By Kerry Bramhall




 Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

S. Merwin


Girl Mother Memory:  Six stories high. Will she make a sound as she flies? Her wisps of hair and wide forehead just like her mother. Get me out of this room. She is too small today and I can’t feel my hands. Turn your back to the windows…Don’t throw her out. That would be wrong…and very bad…Lots of trouble for me. Jail. Blood. Hard cement below. I should make dinner now. Find the warm kitchen. There is no mother here for any of us now. Windows can let me out or hold me in. I want my own lost mother to crush me with love and stop this scream inside my throat. I am thirteen. My sister is six.

To deliberately or accidentally kill a sister, yes, the thought occurred and horrified me. After moving/abducting/hiding my sister and myself, and after our stepmother was kicked out one night with no more than a suitcase, our father moved us into a dilapidated WW-II era, brick apartment building across from the barren, potholed yard of an elementary school. Living on the sixth floor of our building he, or maybe someone else, had the wisdom to put guards on the windows except in his room. Just three, narrow, waist-high windows a small girl body could lean out of and fall without a sound.

Being the oldest child became an occupation for me; a full-time job. My maternal instinct, and the demands of working parents, kicked in to hug, hold, feed, and dress them like dolls. Shape them into who they could be. I was proud of untangling a girl’s hair, making her outfit match or walking her to and from school. A tiny mother in me emerged; too young to be taken seriously yet seriously relied upon for the well-being of younger people. The responsibility filled my days and gave me purpose so my longing and heartbreak for my own mother didn’t entirely crush me.

Being a tiny, efficient, girl-mother gave me a way out, and an identity. Good girls, helpful girls can submerge their own longing and needs to the point they seem not to exist. I birthed not one of them, yet I feel like I was their mother back then. To me, there is unique praise to be had for children masking as adults. Although my uterus has never carried the cells of a fetus, the inside place carries a too-young-for-the-job mother. She is as unseen by others as that ram-like, head-shaped organ of female anatomy. My lived experience of helping raise my sisters made a permanent home deep down in my womb.


That Time I Saved My Self

I’m standing on the cliffs above the ocean and watch a baby fall into the water. Weighted by her white diaper, she sinks. I dive and swim straight down, feeling along the rock wall that darkens as I lose the light from above. I reach for her arm, feeling her flesh and small bone beneath to her wrist. Tiny fingers almost grasp mine. I rush us to the surface and gulp air knowing for certain she is mine and I am hers.

Then I wake up.


Indoctrination and language shape each good little revolutionary. There was “The Group,” our comrades, “the leaders,” and The Revolution to come. So without warning, I imagined, there would be blood and rifles and running. Within the love from my parents, which I never doubted, there was chaos, radical politics, divided loyalties, ignorance, coercion, fear, violence, neglect, and obsession. I wonder now, can I call this part of my life “living in a cult”?  When moved across the country and hidden from my mother, was that really a “kidnapping”? I did “choose” to go when asked, but was in no way mature enough to forecast the irrevocable consequences my “choice” would produce, nor that it might excuse the adults in control from any accountability, nor that dread and regret would become forever constant in my mind. The hierarchy, changed names, secrecy, devotion to a powerful leader, the total submission to a cause and fear of being expelled…it’s beginning to sound like my family reflected in a fun-house mirror, or, perhaps, a cult.


Big Words I Learned (and what they meant to me then)

“There will be a revolution.” (Hide or die)

“The proletariat will share the means of production.” (Poor people will own factories)

“Who is Chairman Mao?”  (The Leader)

“And Marx?” (The Teacher)

“Engles?” (His friend)

“Lenin and Stalin?” (Heroes)

“Read the little red book.”  (Memorize the lesson)

“You must criticize yourself.” (Shame yourself just right)

“We are having a meeting.” (Quiet)

“That’s bourgeois.” (Shame on money and shame on wanting)

“He’s is a Trotskyite and a lumpen element.” (Disgraceful traitor, drug addict, narc to the police)

