Cover image for Beautiful stranger : a memoir of an obsession with perfection
Title:
Beautiful stranger : a memoir of an obsession with perfection
Author:
Donahue, Hope, 1968-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Gotham Books, [2004]

©2004
Physical Description:
292 pages ; 22 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781592400744
Format :
Book

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RD118.5 .D665 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

Hope Donahue seemed to have it all: beauty, wealth, social status. She was an only child who grew up with the best private schools, debutante balls, and a home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles’s old-money enclave. But beneath the family’s façade of “keeping up appearances,” Hope hid a host of ugly truths, including a mother increasingly jealous of her daughter’s good looks, an uncle’s sexual advances, and a father who cowed to the demands of his wife and coolly reserved parents. Hope became addicted to a quest for physical perfection in place of her self-esteem—and by the age of twenty-seven she had undergone seven plastic surgeries. In riveting, unflinching prose, Hope recounts her downward spiral that alienated her family and friends, and led her to theft, bankruptcy, and a sadistic relationship before she began her recovery.A powerful response to a culture obsessed with extreme makeovers and risky procedures that promise flawlessness, Beautiful Strangeris a timely, cautionary tale. Her story will inspire the countless women and men like her who struggle every day in a culture that feeds us dangerous images of unattainable perfection.“Beautiful Strangeris a dark, scary, and important story of how broad social trends shape the suffering of individuals—how, in the author’s case, the beauty addiction of a whole culture is mapped onto a dysfunctional family and an obsessive compulsive disorder. Donahue perfectly captures the predatory style of a certain kind of surgeon—at once seductively flattering and solicitous and yet always on the prowl for access into the faces and bodiess of the vulnerable.” —Virginia L. Blum author of Flesh Wounds


Excerpts

Excerpts

Here is what you need to know. My name is Hope. I am thirty-six years old. I grew up in a tiny enclave of Los Angeles called Hancock Park, an area as renowned for its stately mansions and old-money families as for the La Brea tar pits, which regularly expel relics of bone and tooth from the animals long ago trapped there, lured by a mirage of water. I am an only child. My father is a bank chairman, my grandfather a doctor of international acclaim. My mother stayed home in our beautiful house to raise me, as mothers did then. I am intelligent, witty, well traveled. I went to the best private schools. I never had to apply for a college scholarship or save for a new car. These things were given to me. I was a debutante. I am five-feet-eight-inches tall, with a model's build, blonde hair, and green eyes. People say I am beautiful. These are just a few details of my life, but perhaps they are enough to trigger something. Do not be sick with envy at this awe-inspiring list of good fortune. Maybe you've known me, or someone like me. Maybe I was the girl you wanted not to like, because she had so much. The girl whose sunny cheerfulness seemed, you thought, superficial. Do you remember me now, the girl who had it all? Prologue Dr. S-'s receptionist moves with an aloof, feline grace down the hall. I follow in her wake of Opium, feeling clumsy and inferior, chiding myself at how little it takes to make me feel ungainly and imperfect. At the examining room door she turns to gesture me inside, and I find it hard not to stare at her breasts, which are so high and full they appear to swagger beneath the thin fabric of her top. I want to ask her whether Dr. S- is responsible for them. But it is inappropriate to stare at another woman's breasts, even in the office of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon renowned for the breasts he creates, so instead I look at the diamond-studded upside-down horseshoe pendant dangling on a chain around her neck. Doesn't she know that wearing the horseshoe this way means that all the good luck is running out? Alone in the small room, I slip the paper smock over my clothes and struggle to fit my long hair into the paper cap. With the door closed, the silence of the room is so complete and engulfing, I can hear the blood pounding in my ears. The rustle of the paper smock is a roar. The white walls seem to be closing in on me. I want desperately to poke my head out the door, gulp a few breaths of fresh air to divert the flood of panic threatening to overtake me, but I fear looking impatient. Instead I shift uncomfortably on the narrow exam table, feeling the spread of wetness beneath my arms. Outside the door, a familiar deep male voice rumbles incoherently. My heart gives a lurch of anticipation. Everything changes, now, at the prospect of having Dr. S- so close. Am I his next patient? If not, how much longer will he be? Five minutes? Fifteen? The clock above the door has a mechanical arm that scoots in jerks around