Lisa bullies Liz when Ma and Daddy aren’t around. She pulls pranks on Liz, and tells elaborate lies about what Liz should expect in school.
Liz and Lisa don’t really get along: like many older siblings, Lisa exploits the fact that she’s older and has more authority and experience.
In the first grade, Liz discovers that she has lice, and Lisa makes fun of her. Later, Lisa offers to help Liz. She braids Liz’s hair and tells her to put “anything red” in her hair, because this will scare away the lice. Liz finds flowers, beads, and fabric, which she rubs all over her hair. After a while, she scratches her hair and “bugs wriggled” out.
This is one of the only times in the memoir when Liz details a specific interaction between herself and her sister, Lisa. This lack would suggest that the two of them aren’t particularly close (even though many children who play tricks on their younger siblings end up becoming close with them).
The narration now jumps to a time slightly before the lice incident, and Liz explains how, when she firs started school, she felt like an outcast, partly because of the bizarre haircut Ma gave her. Then, just after the beginning of the first grade, is when she gets lice, and that makes her feel like even more of an outcast. Liz learns that she has lice in the middle of a spelling test. During the test she scratches her hair and bugs come crawling out, disgusting the other children.
From the beginning, Liz doesn’t like school, but she suggests that this isn’t really her fault, and is mostly a symptom of her circumstances. But this antipathy towards school will be a major obstacle she must overcome later.
Lisa’s lice cure, of course, turns out to be yet another one of her practical jokes—it does nothing to help Liz. Liz cries after she realizes that Lisa is tricking her.
Liz takes Lisa’s prank very seriously, and is wounded when she realizes that Lisa was just fooling her.
Liz tries hard in school, but she isn’t a good student. In part this is because she doesn’t get much sleep, and in part it’s because she barely gets any food. Once, Ma steals five dollars from Liz to buy drugs. The five dollars were a gift from Liz’s grandmother (Daddy’s mother). Liz sees Ma take her money, and screams at her to give it back. Ma ignores her. Later, weeping, Ma throws her drugs down the toilet and tells Liz, “Forgive me.”
Liz doesn’t do well in school for reasons largely beyond her control. She has to deal with things that nobody—certainly no children—should have to deal with, such as a parent stealing money. And yet the passage emphasizes that Ma does love Liz and regrets her actions. By now Ma is suffering from the disease of addiction—her physical and psychological need for drugs prevents her from having a happy, normal relationship with her child.
Ma is attacked in her neighborhood several times, and once a man with a knife robs her. She struggles to find work because she’s legally blind. At one point, she gets a job as a bike courier, but has to quit after she gets into not one but two accidents. Daddy is also robbed or mugged many times. He risks his safety to go to dangerous neighborhoods to buy drugs.
In the 1980s, the Bronx is one of the most dangerous places in the entire country, let alone New York. Liz’s parents are willing to risk their safety in order to support their drug habits—a sign of how addicted they’ve become.
Sometimes, Ma talks to Liz while she, Ma, uses drugs. She tells Liz stories about life in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, adding details about how people have tried to have sex with her or get high with her. Liz watches her parents get high, and notices that the drugs will sometimes make them feel great. At other times, she notices that the drugs make her parents relive painful memories and become seriously depressed.
Ma shares all kinds of stories that aren’t appropriate for Liz’s ears. Although Liz remains quiet and seemingly passive, she learns a great deal about her parents and, by extension, drug use: above all, she recognizes that drugs don’t necessarily bring happiness. She sees past the glamor of drug use to the depression and pain that they often cause.
Liz hates getting up in the mornings. Lisa often yells at her to get out of bed and get ready for school. In school, Liz does well in English class: she has already taught herself to read, and she can already do Lisa’s assignments easily. But Liz doesn’t like school, and hopes that she’ll get sick and be sent home early.
Liz is clearly an intelligent child, but for various reasons that have nothing to do with her abilities (her loneliness, her lice, her bad haircut, etc.), she hates school from the very start.
By December of first grade, Ma has begun allowing Liz to stay home from school most days. They watch TV together and eat sandwiches on the couch. After many weeks of this, the house gets a letter from the truancy officer. However, Liz is able to destroy the letter before Ma sees it.
