In today’s New Voices, The Masters Review is excited to present the first creative non-fiction piece of 2023: “Can’t Elope” by Miriam Camitta! In this piece, Camitta explores her relationship with her older sister, Margot, who, in their childhood, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “Sometimes,” Camitta writes, “my memories come in scenes.” These memories are emotionally fraught, complicated. Camitta works, through this piece, to apply a modern understanding of Margot’s illness to her memories, to recontextualize her childhood and try to understand what these difficult days must have been like for Margot. Read on below.
If Margot had lived in the Middle Ages, she would have been branded a witch, her symptoms attributed to demonic possession. The media and the entertainment industry share this view, likening the mentally ill, with their seemingly empty eyes, their robotic gait, to zombie-like monsters. Even in the era of twentieth century modern medicine, Kieran McNally writes, scientists described schizophrenic patients as monstrous, exhibiting “a sense of indefinable strangeness,” or as one scientist observed of his patients, “appearing not quite human.”
I didn’t invite Margot to my wedding. She was my brilliant older sister, diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was a child. Once, I’d adored her, but she’d fallen ill in the fifties and, failing effective or even adequate medication, might now, even in the eighties, savage my perfect day: talking to her familiars, declaring a rat in the cake, or loudly accusing a guest of murder.
She couldn’t contain herself, nor could I, overwhelmed as I was by her disease, imagine her suffering. I hadn’t thought I’d miss her after she’d gone.
* * *
Until I was eight, I lived in Harrisburg with my family of accomplished but temperamental intellects: my father, a rising union leader; my mother, a meticulous albeit reluctant homemaker: my doting grandmother, a retired dressmaker; and my gifted but troubled teenage sister.
I remember the red-brown bars of my crib, my mother’s easel and paints on the sun porch, the green horsehair sofas in our living room, and an upright piano in the dining room where my father, who could play anything by ear, frequently entertained. I remember the old clawfoot tub in the bathroom at the top of the stairs, and Margot, whose job it sometimes was to watch her little sister bathe, sculpting a unicorn horn out of my soapy hair.
Mostly, though, my sister feels absent from the family, although certainly, she was there—fussing at the table, pounding Shubert and Chopin waltzes on the piano, reading Latin at the little maple desk in her bedroom, sleeping, sweating faintly into her sheets. If I try, I can see her, primping at the mirror on the landing, covering her ears, which stick away from her head, with her thick black hair, twirling through the living room in a dress my grandmother had made—(I remember the voluminous skirt, the black and white checks, the white Peter Pan collar and cuffs at her wrists)—then fuming because suddenly she hated her dress, wailing and stomping upstairs.
I can see her at the lake on a Sunday excursion, standing knock-kneed among the pines, screaming.
We’d driven into the country, past farms and fields. When I’d tired of songs and stories, my father, who had a lively imagination, entertained me with a game of driving the car. No seat belts in those days, I stood with my hands on the back of his seat. “Push,” he said, “make the car go faster.”
The game, for some reason, annoyed my mother, who was sitting up front in the passenger seat, angrily powdering her nose. It possibly upset my sister, who was close to tears. My grandmother, tired from the drama that had begun so early in the day, rested her head on the frame of the window, open to a hot breeze.
Only my father and I were looking forward to the day. I remember a dunk in the chilly lake, my father lighting coals in a cast iron grill, my mother setting a large yellow bowl of potato salad, a specialty of hers, with chunks of hard-boiled eggs and pimento stuffed olives, on the picnic table, and Margot, pouting, stretched out, belly down, on a blanket spread on the grass.
She must have walked away when they weren’t looking, because I remember my parents abandoning the food, running through the park, calling her name, and their relief when they found her standing among the trees, their helpless anger, her yelling: She will not swim, she will not come down from there and sit with the family, she will not eat the hotdogs and hamburgers our father has grilled.
I think I ran to my grandmother, wriggled between her knees. Maybe she told my father, who was shouting, to calm down. Sha, di kind. “Quiet, the child.” The child, meaning me.
People stared; I wanted my sister to disappear. I wanted the shouting to stop.
Likely, this memory is a composite of several summer afternoons, some peaceful, some unpleasant. Perhaps, at times, my sister may have agreeably bathed and eaten the lunch my parents prepared. Possibly I remember my grandmother’s cautionary words because I heard them repeated at home. What I trust is my memory of the scent of the pines, the taste of leafy water, waiting, waiting for burgers on the grill, my mother’s ominous face, and the tightening in my chest as Margot screamed.