its perimeter. Trying to take deep, even breaths, I watch its motion. Everything in this room is white. I can't help thinking that this feels like a movie in which the recently deceased heroine waits eagerly to meet God, to be judged by Him. Like any good zealot, I expect to be reborn. And then, miraculously, the door clicks open and he enters the room, a tall, good-looking man of about forty-five, as handsome a deity as any Hollywood casting director could have dreamed up, wearing green surgical scrubs which are somewhat rumpled and specked ever so slightly with traces of rusty blood. "Hope! My dear, good morning. How are you today?" "Fine," I say, which now that he's here is less of a lie. Dr. S- approaches me, standing so close I can smell the piney cologne rising off his warm skin. His brows knit together as he studies the bump on my lower lip, a flaw which I know is jarringly obvious in spite of my careful application of matte, flesh-toned lipstick. Silly, I think now, to have applied lipstick; it will be wiped away before Dr. S- can begin his work. "We're going to fix this today." He presses the bump and I wince, not only because it hurts, but because I need to see the tender regret in his eyes at having caused me pain. "Sorry. I've got to check a post-op patient, and then we'll begin. It will only be a few more minutes." When the door closes behind him, I feel I'll jump out of my skin. For the first time, the reality of the procedure hits me: It will hurt, what he's going to do; it's sure to; how could it not hurt? As if the painful bump and my pounding fear are not punishment enough, the familiar blaming refrain descends upon me like a hammer: This is all your fault. You brought this on yourself. It is your punishment, for wanting something so frivolous, so silly and wasteful. You vain, selfish fool. When the door clicks open again, my heart gives a bleat of joy. But it is only the nurse, come to lead me to the operating room. "Ready?" She is efficient, perhaps irritated, standing there in her green scrubs. Her plastic name tag, slightly askew, says jeanne. I follow her down the hallway wishing, childishly and impractically, that she would be kind, perhaps hold my hand. I need some maternal kindness to calm the whoosh of fear in me. "Hope." Dr. S- steps through the door of his surgical suite, blocking my view of the brightly lit room. "Before we begin, there's something I want to show you. Come in." To my surprise, there is a woman on the operating table. She is dark-haired, doe-eyed, perhaps forty. Her body is draped in a white blanket. She blinks at me and smiles sleepily. "Hello," I offer, not knowing what else to say. "This is Alix," Dr. S- says. On either side of the white paper sheet beneath her head are a half-dozen or so nickel- sized reddish blotches, where blood from an unseen wound has dripped and been absorbed, then dried. "Alix just had what I like to call a 'lunchtime lift.' Have you heard of it?" "No." "It's revolutionary," he says. "State-of-the-art. It gives the effect of a brow lift without any of the downtime." There's a surge of bravado in Dr. S-'s voice, the voice of a showman, a salesman? I have no interest in a brow lift, so I do not know how to react. Dr. S- approaches the woman on the table, pressing one of her manicured hands in his own. "Come closer, Hope," he scolds gently. "Don't be so shy." "Sorry." I chuckle nervously. The hushed, private atmosphere of the operating room feels like entering a church, or a stranger's bedroom. And I feel a tinge of annoyance, too: This is supposed to be my surgery, my moment. But at Dr. S-'s bidding, I come and stand beside Alix. She turns toward Dr. S-, to whom she gives a languorous look; a look which suggests, in effect with the damp hair at her temples, that she has just awoken not from surgery but from a short sleep after having made love. Dr. S- gently lifts the hair above her right temple, revealing a startling line of black stitches against the white skin of her scalp. She winces, and he quickly smoothes her hair back into place, then strokes the dewy skin of her forehead, once, with the back of his fingers. She smiles up at him, and the look of trust and intimacy they exchange makes my throat ache with longing. "Just look at her," Dr. S- says to me, his eyes still fixed on Alix. "Isn't she lovely? She looks twenty-five years old." My smile, automatic, hides my confusion. I myself am only twenty-three years old. "You could benefit from this too, Hope." Dr. S- replaces Alix's hand on her blue- smocked chest, then turns the full wattage of his gaze on me. His body radiates a warmth in the cool, sterile operating room. "You're very girl-next-door, and this would give you an exotic, sort of foreign look. Here, let me show you." Exotic. Foreign. He may not have sold me on the prospect of a brow lift, but these are promises that entice. How can I resist a delicious, illicit offer to become someone I am not? Does Dr. S- see inside me, does he know that if I could, I would shed my face and body, my very self, on his table as nimbly as a snake sheds its skin and leaves it there, outgrown and discarded, in favor of becoming a beautiful