×

The Meaning of Mariah Carey / (by Mariah Carey, 2020) -

/

The Meaning of Mariah Carey /    (by Mariah Carey, 2020) -

The Meaning of Mariah Carey / (by Mariah Carey, 2020) -

. , . , . , , . . , . . , . . . , .

:
: 329
:
The Meaning of Mariah Carey / (by Mariah Carey, 2020) -
:
2020
:
Mariah Carey
:
Mariah Carey
:
:
:
upper-intermediate
:
11:18:07
:
128 kbps
:
mp3, pdf, doc

The Meaning of Mariah Carey / :

.doc (Word) mariah_carey_-_the_meaning_of_mariah_carey.doc [39.42 Mb] (c: 13) .
.pdf mariah_carey_-_the_meaning_of_mariah_carey.pdf [7.71 Mb] (c: 13) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: The Meaning of Mariah Carey

:

( , ).


PREFACE I refuse to acknowledge time, famously so. Ive made a lot of jokes and memes about it, but its a very real belief for me. I cried on my eighteenth birthday. I thought I was a failure because I didnt have a record deal yet. That was my only goal. It was as if I was holding my breath until I could hold a physical thing, an album that had Mariah Carey printed on it. Once I got my deal I exhaled, and my life began. From that day on, I calculated my life through albums, creative experiences, professional accomplishments, and holidays. I live Christmas to Christmas, celebration to celebration, festive moment to festive moment, not counting my birthdays or ages. (Much to the chagrin of certain people.) Life has made me find my own way to be in this world. Why ruin the journey by watching the clock and the ticking away of years? So much happened to me before anyone even knew my name, time seems like an inadequate way to measure or record it. Not living based on time also became a way to hold on to myself, to keep close and keep alive that inner child of mine. Its why I gravitate toward enduring characters like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Tinker Bell. They remind me we can be timeless. It is a waste of time to be fixated on time. Often time can be bleak, dahling, so why choose to live in it? Life is about the moments we create and remember. My memory is a sacred place, one of the few things that belong entirely to me. This memoir is a collection of the moments that matter, the moments that most accurately tell the story of who I am, according to me. It will move back and forth, up and down, moment to moment, adding up to the meaning of me now. But then again, whos counting? PART I WAYWARD CHILD AN INTENTION My intention was to keep her safe, but perhaps I have only succeeded in keeping her prisoner. For many years, shes been locked away inside of mealways alone, hidden in plain sight before masses of people. Theres significant evidence of her in my early work: often she can be found looking out of windows, dwarfed by a giant frame, barefoot, staring at an empty rope swing swaying from a lone tree against a purple dusk sky. Or else shes two stories up in a brownstone, watching the neighborhood children dancing on the sidewalk below. Shes shown up in a school auditorium in OshKosh overalls, holding a ball on the sidelines, waiting and wanting to be chosen. Sometimes she is caught in a rare moment of joy, on a roller coaster or flying by on skates with her hands in the air. Always she lingers, though, as a dull longing just behind my eyes. Shes been scared and alone for so long, and yet through all the darkness, shes never lost her light. She has made herself known through my songsher yearning heard over the airwaves or seen on screens. Millions of people know of her, but have never known her. She is little Mariah, and much of this will be her story, as she saw it. Some of my earliest memories are of violent moments. Because of that, I have always carried a heavy blanket with which I cover up large pieces of my childhood. It has been a burden. But I can no longer stand the weight of that blanket and the silence of the little girl smothering beneath it. I am a grown woman now, with a little girl and boy of my own. I have seen, I have been scared, I have been scarred, and I have survived. I have used my songs and voice to inspire others and to emancipate my adult self. I offer this book, in large part, to finally emancipate that scared little girl inside of me. It is time to give her a voice, to let her tell her story exactly as she experienced it. Though you cannot dispute someones lived experience, without a doubt, details in this book will differ from the accounts of my family, friends, and plenty of folks who think they know me. Ive lived that conflict for far too long, and Im weary of that too. Ive held my hand over the mouth of that little girl in an attempt to protect others. Even those others who never tried to protect me. Despite my efforts to be above it all, I still got dragged and sued and ripped off. In the end, I only hurt her more, and it almost killed me. This book is a testimony to the resilience of silenced little girls and boys everywhere: To insist that we believe them. To honor their experiences and tell their stories. To set them free. EXISTENCE Early on, you face The realization you dont Have a space Where you fit in And recognize you Were born to exist Standing alone Outside There was a time in my early childhood when I didnt believe I was worthy of being alive. I was too young to contemplate ending my life but just old enough to know I hadnt begun living nor found where I belonged. Nowhere in my world did I see anyone who looked like me or reflected how I felt inside. There was my mother, Patricia, with paler skin and straighter hair, and my father, Alfred Roy, with deeper skin and kinkier hair, and neither had faces with features just like mine. I saw them both as riddled with regret, hostages of a sequence of cruel circumstances. My sister, Alison, and brother, Morgan, were both older and darker, and not just in terms of the hues of their skin, though they were slightly browner. The two of them had a similar energy that seemed to block light. They had an approach to the world that made little room for whimsy and fantasy, which was my natural tendency. We shared common blood, yet I felt like a stranger among them all, an intruder in my own family. I was always so scared as a little girl, and music was my escape. My house was heavy, weighed down with yelling and chaos. When I sang, in a whispery tone, it calmed me down. I discovered a quiet, soft, light place inside my voicea vibration in me that brought me sweet relief. My whisper-singing was my secret lullaby to myself. But in singing I also found a connection to my mother, a Juilliard-trained opera singer. As I listened to her doing vocal exercises at home, the repetition of the scales felt like a mantra, soothing my frightened little mind. Her voice went up and down and up and up and upand something inside me rose along with it. (I would also sing along with the beautiful, angelic, soulful Minnie Ripertons Lovin You and follow her voice up into the clouds.) I would sing little tunes around the house, to my mothers delight. And she always encouraged me. One day, while practicing an aria from the opera Rigoletto, she kept stumbling on this one part. I sang it back to her, in perfect Italian. I might have been three years old. She looked at me, stunned, and at that moment I knew she saw me. I was more than a little girl to her. I was Mariah. A musician. My father taught me to whistle before I could talk. I had a raspy speaking voice even then, and I liked that I sounded different from most other kids my age. My singing voice, on the other hand, was smooth and strong. One day, when I was around eight years old, I was walking down the street with my friend Maureen, who had porcelainlike skin with warm brown hair and a sweet face like Dorothys from The Wizard of Oz. She was one of the few little white girls in the neighborhood who was allowed to play with me. As we walked, I began to sing something. She stopped suddenly, frozen in place on the sidewalk. She listened for a moment in silence, standing very still. Finally, she turned to me and said, in a clear and steady voice, When you sing it sounds like there are instruments with you. Theres music all around your voice. She said it like a proclamation, almost like a prayer. They say God speaks through people, and I will always be grateful for my little girlfriend speaking into my heart that day. She saw something special in me and gave it words, and I believed her. I believed my voice was made of instrumentspiano, strings, and flutes. I believed my voice could be music. All I needed was someone to see and hear me. I saw how my voice could make other people feel something good inside, something magical and transformative. That meant not only was I not unworthy, valid as a person, but I was valuable. Here was something of value that I could bring to othersthe feeling. It was the feeling I would pursue for a lifetime. It gave me a reason to exist. CLOSE MY EYES It took twelve cops to pull my brother and father apart. The big bodies of men, all entangled like a swirling hurricane, crashed loudly into the living room. Within an instant, familiar things were no longer in my sightno windows, no floor, no furniture, and no light. All I could see was a chaotic mass of body parts in motion: dark pants and strong arms bursting out of dark sleeves, enormous hands grabbing, fists punching, limbs tangled together and tearing away, heavy, polished black shoes scuffling and stomping. There were quick flashes of shiny things: buttons, badges, and guns. At least a dozen pistol handles, stiff and sticking out of dull leather holsters, a few cradled in palms and thumbs, sat on wide black belts around broad hips. Chaos filled the air with the sounds of cursing, grunting, and howling. The entire house seemed to be shaking. And somewhere in the eye of this storm were the two most important male figures in my life, destroying each other. I always thought of my brothers anger as weatherpowerful, destructive, and unpredictable. I dont know if it was a singular act or an ongoing illness that made him so volatile, but it was all I had ever known. I was a little girl with very few memories of a big brother who protected me. More often, I felt I had to protect myself from him, and sometimes I would find myself protecting my mother from him too. This particular fight with our father had escalated more quickly than most, however. A shouting match became a tornado of fists in what seemed like a matter of seconds, banging through the room, knocking things over, and leaving havoc in its wake. In that moment, the rage between my father and brother was so forceful that no one person could have stopped it. No one would have dared. By the time I was a toddler, I had developed the instincts to sense when violence was coming. As though I was smelling rain, I could tell when adult screaming had reached a certain pitch and velocity that meant I should take cover. When my brother was around, it was not uncommon for holes to be punched in walls or for other objects to go flying. I never really knew how or why the fights would begin, but I did know when tension was turning into an argument and when an argument was destined to become a physical fight. And I knew this particular one was going to be epic. My Nana Reese was there, which was a bit odd because it was rare that she or anyone from my fathers family, who lived in Harlem, was at our house. We were in Melville, a predominately white, affluent-adjacent town in Suffolk County on Long Island, New York, though I would eventually move thirteen times growing up. Thirteen times to pack up and go, to try to find another placea better place, a safer place. Thirteen new starts, thirteen new streets with new houses full of people to judge you and wonder where or who your father is. Thirteen occasions to be labeled unworthy and discarded, to be placed on the outside. Pastor Nana Reese, the Good Reverend Roscoe Reese, and their African Methodist Pentecostal Church were where my father came from. Roy was the only son of Addie, Nana Reeses sister. My father never lived with his father, and there was always a potent distance between them, a mystery that inevitably held a misery. These people, living in the village of Harlem, were his people. They had come up from Alabama and parts of North Carolina and other regions of the South, bringing with them traditions, traumas, and giftssome of which were ancient, African, and mystical in origin. Nana Reese and I found each other right before all hell really broke loose. The thunder of profanity, fists, and feet drowned out all other sounds, so I didnt hear when the cops burst in. I didnt know if they had come to save us or kill us. It was Long Island in the 1970s, and two Black males were being violentthe appearance of the police almost never meant that help had arrived. On the contrary, their presence often complicated and elevated the existing terror and escalated violence. That hasnt changed, but this was my first encounter with the fact. I had no benefit of experience; I had no benefit of any kind. My cousin LaVinia, Nana Reeses daughter, always said, You kids had all the burdens of being Black but none of the benefits. It took me a long time to understand the reality of her observation. This, of course, was not the first vicious fight between my father and brotherfor as long as I could remember, their relationship had been a war zone. But it was the first time the troops had been called in. It was also the first time I witnessed the possibility that a member of my family could brutally die in front of my eyes. Or that I could die too. I wasnt yet four years old. Before my mother and father found their marriage unbearable, they lived together in Brooklyn Heights. Though the neighborhood had seen a stream of bohemians arrive as early as 1910, and the 1950s brought in a wave of urban activistsliberal folks with money who loathed the suburbsin the 1970s it was still a pretty eclectic mix of mostly working- and middle-class families. It was pre-yuppie and ungentrified. If there was a tolerant place for a young mixed-race family in that era, Brooklyn Heights was probably the closest you could come to it. Throughout my childhood, I would live in many obscure places, mostly on Long Island, and feel very much like a castaway on this island-off-the-island of Manhattan. Both my parents worked very hard so we could live in neighborhoods where we could glimpse that elusive better life and feel safe. Conventional wisdom, however, suggests that better and safe are synonymous with white. We were not a conventional family. Was it better to live in a place where my white mother would often walk alone through the front door first, ahead of my Black father with her mixed kidsfor their safety? What does that do to the psyche of a man who is supposed to be the head of the household? How can such a man keep his family safe, and what does such an indignity signal to his Black son? After the squad of policemen managed to separate my father and brother, though there was still a considerable amount of yelling, everyone was alive. The truly dangerous part of the storm was over; the thunder had stopped. The next thing I knew I was cradled in Nana Reeses arms, crying and trembling. She had scooped me up like a sack of laundry and set me close beside her on what the kids used to call the rocking couch, a cheap, flimsy structure the color of dirt, rust, and olive, dotted with flecks of mustard. Sometimes I think it was that couch that planted the seed of my eventual preference for Chanel. We kids called it the rocking couch because it was missing a leg, and if you shifted your weight back and forth it would, well, rock. This was a noble attempt to find humor amid broken things, a talent I shared with my brother and sister. In the midst of the violence and trauma, a great comfort came to me on that sad sofa. Nana Reese held me tight until my little frame stopped shaking and my breathing became normal. From disorientation I returned to the room, I returned to my body. She turned my face up toward the light and made sure my eyes were focused and locked on to hers. She placed her delicate hand firmly on my thigh. Her touch immediately steadied any aftershocks still pulsing through me. Her gaze was unusualnot that of a great-auntie, a mother, or a doctor. It was instead as if she looked directly into the essence of me. In that instant we were not a frightened little girl and a consoling elder but two souls, ageless and equal. She told me, Dont be scared of all the trouble you see. All your dreams and visions are going to happen for you. Always remember that. As she spoke, a warm and loving current spread out from her hand to my leg, gently coursing through my body in waves and rising up and out the top of my head. Through the devastation a path had been washed clear; I knew there was light. And somehow I knew that light was mine and everlasting. Before that moment I hadnt had any dreams I could remember. I had very few memories either. I certainly had yet to hear a song in my head or have a vision. From around when I was four years old, after my parents divorce, I didnt see my Nana Reese much. My mother and my fathers families remained locked in conflict, and since I lived with my mother, I was largely cut off from Nanas life of healing and holy rolling in Harlem. I did later learn that people called Nana Reese a prophetess. I also learned that she was not the only healer in my lineage. Beyond all that, I believe a deep faith was awakened in me that day. I understood on a soul level that no matter what happened to me, or around me, something lived inside me that I could always call on. I had something that would guide me through any storm. And when the wind blows, and shadows grow close Dont be afraid, theres nothing you cant face And should they tell you youll never pull through Dont hesitate, stand tall and say I can make it through the rain Through the Rain THERE CAN BE MIRACLES When I was six years old, my mother moved my brother and me into a tiny, nondescript house in Northport, Long Island. It sat sadly atop a stack of long, winding concrete steps. The dull little structure had a few tiny rooms running along either side of a steep, creaky staircase, which led up to even smaller rooms. My mother was often working or out at night, so Morgan was left to babysit me. He had no skills to look after a little girl. He would leave me alone and go run wild with his teenage friends. One night, while left alone, I was watching a special on 20/20 about children being kidnappedtotally inappropriate for a six-year-old. And it so happened that at that moment, some kids in the neighborhood decided to throw rocks at the window. Their voices broke through the dark night, chanting, Mariah, were gonna get you! I was terrified by the news, by the kids, by the night, by the house, by my absolute aloneness. I wanted my brother to love me. I was impressed by his strong energy, but it also scared me. This little house couldnt possibly bear the weight of all of our pain and fearespecially my brothers. It was such a raw time. I was a scared little girl, my mother was profoundly heartbroken, and my brotherwell, lets just say he was more than simply an angry teen, especially in high school. Hed outgrown anger by middle school and had graduated to full-on rage. As a young teen, my brother was bursting with creative and athletic promise. But earlier in his life he had been bullied and beat up for having a disability and being a mixed-race kid. The visible difference he wore on his skin always distanced him from the white boys in Long Island and made him a target. Children can be mean, but when ordinary meanness is combined with racism, it takes on a peculiar brutality, one very often sanctioned by (and learned from) adults. My brother most likely caught some hell from the Black kids too. Im sure his distance from their kind of detectable Blackness, the kind that gets you roughed up by the cops for nothing, stirred up a resentment in them that came out in the form of physical blows and name-calling. My brother was broken early on, and the only tool he had to defend himself was destruction. He would fight everything, his demons and everybody else, especially our father. The relationship he had with our father was not one that helped him rebuildinstead, it ground him down even further into his inner outrage. A broken man cannot fix his broken boy. My brother was shattered into pieces, scattered to the wind, and our fathers outdated tools of militaristic discipline were inadequate to help him collect himself and prepare him for manhood. The misunderstanding and emotional distance with our father was my brothers perpetual and crushing agony, and it resulted in his absolute rage. For most of my childhood I was caught between my brothers fury and my mothers sad searching. Rage and despondence are both highly damaging, but, I think, one turns inward and the other turns outward. When they collide, it can be catastrophic. By the time I was in kindergarten, catastrophe was already routine to me. When we lived in Northport, mini explosions erupted between my mother and brother daily. I conditioned myself to be still and wait for the outbursts to pass over. Most of the time I tuned out the words and reasons behind their fightsthe why was big-people territory. To me, their arguments were just a blur of intense voices at high volume, punctuated by ruthless cursing. One particular night, however, I distinctly knew the source of the argument: my brother wanted to use my mothers car, and she wouldnt let him. Certainly theyd had hundreds of fights over the car, but for some reason this night felt different. I was paying attention. Typically, their fights would start off the way I imagined normal fights between most teenagers and parents did, but this one wasnt like that. It began at blow-up level and rapidly escalated into violent obscenities being hurled across the room. Hurtful words flew back and forth like bullets ricocheting off the walls, gaining strength with each new round. There was no escaping the crossfire; the screaming shot room to room, up and down the stairs, and the entire house became a battlefield. There was no safe place. I felt the air tighten as my mother and brother came face-to-face, mere inches of electrified anger between them. I was terrified. My whole body stiffened. Eyes opened wide, I fixed on the space between them and cried out, Stop it! Stop it! over and over again, through my tears. I was hoping maybe my cry could slip into that space and disarm them for a moment. Suddenly there was a loud, sharp noise, like an actual gunshot. My brother had pushed my mother with such force that her body slammed into the wall, making a loud cracking sound. I saw her frame go rigid; for a moment she appeared frozen against the wall, pinned up like a painting, her feet lifted several inches off the ground. Next thing I knew she was totally limp, as if her bones had melted, folding onto the floor. It was a split second. It was an eternity. My eyes were still fixed in place, only now I was looking at my mother collapsed in a crumpled pile on the floor. My brother stomped out and slammed the door, shaking the house one last time, and sped off in her car. I stood there for a moment in the eerie silence. I could hear myself breathing, but I couldnt tell if my mother still was. A chilling clarity came to me, just as a soft part of my childhood left. Without taking my eyes from my motionless mother, I pulled myself together. Picking up the receiver of our one telephone, I felt it heavy and cold, pressed against my small ear. My little fingers pushed down the square buttons in a familiar sequence. It was the number of one of my mothers friends, whose house she would sometimes visit to hang out. Since I was only six years old, hers was one of the few numbers I had memorized. Clearing my voice so I could be heard over the telephones static hum, choking on tears, I did my best to calmly tell her, My brother really hurt my mother, and Im home alone. Please come help. I dont remember what she said. I hung up still feeling focused, my eyes still fixed on my mothers body. I went into a sort of trance. I dont know how long I stood there, just that I snapped out of it at the sound of a loud banging on the door. I scurried to open it for my mothers friend, and several policemen rushed in. I couldnt understand what anyone was saying, but I watched as they hurried over to where my mother was lying. Next thing I knew, she was moving. The moment I realized she was alive, the spell of shock broke, and a gush of fear and panic rushed over methe dawning realization of what had actually happened, what had almost happened, and what unknown future was waiting. I tucked my small body into a ball, held on to myself tightly, and quietly began to cry. I could hear the faint sound of my mothers voice as she stirred back to consciousness. Then I heard a crystal-clear voice, ringing out just above my head. It was a mans voice, a voice that I will never forget. One of the cops, looking down at me but speaking to another cop beside him, said, If this kid makes it, itll be a miracle. And that night, I became less of a kid and more of a miracle. WHEN CHRISTMAS COMES I dont want a lot for Christmas There is just one thing I need I dont care about the presents Underneath the Christmas tree All I Want for Christmas Is You My mother added a leaf to her tiny wooden table, making it almost family-sized for the day. With a few simple decorations, the table became the festive centerpiece, along with a Charlie Brown-ish tree, of an otherwise makeshift furnished living room in the run-down house where the two of us lived. Despite our circumstances, my mother wanted us to have a wonderful life. The days leading up to Christmas were an event. My mother always kept an Advent calendar. We would open a new flap each day. Id read the portion of a story or a poem printed there, and she would give me the chocolates hidden inside. The mulled wine she made camouflaged the dankness of the house with a warm spicy aroma. I was well aware we didnt have much money, so while I never really anticipated getting any extravagant presents or popular toys, I loved that wed make an effort to get into the spirit and do what we could to create an ambiance of joy and jubilance. Wed clean up, wed decorate, and of course we would sing. Christmas carols sung in my mothers operatic voice brought a feeling of spaciousness to our cramped daily existence. Mother wasnt much of a cook, but for Christmas dinner she triedwe both tried. We tried to put all the trauma and drama that infected the rest of our lives on hold and just have a peaceful Christmas meal. Too much to ask? I think not. I was a child craving a childhood, in a house filled with disappointment and pain. Throughout the years, my sister and brother would rarely communicate all year, let alone come to visit where my mother and I were living. Christmas was one rare occasion when we would all be together under one rickety roof. The four of us would sit around the table, eyes avoiding eyes, often unable to talk, clogged up by all the things none of us had language for. I was very young and had not yet accumulated enough of a past to be broken by it. My siblings and my mother wouldnt communicate for most of the year, so by Christmas dinner my brother and sister would come stuffed with hurt and anger, starving for attention. Eventually, inevitably, they would all explode in a torrent of verbal abuse. I would sit there in the center of the chaos, crying and wishing: wishing they would stop screaming, wishing my mother could stop them from screaming and cursing. Wishing I could be somewhere safe and merrysomewhere that felt like Christmas. My sister and brother clearly couldnt stand each other, but their deep resentment toward me was a constant, silent menace simmering right below the surface. I was the third and youngest child, and our parents were divorced by the time I was three. I was what they considered a golden child: lighter hair, lighter skin, and a lighter spirit. I lived with our mother, and they were exiled from each other and us. They existed in a different kind of pain, absorbing whatever hostility under-loved, troubled, mixed kids do in any neighborhood, Black or white. I believed they believed I was passing. There I was with my blondish hair, living with our white mother, in what they considered a safe white neighborhood. Their resentment toward me was perhaps the one thing they had in common; they seemed bound in that bitterness. I actually understood why they were angry and hateful toward me, but at the time, I couldnt fathom why every year, they just had to ruin Christmas. But my wishing was more powerful than their pain. I wished with exuberance. I set about creating my own little magical, merry world of Christmas. I focused on all the things my mother struggled to create; all I needed was a shower of glitter and a full church choir to back me up. My imaginary Christmas was filled with Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen, and all the bells and trimmings a little girls dreams could hold. And I loved contemplating a sweet baby Jesus, taking in the powerful joy the true spirit of the season brings. Not every Christmas was ruined by my family. My mother was culturally open when I was young and had a diverse group of friends. I remember I had a friendlets call her Ashleywhose mother was gay (Ashley had no clue). My mother was very matter of fact: Ashleys mom is gay, and she lives with her partner. No big deal. And it really wasnt. Two of my favorite people were my guncles (gay uncles), Burt and Myron. They were wonderful, and so was their home. It wasnt a grand spread, but theirs was a charming midsized brick house set back on a sweet piece of wooded land. Wild raspberries grew in the backyard, and they had a golden Labrador named Sparkle. When they traveled, my mother and I would house-sit for them. I reveled in the cleanliness and comfort. Burt was a schoolteacher and photographer, and Myron was, as he put it, a stay-at-home wife. Myron was a vision. He wore a perfectly coiffed beard and his hair was always blown out in cascading layers, which he would finish off with a shimmering frosting spray. He was perpetually tanned and sashayed around the house in spectacular multicolored silk caftans. Burt would bring me out in their yard to take photos of me (I just adored showing off in front of a camera), and he totally encouraged my exaggerated poses. He fully supported and understood my propensity for extraness. I distinctly remember one Christmas photo session we staged. I was dressed up in a green dress with flowers, and, as a special Christmas miracle, I had decent-looking bangs. I pretended to be placing an ornament on the tree as I coyly looked back over my shoulder and Burt snapped the picture: fashion-feature festive. I enjoyed Burt and Myrons lovely, cozy little home year-round, but especially at Christmastime. They put so much care and personality into preparing for the season. The house would be perfectly clean, and there would be pretty decorations, precisely placed, and a fire roaring in the fireplace. The house smelled like a new oven with something roasting inside; they always had little savory morsels to nibble and served fancy drinks like brandy Alexanders. I remember being stuck at their house one holiday during an ice storm, which I hoped would never end. Burt and Myron gave me my first taste of what a homey Christmas really felt like. They provided an example of a homey lifestyle in general. My guncles supported the showgirl in me. Whenever I wanted to put on my own little production (which was frequently), they would pay full attention to me. They never tried to tame my over-the-top imagination. It was from my little girls spirit and those early fantasies of family, and friendship, that I wrote All I Want for Christmas Is You. Think of how it begins: ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding the delicate chimes are reminiscent of those little wooden toy pianos, like the one Schroeder had on Peanuts. I actually did bang out most of the song on a cheap little Casio keyboard. But its the feeling I wanted the song to capture. Theres a sweetness, a clarity, and a purity to it. It didnt stem from Christian inspiration, although Ive certainly sung and written from that soulful and spiritual perspective. Instead, this song came from a childlike space; when I wrote it, at twenty-two years old, I wasnt that far away from being a child. I recorded an entire Christmas album, which was a risk. You just didnt see Christmas videos on MTV back then. In fact, it was almost unheard of for anyonelet alone such a young singer, so early in her careerto write and record an original Christmas song that was a legit smash hit. Though I was accessing the private dream world of my childhood in the song, I wasnt in the happiest place when I wrote it. My life had changed so quickly, yet I still felt lost, wandering the wild borderlands between childhood and adulthood. My relationship with Tommy Mottola, who would eventually become my first husband (and so much more) was already getting weird, and we werent even married yet. But to his credit as the head of my record label, he encouraged me to make my first Christmas album, Merry Christmas. I was feeling nostalgic too. Ive always been a tragically sentimental person, and Christmastime embodies that sentimentality for me. I wanted to write a song that would make me happy and make me feel like a loved, carefree young girl at Christmas. I also wanted to deliver it like the greats I grew up idolizingNat King Cole and the Jackson Fivewho had tremendous Christmas classics of their own. I wanted to sing it in a way that would capture joy for everyone and crystallize it forever. Yes, I was going for vintage Christmas happiness. I also believe that somewhere inside I knew it was too late to give my brother and sister peace, and my mother her wonderful life, but I could possibly give the world a Christmas classic instead. THE FATHER AND THE SUN Thank you for embracing a flaxen-haired baby Although Im aware you had your doubts I guess anybodyd have had doubts Sunflowers for Alfred Roy My father always reminded me of a sunflowertall, proud, and stoic, but also bright, strong, handsome, and self-possessed. He labored hard to reach up and out of the harsh ground in which he was rooted. He was determined to transcend the limitations faced by his parents, their siblings, and their whole generation. He was the only child of his father, Robert, and mother, Addie. He was embarrassed by Addies third-grade education. Addie was tough on her son, and so he grew to respect and rely on order and logic. By his own strength, he hauled himself out of the violent, oppressive environment that had driven one of his uncles to kill another. My father craved discipline, culture, and freedom, so he joined the militarya logical choice for a man whod had no say over the time or skin into which he was born. The military may have taken my father out of the Bronx, but it did not remove him from the perils of being a Black man in America. While he was