Book extract: When you're an only child bought up into a world of privilege

By Caroline Baum

In her new memoir, Caroline Baum reflects on being brought up an only child in a world of privilege ­­— but little freedom — and the primary focus of her exacting parents.
The author in 1973, aged 15, when she held a secret hope of becoming as beautiful as her mother, "thereby gaining my father's unconditional approval". Picture / Supplied
The author in 1973, aged 15, when she held a secret hope of becoming as beautiful as her mother, "thereby gaining my father's unconditional approval". Picture / Supplied

"Your mother," my father would frequently announce like a king issuing a decree, "is the most beautiful woman in the world."

In a good mood, he was prone to making such hyperbolic pronouncements. Indifferent to compliments from a man capable of spitting insults at her, my mother responded with exaggerated eye-rolls, dismissive shrugs or a grimacing grin that mocked his flattery.

I was too young to understand how her handsome looks eclipsed more conventional notions of beauty. There was too much of the eagle in her face. And besides, I liked to argue for argument's sake: my father encouraged verbal jousting and the banter of rhetoric. "What about Audrey Hepburn? Sophia Loren? Elizabeth Taylor?" I challenged with irritating gnat-like persistence.

My father shook his head at the mention of each screen goddess. "Too made up", "Vulgar", "Cheap", he replied with unwavering devotion, consistently dismissing all the obvious contenders I could name.

Beauty was a valued attribute in our home. We critiqued people's appearances anywhere we went, from theatre foyers to airport lounges. "Nice pair of legs," my father would say appreciatively and our heads would swivel to where his nodded. "Regarde comme elle est moche, celle-la" ("Look at how crummy she is"), my mother would say with the uncharitable spite of someone with plain features. Her judgment was merciless.

My appearance was subject to constant comment and scrutiny. My mother documented every haircut and new outfit with her cumbersome Leica and, later, an even more professional Nikon. The portraits continued even when I became too sulky to smile as first puberty, then adolescence, hit like long, grumbling storms. There are hundreds of photographs of me brooding soulfully in velvet capes and romantically ruffled dresses, my gaze often clouded with resentment or averted as a sign of non-co-operation. She might, by then, have called herself a war photographer, so hostile was her subject.

In early childhood I was a severe thumb-sucker who then graduated to chronic nail-biting, like my father. He marred his carefully groomed appearance by chewing his nails to the quick until they bled, turning his sausage fingers into mutilated stumps. I felt ashamed of how his hands must look in meetings and when he signed documents, but he never seemed embarrassed enough to hide them or to attempt to stop. The double standard that allowed him to tell me off for our shared habit while doing nothing to correct it in himself infuriated me.

On Sunday mornings, he would call me into his dressing room for an elaborate, weekly, humiliating and slightly creepy ritual inspection and manicure. I was instructed to soak my hands in warm, soapy water, then he would tidy my hang-nails with a pair of shaped cuticle scissors before slathering my fingers with cream, shaking his head in disapproval at the damage I'd done.

My objections that his self-mutilation was far worse were ignored. He painted my fingers with a disgusting-tasting clear liquid to act as a deterrent, offering me a pocket money reward as an incentive to grow my nails. It failed.

When my skin erupted in aggressive acne due to the inevitable pubescent hormonal surge, there was nowhere to hide my embarrassment and no one thought it might be tactful to ignore my condition. On the contrary, it was discussed in detail over dinner, making my already agonising self-consciousness worse.

Caroline Baum was constantly the subject of her mother's photography from childhood.
Caroline Baum was constantly the subject of her mother's photography from childhood.

While the acne raged, my teeth became a second focus of unwanted attention. Crowded and irregular, they required orthodontics. I hated the feeling of the ugly clamps when I ran my tongue over them. My mouth felt like a prison. The stainless-steel braces and wires made me lisp, food got caught in them and they inhibited my willingness to smile, making me seem even more sullen than usual.

At night, I had to wear an additional external brace resembling a scold's bridle, that medieval torture muzzle specifically designed for women. The metal boomerang on an elasticised headpiece made lying on my side uncomfortable and the thought of sleepovers with such a contraption inconceivable. I withdrew further into myself, my schoolwork and my books.

My chompers had already given me plenty of grief. When a milk tooth canine fell out but nothing dropped into its place, an X-ray revealed the tooth was hiding in my cheekbone, impacted somewhere near the edge of my eye socket.

I lived with the gap for a couple of years until I turned 13, when our Harley St dentist, Dr Preston, suggested that rather than scar my face to extract the tooth, he would attempt a world first: he would make an incision in my palate and drill through the bone, attaching a wire around the rogue tooth, gradually winching it down into place with a winding mechanism much like the key on a sardine tin. The surgery would be performed under local anaesthetic.

As the train pulled out of the station, I made a shameless scene, sobbing and wailing ... My face swollen and my throat raw from sustained crying, I was most probably hysterical.

On the appointed day, I woke up with a gnawing pain low in my belly and the bedsheets stained with rusty red smears. My period had decided to start, that day of all days. A brisk explanation from my mother was all there was time for, together with a bulky sanitary pad.

