According to the guy on the radio this morning, Tori Amos’s album Little Earthquakes debuted in the US on this date in 1992. I was 15 and pregnant with my first child when a friend first introduced me to the album. Only a handful of months earlier, I’d moved to Roswell, New Mexico from Guthrie, Oklahoma and had effectively completed one phase of my life. One horrible, abuse-ridden, trauma-filled, shitty, shitty phase. And though I didn’t know it yet, I was about to start another phase that would last into my early 20s. A phase worse in immeasurable ways than anything that had come before. I was a rage-filled, hormone-filled, impulsive, fiery 15-year-old. Basically, I was ripe for Little Earthquakes.
The album was a point of deviation for me musically. My sister didn’t get it. It wasn’t popular and didn’t produce a single radio hit. But it was mine. This album was MINE. I really wanted people I loved to love it and it hurt my feelings when they didn’t, but I made no apologies. It was their loss, in my opinion. My closest family and friends not liking the album was my reason to retreat further away from the before life and into something else. The else being a thing it would take me a full decade to figure out. This album was often my only torch in the long slog through the darkness toward the light. Does that sound dramatic? Well, I was 15 when the album landed in my life. 15-year-olds are nothing if not dramatic. Nonetheless, it’s still true. Even now, as I write this from the light.
Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets.
I’ve been raising up my hands; drive another nail in. Just what god needs – one more victim.
I’ve got a cat named Easter. He says, “will you ever learn? You’re just an empty cage, girl, if you kill the bird.”
Where are those angels when you need them?
I arrived in Roswell a teenage child of a now-single mom. A mom who disappeared from my and my older sister’s life nearly the moment her ex-husband, my stepdad, pulled away from the storage shed he’d dropped us all off at and headed back to Oklahoma. My mom and stepdad were together for ten years, and in that time, he beat the shit out of her at least a dozen times. He was mercilessly controlling and said fucked up shit to my mom, my sister, and me to keep us isolated, even from each other, in his narrow, paranoid world. He feared abandonment and demanded fealty. For the two and a half years we lived in Oklahoma as a family, I was forbidden from having boyfriends, boys for friends, friends who had brothers, friends who were allowed to have boyfriends, or even talking to boys at my school. I couldn’t take drama classes or accept my nomination to the national honor society because boys might somehow be involved. I was told that if my stepdad weren’t around, I’d “get pregnant by fifteen” and “be a whore just like my mom.”
Yet, if I wanted to hang out with a friend or have a blessed but rare sleepover, I would have to rub his feet while he “thought about it.” I’d have to rub his stupid, ugly feet for up to two hours sometimes, while he occasionally pinched my nipples with his toes and laughed, like it was all a fun a game.
One time, he caught me holding hands with a boy while walking home from school. He put me in his truck, drove me home, made me pull down my pants to my knees, and spanked me with his leather belt, my bare ass and hairy vulva pointing up at him.
One time, he sucked a hicky on my neck.
One time, he was choking my mom to death on the couch and I held a gun to his head.
Mom and the stepdad divorced when I was fifteen, we moved to Roswell, my mom jumped feet-first into the deep end, and then I was on my own and I went sex wild. I had half a dozen partners in a short period of time. Well, I mean…”partners.” I was raped by a 22-year-old guitar player at a house party my mom dropped me off at after she made sure I’d “be okay.” I spent a whole month begging my rapist not “to be mad at me” after he found me in bed with his bassist a few hours later, after I woke up from my blackout and stumbled my way into the bassist’s room. The guitar player returned from kindly making sure some of the older girls got home safely and found me in bed with the bassist and picked my clothes up off the floor, threw them at me, and screamed, “You fucking whore.” The bassist just sat there in bed, watching the scene unfold, quietly.
Got enough guilt to start my own religion
My heart’s been in chains
She’s been everyone else’s girl. Maybe one day she’ll be her own.
Well, I’m not 17. But I’ve cuts on my knees.
Sit in the chair and be good now. Oh, and become all that they told you.
The refrain “she’s been everybody else’s girl, maybe one day she’ll be her own” is repeated in this song over and again. If I had a secret battle cry as I roared my way toward womanhood, it absolutely would’ve been this. My stepdad would come home from work every. Single. Day. the last two and half years I lived with him and tear through the front door. The first words out of his mouth were always, “Girl. Did you talk to any boys today?”