enlisted, a white woman at the base where he was stationed said she was raped and that a Black man did it. On no evidence other than his not being white, my father was accused of the crime and placed in a jail on the base. To add extra suffering, and to serve as a warning to other Black soldiers, the white officers in charge assigned a Black officer to supervise my fathera deliberate reminder that a US military uniform did not camouflage their race. Much like assigning a Black overseer on a plantation, it was an effective technique of terror. My father was mortified, but mostly he was scared. Like many Black men, he lived in fear of arbitrary brutality, abduction, or death. Yet perhaps above all he feared exhibiting fearbecause he knew for that transgression, death was the certain punishment. My father was eventually released, without any apology, support, or counseling. The militarys only explanation was that they had apprehended the actual culprit. With a government-issued gun in hand, he walked straight out of that prison to the top of a hill. Consumed with trauma and rage, he thought of pulling the triggerand he was not contemplating suicide. My father took surgical care with everything he did. His lifestyle had a truly austere quality: part military barracks, part Shaolin monastery. His kitchen was small and impeccably kept. The contents of his pantry were precisely indexed by size and category. There was no room for extravagance or waste of any kind in his home. There were no multiples of anything: one TV, one radio. In his closet hung just the amount of shirts needed for a week, nothing more. He didnt consider a bed properly made unless the covers were tucked in so tightly that you could bounce a quarter off its surface. My fathers approach to most things was efficient and militaristic. He considered the act of snacking frivolous. If I was hungry while waiting for dinner, he would give me one Ritz cracker. One. The allure of that bright-red box, with its iconic swirl of golden, sunflower-shaped crackers rising out of their wax sleeves, was intoxicating. He would pull out one tall column of crackers, undo the meticulously folded sleeve top, slip a single cracker from the stack, and hand it to me delicately, as if it were a precious gem. Then he would carefully refold the paper, slide the stack back into the box, and return it to its place on the shelf, where it would stay. Id hold the buttery, salty, crunchy goodness up to my nose, close my eyes, and breathe in one long, luxurious sniff. With precision, I would take one teeny-weeny bite along the scalloped edge. Id chew ever so slowly, letting the savory sensation linger on my tongue. Turning the golden treasure ever so slightly, I would nibble off another little piece of the edge, relishing every grain of salt and crumb, making my one cracker last as long as I could. (Ironically, the slogan on the box was theres only one Ritzand for me, there really was!) By todays standards my father would have been considered a hipster. After the military, he moved to Brooklyn Heights, drove a classic Porsche Speedster, and prepared authentic Italian dishes in his kitchen. Oh, how I lived for my fathers cooking! He made a mean sausage and peppers, and delicious parsley meatballs, but his linguine with white clam sauce was sublime. The scent of garlic in hot olive oil, boiling pasta, and the salty sea are what the best Sundays smell like to me. I loved Sundays. Those were the days I spent with my fatherand our meals together were what I looked forward to the most. One Sunday, my fathers mother, Addie, was therea rare occasion. I dont think I was more than five years old. It began as a typical Sunday, my father spending the entire day meticulously preparing his signature dish. He shucked and cleaned every clam, sliced the garlic, and chopped the aromatic flat Italian parsley. It was such a processa ritual, rather. As per usual I hadnt eaten all day, save maybe a Ritz cracker (and I probably hadnt had a full meal the day before; Saturday night at my mothers house could be a bit haphazard). Between reading and coloring and tummy rumbles, I eyed the pantry. The air was perfumed with the freshness of my fathers ingredients. Id waited all week, waited all day; I just needed to hold out until dinnertime. Soon I would be reveling in my favorite dish. I smelled the pasta softening in the boiling water and knew it wouldnt be long. Its dinnertime! my father finally sang. I jumped up and rushed to sit at the small Formica table in the kitchen. Addie, with a fabulous red wig and a red printed caftan to match, was on a tangent, telling some story only the grown-ups would be interested in. I could barely hold my head up, as Id probably started to swoon and drool waiting for the deliciousness that was about to appear before me. I watched my father put the pasta on my plate, then scoop up the heavenly sauce and artfully pour it around the linguine. I followed his every move as he lowered the steaming white plate down in front of me. It was time! And then, just as I was picking up my fork, Addiewho had not paused in her story to take a breathwhipped out a green canister of grated Parmesan cheese and proceeded to shake its unsavory, powdery contents all over my elegant fresh linguine. Noooooooo!!!!!! I screamed in horror. But it was too late; my plate was covered with it. My father never put that cheese on white clam sauce! Where had it even come from? Did she have it in her pocketbook?! Unable to control my shock and revulsion, I ran to the bathroom, slammed the door, and exploded into tears. Roy, you better make her eat that pasta. Make her eat that food! I heard Addie telling my father in defiance. That was the only time I remember my fathers perfect pasta being foiled, and I think it was the last time Addie joined us for Sunday supper. My father taught me that words have meaning and thus, they have power. Once, on a lovely summer Sunday afternoon, I heard the faint jingle of the ice cream truck coming down the street outside my fathers house. Upon recognizing the mystical melody that promised so much pleasure, I let out an excited cry: Aaaaa! The ice cream man! The song was loud and clear now, so I knew the truck had stopped somewhere nearby. The pattering of running feet and the happy squeals I heard confirmed itthe ice cream man was right outside our door. My mind was racing. I gotta go! I thought to myself. Hes going to leave! Can I borrow fifty cents, please, please?! I nearly shrieked at my father, dangerously close to hyperventilating. Do you want to borrow fifty cents? Or would you like to have fifty cents? he replied in a cool, calm tone. A mild panic was creeping in. Uhhhh, I stammered. I didnt know what to say. All I knew was that I had to get some money for the ice cream man. I dont know! I wasnt thinking clearly. Again, my father spoke in a patient, level manner that only enhanced my frenzy. Theres a difference between borrowing and having. Are you asking me to give you fifty cents? I was in a state and unprepared to make distinctions at that moment, so I blurted out, I just want to borrow fifty cents. Ill give it back! Please! He reached in his pocket, pulled out two shiny silver quarters, and dropped them in my anxious little palm. Like the occasional Ritz cracker, they felt like precious jewels. I burst through the doors of the building, barely touching the steps, and ran to the truck like a gazelle being chased by a lion. I had gotten my ice cream, but my father made it clear I would have to repay the money I had borrowed. At seven years old I wasnt earning any money yet, so I asked my mother for the quarters. She couldnt fathom why my father would barter with his little girl, and she gave them to me. They had always had opposing parenting styles. I kept my promise and gave the money back to him the next Sunday. The ice cream man incident was a lesson not only in respecting the meaning of words but in integrity and money management. My father was a man who had saved the very first dollar he ever made. Being a single father was a fairly new notion back then, so he wasnt prepared to plan girlie playdates or fun, child-centered activities. For the most part, I was simply the child accompaniment to his regular adult lifekeeping busy and out of the way as he cooked, cleaned, and tinkered with his car while listening to football on the radio. And he adored his Porsche. It was his only true luxury. He bought two of them in his lifetime, one before children and one after, both used. His Speedster was apparently always in need of some sort of repair, so he was always messing around in it. The car was in a perpetual state of being prepared for full restoration. It was a vague, matte noncolor, because it was covered in gray primer, not paint. I once asked him why the color of the car was so dull. He explained that it was primer, but that the original color had been candy apple red. Oh, so one day youre going to make it candy apple red? I asked. They dont make that color anymore, he said flatly. I was confused. Why not just make it another color, then? But if it couldnt be the original color, hed rather it not be any color at all. He was incredibly patient with the Porsche, spending hours with it, believing deeply in its exotic beauty and high performance. It was very cool and chica soft-top convertible with two seats. He loved the freedom of putting the top down and the intimacy of only having room for one passenger. We would go on long drives without much chatting. If the radio was on, it was tuned to the news (1010 Winsyou give us ten minutes, well give you the world). Every now and then we would sing one of those funny, folksy songs that go on and on, like Theres a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea. Theres a wart on the frog, on the bump, on the log, in the hole in the bottom of the sea He also liked to sing John Henry, a folk song about a Black man who worked as a steel-driving man. John Henry was a little baby, sitting on his Daddys knee When he would sing knee, hed hit an impossibly low note that would always make me laugh. I liked singing those songs because they would help the time and the miles go by. Back then I thought just driving was such a bore. But now, oh, what wouldnt I do to sit next to him, one more time, in those leather seats, on the open road, with just the hum of the engine and the swishing of the wind as our accompaniment. My mother, the opera singer, taught me scales, but my father taught me songs that made me laugh. Thank you for the mountains The Lake of the Clouds I'm picturing you and me there right now As the crystal cascades showered down Sunflowers for Alfred Roy Occasionally we would go to Lime Rock Park, a racetrack in Connecticut. It was a slightly more glamorous experience than a typical NASCAR venue. Paul Newman had a team there, and world-class drivers like Mario Andretti were regulars. I found the racetrack pretty boring, but going to the races was a favorite activity for Alfred Roy, and he made all of his kids join him. This was one rare thing we kids all could agree on: cars going around and around in a circle wasnt high entertainment. When we were on our drives or at the racetrack, I was often just around while he did regular adult things. While he listened to or watched football (which he loved, and which I found extremely boring) I would be close by, quietly reading or drawingobserving the ways of an adult. My father did have a few books just for me in his house. The one I remember most distinctly was about a little Black boy who was blind. The cover was white, with large red, orange, and yellow circles. It was full of colors and told the story of a boy who saw the world through touching and feeling shapes, rather than through color. When I think of that storybook, I think of Stevie Wonder. Reading it, I wondered if this was the reason why Stevie Wonder could create such vivid worlds and emotions through his songs: he was seeing without eyes; he was seeing with his soul. Stevie Wonder is by far the songwriter I respect and love the most. He is beyond genius; I believe he writes songs from a holy place. I think that having this book about the blind Black boy was one way my father attempted to introduce the concepts of racism and perception to me, because we really didnt talk about it. We didnt talk about the shades and the shapes of us. Perception was also very important to my father. Once, while drawing alongside him on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I made what I thought was a very clever cartoon. It was a picture of our family with the caption, Theyre weird. But theyre okay. But when I showed it to my father, he got really upset. Why would you say were weird? he demanded. I was shaken by his stern tone, and I had no idea why the idea made him angry. I dont know. I probably heard it somewhere, I said. In my cartoon I had also added, But theyre okay, which I thought was optimistic. It was a little tongue-in-cheek. With an absolute seriousness that chilled me, he said, Dont ever say that. I never intended to offend him, in fact, Id wanted to delight him. I felt really bad that day. But the heavy load he carried, his deep desire to be accepted as a full human being, was something I wouldnt learn about until much latersomething I am still trying to make peace with. At the time, I didnt have the language to tell him that weird was how I felt. I didnt know how to say that was how I felt other people saw usas weird. I thought everything was weird. My hair was weird; my clothes were weird; my siblings and their friends were weird; my mother and all the shabby places we lived with herthey were all weird. I thought the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was a weird church. We had started attending when the family was still together. The five of us would go to this old medieval-style stone castle with thick walls and a tall tower, filled with a congregation of what looked like every odd person on the Island. To my little-girl self it appeared like the Church of Misfit Toys at a Renaissance fair. The pastor, who was formerly Jewish, had changed his name from Ralph to Lucky. Reverend Lucky? Okay. The teens would go up in the tower and do whatever weird things teens did. Even as a little girl, I knew this was not my scene. But my father, though the only Black person, felt like he was accepted there among the other outsiders, so he stayed at the fellowship forever. I dont think my father understood how different we were from everyone in the neighborhoods I lived in with my mother. It was weird to be living in a makeshift apartment on top of a deli when everyone else lived in a house. We lived in a small commercial section of Northport where there was a strip of stores on the ground level of a cluster of Victorian houses. They were small-town businesses: a bicycle shop, maybe a general store, and then the deli. A staircase alongside the delis entrance led up to a small, dim railroad-style apartment where I lived with my mother and Morgan. I had a room at the end of the hall, no bigger than a typical walk-in closet. The apartment was small, the floors were covered in pea-green carpeting, and the walls and doors were thin; the sound of laughing and voices often kept me awake at night. I had very few things in that tiny room that brought me comfort. The most precious, perhaps, were gifts from my fathera little ceramic bunny and a sweet molasses-colored teddy bear named Cuddles, which I kept until it was destroyed many years later after a flood in a Manhattan apartment that was on top of a bar and nightclub (apparently, there are levels to living on top of establishments, and I have gone through all of them). I remember when you used to tuck me in at night with the teddy bear you gave to me that I held so tight Bye Bye Even with Cuddles by my side, I frequently had nightmares, and it was in that dismal apartment where my troubles with sleep first began. I dont recall anyone else living around there, and there were certainly no other Black people for miles. Morgans was the only Afro in sight. Once, after he got in trouble, my mother meekly admonished him to stay in his room. Shortly after, the owner of the deli downstairs called my mother to inform her that he was watching her son jump from rooftop to rooftop above the other stores. Morgan had climbed out of the window onto the roof and was making a daring escape. He eventually went through a phase when he shaved his head bald and would wear karate pants, with a snake casually draped around his neck. He would walk through the town looking like a punk ninja, full of anger, hoping to find a fight. Even without his hair he was impossible to miss. My father might not have liked me calling the Careys weird, but weird things certainly happened to us. Every now and then, Alison would crash into the apartment like a meteor, and friends of hers and Morgans would hang out all night. One night Alison booked me as the entertainment. Earlier that day shed taught me the song White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. It was an odd selection for sure, but I figured maybe she liked it because the refrain of Go ask Alice sounded close to her name. When I was brought out to the living room to perform, all of the lights were out, and I was surrounded by burning candles and a circle of teenagers (as well as my mother). Watching Alisons face for approval, I let out the first verse: One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small And the ones that Mother gives you, dont do anything at all Go ask Alice, when shes ten feet tall A song about taking drugs and tripping is not typical (or appropriate) lyrical content for a little girl. But I sang it because my big sister taught it to me. I loved nothing more than learning and singing songs, but this one was full of scary images (the White Knight is talking backward /and the Red Queens off with her head) and what seemed to me like creepy nonsense (the hookah-smoking caterpillarwhat?). Of course, I wondered what this song was about and why I was singing it in the dark. It was past midnight, and while all the other kids my age were nestled in their beds, I was belting out, Feed your head! for a candlelit gathering of wannabe-hippie teens conducting a pseudo-s?ance. Tell me thats not weird. See you next Sunday! That was our thing. My father and I gave that little promise to each other with a wave each week as I left him to return to life with my mother. But as I grew a little older, my seriousness as a singer-songwriter began to swiftly envelop my whole world. I was in the profession by the time I was twelve. My father did not see it or support it, largely because he did not understand it. Music, as a career, was not logical to him. When I talked about writing poetry and singing, he would shift the conversation to grades and homework. He didnt see the focus and discipline I was cultivating as an artist. He didnt see how I was learning the craft, sitting in on jam sessions with accomplished jazz musicians with my mother and developing the skills of scatting and improvisation. He never saw how I spent hours writing, enriching my ear, and studying popular music trends on the radio. Above all, we had a fundamental difference in belief: I followed my heart, while he was guided by his fear of not being accepted. From that awful and auspicious day when Nana Reese laid her hands on me and spoke into my heart, I truly believed anything I wanted was possible. It was real to me. Absolute. My father did not believe anything was possible. On the contrary, he expected the world to vehemently deny his desires, not the least of which was dignity. Alfred Roy was a man who lived his entire life under threat of humiliation and dehumanization as a result of his identity. He placed all his hope in the notion that societal respect would be awarded him through his discipline, diligence, and excellence on traditional institutional tracks like academics, service to your country, and respectable work. His other two children had all the makings of great students. When they were younger, he demanded that they produce all As on their report cards, and mostly they did (yet he would still sometimes question why each A wasnt accompanied by a plus). The only class I excelled in was creative writing, in which I was always in the advanced groups. But I was tragic in mathematics and really couldnt connect with most other subjects or material. The two potential academics took terrible turns in their teens, fulfilling a Black fathers greatest fears. The boy had been institutionalized, placed in the precarious care of the state, the first stop on a dangerous fast track to becoming a statistic. And the girl, pregnant before her sixteenth birthday, had already arrived at one. And I, the baby, who wasnt a wild one, rejected the traditional, safe route to a secure career and began to pursue what he saw as an improbable, mysterious, and dangerous path. My father was extremely strict with my siblings, and they would often complain or joke about his tight and eccentric ways to my mother. However, in an effort to shield me from their harsh perspective, I often overheard her tell them, Dont say that in front of Mariah. There were moments when my father did disappoint me. After Alison was no longer living with him, he went from being a divorced single father to a true bachelor. There were times he wouldnt show up for our dates. As a child, there were them times I didnt get it, but you kept me in line I didnt know why You didnt show up sometimes On Sunday mornings And I missed you Bye Bye So, over time, our Sunday ritual became sporadic. My music was driving so much of my time and energy by that point. I worked on it every moment I could. I was determined to rise above my conditions, rise above all the people who didnt believe I was going to make it, rise above the sad place my sister had fallen into, rise above my brothers angry dysfunction. I was going to rise above it alleven if that included my father, the one stable family member I had. After paying for one summer at a performing arts camp, the most my father ever did for my career was to warn me about how uncertain and treacherous the entertainment business could be. Years later, I called my father and played Vision of Love from the recording studio, putting the phone receiver right up to the Yamaha speaker. Wow, he said, you sound like all three Pointer Sisters! He wasnt a big music man, so this comparison was high praise coming from him. It meant he had noticed all of the layers of the background vocals, in addition to the strong lead. He was really listening to my song. And I could tell he was happy with it and with me. After all those years, it was truly validating. Yet, even after all I had accomplished I wasnt immune to the perfectionism he had projected onto his other children. After I had garnered two Grammys within my very first year in the industry, he remarked, Maybe if you were a producer you could win more, like Quincy Jones. That same year, the legendary Quincy Jones took home seven Grammys for his epic project Back on the Block, which spanned the entire history of Black American Music and featured giants from Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis to Luther Vandross. I had done astonishingly well as a new artist (who had written her own hit songs), and here my father was, comparing me to arguably one of the greatest musical giants the industry has ever known, with decades of experience and endless accolades and honors to his name! I was immediately thrust back to my childhood, as if my two Grammys were two As on my report card and he was asking me what had happened to the pluses. I think my success in music scared him because he had no idea about, and seemingly no influence on, how Id arrived. He didnt ask and I didnt tell. Gradually, next Sunday turned into a month of Sundays. I had to let go of our Sundays so I could manifest my own day in the sun. COLORING OUTSIDE THE LINES Its hard to explain Inherently its just always been strange Neither here nor there Always somewhat out of place everywhere Ambiguous without a sense of belonging to touch Outside My first encounters with racism were like a first kiss in reverse: each time, a piece of purity was ripped from my being. Left behind was a spreading stain, which seeped so deeply inside of me that to this day, Ive never been able to completely scrub it out. Not with time, not with fame or wealth, not even with love. The earliest of these encounters happened when I was about four years old and in preschool. The activity for the day was to draw a portrait of our families. Laid out on the table was a stack of heavy-stock construction paper the color of eggshells and small groups of crayons for us to pick from. While I much preferred sing-along and story time to coloring, I was excited about the project and determined to do my very best. I thought if I did a good job maybe the teacher would decorate my drawing with a gold-foil star sticker. I chose my supplies carefully, found a quiet corner, and got busy with the assignment. At that point, our family of five had not yet fractured. For a short time, I had a father, a mother, a sister, and a brother, and we were all living together in what felt to me like relative peace. I wanted to create a family portrait I could be proud of. I wanted to draw all the different unique things about everybodytheir clothes, their heights and proportions, their facial featuresall the little details that would make my portrait come to life. Father was tall, and Mother had long dark hair. My brother was strong and my sister had her pretty ringlets. I wanted to capture all of it. The sound of crayons rubbing on thick paper created a dull hum as the faint, comforting scent of Crayola wax wafted through the room. Deeply engaged with perfecting my masterpiece, I was curled over with my head down, nose nearly touching the paper, when I felt a tall shadow fall across my quiet corner. I knew instinctively that it was one of the young student teachers looming over me. At four years old I had already begun to develop a keen watch-your-back instinct, so I immediately stopped moving my hand. Tension rose up and stiffened my little body. For a reason I did not yet know, I sensed danger and felt suddenly protective. I held absolutely still until she spoke. How ya doin there, Mariah? Lets see. Relaxing a bit, I lifted the paper toward her and proudly presented my family picture in progress. Immediately, the student teacher burst into laughter. She was soon joined by another young woman teacher, who also began to laugh. Then a third adult came over to join in the fun. The cheerful buzz of children working with crayons stopped. The whole room had turned to stare at what was happening in my little corner. A brew of self-consciousness and embarrassment boiled up from my feet to my face. The whole class was watching. I managed to speak through the stifling heat in my throat. Why are you laughing? I asked. Through her giggles, one of them replied, Oh, Mariah, you used the wrong crayon! You didnt mean to do that! She was pointing at where Id drawn my father. As they kept laughing, I looked down at the picture of my family I had lovingly and diligently been creating. Id used the peach crayon for the skin of myself, my mother, my sister, and my brother. Id used a brown crayon for my father. I knew I was more like the color of animal crackers and my brother and sister were more like Nutter Butters, while my fathers skin tone resembled graham crackers. But they didnt have any cookie-colored crayons, so Id had to improvise! They were acting like Id used a green crayon or something. I was humiliated and confused. What had I done so wrong? Still cackling hysterically, the teachers insisted, You used the wrong crayon! Every time one of them made the declaration the whole gang laughed, laughed, and laughed some more. A debilitating kind of disgrace was pressing down on me, yet I managed to pull myself up slowly, eyes burning and brimming with hot tears. As calmly as I could, I told the teachers, No. I didnt use the wrong crayon. Refusing to even give me the dignity of addressing me directly, one of them said to the other snidely, She doesnt even know shes using the wrong crayon! The laughter and taunting seemed like it would never end. I stood glaring up at them, working very hard not to vomit from embarrassment. But despite my nausea, I did not break my glare. Eventually the laughter started to subside, and one at a time they backed away from the picture and from me. I watched them across the room, huddled together and whispering. They had only ever seen one member of my family of five: my mother, who dropped me off at school each day. She was the color of the peach crayon. They had no idea and no imagination to suspect that the light toast of my skin, my bigger-than-button nose, and the waves and ringlets in my hair were from my fathermy handsome father who was the color of warm maple syrup. His complexion was a crayon color they didnt have; brown was as close to right as I could get. It was the teachers who had got it all wrong. But despite their cruel and unwarranted attack, they never apologized for the public humiliation, for their ignorance and immaturity, or for demoralizing a four-year-old girl during coloring time. By the time I made it to first grade, my family of five had crumbled like cookies. My parents divorced, but although they were living a short car ride away from each other, racially their neighborhoods on Long Island were worlds apart. In first grade, I had a best friend named Becky. She was cute and sweet and looked just like the Strawberry Shortcake cartoon to me. She had big blue eyes, smooth strawberry-blond hair that was naturally sun-kissed and hung perfectly straight down like heavy drapes, and reddish freckles sprinkled across her whipped creamcolored cheeks. In my mind, she looked like what little girls were supposed to look like. She looked like the little girls who were adored and protected; like the little girl my mother mightve had with a man her mother wouldve approved of. One Sunday, our mothers made arrangements for Becky and me to have a playdate at my house. I was delighted because Becky and I really had fun together. When Sunday finally arrived, my mother picked up Becky in whatever ragtag car she was driving at the time, and we headed to my fathers house. We pulled up to the brick town house, and Becky and I hopped out of the car. I grabbed her hand and skipped excitedly up the steps. Curiously, my mother hung back and watchedordinarily she would have driven off. Just as our feet hit the top of the stoop, my six-feet-two-inches-tall, dashing father emerged through the door with a hearty grin. He looked like a movie star. Hiya, Mariah! he called out, giving me my usual greeting. As he neared us, Becky suddenly released my hand. Her body froze stiff and, like a bursting raincloud, she exploded into tears. Confused, I looked to my father for help, but I could see that he was frozen too, and breathless, a mortified look twisting his strong features. In a state of shock, my mind scrambled as I tried to process the abrupt and painful turn of events. Becky in hysterics, my father in silent agony: how had we gotten here in a single instant? I didnt know what to do. I was stuck there, unmoving, for what felt like hours but was likely merely moments. Finally, my mother came up behind us on the stairs, to Beckys rescue. Without even a glance in my direction, she gently placed her arm around the distraught little girl and wordlessly guided her down the stairs and into the backseat of her car. My mother sped off with the strawberry blonde, without ever making any attempt to clarify what had happened. There was no consolation, no mediation, no acknowledgment of the devastation to me or my father. In the wake of Beckys storm, my father and I stood quietly together on the stoop and waited for the ache to pass. Nobody ever mentioned it after that, but we never played together again, and the moment remained with me forever. And, believe it or not, her name really was Becky. No one ever outwardly questioned my ethnic background when I was alone with my mother. They didnt dare ask about, or else could not detect, the differences in our hues and textures. Becky, and most likely her mother too, had probably just assumed my father was also white, or maybe something exoticbut certainly not Black. That day on the stoop I learned, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I was not like the people I went to school with or who lived in my neighborhood. My father was totally different from them, and they were afraid of him. But he was my people; I came from him. That day, I saw firsthand how their fear hurt him. And his hurt deeply hurt me too. But what was perhaps most painful, that afternoon, was that he saw that I saw their fear of him. He knew it would impact me forever. He knew I could never return to the innocence all children deserve. HODEL Singing was a form of escapism for me, and writing was a form of processing. There was joy in it, but it mainly was survival (and it still is). My voice was recognized as pure talent not only by my mother but also by my teachers. A friend of my mothers was my music teacher, and she was exceptional. As a child I was in a few school plays, and I would sing for friends at random events. Singing onstage (or anywhere), imagining I was someone else, was when I felt most like myself. Walking around alone and coming up with melodies while singing to myself was when I felt the most whole. To this day, I escape to my private vocal booth to shut out all the demands of life and feel myself in my space, singing alone. I was in the fifth grade when I first got the opportunity to attend an exclusive performing arts summer camp. This was a breakthrough! I could finally be around other young aspiring artists and hone my craft, undistracted by the confusion and chaos at home. I landed the role of Hodel, one of the five daughters in the camps production of Fiddler on the Roof. I lived to go to rehearsals. It was my favorite time and place. I was confident, quickly learning the songs and studying their meanings. The act of practicing came naturally to me; I liked to do things over and over again. I loved the experience of witnessing my performance getting better with each try, finding new and better ways to deliver a song. The drive to practice music was also something my mother recognized and encouraged in me early on. She rehearsed the Fiddler songs with me at home, playing along on her Yamaha piano. Even as a little girl I was interested in exploring the details that made up a great song. And I was fascinated by the storytelling in the musical. I even managed to make a camp friend in the community of largely Jewish and mostly wealthy kids. We bonded through our love and seriousness of singing. We even kinda looked alike. She was Israeli with thick curly, almost kinky hair. So we both had tangled textures. We tried to dress alike when we could, we had the same pink onesie. Because people saw us