Susan in a Photograph – 1962 Frolic

by Deborah Ritchie

31 – 3- 62  Dear little creature, eating and sleeping well. 

I’m pretty
as a picture, framed
behind glass, all pink
satin, tulle, roses, wings
like a moth.

I’m pretty
as a butterfly
jerking in a jar.
They screwed the lid on, said
she’s pretty

but crooked
as an insect hooked,
limbs bent and flailing.
Swelled skull under bows. 
Shame — so pretty.

They broke me
as a baby girl,
put me under glass.
Turned the knobs, cut my air
‘til I curled

like a worm
dying on a line.
Now I smile through glass.
Camera shutter captures
me pretty.

8-4-70 Put fist through a large window while in temper tantrum.  Five sutures inserted in wound on left arm. Valium given. Sleeping soundly. 

The photograph I used as inspiration for this poem shows my seven-year-old sister dressed as a fairy. She was attending a frolic at the psychiatric hospital where she lived for much of her life. The prose sections in italics were influenced by her medical records. An error involving a humidicrib had left Susan with cerebral palsy and encephalitis as a newborn. She was institutionalised and never spoken about in the family. Susan was two years older than me. She died in 1973, aged eighteen. I found out about her by accident the following year.

Deborah Ritchie has published short fiction and poetry. She also co-wrote Judas Kisses: A True Story of Betrayal and Survival, the best-selling memoir of burns survivor Donna Carson, published by Hardie Grant Books in 2007. Deborah holds an MA in Creative Writing from Macquarie University and a Bachelor of Education from the University of Wollongong. She lives in Australia, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. 

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