“No,” I’d say. What the fuck else was I going to say?
“Are you lying to me,” he’d ask.
“No,” I’d say.
This would go on and on and eventually devolve into, “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” I’d say.
“Are you lying to me girl?” he’d ask.
This would also go on for a while – all while he stood just inside the doorway of our apartment above the hearse garage at the funeral home where we lived and he worked. Every. Single. Day.
After leaving Oklahoma, all I wanted was autonomy. Full, glorious, inviolable self-governance. I’d say, to this day, it remains in the top three things I’d rather die than cede.
SILENT ALL THESE YEARS
I’ve got the Antichrist in the kitchen yelling at me again.
Been saved again by the garbage truck. I’ve got something to say, you know, but nothing comes. Yes, I know what you think of me. You never shut up.
So, you found a girl that thinks really deep thoughts. What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts? Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon. How’s that thought for you?
I’ve got 25 bucks and a cracker, do you think it’s enough to get us there?
Sometimes I hear my voice and it’s been here. Silent all these years.
Years go by will I still be waiting for somebody else to understand.
Years go by will I choke on my tears until finally there’s nothing left?
Your mother shows up in a nasty dress and it’s your turn now to stand where I stand. Everybody looking at you. But take hold of my hand.
Yeah, but I don’t care because sometimes I hear my voice… I hear my voice… I hear my voice…
I’ve been here. Silent all these years.
When I arrived in Roswell, I was ready to roar. I drank alcohol, fucked boys and men, and, one night, I beat the shit out of my sister in the doorway of my aunt Cathy’s house. The dam broke that night and all my rage poured out and kept pouring in an endless stream for many years. But it was the first moment I felt it – my voice. My self. Nobody understood. Except Tori. She got it.
Yes, my loyalties turned like my ankle in the 7th grade running after Billy.
He said you’re really an ugly girl. And I died, but I thanked him. Can’t believe that. Sick sick.
No one cared to tell me where those pretty girls are. Those demigods with their nine inch nails and little fascist panties stuck inside the heart of every nice girl.
I hated women. I mean, yeah, men had hurt me – sometimes badly. But they’d never let me down because I’d never expected much from them. But women – they had the power to hurt me deeply. My mom abandoned me; my sister loathed me. And the girls at school, they didn’t get it. My attitude was you bitches don’t get it. So fuck off. I’m going to fuck your boyfriends.
Years later, in Dallas, I’d have an affair with an older, married man who saved my soul in the name of Jesus just before starting a raunchy, raucous, entirely consuming affair with me. I left Dallas pregnant a few months later. This Christian man asked me to have an abortion when I called him from Albuquerque to tell him I was pregnant. I said no and he never took another call from me again.
Holding onto his picture. Dressing up everyday. Want to smash the faces of those beautiful boys. Those Christian boys. So you can make me cum, that doesn’t make you Jesus.
What I loved about Little Earthquakes is there isn’t a single love song on it. The lyrics often address love, but mostly by acknowledging the disappointing lack of it – from others and one’s self. But it also rejects pining in favor of indictments. I’d never seen this in any music before and I loved it. Of all the songs on this album, “Precious Things” in particular held me under the longest spell.
When you gonna love you as much as I do?
You say you wanted me to be proud. I say I always wanted that myself.
“Winter” is a song about a dad. It is my least favorite song on the whole album, but mostly because I couldn’t relate at all to it. There was nothing ugly about the dad, and the narrator’s love for the man she associates with that word only made me sad. To me, even the instrumentation is all wrong for how the word “dad” made me feel.
Still, “when are you going to love you as much as I do?” was the lyric that made me both angry and terrified. It made me angry when I imagined anybody in my life who had forced their image into the symbol for “dad” saying that to me. And it terrified me when I thought about saying it to myself.
I’ll run naked through the street without my mask on
And the atrocities of school I can’t forget. The happy phantom has no right to bitch.
Judy Garland taking Buddha by the hand. they say Confucius does his crossword with a pen.
