Introducing The Next Generation Of Leaders And Thinkers

The Brief and Curious Life of Thomasin Bellah

Thomasin "Tammy" Bellah images via Melanie Bellah
Thomasin “Tammy” Bellah
images via Melanie Bellah

Tammy was like me. She was 18-years-old, obsessed with boys and spoke French. She wrote poetry, loved shopping, and dreamed of being married with children. But Tammy isn’t me. She’s dead. Her body has lain underground for more than forty years, and yet she remains trapped in her adolescence. The diary she left behind has been frozen too, stuck in its girlhood charm. Her mother saw its value and decided to publish it along with her own commentary. The resulting book is a precious document that pins and mounts the frightful transition between girl and woman. In Tammy’s words I see my reflection, and the line between her and me seems to blur.

Thomasin “Tammy” Bellah was born in 1954. Her father, famed sociologist Robert Bellah, was a professor at Harvard. Her mother, Melanie, was a homemaker. She had three younger sisters: Jennifer, Hally, and Abby. Tammy had such a strong maternal instinct that they often called her “Tammy-Mommy.” This marks the beginning of her hyper-femininity, a steadfast devotion to others she would later pay for with her own life.

Her childhood was idyllic. The family lived in a large, white house in Cambridge, where Tammy indulged in magic-infused fantasies. She came up with a game called Fairyland in which she’d whisk her friends off to a distant kingdom. Perhaps the intense daydream that was her early life would have continued had it not been for the move from Cambridge to Berkeley when she was twelve. Looking back at the event, she writes that it was “exactly where I left the peace and security of childhood and started the painful rebirth of adolescence.”

Perhaps this traumatic move triggered a psychological change, for Tammy began to develop an Electra complex. In a diary entry, she describes a fantasy in which she’s with a man that’s both her father and husband. She imagines being spanked by him in these fever dreams, revealing a rather disturbing side of her psyche. Otherwise she was a relatively normal girl, finding an idol in Joan Baez (“She is the savior of the twentieth century; hope in a steadily darkening world.”) and musing about romance (“What is love? To me, love means giving. Love is giving: giving happiness, giving of yourself.”). This insight rings especially true for many women, who are expected to give themselves to men fully in a relationship.

It could be said that Tammy lost a piece of herself during her first serious romance at age fourteen. In this case, it was a sense of autonomy since according to Tammy the boy had “semi-raped” her (she was coaxed into giving her virginity to him). She would later view this experience with regret, writing in a poem: “I have freely given my tormented virginity/to men who cared no more than the/space of a sixteenth of an inch.” Being taken advantage of would be a recurring theme throughout her brief life.

Her next love was much more passionate, bordering on zealous. She wrote in her diary:

“I love him too much, he is so important to me, more than anything I want him to love me. This is bad because if he rejects me I feel I would very well like to kill myself. Now, I KNOW this is a dramatization, and probably just my mood because I know I feel sick. Still, at this moment, if I found that Jeff didn’t love me, I know I would try to kill myself. OH NO! No, I mustn’t even think that. I believe taking your own life is the greatest sin.” Tammy seemed to equate love with some form of suffering. Not much later she had a fantasy in which she was on the verge of slitting her wrists before he came rushing in to save her.

Tammy Bellah image via Melanie Bellah
Tammy Bellah
image via Melanie Bellah

Although ardent this love wasn’t enduring, and she soon ended the relationship for another boy. All that her family knows about that affair is she went over to the boy’s house and returned home that evening “rigid, almost catatonic.” She later found a shard of glass in the yard and cut herself with it. As unsettling as this incident was, she quickly bounced back to her normal self, although still a bit upset at her lack of a boyfriend.

Shortly afterward Tammy began to pour her maternal instinct into another boy. He often got into trouble, and she made sure to worry about him. In her diary, she began to furiously write letters to him that she’d never send. “Poor baby, how bad I felt that you had a bad side ache.” “Please stay off cigarettes, darling.” “Daniel, darling, I worry about you. Do not use too much of that speed, give it away, oh please. Darling, darling, I want you to live.” Her feminine tendency toward devotion seemed to sustain her.

