Brenda Ann Kenneally:
Personal Notes
October 2009

by Brenda Ann Kenneally

I was 12 years old when I lost my virginity.
He was much older.
He taught me about music, marijuana and rebellion.
He saved my life.

For a boisterous girl with a dreamy heart, born into a stifling town, he was the thing that awakened a suspicion that there could be more.

I don't remember much about the sex.

We had time, after my days at Saint James School, when my mother was working her job as a telephone exchange operator and studying to take the civil service test and the key was under the mat. It was 1972 and age was just a number. The waning embers of West Coast post-hippiedom were beginning to ignite the community college crowd in Albany, N.Y. I had a boyfriend with long hair, a Volkswagon bus, Frank Zappa albums, Firesign Theatre episodes, bong pipes, a draft card, stereo with a separate receiver, blotter acid, Tolkien books and Leather Nun comics.

I became his disciple.

I was in the 8th grade when I read Jerry Rubin's "We Are Everywhere." The antics of Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Judge Julius Hoffman, attorney William Kuntsler and the others got stuck to my brain. Though I am sure that back then I did not understand some of the words, the spirit of rebellion gripped me.

 • • • •

"A baby at 14 will ruin your life," my grandmother would say just before she whispered …"pregnant."

My grandmother spoke in hushed tones when she said "pregnant" or "cancer." In 1975 cancer was even more mysterious than today, and with that ignorance went shame – similar to the stigma we still fight with HIV diagnosis. Following this speech pattern it would seem that my grandmother considered pregnancy a mysterious and shameful disease – along the lines of a cancer though without as much virtue.

The words seemed a hollow mantra in the face of any real blueprint for my future beyond a passing mark on the postal exam or a position on the male-dominated "kill floor" at the meat packing company we had moved across the street from after the divorce. The "Tobin's First Prize" neon sign was as visible from nearby I-90 as it was from the window of the bedroom in my mother's new house that I occupied sporadically between my 13th and 15th years. My grandmother had given "her and the three kids" seed money for a house in West Albany – the limbo between the mean streets of Albany that we came up from and the relatively exclusive suburbs of Colonie, N.Y., where they still look down on us.

My grandmother had pulled the Ford out of the driveway in the cover of night and we slid past the cracks in the neighbors' curtains for the 4-hour drive to un-ruin my mother's life.

They gave me a pill to "relax me" just before administering the local anesthesia. With the required parental consent, terminating a pregnancy before 12 weeks even in the early days of legalized abortion was a sophisticated, speedy outpatient procedure. Only 14 years earlier my mother had given birth to me in this very same hospital after trying unsuccessfully to terminate her pregnancy by taking a pill given to her by some on-the-low, quack doctor further up north in Buffalo – a place where pregnant girls from downstate drove all night to get to and returned the next day, problem solved.

As the pill took effect I could see the faces of my mother and grandmother – distorted, mouthing the words "a baby at 14 will ruin your life." A pity I would not know Edvard Munch until I was in my late-30s.

 • • • •

When my mother's mother was a little girl her family had garnered enough through carpentry and handiwork to own the first car in their farming community in the Adirondack Mountains. Later, when my grandmother married, she maintained part-time retail jobs and raised two girls up to college age, while her husband – a construction foreman – helped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers build an Ohio dam and the Eisenhower Lock that connected the Saint Lawrence Seaway to Canada.

Frugal and consistent, they emerged from the Depression to order one of the first color television sets in the "Monkey Ward" catalogue. The roots of work and virtue were deeply entwined in my maternal family's mind. The fruits of steady labor had inarguably been proven. My mother's Christian marriage to the father of her firstborn, a city slicker sharp guy from Albany who drank, shot pool, played numbers and spent time in the streets, was both a personal disappointment to my grandparents and the generational end of their ascent on the class ladder.

 • • • •

Because I was unexpected, my birth certificate reads, "baby girl Kenneally." I have thoughts on how this ties into the court system later labeling me incorrigible, like "bad baby girl Kenneally" and the class difference in the labeling of bad and interesting—and also as a feminist thing of sex being a source of power or entrapment along class lines.

