J. Griffin Hughes
Book Review: Tattooed Daughter by Suzanne Crain Miller
It had been a few years since my creative writing grad school experience, finding fellowship with other aspiring novelists and poets, when I discovered a local literary open mic organized by Hemed Mohamed and Suzanne Crain Miller. Seeing my newcomer self, Suzanne welcomed me in, waiving me to find a chair among the other wordsmiths sitting in that little bookshop. Hearing the warmth in her voice, with her Southern charm mannerisms, and seeing her mohawk and heavy black eyeliner, I knew I was in the right place with the right people.
There are places in my pocket of the American South that don’t fit what most media will tell you about us, havens for the queer, colorful, multi-cultural, geeky, punk, and Progressive, where we are just as Southern as our cousins who argue (wrongly) that the Confederate flag isn’t racist, our uncles who sneer at legitimate journalism and call it “fake news” for not delivering the narrative they want to hear, and our aunts who are so concerned that we haven’t shown up at church in such a long time. We find ourselves rebelling against and outcast by their institutions, knowing how much bitterness their sweet tea mannerisms can conceal.
I saw in Suzanne this kinship, a shared identity of being both in and out of “the box” typically meant to contain our Southern heritage. And then I heard her poetry--so strident, unflinching, and intimate. She shouts the subjects from conversations that would happen in hushed tones around a kitchen table, the ones we just don’t say in mixed company. What would the neighbors think?
Tattooed Daughter is a collection of poetry and prose from Suzanne’s blog of the same name (tattooeddaughter.wordpress.com). It’s an intense read, and you either identify with the things she says and feel relief that you are not alone or you don’t identify and can feel gratitude you didn’t have to go through a similar experience.
She has given permission to share some excerpts from Tattooed Daughter, which I present below.
Chicken in pockets and a rousing chorus of Pink Floyd
“You gonna eat that?” the woman next to me whispers in this childlike way that instantly causes me to picture her age five at a dinner table of siblings vying for more food. I shake my head and hand over my fried drumstick. A nurse strolls by noticing my sharing then writing something on her clipboard. It crosses my mind that not wanting to eat this greasy, below sub par, meal might not qualify as a health choice in here. It could become something used as mounting evidence that I’m crazy.
The fellow patient snatches the chicken from me, hastily pocketing it in the shirt pocket of her scrubs. She mouths the words “ for later”. I nod, but realize what this means. She knows there will be a later. She has gotten comfortable here. No husband will pick her up tomorrow once the resident shrink deems her admission a doctor’s mistake. No job awaits her two days from now where she’ll stand in front of eight year olds presenting them with math and writing, forming impressionable young minds.
I watch as the nurse who scribbled down notes on me talks to another nurse in the corner, both now look over at me. Both now seem to have honed in that I’m not being compliant. I’ve no desire to eat their One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest feast. I’m struck with a mortifying thought the later that the chicken lover next to me has accepted could all too easily become my reality.
Looking down at my tattoos on my forearms, smoothing my short, spikey mohawk as best I can, it’s clear that these also are incriminating. These attributes that in my day to day world, the alternate world existing simultaneously outside this one that I’ve arrived in via the backseat of a cop car last night, only ever served to render me artistic, and creative. Here though, in this place, they are only proof I’m mad. All the eccentricities, the things I admire about myself and have prized, under the wrong scrutiny, could serve to keep me behind these walls sharing chicken legs.
An older woman sits across from me with long stringy gray hair like one of the double, double toil and trouble witches from Macbeth. One of the nurses prods her about eating. By the wily expression forming on her face, I can tell she is not going to take this. She picks up her fork, gripping it in a weathered fist and starts banging a rhythm on the table.
“We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control. Teachers! Leave them kids alone! Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!” she chants more than sings.
In a matter of seconds, she’s joined by several other women each with their own ax to grind about the system. Each well acquainted with Pink Floyd’s The Wall and each probably overdue for their cookie with meds cup. As the nurses coerce them to be quiet, I tell myself something calming, something true. My pain brought me here. My inability to handle my pain brought me here. I let it, but God if you help me, I will never and I mean never let my pain get the better of me again…
Why do we keep what it is that we keep?