together, saw some physical similarities, I think they thought I was a blondish Jewish girl from means. I loved Hodel because she fell in love with a revolutionary boy and went to the ends of the earth to follow her passion. My big number was in the second act, a song called Far from the Home I Love. It was a well-suited song for my breathy tone, and I remember I sang it in a purely emotional way. The song opened with these lovely, memorable lines: How can I hope to make you understand Why I do what I do? Why I must travel to a distant land Far from the home I love. My father was coming up to the camp for the shows opening night, and I was thrilled. He was a practical man who wasnt thrilled with my artistic passion, but he had reluctantly paid half of my hefty tuition for camp that year. So while he was certainly coming to support me, he was also checking in on his investment. I didnt have the privilege of trying all different kinds of hobbies, like the kids I went to school withit was this camp, or bust. So I knew I had to get all I could from it. There was no flitting from tennis lessons to guitar to dance class. Not that I would ever step foot in a dance class, even if we could afford it. I was traumatized early on about dancing. One time when Addie was at my fathers house, she looked at me, with my unruly flaxen hair and peach-crayon-colored skin, and said, Roy, that aint your baby. Then, as if to prove her point, she addressed me: Girl, lemme see you dance. While I was surrounded by music, there wasnt much dancing in my childhood. My mother didnt dance; I never saw my siblings dance. My father didnt dance until later in the eighties, when he took hustle lessons. In my mind, dancing became a measurement for Black acceptance, for belonging somewhere and to someonefor belonging to my father. I didnt dance for Addie that day. I didnt dance much at all after that. I just couldnt recover from the fear of not dancing right for my father. I stood there terrified to move, fearing if I didnt dance well enough or if I moved the wrong way, it would somehow prove that my father wasnt my father. That day at camp, as Hodel, I sang and smiled and pranced about the stage and sang some more. I sang in a very distinct lullaby style. I was good, and everybody knew it. I could hear the loud clapping as I took my bow; it was like another kind of grand music, giving me energy, giving me hope. As I raised my head I saw the widest smile on my fathers face. His smile was like sunshine itself. He walked up to the edge of the stage, his arms filled with a big bouquet of sunny daisies tied with a lavender ribbon. Beaming with pride, he handed me the flowers as if they were a prestigious award. At first we were both too giddy to notice that people were staring at usand not in a way that felt good, not because I had given the outstanding performance of the night. They were staring because my father was the only Black man in sight, and I belonged to him. That night, the teachers, the parents, and all the other campers learned that my father was a Black man, and I paid the price for it. I got my thunderous applause and I got my flowers, but I never got another major role in a play at that camp again. Please be at peace father Im at peace with you Bitterness isnt worth clinging to After all the anguish weve all been through Sunflowers for Alfred Roy LIGHT OF MY LIFE Letting go aint easy Oh, its just exceedingly hurtful Cause somebody you used to know Is flinging your world around And they watch, as youre falling down, down, down, Falling down, baby The Art of Letting Go Youve always been the light of my life. My mother told me this over and over when I was a child. I wanted to be her light. I wanted to make her proud. I respected her as a singer and a working mother. I loved her deeply, and, like most kids, I wanted her to be a safe place for me. Above all, I desperately wanted to believe her. But ours is a story of betrayal and beauty. Of love and abandonment. Of sacrifice and survival. Ive emancipated myself from bondage several times, but there is a cloud of sadness that I suspect will always hang over me, not simply because of my mother but because of our complicated journey together. It has caused me so much pain and confusion. Time has shown me there is no benefit in trying to protect people who never tried to protect me. Time and motherhood have finally given me the courage to honestly face who my mother has been to me. For me, this is the steepest cliff edge. If I can make it to the other side of this truth, I know there is relief of epic proportions awaiting me. Those people who have hurt me, over and over, whom I have escaped or walled off, are deeply significant in my story, but they are not central to my existence. Removing myself from toxic people I love has been excruciatingly painful, but once I found the courage (with prayer and professional help, of course), I simply let go and let God. (Ill add, though, that theres a huge difference between simple and easy. It aint easy, baby.) Yet, there is no artful way of letting go of my mother, and our relationship is anything but simple. Like many aspects of my life, my journey with my mother has been full of contradictions and competing realities. Its never been only black-and-whiteits been a whole rainbow of emotions. Our relationship is a prickly rope of pride, pain, shame, gratitude, jealousy, admiration, and disappointment. A complicated love tethers my heart to my mothers. When I became a mother to Roc and Roe, my heart grew two times over; as my capacity for pure love expanded, the ability to tow heavy pain from my past diminished. Healthy, powerful love did that for me: it illuminated the dark spots and unearthed buried hurt. The new, clear light that emanates from my childrens love now rushes through every artery, every cell, every dark nook and cranny of my being. Even after all this time, a part of me fantasizes that one of these days my mother will transform into one of the caring mothers I saw on TV as a child, like Carol Brady or Clair Huxtable; that she will suddenly ask me, Honey, how, was your day? before she gives me a report on her dog or her bird, or asks me to pay for something or do somethingthat she will have genuine, sustained interest in me and what Im doing or feeling. That one day she will know me. That one day my mother will understand me. To a certain extent, I know how my mother became who she is. Her mother certainly didnt understand her. And her father never had a chance to know her; he died while her mother was pregnant with her. She was one of three children raised by a widowed Irish Catholic woman. My mother was known as the dark one because her hair wasnt blond and her eyes were a mix of brown and green, not pure blue like her brothers and sisters. Blue eyes were a symbol of the purity of whiteness, and being of 100 percent pure Irish descent was central to her mothers entire identity. My mother grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Springfield, Illinois. It was the capital city at the center of a state at the center of the country. But Springfield was also a center of insidious institutional racism. In 1908, a white woman was allegedly raped by a Black man (the same accusation leveled against my father and countless other innocent Black men), which ignited a three-day riot by white citizens in which two Black men were lynched and four white men were shot to death by Black businessmen protecting their property. In the 1920s, when my mothers mother was coming of age, the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in the city and the city government, holding several key positions and setting the moral compass for the community. Springfield was a city openly cloaked in hate. One of the few stories my mother told of her childhood was of being in kindergarten and sharing her mat with a Black boy at naptime. For this, the nuns at her Catholic school publicly shamed her. Obviously there was a rancid repertoire of slurs for Black people in my mothers youth, but she also told me of the odd slurs and degrading names they had for Italians, Jewish people, and all others when no one else was around. She made me privy to the hierarchy of racism in their white community. Ironically, even among her beloved Irish there was a social caste system that divided the lace curtain Irish from the shanty Irish. The lace curtain Irish were pure, well off, respectable, and properly placed in society (think of the Kennedys), while the shanty Irish were characterized as dirty, poor, and ignorant. There was a critical and pitiful need, in this system, to have a host of others to look down on. To my mothers mother, all others were below the Irish. But Black? Black people were always at the absolute bottom of the order. Nothing was below Black. My mother not only ignored the moral code of her hometown, she rebelled against it, later becoming active in the civil rights movement. By the standards of her environment and family, she was a liberal eccentric. She was interested in life outside of their tiny, tight, white world. She was intellectually curious and drawn to culture, especially to classical music. She recalls that one day, while listening to a classical music station on the radio, she heard an aria. It was the most beautiful sound shed ever heard, and she was determined to chase it, inside herself and out in the world. She decided to start her quest in New York City, which seemed a million miles away from her family and the small-minded place they inhabited. Young Patricia had big dreamsmany of which she realized. She was extremely gifted and driven. Winning a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School for music, she would go on to sing with the New York City Opera, making her debut at Lincoln Center. My mother built an exciting, artsy, bohemian life in New York City. She was in the downtown scene and dated a diverse cast of men by whom her mother would have been mortified. Her pure Irish Catholic mother wouldnt approve of her dating anyone who wasnt lily-white. (Of course, in turn, the white supremacists of Illinois werent crazy about the Irish or Catholicsthe WASPs [White Anglo-Saxon Protestants], as they were referred to at that time, always needed a fresh supply of people to have beneath them.) An Italian guy would have been a problem, a Jewish man, a tragedy. My grandmother wouldve come completely undone if she knew my mother had had a steamy affair with a rich, older Lebanese man named Fran?ois, right before she fell in love with, and married, a man her mother could not even conceive of. My father. A beautiful, complicated Black man. This, to my grandmother (and her community) was the worst thing her daughter could do to her and to the family lineage. Talking to a Black man was considered a shame; befriending one, an outrage; carrying on with one, a major scandal, but marrying one? That was an abomination. It was the ultimate humiliation. My mothers marriage to my father was beyond betrayal to her mother; it was a high crime against her white heritage, punishable by excommunication. To her mother, who grew up in a time and place where the KKK openly held mass rallies and were active in government, marrying a Black man carried a burden of shame she could not fathom. Her mother was raised not to drink from the same fountain as Black people, not to sit in the same seat as Black people or swim in the same pool. She was taught, and believed, that Black people were dirty and that Blackness could rub off. After all, the United States is the birthplace of the one-drop rule, the racial classification system that asserts that any person with an ancestor possessing even one drop of Black blood is considered Black. In my grandmothers view, my mother loving my father made her a bottom-feeder, procreating with the lowest human group and making mulatto mongrelsme and my siblings. Needless to say, my grandmother completely disowned her daughter. She told no one else in the family her daughter was married to a Black man (and pregnant with a son). Save for a few sporadic, secret phone calls, my mother became almost entirely disconnected from her mother. She wouldnt go back to her hometown for many years to come. Even the most gifted, compassionate, progressive person cannot easily overcome being completely rejected by their mother. To have the love of a mother is too primal a need. Whatever soft place my mother might have had to land was hardened like concrete by her own mothers ignorant, fearful family and upbringing. Even her marriage to my father and the births of three beautiful children couldnt fully heal the deep wound of maternal rejectionnothing can. I also doubt loving a Black man and having mixed children is the cure-all for generations of belief steeped in white superiority, and my mother and her family were steeped down to the white of their bones. Ive often wondered why my mother defied her mother, family, and heritage by marrying my father. What was her full motivation? Was it all in the name of unconditional love? It was never we belong together between them. She never reminisced to me about their romance, nor was there any physical evidence of it: no photos, no poems, no letters, no trace of a great love. (Well, there were three children.) Maybe my mother wanted to keep her history and memories of my father private, though I cant help but wonder if her marriage wasnt, in part, a rebellion against her mother. Did she do it for the attention, the drama of it all? More than once over the decades, Ive heard my mother order her coffee Black, like my men. Shes often done it in front of me and one of her young Black grandsonsawkward. To be honest, I dont know if my mother ever wanted to get married and have children so young. I could understand her wanting to create a safety net, a new family of her own, and to continue blazing trails, leaving her backward home and family behind. But what I couldnt understand was her abandoning her promising singing career to do so. From very early on I decided that I didnt want the same fate; I couldnt have a man or an unplanned pregnancy take me off my path. Witnessing my mothers and my sisters detours was a sad and stinging warning. Watching their dreams go up in flames burned a cautionary tale into my mind. In 1977, my mother recorded an album she titled To Start Again. But by that time, shed already had a troubled interracial marriage, three kids, a divorce, and one child still living with her, me. Did she think a record company would suddenly discover her? This is one of many miscalculations that as a child I observed my mother make and placed in a file labeled What Not to Do. Time rolled by after my parents divorce, and eventually my grandmother allowed my mother to visit her with her granddaughterbut only her youngest granddaughter. I was a twelve-year-old little girl and didnt quite understand why she only invited me. Looking back, I suspect it was because I was blond-ish and very fair for a mixed kid. I didnt raise much suspicion to the culturally untrained eye. I was too young to know how my mother and her mother interacted with each other, and I never knew what happened between them at that point: Was there an apology from Pats mother for disowning her daughter and withholding family from her? Did she reckon with her racism? Was there forgiveness? I dont know. What I do remember is that she was stiff and formal. She had stark white hair that she wore neatly away from her face with one big wave in the front. On her stern face she wore black cat-eyed glasses. Her house was not warm, and there was no smell to the place. I recall her coming into the quiet, sterile bedroom where I slept while I was there, after my mother had put me to bed. She sat on the side of the bed in the dark and, in a whisper, taught me the Lords Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Matthew 6:1112 Thats all I remember of that visit to see my grandmother. In an unusual twist of fate, she died on my mothers birthday, February 15. After that, oddly enough, my mother pretty much sainted her. As an adult, my mother was never a practicing Catholic, but for many years she went to light a candle for her mother on that date. Strange how death can make people forgive those who trespassed against them and their children. For most of my early childhood it was just my mother and me. We moved constantly. After an exhaustive search, she found us a place by the water. She wanted to be in a more peaceful setting where she could take long walks with the dog and go down the road to the beach. The two of us moved into what she referred to as a quaint cottage but I later learned the entire neighborhood called it the shack. I found the neighbors description to be more accurate. It was a small, rickety structure covered in a wavy faux-brick siding that had buckled under the elements. Inside, a layer of dank sadness seeped through the floorboards and walls, which were covered with cheap imitation of wood paneling that was paired with filthy flea-ridden carpeting. No matter the time of day, it was always dark inside. Prior to us moving in, the place had been abandoned and had become a hangout where teenagers would smoke, drink, and mess around. It was set off of a rough, unpaved driveway of rubble and stones and faced a big white Victorian house, which made it look like something the big house had belched out. It was marked, and so were we. My mother and I were the eccentric lady and her little girl who lived in the shack. How quaint. The first chapter of Marilyn Monroes autobiography, My Story, is entitled How I Rescued a White Piano. In it she writes about her mission to find her mothers 1937 baby grand piano. Gladys Monroe Baker, mother to Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortenson), was in and out of psychiatric institutions all of her life. Its been documented that she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, an incurable disease that performs a violent dance with the mind, releasing it to lucidity for brief moments, then, without warning, spinning it back into hellish delusion. As a result of her mothers inability to maintain sanity, Marilyn spent most of her childhood in orphanages, followed by a series of foster homes. During one of Gladyss rare healthy periods, she and little Norma Jeane lived together for a few months in a small white house near the Hollywood Bowl. The most prized possession in their modest abode was a baby grand piano. When her mothers illness reared its ugly head again, dragging her back into darkness and into another institution, the few furnishings and the piano were sold off. After Norma Jeanes transformation into Marilyn Monroe The Movie Star, she spoke very little of her childhood, her mentally ill mother, or her unknown father. And though Marilyn had made herself into a radiant icon, I imagine there was a piece of her still searching for an uninterrupted childhood, longing for her mother to be whole. I see how the piano mustve become a symbol of a time when she and her mother were together in relative peace and harmony. Pianos are elegant, mystical, and comfortingfrom them simple tunes and majestic compositions can spring forth and fill a dismal living room, a dank bar, a concert hall, or even a shack with joy and glory. Marilyn went on a mission to find her mothers piano. As the story goes, while still a struggling model and actress, she found and purchased the piano at an auction and kept it in storage until she was able to move it into a home of her own. It accompanied her to all her residences. One of its final homes was the lavish Manhattan apartment Marilyn shared with her third and last husband, renowned playwright Arthur Miller, where she custom-coated the instrument in a thick, shiny white lacquer to match the apartments glamorous, angelic d?cora world of white, as her half sister, Berniece Miracle, called it. My happiest hours as a little girl were around that piano, Marilyn said. I imagine when your childhood was fraught with insecurity and fear like Marilyns and like mine, the romance of those lost happy hours is extremely valuable. I understood why she searched for, bought, stored, and cared for the pianoso much so that I rescued it at auction at Christies in 1999. It is a treasure and my most expensive piece of art. And now, Marilyn Monroes white baby grand piano is the centerpiece, the pi?ce de r?sistance, of my own glamorous Manhattan penthouse. Marilyn was my first vision of a superstar that I could relate to, on an almost spiritual level. We did without a lot of things when I was young, but what my mother couldnt live without was a piano. We always had a piano, and I had many happy and formative hours around it with my mother. My mother would go through songs and scales with me, and of course I would hear her practicing her dramatic operatic scales. It was at the piano where I would sit and make up little tunes of my own. My mother never had much money, but one of her greatest contributions to my development was exposing me to all kinds of people, especially musicians. She made a few dollars here and there by giving voice lessons at our house. Her practicing was a constant, but what I treasured most were the jam sessions. Accomplished musicians would come and hang out and play music at my mothers bohemian spot by the bay, and I would jam with them. Live music was the best thing about living with my mother. I was surrounded by the love of music, but even more importantly, by the love of musicianshipthe love of the craft, the love of the process. When I was a little girl, my mother introduced me to the world of sitting in with musicians: improvising, vibing, and singing. I particularly remember her singing from a Carly Simon songbook, she would play from it all the time. If I asked her to play a song for me to sing, shed happily oblige. She never pushed me to sing or practice, but she encouraged me. She knew early on I had her advanced ear for music. When I was five she arranged for me to have piano lessons for a short time. But rather than read the music, I would play Mary Had a Little Lamb by ear. Dont use your ear, dont use your ear! my teacher would implore. But I didnt know how not to use my ear. Because music was a gift of freedom in my world of scarcity, the one place I felt unrestrained, I resisted the repetition and discipline required to learn how to read music and play the piano. Hearing and mimicking came so easily to me. This is one of several times I wish my mother had pushed me and made me sit and stick with it. My mother and her guitarist friend would also sing standards from the 1940s (of course thats the era I loved, not only for the glamour but because the melodies were so strong). She particularly loved Billie Holiday and would often sing her songs. I remember hearing my mother sing I Cant Give You Anything But Love. I learned it and we would sing it together, and I would instinctively scat, which I loved. It felt like my little-girl version of catching the Holy Spirit. I learned several jazz standards from my mom and her musician pals, and some of them took note of my ear and natural abilities. At about twelve years old I would sit with her and Clint, a piano player. He was a big brown teddy bear, and he could play his ass off. He would sit and work with me and treat me like a serious musician. When I would sit with him and sing, we were just two musicians working together. He taught me jazz classics, and one of the first songs I remember learning was Lullaby of Birdland, made famous by the great Ella Fitzgerald. I will always have a profound respect for Ms. Fitzgerald and all the jazz legends who laid such a fertile musical foundation for musicians of all genres. It was not an easy song at any age, but for me at twelve, it was beyond advanced. With its intricate melody, full of vocal shifts and changes, it was composed for one of the most nimble jazz vocalists of all time. Learning and listening to live jazz helped train my ear and shape my creative wiring. I was learning how to feel when to modulate and when to scat. Being introduced to jazz standards and a jazz discipline gave me my appreciation for sophisticated modulations in a song and how to employ them to communicate emotion. (Stevie Wonder is the absolute master of this.) For me, songs are always about emotion. My mother may not have taken me to church, but jamming with jazz musicians was close to a spiritual experience. Theres a creative energy that flows through the room. You learn to sit and listen to what the other musicians are doing, and you get inspired by a guitar riff or what the pianist is playing. When you are in a zone, it is a miraculous madness. For me, it was always an exquisite escape, which I desperately needed and always sought. By the time I was eleven or twelve my mother was taking me to a supper club on Long Island to sit in with her and other musicians. There was a dining room on the ground floor where they would serve dinner, and upstairs was live jazz. I was in the sixth grade, up in there at all hours of the night, any day of the week, sitting in with grown-ass musicians. Im not sure if my mother just wanted to be able to hang out at night and sing and not be stuck in the shackI mean cottagewith a kid, or if she was consciously developing me as an artist, or if maybe she wanted to present to her friends her little prot?g?e? I do remember her encouraging me while I sang. I felt more welcomed (and natural) with jazz musicians at night in the club than with my classmates during the daythose kids who asked incessantly, What are you? those kids who judged me by the way I looked and had no idea what my life was really like. I always knew that the world of suburban Long Island wasnt for me. I was a fish out of water, and though I survived it, I knew that no one there really cared about me, and I certainly knew I wasnt staying. And my mother wasnt just any old mom supporting meshe was a Juilliard-trained musician. Music was something we genuinely connected on, and without pushing or becoming one of those overbearing stage mothers or momagers, she instilled in me the power of believing in myself. Whenever I mused about what Id do if I make it, she would cut me short and say, Dont say if I make it, say when I make it. Believe you can do it, and you will do it. The fact that I believed I could become a successful artist is one of my greatest strengths. Around the same time, my mother entered me in a talent competition in the city and I sang one of my favorite songs: Out Here On My Own by Irene Cara. I felt Out Here On My Own described my entire life, and I loved singing that waysinging to reveal a piece of my soul. And I won doing it. At that age, I lived for the movie Fame, and Irene Cara was everything to me. I related to her multicultural look (Puerto Rican and Cuban), her multitextured hair, and, most importantly, her ambition and accomplishments. She won an Oscar for Best Original Song for Flashdance What a Feeling (which she cowrote), from Flashdance, making her the first Black woman to win in a category other than acting. (She won a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and an American Music Award for the song too.) But Out Here On My Own was such a pure song that touched my heart, and I couldnt believe I won a trophy for singing a song I loved. It was the first time Id received validation as an artist. What a feeling. It wasnt just music my mother exposed me to. She had friends who treated me like family, which helped offset all the shabby places we lived and the disheveled way I often looked. My mother had a friend named Sunshine, who was short and quite a large woman, with a warm and generous heart. She wore her hair in two long ponytails, like Carole and Paula from The Magic Garden (a popular local kids TV show I loved, which was hosted by two young, hippie-esque women with a pink squirrel sidekick, who sang folksy songs and told stories, in the seventies and early eighties). Sunshine had big, older sons and no daughters, so she took an interest in me, especially in my disorderly and neglected appearance. She would often bring me cute, girlie clothes that she made herself. On my sixth birthday, she outfitted me in a white embroidered shirt paired with a blue skirt, white tights, and Mary Jane shoes. She even got my hair to lie down in pigtails (maybe being a Jewish woman and having textured hair gave her some insight). My birthday crown sat nicely right on top. She even bought me a birthday cake decorated like a lamb! A lamb! It is one of the few times I remember feeling beautiful as a child. Sunshine lovingly made sure I looked put together and cute. She was never anything but caring and sweet to me. Years later, when I was going into junior high, she came by with some clothes for me that I felt were too childish. I rejected them rudely, in the cruel fashion of an angsty preteen. To this day, I regret how mean I was to such a considerate caretakerone of the few in my whole life. I tried my hardest to accept all my mothers unfortunate choices in men. I even tried to impress them. (Some of the names have been changed to protect the dickheads.) Tales of a certain man in my mothers life right before my father loomed large in our household. We knew his name, Fran?ois, we knew he was Lebanese, and we knew he was rich. Despite her great talents, my mother, like many women of her era, subscribed to the belief that a man was her most reliable source of security. The time between the relationships she had with Fran?ois and with my father was not long; it was even sometimes suggested there had been some overlap, which led to the suspicion that perhaps Morgan was not my fathers child. Drama. After the divorce from my father, my mother and Fran?ois reconnected, and she planned an epic reunion with the rich man who got away. My mother got Morgan and me excited about the fantasy that a wealthy, exotic man would come and sweep us up out of our run-down digs, and we would be set for lifeall we had to do was impress him. I could do that, I thought. Maybe my mother and I could sing a song at the piano? The night of their big date arrived, and while my mother and Fran?ois were out, I pulled together the best little outfit I could to greet him. I was nervous, because my mother wanted to be rescued bad, and I wanted to be in a nice, safe place too. The stakes were high. I was home alone when my mother and Fran?ois returned (I was home alone a lot as a child). Determined to do my part to make this relationship work for my mother, I ran to the door. Fran?ois came in ahead of her. He was a tall, imposing older man in a dark suit with sharp, mysterious features. Hello! I began cheerily, perhaps throwing in a curtsy for dramatic effect. Shut up! he barked. Where is my son!? The force of his words crushed every bit of enthusiasm out of me. He was scary. I was only a kid, and this big stranger had stormed into my house, dismissed me, and screamed at me. I ran crying to my mothers bedroom. She tried to calm me down, but I was inconsolable. Im not sure if Fran?ois ever saw Morgan (who had our fathers Black features running all up and through him). But needless to say, no rich, heroic man saved us that day; no man saved us any day. I did not like or trust most of my mothers men. She had one older Black boyfriend, Leroy, who tried to protect us from Morgan during one of his more violent episodes by saying, I got my piece, and flashing a pistol. Imagine that: your mothers boyfriend carrying a gun and threatening to use it on her teenage son, your brother. Sadly, it did make me feel safer; Morgan had become a scary presence to me by then. However, my mothers men were not all bad. Nothing and no one is ever all bad. There was a sweet man in my mothers life named Henry. He was my favorite. He was about ten years younger than my mother and a horticulturalist. He drove an old red pickup truck, outfitted for the field; his many gardening tools, tree cuttings, mulch, and other supplies would stick out from the back. He knew his trade. He was very well educated and grew extraordinary plants that towered over me (mainly some species that were illegal at the time). He also grew an impressive Afro that seemed to float around his head. My mother and I lived in a few different places with Henry, but for a while the three of us were in a small house on a grand estate, where he was the gardener. The place gave me plantation vibes, and we lived in the modern equivalent of the servants quarters. But still, Henrys house was nicer than most of the houses wed lived in and gave me a brief moment of stability. I was in the third grade when we lived there, and Henry built me a swing on a big, old tree that was near what looked to me like a mini-mountain made of garbage. One day he brought home two rescue kittens, one for me and one for him. I liked his better; he was orange, with a very special spirit. Ultimately he became mine. He grew to be big and squishy, and his name was Morris, like the icon. Id sit and swing with him on my lap. We truly loved each other. I confided in him when I had a really hard day at school, which was often. I never fit in with the kids, who were all white and most of whom lived in the estates in that neighborhood. I was the child of the girlfriend of the hired help, and they let me know it. I brought my troubles to Morris. Even if I had had any friends I wouldnt have wanted them to see I lived near a trash dump. Once, when I was really upset after having a pretty big argument with my mother, I ran out of the house, grabbed my cat, and headed for my place. While swinging over the hill o garbage with Morris in my lap, the smell of rotting food wafting over my face, I promised myself no matter what, I would never forget what it felt like to be a childa moment I re-created years later in the Vision of Love video. (Sans the garbage. I wanted to be sentimental, not bleak.) I really liked Henry; he was an Aries just like me. We would dance, and he would pick me up and twirl me around. He provided me with glimpses of what the life of a carefree little girl could be. Henry was kind, and he paid for my second year of performing arts summer camp. I remember his mother, who used to work for Est?e Lauder and was an exceptional cook. One day she laid out a divine soul food spread, ending with a German chocolate cake, which I had never had before. It was a delicious, warm, gooey, homemade pile of happiness. But with all that love also came darkness. Henry was a Black Vietnam veteran and was severely damaged by the consequences of both of those identities. I suspect he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and, even as a kid, I was aware of his occasional psychedelic drug usage. I believe the fallout from his experiences of war and racism was the root cause of why he and my mother broke up. One day near the end of my third-grade school year I got home and my mother was up in arms. She announced, We cant stay here anymore. We have to leave now. She already had our things packed and in her car. Henry was sitting in a chair in the middle of the kitchen. The lights were off, and I could see the strong