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I never experienced being a girl.
I was always a woman.
Ismael X paid thirty-five dollars to Solomon Hyman for the right to use his name to buy land in his native North Carolina. The son of slaves, Ismael, a humble farmer, worked hard to build a better life than the one he had known for his children. Ishmael’s grandchildren were the first generation to head north in search of that better life. Samuel, Edward and Philip all settled in Philadelphia.
Philip served in the Army during World War II and was stationed in North Africa. After returning to Philly, he began working in his brother Samuel’s barbershop at Haverford Avenue and 52nd Street. He met Louise Lively, a waitress, at a local nightclub. Their courtship was short. Philip proposed when Louise announced she was pregnant. Louise was 26 when she gave birth to a daughter, Phyllis Linda, on July 6, 1949. Philip just days shy of 29. Soon he had abandoned the barbershop for a job on the railroad; and the couple moved with their infant to Pittsburgh, where they settled into the public housing of the St. Clair Village area of town. A second daughter, Ann, was born 21 months after the first, and a third, Jeannie, was born 13 months after that.
By this time, Louise was suffering from chronic depression, and she found herself unable to cope. Jeannie was sent to live with family friends, Bill and Esther Quales. When Jeannie finally returned to the fold, at about age six, she was keenly aware that something was amiss in the Hyman household. There was a new sister in the house, Kym, and yet another child, a boy, had been stillborn. “I was a little kid and I remember thinking, ‘What’s she still doing having babies?’” recalled Jeannie. “Now back then, kids
didn’t know stuff like they do now. But I remember thinking, ‘If she couldn’t take care of me, why is she still having children?’
“When you have a severely impaired primary caregiver, lots of little things just don’t get taken care of,” Jeannie continued. “When I came back into the household, to me, it was utter chaos. It was nasty. It was dirty. The kids were unkempt. There was no order. I couldn’t believe people lived like this.”
Quarters were cramped in the Hyman household. Philip and Louise lived with their four children in a three-bedroom row house. As Louise spun further and further into the depths of her depression, Philip did little around the house to bring order to the chaos. Working on the railroad, he was often gone a lot when Phyllis was young. Later, back problems caused him to retire on a medical disability and he did barbering part-time. “He had health problems and then he had his drinking problem,” said Jeannie. “And often, the two were intermixed.”
Two years after Kym came along, Louise gave Philip his first son, Mark. And a year after that, she delivered twins, Michael and Anita, bringing the total to seven. Finally, they moved up the street to a four-bedroom unit, but seven kids sharing three bedrooms was still a pretty tight fit.
“There’s a difference between a parent who’s just lazy and does not want to do anything and a parent who cannot,” said Jeannie. “If my mother had been in a wheelchair and had been paralyzed, everybody would have understood. But because they didn’t, I always perceived us as being seen as those dirty little yellow kids in the neighborhood. Plus, not knowing that my mother was mentally ill, not knowing what the issues were, I just saw my parents as trifling, an opinion that I think Phyllis shared.
“When my kids and I were poor, I could take my pennies and put them in layaway for things that I wanted them to have,” Jeannie continued. “Or I could go to the secondhand store and get some good buys. My mother didn’t have the capacity to do that. We didn’t get our hair combed unless I did it. We didn’t get baths regularly. It just was a nasty mess.”
With Louise overwhelmed and at times out of commission, and Philip incapacitated in his own right, Jeannie stepped up and became a surrogate caregiver for her siblings. Phyllis, meanwhile, had free reign to lord a certain power over her brothers and sisters.
“She liked to bully us,” said Ann. “She had to be in charge.” Jeannie concurred. “She was a terrible bully,” she said. “We were her little peons.”
Phyllis intimidated her younger siblings into doing her bidding, unwittingly adding to the burden on the rest of the older children in the house, who scrambled to fill the gap created by their mother’s mental illness.