“Happy Phantom” is such an upbeat, tinkley, and ecstatic song, yet it never felt incongruous with the rest of the album. There are places in the album where Tori rejects the idea of being a victim, but in “Happy Phantom” she says plainly: if you want to be happy, you can’t bitch. It’s a lesson I took to heart.
The sun is getting dim. Will I pay for who I’ve been? Yeah.
But the song isn’t without its melancholy, either. The whole album is rife with meditations on guilt and culpability. It’s an album searching for redemption, and that’s still true in “Happy Phantom.”
You found a girl that you can truly love again. Will you still call for me when she falls asleep? Or do we soon forget the things we cannot see?
When I was pregnant with my daughter, just around the time I discovered Little Earthquakes, I was having an affair with John, who had a girlfriend named Mandy that John said was crazy. (Is it still called an affair when you’re both 15?) That was one of the first in a long list of times I was the other woman in a relationship. And when it would end, as it always did, “Happy Phantom” was the song I’d play.
China. All the way to New York.
Like, “Winter,” “China” is a song I couldn’t relate to for many years. Tori was the big sister I never had but always wanted. She legitimized my weirdness and talked about things I didn’t understand yet, but nonetheless became points on the horizon to aim for. New York may as well have been Sydney when I was a 15-year-old in Roswell, New Mexico. It seemed almost too exotic to even consider that I could go there one day. But yet, one of the first things I thought about after the multi-fatality car accident I was in six months after releasing my daughter to family – when the Air force was no longer courting me and colleges quit sending me letters was, “Well, now I can’t go to art school in New York.”
Sometimes I think you want me to touch you.
Pour the wine, dear. You say we’ll take a holiday, but we never can agree on where to go.
Maybe you got lost in Mexico.
Funny how the distance learns to grow
When you build the great wall around you.
“China” is an enchanting song. Lyrically beautiful. Slow and lilting. Rife with longing. A dark lullaby from a big sister.
Look, I’m standing naked before you. Don’t you want more than my sex? I can scream as loud as your last one; but I can’t claim innocence.
Just before I got pregnant with my daughter, I was having a torrid affair with Lynn, the 28-year-old owner of Lynn’s Game Room. Yep, I was 15. Lynn taught me how to shoot pool, but he always breathed on my neck when he leaned in, or pulled me close to his body by my belt loops. Before long, Lynn was picking me up on the street corner at 2AM outside whatever house I was staying at that night. He’d take me to a nearby motel that rented rooms by the hour and fuck me hard and filthy. I know now what I didn’t know then, of course. But to this day, I tell you – it was next-level sex unlike anything most people experience. Afterwards, Lynn would drive me back to the street corner and drop me off, just before sunrise. Mostly, we were silent, but sometimes he’d make small talk. “Can I buy you a pop or anything?” he asked once.
I could just pretend that you love me… But why do I need you to love me when you can’t hold what I hold dear.
What did I hold dear? Only my pain. And Lynn certainly wasn’t someone I felt comfortable giving that pain to. I was barely out of a kind of hell that I’ve been putting words to since Little Earthquakes debuted. All I had at that point was gut instinct. And all of my instincts told me Lynn wasn’t the savior I was looking for. I mean, eventually. I thought we’d be together for a while, I guess. But then a friend’s dad caught wind of the fact that I’d been fucking Lynn, and that dad arranged for a motorcycle gang to meet Lynn at his work after closing one night. They called him a baby raper. I was crying, “Leave him alone! God! Stop treating me like a child! I’m not a baby!” The men eventually backed off, but soon after, Lynn closed up shop and left town.
I almost ran over an angel. He had a nice big fat cigar. “Innocence,” he said, “You’re alone here. So if you jump, you’d best jump far.”
Oh god, why am I here.
If love isn’t forever. And it’s not the weather. Hand me my leather.
Here here now, don’t cry. You raised your hand for the assignment. Tuck those ribbons under your helmet; be a good soldier.
I was pregnant with a daughter I would unwittingly and impulsively release for adoption five days after Christmas, when she was three months old. This was less than a year after I discovered Little Earthquakes. This singular line would provide solace for many years afterwards.
Somebody leave the light on. Green limousine for the red head dancing.