silhouette of his Afro. He was holding a long double-barreled shotgun in one of his hands. Staring down at the white linoleum floor, he said very calmly, Youre not leaving me. Im not gonna let you guys leave. He never raised his head or voice and seemed to be in a kind of trancelike state. Im not going to let you guys go, he said. Im going to chop you up and put you in the refrigerator and make you guys stay here. Well, after he said that, I rushed to get into the car. My mother started the engine. Morris! I screamed. I have to get Morris; hes still in there! Panicked, I jumped out of the car. I was determined to get my cat. That cat represented too much for me; he was unconditional love to me. Be careful, my mother said, as she let me reenter a house occupied by an armed man who had just threatened to chop us up. (Henry never did anything to hurt me and perhaps she believed he wouldnt now, but still.) I had to pass the kitchen, with Henry and the shotgun, to search the other rooms for Morris. When I finally found him, I scooped him up in my arms, ran out of the house, and jumped in the car. As we sped off, my heart was going a mile a minute. Hallelujah, I got Morris! I triumphantly exclaimed. I never knew what happened between her and Henry, and I never saw him after that day. I heard that many years later, while he was riding down the road in his same vintage red pickup, Vision of Love, by Mariah Carey, came bursting through his old radio. I was told that he rolled down the window and yelled out into the fresh air, She made it! She made it! I really hope Henry made it too. My mother did occasionally try to give us moments. She would save up a little money so we could do things like go to dinner in New York City. And it was on these excursions that I developed a taste for the finer things. I have a distinct memory of one night when we were riding back from the city. I was looking out the back window at the New York City skyline, and I said to myself, This is where Im going to live when I grow up. I want to have this view. I always knew we lived in shitty places among other peoples nice houses in the suburbs. I never dreamed Id get married and live in a big white Victorian house, or even a cozy little home like my guncles. But I did envision something grand. I remember watching Mommie Dearest and seeing Joan Crawfords pristine manor. Thats what I want, I thought. I even believed I could surpass its splendor. Even then, I saw myself living in a mansion or more, because I knew I would realize my dreams. And when I saw the New York skyline, looking like a giant silver crystal encrusted with multicolored jewels, I envisioned I would live somewhere where I could see that. And I do. I see it clearly; I see the entire city from the rooftop of my downtown Manhattan penthouse. As a result of a lot of hard labor, I went from swinging over garbage to singing in a mansion in the sky. So yes, my mother exposing me to beauty and culture gave me encouragement and lifelong lessons that contributed both to my art and to what is good in me. But my mother also created persistent turmoil, which caused trauma and deep sadness. It has taken me a lifetime to find the courage to confront the stark duality of my mother, the beauty and the beast that coexist in one personand to discover theres beauty in all of us, but who loved you and how they loved you will determine how long it takes to realize it. Looking back now, I can see that in my early years, there was significant neglect. For one, there were the people my mother let be around me, particularly my violent brother, my troubled sister, and their sketchy cohorts. And I often looked a mess, though I believe that was likely a result of my mother being oblivious (in the name of being bohemian) rather than malicious. However, I noticed a shift in our relationship when I was about fourteen years old. One night, as we were riding together in the Dodge dent, as she called it, Somebodys Watching Me, by Rockwell, came on the radio. It was a huge international hit on Motown Records at the time, and I loved it, largely because Michael Jackson sang the hook. We were driving and bopping along with the song when my mother broke out into Michaels signature part of the chorus. I always feel like / Somebodys watching me. She sang it in an elaborate, operatic style, and I turned my face to the window to hide my giggle. I mean, its a very eighties R and B record, with the hook sung in Michael Jacksons impeccably smooth signature style, so to hear it delivered like Beverly Sills (a popular Brooklyn-born operatic soprano from the 1950s to the 1970s) was pretty hilarious to my teenage singers ears. Oh, but Mother was not amused. She whipped the volume knob down and glared at me, her brownish-green eyes narrowing and hardening to stone. Whats so funny? she spat. Her seriousness quickly swallowed up the silliness of the moment. I stuttered, Um, well thats just not how it goes. She stared at me until every bit of lightness faded. Almost growling, she said, You should only hope that one day you become half the singer I am. My heart dropped. Still, to this day, what she said haunts and hurts me. I dont know if she meant to cut me down to size or it was just her bruised ego talking; all I know is that those words that shot out of her mouth pierced my chest and were buried in my heart. These words were there in my heart in 1999 when I was acknowledged and respected for my voice and my compositions by two of the greatest opera talents of all time. I was invited to join Luciano Pavarotti in Pavarotti and Friends, a prestigious annual fundraising concert for children in war-torn countries, hosted by the great tenor, the maestro, in his hometown of Modena, Italy. (The concert was directed for TV by Spike Lee, ya dig?) Its an ancient town known for producing fancy sports cars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis as well as balsamic vinegarand Im sure whatever indulgences the maestro desired were imported. I brought my mother and my wonderful little nephew Mike with me. I was proud and happy to be able to treat her to a glamorous trip and to introduce her to one of her idols. In a strapless pale-pink silk taffeta sheath gown, my mother watched me share a grand outdoor stage in front of fifty thousand people with one of the greatest and most famous opera singers of all time. Not only did we sing together, he sang my song: Pavarotti sang an Italian version of Hero with me, for the whole world to see. For my mother to see. Then, in May 2005, I met the phenomenal soprano Leontyne Price (the first Black woman to become a prima donna at the Metropolitan Opera and the most awarded classical singer) when she was being honored at Oprahs illustrious Legends Ball, which celebrated twenty-five African American women in art, entertainment, and civil rights. The historic weekend began on Friday with a private luncheon at her Montecito home, where the legends were greeted by the younguns, including Alicia Keys, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Mary J. Blige, Naomi Campbell, Missy Elliott, Tyra Banks, Iman, Janet Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, myself, and many more. And throughout the extraordinary weekend, we younguns paid homage to the legends for their great contributions. My mother would often boast, Oh yes, Leontyne and I had the same vocal coach, and here I was hanging out with her (at Oprah Winfreys house no less)! Madame Price remembered my mother, and she also validated my talent. On the day after Christmas that year, on the most elegant, thick, eggshell-colored stationery I received a letter from her: In the difficult, demanding business of performing arts, you are the crown jewel of success. To achieve your level of success as a multi-dimensional artist is an outstanding measure of your artistic talent. It went on to say, It was a pleasure to visit with you during the Legends Weekend and to tell you in person how much I admire you and your artistry. Your creativity and performances are superb. You present your compositions with a depth of feeling that is rarely, if ever, seen or heard. It is a joy to watch you turn all of the obstacles you faced into stepping-stones to success. Your devotion to your art and career are praiseworthy. This brings you a standing ovation and a resounding Brava! Brava! Brava! *Dead* I guess to my mother, I may not have been half the singer she was, but I was the whole singer and artist I was. This was my first glimpse into how misguided words from a mother can really affect a child. What a simple difference a laugh along from her would have made. Whatever had connected us before, a fragile mother-daughter bond, was shattered in that moment. There was a distinct shift: she made me feel like the competition, like a threat. In place of our previous bond grew a different tie, a rope tethering us through shared biology and social obligation. In no way did my mother crush my dreams of being successful that day; my faith had grown too strong by then. Having people you love be jealous of you professionally comes with the territory of success, but when the person is your mother and the jealousy is revealed at such a tender age, its particularly painful. I was going through some heavy shit then, and for her to expose her insecurity to me in that way, at that time, was damaging. Id already had so many years of insecurity around my physical safety. Though a subtle, brief moment, this was the first big blow in a long line of times when people close to me would try to put me down, put me in my place, underestimate me, or take advantage of me. But she, above all, was the most devastating, because she was the most essential. She was my mother. DANDELION TEA A flower taught me how to pray But as I grew, that flower changed She started flailing in the wind Like golden petals scattering Petals She called herself Dandelionthe hearty, bright-yellow wildflower with small tooth-shaped petals that gives the early signal that spring is near. After its flowering is finished, the petals dry and the head becomes a ball of lacy dust feathers carrying seeds. The legend goes that if you close your eyes, make a wish, and blow the feathery pieces into the air, your wish will scatter into the world and come true. The English sometimes call them Irish daisies. And the tea made from the root and leaves is widely believed to have healing benefits. But these wildflowers can also be a menace, poisoning precious flowers and growing grassweeds to be uprooted and discarded. When I was a little girl, my older sister seemed to live on the wind. She was always somewhere far away. Childhood memories of her exist in my mind as flashes of lightning and thunder. She was exciting but unpredictableher torrential gusts always carried inevitable destruction with them. The distances between my mother, my father, their first daughter, and myself are far reaching. Unlike her, growing up, I never spent any significant time as part of a whole interracial family. Most of my experiences were with one parent at a timeme with my mother, or me with my father. I have no recollection of them as a happily married couple. It is bizarre to me that they were even married, not just because of race, but how different they were as people. But before I was born, the Carey family consisted of a Black father, a white mother, and a mixed boy and girl. The four of them would walk down the street, and people would know. This rebel Carey quartet experienced the spectacular ignorance and wrath of a society woefully unprepared to receive or accept them; Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that struck down the law banning interracial marriage in the United States, wouldnt happen until three years after my mother and fathers marriage. As a result of the hostility from their community and country, Morgan and Alison were instructed by our parents to refer to them as Mother and Father, in the hope, I imagine, that the formality might elevate their status to respectable. My parents seemed to think that if neighbors or other onlookers heard their girl and boy say, Good morning, Mother or Hello, Father, they wouldnt perceive them as disgusting. Morgan and Alison were beautiful children and were very close when they were young. Alison had skin like creamy butterscotch pudding, with a head of thick, deep, dark curls and eyes to match. She was extremely intelligent and curious and she loved to learn. I was told she brought home good grades, got into good schools, and loved music too. But she lived firsthand the discomfort and animosity directed at her and her offbeat Black and white family. She saw their neighbors throw raw meat studded with broken glass to their dogs, and their family car blown up. She saw things inside the family too, things a child should never see and I will never know. I do know that what she experienced damaged and derailed her girlhood. She was fully aware when the family unit unraveled and our parents turned on each other; she absorbed the full pain of a family coming undone. She also saw another daughter come into the clan, breaking the symmetry and changing her status as the only girl and youngest. I was the new little one. When my mother and father could no longer live together without emotionally torturing each other, they tore themselves apart to survive separately. The three of us children would be plagued by pain, resentment, and jealousy for a lifetime. Alison and Morgan both believed I had it easier than they did. Our father was very strict with them. He was not harsh with me because three or four years old was the oldest I had been when we were all together. During one of their countless fights, I vaguely remember my mother yelling at him something like, This one is mine! You will not beat this one. I was her little one. She often said she didnt have the strength to challenge my fathers aggression when my siblings were growing up. I only have one memory of all of us having dinner together. It was a sort of restorative dinnermy parents trying one more time to see if we could pull it together and be a family. We were all sitting around the table, and I started singing. My father said, Children should be seen and not heard. The entertainer in me took that as a cue, so I got up from the dining table, walked the few feet to the living room area (which was in plain view and well within earshot), stood on top of the coffee table, and continued to sing at the top of my lungs. Alison and Morgan dropped their heads, ducking before the wrath of our father that they were certain would inevitably ricochet around the room. But my mother gave him a look, and he didnt say anything. My sister and brother were flabbergasted. I was not hit, yelled at, punished, or even stopped. They would have never, ever dared defy our father. No wonder they hated me. Needless to say, the dinner didnt save us. Divorce was inevitable. My mother and father made the final decision to break up before all was broken. I remember I was taken to our neighbors house, and they gave me popcorn while my family was next door discussing the dismantling of the Careys. After several violent encounters involving the police, by court order my father and brother could not live together. At one point Morgan had been taken to Sagamore Childrens Psychiatric Center, a care facility for seriously emotionally troubled children and families in crisis. Morgan was a crisis. I also heard a psychiatrist had concluded that a significant contributing factor in Morgans behavioral problems was Alison, who had a talent for instigating and manipulating Morgan to his breaking points. Alison is very clever. So Morgan had to live with my mother, and she had made it clear to my father that he would not have me. That left Alison scattered. Ive heard Alison express that she felt like my mother tossed her away, that she clearly loved Morgan and me more than her. Ive also heard my mother say Alison chose to live with our father because she felt bad and didnt want him to be alone. There is likely some truth in both of their perspectives. I was too young to really understand. I dont really know what life was like for my sister living with our father, just the two of them, broken and angry. It mustve been dangerously claustrophobica constant clashing of feelings of abandonment and resentment toward my mother under their roof. They had no real space to resolve, no chance to heal. Order and obedience was how my father tried to make sense out of the chaos of society and the rubble his family structure had become. The child now in his sole care was a bitter, broken teenage girl, and he had no tools to deal with her dysfunction and hurt. Eventually my father and Alison did form a bond, united in their disdain for my mother. I believe they also bonded over the inevitable visibility of their Blackness. Predictably, Alison turned to boys and sex in an attempt to fill the family-sized hole of rejection in her heart. At fifteen she met a handsome Black nineteen-year-old military man, and Alison got pregnant. Our mother wanted her to have an abortion. Our father told her she could have the baby if she got married. The young man was stationed in the Philippines, and with our fathers permission Alison followed him, and they got married there. Before she left, I recall sitting on the bed with her in her room at our fathers house. What I remember of her room was that on her wall was a shelf of books and a shelf of fancy dollsthe ones with big, poofy lace quincea?era-type dresses. I would look up at those dolls, far out of my reachthere for show, not for playing. I was staring at them when she pointed to her belly and said, Theres a baby in there. A baby where? In her stomach? I was too young and didnt understand at all what she meant. I didnt understand much about Alison then. Ill never forget her bizarre combined baby and bridal shower at my mothers house. They put a little girl on the cakea doll, not one that looked like a grown woman but a little baby doll with dark brown hair like my sisters. The whole thing was so confusing to me. I was a little girl, wondering, Is this a baby-is-coming party or a girl-is-going party? I couldnt tell if it was a festive or tragic occasion. My mother was pacing and pissed off. My teenage sister had a swollen belly, and she kept pointing at it and saying to me, Theres a baby in here; look, theres a baby in here. And there was this weird cake with a little doll on it. How was a little girl supposed to understand all of this? And so, for a long time afterward, I always thought, Okay, so I guess at fifteen is when people have kids and get married. It twisted my reality. But it also focused me. I made the promise to myself that was not going to be me. My sense of self-worth, or rather, my sense of self-preservation was born at that bon voyage/bridal/baby shower. I vowed I was not going to be promiscuous ever. This promise to live a different life led me to become a very prudish person. I knew thensuddenly finding myself an auntie before I was eight years oldthat Alisons path was not going to be my life. Once the last slice of baby-bridal cake was gone, my sister was gone too, for several years. I will never understand what happened to her in the Philippines. But I do know when she left my fathers house, the remainder of her fragile childhood was left behind. After a few years in the Philippines, Alison returned to Long Island. I was about twelve years old, and she was twenty. Whatever had happened to her over there, or on Long Island, or in a back room somewhere, had taken its toll on her. That super-smart, beautiful girl with the dark curls who was my big sister had hardened into a strange kind of absence. Something, or many things, must have happened to her to lead her to barter her body for money and drugs, as she went on to do for years. Back then, there was so much I didnt know, but there also was so much I should have never found out, certainly not so young. The years between us might as well have been centuries. When Alison came back, she would drift from place to place and man to man, occasionally crashing with us at my mothers house between the many random relationships with men she collected and discarded. There was one older manI guessed he was about sixty. He had half a head of hair, all of which was gray. He was polite to my mother and would sometimes fill our refrigerator with food, so I guess she trusted him? One evening at the shack, Alison and my mother got into one of their innumerable epic arguments, and for some unknown reason Alison took me with her to this older gentlemans house. Theres little of his house, or that night, that I remember because when we arrived, Alison sat me down on a light-brown couch and handed me a little chalky ice-blue pill with a crease carved down the middle and a glass of water. Here, take this, she said. I took it. Within minutes (I think) I was in a heavy, scary darkness, pushed down into a place beneath sleep, and I couldnt pull myself out. I dont know how long I was knocked out. I felt like Id been absorbed into the couch (the only reason I remember the color). It was harrowing. At twelve, I probably weighed eighty pounds soaking wet, and Alison gave me a whole Valium. I dont know why my sister drugged me. I dont know why my mother let me go with her and this man. Perhaps they both wanted me out of their hair for the evening, but my life was in jeopardy in her hands. This may have been the first time that year she could have seriously hurt me, but it certainly wasnt the last. Even though by her twenties Alison had already gotten married, given birth, gotten divorced, traveled thousands of miles away, and done dreadful things, she could still be zany and spontaneous. The worst had not yet happened between us, so I was genuinely happy for the wild stray visits she made to my mothers house. On her good days she was a bright burst of energy in our often-bleak little dwelling. She seemed mature and had a hollow kind of glamour. She took a new interest in me as a preteen now rather than a little girl. She paid attention to the obviously neglected outside of me, swooping in and correcting my disastrous attempts to make myself pretty, which to a twelve-year-old means everything. After I accidentally made my hair all kinds of shades of ugly orange, she took me to get a toner for my hair and made it one color. She took me to a place that made my eyebrows beautiful. She took me shopping for my first bra. She and I would make earnest attempts at being normal. We were trying to be sistersor so I thought. Even though I was young, I knew my sister was doing things that were not good. I mean, she had a beeper, and only drug dealers, rappers, and doctors had beepers back then. She wore a nice manicurebright-pink nail polish, sometimes decorated with rhinestones. Once, as she was dropping me off in front of my mothers house, she dipped a sharp pink nail tip into some white crystal powder and held it up to my face, saying, Just try it, just try a little bit; who cares? I knew it was cocaine, and it scared me to death. Thank God, I didnt take the sniff. I played it off and calmly replied, No thanks! Bye; see you later. I shudder to think what couldve happened if Id walked into her trap and then that house. I dont know what wouldve happened if Id snorted cocaine right before seeing my mother, or ever in my life. It was all such a setup. Alison began bringing me around her friends, and I started looking forward to our secret outingsthough for all the initial glamour and excitement, it was a very scary time in my life. Even though it was a long time ago, I still have nightmares about it. Alison did not choose how her life began, and I know she went through trauma too. It seemed as though shed turned completely away from the light. One day, she explained that it was time for me to meet her fabulous boyfriend, John, and the other girls she hung around, who shed been telling stories to me about. John was tall, with green eyes, a large, fluffy Afro, and a strong charisma. Christine, a seventeen-year-old runaway white girl, an older woman named Deniseolder meaning she was maybe twenty-eightand my sister, then in her early twenties, all lived in a house together with John. I looked up to Christine; she had a worldly air about her, yet she also seemed like a little girl. Her pale skin was sprinkled with tan freckles, and she had medium-blond hair that fell softly to her shoulders, which were long and thin like the rest of her body. She couldve been in a teen movie, but instead she was there, in that house. She was damaged. Johns house was nicer, brighter, and cleaner than where I lived. They had a brand-new couch. There was a television, and I could watch whatever shows I wanted. They had all the snacks I could want. They had Juicy Juice. We couldnt afford any of that at home. A couple of times my sister came to where I lived and filled the refrigerator with the stuff I liked. This was part of the confusion I felt about our relationship. It sometimes felt and looked like she cared, but her motives were always unclear. Was she being a nice big sister, or was she creating an appetite in me for what I knew I could have all the time at Johns house? It was manipulation masquerading as love. My sister told me not to tell anyone I was going to the house where she lived with John, especially not my brother. She told me that my brother didnt like him because John had beat him at backgammon. Being so young and na?ve at the time, I believed their animosity was about a board game, not a prostitution and drug operation. So there was no one who knew, no one to protect me. Dysfunctional families are ideal prey for abusers, the exposed little ones vulnerable to being picked off. Now, of course, its clear to me that the fun house was a whorehouse. I think my sister was kind of like the hustler, the talent scout. But at the time, I had no idea; after all, I was only a twelve-year-old girl. Winning me over was so easyliterally like giving a kid candy, but instead of candy it was a hair rinse, a bra, and a Juicy Juice box. John, my sister, and I would drive to the city together. I remember one time we were going somewhere, and the radio was playing a song he loved. He loudly screamed out the lyrics, while my sister and I giggled at his strangled singing. They let me smoke cigarettes in the backseat of the car. I felt cool and free. We would go to IHOP to get pancakes. They took me to Adventureland and I played Pac-Man. In those moments, I almost felt like someones precious little sister. I was having all these fun adventures and thinking to myself, I finally know what it feels like to have a big sister whos in my life for good. And I like this easy breezy guy, John. This was what Id been missing. I was starting to feel something resembling stability, a sense that I had something that looked like a normal family and was moving toward somewhere I belonged. But confusing and curious things quickly started happening. The closer I got to my sister, the more clearly I could see her broken parts. She had secretly gotten me my own phone line, which only she called me on. She would have these desperate bouts of drug-induced hysteria and call me late at night, in the middle of an episode. Id talk her down off the ledge, then try to go back to sleep, get up early in the morning, and complete the seventh grade. No one at school knew that frequently, just a few hours earlier, I had subdued my suicidal big sister. Killing herself became a common threat that she shared with me in the wee hours before I went to the school bus stop. Then the calls stopped for a while. Finally, one day, Alison phoned and said she and John were coming to pick me up. I was excited to think of the three of us together again, riding, laughing, smoking, singing, and playing. But John showed up alone. We began driving, but there was no radio blasting, no talking. It wasnt fun at all, and I felt that something wasnt right. Finally I asked, Where is my sister? When are we going to pick her up? John kept his eyes forward and assured me, Oh, shell be here later. I was sitting in the front seat, and I could clearly see the handgun resting against his thigh. John, his gun, and I made two stops: a card game and a drive-in movie. Theres a look, a feel, and a smell to rooms where grown men play in the dark. It was dank and cluttered. The air was dense with cheap booze, stale menthol cigarette smoke, and unspoken perversions. There were no pretty things. It was hard for me to see and hard to breathe. I dont know exactly how many men there were; I dont know how many guns, how much money, or how many vile thoughts were at the tablebut I do know it was all men, and me. I sat in a corner on the sticky floor where I could see the door and held onto myself. I stayed still and kept my eyes down as the grown-man jokes, grown-man cussin, grown-man hungers, grown-man fears, and grown-man fantasies flew above my head. Every now and then Id catch a glimpse of one of them leering at me or hear a lewd reference to me in their conversation. I dont remember how I got from the card-room floor back into the front seat of his car. What I do remember is feeling dirty from the sticky floor and the mens filthy words. I knew my sister was not coming to clean me up this time. A panic bubbled up in my throat. Where am I going? Why am I alone with my sisters boyfriend? Why did he take me around those disgusting men? Why cant we just go to IHOP? Where is my sister? Where is she? I began to pray. Our next stop was the drive-in, where almost immediately John put his arm around me. My body went stiff. My eyes were fixed on his gun. John pushed in closer and forced a hard kiss on me. I was nauseous and scared; I felt immobilized. From the corner of my eye I noticed an elderly white man pull up and park next to us, peering directly into Johns car. The look on the mans face was a mix of revulsion and recognition. He clearly saw an adult manJohn, with his round Afroand a little girl, small with blond coils of hair. He saw the powder-blue car and Johns light-brown skin. He saw the details, and even if he didnt detect my distress, he could see this was no place a little girl would ever want to be. John pulled out of the drive-in slowly and drove me home in silence. I committed that mans face to memory. He is still there, fresh and frozen in that terrible time. I believe he was a prayer in person. After a couple of days back in my room, the phone began ringing again, but this time I wouldnt pick it up. I resumed pretending I had a regular seventh-grade life. I wanted to be a child again. Sometimes all the kids in my neighborhood would play chase (tag) at night. Most of them lived in nice houses with two parents, and sisters who didnt burden them with thoughts of suicide and set them up with pimps. I longed to blend in to a typical summer night in an everyday Long Island neighborhood, to play and clown around with other regular kids. I just wanted to outrun my drama through a game of chase. We often played in an area not far from the beach that had a kind of roundabout. We would hang out at that spot and sometimes build a fire, make funny voices, and sing. One night we were deep in a group game of chase, kids scattered about running and weaving, when I saw a car coming down the road. I immediately recognized it as Johns car. It was creeping along, ever so slowly, as if the driver was looking for something or someone. Panicking, I instinctively ducked behind a house, pretending to hide from whoever was it. There was no way I could tell my friends that I was it to a pimp with a gun. John eventually drove away. Though I had narrowly escaped him again, the fear of men followed me for a very long time. When I got home I unplugged the phone from the wall and disconnected from trusting my big sister forever. I had nobody to tell what had happened. I couldnt tell my mother. I didnt have any real, close friends. I had never really fit in. Even if I did, how could I have explained it to a kid from a regular household who ate dinner at six oclock, went to bed at nine thirty, and got in trouble when they didnt brush their teeth? Theyd never be able to understand. Big sisters are supposed to protect younot pimp you out. So I didnt tell or trust anybody. But as a girl, you still want your big sister, and dandelions are still flowers when they first bloom. One visit from my sister, among all the visits and memories, marked me the deepest. We tried to have tea. Tea was a thing in my mothers house, but it was anything but proper. There was no cheery, whistling kettle; we boiled the water in a small beat-up saucepan on an old stove in the tiny, flavorless, dingy, grime-colored kitchen. Matching cups and saucers were certainly nowhere to be found; we had mismatched cups and mugs, the kind found in the box marked Free at yard sales on Long Island. English breakfast was the staple tea flavor; we each had a cup with a steeping tea bag. I had a thick ceramic brown drip-glazed mug that was chipped at the lip. I was holding the steaming, fragrant black tea with both hands when the phone rang. Oh hello, Al, we heard our mother answer. It was our father. We were both a little shocked. My father rarely called my mothers house, and if he did, it was almost always to scold us about something. Alison and I exchanged a quick glancewho had done what now? Suddenly my mother looked in my direction, and I could tell they were discussing me. I vigorously shook my head no and mimed refusal. Alison and I were just about to have tea, maybe even a rare light moment, and I knew Id have to get serious when it came to talking with our father. And who knew what Alison might have done that Id have to hear about. But Mother didnt cover for us. Yes, shes here; hold on, she said, holding the phone out and shaking it at me. Whatever normal sister moment Alison and I were trying to create was totally blown. I straightened my face, got up begrudgingly, and took the phone. Then I shook it and stretched the cord over to Alison, gesturing for her to take it. Nooooo, you take it, she said back. A silly back-and-forth commenced between us for a few momentsa game of who would take the burden of talking to Father. It was almost fun. Finally I put the receiver to my ear. Hi, Father. Im fine, I said, repressing the urge to let out a little giggle. As I went through the mechanical niceties of the conversation, my sister began gesturing wildly, shaking her head and slicing her hand across her throat, signaling for me not to let on that she was there. As I tried my best to carry on the conversation with our father, I made silly faces back at her, doing all I could not to break into laughter. My sister could be pretty theatrical, and in that moment I found her extra hilarious. I thought we were playing a game. Eventually I figured it was her turn to try and talk seriously to our father while I tried to make her laugh, so I said, Guess whatAlison is here! Want to talk to her? Laughingly, I motioned at her to take the phone. But she wasnt looking at me. She was looking down at her mug of still-steaming tea in her