stranger? Almost somnambulant, I allow Dr. S- to position me in front of an oval mirror on the wall. He stands behind me, putting his fingers on my temples, pulling the skin back and upward. "Look," he says. His voice is low and so near my ear that the little hairs on my neck rise. The change in me, though subtle, is startling. My round, green eyes are now slightly uptilted, catlike, the eyes of an Italian movie star. I want what I see in the mirror, impulsively and fervently, conveniently forgetting that the previous procedure, which went awry and produced the bump in my lip, was also heralded to me by the doctor who performed it as revolutionary, the very latest in cosmetic surgery. "If you do it today," Dr. S- says softly, "at the same time as your lip, I'll only charge you one thousand. Usually I charge sixteen hundred. I always give a break on multiple procedures." A beat passes. When I don't respond he says, "If you like, Alana can just throw it on your credit card." Of the three plastic surgeons I've been to, Dr. S- was the first who did not raise his eyebrows upon noticing my age on my chart. He did not fix me with a quizzical look as I ticked off the procedures I'd already had: Lips. Nose. Cheekbones. Lips again. From that first consultation, I could see that with Dr. S-, nothing I asked for would be off-limits. It thrills me, the dizzy possibility of it. But it frightens me, too. Without the brakes of someone else's disapproval, real or imagined, to slow me, what procedures will I not undertake? How far will I go? "What do you say, Hope?" To refuse requires more assertiveness than I can muster. But is it only my innate passivity which is to blame for my inability to say no? In the heated intensity of this moment, my decision has taken on a mythical weight and importance. The stakes seem enormous: to risk losing Dr. S-'s favor; to languish forever in dreary girl-next-door-dom. "No!" I cry. "What?" Dr. S-'s brown eyes are round with surprise. "I mean, yes! Sorry. I meant yes. Let's do it." I'm relieved to hear the confident ring of a decision in my voice. Dr. S-'s approving smile warms me like the rush of love. After a few minutes, during which Alix is presumably ushered into one of the recovery rooms and a nurse tidies up the surgical suite, I am invited to climb atop the freshly sheeted operating table. My heart beats a tattoo in my chest. I have never been awake for a surgery before. With the other procedures, I had only to endure those anxious moments before the intravenous needle was slipped into my arm, and I drifted peacefully away. There are, I've learned, different levels of unconsciousness. There is general anesthesia, the state closest to temporary induced death, in which the patient's breathing must be assisted and the heart closely monitored. There is twilight sleep, in which local anesthesia is combined with intravenous sedation; the patient has no memory of pain during the procedure, though he or she may, as I did during the nose surgery, recall hearing things: bones crunching, a saw grinding away. There is local anesthesia alone, in which only a specific area is numbed. This is what Dr. S- will use on me today. It is supposed to be the patient's choice, depending upon the amount of pain relief one wants, though today's procedure is minor enough that it does not warrant more elaborate sedation. I have heard, however, that some doctors prefer general anesthesia even when it is not strictly needed, so that the patient is completely comatose and will not involuntarily jerk or cry out during the procedure. It is easier to work upon a motionless canvas. There is another degree of sedation I have not mentioned, one which cannot be found in any medical textbook but one which Dr. S-, perhaps unknowingly, wholly administers to me: the semiconscious state I drift into upon entering any plastic surgeon's office, a state of such passive surrender that it rivals an injected narcotic. I recline on the operating table, giving myself up to the sterile ministrations of the nurse, who drapes my body with a paper sheet. And then-with odd appropriateness, the moment is heralded by a burst of classical music as someone switches on a stereo-Dr. S- enters the room, wearing clean scrubs, his sterile gloved hands held aloft. His coppery eyes above his surgical mask are crinkly; he is smiling at me. To a soaring of violins, like a parody of surgery in a movie, he leans over me holding a large syringe full of anesthetic. At the needle's approach a gasp of dread escapes my lips, and to steady them he grips my chin in the fingers of his left hand, too hard, then with less force when he feels my lack of recoil. With my face tilted toward his, he could almost be leaning in for a kiss. I close my eyes as the tiny sting erupts into a riotous burning: a thousand wasps assaulting the tender flesh inside my mouth. I moan again, a low, strange animal sound. The pain is endless, unbearable; how long will it go on? My eyes overflow; water pools coldly in my ear. "I can tell those are real tears." Dr. S-'s voice is tender. "Not fakey tears. You know how? Because they came out of the inside corners of your eyes. Fake tears