When he really stops to think about it, the clearest memory of his childhood was of his parents helping him quit sucking his thumb. They were young parents and didn’t know much about parenting. It was the early 70s and child abuse wasn’t really on the radar. It was a time when spanking your kids was loving your kids. Dr. Spock, whom he’d later discover was not a Vulcan, was trying to change that mentality but his Mom wasn’t much on reading so he got hand-me-down whoopins instead. It was like Grandma was spanking him through his Mom sometimes. Sometimes he thought he was just getting a whoopin’ because she sure couldn’t whoop Dad.
He was four years old and kindergarten was right around the corner. He had sucked his thumb so often and for so long his front teeth were starting to stick out in the front. Not to mention, his thumb always looked like he’d stayed in the tub too long, too. He’d later understand that every time he put his thumb in his mouth, his parents saw braces and dollar signs wrapped around his thumb unless they wanted a kid that could eat corn on the cob through a picket fence.
To their credit, they’d tried a number of different things. They’d offered him candy to take his thumb out of his mouth and he obliged. He liked candy. Before long he figured-out he could get candy if he just put his thumb in his mouth and he pushed it too far. After he’d eaten his candy, he’d stand in front of his parents and pop his thumb right back in his mouth.
Another time they decided they’d simply swat his hand from his mouth any time they saw his thumb in there. That worked pretty well until his mother tried doing it while peeling potatoes for dinner. He got eight stitches on the chin while his dad went to the bowling alley for a burger.
The only thing that finally worked was an oven mitt. They shoved his hand in an oven mitt and duct-taped it to his forearm. Hard to suck a thumb through an oven mitt.
That might have been enough but it wasn’t. Living in an old house with a musty fruit cellar meant there were cobwebs in every right angle of floor joists or support timbers. When his dad was feeling especially playful, he’d scoop up a big batch of cobwebs inside the oven mitt before sliding it on junior’s hand and duct-taping it in place.
Taking all of this down in his notes, Dr. Smythe offered, “Maybe there were never any spiders in the cobwebs. Maybe your father made sure there were no spiders.”
“Think about the last time you walked through a spider web. Did you think, ‘there probably wasn’t a spider on that web.’? No, I’ll bet you damn near beat yourself to death.
“Is that what stopped you from sucking your thumb?”
“Sort of. I knew I felt something crawling on my hand inside the mitt one time. I could feel tiny legs touching my skin the same way to dip your toe in the motel pool to make sure it won’t shrivel your nuts when you jump in. I was screaming and crying for them to take it off but they just laughed at me. I beat my hand against the counter so hard I broke it.”
Smythe stopped scribbling in his notebook and looked up into his eyes. They were dry and empty. No tears – no feeling.
“After six weeks with my hand in a cast, I forgot all about sucking my thumb. So…thanks?” he said as he cocked his head to one side and spoke towards the empty corner.