hand, and when she lifted her face, her eyes were rabid, without a trace of their former playfulness. Before I realized what was happening, she yelled No! and, in a flash, threw the boiling-hot tea on me. The next thing I remember I was stripped down to my waist, and a doctor was removing the remaining bits of my white-and-turquoise diagonal-striped top, which was embedded into the flesh of my shoulder, with large tweezers. The doctor had had to slice off my shirt with an instrument, as some of the fibers had begun to fuse with my skin. (I fucking loved that topone of the very few cute pieces I had, and now it was out of rotation, stuck to my back.) My back was splattered with third-degree burns. I couldnt recognize it as mine, as it turned different shades of maroon from the violent scalding I received at the hands of my sister. The horrific physical sensation had been so intense that I blacked out. Afterward, my back was numb and couldnt be touched without causing me excruciating pain. It took years before I could accept a simple pat on the back, as most of my skin had to completely renew and repair itself. The deepest injury, though, was from the emotional trauma. Feelings are not like skin; there are no fresh new cells coming to replace ruined ones. Those scars go unseen, unacknowledged, and unhealed. The truly irreversible damage to me came from the burn of my big sister, not the tea. Her arson was deliberateshe burned my back and my trust. Any faint hope Id held up to that point of having a big sister became scorched earth. I know my sister was deeply wounded. She is the most brilliant and broken person I have ever known. I may never understand what hurt her so badly that it made her hurt so many others in return, but to me, she was her own most permanently damaged victim. From my perspective she chose to take up permanent residence in Victimland. The promise of her life was squandered in a tragic series of cheap bargains rather than being redeemed through the difficult, lifelong work of recovery and rebuilding oneself. Alison has burned me in many ways and more times than I can count. Over and over I have tried to be her fire department, financing treatments and paying for stays in premium rehabs. But even with substantial resources, there is no way to rescue someone who doesnt realize theyre burning. The scars I carry from my sister are not just a reminder, they are lessons. They have taught me that perhaps our worlds are far too different to ever overlap, hers made of fire and mine of the light. I always hoped and wished Alison would get better, so we could get better. I understand she was severely emotionally injured and had to take her enduring pain out on someone. She chose me. Through the years, both my sister and brother have put me on the chopping block, sold lies to any gossip rag or trashy website that would buy or listen. They have attacked me for decades. But when I was twelve years old, my sister drugged me with Valium, offered me a pinky nail full of cocaine, inflicted me with third-degree burns, and tried to sell me out to a pimp. Something in me was arrested by all that trauma. That is why I often say, Im eternally twelve. I am still struggling through that time. And I miss you, dandelion And even love you And I wish there was a way For me to trust you But it hurts me every time I try to touch you Petals DETANGLED AND SWEPT AWAY In the photograph, bright rays of sun shine down on me like a spotlight, and the hot dog Im holding has a big, happy bite taken out of it. My hair is a range of gold highlights, raw sienna, wheat blond, and sweet lemon, lit by the sun. Soft, thick waves of it are blowing in layers away from my face as a few ringlets sweep up off my shoulders. There is a tenderness in my gaze, cut slightly with seriousness at the edges of my eyes. This photo is one of my favorites from my childhood. In it, I look like a typical first grader on summer break. I look like I belong to somebody who knows how to look after me. I appear well cared for. But I wasnt. My childhood was rife with neglect. There were many things about me that my mother didnt understand how to nurture or maintainbut the most obvious, most symbolic, and most visible was my hair. My hair was rooted to no one. No one did my hair. No one knew how. We didnt have conditioner (or cream rinse, as it was called back in the day) at my mothers house. There were no pomades, wide-toothed combs, or hard-bristled brushes. There was no Sunday ritual of getting my hair washed and braided; certainly, there was no greasing of the scalp. There was no order made in my hair. I never felt the tidiness or security of having my hair done. As a result, my hair was often a matted, tangled mess. And no one around me could fully understand the particular humiliation of being a nonwhite little girl with unkempt hair. I didnt have the language for it, but I carried the burden of how it felt. My neglected hair was a siren, signaling that I was different from all the little white girlsand from little Black girls too. My wild, mixed, and mangled curls made me feel inferior, unworthy of receiving proper attention. There was no going to the salon, dahling. I dont recall my mother ever going to a salon. She fully subscribed to that bohemian, no-fuss beauty philosophy of the 1950s and 60s. For her, a full beat face was eyelinera little cat wing, if she was being extra fancya swish of mascara, a touch of blush, a lip, and voil?! Flawless face. Her hair was fabulous, either up or down. Even if she had believed in seeking professional grooming services, for her or me, we could never afford it. And besides, there were no salons in that part of Long Island that could comprehend the contradictions of my tendrils, the sheer complexities of the needs of my hair. At that time there werent mixed-texture professionals anywhere, really, nor were there any specialized products. I was living tangled in between an Afro Sheen and a Breck Girl world. The two constant representations of female beauty I saw on a daily basis were my mother and TV commercials. I admired and deeply desired the dark, smooth perfection of my mothers long, luxurious hair. The contrast between how my mothers hair looked when she woke up in the morning and how mine did was profound. She would shake her head, and thick, straight hair would tumble down like a yard of heavy silk crepe, draping into an elegant pool across her shoulders. I, on the other hand, had smashed-down, fuzzy, sweaty clumps, exploding in a cacophony of knots, waves, and curls all over my head. And then there was the hair I saw on TV, the magnificent, sunshine-filled, slow-motion-blowing-in-the-wind-while-running-barefoot-through-fields-of-flowers hair. I was enchanted by those commercials, especially the ones for Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo. It was as if Eve herself was in the Garden of Eden, bottling the thick, emerald-green nectar made of earthly delights of herbs and wildflowers. I was convinced this shampoo would give me the heavenly hair, blown by gusts of angels wings, that I saw in the commercial. I wanted that shampoo so bad. I wanted that angelic, blowing hair so bad. (Because of those commercials, Olivia Newton-John, and the Boss, Diana Ross, I still am obsessed with blowing hair, as evidenced by the wind machines employed in almost every photo shoot of me ever.) Young and culturally isolated, I had no idea how to manage my hair, nor the shame it brought me. I often wonder if my mother ever saw the carelessness that my hair made visible. Was she too preoccupied with her own burdens to notice? Could she not feel the dryness, and the lumps and bumps, of the gnarly tangles in my head? Why couldnt she just sit me down and brush my hair for two hours, the way Marcia Brady did on The Brady Bunch? Maybe in her bohemian, sixties-loving ideology she thought I looked free, like an adorable flower child. Maybe she didnt know I felt dirty. Having one Black and one white parent is complicated, but when you are a little girl with a white mother, largely cut off from other Black women and girls, it can be excruciatingly lonely. And, of course, I had no biracial role models or references. I understand why my mother didnt understand how to manage my hair. When I was a baby, it was, well, baby hair, mostly uniform, soft curls. As I got older it got more complex, with diverse textures arising out of seemingly nowhere. She didnt know what was happening. She was confused and randomly started cutting tragic bangs in my hair (believing bangs would behave in biracial hair is brave). It was a disaster, and I felt powerless. At seven years old, I really thought maybe if she would just wash my hair with Herbal Essence, a hair fairy would come at night, and I would wake up and poof! I would have perfect hair like my mom or the girls in the commercials. It took me five hundred hours of beauty school training to know even Marcia Bradys hair wouldnt blow with abandon with just shampoo. It takes professionals, products, and production, dahlingconditioners galore, diffusers, precision cuts, special combs, clip-ins, cameras, and, of course, wind machines. It requires a lot of effort to achieve effortless hair. What I really needed was any Black woman, or anyone with some kind of culture, cream, and a comb! But even that wasnt that simple. One time my fathers half sisters staged an intervention of sorts, determined to do something about that chiles hair. It was going to be an event. I was in the second grade when my father took me to my grandfather and Nana Rubys house in Queens. Humor was a tool I used to cope, disarm, and defend myself. I also used it to express my point of view when I had no control. It was a tool I began to sharpen quite early and, to this day, utilize frequently. In the backseat of the car on the long drive to visit my fathers family, I overheard Alison, seated up front, grumbling to him about how I was absorbing my mothers quirks and eccentricities (particularly those associated with white privilege). I think she thought I was out in the world passing with our white mother (as though a child could make that distinction). And then, as if I werent there, she went on a tirade. I continued to stare silently out of the window at the dilapidated neighborhoods we had been driving through to get to Jamaica, Queens, from Long Island. Finally, I couldnt take it any longer. Achieving an (I think) impressive impersonation of my mother, especially for a six-year-old, I groaned sarcastically in her characteristically slow, low, opera diva tone: I see were taking the scenic route! At which Alison snapped her head toward my father with an exasperated See? expression on her face. He stiffened, gripped the steering wheel a little tighter, and kept his eyes forward. For effect, I didnt break my bored stare out the window. No one was entertained by my little impersonation. I tried. Sweet Nana Ruby was my fathers fathers second wife, with whom he had a whole lotta kids, half aunties and uncles to me, who subsequently produced a gang of cousins, some of whom were around my age. My father and his father, Bob Carey, had a complicated relationship. Bobs mother was from Venezuela, and it is believed his father was Blackmixed with some undocumented lightening factor, as he too was on the fairer side of what was then called the Negro spectrum. Until I was about six years old, my father hadnt spoken to his father in years. He was an only child and had a different mother than my grandfathers other children, and as warm and as welcoming as Nana Ruby and her house wereand from what I could see, she showered my father with lovestill, she was not his mother, and perhaps he felt like a bit of an outsider with them. I think he made the effort to mend things with his father for the sake of his own children as well as himself. He must have realized how isolated I was, living with just my mother in an all-white community that was becoming increasingly hostile to me. I needed to know some family. And I am forever grateful for it, because that house was a warm place bustling with family life. I loved it there. The whole neighborhood loved my grandpa. He was a regular, fun-loving guy with a hearty laugh, who wore crew socks with his slide sandals. He had a little urban vineyard in his backyard in Queens. He grew sour grapes from which he made sweet homemade wine that he stored in the basement. Nana Ruby and my aunties always had something cooking in the tiny kitchenchicken, greensbut the standout staple dish was rice and beans. I could eat whole plates of it. There was the clamoring of comforting noises: pots clanging, soul music in the background, the hum of the TV, conversations, giggles, doors opening and closing, feet running up and down the stairs. It was a lighthearted space. There were people just hanging out together, connected to one another. Being there was the closest feeling I had to having a big family, a normal family, a real family. My favorite cousins would come from the Bronx and boy, did we play! We were a creative and mischievous bunch. Sometimes we would hang out the second-story window and drop water-balloon bombs on folks passing underneath. Then wed duck down out of sight and shake in muffled hysterics. And of course, I loved anything that involved performance. My favorite was reenacting Mrs. Wiggins sketches from The Carol Burnett Show. Unsurprisingly, I insisted on playing the lead role. I had her signature walk down pat. I stuffed my little booty with a pillow, sticking it way out, acting like I had on a tight pencil skirt. I pranced about on my tippy-toes (maybe this is why I still walk on my toes), taking tiny steps. Id smack imaginary gum and pretend to file my nails, and speak in the ditsy, nasally voice I had down to perfection. I specialized in character voices very early. Oh, Mrs. Uh-Whiggins! one of my cousins would say in a silly, skewed Swedish accent. Id snap into character and wed launch into a full-on improvisation. What I loved most was all the rambunctious laughing with my cousins. I loved the sound of my laughter as a small part in the chorus of other kids who were kinda like me. Inside the house with my cousins I may have felt a part of something, but outside with kids in the neighborhood was a different story. Its always a different story with me. Even though my cousins didnt live on this mostly Black and Hispanic block in Queens, they were known because our grandpa was that guy in the neighborhood. When we were outside playing, theyd introduce me to the other kids as their cousin, and some kid would invariably say, Shes not your cousin. Shes white. Yes, she is our cousin! they would snap right back. Who my mother was, who my father was, to whom I belonged, was always in question. But hanging out with my cousins wasnt as heavy. I was part of a group. I was part of them, and they defended me. Yes, she is. It was that simple. And it was so important. My Black cousins were the only cousins I knew when I was a little girl. Because my mothers side of the family, the white side, had disowned her, I had no way of having a real relationship with any of them as a child. My cousins were well put together because their mothers were very well put together. One auntie in particular was younger, juicy, and just gorgeous. She looked ready to twirl down the Soul Train line on TV. Her makeup was consistently impeccable, lips glossed up like glass. She wore funky-chic ensembles, and her hair was always in some superb slick, snatched-back style, so she could feature face. She was giving you trendy, sexy, and coordinated at all times, almost as fab as Thelma on Good Times (but a little bit thicker). This foxy auntie sold makeup at the department store counternow that was fabulous to me. Once, she gave my favorite girl cousin and me a faux facial evaluation. As she was examining our little faces, she told Cee Cee, Your lips are good. Then she turned to me with a puzzled look and paused. I was wondering, and worrying, Whats wrong with my face? Me? Mariah, your lips arent full enough, she said with a sigh. I didnt know what they werent full enough for, but I fully accepted her analysis as fact. A few years later, I was about twelve years old and hanging out with a white girlfriend at a department store on Long Island, where they were offering free makeup demos at one of the counters. My friend, by local standards, was a beauty: big blue eyes, a thin nose, and very thin lips. I, no doubt, had on some haphazard ensemble, and who knows what the hair was doing that day. Clearly looking our age, we sat down to have our faces done. Maybe the saleslady thought we had money to buy some makeup, or she was bored, or she simply took pity on us. Whatever the case, she began the process. As my auntie had done, she studied the contours and angles of both of our faces and reported to me, Your lips are too full on top. Wait, I thought. I knew I had a thin upper lipbut not as thin as my white friend, whose lip size was the standard at the time. I wanted to say, Actually, I really want my lips to be biggerwhich I did, ever since the day of my aunties evaluationbut I held my tongue. Thus I was given two polar opposite professional opinions about my lips as a girl; they were too full for a white beauty standard and not full enough for a Black one. Who was I to believe? It was like my complexes had complexes. And there was no one to tell me, Mariah, you are good. Period. And now here we are in a world where white and Black women are filling up their butts and lips like water balloons. I guess I shouldve had my lips injected ages ago, but its too late. The whole world knows what my real lips look like, so why bother? Why would I do that now, when I can just accentuate them with lip liner, dahling? But I digress. That day at Grandpa and Nana Rubys house when I was seven, the time had come for my cousins main event. My aunties had decided it was time to put me together. Some of them were gathered upstairs in Nana Rubys bedroom, and they summoned me up. My cousins and I went upstairs toward the master bedroom, which was just right of the bathroom. I spent many moments exploring that little bathroom, fascinated with all the greasings and slatherings it contained. There were endless creams and lotions for the skin, and dressings and pomades for the hair. Imagine: skin lotion and hair grease! In this bathroom every cabinet and free space was filled with mysterious potions and products. I rarely went into the master bedroom, but it, too, was small, cramped, and comforting. It was humid and smelled like a hot candy store. A large bed, covered with a shiny, quilted white-and-maroon paisley bedspread, with ruffles at the hem, took up most of the room. There was a full-length mirror attached to the back of the door and a low dresser drawer on which my aunties had everything laid out. There was a hot plate cranking. Upon its sizzling surface was some foreign object that resembled a garden tool, with a dark wooden handle like a hammer, with teeth. Though the metal part was blackened, traces of its original gold color could be seen underneath. This mysterious hammer-fork thing sat menacingly on the plates surface, getting hotter and hotter. As I crossed the threshold into the bedroom, I felt as though I had entered an alternate universe, a secret chamberone of Black-girl beauty. My aunts motioned for me to sit on the side of the bed. I didnt know what kind of ritual was ahead, but I sure was excited. As I settled in on the edge of the bed, feet dangling off the side, I could feel many hands exploring the wild garden of knots, curls, and straight bits that made up my head of hair. My heart was racing. I felt like a long-lost princess sitting in her chambers, hoping this could be itthe moment of coronation, when my hair would finally get done and I would be transformed, presented to the world with newfound power and grace. Finally, I thought, maybe my hair would fit in. Maybe it would fall into sleek and shiny ringlets, and I would look like my cute Black girl cousins and friends who gathered in Queens. Or maybe it would lie down flat and bone straight like the hair of the little white girls I grew up among on Long Island. Either way, I was just thrilled that my hair would at last be cared for by someone who knew what to do. The action started at the back of my head, with some pulling and separating, and a little sharpness from knots coming undone. The next thing I felt was something Ill never forget. First, there was a heavy tugging and burning sensation near my neck, followed immediately by an alarming searing and sizzling sound and an unfamiliar and vicious smell, like a dirty stuffed animal set on fire. Along with significant smoke, a faint panic began to waft through the room. I couldnt make out much of what was being said, but I certainly heard, Oh shit! and Stop, stop! several times. And then it did stop. Abruptly. The excitement, the ritual, and the fixing all stopped. I stayed motionless and quiet, a small patch of hair at the nape of my neck still smoldering. My aunties were apologetic. Sorry, baby, the hot comb is too strong for your hair, my aunties explained. Sorry, baby, and that was the end of it. There would be no rites of passage into Black-girl hair society that day. I didnt emerge transformed into a presentable little girl for Harlem, Queens, or Long Island. I was still a wayward little misfit who wore a disobedient crown on her headonly now with a patch of rough, burned, uneven (and noticeably shorter) hair in the back. I was far from done. On rare occasions, my mother, brother, and I would take a drive to Jones Beach as a family. (Proximity to the beach was one of the few perks of being stranded on Long Island.) One summer morning, the three of us kids, along with one of my brothers buddies, piled into my mothers clunker on wheels and hit the road to the beach. It was a clear, bright day; you could see the ocean in the sky. It was a perfect day for the beach. My mother, sporting a light-blue cotton summer caftan with thin green stripes, was driving. All the windows were rolled down, giving the car a faux convertible feeling; my mothers bell sleeves flapped slightly in the breeze. She had on her signature big sunglasses, and her hair was customarily carefree. My brother sat next to her, shirtless, his big, fluffy Afro bouncing gently. I sat in the backseat next to my brothers friend, quietly looking out the open window, letting the warm, salty air wash over my face. I was trying to be nonchalant, not to let on I had an enormous crush on this teen-star-looking boy. His silky hair was strawberry blond, with perfect natural highlights, laid out in delicate, feathered layers and parted down the middle. Every dreamy strand rested in its perfect place. The car was quiet as we all enjoyed a rare moment of contentment. Gradually, though, I became aware that my hair had started to move. But it was not from the wind. Instead, it was from what felt like fingers. There were fingers searching through the wild, tangled bush that was my hair. I didnt dare move or speak. But the boy, he was gently plucking at my hair! Surgically, he worked on the smaller, tighter, matted bits at the ends with the big black plastic comb he kept permanently ensconced in his back pocket. He was using the very same comb that he ran through his field of perfect golden strands on my disheveled head! He pulled the comb from scalp to end in small sections. As each portion was released from the weight of its former twisted entrapment, it would float a little bit. Over the course of the ride, without a single word exchanged between us, he removed all the knots and confusion from my hair. By the time we arrived at the beach, my hair was no longer a burden. It was liberated. I dashed straight to the wateroh, how I love the ocean, a gift from my motherand as I ran I could feel my hair, buoyant and blowing in the wind for the first time. Hallelujah! My hair was actually blowing like in the commercials! I dived into the first wave I could and rode it back to shore. When I stood up and touched my hair, it was not the haphazard mix of textures I was accustomed to. Instead I touched orderly, coily, elongated curls! For the first time, my hair felt pretty. I felt pretty. I felt soft and light, as if the shame Id been carrying had been plucked out of me and washed away. As I stood in the waist-deep water, reveling in the newfound confidence brought by my liberated curls, a sudden wall of ocean appeared, crashing down, pounding against my back. My feet were swept up off the sandy floor and over my head. My tiny body was tossed like a rag doll in the strong waves that had suddenly kicked up. I had no sense of equilibrium or orientation, but I knew I was being pulled down, tumbling in surging, dark water mixed with frothy white foam and grit that was beating against my body like boxing gloves made of sandpaper. Even if I could tell which way was up and how to get there, I knew I was not strong enough to overcome the powerful currents, so I relaxed my body and went with it. I surrendered. By what I believe to be Gods grace, the ocean decided to give me back to the earth. I lay motionless on the grainy, wet sand, winded and salty. When I realized I was alive, I stood up to look for my mother. I spied her and my brother lying on an olive blanket in the distance, shades on, nonchalantly sunbathing. Oblivious. I released a mighty wail, which devolved into hysterical crying, finally catching my mothers attention. Yet another close encounter with death. To calm my shattered seven-year-old nerves, someone took me up to the boardwalk, to the hot dog stand. I was a wreckbut my hair wasnt. It was still in wavy ringlets. I had achieved perfect beach hair. That day I almost died, but my hair was done. A GIRLS BEST FRIEND From the moment I saw her, I felt both awe and identification. I idolized her. She was like a living doll, but neither baby nor Barbie; though she was a real, elegant, grown-up woman, she appeared pure and flawless, as if made of delicate lacquered porcelain. Id never seen anyone like hersuch a radiant, glamorous, vulnerable, yet powerful being. She was supernatural. I stood there staring, fascinated and frozen before the bright screen where she lived. One evening I had been walking aimlessly down the hall in one of the many houses we lived in. As I passed my mothers dark little bedroom, I casually wandered in. I cant remember whether I saw or heard her first, but I know something carried me into that room. The bedroom was lit only by the washed-out colors of the old TV facing the bed, where my mother was lying in silhouette, watching a special about the life and death of Marilyn Monroe. I softly pushed open the bedroom door, walking in on the iconic scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in which Marilyn sings Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. Her energy was like a fairys, but she looked like a goddess, swathed in a luxurious electric-pink silk gown and matching opera gloves, with diamonds of every size dripping from her ears and wrapped around her neck and wrists. The only bits of skin exposed were her face, her shoulders, and her arms down to the elbow, yet I remember her flesh seeming so rich and creamy, glistening like homemade ice cream. Her hair was just a few shades lighter, dazzling like finely spun gold. She was voluptuously shaped, with round, curvy hips, a small, cinched waist, proud, purposeful breasts, and arms that stretched wide and hugged close. She was poised, like a dancer, yet her feet didnt seem to move. Instead scores of people danced around her: fawning and fanning, kneeling and bowing down to her, conveying her above their heads like Cleopatra. Maybe she was a queen, I thought. The shining queen of movie stars. Id never heard the name Marilyn Monroe before that moment. But I was quickly hooked. Not your typical third-grade fare, perhaps, but my childhood was anything but typical. My mother very lovingly supported my fascination with Marilyn. While most girls my age adorned their walls with pictures of Holly Hobbiethe frontier rag doll with freckles and blond yarn braids in a strawberry-print bonnetI had a poster of Marilyn Monroe dressed as a sensuous showgirl, complete with a black beaded bustier, fishnets, and black patent-leather pumps. I gazed up at Marilyn before I went to sleep and first thing when I woke up. Later my mother bought me Marilyn: A Biography, by Norman Mailer. Though I was way too young for the material, like Marilyn herself I read voraciously. I pored over the large, glossy photos of her, studying all her different moods and looks. She was a shape-shifterin some photos she was impossibly beautiful and glamorous, in others she seemed shattered and about to disappear. Her hair shifted shapes, too: pin curls, pigtails, sweeping updos, bobs with deep-diving waves. I even detected unruly curls and familiar fuzz underneath the perfect, almost white-blond wave of her hair. There was also something in her physicality, something about her body type, that didnt read as typically Caucasian to me. Not only was she curvy, she had a very particular sensuality, bordering on soulful. I read a lot about Marilyn, conspiracy theories about her death and about her upbringing. The more I read, the more I connected with her and understood why I was drawn to her. She had a very difficult childhood, moving from one foster home to another. That was close to my story: being uprooted and unprotected, feeling like an outsider. I intimately understood her struggles with poverty and family. Ultimately, what I loved about Marilyn was her ability to come from nothingto belong to no oneand evolve into a huge icon. I latched onto that. I believed in that. Ive heard Marilyn mightve even been my mothers inspiration for my name. The first four letters are the same: M-A-R-I. However, my father claimed that my name comes from the Black Maria/Mariah, the infamous police van used to haul people off to prison in the UK. The story also goes that I was named after a hit 1950s show tune, They Call the Wind Maria, from Paint Your Wagon, a Broadway show about the California Gold Rush. (Both references use the soft pronunciation, with the second syllable having a rye sound.) Perhaps its a combination of all three: a 1950s starlet, a show tune, and a paddy wagon. Whatever the origin, when I was younger I didnt like my name. No one else had it, and when youre a kid thats not cool. I always wished I had a regular name like Jennifer or Heather. There were no cute stickers, key chains, or mini license plates with my name on them. But the worst part was hardly anyone could pronounce it. I always dreaded seeing a substitute teacher, knowing roll call would be a Maria/Maya calamity. I wouldnt meet another Mariah until I was about eighteen years old; she was a cool Black girl and we commiserated good-humoredly on the mispronunciations of our childhood. I had no way to imagine that only a few years after that, many people would be naming their children Mariah, after me. Of all the supposed inspirations for my name, the Marilyn Monroe connection resonates the most with meself-created and controlled, confident and vulnerable, womanly and childlike, glamorous and humble, adored and alone. Marilyn is a source of inspiration for me, and Lawd have I needed that. When I was in the eighth grade, there was a pack of pretty, mostly Irish girls whom I desperately wanted to befriend. At that time, in that town, most of these girls were considered the pinnacle of physical perfection: milky skin, silky hair, and blue eyes. They used to have a chant: Blue eyes rule! These were not nice girls. And I felt wholly inferior around them. Compared to them (and in the eighth grade, comparison is the only method of measurement) my skin was muddy, my hair was lawless. They called me Fozzie Bear (from the Muppets) because of my unruly hair, and try as I might, I could never flatten it all out to look like theirs, and my eyes were distinctly and undeniably unblue. (I liked my dark eyes, but I never stood up for myself during their weird chant.) Clearly I stood out from their group, but they let me hang with them. Maybe it was because I was the class clown, always quick to crack a joke or snap on somebody and make the whole group laugh. Even if I was only there as entertainment, I was happy to put on a show. The girl in that clique who was my closest friend (and I use that word liberally) was also the prettiest. I guess now theyd call her a frenemy. I would tell her I was interested in a boy at school, and, knowing full well I never acted on any of my crushes, she and her big blue eyes would go after him and almost always score. I believe she did this just to push me down, to let me know she had all the power. But what she didnt know was that I didnt ever pursue boys because I wanted to avoid the inevitable humiliation once they learned that half of me was Black and all of me was poor. She also didnt know that I didnt want to get wrapped up in some stupid boy and derail my dreams or, worse, get pregnant like my sister. She didnt know me at all. None of them did. Some of the girls parents did know my mother, however. They had a modicum of respect for her because she was also Irish and a professional opera singerand opera was classy. Adult drama works differently than that among teens, but they often intersect. Word got out that the Irish father of the prettiest girl was physically abusing her mother. My mother, who can get really righteous when she wants to, took it upon herself to write him a letter. In that letter Im pretty sure she disclosed that she had been married to a Black man and that he was the father of her children (of course, I wouldnt learn of the letter until much later). As I said, these were not nice girls, but eventually I was invited to go with some of them, including the prettiest one, to Southampton for a sleepover. One of them had a rich aunt, Barbara, with a fancy house near the beach. Fancy-schmancy Southampton? A sleepover with the popular girls? Of course I wanted to go. We piled into one of their big cars and took the two-hour-long drive along the lovely Atlantic edge of Long Island to the small village where the wealthy summer. (Summer was a season for me, not a verb.) The house was big, airy, and orderly. It even had an all-white room no one was allowed to enter. I was awestruck when we arrived, so busy comparing and craving that I hadnt noticed that the girls had gathered into a cluster by a door. They called over to me: Come on, Mariah. Lets go back here. Without question, I followed. They led me to what I thought would be a playroom or a den (I knew wealthy people had dens). It was a smaller room in the rear of the house, a guest room perhaps. One of them shut the door with a click, and suddenly the mood grew heavy, fast. I thought maybe theyd snuck in some alcohol or something. But there was no excitement, no naughty, girly energy. Instead, all the girls were glaring at me. Suddenly, into the heavy silence, the sister of the prettiest girl spit out her ugly secret for all to hear: Youre a