come out of the outside corners." He pauses, holding the empty syringe aloft so that the nurse can take it from him and replace it with a slender, steel-tipped scalpel. "Thanks, Jeanne." Then, to me: "That's how you can tell if an actress on television is really crying or not, from where her tears come out. I'll bet you didn't know that." Numb now, my lip feels thick as bread dough. The nurse dabs at my mouth with squares of white gauze, which come away livid with my blood. I close my eyes again. Vivaldi soars on the stereo. Dr. S-'s hands on my face are cool and dry in their latex gloves. His breath through the paper mask is faintly minty. I feel my muscles begin to loosen, shedding the tension of the morning. I am safe now, in his hands. "This is the thing the other guy is terrified of doing." He means the other surgeon, Dr. R-, who inserted the strip of Gore-Tex which is now pushing its way out of my lower lip. Gore-Tex is a synthetic material commonly used to insulate winter coats. It was supposed to give my lip a luscious, full look. But instead of a pretty pout, I got this unsightly, infected lump. A cyst, I told my roommates. Dr. S- did not ask me why I didn't go back to Dr. R-. I think Dr. S- imagines that there is no reason for anyone to ever go to any doctor other than himself. Because he didn't ask, I didn't have to endure the shame of explaining that I was too timid, too easily intimidated to complain to Dr. R- and demand that he fix my lip. It seemed not so much a surgical snafu as my own just reward, for continuing to undergo what my mother calls my self-mutilation. It was easier for me to find another surgeon than to assert myself with Dr. R-. Dr. S-, I know, would never make me feel ashamed for wanting to change myself entirely. Knowing this, I feel a confidence in his office that I do not feel anywhere else, and am willing to put my whole trust in him. "How are we doing?" he asks, his voice husky. "Fine." It's an effort to work my numb lips. Does he, too, I wonder, feel the intensity of the moment? Does he enjoy my surrender as much as I do? "Doctor," I say, a whisper, a slurred prayer. "Hmm?" "If there was an earthquake right now, and the power went out . . ." "What would happen to you?" Dr. S- finishes my thought. "Yes." "I wouldn't leave you." I wouldn't leave you. This is what I need so much to know. If the ceiling collapsed, if he were hurt, if he had to stagger to attend my supine body, he would. No price is too high for this safety, this guarantee of attention. My money, my flesh and blood, my dignity: I would give it all. Is this what love feels like, I wonder, this desire for complete supplication? The sight of my blood on his gloves seems appropriate; I already know that love and pain are intertwined. Music soars on the stereo. I could lie there forever, helpless and inert. Is it sick to wish that a surgery would never end? Feeling a tugging at my temple, I ask, "Did you already start the lift?" "Start? We're almost done." Dr. S- chuckles softly, pleased. "I told you it was quick. Turn your head the other way now, that's a good girl." My eyes flicker lazily. There is a small metal table beside me, draped in blue paper, a few inches from my face. Atop it I see several bloody surgical tools, scalpels of varying thickness. Casually I regard my own blood, unmoved. But what is that other thing, that narrow strip of pale skin from which sprouts short, stiff brownish hairs like a squirrel's? What is this bit of roadkill on the surgical tray? My eyes strain to see the floor beneath the tray. There, on the white linoleum, strands of my own long hair lie splayed in a messy heap. With a jolt, it hits me: My skin. My hair. My own severed flesh on the tray. "Doctor." My voice is a croak. "Yes?" What can I say, now that it is too late? Is it not my own fault for agreeing so rashly to this operation? It had not occurred to me-nor did Dr. S- tell me-that he would have to actually cut out and remove a piece of my scalp on each side. Is this the shortcut of the procedure, the thing that makes it state-of-the-art? Won't it scar? Will the scars show? With the buzz of panic and regret come the familiar condemning voices: You brought this on yourself, by making another fatefully bad choice. If you are scarred and imperfect after this, it is your own fault. My breathing seems to halt. Calm, I tell myself, calm, calm. Breathe. Don't have a panic attack now. What's done is done. "Are you all right?" Dr. S- asks. "Yes." The lightness of my tone contains a shrug. It shocks me, that I can feel such terror, and speak so offhandedly. "It's just that I'm staring at a chunk of my scalp on your table." Dr. S- must be concentrating too hard on his work to have heard me. After a beat, he seems to register what I've said. His staccato laugh pipes out, "Ha-ha!" It is too loud in the operating room. "Did you hear that, Jeanne? A chunk of her scalp. Beautiful and funny! I like that." His laughter washes over me. Beautiful, he thinks I'm beautiful. I close my eyes, trying to recapture the feeling of ecstatic surrender, a feeling so fleeting, so quickly departed. I tell myself, You are the straw that he will spin into gold. I