailboxes this week – read it in good mental health. 

~Mark Fleischer, StoryBoard Publisher  

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