nigger! My head began to spin when I realized she was referring to me. Pointing at me. It was my secret, my shame. I was frozen. The others quickly joined in. Youre a nigger! they all shrieked. All together, in unison, they chanted, Youre a nigger! over and over. I thought it would never end. The venom and hate with which these girls spewed this new iteration of their usual chant was so strong, it quite literally lifted me out of my body. I had no idea how to handle what was going on. It was all of them against me. They had planned it. They fooled me into thinking they actually liked me. They lured me hours away from home. They isolated me. They trapped me. Then they betrayed me. I exploded into hysterical tears. I was disoriented and terrified, and I thought that maybe, if I held on and just kept crying, surely a grown-up would come and stop the assault. But no one came. Eventually, I heard another voice whimpering among the mob. Why are you doing this? the small, brave voice asked. It was the older blond one. The ugly sister of the prettiest shot back, Because she is a nigger. I dont remember anything else about that day. I dont remember the ride home. I dont remember telling my mother when I got back. How do you tell your all-white mother that your all-white friends just dragged you into their big all-white house in all-white Southampton, past an untouchable all-white room, just to corner you and call you the dirtiest thing in their all-white world? Nigger. I was also scared my mother might make a massive public scene and make navigating life at school even more difficult for me. I had no language or coping skills for any of it. It was certainly not the first time I had been degraded by my schoolmates. Id been singled out on the school bus and spit on. Id gotten into physical fights. Often, I would clap back; my tongue was sharp, and I could be a real wiseass. Sometimes I even started fights. But for this I had no defense. I was not only outnumbered and isolated, I was bitterly betrayed. This was not your garden-variety schoolyard mean-girl scuffle. It was a devious and violent premeditated assault by girls I called my friends. I never spoke of it. I stuffed it inside. I had to find a way to survive those girls, that town, my family, and my pain. She smiles through a thousand tears And harbors adolescent fears She dreams of all That she can never be She wades in insecurity And hides herself inside of me Dont say she takes it all for granted Im well aware of all I have Dont think that I am disenchanted Please understand It seems as though Ive always been Somebody outside looking in Well here I am for all of them to bleed But they cant take my heart from me And they cant bring me to my knees Theyll never know the real me Looking In Mariah only has three shirts and she puts them in rotation! The cruel words crashed into the buzzing bustle of the in-between-class traffic of my seventh-grade hallway like a stink bomb. All the pattering of feet, clanging of lockers, chirping of small talk, and little giggles morphed into one giant laughing monster made of kids, sitting in the middle of the hallway pointing at me. My stomach collapsed and my face burst into flames. I thought I might vomit right there on the tile floor. Middle school is a contact sport, and I was pretty skillful with my own sharp tongue. A lot of kids have to suffer having mean or funny names given to them by their peers because of how they look or some embarrassing event, but being teased for being poor felt like a different kind of cruel. I was severely injured, but I did not let it show. I didnt get sick in front of everybody. I didnt give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me weakened. I showed no emotion and waited patiently for the monster to melt away, as the traffic had to resume and kids had to get to their classes. I understood after that there would be no recovering and no trying to belong. I would survive on the outside with three shirts and no friends in hopes that I would inevitably move again. In our middle-class community, I was extremely self-conscious of living with a shabby wardrobe in a small dilapidated house; however, by the time I entered high school, I had developed some new survival skills. At that age I didnt have any control over where I lived, but I could do something about what I wore. One of the few advantages of moving so many times was that I got a fresh crop of kids to try to fit in with. One go-round I managed to scrounge together a few girlfriends and convince them we should have a fashion swapping system where wed exchange our trendiest pieces with one another and coordinate them differently. This gave the illusion that I had a more expansive and up-to-date wardrobe than I could ever afford. The coolest thing I owned was an oversized red wool and black leather varsity jacket with AVIREX in big letters emblazoned across the back. It was a big deal for me to have a name-brand item, so I made sure I had a signature piece that was adaptable to a variety of looks. I did my best to look the part of a typical cute suburban teen, to fit in with all the other Long Island girls. By the time I was in the tenth grade I was going out with the biggest and scariest dude in town. He was six foot five and had biceps that were thicker than both of my thighs. He was in his early twenties, he had a car, and nobody messed with him. And thats the main reason why I was with him. He was a protector, a force field. The previous boy I had gone out with was volatile; we even got into a physical altercation in front of a group of girls who stood around and watched. After we broke up he proceeded to stalk and harass mea real charmer. Mr. Six Foot Five caught him verbally attacking me and proceeded to lift him up off the ground and toss him over five parked carspow! He actually was pretty cool beyond his brute strength. But high school can be treacherous, especially for an outsider like me, so having the toughest guy in town as my guy was good for that moment. There was a crew of girls who were into a sixties tie-dyed Grateful Dead vibe that I never understood. It was the late eighties, and the street trends were so fresh, I really didnt get what they were doing. Why were they harkening back to such a random retro look? Also, they were aggressive and hard, not hippies, Dead Heads, or peace lovers at all. Being the smart aleck I was, I named them the Peace People. Word got out that I was making fun of them, and they were pissed. Rumblings started circulating that I was going to get my ass kicked. But Mr. Six Foot Five was famous; everyone was afraid of him, so getting at me wasnt that simple. One morning after completing my routine of going to the Bagel Station to get a bagel with bacon and cheese and coffee, I was walking on the path to the patio to finish my coffee and smoke a Newport before homeroom. The patio was a large brick square outside the cafeteria of the school where kids would hang out, smoke, and posture. Several hundred yards before I reached it, suddenly a semicircle of about a dozen white girls closed in around me, and they were all hyped up to fight. They were screaming at the same time, and the hardest girl of them all broke out from the pack and advanced toward me. I was freaked out but tried not to show how scared I was. The bagel in my stomach had turned into rocket fuel and was going off in my belly, and my head was spinning trying to devise something to say to defuse or derail the situation, because surely I was not going to fight. I may have had a tough exterior and a wiseass mouth, but I never wanted to actually fight anyone. I used my wits to survive (plus I was the fastest runner in the school, except for one boy). The crowd had gotten close enough that the heat of their mob mentality was singeing the hairs on my arms. I had to say something, so I opened my mouth and just started yellingI have no idea what. What I will never forget is seeing their bravado instantly wither into meekness while they slowly edged backward and quickly dispersed. For a quick instant I thought I had really told them off, but then I felt a powerful energy behind me. I turned around, and looking like a fly-girl teen version of a Black Panther protest, there was a big beautiful wall of every style, size, and shade of every Black girl I knew in school. Oh, we got your back, one of them said, and that was it. There was no debate over how Black I was, or whether I looked whitethose badass girls just let me know that when it got down to it, they were going to hold me down. Years later, after the release of Vision of Love, I was all over the radio and on TV. My mother was still living on Long Island, and I asked her if we could drive by the house where the prettiest girl and her sisters lived. I stopped the car, got out, and just looked at the modest structure, a symbol of what I had survived. My mother, wrapped in a fur coat Id given her, got out too. The father of the family (the one who beat the mother) came to the door and, in his dense, twangy Long Island accent, shouted, Aw, look, Pats gone Hollywood! The rest of the family filed out of the house. The prettiest one was stunned. She couldnt believe it had happened. The mutt-mulatto bitch who lived in the shabby shack down the street had become a star. The brother called out, Youre a loser! That family, that house, that town, that time, that daysuddenly it all looked like nothing to me. It was nothing in nowhere, and I had made it out. As I turned to get back in the car, I heard the blond girl crying after me, Mariah, Im so happy for you; Im so happy for you! And she became the prettiest sister of them all. Yes Ive been bruised Grew up confused Been destitute Ive seen life from many sides Been stigmatized Been black and white Felt inferior inside Until my saving grace shined on me Until my saving grace set me free Giving me peace My Saving Grace PART II SING. SING. A PRELUDE TO SING SING Nearing the edge Oblivious I almost Fell right over A part of me Will never be quite able To feel stable Close My Eyes Even now its hard to explain, to put into words how I existed in my relationship with Tommy Mottola. Its not that there are no words, its just that they still get stuck moving up from my gut, or they disappear into the thickness of my anxiety. Tommys energy was intense, more than overbearing; for me, it was an entire atmosphere. Even before he would enter the room I could sense the air change and my breath grow short. He rolled over me like a fog. His presence felt dense and oppressive. He was like humidityinescapable. Never when I was with him did I feel I could breathe easy and fully as myself. His power was pervasive, and with it came an unspeakable unease. In the beginning of our time together I was walking on eggshells. Then it became a bed of nails, and then a minefield. I never knew when or what would make him blow, and the anxiety was relentless. In the eight years we were together I cant recall ten minutes with him when I felt I could be comfortablewhen I could simply be at all. I felt his grip was steadily choking me off from my essence. I was disappearing in installments. It felt like he was cutting off my circulation, keeping me from friends and what little family I had. I couldnt talk to anyone that wasnt under Tommys control. I couldnt go out or do anything with anybody. I couldnt move freely in my own house. Many nights I would lie on my side of our massive bed, under which I would keep my purse filled with essentials just in case I had to make a quick escapemy to go bag. I had to wait for him to fall asleep. Keeping my eyes locked on him, I would gradually inch my way to the edge of the bed and surgically roll my hips and swing my legs to the floor. Never breaking my gaze, Id tiptoe backward toward the door, which seemed a full city block away. Ever so carefully, Id back out of the door. It was such a victory when I made it out of the room! Id softly creep down the grand dark-wood staircase like a burglar stealing a little peace of mind, then make my way to somewhere in the manor. Often I just wanted to go to the kitchen for a snack, or to sit at the table and write down some lyrics. But every time, right as I would start to settle into the calm of the quiet dark and begin to find my breathBeep! Beep! The intercom would go off. Id jump up, and the words Whatcha doin? would crackle through the speaker, and Id gasp and once again lose my own air. Every move I made, everywhere I went, I was monitoredminute by minute, day after day, year after year. It was as if I was being crushed right out of myself. Everything he felt he didnt create or control was being strangled away. I created the fun and free girl in my videos so that I could watch a version of myself be alive, live vicariously through herthe girl I pretended to be, the girl I wished was me. I would view my videos as evidence that I existed. I was living my dream but couldnt leave my house. Lonely and trapped, I was held captive in that relationship. Captivity and control come in many forms, but the goal is always the sameto break down the captives will, to kill any notion of self-worth and erase the persons memory of their own soul. Im still not sure of the toll it has taken on me, how much of me was permanently destroyed or arrestedperhaps, among other things, my ability to completely trust people or to fully rest. But thankfully I smuggled myself out bit by bit, through the lyrics of my songs. I left the worst unsaid Let it all dissipate And I tried to forget As I closed my eyes I sang some of what I couldnt say. Though I do try, I cannot forget. Sometimes, without warning, I am haunted by a nightmare or flashes of suffocating. Sometimes I still feel the heaviness. Sometimes I have no air. ALONE IN LOVE When I was in seventh grade, I had my first professional recording session. I did background vocals on a few original songs, including a cover of the classic R and B ballad Feel the Fire, originally written and recorded by Peabo Bryson. The session took place in a dinky little home studio, but it was a real job, and I got paid real money. It was also when I began to discover how to create nuances and textures in vocal arrangements and how to use my voice to build layers, like a painter. This was when my romance with the studio began. This was a major moment that began my journey, my drive to succeed. One session gig led to the next. I was a little big fish in a puddle. The Long Island music scene was pretty small, and word of mouth was the method of marketing yourself. By the time I was fourteen or fifteen, I was writing songs and recording background vocals and jingles for local businesses. I was doing background vocals regularly for these young Waynes World type of guys. They were into wild, loud guitar riffs and stuff, while I was listening to (rather, I was obsessed with) contemporary urban radio, which was mostly R and B, hip-hop, and dance music. I lived for the radio. Though our tastes were clearly very different, I liked the work nonetheless. I was making demos for songs and commercials, and learning how to adapt my voice to the task, whatever it was. The studio was my natural habitat. Like being in the ocean, when I was there, I felt weightless, and all my outside concerns fell away. I focused only on the music, and even if I didnt like their songs, I respected the work it took to make them. One day, while we were working on one of their mishmashes of a song, I told them I was a songwriter too. I figured if we could work on their corny stuff, why couldnt we work on my stuff? Technically, I had been writing since before I was a teenager. I wrote poems and sketches of songs in my diary. Every once in a while I would be alone in the house, or my mother would be asleep, and I would have a moment of lightness in the small, dim living room, sitting on the wooden piano stool at my mothers surprisingly well-kept brown upright Yamaha piano. I would prop my diary on the music shelf, feet dangling. Id hum a bit of a melody, search for the keys that were the closest to my voice. Then, very quietlynearly whisperingId sing a few words with the melody. I trusted the music I was hearing in my head. I believed it was akin to the popular songs I heard on the radio. My songs didnt mimic the style or sound of what I heard; rather, I would always search for the right sound, the one that felt like me. And I believed my sound would fit in with, or even break through, what was on the radio. I really believed that. I knew what I was hearing was advanced for my age, but luckily I was working with two guys who were very collaborative and open to working with such a young and female artist. So it was there in their mothers house, in a sad little slapped-together studio, that I wrote and produced one of my favorite demos, To Begin (I still love it, but sadly its among one of the many lost tapes of little Mariah). I was confident I had a solid song. They were like, Why are we listening to this little kid? Honestly, I just dont think they understood the culture, genres, and tones I was working with. They really were weird little garage-band hippieish-type guys. Indeed, I was a little kid, but I also knew where the pulse of the culture wasand that they were not anywhere near it. The discipline of working with them was good for me. But by the time I was fifteen, I had outgrown them. One of my first regular gigs was with these two sketchy guys who made demos. They liked my sound because I had that young-girl quality that was popular at the time, largely because of Madonnas success. But I was actually a young girl, and my vocals could get into that high pitch range naturally. I could emulate the popular Madonna studio technique, but with my voice alone. I auditioned by singing one of the songs they wrote, and they hired me on the spot. So the sketchy guys began paying me to sing demos. This was the official start of my professional careerand of a never-ending succession of sketchy characters that came with it. I had entered the treacherous territory of the music industry. Though my journey was just beginning, I would soon be initiated into the complicated dynamics that female artists have to endure. As I now know, most dont make it through. There were weird vibes from the start because I couldnt really tell if these guys were pervy or not, but I believed nothing crazy would happen because they both had wives who were around all the time. Na?vely, I thought these women might take on big-sister type roles with me. They were all full-blown adults, and I was still just about a child, but unfortunately, my age and talent caused friction. Even though I was a scrawny little teenager (I mean, my body was pretty much a straight line at that age), one of the wives was threatened by me. She was always close by, prancing around in short shorts, giving me evil energy. I didnt understand what was going on. I was too young to get it, and also, I was there to work. Maybe my own short shorts were inappropriate around these older men. I didnt know. I was just a kid getting her first whiff of independence, and besides, a few pairs of cheap shorts and tops were all I owned. I was in a battle of the short shorts, and I didnt even know it. I continued recording demos of songs for the guys, making a little money. But again, just as with the garage-band dudes, we were putting down their songs, though I believed my songs were stronger. And again, I asked if they were open to me writing some songs. Initially, they refused. It was totally frustrating: here I was singing weird, corny songs again. Didnt these people even listen to the radio? I wondered. Didnt they know what was popular? I studied the music on the radio closely, constantly analyzing what was in heavy rotation. I knew the songs they were writing werent good. Despite not liking the material, I sang it because it was my job, and I really needed the money. But now that Id had a taste of making demos, I knew I needed to get my own songs down, and quickly. Later I was able to make a deal with one of the guys who owned a studio: I would sing demos for him if he would let me work on my own. I brought in one of the songs I had begun at my mothers piano at the shack, called Alone in Love. I sat in a room alone and began to make my very first demos. My own. Swept me away But now Im lost in the dark Set me on fire But now Im left with a spark Alone, you got beyond the haze and Im lost inside the maze I guess Im all alone in love Alone in Love I figured out the setup. I experimented with the songs. I did dance tracks, straight down the line, all different sounds. I learned how to produce under pressure. I was in the studio, doing it. Alone in Love was one of the first tracks on my demo. A version of the song eventually made it onto my first album and remains one of my favorites. You haunt me in my dreams Im calling out your name I watch you fade away Your love is not the same Ive figured out your style To quickly drift apart You held me for a while Planned it from the start All alone in love I was in eleventh grade. I distinctly remember one nightbleeding into morning. The pink of dawn was seeping through the edges of the deep-purple night sky, and I didnt know where the hell I was, again. Somewhere on the Taconic Parkway, or maybe the Cross Bronx Expressway? Clutching the hard-plastic steering wheel of my mothers rickety old Cutlass Supreme, I tried to stay focused on the road and not stress over the needle of the gas gauge that stayed twitching on E. Every day was a struggle, with me trying to find my way home after work just to grab a few hours of sleep before I had to get to school. Id recently graduated out of the Long Island music scene. My brother (who was also trying to make a name for himself in the music industry, as a manager or producerIm not sure what) had introduced me to a new crop of session musicians and studio engineers in the cityNew York City. I began commuting to The City to do sessions at night and then would turn right back around and head to The Island to get to school the next morning. So began my first double life (kind of). Very few of my peers at school knew what I was doing. They didnt know I was driving alone on highways, getting lost at midnight, collapsing on my bed, then dragging myself to school. They didnt know why I was late every day. I didnt talk about it because I knew it would sound crazyand most people didnt have the ability to really believe as hard as I did. Besides, the kids I knew didnt need to believe. They were getting new cars, Camaros and Mustangs, for their sixteenth birthdays. They had their paths mapped out and were well financed for generations to come. Most were certain they were going to go to college. They had a guaranteed life already planned out for them. I remember that once, one of the most popular jocks in the school asked me what I was doing after graduation. I usually didnt tell any of the kids around about my dreams, but in this case I did. I told him I was going to be a singer and songwriter. His response was, Yeah, right; youll be working at HoJos in five years. (HoJos was short for Howard Johnsons, the chain of hotels and restaurants that was still widely popular then.) The degradation was totally intended. As it turns out, in less than three years, in a simple black dress, with a head full of curls and a stomach full of, yes, butterflies, I walked through a packed stadium among the deafening buzz of tens of thousands of voices. A loud, clear voice cut through the cacophony: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Mariah Carey for the singing of America the Beautiful. The piano track was recorded by Richard T. I held the little mic and sang that big song with everything I had. I hit a really high note on sea to shining sea, and the stadium erupted. When I finished, the announcer said, The Palace now has a queen, and the goose bumps will continue. It was Game 1 of the NBA finals, between Detroit and Portland. I knew that the jock who condemned me to HoJos (no shade on anyone in service work, because Ive been there), and everyone who had looked down on me, and millions of Americans were watching. None of the players, none of the fans knew who I was when I walked in, but they would remember me when I walked out. A victory. Another very early high visibility big breakthrough moment: Vision of Love was number one on the R and B charts before it was in the top spot on the pop charts, and so my national television debut was on The Arsenio Hall Show. Arsenio was more than a host; he had more than a late night show; it was a cultural event, a true Black experienceor, rather, it was a mainstream entertainment show seen through a Black lens. Everyone watched it and talked about it everywhere. I will always be grateful and proud that it was on Arsenios stage that most of America got to see my face, know my name, and hear my song for the first time. In my teens, living in a constant state of exhaustion and exhilaration became my new normal. But with every mile driven and each dawn met, I was more and more determined. My ambition grew to the level of devotion. And the hard-earned blessings were beginning to come down. My brother did manage to connect me with a reputable producer and writer named Gavin Christopher. Gavin had written big hits for Rufus (the band for which Chaka Khan sang lead) and produced songs for Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. We instantly clicked and began working together to produce one of my first professional demos. I also met his girlfriend, Clarissa, another singer, and we got along well. I liked them both, and I could feel the stirrings of a new life in the city appearing before me. Making valuable connections in New York City was certainly crucial to my career, but getting out of my mothers house was no longer just a desire, it was a necessity. When I was younger I had no control over our constant moves and my mothers consistently poor choices in men. In my last year of high school she began dating a guy I despised. He was petty and manipulative. On Thanksgiving we all went out to dinner, and he actually insisted that I and my nephew Shawn (who was in middle school), Alisons first son, pay for our portions of dinner. He divided up the receipt evenly among the people present and demanded we pay our share. So after I gave him the few pitiful, crumpled-up dollars I had in my pockets, which was just about all the money I had, Shawn and I left and went to the movies to see Back to the Future II. No thanks to him. When my mother decided to marry him, I knew it was my cue to move out. I guess she thought she had struck it rich marrying this guy because he had a boat in the West Seventy-Ninth Street Boat Basin. But that was where he lived before he crashed into the shack, and trust me, his boat was more tugboat than yacht. Eventually she ended that abominable marriage. The divorce took multiple years and many lawyer fees, which of course I paid for after the success of my first record. Then the jerk even ended up suing me for the rights to some fictitious Mariah Carey doll (if I had a dollar for every deadbeat who sued me, Id be well, its been a lot). But I was the polar opposite of rich when I moved out of my mothers house. I was broke and seventeen years old. It was the late 1980s, and I was living completely on my own in New York City. Fate is a bizarre thing. When I was about seven, we were living in that cramped apartment on top of the deli, and I used to love to hear the sounds of the radio coming up into our windows. I remember swaying, posing, and singing with Odyssey: Oh, oh, oh, youre a native New Yorker / You should know the score by now. I didnt know what knowing the score was, but I wanted that fabulous New York feeling even back then. It took ten more years, but I had finally arrived. To me, the city had a raw grit and an impossible chicness. It was in perpetual motion: masses of people walking fast, no one looking the same but all moving in sync. The city was crazy messenger bikes whizzing around and countless long yellow cabs zigzagging through the streets like a swarm of rough bumblebees. Something was happening everywhere you lookedhuge billboards, flashing neon signs, wild graffiti emblazoned across all kinds of surfaces, covering subway cars, water towers, and vans. It was like one big, funky moving art gallery. The main avenues were grand, crowded catwalks filled with eclectic fashion models, business moguls, street hustlers, and workers of every ilk, all strutting and with no one studyin each other. Everyone had somewhere to go and something to do. It was a mad and fabulous planet of concrete and crystals populated with misfits, magicians, dreamers, and dealersI landed right in the middle of it. Hello baby, I was made for this. MAKE IT HAPPEN After moving out of my mothers house I crashed at Morgans empty apartment on top of Charlie Mom Chinese Cuisine in Greenwich Village, while he was in Italy pursuing a modeling career (and Lord knows what else). I fed his two cats, Ninja and Thompkins, and tried my best to feed myself. The first decision of every day was whether I was going to get a bagel from HandH or buy a subway token. I was surviving on a dollar a day, and something had to giveit was either breakfast or transportation. HandH bagels were sublime: soft, warm, and plump to perfection, a classic NYC morning staple that would keep my stomach occupied until three oclock (HandH stood for Helmer and Hector, the two Puerto Rican owners, who arguably made the best kosher bagels in the world). But then again, getting around is pretty important, and the New York City subway was the rowdiest but most direct route to anywhere in town. The token was slightly bigger than a dime, a dirty gold disc with NYC stamped in the middle and a distinctive slim Y cutout. This was the peoples coin, and it could get you anywhere, at any time. But if I could walk to where I needed to go, breakfast would win. I found a job right away. I didnt have a choice. So I did what every other broke dreamer does when they get to New York City. I grabbed the free newspaper of real New Yorkers, the Village Voice, and checked out the job ads. I took what I could getand what I got was work at a sports bar on Seventy-Seventh and Broadway, cleverly named Sports on Broadway. I began as a waitress, but as management soon discovered, I was still a teen and couldnt legally serve drinks, so I was moved to the cash register. Boy, was that a disaster. I was a hard worker, but I had spent most of my working time in a recording studio, and working a register isnt like recording background vocals. I wasnt picking it up fast. And this was a neighborhood joint with regulars and no-nonsense waitresses, like Kiss My Grits Flo in Alice but New York tough. Those broads hated me for messing up their money! Eventually, I got moved to the coat check. Simple. But while I was hustling, I was also getting hustled: I wasnt allowed to keep my tips, which is pretty much the entire allure of being a coat-check girl. I got a dollar for every coat. I knew it wasnt fair, but I also knew it was temporary. When summertime came around, the coat check was converted into a merchandise booth, and I became the Sports on Broadway T-shirt girl. The booth was right at the front door, so the first thing the men would see was me with a welcoming smile, in a white T-shirt with the word Sports printed across my boobs. I was grateful for the simplicity of it all: the uniform was the bars T-shirt and jeans, and since I only had one pair of jeans, it was one less thing for me to struggle to buy. Not more than three short years ago I was abandoned and alone Without a penny to my name So very young and so afraid No proper shoes upon my feet Sometimes I couldnt even eat I often cried myself to sleep But still I had to keep on going Make It Happen I also only had one pair of shoes, and they were a size and a half too small. They had been my motherspitiful flat black leather lace-up ankle boots. They were basic and utilitarian, and I made them work. At some point, the top of the shoe separated from the rubber sole, creating a flap that would slap the unforgiving city pavement as I pounded toward my destiny. The swelling of my feet from standing all day in too-small shoes surely contributed to their demise. Snowy days were the worst; ice would slide into the flap, melt, and seep through my thin socks, and the clammy sensation of wet, cheap leather traveled up my spine. And that year New York had a big, newsworthy snowstorm! But Id pull myself together, as cute as I could manage, and flash a smile, pleasantly doing my job and just hoping no one would look down at my feet. I had years of training for living through humiliation, but now, I wasnt in school; I was living in The City. I believed in my heart that one day I would make it and have some of the most fancy and well-fitting shoes imaginable. I had my mighty faith, but I was also blessed with so many signs and acts of kindness from folks along the way. Like Charles, the cook at Sports, who would fry me up a greasy cheeseburger and sneak it to me with a glass of Sambuca. It wasnt glamorous, but I had a meal, an outfit, and a few dollars. Every day that I made it through, I knew I was closer to my dream. I would drop down on my knees each night and thank God for another day when I didnt give up or get taken down. I know life can be so tough And you feel like giving up But you must be strong Baby just hold on Youll never find the answers if you throw your life away I used to feel the way you do Still I had to keep on going. Make It Happen The job at the sports bar was a means, but the studio was the end. Everything went into my demo. One day while I was eating downstairs in the Chinese restaurant, gratefully savoring the cheap morsels of the days only meal, I noticed a familiar face. It was Clarissa, the now ex-girlfriend of my brothers producer friend Gavin Christopher. We hugged like old friends. I told her that I had officially relocated to the city. When I gave her the rundown on my chaotic living arrangements, like an angel, she invited me to come live with her. Though she identified as a struggling artist, fortunately for me, Clarissa wasnt really struggling that hard. She lived with a gay couple in a huge classic Upper West Side brownstone on Eighty-Fifth Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. I suspected that she was one of those kids who had a trust fund waiting for her once she got over her starving-artist phase. My music was my life. Music was the only plan, ever. While it was certainly an upgrade from my previous crowded crash pad, living with Clarissa still had its challenges. She had a room (with a whole door, which closed) where there was a loft-style bed set up with recording equipment underneath it. Her room was off to the side of the larger parlor room. My situation was a ragtag loftlike structure built above the kitchen in the communal area that we shared with the couple. To get to my sleeping cranny I had to climb up onto the kitchen counter and hoist myself up into the teeny nook. It was barely more than a crawl space