The So-Called Butter Knife Affair

The assault that took place two years ago on the reasonably bright morning of April 11 wasn’t the incident that led to my incarceration. The “So-Called Butter Knife Affair” (as the nurses here call it) wasn’t responsible for my family’s downward spiral as court documents allege. Yet the Board at Buffalo Psychiatric highlights the episode at every hearing. On every file. For them, that day with my son is the pivotal moment in the (incomplete) history I’ve compiled here, the lynchpin whose sudden collapse led to my family’s swift and complete devolution. I’ve tried to explain to the Board that they’re far off the mark. I’ve pointed out other forces, factual and spectral, at work. But the truth blunts my tongue. My words are rough and fur-coated.

Somewhere, my husband writes:

The truth does not— will not— set you free.

§

I try to be forgiving.

I remind myself I’d have to be sylvan-tongued, svelte (and at least ten years younger) to convince the men and women who now own my life— the tired nurses in their cheerful, bleached scrubs; the Board of myopic doctors who mind them— that my assault of a ten-year-old boy over blueberry pancakes took place as they say.

Just not the way they think.

Since it’s my son’s interests they have at heart, I brace myself each time they read excerpts from the police report to me: a boy and his mother alone in a kitchen. The boy sitting down at the table whole. Then rising from it bloody and damp not ten minutes later, a butter knife buried up to its hilt in the lean muscles of his taut hairless thigh. The puddle of blood at his feet, deep enough and thick enough that, when a housecat later dipped her paws in it, the blood filled in the prints at once, concealing where she bent over the lip of the pool to sample her young master’s pap.

It’s all there in the record, the Board reminds me.

What they never acknowledge? I told the officer working the case— a Lieutenant Jaffe, if memory serves— those details myself. You’d think that would be enough to convince them I’ve nothing to hide. Instead, they focus on what they call “related fine points” like an aging bustle of slow-moving aunts fretting over the frayed edges of a bent doily.

“Where,” Board Member 3 asks, as though he’s never asked before, “did the butter knife come from?”

“And why,” BM1 chimes in, “did you cancel your doctor appointment,” (he hesitates, flips through my file), “a standing chiropractic appointment just minutes before the ‘incident’” (he deploys the word dryly) “happened?”

BM6 doesn’t wait for an answer. His voice is as yellowed and faded as the pages of an old book. Both my counselor and I must lean in to hear him.

“Please characterize,” he says, not even trying to project his thin, reedy voice, “your husband’s relationship with Regina Hammond.”

To this BM3 adds at once: “And describe your mood since your daughter was born.”

Naturally, I have answers to all their questions. The Board has heard them before. Now they will hear them again: it’s the repetition, not the replies themselves that are the focus of our Wednesday morning meetings. Perhaps I’ll change my story (they think). Perhaps, then, they’ll catch me out.

But how do you “catch out” the truth?

Fortunately, my counselor Celeste has trained me well. “Well-paced precision,” she instructs, is the chief trait I must exhibit. “It’s a sign of respect as well as sanity.”

She gives me a long look. “Do your best.”

Celeste has always been direct with me. So I keep it together. For her.

I sit up straight, I fold my hands. I try to keep the quiver from my voice.

I answer the Board’s questions calmly. Deliberately. While, inside, I swear at Ed. You swine-deviled spunk of a man, I think. Just look at what you’ve done.

Answer 1: I bought the knife, cash, from a local retailer (the receipt, of course, is now long gone). Our neighbors, the Hammonds, were due at the time to come over for dinner— a fact, I reminded them, that neither Regina nor her (now) ex-husband, Bernard, dispute.

Answer 2: Because I was tired. So very tired. More tired then they could imagine. My daughter was (then) nine months old. What they didn’t know: she was a lousy sleeper; that I hadn’t slept for more than two consecutive hours since the strange night of her birth. It wasn’t unusual for me to cancel hair, dentist, even chiropractic appointments (a fact they could check). If she finally broke down and slept, I’d nap myself. Isn’t that what every parenting guide advises?

The answer to their third question was trickier. As Celeste knew, I’d discovered that Ed was sleeping with Regina Hammond. But to admit what I knew (as BM6 implied) gave the Board what they wanted: a motive. So Celeste had advised me not to lie, but to keep my tone what she called— with her charming, mild-mannered acidity— “light.”

I did my best.

I imagined my anger taking a buoyant form: perhaps a hot-air balloon lifting my husband skyward. Directly into a bank of wires.

“Ed was flirtatious,” I said (again). “A charmer. And my neighbor, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, endures compliments with admirable skill.”

The way a flytrap endures flies.

Their last question about my mood? That was a real problem. A case of postpartum depression would explain everything as far as they were concerned— make sense of a senseless act— and if I’d just admit to a bad case of “baby blues,” the Board could go home, take their kids to a park, and feel as though their world were in order. Bobby’s wound, my convincing grief, even my history as a so-called “good citizen”: my entire case would fall into place and the Board wouldn’t look any further. Of course the vast majority of PPD sufferers who end up “acting out” (as the Board says politely) tend to kill their children, not the men in their lives, as I’ve since learned. But it would explain the fly in my file’s ointment— the memory lapse that continues to plague me— and why, “even now,” as they see it, I remain unable to recognize my (then) so-called “altered” state of mind myself.

Hell, it’s persuasive logic even to me.