Like the head on my lone My Little Pony.
The last one night quite standing out of a passel of ponies I had as a girl I stabled in fine plastic pink palaces there in that side storage room of our house.
Through numerous moves, I have not parted with it.
Once I loaned it out to a child I nannied for only to have it given back minus the body.
I wasn’t mad. I chuckled inside.
Knowing things somehow, despite our best intentions, will always find their truest state.
A bodiless pony… the best mascot of my childhood that was less than childish.
This strawberry haired, white manufactured thing, a reminder that though you may not make it out in one piece you can always make it out.
Suzanne is a powerful writer, but more importantly, she is a great person. Hearing that probably makes her uncomfortable, but it’s true and all the technique in the world means nothing if a writer doesn’t have something worth saying underneath. How does that go? “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” Guess some of the things we hear in the church pews hold true.
I asked Suzanne a few questions about where she comes from as a writer so that others can get to know her as well.
You write about things that are so raw and real. Have you ever had the experience of someone withdrawing from you because of what you shared?
I don’t think people have done this over what I’ve written since my site and work are not a false bill of sale. If you look at my covers or images or summaries, you know what you’re getting into when you choose to read, yet I think I’ve had more people do this in person.
There are multiple layers of me that make people squirm, I guess you’d say. For one, I’m a recovering addict (from 3 major eating disorders). If someone is not grappling with their addictions, they don’t want to talk about that. Also, I’m an anti-porn advocate; this touches off a lot in people, as they either love their porn or hate it also or they’re indifferent (they think they can be indifferent about such things... strange to me). Those first two are huge. People don’t like for you to touch their food issues or their porn. Having been a porn addict, having grown up in the age when oversexualizing was seen as some type of new feminism, and having taught young girls and seeing the havoc objectification culture causes them, I feel strongly about this issue and include my warnings about its consequences in my work as often as I can.
I’m also a Jesus follower. This is very polarizing to people, though I am a very accepting person. I don’t beat anyone with Bibles or anything. But people equate Jesus with religion, and religion is a tough subject for many--those of us who grew up in the South in particular, I think. Religion was siphoned into many of us like chlorine-treated water.
Lastly, I’m disabled. Due to the fact that we have biological instincts to get away from anyone with a physical ailment to preserve ourselves, people naturally look for the exit when they hear you say that word. It takes a person who will go against biology to be friends with or associate with a disabled person. No matter what the disability, people have a subconscious fear it’ll catch. The fact that my disability started when I was injured on the job brought a whole nother level of scorn. People I worked with didn’t want to think the system we worked for wouldn’t take care of them if something happened, but the fact is, it didn’t.
All this to say, my work reflects these things. Any writer worth their salt bares their scars in their work and those who shy away, weren’t my audience anyway hey?
How would you characterize your Southerness? What does being Southern mean to you?
Even though my mom was a painted-faced Yankee(her words, not mine), my dad was a Southerner. He was a South Carolina farm boy for his first several years of life and gloried in those memories, yet his dad moved them to the suburbs as he got older. My grandpa worked at a factory then and never returned to the farm.
My dad went on to college and became a color analyst with an office job, though he started out as an art teacher. It didn’t pay, but I always got the sense, as our houses got nicer and our neighborhoods got wealthier, that my dad still wanted to return to the farm in SC and to doing art. There was the other side of him, however, who tried to be sophisticated, and he wore dress shirts even on walks outside. He had a love-hate relationship with his origins, likely due to his fraught relationship with his own dad, and I think that mentality spread to me.
When I was younger I tried like hell to escape any traces of being Southern. I dressed pretty trendy and gritty. Several times, when I’d be out at a gas station or restaurants, people asked me if I came from New York. I read Shakespeare aloud nightly the whole year before college so I wouldn’t be the only person at my Midwestern school who talked with a twang and added extra syllables to words like hair or there. I was grateful I did this because when I got to school, the only other dude from NC was a guy named Sonny who talked like he was on an episode of Andy Griffith.
