Editor’s Note: Eunice Wong, Truthdig’s book editor and the writer of this review, narrated the Audible audiobook of “The Woo-Woo,” by Lindsay Wong. They are not related.
Many people are deeply damaged by their childhoods, even those with kind and affectionate parents. And then there’s Lindsay Wong. Diagnosed with an incurable brain disorder in her early 20s, she writes, “Of course, [the neurologist] had no idea that the childhood I had survived in my neighborhood of meth labs and pot grow-ops, and—the most dangerous of all—my crazy parents, made this look like a cakewalk.”
Wong (no relation to me, though, full disclosure, I did narrate the Audible audiobook of “The Woo-Woo”) grew up in a family with severe mental illness and a predisposition for outrageous cruelty. Her family did not trust Western medicine, choosing instead to believe that the hallucinations, delusions, suicide attempts and abuse caused by conditions like serious paranoid schizophrenia were the result of “demonic possession.”
It sounds heavy, but Wong’s memoir, “The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family,” is as wickedly hilarious and irreverent as it is caustic and harrowing.
When Wong is 6 years old, her mother, attempting to hide from the murderous Woo-Woo ghosts that she believes have haunted her family for generations, takes her three young children to their suburban shopping center’s food court every single day, where they stay from opening until closing at 10 p.m., leaving only to go to school. She feeds them candy for breakfast, snack, lunch and dinner. “Having been raised on fast food from the mall and easy Chinese food (fried rice, lo mein, chop suey),” she writes, “I could eat anything and didn’t yet know the difference between margarine and mayonnaise. My taste buds for Western cuisine were seriously underdeveloped, and if someone handed me a sandwich full of gummy bears and potato chips, I would gladly eat it with a handful of sugar.”
Her father tells her, at 6 years old, that she was found in a dumpster. “That’s why you’re garbage,” he declares. It is an origin myth she believed for many years.
Her parents’ childhood nickname for her is Retarded Lindsay.
They hurl obscenities at her regularly. When she blacks out in public due to an allergic reaction to alcohol (her parents allowed their children to drink at the age of 9), they assume that she is “possessed,” with her personal failings to blame. After she recovers consciousness, her mother screams at her publicly, “So fucking irresponsible. So fucking retarded. I don’t know why you are so fucking stupid! What the fuck is wrong with your head? I should just sell you on fucking eBay!”
When Wong is in her early teens, her mother abandons the family for several weeks without explanation, and then returns, also without explanation. Her father tells her, during her mother’s abrupt absence, “If you won all your hockey game, she’d have stayed. No one like to watch loser. You need to win MVP so she will like you.”
Family summer vacations are taken in an RV, representative of the American Dream Achieved, in the parking lot of an outlet mall or Walmart. Vacation days are spent in the aisles of the brightly lit supercenter, dodging the Woo-Woo ghosts.
During a Walmart camping trip, her mother, piqued that Wong is sleeping peacefully, attempts to light her teenage daughter’s foot on fire.
All behavior is excused by blaming the ghosts.
Wong was never given a social or emotional compass with which to navigate the world. In order to survive as a child, she had to find structure and reason in irrational cruelty and emotional chaos. “But at thirteen…” she writes, “I did not know that it wasn’t socially unacceptable to go around burning people to wake them up. … Was it necessary? No. Painful? Yes. But was there a quicker way to get me out of bed? Probably not. I was beginning to come to terms with what she’d done—in the Wong way, at least.”
Raised by her parents, who were emotionally misshapen, culturally and linguistically disadvantaged, and mentally unbalanced, in an insular Chinese immigrant community on a rural-mountain-in-British-Columbia-turned-Stepford-suburbia, dotted with prefab McMansions, it took her until adulthood to ask herself, “How do you begin to understand that what was done to you is hateful and intolerable?”
When everyone around you is sick, sickness is all you ever know. Sickness is normal. There is nothing else. And it takes astonishing courage, willpower and sometimes simple good luck to break through the membrane, to see that there is another way to live, and believe that you yourself might be able to live that way.
There are glimpses of the racism of the outside world. Wong remembers “Chinese parents trying to be accommodating and white and country-club attending as possible.” But the white people, of course, do not want them: “Many of the white families moaned about the ‘Asian tsunami’ that had flooded their community and lamented the neighbourhood’s terrific ethnic decline into ‘Chinky Chinatown.’’ She describes her blunderbuss father as “assholian and unliked”—a terse description that combines both adult condemnation and the hurt of a small child seeing a parent disrespected. “I was facing a grave fact: how little control my parents had been given in this New World.”
When her high school guidance counselor tells Wong that she doesn’t have any empathy (Wong had wild behavioral issues as a child—she was a bully who snipped off braids, broke legs with hockey sticks, and punched children with Down syndrome in the face), her father, not knowing the word “empathy,” thinks that the counselor is calling his daughter “empty.” He asks, “Why the counsellor think you are empty? But you show them all your big piano award and they will be impress and say you are very full.”
Wong exhumes the deep, aching unhappiness of her Chinese immigrant family, “in a house souring with sadness.” It is a sadness made even more potent for being wordless. Her family does not know how to use language for anything besides basic functionality. “ ‘Hungry?’ my mother and father would ask at the dinner table, which really meant, ‘Are you okay? Are you sad?’ ”
“Family dinner in public …” Wong writes, “was always strange, since we really did not know how to communicate civilly. This was quickly done, lest any of us should admit to having fun. No one spoke, and the purpose of dining together in public seemed to be a competition of whoever could be the quietest and quickest eater. Really, we had nothing to say to one another.”
