Insecure: Hunger and Desperation Down South

(Chase Manze)

(Chase Manze)

Because of the sensitivity of this story, the names of all people and locations have been changed. The types of locations, though, have not been altered and are described accurately.

Afternoon Sun

Way down in Louisiana—a county or two away from the coast—a small waterpark sits atop a grass field. Those driving the adjacent country road can see a light-blue slide bleed into a hard-plastic platform. Umbrellas, fixed into the cement, are the border between the waterpark and the adjoining baseball diamonds. Snaking throughout the rides is a lazy river about eight or nine people wide. A while back, Annie Thompson and her younger siblings found themselves there, floating in the red and blue inner tubes offered to customers. It was senior spring, and Annie had saved up enough tutoring money to treat her loved ones to a fun afternoon.

It was here, amid the calm waters and hot sun, that someone called her a “stupid, fucking nigger.” Turning around, she found that the words had come from a child, around 12 years old. He said them again. Annie, feeling “really uncomfortable,” took her siblings and got out of the river. As they began walking around, she found that the kid and his family were not far behind. She believed they were following her.

Moving through the park, Annie wondered, “where can a child learn this type of language?” Ultimately, her query was left unanswered. The Thompson family, opposed to further confrontation, left. When they eventually made their way home, there likely wasn’t enough food for dinner. Money was sparse—a fact of which Annie was acutely aware. With a mother in a different time zone and a father hard at work, she had taken charge of running her household and caring for her siblings. In reality, the responsibilities had been dumped on her. Neither of her parents was aware of how severe the situation had become, or the need to “calculate things to the cent to make sure there was enough money to pay for everything.” And even then, they still couldn’t afford all the food they needed.

Choices had to be made. Annie’s siblings were still growing, and her father worked labor-intensive jobs. They both needed the energy that only sustenance could provide. So Annie, the person running the household, made the decision to eat the least. It was an attempt to make the best of a horrific situation.

Choices had to be made. Annie’s siblings were still growing, and her father worked labor-intensive jobs. They both needed the energy that only sustenance could provide. So Annie, the person running the household, made the decision to eat the least. It was an attempt to make the best of a horrific situation.

This was not Annie’s first experience with food insecurity, nor would it be her last. There are a variety of reasons that Annie and her family struggled on and off with food security. A rigged system offered her parents—low-income, workers of color—few breaks. They, however, certainly were not blameless. Annie’s mother, Cassandra, was abusive to her eldest child. Her father, Sean, was distant and disengaged. Annie is clear, however, about her love for them, and attributes their concerning behavior to their own traumatic experiences.

Regardless, it made Annie’s journey up to this point long and winding. One that started in childhood, continued through high school, and concluded during her time at Columbia. One that has been defined by racism, health concerns, difficult finances, destructive relationships, self-critique, and, of course, food. In the face of all of this, Annie insists on not being pitied. She is neither a charity case nor a wounded animal in need of cooing. Her perseverance as a child is a formative argument toward this point.

Math, Candy, Cow Ribs and Disaffection

Each morning of fourth grade—her first school year in Louisiana—the eldest Thompson child had to be dialed in. There was no way Ms. Maniscalco could’ve known, but the chocolate kisses she gave to the first person who finished their multiplication and division problems were Annie’s only potential source of food until dinner. Whether borne from necessity, proficiency, or some combination of the two, she won every single day. Desperate to make them last, Annie would lick the candy slowly throughout the day. “I had to stay after school until six, sometimes seven,” she explains. “My mom would get there late to pick me up.”

The Thompsons had moved from Connecticut to Louisiana earlier that year, hoping for a lower cost of living. Their goal was to eventually buy a house, but Annie’s mom “thought it would be a good idea to give it a trial run.” That meant living with the children's aunt, Beatriz. She “lived like somebody who doesn’t have running water,” Annie explains. “She [Beatriz] doesn’t like flushing the toilet—she isn’t clean.” To make matters worse, Beatriz had no AC. So in the sweltering sun, Cassie, Annie, and her siblings “were super hot...cooped up in one room.” Their father hadn’t moved down from Connecticut yet. (He joined them later that year and the Thompsons would move into “shitty apartments.”)