“Jeanie was our caretaker,” said Kym. “She was the one who combed our hair, got us ready for school, made sure we ate, even made sure we had dessert.”
It was a great deal of work, but Jeannie did it gladly. “That was my role,” she said. “I think because I didn’t live there for several years, when I came back my attitude was ‘We’ve got to get this together.’ I was really little. I was under 10 taking the three little ones to the baby clinic for their shots and stuff. But I loved that. I think because I didn’t live at home for those years, I felt like I didn’t really have a place there, that there must have been something defective with me that I was given away and no one else was. So I found a place for myself, and I liked that place. It made me feel a part of the solution.”
In later years, when she reflected on her childhood, Phyllis rarely touched on the dysfunction of the Hyman family home. She made it clear, however, that her family’s poverty was an impetus to her quest for fame. “We were a below-middle income family,” Phyllis said. “We were rich in human areas. We didn’t have material things, but then I didn’t miss them either. My parents, I felt, were not obligated to give me things. Money can’t buy a moral attitude.”
From a very young age, Phyllis was perplexed by the notion that a woman could want no more than to raise children and take care of her family. As a child, not fully comprehending the extent of her mother’s illness, Phyllis faulted her mother for not doing more, for appearing to want so little. Following her father’s lead, Phyllis even began to take her mother for granted, to verbally abuse her. “I didn’t respect my mother’s opinion. I thought, ‘What has she done? Had seven children?’ I never had to carry a key when I was growing up because she was always home. I always thought I didn’t want to be like that. That woman didn’t ask for enough. There was a whole world out there.”
Phyllis knew she wanted to explore that world. She considered her family’s poverty a curse. “When I was real little, I used to have daydreams about being very wealthy, very famous and very loved,” she said. Phyllis began taking after her father, who didn’t provide much aide with the young children in the house. Phyllis’s mother did not ask Phyllis for help, and she didn’t offer any. Philip, according to Phyllis, was a shadow around the house. The family patriarch ate and slept there, but was not, exactly, an involved parent. “He never said much,” Phyllis remembered.
The lack of visible affection between her parents left a lasting impression on Phyllis. It helped her to form a negative opinion of marriage and family that stayed with her for most of her life. “I didn’t like being part of a large family, not just because there was a lack of money, toys and things like that, but because I didn’t witness a lot of caring or passion between my mother and father. With the intense pressure of trying to feed and raise seven of us properly, I guess there just wasn’t enough energy left for that.” If Phyllis was aware that it was more than just seven children draining her mother’s energy, that it was also her intense depression, she kept that knowledge, as well as her sadness and shame surrounding it, out of interviews.
For her part, if Louise had any awareness of what was happening to her, as depression held her firmly in its clutches, she had little to hold on to in the way of faith. Raised Catholic, she no longer attended church. Philip was the son of a fundamentalist Baptist minister, but he no longer regularly attended services either. The Hyman children were, however, often invited to church by neighbors and permitted by their parents to go. “We were not encouraged or discouraged,” said Jeannie. “We were given an opportunity to go.”
When she attended services with her siblings, Phyllis had her own issues with God and religion. “Can you really imagine me as a little girl, in a ruffle dress, being quiet for any length of time? I think not.” Church was far too constraining for young Phyllis. “You had to keep your legs crossed. You couldn’t eat. I couldn’t wait till church was over so we could get in the basement and eat that good old church food. I was slightly afraid because the preacher would be shoutin’. I thought, well, who the hell is he mad
at today? He’d be screaming at you, ‘And the Lord sayeth.’ I wanted to say, ‘And I ain’t deaf. I hear real doggone good.’”
There was at least one perk, though. “You know the collection box in the church? It had change in it. So I thought it was mine. That’s what I got for an allowance. I was always trying to go for it. Of course, I got slapped on the back of the head a lot. It’s very flat back there.” Outside of church, Phyllis had few spiritual thoughts. “I can remember my mom teaching me a prayer,...