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Consigning the funhouse-mirror image of myself to the past

A sad childhood doesn’t last forever — and other lessons I learned at the carnival.

"I was almost wrecked by rapture. How could such a place exist? These swings sailing me through the air? This cotton candy turning my fingers blue? This Ferris wheel practically touching the moon?"Paul Guzzo/Willrow Hood - stock.adobe.com

When I was 7 years old, my parents took me to a carnival. It was one of the nicest things they had ever done for me — something so out of the ordinary that even now I can’t help wondering what had inspired them to do it. Perhaps they’d been possessed by the gods of summer and by the brazen temptation of a transient world that had wheeled into a neighboring town for a spell. Carnival. Carnival-carnival-carnival. I said it over and over in my mind as we drove past sprawling fields tinged with the first coral traces of crepuscular light, not knowing what it meant. “It has rides,” my father said, and I wondered if it was like the little coin-operated car that jostled you around outside the grocery store.

We had to park in a lot some distance away, and as we walked through a field, the hum of insects seemed to amplify my excitement. Dusk touched down, gentle as smoke. Through it, I caught my first sight of the carnival, lit up and spinning in the distance.

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Before that moment, the highlight of my life had been Halloween, not only for the candy but for the hidden things that lurked and for my own chance to hide behind a costume and imagine myself as something other than what I was.

My mother used to make me stand straight against the wall every night, balancing the 4-inch-thick yellow pages or white pages on my head. “Keep your spine against the wall,” she ordered when I fidgeted. “Heels together, toes out.” This was her answer to my being pigeon-toed and knocked-kneed, afflictions for which, she often reminded me, she should have put braces on my legs when I’d first learned to walk.

She was trying to fix me. I understood that I was grotesque.

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I could see it reflected in my father’s eyes when he looked at me. He punished me for it with his fists.

The world my parents made for my sister and me was a cracked cave of terrors. I lived along the fissures where the light came in, and Halloween, with its grimacing jack-o’-lanterns piercing the night in small flames, felt true to my life, those small bits of light meaning everything in the darkness.

And now I was at this place that smelled like sugar, this place of shrieks and laughter, bells and music, this place whose raison d’être was delight. I was almost wrecked by rapture. How could such a place exist? These swings sailing me through the air? This cotton candy turning my fingers blue? This Ferris wheel practically touching the moon?

Carnival. Even saying the word was like being on a roller coaster.

"There had been no place in my young life for me to be whole. I’d grown up with a body that felt like a horror show, a living recording of every harm my parents had done to it."YANUSH/Dreams Creator - stock.adobe.com

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There was a boy in our neighborhood who was born with two fingers on his right hand. When I noticed him for the first time, I turned and ran, a lunge from the gut.

I had nightmares about him. In them, he chased me, reaching for me with his two fingers. I was only 6 at the time, and I’m not sure he registered my existence. But I worried that he knew I was afraid of him, that I had, without meaning to, hurt him.

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Inside the funhouse, I stood in front of a series of mirrors and stared at my own reflection, distorted — long head, short legs, arms wide as fire hydrants. I explored my hideousness, moving around in front of each mirror to see all the ways I could deform.

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When I was 9, I went to a classmate’s house for Halloween. Her family had put together a haunted house in the bowels of their basement, and we inched from room to room, shrieking when beasts popped out at us. In one room, an older boy sat on a chair and moaned, blood streaming from his mouth and down his neck. “Feel my guts,” he cried, holding open the middle of his blood-stained flannel shirt. I looked into his eyes and slipped my hand inside him. My knees buckled as I felt his organs, cool and mushy.

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I was plagued by nightmares as a child. Sometimes they’d jolt me out of bed, terror spiking through my veins like electricity. I’d try to run, but something would stop me, lock me in place in my bed. I couldn’t scream; I couldn’t make a sound. An invisible hand pressed against my chest, stronger than a thousand fathers. With all my might, I pushed against it every time, but I was a feather; I was dream dust. Eventually, the hand would relent, and I’d come lurching forward like something ejected from a cavernous mouth.

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The boy whose guts I felt in the haunted basement of a classmate’s house when I was 9 had, I later learned, stuffed a plastic bag of mashed grapes inside his shirt. Does it matter? What my hand remembers is entering the most tender part of him.

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"In writing this, I’m casting a spell, one in which the demons of my childhood transform into familiars on whose backs I ride."LKPRO/lkpro - stock.adobe.com

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When I was 28, I vowed a year of solitude and decided to get to know myself. I bought all white bedding and lay in it like a queen, eating ice cream by the pint. I went on solo road trips to remote places. I swung next to children at playgrounds. I went to every carnival I could find, to side shows and dime museums, creaky places with curtains you could peel back if you dared. I visited the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where the once hidden, the grotesque, was displayed in jars under surprisingly bright lights. Teeth and hair lodged inside an ovary? A cyclops baby? A spine curved like a sidewinder whipping across a desert? Step right up! It was all on display, a formaldehyde-preserved, glass-encased ode to variations of the body. The grotesque became a kind of beautiful.

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Beauty is not the point. What I’d started to realize was that the boy I’d run from as a child had scared me because I’d seen him as broken, as in not whole, and in him I’d seen myself. There had been no place in my young life for me to be whole. I’d grown up with a body that felt like a horror show, a living recording of every harm my parents had done to it, and it had trapped those harms, demons that pulsed inside me and swirled around me like an aura and pressed invisible hands against my chest. My body had been a terrifying place to live in because I hadn’t known how to protect it.

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Magic dwells in the unseen. It dwells in the realm of transformation. As a child, I dressed up on Halloween and imagined myself as a genie, a fortune-teller, a witch with potent hidden powers. What I didn’t realize then was that the imagining itself was the sorcery.

What I’m saying is that I transformed my thinking. I was never broken, though it had felt that way. I’m made of energy, and energy can’t be destroyed. But it can be harnessed. I am not what happened to me, but now it’s mine for the taking. Even in writing this, I’m casting a spell, one in which the demons of my childhood transform into familiars on whose backs I ride.

It’s the spell I’ve been casting all my life.

Rita Zoey Chin is the author of the acclaimed 2014 memoir “Let the Tornado Come.” She holds an MFA from the University of Maryland and teaches at Grub Street. Her debut novel, “The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern,” is out this month from Melville House. Follow her on Instagram @ritazoeychin.