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‘Broken Horses: A Memoir,’ by Brandi Carlile: An Excerpt

MENINGITIS AND THE EARLY EDUCATION OF AN EMPATH

The Carliles are nail-biters. I started biting my nails at three years old. Everyone told me that if I didn’t keep my hands out of my mouth, I’d get sick.

I contracted meningococcal meningitis at age four.

We were living in Burien, Washington, in a single-wide trailer near the Sea-Tac Airport.

It was our third house since I was born. I’m the first born into my family and the first grandchild on both sides, contributing to my inflated sense of self-importance and burden of perceived responsibility. My life really starts here.

Before all that, though, my parents met at the Red Lion Hotel. My mother was a hostess and my father was a breakfast prep cook. My dad is very intelligent and intense, with a sick sense of humor. He’s one of six siblings raised dirt-poor on a dirt floor by a single mom in south Seattle. He’s got a father, too, but he and my grandmother divorced very young, and like many of the men on the Carlile side very rarely speaks a word. There are some quiet men in my family but none as quiet as Grandpa Jerry . . . you can feel how much he loves you, but he probably won’t ever say it. It almost seems like a genetic trait, this strange brand of anxiety and quiet intensity. He had a daughter later in life, bringing the number of Dad’s siblings to seven.

My mother had a more comfortable childhood. She’s one of three girls and like her mother has always been very charming and mischievous. She can read a room like no one else. She’s vain. She loves music and art. If she’s sunny and happy, then everyone she meets is too. Her enthusiasm can’t be resisted. If she’s not in a good space though, you’re not going to be either.

[ Return to the review of “Broken Horses.” ]

To put it mildly, they’re special . . . and sparkly and complicated. When they met, my mom was twenty and my dad was twenty-one. Mom’s family had temporarily relocated to Colorado, so she moved straight in with the crazy Carlile family. When my mother got pregnant with me, she and my father decided to get married. Like so many people who married this young, they are still married . . . and in many ways, are still very young.

For this and many other reasons, we moved around a lot after I was born. Fourteen houses actually. And lots of different schools. It’s deceiving because sometimes they were all in the same district. Beverly Park Elementary for kindergarten and then to Hill Top Elementary, from there to Cascade View to North Hill Elementary to Olympic Elementary and then back to Hill Top, then there was Rock Creek Elementary, Tahoma Junior High, Glacier Park. And that was all before high school.

I don’t think there was ever a housing transition I didn’t want to make. There was always an exciting and dramatic buildup to the moving. Sometimes we moved because of evictions and job changes, sometimes for good reasons, like a better housing opportunity or a step up in comfort thanks to some connection that my charismatic parents had made. Either way, due to my frequently changing scenery and the undercurrent of chaos that poverty often creates, I developed somewhat of a photographic memory. It appears in all of its vivid detail right around the age of two.

Bedrooms change, the color of the wallpaper, the smell of a hand-me-down couch, the hum of a rental unit’s avocado-colored refrigerator. There’s a washing machine that is frequently mistaken for an earthquake, or a friendly neighbor with a horse called Pepper, or someone who lets you hop their fence to retrieve your Frisbee. Different houses sometimes came with different pets and the loss or abandonment of the old ones at the old place. And of course, there were the feuds. I remember every drunk neighbor. The busybodies and gossips, the liberals and the divorcees. I can recall the name of just about every landlord who evicted us and my parents’ list of grievances against them. I also remember every helping hand. Every nonjudgmental influence over our family and the impact of such relationships on our lifestyle. More than all this I remember worrying quite a bit.

Most people live in their childhood homes for a while. It softens the edges on the memories and gives them a comforting wash, a kind of afterglow, set against routine and consistency. For kids like me for whom every experience is set against a different visual and intense circumstance, it’s really easy to remember details of an early life. I see this now as a priceless gift . . . but it isn’t one I’d give to my kids. They’re going to have to get scrappy some other way ’cause I don’t have the stomach for it anymore.

Burien is all concrete and strip malls now, but parts of it used to feel like the country.

The airport has since shut down most of the land our trailer was on when I got sick. I think it was in a fuel dump zone, or some FAA law changed and it became uninhabitable somehow.

My little brother, Jay, and I were Irish twins. He was irresistible, with blond hair and blue eyes, full of pure drama, charisma, and conviction from birth. At only eleven months and twenty-seven days older than him, I thought he was adorable—and he was mine. He was tougher than me. My parents had to implore me to stand up for myself physically with Jay, because while we didn’t really fight in a mutual sense, he fought the hell out of me. I couldn’t work out whether he was supposed to be my formidable foe or my protected baby brother. It’s an odd age difference. I was getting ready to start kindergarten. My dad wanted me to be homeschooled, but he came up against too much resistance from the rest of the family . . . I understand both inclinations now. The one to keep your kid at home when they seem so small and underprepared and the one that urges us to overcome all that and send them anyway.