and had just enough room for a twin mattress, outfitted with a single pillow and a blanket (a house warming gift from my mother). The space was so shallow and the ceiling was so close that I couldnt fully kneel on the bed without bumping my head (so there, I prayed on my back). It was decorated with the only remnants from my life in Long Island: my journals and diaries, my Marilyn Monroe poster, and a handful of books on Marilyn. I still looked up to her. Connecting with Clarissa proved to be quite the blessing. She helped me find work and covered for me when I couldnt make my share of the five hundred dollars a month renta fortune to me then. Occasionally shed take me out to eat. We even did some songwriting in her mini studio. She had a few connections in the music scene from her time with Gavin and would sometimes introduce me to other musicians who also lived on the Upper West Side. On these special occasions, shed even loan me a little black dress to wear (not dissimilar to what Im wearing on my first album cover). I certainly didnt have anything of my own that was appropriate for mingling. Like everything during that time, nothing lasted long. Eventually the addition of some crazy roommates meant that Clarissa and I fled for our lives (I really cant get into the details of that) and had to move on and out. We joined my friend Josefin (whom I had met when she was in an open relationship with my brother). She was living with a few other girls from Sweden. So it was five random girls living in a random apartment on top of a club called Rascals, on East Fourteenth Street. I was downgraded to a mattress on the floor, but I was now living downtown, in the heart of the New York art scene of the late 1980s. It was thrilling, if precarious, and my eyes were always focused upward. I was able to gain a bit of stability and a lot more faith. I knew more than ever that it was going to happen for me. I once was lost But now Im found I got my feet on solid ground Thank you, Lord If you believe within your soul Just hold on tight And dont let go You can make it! Make it happen Make It Happen After a few months, the other girls from Sweden moved out, and it was Josefin and I. She helped me get odd jobs, but I was also beginning to pick up more background vocal work. For this work, Id settled on my young singer ensemble: a little black knit tank dress, black tights, and fat, slouchy socks over a pair of white Reebok Freestyle sneakers (my mothers hand-me-down black shoes having finally been reduced to shreds). Previously, Clarissa had encouraged me to ask my mother to buy me new shoes. My mother then asked Morgan, who, she reported to me, said, She has to learn to do things by herself. I was a teen living on my own in the city, but whatever. Eventually, reluctantly, Morgan did buy me a pair of white Reeboks (why not black, I wondered, which goes with everythingbut I was grateful to have shoes that fit and were without involuntary air-conditioning). I wore this outfit to nearly every session; it was like my uniform. Gavin and I were working on a song together. While we were recording, he introduced me to a producer in the city, Ben Margulies, who was hired as a drummer on the session for our song called Just Cant Hold It Back. Ben had his own studio, and I had begun working with him occasionally during my singer-student Long Island commuter days. His studio was in Chelsea, on Nineteenth Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Located in the back of his fathers cabinet making factory, it was about the size of a pantry. It couldve been a chicken coop for all I caredand it honestly wasnt far from that. What mattered was that it was almost a full recording studio, the place where I belonged. For me, the studio is part sanctuary, part playground, and part laboratory. I loved being there, writing, riffing, singing, dreaming, and taking risks. Ive slept many a night on many a studio floor, beginning with this humble yet magical place. Ben and I worked incessantly over the course of a year or so. Occasionally his partner Chris would be there, helping with the programming. I was coming up with a lot of ideas, and we were recording, but I still felt the guys werent going fast enough. I was hitting a new stride. I was coming up with all these lyrics and melodies and was frustrated because it seemed to me like it should be going faster. Maybe because I was only seventeen and extremely impatient, but I felt I was differently invested, like I was on a different trajectory than they were. Music was my whole lifeso much of my belief system, my survival, was entwined in my songs. There was an urgency in my air, in the moment, and in me. This was my time, and I could feel it. I felt like I was running fast toward something or someone soon, and I was not about to let anyone or anything slow me down. Ben and I were both excited by the songs we were working on but ultimately our sensibilities and ambitions were incompatible. I think he thought we were going to form a duo, like the Eurythmics, with him as co-lead, the Dave Stewart to my Annie Lennox. I was like, Um, good luck with that; can we just focus on putting down my songs, please? We were able to create a full demo that I thought really showcased my songwriting and vocal styles. My most vivid memory of being in that studio is of me sitting by myself on the floor in the corner writing lyrics and melodies, or staring out the window dreaming of the day I would break through. Look, Ben was very committed and I spent a lot of time working with him, and we got a lot done. But I had a vision, even back then, that my career had the capacity to go way beyond what he or most people around me were even capable of imagining. Ben suggested we have some security in place, by way of a formal agreement, so he photocopied a contract out of the book All You Need to Know About the Music Business (co-written by Don Passman, who would, ironically enough, several years later become my lawyer). With no parent, legal counsel, manager, or even a good friend, I signed it. I was maybe eighteen years old. Obviously I didnt know much about contracts and deals then, but what I did know was that there was value in my lyrics and the songs. (I remembered seeing a documentary on the Beatles when I was growing up and being shocked that they didnt have complete ownership of the songs, theyd writtenthe Beatles!) So I knew not to give away all my publishing. Some of the lyrics to songs like Alone in Love I had begun writing in early high school. We started setting up meetings with record companies and things began to move fast. We got an initial offer from a major publishing company for a song called All in Your Mind to be placed in a movie. I remember they offered me five thousand dollars for the publishing. Come closer You seem so far away Theres something I know you need to say I feel your emotions When I look in your eyes Your silence Whispering misunderstandings Theres so much you need to realize Youll feel my emotions If you look in my eyes Hey darlin I know you think my love is slipping away But, baby, its all in your mind All in Your Mind I refused, even though back then five thousand dollars seemed like a million (which was how much I got for my first real publishing administration deal). Thank God I had a cautionary Beatles tale fresh in my mind. I didnt sell because I believed my songs came from somewhere special inside of me, and that selling them would be selling a piece of me. The music business is designed to confuse and control the artist. Later, seasoned music executives told me that Bens deal was truly a golden ticket. I was trying to be loyal to someone who believed in me at a crucial time, but in my na?vet?, I didnt realize the enormity of what I had signed away. I was informed, and what I remember, was that he got 50 percent of the publishing on all songs we worked on together for my first album. Okay fine. But additionally, he received 50 percent of my artists royalties for the first album, 40 percent for the second album, 30 percent for the third, and so on. It went on that way from 1990 until about 1999. Even though Ben didnt write one word or note with me after the first album. Out of loyalty to him and the hard work we put in together in that little studio, I never looked back and tried to reset or recoup. So yeah, a photocopy: thats the unceremonious origin of my first official deal. What a welcome to the music business! Which I was so eager to get into, but I soon came to believe that my first signature was on a pretty shady piece of paperand one that would be hard to get out of. But it certainly wouldnt be the last. A whole forest full of shade was yet to come. One must pick ones battles wisely, and I wasnt about to come for someone who I had already left behind. I was on my way. Ill be eternally grateful, and I wish him well. At least we made The Demo. That demo stayed in my Walkman, which stayed on my hip, and the music stayed in my ears. Aside from the radio, the songs we laid down were all I listened to. And the offers from the major publishing houses gave me confidence that things were going to happen. I just had to keep the faith and keep working. I didnt stop. I kept going to more sessions, doing more connecting, and getting more background vocal work. I began doing vocals for the musician and producer T. M. Stevens, whod written with Narada Michael Walden and played bass with James Brown, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Cocker, and other major artists. It was through him that I had the good fortune to meet the amazing Cindy Mizelle at a session. Since that first background gig at twelve years old, Id gained a respect for the specific skill and talent it takes to be a good background vocalist. I would listen specifically to background on the radio. Id study the liner notes on albums and CD jackets to learn who was doing the background vocals (especially on dance records, as I believe backgrounds are what make those songs). I became familiar with all those exceptional singers, like Audrey Wheeler and Lisa Fischer and Cindy. To me, she was one of the absolute greatest. Cindy Mizelle was the background singer. She sang with the most gifted vocalists of all timeBarbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, and the Rolling Stones. She was a real singers singer. Cindy was that girl to me. I looked up to her so much. I remember in the beginning of the session, we were at the microphone, doing a part that I was having a difficult time getting right. Cindys such a perfectionist (as I am now), but she had patience with me. When you first learn how to do background vocalsdifferent tones and stylesits not easy. Producers liked my tone, but I had to learn how to really get in the pocket, to get it exactly how they wanted it. Precision takes practice. Cindy had a new gig practically every day; she was a master. When I first started singing alongside her, I had to work hard to keep up. Now, background vocals are one of my favorite elements in building a song. I love the textures and layers and how lush they can make a song; backgrounds get into your bones. Once, while Cindy and I were recording and standing very close to each other at the microphone, she could hear my stomach rumbling. She looked down and saw the sad shoes I was wearing, scanned my crumpled outfit, and then looked up at me with pity and recognition. I was too excited to be self-consciousat that point in life, my ambition was stronger than my shame. Who cared if I arrived a little hungry and a little shabby? I was finally singing for a living, right next to a consummate professional. Cindy gave me her number that night and told me if I ever needed anything, I could call her. I didnt know what to do with that. Shed sung with huge acts all around the worldwhat business did I have calling her? What would I say? I didnt call, and the next time I saw her she called me out on it. It wasnt easy for me to ask for help. I didnt want to bother or burden her, I explained. Cindy looked me in the eye and said, Mariah, you need to call me. Suddenly it struck me. Oh, I get it. I was supposed to call her. I hadnt understood right away that this was part of the process: the initiation, the mentoring, the nurturing, the entry into a society of sister-singers. These rituals were all new to me. And I was unfamiliar with being welcomed into a family of artistsinto a family of any kind. Once I had broken into the inner circle of elite background vocalists, recommendations started to come in. Background vocalists are hired by word of mouthone singer will recommend another, and good singers like to work together. If the squad is strong, the session is strong, and if the sessions are strong, the money is good and steady. I was now in the tight and talented community of working musicians in New York City. Though I was invariably the youngest in the crowd, I also often hung out with some of them outside of work hours, mostly on Manhattans Upper West Side. I wasnt into drinking or hooking up at all; the hang, to me, was about networkingemphasis on work. It paid off. I got an offer to do a demo session for a group called Maggies Dream. When I got to the gig I was told I would be singing for a male vocalist. In walked this sexy, serene, toasted-almond-colored artsy young manhe just looked like the definition of an artist. His thick, dark hair was just in the beginning phases of dreadlocks. He had a perfect five oclock shadow, with a thick stripe of goatee down the center of his chin. He was dressed rock star casual: heavy black leather vintage motorcycle jacket, black jeans, black T-shirt. He had a thin ring in his nose and smelled how I imagined ancient Egyptian oils would smell. His face was kind and fine, with a boyish smile. He went by the name of Romeo Blue. His friends called him Lenny. And about a year later, the world would know him as Lenny Kravitz. Maggies Dream had a drummer named Tony, who was also the drummer for the band of a singer named Brenda K. Starr. Brenda had a big R and B pop hit out called I Still Believe, which the record company was looking to rework. There was an opening for background singers, and Tony got me a slot at the audition. I was excited because Brenda had a big song on the radioand you know how much I loved the radio. At the audition, we were asked to sing Brendas song right in front of the table where she sat. I gave it my all. I sang for my life. I did all kinds of runs and belted out the last note. When I was finished, I stood perfectly still, returning back to Earth, heart on fire. Brenda gave me a long, flat stare, then suddenly broke into a mischievous little giggle. In her clipped, nasally accent, she said, You trying to steal my job? I didnt move. But her giggle turned into hearty laughter. I didnt realize you werent supposed to outsing the singer who could hire you! Mariah is my new best friend, she said, breaking my trance. Wait. She knew my name! I couldnt believe someone who had a major song on the radio now knew my name. Immediately after the audition, Brenda had to fly somewhere to perform, but as soon as she returned, I was hired. She kept saying, I told everybody about this girl Mariah! Brenda was a spicy mix, in the true meaning of the word. She grew up in the projects on Ninetieth and Amsterdam Avenue, and the culture of the projects grew in her. She told me her mother was Puerto Rican and Hawaiian and her father, Harvey Kaplan, was Jewish and in a band called the Spiral Starecase. They had a hit song: More Today Than Yesterday. Brenda was a bit older and more street savvy than I was and had an effortless and silly sense of humor. It was easy to become friends. My life as a professional singer was moving swiftly, but at the same time, I was still a teenager. One time I was hanging out with the guys from Maggies Dream, and one of them started teasing me because I was a virgin. (Apparently, Clarissa had told them I was.) Everybody was laughing, but I didnt get why it was funny. I was a kid. I was always the youngest and clearly the most idealistic, so I had to suffer through some of the more crass amusements of adult musicians. I may have been young and na?ve, but Brenda knew my songs were good, and wise beyond their years. When I let her listen to my demo, she said, Oooh, Mariah, I wanna do this on my next album. She currently had a song that was still in active rotation on the radio, and every time we were together and I heard it play, it was mind blowing. I couldnt believe I was working with her and she was my friend, not to mention that she had given me my biggest gig to date. Yet I said, I know I dont have anything big going on yet, but Im sorry, I have to keep these songs. These songs are the ones I wrote for me. I may have been insecure about my money, my clothes, my family, and a whole host of other things, but I knew my songs were valuable. I was really excited to finally be in the company of young and some struggling current musicians and artists, but the truth was that I had always believed this would happen to me. Brenda never pushed me to use my songs after that. Singing background with Brenda while she toured with her big song was big fun. Once, we went to Los Angeles to appear at a popular radio stations concert. It was the first time Id ever been to LA and one of the few times Id ever set foot on a plane. Now, I was boarding a plane as a professional singer, going to do a big outdoor radio-sponsored concert in LA! To me, being on the radio was being famous. For the show, Brenda was set to sing I Still Believe, with me as one of the background vocalists. Will Smith was there too, to perform Parents Just Dont Understand. Jeffrey Osborne (from the group L.T.D.) was also there; he did You Should Be Mine (The Woo Woo Song) as part of his set. I was in the audience, watching. Jeffrey, the veteran among us, began singing the chorus to his song with his seasoned, smooth voice: And you woo-woo-woo, he started off. The crowd joined in. After a few rounds he offered his microphone out into the audience. Pass it to her! Pass it to her! Brenda chirped, wagging her finger at me like a happy puppys tail. I took the mic and gave that woo-woo a special Mariah remix, with all kinds of vocal flourishes, and in the end I took the last woo way up into my high register, and the whole crowd broke out in wild claps. That was the day Will Smith and I became friends. Will and I were both really young, and looked it. Above my signature blown-out bangs, I had gathered the top portion of my unruly, crinkly hair into a yellow scrunchie, hair fanning out of it like a furry fountain, and let water and nature do their own thing with the back half of my do. I was wearing a little bubble-gum-pink tank dress I had borrowed from Josefin. Will was tall and lanky, dressed as if he expected a pickup game of hoops could break out at any moment. He was incredibly friendly and funny, as was his charismatic friend, Charlie Mack. Immediately I could tell that he was not only super talented but really bright and laser-focused. I loved Parents Just Dont Understand and was very impressed with what he had accomplished. Will and I would sometimes hang out at Rascals, below the apartment I shared with Josefin. He was an uncomplicated friend. Both of us were absolutely ambitious and still maintained a childlike wonder and curiosity about the world. Our relationship was always platonic and never got weird. After he heard me sing, Will believed in my talent. He took me with him to Def Jam Recordings, the hottest new hip-hop label at the time, where he was signed. As we walked down the street on our way to Def Jam, we saw this tall, thin white man approaching us. He stood out because he was kind of dancing and bopping, with headphones on that were blasting music so loud you could hear it: It takes two to make a thing go right! I later found out it was Lyor Cohen, who managed Run-DMC and LL Cool J and signed Eric B. and Rakim and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. It was a curious scene to me: this sinewy grown man, dressed kinda cool, singing aloud, I wanna rock right now! I was thinking, How does he even know this song? The Def Jam offices had a very downtown vibe. This was the label of many hot male hip-hop artists, so obviously there were a million girls going in and out. Most people probably just assumed that I was a groupie, strolling in on the arm of the Fresh Prince. Will had never heard my demo; hed only heard me sing at the concert, but that was enough for him, I guess. Upstairs we found ourselves with a junior executive who wanted me to sing. Once again, I may have looked a little shabby and young, but I was discerning enough to understand: I wasnt going to sing for this random guy. I was grateful for Wills confidence, but I had my sights on a major label with a legacy of artists more in alignment with my singer-songwriter ambitionssomewhere huge, like Warner or Columbia Records. Thats where I knew I belonged, and thats where I believed I was going to be. My faith and focus were strong, but there was also evidence of my hard work, like a possible deal moving at Atlantic Records. During this time the majors were reaping the benefits of their teen starsthe Tiffanys and Debbie Gibsons of the world. As the story goes, Doug Morris, the head of Atlantic, responded to my demo by saying, We already have our teen girl, referring to Gibson. Clearly, he didnt really get it. For that matter, most labels didnt really get me. They really didnt know where I fit. They didnt understand my sound; the demo had songs that didnt fit neatly into an existing genre. Though really young, I was definitely not teen pop. There was a bit of soul, R and B, and gospel infused into my music, and I had a hip-hop sensibility. My demo was more diverse than the music industry at the time. Then, of course, there was always the blondish biracial elephant in the room. Executives at Motown supposedly reacted to my demo by saying, Oh, no, we dont want to deal with a Teena Marie situation againmeaning they didnt want to force the general public to grapple with wondering if I was Black or white or what. They didnt know how to market me. Most record executives just didnt know how they would work my record. They werent sure it could cross over. But for the record, Teena Marie never cared about crossing over. And I didnt want to cross over either. I wanted to transcend. CHERCHEZ LA FEMME One night Brenda announced, Im going to take you to this party, and youre going to meet a big record executive, Jerry Greenberg, and its going to be great. Sure, why not? I thought. I was feeling enough professional confidence to let her drag me to an industry party. I was doing sessions and had a deal brewing at Warners for one of my songs to be used in a movie. I wasnt too invested in this party being the party. While she had a generous heart, Brenda could also be pretty zany, so I sometimes took a lot of what she said with a grain of salt. We were going to get dressed at her house in Jersey, since she had all the clothes, makeup, and accessories from being on tour and having some money. She was supposed to pick me up from my apartment. I waited in my cramped vestibule, slumped on the tile floor, for over an hour (mind you, there was no texting back then). Finally, she appeared, revved up, full of energy, and ready to party. Her excitement was infectious. We started our going-out ritual in her large bathroom. Brenda had all the mousse, hair spray, combs, and curlers you could imagine. With her mixed Puerto Rican and Jewish heritage, I could certainly work with what she had. I attempted to create one long, uniform coil all around my head by twisting sections of hair around the rod of a curling wand. I finished it off with a straight bang. I borrowed a little black dress from her (what else!). I had brought a pair of my own opaque black tights, but I couldnt fit into her shoes; they were too small. So I layered my black Vans sneakers with ribbed slouchy socks. I topped off the ensemble with my one statement piecethat Avirex jacket from high school. I really tried with my look, and it was all right. Brenda told me the party was to celebrate a new record label, but since, by this time, I was interested in the big labels with the big boys and big artists, I didnt have high expectations about who would be in attendance. The new label was the collaboration of three well-known industry guys who had come together to form their own label, WTG Records. WTG stood for Walter, Tommy, and Gerald. It sounded like a tire business to me; I didnt really know who anybody was yet. But Brenda knew Jerry (Gerald Greenberg), who she told me was a big shot in the industry (in 1974, at thirty-two, he became the youngest-ever president of Atlantic Records). When she explained this, the party started to get a bit more interesting. I now understood why Brenda wanted me to bring my demo with me (not that I ever went anywhere without it)shed brought me there to meet a guy from Atlantic Records. When we got to the party, I was surrounded by industry people, though I still had no clue what that meant. As I walked around, I took in the scene. Some handlers were traipsing a female artist around, like a show horse. She was very blond, very pretty, very white, and very dolled up and coiffed, with a flurry of label folks forming a tight, buzzing cloud around her. There were large blown-up pictures of her all over the room. I guessed we were supposed to ooh and ahh in her presence. But I wasnt interested in her. I was just thinking, Who is she, why should I be excited? To me she was just someone they were toting around. Frankly, I was unimpressed by the whole scene. Brenda and I sat down at a table. We were trying to have a good time in the room full of suits, but all I could think was that I could be at the studio working on songs or something. That was where I always wanted to be. We got up to go to the bathroom, making our way through the crowd to get to the staircase that led to where the restrooms were. As we bounced up the stairs, I saw him. He wasnt anyone I would have normally noticed: not particularly tall or short, not stylish or tacky. Im pretty sure he had on a suit. He wouldve been totally forgettable if it werent for his eyes. Our eyes locked, and an energy instantly rushed between us, like a mild electric shock. He had a piercing stare. He looked into me, not at me. I was a little shooknot in a bad way, but not in a love at first sight way, either. I kept going up the stairs, this time at a slower pace, as I adjusted to what had just happened. When I closed the bathroom door, the odd sensation was still pulsing through me. What had happened? I didnt know who he was, but I recognized him somehow. I knew it wasnt from TV or anything like that. It wasnt his face; it was something else. I recognized his energy, and I think he recognized mine. Brenda was all excited. Did you see how Tommy Mottola looked at you? I did! she said, her eyes wide. Whos Tommy Mottola? I asked. Girl. She looked at me quizzically, a sense of seriousness about her. Whos Tommy Mottola?! She began to sing a familiar refrain: Tommy Mottola lives on the road You dont know who that is; you dont know that song? I shook my head. She sang a little bit more: Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh cherchez, cherchez It hit me. Oh! Yeah, I know that song! I joined in: Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, cherchez, cherchez. It was Cherchez la Femme / Se Si Bon, by Dr. Buzzards Original Savannah Band. I let her know that I used to like that song when I was a little girl. Brenda said, That is the Tommy from that song. Hes one of the biggest record guys, ever. Brenda and I headed over to the spot where they were all standing. I was standing by wondering, if he was such a big shot, what did he want with me? The party was filled with prettier girls, with professional makeup and far better footwear. Tommy said to Brenda, Whos your friend?the most intense three words Id ever heard. Brenda directed her answer to Jerry. Shes eighteen years old; her name is Mariah. You gotta listen to this! Just as she went to hand Jerry my demo tape, Tommys hand swiftly cut her off mid-extension. He snatched the tape, got up, left the table, and left the party. It was bizarre and bewildering. I was like, What kinda shit is that? That was an important demo. It had some of my best songsAll in Your Mind, Someday, and Alone in Love. Had this Tommy guy just taken all that work (and money!)? I wasnt sitting there thinking, Yay, I just gave my demo to a big-time record executive. I was focused more on the fact that I was out one more copy of my demo. I know this Tommy guys never going to listen to it, I thought. The popular story goes that Tommy left the party to get in his limo, where he could immediately listen to the demo. I didnt know what was the reason he left the party so abruptly. But after he did, I was ready to leave too. So I did. Eventually Tommy came back looking for me, apparently not believing what he had just heard had come from that same girl on the stairs, the innocent-looking kid in Vans and slouchy socks. All those dressed-up girls in high heels were working so hard to get the attention of W, T, or Gand T came back looking for me. Tommy was already the president of Sony Music, so getting my phone number was nothing. He called me and left a message on my answering machine. Josefin and I made performance art out of goofing around and doing silly voices on that answering machine. Id come in from the studio at five in the morning, and wed make these crazy messages. In the one Tommy heard, I was mimicking her Swedish accent: If this is the super, we need some help here! We have flies in our cats tails. Theres no hot waterfollowed by hysterical laughter. It was funny to us, but it was also the truth. The conditions in our apartment were pretty gross. We had sticky flypaper hanging from the ceiling and on the walls, which our cats would brush up against. We really didnt have hot water either; it was a mess. But we were young, giddy girls, and we made a joke out of our circumstances. The first time Tommy called, he hung up. But he didnt give up. He called back and this time left a curt and serious-sounding message: Tommy Mottola. CBS. Sony Records. He left a number. Call me back. I couldnt believe it. I immediately called Brenda, who confirmed that indeed, Tommys office had called her manager, and he wanted to sign me. This was the first of what would be a strange and fantastical series of Cinderella stories in my life. But I was not swept off my feet, and trust and believe me, Tommy Mottola was no Prince Charming. PRINCESS. PRISONER. Once, I was a prisoner Lost inside myself With the world surrounding me I Am Free Once upon a time, I lived in a very big house named Storybook Manor. And in it were big diamonds and big closets full of the most spectacular gowns and bejeweled slippers. But also within its walls was an inescapable emptiness, bigger than everything else inside, that almost swallowed me whole. This was no place for Cinderella. If there were a fairy tale that could come close to describing my life, it would be The Three Little Pigs. My childhood was a series of fragile, unstable houses, one after the other, where inevitably the Big Bad Wolf, my troubled brother, would huff and puff and blow it all down. I never felt safe. I never was safe. His rage was unpredictable; I never knew when it would come, or who or what it would devour. What I did know was that I was truly on my own, out there in the wild woods of the world. I knew that if I was ever going to find a safe place, I would have to make it myself. I remember the very first time I ever felt I was in something like a safe place. I was living on my own in New York City, in a one-room studio apartment on the tenth floor with a spectacular view. The building was called Chelsea Court. I loved the name of that building: it had such a regal ring to it. I could see the Empire State Building from my apartment window. My little apartmentthe first that was all mine. I had just gotten my very first artist advance. It was five thousand dollars, which is a number Ill never forget. Five thousand dollars was more money than Id ever seen at once, let alone had to call my own and spend as I wished. As soon as I got that advance, I got my own apartment. I could finally pay my own rent! No more living in nooks and crannies, no more sleeping on floors or sharing cramped bathrooms with four or five other girls. The first thing I did was buy my own new little couch with four stable legs. Sometimes I would just stroke the fabric on the arm of my new little couch as if it were a baby. It was that major for me. I upgraded from a mattress on the floor to my own bed. I had a little kitchen. I had the two cats, Thompkins and Ninja. I had a little peace. I was having a moment, and I felt like I could toss my raspberry beret in the air and do a twirl in the street with my laundry bagbecause I had survived. I survived the danger. I survived the hunger. I survived the uncertainty and instability, and now here I was, every day coming closer and closer to my destiny. I was independent in New York City, in my own apartment filled with my own furniture, working on my own album, filled with all of my own songs. I could have my own friends over. It was my first taste of autonomy, and it was divine. But it would not last long. In the beginning, Tommy protected me. Even though I was breathing a bit easier, with some early breaks and a clear path to success, the traumas and insecurities of my childhoodand pressure from my brother and other people trying to take advantage of mewere still right at my back, haunting my every move. I never stopped looking over my shoulder. Tommy shielded me from all the people who thought I owed them something or who wanted to use me. That meant Tommy also protected me from my own family. I was nineteen years old and had already lived a lifetime of chaos, surviving only by my own scrappy determination. Then this powerful man suddenly came along, parting the seas to make room for my dream. He truly believed in me. With all due respect, Tommy Mottola was just the bitter pill I needed to swallow at a pivotal period in my life. And there is a lot of respect due to him. He was a visionary music executive who fearlessly and ferociously dragged his visions into reality. He believed in me, ruthlessly. Youre the most talented person Ive ever met, he would say to me. You can be as big as Michael Jackson. I heard music in the way he said that name: Michael. Jackson. Here was a man who had played a large role in advancing the careers of some of the biggest names in the industry, and he saw me sharing the same rare air as the most influential artist and entertainer in modern history. Respect. And it wasnt a sales pitch or a cheap come-on. It was real. We didnt play when it came to the work. My career as an artist was the most important thing to meit was the only thing. It validated my very existence, and Tommy understood the power of my commitment. I was serious and ambitious. He