Perhaps most damagingly, “weak” emotions were forbidden in the Wong household. Displays of fear, sadness, vulnerability, and even affection were prohibited and to be avoided, because they made you susceptible to 1) a barrage of abuse from your parents, and 2) “ghosts” slipping inside you. Wong, never having been allowed to feel, grows up thinking of herself as a robot or an appliance: “The answer seemed so simple: if you didn’t react, you didn’t receive a fat stake in the chest.”
It is only when she is almost grown that she finally risks confronting her parents, while they argue about whether or not their daughter should kill herself—“You want to know why I’m a fucking mess? You raised me! I’m exactly like you!” But she is unable to break through. “[F]or a second, I like to think my family could see the bewildered hurt splotched and mirrored on all our real faces… [but] after a moment of intense and choking quiet, they ignored my outburst. … It was like I had never uttered the damning words at all. Like I had never been there at all.”
There is a terrible violence inflicted on children by the unhappiness of their parents. Even if your mother doesn’t try to set your foot on fire while you’re sleeping, the sadness, frustration and rage of a parent can profoundly stain and press down on a child’s life, far beyond childhood. Wong uses the metaphor of a toxic gas that permeates her family home, the poisonous fumes of sadness that she breathed from the day she was born until she finally broke free. It is an image recognizable to any unhappy family, not only those struggling with mental illness.
The Wongs deal with their unhappiness and more dramatic crises with complete and total passivity. When Wong’s mother goes missing for weeks, her father “refused to look for my mother or call the police. … Apparently, we just had to wait. … This was the candid, respectable, saving-face Chinese way: doing absolutely nothing.” And when Wong is shrieking with pain after her mother sets her foot on fire, her father turns on the radio to drown out her cries, and “My younger siblings had avoided her anger, picked up their books, and plugged in their music players, pretending to be busy—this is what we usually did if there was trouble near us. Someone could be twitching on the floor, obviously and deliriously Woo-Woo, and we would still be leisurely slurping our breakfast of watery congee and dehydrated egg—as long as it didn’t affect us.”
Her mother hoards food, haunted by her own childhood of third-world poverty in rural Hong Kong. Extended family dinners are gluttonous and hilariously gruesome:
At dinner parties, when the aunties and uncles talked about the old days, they loved to compare the exact size and length of their parasites. Supposedly, these were dangling snakes that they had to pluck out from their assholes. … They could spend hours arguing over whose monster worm was scarier, which one was hairier, whose had a googly eye. … Of course, all the cousins had lost our appetites by now, and we stared at the foot-long slimy rice noodles, the caterpillar-like vermicelli coagulating in sludgy sauce with queasy, unspeakable horror.
Her parents are compulsive pack rats, “the enthusiastic, obsessive immigrant kind”:
This collective obsession with starving meant that our basement, known as the food room, was basically a makeshift earthquake shelter or a post-apocalyptic zombie survival room for all your end-of-the-world needs. Shelves stocked with every type of pasta. Wheat crackers in obnoxious cardboard towers. Plastic bins became vending machines, spewing out every species of granola bar and rice noodle—fresh and stale—manically stockpiled together. I am not kidding when I say that we might buy six family-sized tubs of salsa, and then in the following weeks, my mother would desperately buy another three or four more.
Of course, within this abundance of warehouse club food, Wong was starving for affection, kindness and basic care.
The portraits of her family are appalling and riveting in their details, but the heartache comes when Wong pulls back to show us, with a compassion that somehow survived the trauma of her upbringing, that her monstrous parents are, as Auden wrote, just “Lost in a haunted wood/Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good.”
“But I knew that my father would dutifully wake her,” Wong writes, after her father drives her to the airport, leaving her mother asleep at the hotel, “and they’d go to their favourite mall or parking lot to run a blockbuster marathon to lose the demons, and then they’d make their lonely trek up Pot Mountain without me.”
The child of unhappy parents dreads being with them, but the thought of the parents alone together, with no child to buffer their unhappiness, is perhaps the most terrible pain of all.
Because ultimately, Wong loves her parents. And her parents love her. The very rare moments of love have a serrating force, set as they are against the backdrop of everyday cruelty: “And then, shockingly, she pleaded with the angry ghost inside me, sounding as heartbreaking and desperate as she ever had, offering herself as the ultimate sacrifice, acting as if she liked me: ‘New York Ghost, come out now! Ghost from New York, get out of my retarded kid’s body! I will let you stay as long as you want in mine!’”
As an editor, I sometimes found parts of “The Woo-Woo” to be repetitive: the anguished questions about her mental state (“Was I destined to become as batshit as my mother?” “Was this who I’d eventually become?” “What if I was in the very early stages of Woo-Woo too?”), the recurring assertions that “this was the only way my mother knew how to care for us”; “This was all she knew how to do”; “This was the only way she knew how to protect us.” But as an actor narrating the book, I came to realize that this redundancy astutely mirrors how a tortured mind works: the obsessive, relentless circling of these questions and thoughts, like vultures that never go away.
Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, in their book, “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook,” explain how trauma, particularly from an early age, can alter the physical functioning of the human brain. Wong’s memoir made me wonder whether her childhood was responsible, at least partially, for her adult diagnosis of migraine-associated vestibulopathy.
Perry and Szalavitz also wrote, “The truth is you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.”
In the end, “The Woo-Woo” is a story of survival.
“The true opposite of depression is neither gaiety nor absence of pain but vitality: the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings,” Alice Miller wrote in “The Drama of the Gifted Child”—which could be an alternate title for “The Woo-Woo.” The end of Lindsay Wong’s book is the beginning of that journey toward freedom—an emaciated young bird finally released from years underground, blinking in the sun with tattered wings, but still able, miraculously, to stagger toward the open sky.