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The Screaming Boy in the Closet

Quite a few people have asked me about the dedication in my new book, Surviving Home, which says, "To Mozell, the screaming boy in the closet". Above is a picture of me with my family. The smallest person in the Snoopy tee shirt is Mozell ("Mo"). The shirt is a hand-me-down from me. I love the Peanuts comic strip. It was a love that started when I learned to read. I'm standing behind Mozell clutching his arm to make sure he doesn't run. I was responsible for Mo. I was responsible for keeping track of him, which meant I needed to make sure he did not run away before the picture was taken. Behind me is my brother James. My father is behind James. My mother is behind my father, and my brother Desi is behind my mother.

Mozell is three years younger than I am. I think he was the first great love of my life. I loved holding him when he was a baby. I used to walk around at five years old carrying him on my hip. I remember when my mother told me he was autistic. I responded, "artistic"? She said, "No. Autistic. It's different from artistic. Autistic means that Mo learns and communicates differently from the rest of us. The doctors said that he likely won't be able to learn to speak that many words, and sometimes he may not be able to understand. He likely won't have a vocabulary of more than 30 words."

I loved words, and I thought that was tragic. It couldn't be possible. At that exact moment, I came up with the idea to teach Mozell one new word a day. I thought if I did that, he would have a greater vocabulary than 30 words. I did the best I could, but Mo never spoke his 31st word. He is often monosyllabic. He can ask for things he wants, but other than that, he's non-communicative. He says things like bananas, cookies, outside, tv.

When he was young, Mozell would often get frustrated and scream, hit, and throw things. It was hard to calm him down. He loves music and listening to Al Green, and that would often work. But sometimes it didn't, and my father would throw him into the closet and wouldn't let him out. Mo continued to scream and bang at the door, panicked. One time I asked my father to let me see if I could calm him down. He said, "Fine," and shoved me into the closet with my brother.

Mo screamed, hit and scratched at me. I grabbed his arms and held him close. I sang to him. It was usually either "You are My Sunshine" or "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", a song I learned from a Coca Cola commercial in the 70's. That usually calmed him down. From then on, often Mo and I were thrown into the closet together. In time, we developed a routine. He liked playing hand clap games. When we played, I sang Rockin' Robin as we clapped our hands together. I taught him to play Cat's Cradle.

After about a year, I learned to calm Mo down such that we didn't need to go into the closet anymore. Although at that point, we would go in there out of habit to play.

Mo was my best friend and my whole world. I took him everywhere with me. When my mother's cancer got to the point where she couldn't walk very far or stay awake for long, I made sure Mo and my youngest brother, Victor, ate, dressed, and made it to school.

When my mother died, Mozell and Victor went to live with my brother. I wanted to take them with me, but I was 19 and my brother said I was not capable of taking care of them. I was upset, because at the time I felt I had been taking care of them, and I could continue to do it. Looking at it now, I know he was right. After my brothers left, I ended up living with a man who tried to kill me, and later I was homeless. They were much better off where they were.

Mo now lives in Virginia with my sister-in-law. He's healthy and content. I miss him every day. My heart broke when I was 19, and it never healed. Even though Mo is three years younger, he is like my twin. A little over four years ago, I started having a problem with fainting. Doctors don't know why. Exactly three years after the first time I fainted, Mo fainted. That's how we are.

I dedicated Surviving Home book to Mozell because he's a part of me. Everything I lived through, he lived through, except he did it with a muted voice. Surviving Home represents his voice and mine.


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