On the bad days, I comfort myself that I could not face such an allegation if the Board’s suspicion— that I deliberately hurt Bobby— had any merit. That only a sane woman pushed to the point of despair would consider any diagnosis bantered about by six sodden-faced men with intolerable ease. But I must. I’ve been in the room with death before. It smells like piss and stale sheets. Florid breath over a rotten tooth. The fine particulate of the body’s corruption remains trapped like sand in your nose hairs.

I never want to smell it again.

The Board should know that. They know my history after all: about my brother, Jules (his conspicuous death). And from Jules’s best-selling books, all about my mother Helena (her persistent life). My job is to convince them I’m not broken: that my childhood didn’t wind me up and send me spinning into a dervishly murderous future.

I don’t blame their fear. The precedents of women who act out are frightening. Women who give up. Who give in. Mothers whose minds unravel when their children’s worlds replace their own. Women who kill when they realize— suddenly— that they never existed as the sleek, unfettered anatomical engines they still remember, because they never did for the sweet tots for whom they selflessly care.

We are nothing more than memory. So it’s the simplest, most complete annihilation to be forgotten by those we love— particularly when the amnesiacs are seedling reflections of yourself.

And their father has forgotten too.

Suddenly, a whispered question from Ed:

How much worse, Jane, could death be?

In an ancient religion from the Greek Peloponnese (I’ve learned during my regularly scheduled “Library Encounter Times” or “L.E.T.’s,” as inmates like me ironically call them because we’re permitted so little), the most promising initiates were given the option of drinking water from one of two rivers: Mnemosyne or Lethe. The former offered omniscience, the latter, amnesia. Both choices led to death after an intense (all too brief) period of oracular insight.

Memory is killing— that’s the truth— and mothers know as much intuitively. Infanticides might take the low road. The rest of us, the more circuitous high road. But all mothers travel with the same baggage—the corpse of the woman we once were. Some of us can no longer remember her fully. Others can’t put her from our minds. But it’s memory, in the end, that drives mothers to madness— to kill their children— which is not unlike saying, to kill themselves.

Which leads me to wonder: is it psychosis, or the height of logic, to do away with a body that’s been done in? Is murder an unnatural act if you believe you’re already dead?  

Of course I’m wicked for thinking such thoughts. Celeste knows I know it (she’s heard such turns in logic from me before) and, as usual, she takes it all in stride with her simple smile, advising me only to “keep my own counsel” when we meet with the Board.

“Better yet, save it all for the book.” There is a soft touch on my arm.

She always gives sound advice.

I’m not so foolish as to think the Board is capable of assessing my more internecine thoughts with subtlety or nuance. Their world is simple by need: a woman who troubles to understand a murderer’s motives has likely committed murder herself. A “mimetic socio-pathology,” my court-appointed therapist calls it. Yet I’d argue (if they’d ever give me the chance) that it is precisely my capacity for imagining the mindset of a murderess that, paradoxically, makes my claim— that I’m not one myself— far more convincing. That it’s my ability to envision the worst that prevents me from strolling idly down dark, fevered paths.

After all, what else is murder, but a failure of imagination?

The one lesson I’ve learned in the past several months is that we cannot fear the dark places to which the mind turns in the twilight hours. Like a cat, we must look long and deep: we must see as clearly at midnight as we do at noon. Who wouldn’t shudder at the shadows we cast. The silhouette of hands around a neck. A rigid back hunched over a bathtub’s still waters. But we have to come to terms with what we glimpse in our most hidden corners.

It is dangerous to look.

But it’s even more wicked to look away.

So I will try to describe what I’ve seen in my kitchen and bedroom and my mind’s secret corners. I will tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth— though not because I wish to (haven’t I said I’ll be frank?) or because (as the Board will surely propose) I exhibit all the telltale signs of a closet exhibitionist. Not even because I have prior experience ghost-writing memoirs and I’ve come to use the candid voice I adopt for my work to describe my private world as well. For the first time in my life I can thank my brother Jules for that.

Let me directly address the Board’s implied diagnosis— their preferred line of interrogation— so that it doesn’t lurk beneath the pages that follow:

It was with sound mind and body that I hurt my son, Robert Edward Tamlin, one bright April morning.

It was my knife. I was holding it.

Bobby’s injury occurred while he sat less than four feet from me.

What I dispute— and what I will go on to dispute to the end of my days— is that I am “at fault” for his wound. Let me pose this assertion another way: while “I” threw the knife, I am not to blame for throwing it.

The “I” whom the Board describes in their files?

The “I” whom Ed, even now, is still writing about?

Like a toad in a slowly boiling pot of water, that “I” has been subject to malicious forces beyond her control.

Wherever he is, I can hear Ed as clearly as if he’s standing beside me:

Come on, Jane. Really?

One more time. For the record, goddammit.

I am not to blame.

Note: “The So-Called Butter Knife Affair” is an excerpt from Choke Box: a Fem-Noir (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

Christina Milletti’s novel Choke Box: a Fem-Noir won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and was published by University of Massachusetts Press in March 2019. Her fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in many journals and anthologies, such as Best New American Voices, The Iowa Review, The Master's Review, Denver Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly, Studies in the Novel, The American Book Review, Brooklyn Rail, and The Buffalo News. Her first book, The Religious & Other Fictions (a collection of stories) was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo where she is the Director of the Creative Writing Program and co-curates the Exhibit X Fiction Series. 

Barzakh Mag