almost believe it. CHAPTER 1 According to the dentist, I was a late eruptor. That explained why, he said, that at almost thirteen I still had eight baby teeth in my mouth. I wondered if that also explained why I did not yet have breasts or a period like the other girls in my class, many of whom had, over the past year, burst into sudden, startling beauty like hothouse flowers. It would be a good idea, the dentist said, to have the baby teeth pulled out before we moved. We were moving from Los Angeles to Hong Kong for a year so that my father, a banker, could fix the problems the bank had in its office there. Chop suey, rickshaws, the Year of the Dragon. I scanned the encyclopedia, eager to start our adventure. The Chinese character for choice is the same as the one for confusion: I would learn that in Hong Kong. Choice equals confusion. "What on earth will I do there?" my mother wailed. There would be servants: a maid, a cook, a driver. She would have no obligations to fill up her days. How would she keep herself afloat in all that free time? Three weeks before we left, my mother took a bottle and a half of sleeping pills and washed them down with Jack Daniel's. I was in my room wrapping my glass animals in tissue paper, my mouth stuffed with gauze and still swollen from having the teeth pulled, when it happened. I was wrapping the animals carefully, saying good-bye to each one before folding it away. I wondered if they would look the same to me when I unwrapped them in a strange place. "Troubleshooting" was what my father said he was going to do in the bank's Hong Kong office. Seeing my mother limp in his arms, I thought that it sounded much like what he did at home. I heard the scolding wail of the ambulance as it approached our house and wondered what he would tell the neighbors. In the hospital waiting room, I pushed my tongue into the tender, fleshy holes in my mouth, tasting the metallic tang of my blood. Beside me on the hard, narrow couch, my father folded and refolded the crisp cotton Brooks Brothers handkerchief he always kept in his pocket. My father had carried handkerchiefs since he was a boy, when they were the only gift bestowed upon him each Christmas and every birthday by his wealthy parents. I wondered how he managed to feign fresh gratitude each time when unwrapping the small, starched squares, each one monogrammed identically in navy blue with his initials, CHH. Someone had left a pack of cards on the waiting-room table. "Do you want to play?" I asked him. "Gin rummy? Go fish?" My father's head jerked from side to side but he managed a tight smile. When my mother came home from the hospital, she looked pale and repentant. The doctors had given her a vial of little blue pills to help her relax, and she spent the days before we left sleeping on a chaise longue in our backyard, soaking up the thin June sun. "Mom!" Sometimes I would call her, but she wouldn't answer. My mother's face in sleep always wore a curious look of effort, a crease of concern between her brows, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. "Mom!" I'd say again. Then, more sternly, "Mother!" And finally, her name-"Virginia!"-seeing how it felt to call her that. I'd get up close and peer behind her sunglasses, at her eyeballs rolling back and forth under the closed lids like ships tossed about on wind-swept seas. At school we were reading a book about the ancient Greeks, and someone was always being tossed about on wind-swept seas. By the time we left, my mother was beautiful again. Unlike me, my mother was fair and soft and lovely. I was darker like my father and bony, all angles. I searched my face for signs of her beauty like Ulysses scouting for land. Once we got to Hong Kong, we stayed at the Hilton for several weeks while we waited for our apartment to be ready. Our adjoining hotel rooms were done all in livid purple- drapes, carpet, bedspread-a color which turned my mother's stomach and aggravated her claustrophobia. There was a large picture on the wall, a vividly rendered close-up of the inside of a purple iris. My mother said it looked just like a vulva. I wasn't sure which of a woman's secret parts a vulva was, though I was certain I'd seen one in my mother's Joy of Sex, the icky sixties version where the women had hairy armpits. The problem of the vulva picture was easily solved-my mother took a scarf from her suitcase and covered it-but the suffocating color of the room was inescapable. My mother wrung her hands, wondering how on earth she would be able to tolerate three weeks of purple poisoning. The color suppressed her immune system, she said. I wondered if sleeping pills and Jack Daniel's would not do more harm than a color, but I didn't ask. I also didn't mention what I'd found beneath one of the beds in my room: an improbably large pair of shiny black satin ladies' underpants, a remnant of a previous guest, who had perhaps discarded them in a moment of sensual abandon. I pushed them further under the bed with a coat hanger, wondering how passion could occur in such an ugly room. Every day, while my father worked, my mother and I went out to explore the city with the guidebook the bank gave