Problem Child

My Self Statement

father has guns

mother has knives

I’m not just talkin’ kitchen steel for food prep
in the 1940s and 50s when cook’s knives manifested only
occasional slices across a finger while cutting carrots
before Japanese hammered Damascus Gyuto knives
pounded layers of steel rippling through the blade
so many venous strata of death
I don’t refer to knives pulled from holsters for scalping in French and Indian wars
not the pocket pen knife with folding blade we kids carry for whittling sticks
not the double-edged Bowie knife for killing bears
Disney television series starring Scott Forbes in title role
the adventures of Jim Bowie popularized along with hula hoops
or knives I can’t imagine when father tells me
in basic training he is taught
“to drive the bayonet in and give it a twist”
describes how the twist increases damage and bleeding
his unit practices stabbing punching bags swinging from wood scaffolds
of combat in Italy and Germany he says
“I am most scared of knife fights”
I dare not ask
viewing later movies’ depiction of such mano e mano death struggles
drives me out of theaters terrorized

I blame Life magazine for mother’s infatuation
I’m talkin’ ‘bout surgical #11 triangular scalpel blades
hardened thin stainless-steel for clean precision cuts
edge so sharp it severs nerve endings before the nerve can react
“it’s painless”
mother explains lobotomy procedure she proposes for me
seven eight nine years old
a television show uses wood carpentry tools
to demonstrate trepanation through the brain’s bone cradle
a hand-cranked stainless-steel auger gouges out a hole for probes
I watch father drill a hole in frozen lake ice for winter fishing
chips pitched outside the ice fishing hut with empty beer bottles and food cans
weighted lures unreeled deep into the black water
a fine-tooth dovetail stainless-steel back saw cuts broad sections of the skull cap
surgeons lift off plates of bone to cut into brain flesh
father inherits his father’s huge old trunk holding cabinetry tools

drills with different size and type of bits planes rasps
crosscut and rip and jig saws files chisels hammers folding rulers
clamps bench vices sanding blocks

they fascinate me specialized tools for specialized tasks
not for my hands
he scolds me for using them on a Cub Scout project
“it’s painless” mother comforts me
I know painless
during the assault the hard wood mallet
in a high circular swing when my back is turned
smashes precisely the top of my head
when I am five years old
violence by a “very angry” five-year-old neighbor boy
with whom I am playing croquet
mother informs me
whose father and older brother were killed in the war
crushes my skull so severely a permanent depression is created
pressing skull against the top of my growing brain
and I feel nothing
a moment’s awareness

then another

that’s it
how long?
a preview of my next seven years
intermittently present
grand mal epilepsy
tonic-clonic seizures every 20 minutes
and absence seizures
brought under control with phenobarbital and Dilantin

the contradiction of medical treatment of brain trauma
phenobarbital suppresses seizures by suppressing brain processes
Dilantin slows electrical nerve pulses
at the same time phenobarbital triggers agitation
mother assuredly is distressed by my behavior
I am controlled but out of control
I have no idea what I am doing or how not to do it
24 hours a day the same refrain
“Stop fidgeting”
“I will tell your father”
“We will put you in the state orphanage”
she drives down state and shows me the large red brick building
with its own steam heating plant a tall chimney emitting white smoke
the state of New Hampshire, she speaks firmly, keeps children like me there

when Life and other magazines popularize lobotomization
she terrifies me with her description of its procedures
she trained for practical nursing for two years after high school
I trust she wants the most advanced treatments for me
Nobel Prize impressed her

of years on medication I have meager memories
no school classrooms or teachers faces or teachers’ names
playmates or parties
mother and father encourage me to take up sports
my father’s family locally famed for athletic prowess
then ostracized and ridiculed for impossible coordination
struggle to learn
to read
to tell time

a drawing of a clock face with moveable hands
Nikki who goes to normal school and lives with us
places on an easel in the living room
a code I cannot figure out

to write block letters
to tie my shoelaces
I can’t locate or replicate the beat in music
unable to perceive painting and drawings
gestalt does not form
I can’t see Peter in the watering can in Mr. McGregor’s garden
repeatedly mother asks, where is Peter?
“I don’t know”
traces with her pointing finger the outline of the rabbit
“I can’t see Peter” I say
she scolds me
she scolds all the time
I do not understand

She never tells me what is wrong with me
but to say, I faint a lot
and fall down
fear of the scalpel
of clinics and medical examination rooms
small spaces

I am trapped in a large wardrobe trunk
how old am I
with my cousin he is calm
I panic no one would rescue me

white walls white ceiling lights
cabinets shelves reclining padded table sink paper towels
persons I do not know talk to mother
in another room while I wait
does not end when I am not lobotomized
taken off meds
absence and temporal lobe emotional seizures continue


I leave a classroom walk out of school
aware but not aware what I am doing
I am an actor in a play
at the same time I am the play’s audience
along a familiar route to home
a school car with a teacher slows alongside
interrupts me
he returns me to class
I resume study
nothing had happened

fear is intense
when I struggle with suicide in teen years
I am not a cutter don’t play at slicing my wrists
I am not trying to get attention or cry for help
it is always my deer hunting rifle
in my bedroom I turn on my bedside radio
I remove the 32 caliber Remington semi-automatic from its wall rack
load the five-cartridge clip one in the chamber
I lie upon my bed with the muzzle pressed into my chin
rifle stock and barrel on their side rest on top of me
feeling collapses
emotional anesthesia spreads
vapor from the rubble of my mind
the rifle safety off
I shut off the radio
my finger on the trigger I wait for sleep
absence welcomes me


Ron Tobey grew up in north New Hampshire, USA, and attended the University of New Hampshire, Durham. He has lived in Ithaca NY, Pittsburgh PA, Riverside CA, Berkeley CA, and London UK. He and his wife live in West Virginia, where they raise cattle and keep goats and horses. He is an imagist poet, writing haiku, storytelling poems, spokenpoetry, and producing videopoetry. His work has appeared in several dozen literary magazines.