Vastness of Distance and the End of the Universe (Miss America by Day Re-Read-8: Chapter 1 – A Not So Perfect Family (continued))

(The following is the 8th in a series of posts related to my re-reading of Miss America by Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayal and Unconditional Love, by Marilyn Van Derbur.)

As I proofread the ending of my March 15th post (“The key point here is that a child being sexually abused within a family context may, on some level, begin to sense the vastness of this distance—between the family facade and the reality of the abuse it is suffering—from an early age, and that this awareness can multiply exponentially the child’s massive sense of isolation, which the child already feels (again, at some level) within the secrecy dynamics of the family itself. Thus, the child realizes that not only must it keep the abuse secret and distant, within the family’s private life, from family members other than the perpetrator, but that, also, the distance between the fact of the abuse and the world outside the family—society at large—is so great as make the abuse and this outside world seem as though they exist in separate universes.”), I thought of a dream that I had when I was about twelve years old.

I’ve always thought of this dream as “The Golf Course Dream,” though it could be more precisely described as an all-out nightmare. I had the dream while sleeping on a pallet on the floor of the study of my grandmother’s house on Lakeview Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia, where we often visited on the trips we took for our vacations. I recall that I was around twelve, though I can’t name a specific reason for this other than some relatively vague, felt sense, when I’ve remembered the dream, of my body’s stage of growth at the time. The dream itself I remember more vividly.

It begins with my consciousness hovering over a broad terrace dotted with glass-topped, wrought iron tables around which fashionably dressed men and women are sitting in wrought iron, cushioned chairs, drinking iced tea and lemonade as they exchange pleasant conversation—in exactly the same fashion as my parents would chat pleasantly with other grown-ups, whether at the faculty parties they hosted at our home in Nashville, Tennessee, or on the back and side porches of the homes of relatives we would visit. The air, in the dream, is of a clear, sun-bright day, and is suffused with the clink of the ice in the men’s and women’s’ glasses and the floating, melodious, rising-falling drone of their voices—a melodiousness that, collectively, reminds me of the melodious, Southern rhythms of the voice of my mother.

My consciousness then drifts away from this scene and passes over a rolling expanse of grass like that of a fairway of a well-tended golf course, until I find myself hovering over a hole like the hole of a golf green.

Inside the hole’s dark interior, numbers begin appearing, large at first—four digits, three digits—but with each number lower than the previous, and that’s when I suddenly realize what will happen: when the numbers reach zero, the Universe will end. The entire Universe—all of it, and everything single thing that’s in it—and somehow my mind is able to intuitively comprehend, to touch the implications of this—of a Nothingness so total, complete that it will cease, somehow, even to be Nothingness—and, comprehending this, I feel an utter and complete terror because I also realize that I am the only person in the entire world who is aware of what is about to happen; that none of the adults—who should be aware, responsible, but who are, instead, chatting on the terrace, sipping their lemonade and iced tea, enveloped in the wafting cloud of their own, pleasant conversation—have the slightest idea of what is about to happen, so that the entire responsibility to stop it—stop the entire Universe from ceasing to exist—rests completely upon myself.

The only thing is, I have absolutely no idea of what to do to stop it, and as I realize all of this the numbers continue dropping, to double, then single digits, and then, so suddenly, it’s there, shining against the hole’s background of black:


I wake to a terrifying scream that doesn’t stop, then realize it’s my own. I’m sitting bolt upright on my pallet, my pajamas drenched in sweat. Soon I’m surrounded by my mother, father, grandmother, and other relatives, who live at my grandmother’s or are also visiting, all of them staring at me with mouths agape, the adults’ voices climbing over each other as they ask in urgent tones what’s wrong. My screams die down, then cease, and, even though I can see in the adults’ eyes how disturbed, frightened even, they were by my screams’ abandoned intensity, they’re already mouthing reassurances:

You had a nightmare—that’s all . . . There’s nothing to worry about . . . It was just a nightmare—there’s nothing to worry about at all.

Can I link The Golf Course Dream directly to my abuse? Trace the neuronal pathways between the two? With our present state of knowledge, linkage of such a direct nature is, of course, impossible. I can say that ever since, in 1989, I recovered the bulk of my memories of my father’s sexual abuse, possible connections have readily suggested themselves. What follows is one such interpretation:

I can see the zero as representing the abuse itself, and the descending numbers as some small sliver of time during which some part of my childhood identity—a part that wanted to believe I had control over my world; imagined I had the power to stop the abuse, if only I could think of how. But I couldn’t stop it, of course, and there was no one to help me, for the adults who might have done so were completely unaware of—or, at least, in denial of—the situation, lost as they were in their world of pleasant conversation, sipping their iced tea and lemonade—the kind of world my mother seemed to so love inhabiting, whether with relatives; her friends at Nashville’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, of which we were members; or at social gatherings with other Vanderbilt professors and their wives. (I say “and their wives” since Vanderbilt professors, during that time of the late 1950s and early to mid 1960s, were, almost without exception, male).

And just as with the zero in the dream, the abuse, as it happened, did, in fact, shatter and end the Universe as I knew it, or at least as I wished it to be. A Universe of order and serenity, in which my central integrity would never be violated and my existence never threatened. In which those persons in my life on whom I most relied would, proving themselves worthy of my trust, protect me.

The distance was vast, indeed, between my family’s facade of pleasantness and normalcy which we presented to other relatives—the first ring of society outside the circle of my immediate family—and the reality of the abuse I was suffering. The Gold Course Dream represents, I believe, the acuteness of my awareness, at my mind’s deepest levels, of the reality of this distance and the subsequent extremity of my feelings—again, at my mind’s deepest, largely subconscious levels—of isolation.


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