My Big Flying Spaceship, Alice Miller, Picasso, and I
I am a child, holding my mother’s hand. Her face is set in stone. We pass by the neighbors’ farm where I go after school. The farmers who usually take care of me watch us go by, their eyes glazed over. We walk down a large motorway. The cars are at a standstill.
A UFO has landed in the middle of the road, a silver flying saucer resting on four legs, surrounded by pastel lights. I have to get in.
The memory came back every now and then. It bugged me, for obvious reasons. I had no memory of what went on after I supposedly boarded that ship. The whole thing felt strange, stuck between real life and fantasy.
Every time the images floated in my mind I told myself it must have been a dream, yet something felt too real. Did that mean I was supposed to don a tinfoil hat, then? Was I supposed to believe I’d been abducted by space aliens flying in a vessel that would’ve melted as soon as it would’ve tried to rise above the stratosphere?
The first clue came when I was entering my teenage years. I gazed at my dad’s desk lamp and knew it had something to do with the memory, except I couldn’t figure out what.
In my early twenties, I was an English major and a psychology buff. I chanced upon the work of Alice Miller, a psychologist best known for her works on childhood and child-rearing, including the classic “For Your Own Good” about casual cruelty in education. You know the kind; humiliation, yelling, beatings, the stuff that gets recounted by people who add quickly “I didn’t die of it, did I, so it wasn’t so bad.”
Her insights captivated me and I found myself reading every book of hers I could find at the library, in between research for my dissertation. One summer day, I found “The Untouched Key”, a study of artists and dictators alike. What made dictators commit crimes? Why did some abused children repeat their own childhood trauma throughout their lives, while others found redemption?
She discussed one of Picasso’s most famous paintings: Guernica. She argues that the attack on this Spanish town triggered an early memory in the artist’s mind: an earthquake in Malaga in 1884, when Picasso was only 3. While the boy was traumatized by the destruction and damage he witnessed, his parents’ loving care enabled him to get over the initial shock. His depiction of the bombing in Guernica actually depicts the horror of that night when the boy left his home to find shelter, with his family, in a cave.
That afternoon, I went home, turned on the computer and organized my notes. The screensaver animation came on. A starry sky and neon lines like the laser beams of a spaceship.
That’s when it dawned on me.
The spaceship “memory” was a substitution for another memory, a very real one that involved no aliens nor anything paranormal.
When I was five, I had come down with so many ear infections the family doctor prescribed a myringotomy, a surgical intervention to ease the pain on my eardrums. My only memory is not wanting to be put to sleep on the operating table, a nurse restraining me while another forced a wad imbibed with ether on my nose, the doctor counting, vivid colors swirling before I passed out.
We lived in a village and had to go to the city—that’s why I went down a road, why my mother was there and the neighbors weren’t. The red lamp on my father’s desk looked vaguely like a flying saucer. The colors were a muted version of the last thing I saw before I lost consciousness. I asked my mother if she remembered that surgical intervention. She’d been shocked by the experience.
“They’d put the waiting room next to the operating room exit,” she recounted. “So the children waiting would see other children leaving in tears, with blood running down their face, and they’d start crying in their turn.”
I have no recollection of this—just the moment in the operating theatre. But as soon as I recognized the spaceship episode for what it was, a cover for a moment I was too young and fragile to process, it stopped coming back to me.
Alice Miller advocated awareness of cruelty in the way we treat children, to put an end to the cycle of abuse. An end to the lack of consideration, the acts of violence forced on children with the argument that it’s for “their own good”.
I stand with her and I do my best to apply those principles every day. Yet, I see how what happened to me fits into a pattern. Of course, ear infections were less painful after that. Of course, I didn’t die from it all. It was for my own good.
Except I can tell the difference between the intervention itself and the way it was done. I can’t help but wonder about the others — those children who went through the same thing I did on that day, and the days before and after. I don’t know why the medical staff has so little regard for their patients, whether they were overworked or just never saw anything beyond a sack of flesh, bone, nerves. But I hope they’ve changed their ways. For their patients. For themselves. For everyone’s good.