knew my vocals were unique and strong, but he was most impressed with how I created songs: the structure of my melodies, the music. I became his new star just as he was beginning a huge position at a new label, so he had the influence to clear the runway for my ascension into the sky. He was willing to move heaven and earth to make me successful. I recognized and respected that power. Despite having been around some of the biggest names in the music industry, Tommy told me I was the most talented person he had ever met. He was for real, and I really believed him. Soon after we met, Tommy started making romantic overtures. At first, they were a bit awkward and adolescent, like sending me expensive Gund teddy bears. Yet his persistent gestures and constant attention also gave me a sense of safety. Tommy had a brazen confidence I had never seen up close. He impressed me, and I saw him as a truly empowered person, which I found very attractive. Underneath the shine, however, I had some inkling that there was a darker energy that came with hima price to pay for his protection. But at nineteen, I was willing to pay it. For me, Tommy was a potent combination of father figure, Svengali, business partner, confidant, and companion. There was never really a strong sexual or physical attraction there, but at the time, I needed safety and stabilitya sense of homemore than I needed a boyfriend. Tommy understood that, and he provided. I gave him my work and my trust. I gave him my conviction and the combination to my moral code. The relationship was intense and all-encompassingafter all, we already worked together, which was how we spent most of our time. When we werent working, we were dining at high-end steakhouses or infamous Italian restaurants or attending industry events together. I was spending less and less time at my Chelsea apartment and began spending most nights with him. Soon, I felt pressure from Tommy to give up my place, and against my better instincts, I gave in. Little did I know, that relinquishment would mark the beginning of a slow and steady march into captivity. Little did I know, giving in to Tommys demands would gradually swallow my privacy and begin to erase my identity. On weekends, we drove up to Tommys farmhouse in Hillsdale, New York, which I eventually affectionately came to call Hillsjail. On the night I got my first publishing advance, for a million dollars (a million dollars buys a lot of HandH bagels!) Tommy drove us up the Taconic Parkway and pulled up before a gorgeous piece of land. He stopped the car and told me to get out. I looked at the sprawling expanse, shivering in the autumn breezeit really was stunning. Lets build a house here! Tommy proclaimed. I knew what this translated to: this is where we are building our house. I had no idea the scope of what I was getting myself into. Now, this was no Hillsjail. It was impressive and majestic: fifty acres of fertile green land adjacent to a nature preserve in Bedford, New York. It was sandwiched between properties belonging to Ralph Lauren and a very prominent billionaire, an area guaranteed to be secure. But, as I would soon discover, the concept of security was about to turn on me. I hadnt ever wanted to leave the city, but thats what we were doing. Outside of the recording studio, I wondered, when would I ever be back in my beloved Manhattan? Certainly, building a new house would be a monumental undertaking, but it did have a strong appeal to me, creatively and emotionally. After a childhood of being uprooted and plopped into all kinds of precarious living arrangements, I finally had the chance to build my own, from the foundation. I got excited. I got into it. I insisted on being fully involved in all aspects of the design, and I also insisted on paying half of all the costs. I wanted it to be my house. I had fresh memories of witnessing my mother go through the humiliation of a boyfriend shouting, Get out of my house! I told myself that no man would ever do that to me. Ever. Much of what I learned from my mother and older sister was what I wasnt going to do when I grew up. I had very little guidance in what to do as a woman, though Id been forced into adult situations when I was still quite young. Tommy was twenty-one years older than me; he could have been my father. He was also the head of my label. There was no wise woman around me to point out that the power dynamic in our relationship was nowhere near fifty-fifty, so maybe I should think twice about going in fifty-fifty with him on an expensive piece of property. To top it all off, we were not yet married. But I was young, and I was all the way in with Tommy. I was proud of making my own money (though I had no real concept of money). Id recently received an enormous royalty check from sales of my debut album, so I thought I was set for life. Building a dream house with Tommy did not seem like a risk. I was selling millions of records by then. But I didnt know that our dream mansion would come with an unfathomable thirty-million-dollar price tag. And as it turned out, my time in that house with Tommy would end up costing me so much more than money. I did love the process of building that grand manor in Bedford. It opened up a new area of passion in me. I was finally able to give life to my childhood obsession with old Hollywood movies. Ironically, I was especially influenced by How to Marry a Millionaire, starring Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe (of course). The images of palatial arched windows and glamorous, glossy floors were seared into my little-girl imagination. I made sure every room in our house was pristine and spacious, filled with air and sparkling with light. We worked closely with the designers and architects; we went over every detail together. I taught myself a lot about the styles of moldings and tiles. I became an expert in sconcessconces, dahling! I also learned a lot about materials and would often visit various rock quarries. Though by no stretch do I like a rustic look, I do have a preference for tumbled marble on my kitchen floors. I was very particular and confident about what I liked. Na?ve as I was at the time, I decided I was going to build a great house. I had come from far too little to complain, Oh, poor me; I have to build a mansion! I was into it. After all, I sincerely thought I would be with Tommy forever and that the home we would make together would be just as timeless, everlasting, and spectacular as the music we were creatingbehind which, of course, I was also the creative force. And spectacular it was. We even had a ballroom. I was in my early twenties, with my own ballroom! I built a grand closet inspired by Coco Chanels closet in her 31 rue Cambon flat in Paris, full of opulent mirrors and a spiral staircase that led to its own shoe section. I had acquired so many shoes through all my photo and video shoots that I had to build entire walls of shelving for them. It was staggering to think that just a few short years before, I had been walking in my mothers too-small, beat-up shoes, snow pouring in through cracks in the soles. I kept those dismal ankle boots for a while, with the intention to bronze them like baby booties, so I would never forget where I came from (as if that were even an option). In such a short time, I had gone from raggedy hand-me-downs to my own manor, complete with walls custom-built for an entire footwear collection. My faith and my fans blessed me with unimaginable riches. I was immensely grateful. But, despite that huge accomplishment, I had yet to learn that in reality, Id just provided the design inspiration, and put up half the money, to build my own prison. The magnificent compound I built in Bedford was just over ten miles from the village of Ossining, another quaint, wooded Westchester town, home to the most famous maximum-security prison in New York State, and possibly in the country: Sing Sing. A complex of grim stone and brick on 130 acres, landscaped with grand elm trees, Sing Sing sits formidably on the eastern bank of the Hudson River. The roller coasterlike arches of the Tappan Zee Bridge can be seen from the watchtower. In autumn, the views are breathtaking; the trees burn fiery orange, gold, and red. Sing Sing confines about two thousand human beings. The popular terms for being locked upbeing upstate or up the River or in the Big Housewere coined at Sing Sing. No matter how prime the real estate, how grandiose the structure, if its designed to monitor movement and contain the human spirit, it will serve only to diminish and demoralize those held inside. None of the irony of my proximity to the infamous prison, nor that of its peculiar name, was lost on me: jokingly, I referred to the Bedford estate as Sing Sing. It was fully staffed with armed guards, security cameras were installed in most rooms, and Tommy was in control. While I was building Sing Sing, I thought it would be a healthy idea to have my mother and my nephews, Mike and Shawn, live closer to me. I loved the process of designing and creating a gorgeous home. While I had little freedom at Sing Sing, Tommy did support me buying a house nearby for my mother. It became a big thing for us to talk about, and he eventually understood how important it was to me to try and create something stable for my family. I later found out he secretly had security follow me around whenever I went to look at houses or run errands, but I was grateful for the small window of ignorance. That child in me, deep down, still dreamed of a family that wasnt fractured. I had begun to make my career dreams come true, and I thought maybe I could make us a family homea home base, where everyone was always welcomeand Id make my mother the head of it. I got excited about the idea of buying a home my mother would love, and I could finally afford to do it in style. Finding the perfect house for her was my new project. Just like I wanted every bit of my house to reflect me, I was determined to put that attention to detail into the house for my mother. I wanted her to love where she was going to live. We recruited friends of Tommys in real estate to help me find a place nearby. They showed me several lovely homes, but I was holding out for the right thing, for her. My taste leaned more Old Hollywood, and hers was more Old Woodstock. After an extensive search within a twenty-minute radius of our estate, we finally rolled up on a deeply wooded property with a house set far back from the road. It wasnt meticulously manicured, which was typical of that section of upper Westchester; rather, the landscaping was intentionally organic. The six green acres were filled with splendid old oak trees. And the house blended into the nature around it beautifully. The interior was both spacious and cozy, with warm wood tones and soothing light streaming through gracious windows. Once inside, you couldnt hear or see the outside world. I had found the only hippie-opera-singer-dream-cabin-in-the-woods in Westchester! It was perfection, and I knew exactly what to do to bring it to life. I took it on like I was an interior designer on one of those makeover shows. I picked out and paid for every piece of brand-new furniture, all the knickknacks and accouterments. I chose every detail, from light fixtures to paint colors, all in Pats palette. I hung wooden flower boxes outside and filled them with romantic wildflowers. I got photo prints made of her Irish family members and Irish crests, had them mounted and framed, and hung them ascending the wall along the staircase. And I managed to keep it secret from her. The biggest challenge was getting her piano in without her knowing. I knew it was important that it was her old blond-wood Yamaha upright that would be in the living room, not a shiny new model. Her piano held memories in its keys; it was a symbol because it was a significant, stable object she provided during my turbulent childhood. I made up some story that I was going to get it tuned or something before it went into storage; I even had her sign fake moving documents so it could be taken away without suspicion. Her old piano would be the pi?ce de r?sistance in her cabin in the Westchester woods. One of the details that sold me on the property was a wooden sign that had the words Cabin in the Woods carved into it. The sellers didnt want to part with it, but I fought tooth and nail because I just knew my mother would love it. I got so much joy from making plans, keeping the secret, and working to make everything just so. Growing up, I had always wanted a family house where I wouldnt be embarrassed to bring my friends. Creating a place where my mother could live comfortably and the whole family could gather was so specialhealing, even. It was like preparing a spectacular Christmas for my mother and family. I was giddy with excitement when it was time to present the house I had created to my mother. I was proud of the work that I had done. To me, this house was also testimony to my ability to hold on to childhood desires, proof that the trauma and danger I had faced hadnt destroyed my hope. My mother thought she was coming up to Sing Sing for one of our semiregular dinners. When I picked her up, I told her I had to swing by Tommys friend Caroles house, which was nearby. When the wrought-iron gates I had installed swung open like welcoming arms from the stone pillars and we entered the property, I felt my mother go still, then heard her take a deep breath. Trees will do that: make you stop and breathe. She moved out of the car as if the fresh air was making her slow down. She looked up at the house in all its beauty. I watched her take in the grace of the flower boxes. And as Carole opened the front door, the aroma of rich coffee and hot cinnamon buns drifted past us. (I had orchestrated it to be brewing and baking when we arrived, as I wanted those details to set the mood.) My mother stood in the doorway and softly said, Oh, Carole, your house is beautiful. Playing right along, Carole offered to show her around, and I followed behind. When we got to the staircase my mother paused at the photos, but I could tell it didnt quite register. So I broke her trance. Mom, look at whos in the pictures. She was struck with utter confusion as she noticed her family on Caroles wall. Faintly, she replied, I dont understand. This is all for you. This is where you live now, I said. She was speechless. And I was the proudest Id ever been. Mike, who I completely treasure, was still quite little then. He went tearing through the house and out to the backyard, running along the plush grass, squealing with delight. He was full of such pure joy (and is still such a source of joy to me). He was free. A little boy playing in the afternoon breeze with no filth, just free. We had come full circle from swinging over trash heaps or being thrown out like garbageor so I thought. Along with the ballroom and couture shoe closets of Sing Sing, I built a fantastic state-of-the-art recording studio. Adjacent to the studio was a huge Roman-style swimming pool of white marble inside of a grand parlor. In these two places I found solace and solitude. They were a temporary reprieve and a chance to feel weightlessin the recording studio and in the water. But the studio, the pool, and I were all still confined, enclosed within the bounds of Sing Sings fortress. Under ordinary circumstances, the chance to have my own studiocustom-made to my exact specifications and at my disposal at any timewould have been liberating. In the early days of my career, I was at the mercy of other people to get studio time, grateful to be in grim little spaces, singing songs I didnt like, bartering, doing whatever it took to get my songs recorded. And now, I had my own fully equipped, gorgeous recording studio. I imagined I could have my own sessions when I wanted to and call in the artists I wanted to work with, like Prince did. Sing Sing wasnt Paisley Park, but it was fabulous, and it was mine. Well, half mine. There was a studio with sophisticated recording equipment, but there was also very sophisticated security equipment outfitted throughout the houselistening devices, motion-detecting camerasrecording my every move. A FAMILY So when you feel like hope is gone Look inside you and be strong And youll finally see the truth That a hero lies in you Hero It was the middle of July 1993, and I was headed to Schenectady, New York, to record a Thanksgiving special for NBC. It was the first event to kick off promotion for my soon-to-be-released third studio album, Music Box. The first single, Dreamlover, would be dropping in a week, and the full album would be released on the last day of August. Schenectady, a typical industrial city in eastern New York, was largely made up of Eastern European immigrants and Black folks who had come from the South to work in the towns cotton mill. Its a straight shot north along the Hudson River from Hillsjail. The concert was to be taped in Proctors Theatre, a former vaudeville house complete with a red carpet, gold leaf galore, Corinthian columns, chandeliers, and Louis XV couches in the balcony promenadethe whole nine yards. Even though it was a beautiful, classic theater, it was not the setting I would have chosen, to be sure; nor would most twenty-year-olds in the early 1990s. But I made few decisions about my whereabouts then. Outside of the recording studio, every aspect of my life was decided by a committee in those days, with Tommy acting as chairman of the board. (Oddly enough, I was never invited to the meetings.) As we pulled up to the center of town, the streets seemed to be increasingly empty, and I began to notice a lot of police officers. Several streets were blocked off near the theater, patrolled by clusters of men in dark uniforms, outfitted with shiny shoes and black guns. The limo slowed to a crawl as I stared out the window, the eerily quiet streets rolling by. A familiar anxiety was rising inside, which I fought mightily to contain. I had to mentally prepare to present new songs in front of new people, a performance that would be televised to millions on a major network. I knew I couldnt let my anxiety develop into fear. With the exception of the copswho had called all these cops? I had my own security with me; in fact, I always had security with methe street behind the theater, where the backstage door was located, was desolate. Before I was quickly whisked into my gilded dressing room, I caught a glimpse of crowds of people behind barricades. Though I now had a moment to settle in, I still felt anxious. Eventually I asked why the streets were blocked off and full of police. What in the world was happening in downtown Schenectady on this hot midsummer day? Miss Carey, they told me, its for you. Its because you were coming to do the show. Apparently, masses of young fans were crowding the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of me. At first, I couldnt fully digest this response. What did they mean? The barricades, the squads of police, the emptied streets were because of me? My first album, Mariah Carey, had come out three years prior hitting and holding the number-one spot on the Billboard 200 chart for 11 consecutive weeks, remaining on the list for 113 weeks in total, with four singles going number one back-to-back. I had won Grammys for Best New Artist and the best female pop vocal performance, and received nominations for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year for Vision of Love, which I performed on The Arsenio Hall Show, Good Morning America, The Tonight Show, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. The album would go on to sell nine million copies in the United States alone and was still selling all over the world (it would go on to sell more than fifteen million copies). My second album, Emotions, had been released just the year before. I particularly adored working with David Cole (one half of the fab C C Music Factory). He was a church kid who loved dance music (as evidenced on Make It Happen). As a producer, he pushed me as a singer, because he was one too. I released an EP with live versions of songs from my first two albums for the wildly popular show MTV Unplugged. It included a remake of the classic Jackson Five hit Ill Be There, featuring my background singer and friend Trey Lorenz. The song quickly shot to number one after the show, making it my fifth number-one single and the second time Ill Be There held the coveted spot. I performed Emotions at the MTV Video Music Awards and the Soul Train Music Awards. And here I was again, about to hit another stage, and somehow I had no clue that I was famous. For four solid years of my life, I was writing, singing, producing, and doing photo shoots, video shoots, press junkets, and promotional tours. All the awards and accolades I received were handed out in highly coordinated industry settings. It just seemed to be part of the work. If I had any free time I was sequestered in an old farmhouse up in the Hudson Valley. Tommy orchestrated all of it. I was in my early twenties. Because I was never alone, I had no comprehension of the impact my music and I were making on the outside world. I never had time to think or reflect. I now believe that this was completely by design. Did Tommy know I would be easier to control if I were kept ignorant of the full scope of my power? Im told that in the Music Box era, as a gift to me, my then makeup artist Billy B and hairstylist Syd Curry made a thoughtful scrapbook for me, in which they gathered little notes of love and appreciation from other artists or celebrities they worked with or saw in their travels. Joey Lawrence (remember Joey from Blossom?), who was such a heartthrob at the time, apparently left a significantly sweet message. Well, Tommy saw the lovefest of a book, ripped it up, and burned it in the fireplace before I was able to see ita childish act of cruelty, especially to Billy and Syd, who went through all that effort to prove to me how big I was even among the stars. With no parental or familial management or protection, I was easy to manipulate, but the dynamic of my relationship with Tommy was complex. In many ways, Tommy protected me from my dysfunctional family, but he went to the extreme: he controlled and patrolled me. Yet his control also meant that in these early years, all my focus, all my energy, and all my passion went into writing, producing, and singing my songs. Tommy and his stranglehold on my movements seemed a fair price to pay for getting to do the work I had always dreamed of. He had my life, but I had my music. It wasnt until that moment in Schenectady that I began to realize the degree of my popularity. I had fans! And soon they would become another source of my strength. In the dressing room, where I sat in a chair having my hair first straightened, then curled and sprayed, the magnitude of what I had just learned began to sink in. The police were not around because of some violent or dangerous incidentthey were there to make a clear way for me. My family may not have provided me safety, my relationship may not have given me security, but realizing that there was a multitude of people showing up and pouring out love for me gave me a new kind of confidence. Because Tommy never allowed me to experience the glamorous privileges granted to the young, rich, and popular, the fame I discovered was solely defined through my relationship to my fans and their relationship to my music. I decided that day that I was prepared to be devoted to them forever. The Thanksgiving special was titled Here Is Mariah Carey, and I was going to debut three new songs from Music Box: Dreamlover, Anytime You Need a Friend, and Hero, along with some of my known hitsEmotions, Make It Happen, and of course, Vision of Love. I had always written songs from an honest place, using my own lived experiences and dreams as a source. I also pushed my vocals to their extreme. I was also going to debut Hero. Its always a risk to debut songs at a live show that people have not had the opportunity to connect with through radio repetition. Even though I wrote Hero, it wasnt originally intended for me to perform. I was asked to write something for the movie Hero, starring Dustin Hoffman and Geena Davis. Tommy had agreed I would submit a song for the film, to be sung by Gloria Estefan, who was on Epic Records (Sony, Tommys label, was the parent company). I knew that Luther Vandross was also writing a song for the soundtrack, so I would be in great company. I hunkered down in Right Track, or the Hit Factoryone of the major studios where I had spent a major fortune. I was there that day with Walter Afanasieff. The plot of the film was explained to everyone in the studio in five minutes: a pilot goes around and rescues people. Thats about all I absorbed. Shortly after, I got up to go to the bathroom, one of the few activities I did unaccompanied by someone on Tommys payroll. I lingered in the stall to luxuriate in my fleeting moment of peace. Savoring my time, I slowly walked down the hall to return to the studio. As I walked, a melody and some words came clearly into my mind. As soon as I got back into the room, I sat right down at the piano and said to Walter, This is how it goes. I hummed the tune and some of the lyrics. As Walter worked to find the basic chords, I began to sing, and then a hero comes along. I guided him through what I had heard so vividly in my head. Hero was created for a mainstream movie, to be sung by a singer with a very different style and range than my own. Honestly, though I felt the message and the melody were fairly generic, I also thought it fit the bill. We recorded a rough demo, which I found a bit schmaltzy. But Tommy heard the potential for a classic. He insisted not only that we keep the song but that it was going on my new album. I was like, Okay. Im glad he likes it. I finessed the song and made changes to the lyrics to make it more personal. For that, I went to the well of my memories and dipped into that moment when Nana Reese had told me to hold on to my dreams. I did my best to reclaim it, but it was a gift no matter who it was for. By the time of the Schenectady show, Hero had lost its simplicity and gained some depth. The initial trepidation I felt about singing it live for the first time in front of an audience was melting away as I thought about all the people who had lined the streets and packed the theater to see me that night. I decided that this song did not actually belong to Gloria Estefan, a movie, Tommy, or me. Hero belonged to my fans, and I was going to deliver it to them with all I had. The Thanksgiving special included inner-city kids from a local community organization. I saw the kids backstage, brimming with both promise and fear, and in them, I saw me. I would sing this song for them too. The concert opened with my latest hit, Emotionsupbeat and embellished with lots of my signature super-high notes. As I was singing Emotions, and through the several stops and retakes required (singing live for TV recording is tedious work), I was able to really look at the people in the crowd. This was Schenectady, and these were real folksnot paid seat fillers or trendily dressed extras but authentic, mostly young people with that unmistakable hunger and adoration in their eyes. I saw them for who they were, and they were me. I closed my eyes and said a prayer. As the first few chords of the piano intro played, I started to hum from my heart. When I opened my mouth, Hero was released into the world. Some of us need to be rescued, but everyone wants to be seen. I sang Hero directly to the faces I could see from the stage. I saw tears well up in their eyes and hope rise up in their spirits. Whatever cynicism I had about that song was gone after that night. But Tommy, too, had noticed the size of its impact. Later that year, on December 10, 1993, when I performed Hero at Madison Square Garden, I announced that all stateside sales proceeds would be donated to the families of victims of the Long Island Railroad shooting, which had happened three days prior. On a traina route Id ridden beforea man pulled out a 9-mm pistol and opened fire, killing six people and wounding nineteen. Three brave men, Kevin Blum, Mark McEntee, and Michael OConnor, subdued him, thus preventing more slaughter. They were heroes, and so I dedicated Hero to them that night. Just ten days after the September 11 attacks, I sang the song as part of the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon. And on January 20, 2009, I had the unthinkable, unparalleled honor of singing it at the Inaugural Ball of the first African American president of the United States of America. To this day, Hero is one of my most performed songs. Music Box would go on to reach diamond status in the United States and is one of the highest-selling albums of all time. And heres a side note with a side eye: A couple of people have come for Hero, and for me, with both royalties and plagiarism claims. Three times I have been to court, and three times the cases have been thrown out. The first time, the poor fool going after me had to pay a fine. Initially I felt victimized, knowing how purely the song came to me, but after a while I almost began to expect lies and lawsuits to come with my successfrom strangers and my own family and friends. And they wont stop. The taping that night in Schenectady took several hours. A television show has so many technical needsmultiple cameras, close-ups, far and cutaway shots, costume changes, hair and makeup touch-ups, extras, audience reactionsits a production. When we finally wrapped, I said all my thank-yous to the kids, the choir, the orchestra, and the crew. Then, just as I had come in, I was whisked out the backstage door, which seemed to lead not to the street but straight into the limo. I plopped into the backseat, buzzing from a contradictory cocktail of exhaustion and exhilaration. As we pulled out into the street, I noticed that where there was once emptiness and a scattering of barricades, there were now crowds of people swelling over the flimsy metal partitions, screaming my name and We love you! I noticed the cops too, standing there, unfazed, in the pulsing midst of the energy and excitement. It was one thing to be informed, but quite another to see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, and feel in my soul the reaction from real people to me and my music. What I felt that night in Schenectady was not idol worship, it was love. It was the kind of love that comes from honest connection and recognition. I was mesmerized as I looked out the window, watching all these people shower me with such love. Not just fans. A family. As the crowd faded from sight and we neared the outskirts of town, approaching the highway, my high began to wear off. And by the time the wheels touched the tar of the Taconic Parkway, the mood in the car had returned to its routine gloom. Most Thursday evenings Tommy and I would ride up the southern stretch of this highway, leaving glamorous Manhattan behind to spend the weekend in Hillsdale. As the lights and high-rises shrank in the rearview mirror and the magnetic pull of the city dimmed, a part of my life force grew faint as well. When the car radio, which stayed locked on Hot 97 (their then slogan: blazing hip-hop and R and B), would begin to break up, muffled by static, I knew my life as a Grammy awardwinning singer-songwriter twenty-something was over. Every weekend, Tommy would turn off the radio that was my lifeline and take a moment of silence before popping in one of his beloved Frank Sinatra CDs. What a tragic metaphor, listening to Tommy hum My Way as he drove us back to my captivity. I was conditioned to either talk shop or go silent on our bleak commute. Mostly, though, I just stared out the window at the grand Hudson River, preparing for my first major role: contented wife-to-be. This was the only acting job Tommy ever encouraged. Taking acting classes or accepting roles in movies or on TV was strictly forbidden. On the ride back from Schenectady, I dont recall Tommy and me discussing what had just happened. Perhaps he knew that I saw the purity and power of the fansthat Id discovered how their love couldnt be controlled. It is fans who create a phenomenon, not record-company executives. Tommy was smart. He knew. But I dont know if he realized that after that moment, I finally did too. We arrived at the farmhouse, and all I wanted to do was take a bath. Being a performer is a production. You build up and put on, you strategize, manipulate, accommodate, and shape-shift. It requires rituals (sometimes in the form of bad habits) to return yourself back to yourself. My ritual was to wash the performer off. The addition of a large tub facing an expansive picture window was one of the few contributions I got to make to Hillsjail. The bathroom was my refuge, since putting a camera or intercom in there wouldve been a bit much, even for Tommy. The cool marble tile sent a soothing sensation through my bare feet, which had been hoisted up in heels all night. I lazily peeled off my ensemble, thankful that the sound of the water running was the only one I heard. I lowered the overhead lights and ceremoniously lit a few white candles. The water was welcoming, and I surrendered. As if being baptized, I submerged my head and lingered in the warm, dark quiet. I gently rose up, tilted my head back, and propped my arms along the edge of the massive basin, eyelids still shut, savoring every moment of this calm solitude. Slowly I opened my eyes to a radiant full moon, glowing against a clear, blue-black sky. Softly I began to sing: Da, da, da, da, da Images of the scene I had just leftadoring fans screaming and cryingflashed through my mind, blending with painful recollections of my brother screaming and my mother crying, of myself as a lonely little girl in a neglected dress. I was floating in a tub that was larger than the size of my entire living area just five years before, in a room bigger than all of the living rooms in all of the thirteen places I lived with my mother growing up. The enormity, complexity, and instability of the road I had traveled to get into this bath hit me. It was the first time I felt safe enough to go back and peek in on Mariah, the little one, and recognize what she had survived. And suddenly, the first verse and chorus of Close My Eyes came to me: I was a wayward child With the weight of the world That I held deep inside. Life was a winding road And I learned many things Little ones shouldnt know But I closed my eyes Steadied my feet on the ground Raised my head to the sky And the times rolled by Still I feel like a child As I look at the moon Maybe I grew up A little too soon. It would take me years to finish this songyears of anguish and survival.

  • Mans Search for Meaning /     (by Viktor E. Frankl, 1946) -   Mans Search for Meaning /
  • Wizard of Oz /    (Baum, 2014)    Wizard of Oz /
  • Dumbo /  (Disney, 2012) -   Dumbo / (Disney, 2012)
  • The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts /   :    (by Gary Chapman, 2010) -   The Five Love Languages: The

, , .

  • .

  • ,