One of my favorite things about Tori Amos is she made being a red head cool. I was always “carrot top” and “strawberry.” “Period head” was the name that awful Joe Hooten who turned his eyelids inside out used to call me in fifth grade. I was ugly. My sister told me so. I was weird and ugly and I looked like Opie from The Andy Griffith Show. But then Tori came along and made being a red head cool. Fuck yeah, I was a red head.
I walked into your dream and now I’ve forgotten how to dream my own dream.
We told you all of our secrets. All but one, and don’t you even try.
Dripping with blood and with time and with your advice.
Living with my stepdad was just the end of an entire 15 years of being beholden to someone else’s fragile reality. He wasn’t the first or worst one to abuse me physically, but he was certainly the one to fuck up my head the worst. He demanded my secrets. He thought he knew everything there was about me. Yet, somehow I’d kept myself locked away. Far away. Almost too far to retrieve it, but somehow I did.
He’s going to change my name. Maybe he’ll leave the light on – just in case I like the dancing, I can remember where I come from.
It’s across the sky and across my heart and I cross my legs. Oh my god.
Bread crumbs lost under the snow.
Mother the car is here. maybe you’ll leave the light on for the dancing girl.
I got pregnant with my daughter at my mom – at fifteen, like my stepdad predicted. My mom was my last connection to where I’d come from; and she disappeared.
TEAR IN YOUR HAND
All the world just stopped now. So you say you don’t want to stay together anymore. Let me take a deep breath babe. If you need me, me and Neil’ll be hanging out with
the dream king.
I don’t believe you’re leaving ’cause me and Charles Manson like the same ice cream. I think it’s that girl… Maybe she’s just pieces of me you’ve never seen.
All the world is dangling, dangling, dangling, dangling for me darling. You don’t know the power that you have with that tear in your hand.
I’m cutting my hands up every time I touch you. Maybe it’s time to wave goodbye now.
Your baby, baby, baby, babies – I tell you there are pieces of me you’ve never seen. Maybe she’s just pieces of me you’ve never seen.
The coolest part of “Tear in Your Hand” is her name dropping freaking Neil Gaiman! I didn’t even realize it. I just thought it was a cool song, one of my favorites on the album, in fact, because the arrangement is so tight and intoxicating. But then! A few years after I first heard the album, I met Jeff, the weird older brother of Robert, who was a guy I sort of dated when I was pregnant with my daughter. And Jeff was older and cool and he had a job and his own apartment! So, I’d go and visit Jeff sometimes, but not in a sexy way at all, which is worth pointing out because I had sex with most of my friends. But not Jeff. He was just weird and cool and super smart. And he loved Tori Amos. And he loved The Sandman, which I’d never heard of. So, he introduced me to The Sandman and eventually we got to talking about “Tear in Your Hand” and that’s when he told me about the Neil Gaiman connection to that specific lyric. Which, of course, just made Tori Amos way cooler than she already was, but also legitimized this Neil Gaiman guy, whoever he was.
ME AND A GUN
Can’t go home, obviously
Got a full tank and some chips
And I sang, “Holy holy” as he buttoned down his pants.
It’s kind of funny the things you think times like these.
Yes, I wore a slinky red thing. Does it mean I should spread for you. your friends. your father.
I know what this means. Me and Jesus, a few years back, used to hang. And he said, “It’s your choice babe. But I don’t think you’ll be back in three days time. So,
you choose well.”
I haven’t seen Barbados. So I must get out of this.
Do you know Carolina. Where the biscuits are soft and sweet.
The first time I heard this song, with Tori’s strong voice coming out of the speakers a cappella, I was instantly drawn in. Then, as the song unfolded, and I realized what it was about, I lost my breath. I mean that literally. I’d never heard anyone ever, ever, ever talk about sexual assault so openly and blatantly. Or so honestly, but, again, not in a woe-is-me-victim kind of way. There was a big secret in my family, you see. A secret involving the systemic rape of an entire family of children by a stepdad. (Not mine. I’d just say so.) And my mom is involved in that story in a way that is not mine to tell. But anyway, it was all so secret. It was the reason everyone forgave my mom for whatever hell my sister and I went through. “She’s been through so much,” adults would tell me when I would rail against the insanity that was my young life. But no one would ever fucking tell me what “so much” actually was. Then I heard Tori sing “Me and a Gun” and the top of my head blew off.