“Your mother is a bad influence.” (Disown your love; she will lie to you and confuse you)


I made a choice (But, I was eleven)


Good little communists renounce their bougie mothers and earn the righteousness of revolutionaries. I chose to leave my mother. “But, you were eleven!” my shrink reminds me to absolve myself of the guilt. “Eleven-year-olds can’t make those decisions.” Can they not? Yet, how can a child identify her own choice to leave one parent when embedded in her decision is clearly the other parent’s implied demand? I cannot reconcile the desire that was never mine to begin with, but formed words in my mother’s kitchen decades ago. I stopped feeling my body from the neck down and smothered any regret I felt. Her sobs, though, are forever tattooed onto the flat chest of my eleven-year-old self.

My mother’s version is different from my own. Her horror, I’ve been told, was a heart-crushing panic the day she discovered my father’s house empty and her kids nowhere to be found. They left her no forwarding address. I didn’t know the consequences of saying yes to leaving would induce such enduring trauma for all of us. I didn’t know my sister and I would be hidden. Still, I am ashamed of being stolen. Of letting myself be taken. Of not saying no.


1979: I vividly remember the first time I saw a missing child on a milk carton. A photo of a kid on the half-gallon in the cold dairy aisle didn’t compute; a photo of a sweet-faced boy in the wrong place and at the wrong time; much too ironic for me to understand at age twelve. My mother, who I longed for, who I needed to mold my body up against to help find my own shape, couldn’t find me. Is that the real and true story? I ask myself this. Yet, when it’s all too hollow sounding to my ears, something as subtle as a breeze, or the neighborhood tween girls I overhear from my window , even a glance at my own hands so identical to my mother’s, will jostle awake memories on a cellular level. I lost her and she lost me. I remind myself I’m no longer that missing child. I never had a child, but a child went missing and she lives inside of me.

Years later, in a recurring fantasy of rescue and reunification, I am wearing a white dress with tiny purple flowers. It is a warm spring day. Her hands touch my face and the breeze moves under my dress, over the small hairs on my skin. In this dream I am ecstatic to be in her arms. The fantasy intensifies when a few packages from her arrive through a sympathetic relative. Birthday gifts, Valentines, tiny boxes of Easter candies, were mysteriously forwarded to us. The dream of the girl in the flowered dress never came true in the way those kinds of wishes never truly do. I still long for the mother I wanted back then, want now. Her loss is my loss is her loss is the loss of something perhaps we never really had.



My memory is just below the surface; like a swimmer who can see the shore in reach but is still too far out to be seen by anyone on dry land. I see her but she cannot see me for I’ve disappeared in the waves. I scream but the wind whips the sound away. This fear of disappearing instilled vigilance and there’s nothing like trying to hide fear that forces one to over-function; to appear fearless. I can swim back, I say. I am not too far out, I say. After all, I chose to swim out this far, unaware that I could not out-swim the currents. I have another recurring dream: a tidal wave is hundreds of feet tall. Sometimes, I run. Sometimes, oddly, I try to hide from the water. I watch it rise against my window until it crashes through, engulfs me.

Though, that I chose to leave my own mother when I was eleven is a fact I swam away from. I’ve never really been able to label my father taking me and my sister a “kidnapping.” Isn’t that done by a stranger? Hidden in someone’s trunk? It wasn’t as if my hands were tied behind my back or I was knocked unconscious. There was no duct tape or weapon involved. No ransom, if you don’t count the pressure to agree to disown my mother in the process. It was all so normal to move away. “The Group,” after all, needed my dad. So, we were taken, and we did go but I didn’t know that I couldn’t turn back–that I’d gone out farther than my ability to return. Rationale is so very adjustable depending on the state of one’s mind.