In addition to parenting her three kids, Cassandra also worked a taxing job at a health-insurance company. Not only was she barely able to pick up her charges late at night, but in order to be to work on time, Annie also had to be dropped off before daybreak. So the eldest Thompson child remembers a 4:30-a.m. weekday wakeup call—two and a half hours before the doors to her elementary school opened. Fighting—and losing to—the specter of sleep, she would rest against the back seat of her mom’s white Mitsubishi Galant until they reached her grandfather Tucker’s job.

This left her no time for breakfast and a seemingly impossible window for a fourth grader to prepare lunch. Amid the move, the gross living quarters, the lack of a co-parent, and the demanding job, Annie felt uncomfortable asking Cassie to make her midday meal.

The cafeteria staff at Zachary Tyler Elementary School became responsible for making Annie’s lunch, and they did not perform well. “I wouldn’t even feed my dogs that kind of food,” Annie explains with all the subtlety of a box cutter. “It’s honestly the worst quality ever.”

She contends that after trying the food for the first time, she “threw up, it was so disgusting.” Years later, she found out she had Celiac disease. While she did not even know to look for gluten-free food in fourth grade, Annie insists her allergy was not why she vomited that day. “I didn’t find out about Celiac until I was older,” she quips. In Connecticut, she had been able to choke the school lunch food down. She hadn’t been looking for gluten-free food there either.

For Annie to have gotten breakfast, Tucker would have had to spend time with her. He did not, however, have any interest in taking Annie to Dunkin’ Donuts or the local bagel shop. Rather, he chose to drive her immediately to school at 5 a.m. when it was still dark outside. According to Annie, her grandfather prioritized taking his son—her uncle—to high school at an appropriate hour. So day after day, Annie would wait for two hours right outside her elementary school. Tucker asked her to not tell her mother, and Annie agreed. “Of course I didn't say anything to my mom,” she explained. “I was very much aware... she had a lot on her plate.”

Reading blunted the tedium. Shug, A Series of Unfortunate Events, So B. IT—tales of young women forced to mature faster than they should. To the extent that this time before school became a class in itself, it certainly had an out-of-body element.

Reading blunted the tedium. Shug, A Series of Unfortunate Events, So B. IT—tales of young women forced to mature faster than they should. To the extent that this time before school became a class in itself, it certainly had an out-of-body element. Fortunately, Annie was not alone in this endeavor. Brittany Henderson was also deserted at Zachary Tyler Elementary School hours before it was ready for her. The two became friends, united in their sense of abandonment.

Annie’s mornings alone ended late that school year. Having forgotten something one morning, Cassie drove back home, passing her eldest child’s elementary school on the way back. (Ironically, the Thompsons’ apartment was not that far from Zachary Tyler. Annie easily could’ve walked there. Her mother, however, felt it was more important for a nine-year-old to have supervision in the mornings than a more comfortable—but solo—morning routine.) Brittany had not yet arrived when Cassandra saw Annie sitting alone, hours before school, reading.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” the eldest Thompson child remembers her mother asking. Annie explained, prompting Cassie to explode on the child’s grandfather. More important than the tongue-lashing Tucker received, however, was the solution middle school provided. Taking the bus gave Annie a way to get to school that was not only supervised, but also late enough that she could pack lunches for her and her siblings. Her challenges with hunger had subsided, sort of.

As Annie began to make her own lunches, the quality of her dinners declined. With Sean only able to cook a few things, Cassandra was responsible for the family’s nighttime meals. This was not possible, however, since she started coming home as late as 2 a.m. The kids and their father had to fend for themselves. This meant a lot of cereal. If there was a hot meal, it was spaghetti with tomato sauce or butter, or rice with egg. If there was any protein, it was cow ribs that tasted like hamburger. Her dad could “throw those on the grill.” When her mother was able to work better hours for an extended period of time, the family’s diet would be restored.