to all expatriate families. She called our daily expeditions "field trips." We wandered down tiny, curving alleys where the acrid smell of sweat mixed with fishy cooking. There were stalls selling huge dragon pots next to hundred- year-old eggs soaked in horse's urine; disembodied pastel-colored nylon bra and panty sets swung on plastic hangers. Phony designer handbags sported Louis Vuitton or Chanel labels, sometimes both on the same bag, following a skewed idea that if one label was good, two were better. On Man Wa Lane, we had ink stamps made of chiseled marble with our names on them in Mandarin Chinese characters. "At least we think they're our names." My mother nudged me. "That's what they're telling us. For all we know these things could just as easily say 'F-you.' " We stood in Buddhist temples, stifling in the July heat, mopping our faces with tissues and inhaling tangy swirls of incense. Outside the temple gates, beggars swarmed around us, offering for our sympathy sickly infants, gangrenous limbs. They thrust their hands out, and we tried to drop coins into their palms without touching them. "Leprosy," my mother hissed. When we got back to the hotel she ordered me to stuff my clothes in laundry bags and jump in the shower and scrub. She didn't believe me when I told her what the guidebook said, that you couldn't become a leper just by touching one. Casual contact, as they called it, was safe. You had to live among lepers every day for at least seven years to be infected. It took that long to catch their disease and become one of them. Our apartment, on the sixteenth floor of a building called Twin Brook, overlooked Repulse Bay, which my mother immediately nicknamed Repulsive Bay. With the apartment came Lena, a Filipina, to be our cook and maid, and Lee, who didn't live in the apartment but showed up every morning to drive my father to work in a big white Mercedes. The way our servants lived, we were told early on, was to be of no concern to us. Lena's room was a closet-sized cubicle barely large enough to contain her foldaway bed. Her shower was a lopped-off black hose. These pitiful conditions were supposedly superior to the way most Chinese in Hong Kong lived. Once, my father came downstairs early and heard Lee taking his shower using the black garden hose behind the groundskeeper's shed. Although the name Twin Brook conjured some peaceful, bucolic scene, there was, in fact, no actual brook to be found except for the muddy water that ran in rivulets down the mountain behind the building when it rained. I spent hours looking for capuchin monkeys in the jungly overgrowth there. Even though my mother said there weren't any, I was sure I would find one if I looked hard enough. At the end of July, we got up in the middle of the night to watch television, along with the rest of the world, as Lady Diana married Prince Charles. I shivered with anticipation as I watched her descend from the carriage, a sugary confection of a princess. Like me, she was starting a new life, full of possibilities. Outside our windows, a monsoon banged the shutters of our apartment. Everything was new, and seemed magical. The last field trip my mother and I took before I started school was to the Central Market, a slaughterhouse in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. We rattled along on the Number 78 bus on winding Chung Gap Road, our knees banging together and then sliding apart with each hairpin turn. Stepping off the bus into the crush and swelter of Central, we stood for a moment blinking and disoriented in the bright sun. Like a gasping fish I gulped great breaths of the humid air, which always felt more like water than air in my lungs. The Central Market was an enormous green-canopied structure that spanned several blocks. Inside it was dark, the canopies blocking out all sunlight. The scene was lit by harsh artificial lights like the set of a slasher movie. The dense, tangy-sweet smell of blood hung heavily in the stale air. I felt it constricting my lungs, invading my pores, clinging to my hair. The cement floor ran with so much blood that the men who worked there wore special shoes with six-inch wooden platform soles to keep their feet dry. My mother and I wore thin canvas sneakers that were first rimmed, then quickly soaked through with blood. On the floor was a water buffalo head, chopped off and discarded, its dead, glassy eyes staring. I could not get my breath. Gagging, I tugged at my mother's arm to go. "What's your problem?" Her eyes flashed at me. "We just got here." "Please, Mom," I pleaded. "I can't breathe. It smells like . . . death." "It's an experience," she snapped. "It'll toughen us up. I know I didn't ride that God- forsaken bus all the way here for nothing." Her face was flushed with the high color her cheeks had when she was excited. I put my cold hand on her arm and she flinched. "Please, Mom. Please, let's go." "You go. I'm going to look around some more." I went and sat on the steps of an empty building across the street. The building was covered with a rickety web of bamboo scaffolding upon which men in shorts and bare feet clambered like monkeys carrying buckets of cement