I became an outcast in a town where everyone was doomed rather than destined. Girls that were taught to think were being polished rather than groomed for a spot that was already being kept warm for them by the generation who went before them – in which entitlement was genetic.

I hitchhiked away. I drowned my badness in 79 cents-a-fifth Pagan Pink Ripple with a twist-off top – the best a 16-year-old could shoplift or score from a mom-and-pop where height was your ID card in 1977 Miami. Then came a 20-year exile where I found photography and didn't die.

My hippie training later got me to think critically about the dichotomy of work and life in the United States. My father's compulsive gambling habit made the 50 [work weeks] to 2 [vacation weeks] wager look like just bad odds.

 • • • •

1996 – back in New York – this time the real New York: grad school at NYU and assignments for The New York Times. Stories from newfound girlfriend colleagues who had attended same-sex colleges in New England made me feel ripped off. I had quit drugs, kept my legs crossed, my hair styled and my voice down, only to be confounded by the cultural relevance of "bad" and "interesting." My mother always told me that if I did not stop being bad, then "my life would be ruined." Colleagues who graduated from Brown had attended university to garner these interesting experiences.

Friendships make a difference in particular classes. For example, for me to get out of poverty and criminalization and to expand my world, I needed to cut ties with a stifling tribe. Conversely, good schools are breeding grounds for networks of the future powerful, and gathering people in this process is an essential part of the education. In short, to get ahead I had to learn to be adept at cutting loose old ties including family that held me back, and then – and still now – I have to rethink forming bonds with people as a beneficial asset, both personally and professionally.

Physical and emotional instability boost the value of intimate relationships. Years of compressing metamorphic layers of need that got mistaken for choice solidifies the feeling of being buried under one's own life and kills a young woman's autonomy so necessary for radical change.

The women's movement, as the student's movement, has never been effective nor inclusive along class lines because of this generational entitlement and alienation via the lack thereof from the most oppressed in the U.S.

 • • • •

In my childhood, joy was not considered a legitimate emotion. Illegitimate joy was a skill needed to garner a meaningful social life – the art/skill of having fun predated the yuppie play date era when the art of spontaneous play was honed into another criteria for class, resulting in class distinction – another degree of separation. Having the right child having the right childhood was like getting the good cheese.

Knowing the quality of things is important – so paramount in fact that there are laws, laws that say that a tousle-headed child by virtue of geography is either being creative or criminalized. What is understated is that only those who can determine quality know it.

When I finally did give birth almost 30 years after the would-have-been birthday of the child who did not ruin my life, my husband and I lived in Miami. We breast-fed, slept in one bed and wore few clothes; we were progressive. When we moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, one hot August day, I was warned by a Latina policewoman that I could not have my "child in the street with no clothes on" as she scrutinized the 2-year-old I held wrapped in a towel after his evening bath. Didn't she know that I was planning to give my son piano lessons?

 • • • •

My mother, who developed MS after years of a bad marriage following years of a bad childhood, lost the use of her legs while fleeing from both. The first divorcée in our catholic neighborhood, she was a striver without a horizon. She had always been told what not to do and she was eventually sent off to a convent boarding school for reason of being "high-strung."

When my brother and sister and I were little, Ma's rages were as furious as a woman clawing her way out of the ground – treading dirt, trying to keep from being buried alive. Introspection would have been audacious, but primal instinct told her that her parents, teachers, lovers, children and the church were weights to be dropped so she could soar to some destination she had been kept from dreaming of.

I grew up. My mother never remarried. One of her favorite outings was the annual hot air balloon festival. One of her nurses would push her in her wheelchair over the gravel parking lot to the grassy field where she marveled at the spectacle of unfettered/untethered possibility.

My own mother never did make it out. She played by the rules and was brought down by her marriage to my father. For poor women trying to make it out, the pitfalls have not changed much, as poverty really is about being left behind.

© Brenda Ann Kenneally

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