I was shy and quiet but very clever. I was good at rhyming, had an extensive vocabulary, and had already dreamed up some songs— “Smile at the sun, smile at the sun, life is so much fun, when you smile at the sun.” I still hear the melodies. My parents had no experience with children but had been told by enough people that I was advanced. So when my grandmother on my dad’s side heard from a neighbor about a program at the University of Washington for gifted children, she hipped my mom to it and I was enrolled at the age of four. I have memories of wearing a lead jacket and playing with children’s toys . . . presumably whilst being X-rayed? Now it seems dubious to say the least, but let’s chalk it up to the ’80s.

I had been a colicky baby with some weird infancy health issues that I had grown out of, but my mother had never grown out of her irrational tendency to worry about me. My dad was well aware of this and didn’t attempt to hide his annoyance. Every sneeze or childish complaint would send my mother rushing to the phone to dial “24 Nurse” or Poison Control.

My illness when it hit felt like an extra-dreamy flu to me. Nausea and vomiting, but also a sense of euphoria that I can only imagine must be what morphine is like. My mother’s first call was to my dad. They had a fight. Mom had no car and he wasn’t about to leave work for yet another fruitless night in the ER for strep throat or gas. She hung up and called 24 Nurse. The TV was on. I remember vividly what it felt like to sink into our brown floral couch feeling so heavy and relaxed I couldn’t hold my head up or stay awake. Mom was describing the symptoms to the woman on the phone and after a couple of minutes, she appeared at the couch. “Does she need to be sitting up?” she asked as she propped me up on another pillow. That’s when my mother asked me to try and touch my chin to my chest. The last thing I remember was my mother frantically shouting into the phone, “Her eyes are rolling back in her head!”

I wound up on the floor in the backseat of my parents’ car. I don’t know how I got there. There wasn’t time for a car seat and I vaguely remember being so uncomfortable sitting up that I was whimpering and asking if I could get on the floor. I don’t know why they didn’t call an ambulance. Dad’s work was very close, and I am guessing they didn’t call an ambulance because deep down they still weren’t sure if they could trust themselves about what was an emergency and what wasn’t. I don’t remember arriving at the hospital, but I’m told that my heart stopped forty-five minutes later.

[ Return to the review of “Broken Horses.” ]

Everything past the car ride and before coming out of my coma is abstract. A foggy awareness of a very disabled blond-haired little girl with meningitis exactly my age who would never wake up from her coma . . . voices, flashes of light, adult conversations overheard in a dream state but nothing that can be trusted in recollection.

I take that seriously.

It can be hard to understand the difference between what you remember and the things other people tell you about your childhood, but I have a theory that people who are beyond consciousness or in a coma enter an astral plane of perception—what they hear in that state is clear and stored forever. I think we enter this state many times in our lives. Sometimes when we dream, sometimes when we disassociate, most extremely if we cross over through a near-death experience. This state informs who we are in between two worlds . . . which is probably who we really are.

Adults experiencing trauma might not always think children can hear them in any situation. I imagine a coma magnifies this assumption. Things get frantic and are discussed in barely hushed tones. I remember terrified adults if I remember anything. Before meningitis, grandparents were just fun older people who loved and spoiled us. My parents were each other’s sworn enemy and the final word in life . . . all-powerful keepers of the universe. My adorable brother hated me, plain and simple. Aunties and uncles were super fun and loving grown-up stoner friends without any tangible connection to my actual family that I could reasonably identify.

The first thing I remember about the day I woke from my coma is something about a sunrise. I’ve been fascinated with them for most of my life. Not enough to wake up early to enjoy them, but on those few occasions when I have, I’ve been reminded what a miracle it is that they happen every day, regardless of the one before.

The second thing I remember is that I was STARVING! The party really started when my maternal grandmother, Grandma Dolores, got there and I asked for a tomato (my favorite food). The room erupted into chaos, tears, and laughter and then the questions: “What’s your name? How old are you? What’s your favorite food? What’s Grandma’s dog’s name and what color is he?” Brandi, almost five, tomatoes, Aspen, black. I remember my grandmother joyfully exclaiming, “I’m going out to get you whatever you want!” (I imagine this was to give my parents some space.) “It can be anything!” she said. I thought about it for only a split second because I knew exactly what to ask for. “A full-size Rainbow Brite doll,” I said, “and a really big tomato.”

