Lois Leveen

The Two-Story House

Here is the story my mother told.

Once upon a time, early in their marriage, my Brooklyn-born parents bought their first house, in Laurelton, Queens. They had two children while they lived there, but, the story goes, about the time my mother became pregnant the third time, pregnant with me, the neighborhood began to go bad. A neighborhood went bad, according to my mother, when those people moved in. To prove this claim, she vaguely recounted that somebody, a white woman somebody, had been held up by a black man in the parking lot of the supermarket.

So my parents purchased a house in a fancy new suburban development out on Long Island. They moved into the house a year after I was born, just two months before the birth of my younger brother. Times were tough at first, because of a sudden downturn in the aerospace industry in which my engineer father worked. Lucky to keep his job, he was forced to take a substantial cut in pay. My parents considered selling the new house but decided to struggle and economize, to stay for the children. Like a knight in shining armor, my father rode off every morning to ensure that we kids could enjoy an idyllic childhood of suburban privilege, sleeping each in our own bedroom, playing together in the big backyard.

My mother's story stops there, with the fairy tale assumption that in such an enchanted and auspicious setting my family could do no less than live happily ever after.

 

As an adult, I hear a very different story about the house, from my sister. The oldest of my siblings, she remembers more than I do, the time before I was born and the years when I was very young. She speaks of the move to the garden suburbs as an expulsion from Eden. In her version, life in prelapsarian Laurelton was happy. Maternal and paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles all lived in the neighborhood, doting on her and my brother and our cousins, who were her earliest playmates. As though our family were a case study in suburban isolation, the move to Long Island effected the loss of this extended family, reducing relations to the nuclear attachments of mother, father, and four children.

But another, far more sinister change in family relations occurred upon our arrival in suburbia. According to my sister, it was only after the move that the episodes of domestic rage I remember as regular events of my childhood began. With no memory of life in Laurelton, I have only my older sister's insistence that she and my brother had suffered no violence at my father's hands there. In her version of the story, the economic pressure on my still employed but underpaid father erupts into explosions against us.

 

The house my parents had owned back in Queens was small. My crib barely fit beside my sister's bed in her tiny room. The imminent arrival of my younger brother would have involved a similar intrusion into my older brother's room. My mother could have crafted the story of the move to suburbia simply in terms of our growing family's need for more space. But she didn't. In her version of events, the specter of black criminality, of blackness as a hyperviolent threat to the safety of the white family, was always cited as the impetus for our flight. She located the threat of violence outside the family, outside the house, in the past, and onto the anonymous black man. This displacement obscured the real space of vulnerability—the space within the private home—and the real perpetrator of violence—my white father.

The contrast of black and white was inscribed onto the house itself, a big white house ornamented with black shutters and a black roof. Like the can of Liberty paint in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which requires ten drops of mysterious black to become Optic White, the brilliant white effect of our house was produced through the detail of the black trim, just as the dazzling promise of whiteness has so often been defined by marginalized, demonized blackness. The detail of black male deviance purified by contrast my white family, my father. It was an Optic White illusion, rendering whiteness invisible from scrutiny.

Juxtaposed against the fear of imagined acts by an unknown black man, my father's violent control was presented not as violent control but as loving care. To escape my father's abuse would have required entering the world outside the family house, a world that my mother's story taught us to fear. Even merely recognizing my father's violence was nearly impossible. The glaring white terror of the ordinary, the everyday, was rendered invisible as all eyes focused on the blackness that demarcated the border of family, house, supposed suburban security.

 

My family's two-story house is a parable in black and white. None of us lives there any more. We've each made a new home, framed new narratives for ourselves. But sheltered at last in the adult life I've constructed for myself, I still think of the lessons to be learned from this dwelling in the past.

—Lois Leveen

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