with no harnesses or safety ropes at all. I was glad I'd borrowed my mother's huge Jackie O sunglasses so that no one could see the tears running down my cheeks. I tried to take deep, even breaths, but all I could manage were a few shuddering gasps. My head, deprived of oxygen, felt it was about to explode. Later I would learn to identify this feeling as a panic attack. Then, I thought I might be suffering a stroke. The blood on my shoes had started to dry, making my toes stick together. Why did my mother want to linger in there? What was wrong with her? The longer I sat there, the more my crying changed, from tears with no sound to no tears but a small hiccuping sound. Finally my mother emerged, blinking in the bright sunlight. Relief surged through me as I stood up and waved wildly. She charged across the street, ignoring the cars honking at her. As she flopped down beside me, I saw that her face wore a radiance I hadn't seen for months. "God, this place is sickening," she said. "These people are sub-human." I understood, then, what it was about this place that soothed her: She could see suffering that wasn't her own. She sat beside me, watching the scene through narrowed eyes, and I could tell she felt at peace. She didn't notice the flies gathering on our feet. My father worked late into the evenings because, he said, that was what all the bankers did, though my mother said it was to avoid us. When she wasn't screaming at my father, my mother directed her frustration toward the Chinese. "They blow their noses on the street!" she'd yell. "They spit to appease some throat God." And what was that smell, that foul smell that constantly surrounded her? "Everyone here comes up to my nose," she said. "I'm always smelling filthy, greasy hair." She began to take three, four, even five showers a day. My mother had always been hypervigilant about her personal hygiene, but this was a bit much, even for her. She claimed it was the humidity that made her shower so often; she couldn't bear to have even a drop of sweat on her body. My mother made a friend, Harriet Evans, another bank wife who lived in our building. Harriet reminded me of Zelda Fitzgerald, but without the glamor. My stomach tensed every time I saw Harriet, who seemed always to be in a state of hilarity that struck me as vaguely threatening, as though she might try to hug me and slap my face instead. My mother and Harriet took classes together at the American Club. First there was "Mah Jong, Anyone?" ("The allure of the game is that it can never truly be mastered, as claiming mastery over a thing opens the door to endless trouble," I read in her book.) There was a gemology class, with my mother squinting through a jeweler's loop at smoky topaz and aquamarine samples on our dining-room table. Then it was "Beginning Cantonese," from a book with chapters like "Catching a Flight" and "Dealing with a Demanding Boss." The cover of the book showed a young blonde woman smiling and shaking hands with a tall, handsome Chinese man holding a briefcase. My mother learned yat, yih, saam, sei, ngh, counting on her fingers, and m'goi, the word for thank you, and then she quit. There was only one word a Western woman really needed to understand, Harriet said, and that was gwailo. It meant "foreign she-devil." Soon my mother, too, swore she heard it everywhere she went, on the bus, in the market stalls, even in the halls and corners of our apartment. I wondered whether my mother really enjoyed Harriet's company, or if she just liked the fact that Harriet was clearly crazier than she was. Harriet and her husband were what the other expatriates called "lifers." They had been in Hong Kong for five years, and before that Bangkok, and before that, Singapore. They might never go back home. Everyone knew Harriet had lost it, my mother said, when she'd made the sweet-and-sour turkey for Thanksgiving. Her husband's name was William, but they called him Wild Bill Evans of the Orient. At dinner parties he talked openly about the eleven-year-old Thai prostitutes and fire-hose massages in Bangkok, while Harriet showed how open-minded she was by shrieking with laughter and pouring more wine. She had filled their apartment with every Oriental artifact imaginable, brass storks and monkeywood fish and delicate jade trees and bronze Buddhas. She even boldly displayed a penis-shaped candle that Bill had brought back from Tokyo as a lark. I knew about all this because my mother told me. She always talked to me like a best girlfriend, like we were the same age. "What would I do without you, sweet apple?" she'd say, and I would feel the hum of our special closeness. I'd think, So what if my mother is a little nuts? Weren't most beautiful women crazy? There was something darkly romantic about it: On television the deranged beauty either got away with murder or met a tragic end. In classic novels, beauty and insanity went hand in hand; every heroine who threw herself in front of a train was heartbreakingly lovely. Besides which, I believed that my mother's craziness was a temporary state, like snow blindness, something that overtook her from time to time but which she ultimately had control over. My