The Unconscious Never Knows What Time it Is         

Fear of being left alone, in too big a space, is prehistoric to my birth. To preserve security at any cost, to give away autonomy, to avoid abandonment and isolation, is a full-time occupation. Like dead trees around ancient lakes, there are markers of where my growth went dramatically askew. Generation after generation of children carry things that were not theirs to carry, the invisible unknown from their parents and the world before them, and the world before them as well. Before words and before transformation of trauma. These unknowns travel over space and time, through cells and birth canals, in to and out from a body and a mind. In the margins of my memory a cluster of images exists. Frame after frame rushes by and can’t be made out clearly. I guess at the contents, my body fills in the rest. I call this “anxiety.”


I Am My Mother’s Daughter

I’ve told some necessary little lies

In the effort to protect you and me both

I’m not lying now

I’m placing my truth right where you can see it

I am my mother’s daughter

I’m prone to protect myself and get in front of the day I’m in

You don’t need to remind me to anticipate what I might lose

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to the needs and pain

Of someone else’s child

Or the child I must have been

I am my mother’s daughter

I share my time, love, and money when I can spare it

And often when I really can’t

I talk to people in elevators grocery stores and on the bus

Even if there is no crisis to bond us and especially, when there is

Every one of us was a newborn once before

I am my mother’s daughter

We are lost


More On Little Girl-Women I’ve Met

Another lonely girl lusts after the middle-school clique of barely becoming women. Sadistic girl-women newly empowered with their sexuality who hold the promise to make her one of them. At home she is quiet while her brothers argue and compete to be seen by their outnumbered parents. Her mother sets aside her own hunger as she feeds the boys, giving them second servings before the girls. Girls eat what is left. Heavy male footsteps set the day’s agenda, vibrating the floorboards throughout the farmhouse rooms. The girl disappears while reading her book. In her cutoff jeans and worn shoes, her brown pony tail askew, she eventually becomes invisible, hovering just behind the couch. Soon, she is gone.

The lonely girl becomes a woman and finds herself, again, longing to belong. To whom exactly? She wonders. Yet, she knows. Her mother does not understand her daughter’s inner existence and try as she does to seek her mother’s mind out, really the only mind she wants to know is her own—her mother is still just out of reach. The years pass and the loss sinks under her heart layers. She spends hours awake in the night, replaying the day’s slights and licking her wounds. She cannot hate a mother she is desperate to find; a mother who doesn’t know where her daughter really is. Her anger goes missing and in its place is need and fear and desire and no release and then, shame. She should have become someone her mother would recognize. Sometimes a masochistic girl-body gets hurt. Sometimes a girl just needs her mother to find her.


The Lilac Thief

You are here for such a short time

Your small buds burst open

Fragrant and purple

Picking you now

At night in my neighbor’s garden

Is a petit crime I can justify

Inside this space of loneliness

I still dream

You are so close

Inside the box of small gifts

You managed to smuggle to me

The scent of your last letter

Soaked in your Rain perfume

A treasure

I so guard with my life

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KERRY BRAMHALL lives in the Pacific Northwest and is a clinical social worker, psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor, as well as a member of A Dog’s Desire Writing Collective, a group of therapists who write creative non-fiction and other genres. She studied at Mills College, Hunter College School of Social Work, also with Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Seattle. She has previously presented her clinical work at The International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education ( and this is her first published work of creative, lyrical form.

5 responses to “Separation”

  1. Rachel Newcombe says:

    I love Kerry’s essay because it widens the boundaries for therapists who write CNF and illustrates that life as lived is the best theory of all.

    And the last line: “Sometimes a girl just needs her mother to find her.” Guts me.

  2. karol marshall says:

    this had to be read FAST because I couldn’t breath while reading. Like diving under water and holding my breath until I reached the far end of the pool. Thank you!!!

  3. Erin Countryman says:

    Oh, so lovely, so urgently needed, so raw, and yet so soothing, too, in a strange way-like the lull between waves crashing.

    Thank you, Kerry.

  4. Jeff Hodge says:

    What wonderfully raw and vulnerable prose and poetry. Bowlby would be proud and so am I. As with many, I’m a better person to have known you.
    Thank you Kerry

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