10. What If the Whales Know You’re Watching Them?

March 10, 1996

By this point I’d been keeping a regular journal for exactly four years.  But on this date I started a second journal, and I got the idea from my sixth grade science class.  We watched a multi-part series titled The Voyage of the Mimi about a crew of scientists on a whale-watching expedition.  The other kids in the class found it boring, but as always I was the odd one out and I loved it.  I loved anything to do with boats and the water, and I already knew all the terms they used from my independent reading.

Part of the crew’s mission was to record the whales’ behavior, but one of the guys joked that the whales might act differently if they knew they were being watched.  The companion class workbook that we had suggested a project where we could observe someone from a distance, then tell them they were being observed and take notes on whether they behaved differently.  This wasn’t assigned to us, but it sounded like such a cool idea that I did it on my own.  Classic nerd move.  I was always that kid who would remind the substitute about the test we were supposed to take, or remind the teacher about the homework she was supposed to collect.   It’s little wonder that I didn’t get along with anyone in school.

Unfortunately my “whale-watching” journal project caused additional friction with my family.  I’ve said before that my obsessive record-keeping would one day prove problematic, and now my brothers and sisters thought I was spying on them for Dad.  My project went off the rails and I started seeing myself as a male version of Harriet the Spy instead.  I lurked about the house, notebook in hand, copying everyone’s schedules and phone messages, and recording the times of their comings and goings.

I was caught many times using someone’s empty bedroom as an observation point, which only fueled their suspicions.  Dad was known for snooping through people’s rooms and personal things, so naturally they thought I was in cahoots with him.  I still spent a lot of time hanging out with Dad in his basement office, listening to his rants about how nobody respected him.  It didn’t help that I would unwittingly repeat to him something I heard said about him – like when one of my brothers pointed out the hypocrisy of him ranting about all the debt he was in while taking out paid subscriptions to dozens of Catholic, conservative and pro-life publications.  Then the next time Dad was in a rage, my name would surface: “Tommy said you all think my stuff is garbage and I shouldn’t be wasting money on newspapers and magazines.  IT’S IMPORTANT TO KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE WORLD!”

My brothers and sisters talked to me less and less as a result, fearful that whatever they said around me would get back to Dad.  They even grew paranoid that I was fishing for information, no matter how innocuous.  I was on my way upstairs one day as my sister Shannon was heading into the bathroom.  She was about to close the door when she noticed me on the landing.  She dashed across the hall, locked her bedroom door, and went back into the bathroom.  Mary and Patrick got annoyed anytime I went near them with pen and paper and they’d leave the room in a huff.  I was never especially close with any of my siblings what with the age gaps (Kathleen was 17 years older), and this didn’t help either.   I was starting to feel like it was me and Dad on one side, and the entire family on the other.  I stopped my project after several months, but the damage was done.

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