I swore I’d never live back in the South again. I didn’t like the backwards racist, religious, and homophobic biases I found prevalent here. As life would have it though, my husband’s work as a children’s pastor early on in our marriage brought us back for a position in a church in my hometown and we’ve lived somewhere in NC ever since.
I’d have to say, I’ve come to feel about the South, my Southerness, the way I do about myself overall. I accept that it’s not perfect, that sometimes it’s outright ugly, but that I love it. I accept the good that bad and the extra syllables. There are some amazingly kind and beautifully graceful people here willing to pitch in and help each other, and there are some snobby, old-school thinking types also, just as there are anywhere.
I’ve also decided that the things that need to change will never change if everyone like me leaves. So I’ll probably live out my days in NC, and I’m happy with that. It is the most home to me as any place on this earth can be.
Regardless of the difficulties you’ve experienced, I know you as a woman of faith, hope, and love. You seem to have rejected your religious upbringing for a more spiritual life. Was there a single moment of revelation that brought on that change?
Thanks for asking this. I’m honored you think of me that way. I try, fall short and try again. That’s what I hope people know about me and my faith--I try.
People forget that religion was man-made. It has nothing to do with God or our souls. It is about tradition, segregating, relegating, separating and is not what Jesus was about. Jesus was sent so we didn’t have to live under those types of confines. Most of his current followers were never introduced to him as a revolutionary. That was one good thing about growing up Pentecostal; we were the outcasts. That side of Jesus, the rebel-rousing side was always a part of our teaching. I did take that away from my years in Evangelical/Pentecostal church, and I’m grateful for that.
As for a defining moment, I’d have to say my salvation experience was this moment for me. Even though I was brought up in church, going three times a week, and attended Baptist school daily, I didn’t feel like I was part of it all. I hated most of what I saw in regards to religion, yet something in me registered that I didn’t see a point to life without a faith of some kind. I just had no idea what that looked like.
At 15, the day after my birthday, I decided I was going to find out for myself. I was so bogged down with my mother’s mental issues, and emotional and at times physical abuse of us at home, a future where I’d be responsible for her for the rest of my life, and an overall sick of living kind of feeling that I took a bottle of Tylenol to school. Now mind you, I had everything. I had the nicest house of anyone I knew, clothes, friends, a boyfriend, food, a car promised to me, college promised to me, summer camps every year--none of it mattered. I was a black hole of nothingness. I’d heard about God my whole life and had never heard his voice or seen him in my opinion. The world was a fucked up place to me and I wanted out.
I sat on the bathroom floor and took all 100 pills and waited for them to take effect. I leaned my head back against that cold tile and closed my eyes. Everyone was in class and I figured this was a good place to do it so my mom wouldn’t have to find me in her house.
A little girl came in from the elementary wing of the school and stood on the stool at the sink, washing her hands. She didn’t even look at me there on the floor behind her and I remembered thinking I wish I could be her age again. I wish I could do it all over.
And that was when I heard a distinct voice say to me, You can, in me. I felt this immediate loving warmth and teared up. I realized that I’d been to all the places you go to find God and he had found me, there on the bathroom floor. I rushed out and ran down the hall to tell my friend what I’d done and my dad was called. I had to down a bottle of ipecac at home and cough up the pills and the aftermath of all that was horrific as it outed our family as dysfunctional, which was a big no-no. But no matter all the complications that followed, I was so calm and I felt for the first time in my life that there was something to live for, that if I stuck with the Jesus I’d met that day, he’d be with me just like he was there in that bathroom. This has always remained true.
Even now, when I have to have horrendous treatments for my disability, I lie on the table and I close my eyes, listen to Oceans by Hillsong and feel him with me, right with me in the doctor’s office.
My purpose is to help others arrive at this point. To help them know why they’re here and who is for them not against them. To help them see past religion and know they are loved.
We all have to be found. Some of us on the actual bathroom floor, some of us on the proverbial floor, but we all have our heads hit the tile. We all come to the end of ourselves and that’s when we meet who will carry us through. There in those dark, cold places.
Tattooed Daughter by Suzanne Crain Miller is available in print through lulu.com. You can find it and a whole lot more of her writing through tattooeddaughter.wordpress.com.