The Continued Reaffirmation of the Shittiness of Children

The waterpark incident was not the first time Annie dealt with racial harassment. It wasn’t even the only time that year she was called a nigger. (A good friend, who Annie thinks was jealous of her admission to Columbia, berated her with that word senior year.) Having a mom who’s Latina and a Dad who’s both black and Latino meant that Annie fielded a lot of stupid comments, even more than if she had been uniracial.

“You would think that there would be greater solidarity in the Latino community,” Thompson muses to me. “I thought there would be, but there isn't.” Birthdays were especially difficult. “People would constantly ask me if I was sure that my mom didn’t cheat on my dad,” Annie remembers. She had a noticeably darker skin tone than her brother and sister. Instead of chalking it up to the natural genetic differences between multiracial children, the kids around her immediately decided that her mother must have had a secret lover, or that her father had stepped out and that Cassie was, in fact, not her mother.

The day-to-day was not much better. People would wonder aloud to Cassie why her child “was so black” but she was much closer to passing for white. Outside of her parents, “I had friends who would say stuff like how they thought black people were dirty,” Annie tells me. “Mexicans have their own racial slur for black people [mayate] and I ended... a friendship because... she straight up just said that one day.” This was years before the senior-year incident with her now-former close friend.

During the summer, Annie swam with a team that—save for one person—would berate her for not being white. When she got back to school, people would make comments about how dark she looked after hours spent under the sun. One year, her skin was lightened in a yearbook photo. (I examined the photo and that does appear to be the case.) These traumatic experiences shed light on why she may have struggled to stand up for herself at the water park. “I internalize so much of my anger and sadness” she explains. “I would write a lot and talk to my mom and my dad…. But yeah, trust me, it’s hard.”

Sometimes, Annie would clap back with comments like “Where were you in biology?” but most of the time, she feels as though she was not “a good advocate” for herself. It was not until she got to Columbia that she felt comfortable telling people, “Hey, that bothered me and this is why.” She stresses the importance of establishing lines that people in her life know that they cannot cross.

Annie attributes her former struggles to speaking up—whether at birthdays, waterparks, or anywhere else—about her interactions with her mother. Cassandra Thompson spent much of Annie’s childhood inflicting substantial pain on her eldest and did not respond well when asked to stop.

Intense Pain

Lacking an instructional photo, Annie used my laptop charger to demonstrate the size of the cable with which her mother beat her. Annie’s self-attributed “high pain tolerance” and ability to “take a hit” did not help when it came to cords. “The cable hurts so bad,” she remembers. “Your skin feels like it’s on fire and you have horrible bruises.” It did not help that Cassandra Thompson had a hair-trigger temper. “I feel like she almost like blacks out,” Annie tells me.

When she was not using cables, Cassie was content with her hands and verbal abuse. “I was like her punching bag,” Annie laments. “I had always been, growing up—especially when she was depressed, though.” The first cord lashing left Annie with lesions and “nasty boils” that she was forced to cover up. Unfortunately (or fortunately), gym class exposed her to the watching eyes of other students. One reported her to the guidance counselor, prompting Annie to lie about her home situation.

She “was really embarrassed,” and in her estimation, Louisiana “counselors are really quick to call child protective services.” It was not worth it to escalate the situation, so she told the guidance counselor that there were no problems at home. “I just said there was nothing wrong,” she tells me. If it is even possible, later cable attacks were worse.

The pain was not necessarily more intense, but Cassandra's rationale could be particularly upsetting. In one instance, Cassie whipped Annie for confronting her science teacher about his secret cache of photos of female students. Even when the eldest Thompson child stood up to someone other than her mother, Annie could face Cassandra’s retribution.