The surgery took much longer than expected and was extremely painful because the anaesthetic wore off.

When Dr Preston attempted to top it up with booster shots, his bifocals magnified the needle to grotesque proportions, prompting me to slide away from him down the dentist's chair in whimpering terror.

My mother sat in the room with me through the whole ordeal, clenching her fists and her jaw to remain composed, not daring to come near me and see the carnage for herself. But I could hear everything and see too much. Most traumatic was noticing tiny flecks of bone fly up from the drill and stick to Dr Preston's glasses. I was bleeding from both ends.

Towards the end of the surgery, tears ran down Dr Preston's crevassed cheeks as he repeated, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," for causing me so much pain.

The ordeal did not end there. The winching mechanism required tightening every few months, causing a temporary sensation of pressure and pulling. But, miracle of miracles, the procedure worked: two years later, a perfect canine appeared, its ivory tip heralded as it broke through the gum with all the jubilation of the moon landing. My father sent Dr Preston a case of Champagne.

Baum's French-born mother, Jacqueline, and Austrian-born father, Harry, in 1965.
Baum's French-born mother, Jacqueline, and Austrian-born father, Harry, in 1965.

But I was not out of the woods yet. By the age of 15, I was anxious to distract attention from the angry skin and heavy metal jaw that had shrivelled my self-confidence. To make matters worse, two of my closest friends at school were exceptional, head-turning beauties with ocean-coloured eyes, flawless complexions and California Girl manes of lustrous hair. Seeking to compensate for the features that so mortified me, I decided to treat myself to a new style at the hairdresser to boost my morale. I booked myself in to Leonard's, then the poshest coiffeur in London, making an appointment for a Wednesday afternoon after school. I took along a photograph I had cut out of a magazine of the kind of curls I wanted.

I was assigned a seat, the only schoolgirl in a sea of Sloanes and model types, and showed my photograph to a stylist. The look, she explained, would require a perm. She set about mixing and applying a solution to rollers curled tightly on to my scalp and left to set. I settled in to reading a glossy magazine.

After a time, the rollers were removed, my hair shampooed and a second stylist took over from the first one, reapplying solution and a second set of curlers. Absorbed in my magazine, I paid little attention.

When I looked up, I recognised faces I had seen in the glossies being offered tea, which no one offered me. The atmosphere was hushed, the air pleasantly scented with hairspray and perfume. I glimpsed Leonard himself - his hair dyed as black as a crow's wing and stiffly coiffed in a gravity-defying upward bouffant style, his skin unnaturally tanned - skinnily swanning between clients in a black turtleneck and tight black flares, kissing cheeks and waving his scissors like a cigarette holder.

When the stylist came back to remove the curlers, I looked up expectantly. Something was wrong. My hair was coming out in tufts. Very soon all that was left on my head was a singed orange pubic fuzz. The stylist disappeared.

Another one came, swept the hair at my feet away, removed my protective gown and ushered me to the front desk where I was presented with a bill for more than £100. I wrote out a cheque without argument, in a stupor of shock and humiliation.

"You are welcome to come back for a free scalp treatment," the receptionist said in a rushed whisper, eager to get me off the premises.

I rode home on the underground and saw my reflection in the windows whenever we entered a tunnel. People stared at me with open sympathy across the aisle. I rang the bell when I got to our front door. My mother took one look at me, gasped "Mon dieu!" and recoiled in horror.

"Don't move!" she ordered, before I could cross the threshold. She returned with camera in hand, instructing me to turn around slowly so that she could document my condition from every angle. Too numb to cry, I revolved in slow motion, barely able to speak or eat my dinner. Fortunately, my father was not due home until late, sparing me his comments.

In the morning, my mother stopped the cheque and I applied myself to attempting to disguise my condition for the school day ahead. I chose a pale-blue silk scarf and knotted it, peasant-style, at the nape of my neck. It stayed on for about a minute before a bratty boy behind me yanked it off and the class breathed a collective gasp of disbelief. That was when the tears fell hot on my cheeks and it sank in that this was not all some ghastly nightmare.

So now I had spots, a mouthful of metal and was virtually bald. Small wonder I excelled at my studies, seeking refuge in the sanctuary of my room where being a swot felt like something I could control.

For the next two years, while others played sports on Wednesday afternoons, I sat under a heat lamp, my scalp smothered in a thick white cream, willing my hair to grow back. But it had been so severely nuked by the mistaken application of a double dose of chemicals (due to a change in shift between apprentices who had failed to communicate what stage of the process they were at during the handover), that when my hair grew longer than half an inch, it fell out.

Over and over again, it just gave up the will to live. Any vanity I had was scorched along with it. Instead of fulfilling my secret hope of becoming as beautiful as my mother, thereby gaining my father's unconditional approval, I had found yet another way to disappoint my parents and myself.

Edited extract from Only: A Singular Memoir, by Caroline Baum (Allen & Unwin, $37).

- Canvas

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