Mom had already stopped buying my sister and me food or returning our phone calls, but my sister and I were still sharing the last remnants of what was once a family. And I needed her to hear “Me and a Gun.” I was eager for her to have the top of her head blown off, too. So, one day, I was in the back seat of my cousin Misti’s car. My sister and Misti were in the front seat. I gave them my cassette tape of Little Earthquakes and made my sister fast forward to “Me and a Gun.” They were silent for a minute or two, then, to my horror, they both burst into laughter. My sister declared that “Me and a Gun” was the corniest bit of shit she’d ever heard. I was crestfallen.
A few years later, the summer when I was 19 and living in Dallas, I had a short-lived affair with Wes, a married man (not the preacher) I’d met on the road as a hot-shot driver for an industrial radiator repair shop. Wes was a big, strapping man that looked like he was built for running a football down a gridiron – tall, fit, manly as hell. He would drive into Dallas to pick me up and take me out on dates that always ended in hours of Olympic-level sex. One night, we were on our way somewhere and I mentioned that I loved Tori Amos. He said, “Isn’t she the one that was raped too many times?” Obviously, he was referring to “Me and a Gun.”
I was incensed by his invective, and I replied, “Yeah. Well, we’ve all had problems, haven’t we?” in my snottiest voice. Then I asked Wes if I could see a picture of his wife. I don’t know why I asked that. I was trying to get under his skin, I guess. But the question made him angry.
“No,” he told me.
A short while later, we were in an abandoned parking lot somewhere on the outskirts of Dallas. I was outside his truck completely naked giving him head. It was hateful and hot. My clothes were in his truck somewhere and I had the overwhelming sense that he was considering closing the door and driving off. I pulled away from him, got in the truck, and insisted he take me home. That was the last time we saw each other.
And I hate elevator music. The way we fight. The way I’m left here silent.
Ooh. These little earthquakes. Here we go again.
Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces.
We danced in graveyards where vampires still loom.
And I hate disintegration.
Give me life. Give me pain. Give me my self again.
Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces.
The lyric “Give me life; give me pain; give me my self again” is repeated in the song “Little Earthquakes” almost like a chant. Sometimes, in the hundreds of times I listened to this album, I would loop that part of this song over and over again. Give me life. Give me pain. Give me my self again.
Give me life. Give me pain. Give me my self again.
Give me life.
Give me pain.
Give me my
Ooh, here we go again.
Little Earthquakes was an acknowledgement of the human condition, that there’s strength in weakness, and that I wasn’t alone. It led me away from sisterhood, but I still say that was important. For me, sorority was a big ball of yarn I’d pulled from the junk drawer – full of hair and twist ties and toothpicks super-glued to the outside. I’ve spent the last 25 years untangling that knot. Separating the pieces into their disparate parts. And then using the yarn to knit together something dear. Something strong and unbreakable that honors all the messy, beautiful, foul ways women love each other. And ourselves.
I had a Jesus year when I got pregnant with Dillon, in Dallas. During that pregnancy, Tori released her 1996 album Boys for Pele, and I found myself drifting from her. I was pregnant with a baby I knew I was releasing for adoption, and the married man who’d provided the opportunity for me to get pregnant had also, two months earlier, saved my soul in the name of Jesus. I found Boys for Pele to confront issues with God-the-father I wasn’t yet prepared to address. Tori was, even then, a league ahead of where I was. She still is.
But still, even when I abandoned Tori the artist, Little Earthquakes remained the soundtrack to my emergence as a woman for another five years, until I gave birth to my twin sons, Tolkien and Indigo. It was mother, sister, therapist, and spiritual adviser. It provided me safe passage from a furious, fucked up 15-year-old to a grown woman. And, for that, I’ll remain in debt to Tori Amos forever.
But because of my safe arrival into adulthood, my debt to 15-year-old me has been paid. When you gonna love you as much as I do, fifteen year old me?
When you’re forty.
So, until then, take a deep breath, babe. It’s time for me to wave goodbye now.