It would be natural at this point to wonder where Annie’s father—Sean—was during these instances of abuse. In the case of her science teacher, Annie did not tell him. She knew that he would confront her mother, which would only lead to an argument between the two of them. Most of the time, however, it probably would not have made much of a difference for Annie to have involved her father. “He's pretty passive in these situations,” Annie tells me. “He would literally go to Home Depot or take my siblings to the park when my mom would beat the shit out of me.”

It’s worth taking a brief moment to elaborate on Sean Thompson’s trying experiences in Louisiana. He was either out of work or holding down an unenviable job. Packaging at a grocery distribution center that led to weight loss and colorism. Maintenance work at an apartment complex, which came with accusations of theft. Or contract labor, which paid poorly, demanded long hours, and was run by an abusive boss. None of that, however, changed what was happening to Annie when he went to the park with the other kids.

Annie tells me that her mother’s behavior has gotten better over time, and she is grateful for it. She also preemptively pushes back against negative assessments of her mother’s parenting on the whole. The verbal and physical confrontations “make her sound like a bad parent, but she's not,” Annie tells me. “She's definitely been there for me. [...] It's just been a really complicated relationship.”

Annie would eventually stand up to both her parents—to her mother for abusing her and to her father for not intervening enough when it happened. Cassie would claim she had no memory of most of these attacks. Nevertheless, they were burned into Annie’s memory. They also contextualize her mother’s behavior during Annie’s senior year—the height of the Thompson’s food insecurity.

Salmon Cakes, Turkey Legs, and a Northern Migration

The family’s struggles with food insecurity during Annie’s senior year were not that complicated: Cassandra—the family’s main source of income—was laid off. Annie claims that the healthcare company Cassie worked for—a different one from when Annie was in fourth grade—had guaranteed her job security for at least a year. Apparently, that was a lie.

The resulting employment search was unsuccessful, so the Thompson matriarch “quickly fell into a deep depression,” Annie recalls. “It was the first time in my life I’ve ever seen my mom be so vulnerable or so sad.”

A later conversation would reveal just how severe the situation had been. “She [Cassandra] talked about how she thought about killing herself and that she would've done it if it was just me because she knows I can deal with it,” Annie tells me. It was the potential effect on Annie’s siblings that prevented Cassie from trying to take her own life.

The eldest Thompson child bristles at this memory. She had been able to absorb a lot, but not the intentional death of her own mother. “Had she killed herself, it definitely would've been devastating for me,” Annie surmised. “But I don't hold it against her because she just wasn't acting like herself at this time.”

To make matters worse, the Thompsons were averse to mental health treatment. “My parents weren’t the type of people to say, ‘Hey, let’s go to a therapist and talk things out,’” Annie informs me. “That’s totally not my parents. My dad also thinks there’s a stigma behind all mental health and emotional health.” This disinterest in therapy meant that Cassandra was not availing herself of a potential coping mechanism.

Annie became the buffer between her siblings and who their mother had become—a woman suffering from mental illness and unable to provide for her family. Annie appointed herself as the point person for both of these issues.

Annie became the buffer between her siblings and who their mother had become—a woman suffering from mental illness and unable to provide for her family. Annie appointed herself as the point person for both of these issues. When Cassie needed to talk and cry, Annie was there to listen to her problems and try making her feel better. When her siblings got sweets or trips to the waterpark, Annie was the one who had paid for them. The one who had sold candy bars, tutored, and babysat in order to raise the money.

“As the older sibling, you feel like you’re the third parent and you also feel like you’re the one that bears the most responsibility,” she explains. “You’re the one that knows the most about what’s going on in the house.” Concluding that her siblings could not handle what was going on, Annie would paint the family’s dire situation in a more palatable light when she interacted with them.

It was Cassandra’s friend Meredith who helped motivate the mother of three to make a change. Meredith pointed out to the Thompson matriarch that she had become ineffectual in her dual role as mother and provider. And Cassie didn’t like Louisiana. Coming back to Connecticut would offer her the opportunity for a change of scenery, time to regroup as a mother, and the support of a friend who might be able to get Cassandra a job. So Annie’s mother left and returned to the state the family once called home.