mother had a gift for all-out abandon that I both admired and envied, for I knew it was lacking in me. Like my father, I plodded along, being good, obeying rules, being safe. My mother did what she wanted. She smoked and drank and lay in the sun until she burned. When my father once complained about our water bill, she said, "I'll take fifty showers a day if I fucking please." I longed to know so definitely what it was I wanted, the way she seemed to. Years later, a college boyfriend would say to me, "Your mother is pretty, but you're beautiful," and I would be both shocked and thrilled at the possibility of this. As a child, my mother's beauty shone like a beacon of hope to me, absolving her of all fault. Once, looking through boxes in my grandmother's basement, I came across an old 1960s Harlequin romance upon which was sketched, I was sure, a picture of my mother: a swooning beauty with round blue eyes, pert nose, shapely mouth, and long hair the color of butter. When my father called her "Hey, Gorgeous," I knew all was well in our house. My parents met when they were freshmen at the University of Washington. My mother had grown up in Seattle and my father came to college there from Los Angeles. His parents had wanted him to go to USC or UCLA. They had hoped he would marry one of the Hancock Park girls he had grown up with. But my father had, to his credit, a rebellious streak that would not be squashed. He chose his college and he chose his woman. It does not surprise me that my grandparents did not know what to make of this small, pretty, nervous woman who showed up on their door, engaged to their only son. My father first saw my mother as she was walking away from him. She was wearing a slim pencil skirt with a slit and a kick pleat, and he fell in love with her shapely calves. He followed her to the bus stop on Laurelhurst Avenue. My mother had a psychology textbook pressed to her chest, and my father said to her, by way of introduction, "How's psych?" My mother, I imagine, surveyed him with the weary look she'd borrowed from Lana Turner. "Handy," she said. "If you like manipulating people." Nothing about my father's appearance hinted that he was the son of a wealthy doctor from Los Angeles. His worn trenchcoat was too light for the weather and his khaki chinos had a hole in the knee. He had a facial tic that flared up when he was nervous, which he always was. Only his Beta Theta Pi pledge pin indicated to my mother that he was someone worth talking to. My mother did like manipulating people, and in hindsight her first words to my father were remarkably honest. She gave him what amounted to a warning about herself. Whether she intended them to do so or not, her words told him exactly what he could expect if he fell in love with her. Which of course, he did. Later that day, my parents had their first date, at a café near campus. In the middle of their table was a simple glass ashtray, and as they sat there, my father starry-eyed and my mother less so, the ashtray spontaneously shattered into pieces, shards of glass narrowly missing my parents. My father pronounced it a sign, that he and my mother were destined for each other. Probably his face twitched earnestly as he said it. But my mother had read that it was common for certain types of inferior glass to break apart like that. "All it really means is that we're at a cheap dive!" she corrected him. My father was already well-acquainted with the disappointment of people he loved. His father called economics, my father's college major, "common sense made difficult." He had expected that his only son, Clayton Hathaway, would become a doctor like himself. When my father was fifteen, he took a summer volunteer position at the hospital where my grandfather delivered babies. Even then my father was a big man, six-and-a-half feet tall. He always slouched, even when sitting, as if he were sorry for taking up so much space in the world. On my father's second day at the hospital, a patient about to be wheeled into surgery suddenly thrashed about, pulling out her IV so that blood squirted everywhere. My father turned white, then ran from the room. A candy striper found him, throwing up in a linen closet. From that day on, he only set foot in a hospital if it was absolutely necessary. My grandfather, on the other hand, loved the hospital so much that his will stated that his entire estate was to be donated to it when he died. My father never overcame this early humiliation. It colored his idea of who he was and what he deserved. Perhaps he received my mother's lukewarm affection with the same resigned gratitude with which he accepted the undue economy of the handkerchiefs from his parents. Many of my parents' early dates were study dates, and my mother said that she liked to stare at the crease that formed in my father's brow as he leaned over Econometric Theory. One of the things that most attracted her to him, she said, was his capacity for devotion to something that gave him so much challenge and so little reward. Excerpted from Beautiful Stranger: A Memoir of Obsession with Perfection by Hope Donahue All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.