Liz further shows her intelligence by managing to destroy all letters from the truancy officer before her parents read them. Unfortunately, she’s using her intelligence for entirely destructive means at this point.
Ma begins spending time with a woman named Tara. They get high together, and Ma often brings Liz and Lisa to Tara’s apartment. Ma and Tara talk about cocaine, their drug of choice, over and over again. Tara tells Ma about a man named Ron who “takes care of me.” The next Sunday, Ma takes Liz and Lisa so that they can all meet Ron together. Ron turns out to be a thin man in his mid-sixties. Lisa hates him right away, even though he smiles and offers the children candy. Tara later tells Ma that Ron buys most of her drugs, and could do the same for Ma.
Two things to notice here. First, even as a young child, Liz gets a sense for the boredom and repetitiveness of drug addiction: Ma just talks about cocaine all day long. Second, Ma’s friends are dependent on other people to fund their drug habits. They’re so addicted to cocaine and other drugs that they’re willing to do anything to please the people who support their habit.
Eventually, Ron starts picking up Lisa, Liz, and Ma at Tara’s apartment every Sunday. Instinctively, Liz knows not to talk about Ron while Daddy is around. Liz also notices that Ron will look “up and down Ma’s and Tara’s T-shirts.”
Even though she’s still young, Liz seems to understand the sexual component of Ma’s relationship with Ron: Ron gives Ma drugs, and in return, it’s loosely suggested, Ma sleeps with Ron, or at least allows him to behave lecherously around her.
One day, Ron drives Liz, Lisa, and Ma out to his house in Queens. For the rest of the day, Lisa and Liz watch TV. Then, at night, Ron wakes up Liz and Lisa and tells them that Ma has left the house. He claims that he’s supposed to give Ma’s kids a bath immediately. Liz and Lisa strip and get in the bathtub, and Ron orders them to clean their “privates” so that he can see. However, Lisa yells at Ron and tells him to get out of the room. Ron leaves.
Ron’s presence in the memoir is relatively brief, but it is also probably the most disturbing part of the book, and looms over the rest of Liz’s life. Ron is clearly a pedophile, and Liz and Lisa feel helpless against him, since even their own mother depends on him for money and drugs.
Five weeks later, Ma has a mental breakdown, the first in more than six years. Liz has never told anybody, but she believes that Ma’s breakdown was her, Liz’s, fault. Liz tells Ma about the incident in the bathroom, and Ma later hits Ron in the face. Furious, Ma asks Liz to tell her about “every time Ron made you feel bad.” Liz explains that there have been many times when Ron “thrust his fingers inside me.” However, when Liz tells Ma about all these times, she omits one key piece of information: she didn’t tell Ma because Ron “made things better” for the family.
Perhaps the most tragic passage of the book. Though Liz hasn’t discussed it until now, she’s aware that Ron raped and abused her multiple times. But the passage also suggests that Liz, even as a little girl, believes that there’s an “exchange” going on: she believes that, in return for abusing her, Ron will make her family happy by giving Ma drugs. It is heartbreaking, and disturbing, that a child would be pressured to think in such terms. But throughout the memoir, Liz encounters many different versions of the same scenario, in which a financially independent man supports a woman with food, money, shelter, or drugs, in return for a degree of sexual “ownership.”
Following Ma’s breakdown—caused, the doctors claim, from Ma’s failure to take her “schizophrenia medicine”—Liz and Lisa are taken to the doctor as well. There, Liz remembers a nurse saying, “You should have heard what their mother had to say about their father.” The doctors examine Liz and Lisa in the place “no one should touch.” Liz adds that this place was one “where, even if no one believed it, Daddy had never touched me.” Afterwards, Liz bleeds from between her legs, and she cries, “unable to imagine ever feeling normal again.”
While describing the aftermath of Ma’s mental breakdown, Liz specifically denies that her father ever abused her. Liz projects an overwhelming sense of guilt in this passage: even though she’s done absolutely nothing wrong, she—like so many victims of sexual abuse—blames herself for her own pain, and even for her mother’s mental breakdown. Crucially, her first period also comes during this time of incredible trauma, forever associating her growing sexuality with abuse and suffering.