I didn’t know I’d been gone. What I did know was Poor Kid Survival 101: You gotta know what you want and don’t hesitate to ask for it, or you won’t get it. Be ready to seize every opportunity; everyone is a potential resource. Especially your grandma.

But as the sensation of awakening set in, I had a developing and disturbingly deeper understanding of who all these people really were. The picture would only get clearer as I got older. My grandparents were suddenly the extremely worried parents of MY young parents. My folks didn’t seem very powerful anymore. I had now seen them both cry a lot and it sent a chill down my spine to know how little control they had over the outcome of this or anything else ever again.

My mother was relieved beyond words when I regained consciousness, full of joy and frailty. My dad was quiet and sheepish, he even seemed somehow shorter. His relief had softened him to me, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I was out of tolerance for needles, IVs, or anything else that pokes or stings, and my parents were suddenly powerless to protect me from them. They were submitting to the doctors with a gratitude and humility that now through the eyes of a thirty-nine-year-old mother is more than righteous. But at the time this was an awakening to life’s subtle power structures . . . for me it came too early and in the wrong kind of package.

My aunts and uncles were so obviously my parents’ siblings now. I had always been told this was so, but my understanding was childlike. I couldn’t picture it. Now I could. It was even obvious which ones were older by who was comforting my parents and who was looking to them for comfort. My father’s youngest sister, Aunt Nichole, was suddenly another child. She even looked different. She was just a “big girl” to me now.

These realizations led to me feeling somewhat guardianless. It isn’t anyone’s fault, but this awakening should come much later in life for a very important reason: I’m still untangling what it means to confront mortality and powerlessness.

Perhaps the deepest epiphany came one morning in the hospital after I woke up. The door to my room opened and my little towheaded brother bolted to my bed hysterically crying and telling me he loved me. It wasn’t like a scene from a movie; it wasn’t sweet. It was pain and stress. Proper trauma. He must have overheard conversations about the likelihood of me pulling through. And he might have had an awareness of the little girl next to me and what was being discussed around her prognosis. To me it meant two things: that he loved me and that he was a child—and in some ways, I wasn’t anymore.

I remember the first time I worried about my mom. It was also the first memory I have of my constant companion—debilitating empathy (which is a fancy couple of words for guilt). I was still in the hospital and nearing my birthday. I had a Cabbage Patch Kid doll called Emmy that I was really attached to. My mom had met some lady in an alleyway and paid cash for her on the toy black market the year these dolls were in high demand. Horrendous-looking little things, but they were a hot commodity in 1984. My incredible nurses understood how tired I’d grown of the IVs and they made me a little IV kit for Emmy. I was ecstatic about this development. All I had to do was undergo one procedure for which I had to be put under (probably my last spinal tap), and when I woke up my reward was supposed to be constructing the doll-sized IV.

For all the right reasons, my mother thought she’d surprise me and put the whole thing together so that when I woke up, I could immediately play with it. But when I woke up, I was disproportionately furious. There was so little I had control over in there. I just wanted to build something on my own and get a little power back over something that was happening to me against my will. So I acted like a normal five-year-old and threw a fit. My mother of course totally understood, but because I’d become so perceptive, I immediately noticed the exhaustion and defeat on her face. I remembered everything I’d just put her through and was struck down by how guilty I felt.

They had told me to stop biting my nails.

That moment bothered me until I was an adult . . . until I had my children and realized that these are completely normal childish moments of innocent selfishness. The idea that a child might carry around guilt or a sense of responsibility for us as parents is so unfair . . . but I worry about it a lot.

I had flatlined several times and awoken from a coma. There was talk of miracles and mysticism. Jesus was in sharp focus.

Some members of our family were very religious; some just casually, but almost everyone believed in God. Mom’s side of the family were technically Catholic. The Carlile family was loosely Baptist— some devout, some of them fragmented and became Evangelical, some even Jehovah’s Witnesses. We had one Greek atheist and a few agnostics. The Jonestown Massacre had broken my father’s heart. He would soon be baptized Mormon and then become viscerally anti-Mormon. Procter & Gamble were supposedly Satan-worshippers and it was all happening.

I survived. One day, Dad turned the TV dial to the Christian channel and broke the dial off the TV. I couldn’t watch ThunderCats anymore. But everyone agreed that God kept me alive because He had a plan for me.

The grossly inflated sense of self-importance was official.

[ Return to the review of “Broken Horses.” ]

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