Retrospective 16: 1978 — Scapegoat skinhead

My mother bent over me, pulling my hair straight, pushing the scissors in, and cutting. Locks of red-brown hair fell to the floor, fell to my lap. I looked down at the growing pile. My hair had been long and thick. I had kept it pulled back by barrettes, and was used to the feel of it against my neck. Now it was gone. My head felt light and strange.

I don’t remember if I cried. Perhaps by then the tears were gone. The haircut was a punishment for lying, but I hadn’t lied. I was the scapegoat. When my sisters had done something for which they got in trouble, they pointed at me. My mother told me years later that when she punished me, it lightened the tension between her and Dad, which by then was considerable. I suppose that’s why she always believed them. Over and over again I was accused of lying for some infraction that had nothing to do with me. This time my sister had forgotten to feed her fish, and they had died, and she told my mother I had put the soap dish in the tank, thus killing them.

My mother was logical and careful. The previous timed I’d denied wrongdoing (“lied”), she had warned me. “Next time this happens, I’m cutting off your hair. You have to learn to take responsibility for your actions.” And she did.

My hair, because it was thick and somewhat fuzzy, didn’t take well to the new haircut. It frizzed out all over my head, dense as an Afro. I had never been popular in school, but the new haircut triggered new, vicious and unmitigated attacks on me. I would walk into class and see “Adah is a fuzzpot, Adah is a nut,” written on the board. The kids followed me, chanting their song. I was awkward and gawky anyway, and somehow the new haircut only emphasized my social outcast standing.

I had had one out-of-school friend, a social outcast too, a boy. We used to run in the hills around his house, climb through the forests to the rocky outcroppings at the top of the Wicklow hills. We used to play in the abandoned machinery at a stone quarry, and go swimming in a river pool a half hour walk from his house. I spent the night at his place, in a narrow cot set up in his tiny room. He asked me to marry him. I remember laughing and laughing when I was with him, filled with a wild, joyous sense of freedom.

He didn’t tease me about my hair. I think he hardly noticed it — or maybe he was just kind. But when my sisters’ friends found out about our friendship, they organized a possey of mean little girls to follow me about the school. “Adah and Peter up a tree, k.i.s.s.i.n.g….First come loves, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby-carriage,” they howled as I walked between classes or headed towards the lunch room. The pressure, combined with the already unbearable tension regarding my hair, sent me over the edge. I stopped calling him. I stopped returning his phone calls. And I think I stopped laughing, for years.

As my hair grew out, it grew increasingly fuzzy. One day, driven mad by it, I grabbed a pair of scissors and began cutting. I grabbed the wildest hair, at the top of my head, which WOULD NOT lie down smoothly and tamely, and I hacked away. I cut a spot on my head back to almost-baldness. When my mother saw it, all she could do was take me to the hairdressers and get my head shaved.

Then I was “Skinhead” at school. The teasing intensified. I could go nowhere without hearing the whispers. We all knew skinheads were bad people, hurtful evil people whom we had to avoid if we saw one on the street. They listened to punk rock and ate kittens. And now I was one of them.

I was also a late bloomer, and being lean and shapeless, was taken for a boy so many times that Mum finally got my ears pierced so people could see I was a girl after all. But that didn’t work either. “That boy’s got earrings,” I heard on the bus once.

It took years to get my hair past the fuzzy stage. In fact, it never really came back the way it had been before it was cut. Something changed in it, and changed in me, too. I have a driving desire for honesty that I have to curb sometimes. I know kids tend to lie sometimes, yet I want to believe everything Zeke says. I have to believe it. I will NEVER accuse her of lying — even if all the evidence is there.

What surprises me is how honest she is, how “good.” I see me in her. I don’t know how she got there. She is so kind, so sensitive, so well-intentioned. I was all those things. I didn’t lie. I cried in my room at night because I didn’t seem able to convince people — my family — that I wasn’t bad. Something pushed me to do the right thing, to love, to listen and care. Zeke is that way too. I hope she knows I see it.

4 responses to “Retrospective 16: 1978 — Scapegoat skinhead

  1. Oh, TK. Hugs. I’m so sorry.

    I have gone through parenting with the same intention: I will *always* believe my kids. They’ve never let me down (that I know of). & if they had, that would be OK. I owe them the trust.

  2. Oh, this is hard. Thank you.

  3. I feel outraged!! What injustice. And when your mother punished you it lightened the tension between her and her husband? What is that? First, why should it do that in the first place. And then, why would she tell you that? And cutting hair for punishment? Never mind having to go to school with it shaved.
    Oh I wish you didn’t have to experience all that. The betrayal from your sisters, your mother, the ridicule and cruelty at school (I know that one well), the loss of your one genuine friend.
    Lots of pain there, TK. Wish I could go back there and soothe it all away.

  4. Dale: “They have never let me down (that I know of). & if they had, that would be OK.” Yes. I want that kind of trust and love to fill me in regards to Zeke. I didn’t lie, so I assume she doesn’t. It’s worked well. Her friends are surprised at how I trust her. And she’s never let me down.

    mm: I know how it happened, and why. Distance and time can ease the pain, and does, thank goodness! 🙂

    Stella: I don’t think she knew why she was doing it at the time. She was very sick (this was the time she was struggling with her allergies), and her relationship with Dad was faltering. I think she was desperate and scared, and honestly I don’t think she realized the impact on me. She told me because we started talking for the first time when we got breast cancer at the same time. And it was good that she told me, because for the first time what happened was acknowledged. It hadn’t been, before. Just her acknowledgment that I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t imagining it, did a lot to help me move forward. So I’m grateful that she told me, and grateful there was a reason. She didn’t do it because she hated me, but for her own reasons. It doesn’t make it right, but it helped me so much to recognize WHY things were the way they were.

    Anyway, thank you so much for your support and care. It means a lot.

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