Around this time she begins to further explore her sexuality, particularly that of her sexual image. She writes in her diary of dressing up “as a whore,” and parading around the house. One can’t help but wonder if Tammy made the distinction between this mythical character and herself. Apparently she was known as “the little whore” at school and even drew a picture of herself entitled as such.

Maybe it was this reputation that contributed to her depression, thus linking a culture bent on punishing women for their sexuality and her own suffering. Tammy’s sadness could be so great that she once asked someone how many sleeping pills would kill her. Her mother knew of her barbiturate use. However, according to Melanie, “a reluctance to believe anything is seriously wrong with a child pervades the mind of a parent, preventing any frightening inference about a child’s behavior from being made; only the most irrefutable brute facts can get through that denial.”

Indeed, by the time Tammy was seventeen, she was engaging in a rather inappropriate relationship. “I worship, respect, am utterly dependent on and love absolutely a thirty-five-year-old black man named Ron,” she wrote dreamily in her diary. It was a return to the Electra-esque fascination with older men as authority figures and lovers, though this was real and had consequences.

She often had thoughts of him hitting her, writing “…I have all day been having my usual, morbid, depressing Ron-fantasies in which he now, consistently, beats me up. Why do I insist on going over and over these same mythical, violent, and depressing scenes? Is it mixed with a wish?” Perhaps it was a premonition, for two months later the couple got into a fight where “[Ron] got inordinately mad and called me a bitch and a whore, and repeatedly and lightly, though scarily, slapped my face.” This wasn’t the end of the ordeal. “[Ron] began attacking me immediately after [having sex], slapped my face, and when I started to cry pulled me roughly across the bed and said, ‘Feel sorry for yourself later.’ Also, ‘You’re evil through and through.’”

Why was Tammy so attracted to those who would hurt her? It’s a valuable question for all young women who have been in abusive relationships with men. Maybe it was what she thought she deserved, a just punishment for a sin she didn’t commit. In an essay she wrote about Anna Karenina, Tammy noted that “women are taught to derive their self-image, their identity, from men.” Though she could acknowledge this fact, Tammy couldn’t help but fall into the trap herself.

Without a man she felt incomplete, a half formed entity with no lifeblood. In her eyes a bad man was better than no one at all.

Tammy endured Ron for about a year until the extreme romanticism with which she saw everything fizzled out. What followed was a brief relationship with another controlling man named Arthur. It was during this period that Tammy attempted suicide, perhaps trying to escape from the bounds of feminine devotion.

The relationship with Arthur didn’t last much longer after the incident, and she soon moved on to a different lover. This time it was Vernon, a recovering heroin addict. The affair was marked by all the turbulence of earlier ones, but this time Tammy was alone at university and had no familial support.

Vernon regularly siphoned money off Tammy for drugs, and at one point she was forced to steal her textbooks. Still, she remained loyal to him, journaling, “Yes I love him as much as ever, nothing ever seems to be able to change my love for him. Oh my baby, my man, my star, my love, I am committed to him for a lifetime no matter what.” This blind commitment to a man, one that was hurting her no less, is the extreme of her girlhood tendency to care for others, even at the cost of herself.

On April 11, 1973, she wrote this note: “I cannot stand my existence anymore. I love you all very much. Maybe in some other life things will be better. Your Lover, Daughter, Sister -Tammy.”  Vernon found Tammy lying in her parents’ bed early the next morning, lips blue and skin pale. She spent the previous night playing sad records, staring at photos of her parents and concluded it by swallowing several bottles of pills.

Towards the end of the book, Melanie compares her daughter to Ophelia (“I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid, and not have strew’d thy grave.”) There’s value in this comparison, as both women die after being forced from their girlhoods. Adolescence is excruciating enough, and the added burden of being a woman can be too much to bear. Women aren’t allowed to just exist; we must constantly give ourselves to other people. Sometimes this culminates in the ultimate sacrifice: suicide.

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