Whether you consider it understandable, sad, odd, or some combination of the three, Cassandra’s departure was initially comforting to Annie. “I was actually kinda relieved when she left,” she explains. But then the real challenge began. Annie “had to assume all of her [Cassie’s] responsibilities” because of her father’s inability to cook and his disinterest in cleaning. She taught herself to prepare food and drive to the grocery store with only a learner’s permit. Common meals included canned salmon cakes, crunchy to the tongue; cheap bags of chicken from the Asian grocer; an endless amount of sardines. (Annie is now permanently disgusted with the tiny fish.) There was also a meatless day—an easy way to cut costs.

By way of thanks, Annie got upsetting calls from her mother. Cassandra would berate her daughter over the phone, “bringing up things that I had done in the past and ways that I had wronged her.” Over time, this began to weigh heavy on her psyche. Instead of talking about this with someone—a role Cassandra had previously played—Annie took on more responsibility.

In addition to cooking, cleaning, and caring for her siblings, the eldest Thompson child would eventually manage the family’s budget and pick up her mother’s unemployment check. Annie was concerned that, without assistance, her mother would have a “mental breakdown,” and her father felt that managing the family’s finances was a woman’s job. “I became a lot more of a parent to my siblings,” she discerns.

With this new weight on her shoulders, however, her schedule became unyielding: a continuous weekday cycle of going to and from school, picking up her siblings, helping them with their meals and school work, doing her own chores and homework, making dinner, cleaning up dinner, and then going to sleep so she could do it all again the next morning.

Annie’s shrewd planning did not mitigate the fact that she “was really hungry most of the time.” She was still eating less for the sake of Sean and the siblings. On any given day, Annie had “a meal and then maybe some canned fish.” Strategizing meant eating the least in the morning and then saving the “breakfast items” she made until later. The school lunch food in Louisiana remained unfit for even canines, and it was important for Annie to go to bed as content as possible. She also drank a lot of coffee—an appetite suppressant. Friends offered Annie her only source of reprieve. They would feed her and sometimes send home leftovers.

Trying to convey what sustained hunger feels like, Annie tells me to picture a plate of tasty food at the end of the table. My last meal was that morning, “so obviously you’re hungry,” she explains. I look and think about the plate more and more. The growling in my stomach grows louder until cramping sets in. “There’s a lot of anticipation leading up to the next meal,” Annie notes. “And there is a lot of frustration that comes with that because it’s not even like you’re next meal is that satisfying.”

Ironically, the pain is easier if I go for long stretches without food. Moments where I do eat only make me pine for more. Over time, though, the cramps become just another part of daily life. I, as Annie had that year, get “used to feeling hungry.”

Cassandra’s visit to her family that August would come with a startling realization: “The whole house was empty, pretty much, of food.” Cassandra “was pretty devastated,” Annie explains. A childhood marked by hunger left Cassie determined to ensure that her kids always had enough to eat. A food-barren house was antithetical to that goal.

So the Louisiana expat broke down, prompting Annie to console her and offer a solution that would blunt the one bright spot in Annie’s life—her recent acceptance to Columbia. She would call the school and defer her admission. There was a situation at home that required her attention.

The idea was not well received. “Both my parents were really adamant about me going to school,” Annie explains, and so that was that. Her 13-year-old sister would now have to take over all of Annie’s responsibilities.

“I definitely had my breakdowns in high school,” Annie explains. “So I felt really, really guilty.”

Nevertheless, She would head off to Columbia, free to begin the next phase of her life, albeit with substantial self-reproach. Still, most of the problems Annie had in Louisiana would appear in some form in New York. Those that went away were simply replaced by new ones that were equally severe. Annie was nowhere near the end of her struggles.

End of Part 1

CultureEzra Lerner