The Duck Question

A few years ago, my doctor encouraged me to read The Catcher in the Rye.  When I read it, he told me:

So many times, I saw you as Holden Caulfield.  A really good person that, at times, refused to see the world for what it was despite how you were treated.  How you care for your kids and wanting to stop them from suffering any of the ways you ever did.  How much you care for those around you and your selfless acts towards everyone you come in contact with.  It was really the image of the title of the book—I could see you as the catcher in the rye field trying to protect the innocence of your kids and at the same time, you, as one of the kids wishing someone had been there to prevent you from going (being taken) over the edge.

The words were quite kind and I carry them with me.  But when I read The Catcher in the Rye, I was more drawn to what I call “the duck question” – which for me translates to “was it bad?”

The book takes place when Holden is 16 and in a transition after being expelled from yet another boarding school. He leaves a few days before he’s expected to return home for the winter holiday and spends time going around New York City.  Throughout the book, Holden asks again and again where the ducks on Central Park’s lagoon go during the winter.  But Holden is old enough and smart enough to know where the ducks go.  And yet he still asks.

2. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

Many reviews of the book discuss the symbolism of the ducks themselves.  I think they miss the point.  For me, the symbol isn’t the ducks, it’s the question itself.  Why would someone continue to ask a question that he should know the answer to? He even alludes to the answer – they fly away.  So why keep asking?

9. Then I thought of something, all of a sudden. “Hey, listen,” I said. “You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks ,when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?”

12. “Hey, Horwitz,” I said. “You ever pass by the lagoon in Central Park? Down by Central Park South?”…”The lagoon. That little lake, like, there. Where the ducks are. You know.” …”Well, you know the ducks that swim around in it? In the springtime and all? Do you happen to know where they go in the wintertime, by any chance?”.. “The ducks. Do you know by, any chance? I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves – go south or something?”

My “duck question” – a question that perhaps I should be old enough to answer, that I at some level do know the answer to, and yet a question I continue to ask – is “was it bad?”

In the hospital last December, the therapist who evaluated my case before making a recommendation to send me to a psych ward told me my case was “compelling and tragic.”  I didn’t tell him much of my story and that is what he picked up.  This came as a bit of a surprise to me.  This is someone faced with seeing the worst of the worst – people who come to the hospital having been through true trauma.  How then could he say that my story was so tragic?  Was it really that bad?

I left home as a senior in high school, precisely 15 years ago yesterday.  I left because I was terrified and because things seemed to be getting worse.  I was no longer safe.

I left on my own, my mother not strong enough to leave quite yet, my brother already out of the home.  I went to live with a friend’s family who were kind enough to take me in so I would not have to go to a domestic abuse shelter.

But I don’t want to see myself as a victim, an abused woman.  I worked as a Victim Advocate for the Family Violence Unit at the Denver District Attorney’s office and as a guardian ad litem while in law school.  I’ve seen abuse – really awful abuse.  I’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories of many who have endured great pain at the hands of loved ones.  I had no broken bones or overt signs of abuse.  What I experienced was scary but in my mind it was not the same level.  So was it bad?

Just as Holden keeps asking about the ducks, I keep asking “was it bad?”

The same therapist in the hospital asked me when I questioned his comment that my story was tragic, “why would you diminish your story? how does that serve you?”

The truth is, it served me for a long time.  It’s much easier for me to identify myself as the reason my family fell apart. It’s easy to point to me as the selfish, spoiled child who knew how to push everyone’s buttons and didn’t know how to stay quiet.  It’s much easier for me to understand my story as different from those of the victims I’ve helped.

Mine wasn’t that bad in my mind.  It couldn’t be.  If it were that bad, then surely someone would have done something  No one did anything.  In fact, the prevailing narrative in the extended family is that I am just the difficult child, that anything that happened to me was justified.  My parents and brother are much more charming in public, they aren’t as emotionally reactive as I am, they are not the ones in and out of hospitals and psych wards.  Thus, it must be me.  I am the problem.  So it couldn’t have been bad?

Five years ago, I wrote down what I remember from my upbringing.  I shared it with providers and close friends.  The responses were consistent – “I applaud you for leaving,” “You have been so tortured and in such a way you don’t even know it was torture,” and simply “Yes it was bad. It was very very bad.”

I still don’t want it to be true though.   I’m not sure I can explain why.  Perhaps for the same reason Holden cannot find an answer to where the duck goes, even when he goes looking for them

20. I figured I’d go by that little lake and see what the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or not, I still didn’t know if they were around or not.

Then, finally, I found it. What it was, it was partly frozen and partly not frozen. But I didn’t see any ducks around. I walked all around the whole damn lake – I damn near fell in once, in fact – but I didn’t see a single duck. I thought maybe if there were any around, they might be asleep or something near the edge of the water, near the grass and all. That’s how I nearly fell in. But I couldn’t find any.

Or maybe it’s because I know that this goes against the narrative of those who have held (and still hold to some extent) a lot of power in my life.  Who would believe me when my family dismisses and denies my experiences?

I’ve tried not to overstate what I’ve been through.  I’ve emphasized as much as I can any culpability I may have had throughout.  I spent the last 4 years avoiding talking about it at all.  I’ve tried to explain it all away and yet…

Every time I ask, no matter how I pose the duck question, the answer is “yes, it was bad.”

And I wish there had been a catcher in the rye.

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2 Responses to The Duck Question

  1. […] last year are ones I’m not sure I’ll be able to express for a very long time – along side the ones that existed from the years before.  I am thankful to have enough food and clothing and medicine.  I have a home that someone helps […]

  2. […] smile was nothing more than a facade, there was no going back – I had to take it off and face the reality before me. And I could no longer conform to what society wanted me to be, someone who continued to […]

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