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Ode to my ACEs




I count five off the list but of course 

there are others, unlisted. The full ten 

an artifact from a health outcomes

survey, done in San Diego.


Four or more greatly increases one’s risk of some cancers,

chronic pulmonary lung disease, depression, suicide.


What have they given me and what

have they taken? 


No one really knows if cancer was allowed 

to flourish because ACEs shut 

cancer-fighting cells off


or if they sped up my cells’ aging so that my birth age

is less than my cellular age


but my fear of dire consequences and sense

of unloveableness are probably dead ringers


No. 1


My father’s humiliation–calling me unkempt,

apologizing to strangers for my knotted hair,

decreeing me “not dressed nice enough” for the church supper


No. 4


The flashes of my mother’s anger–how I hid in the stem

of the dining room table, waiting for it to be over. 

And then my aftermath-response–

I didn’t ask to be born, followed by her

Why are you torturing me?


My father’s refusal to take me in

when DSS was investigating my mother

You can go live with Uncle Paul--

you won’t be out on the street. 

Oblique attempts to comfort.


No. 5


It wasn’t days-on-days of hungry–more a day here and there.

Not Richard Wright’s cups of tea instead of food

but an oftenness of not enough food. 

Then, in 5th grade, the terrible diet where you could only eat

one food per meal–like onions or potatoes.

Getting it wrong or breaking it and endlessly starting

the month-long diet over. 


The news article my mother taped on the kitchen wall

about the woman accused of starving her intellectually delayed daughter--

my mother thought it was funny that my father thought

she was starving me. But I knew he would never

come inside and see the news clip. A house

defined by his absence. And hunger’s humorlessness.


No. 6


A custody battle that my father

waged but didn’t want to win. A psychiatrist

arguing for me to stay with my mother.

A sense of my father’s fatherliness as a blank,

almost a window you could see through.

The minutiae that were fought over including

whose church I should go to

until my mother was arrested for trespassing at hers 

and I defected to his.

You don’t know how hard I fought in court, she said.

A sense of myself as traitor to one side or the other.

No. 9


My mother’s head so often in her hands I want to intervene now

whenever I see someone in that posture. My student, a friend once

when she was tired. The fears–of not being able to get out of bed,

of being laid off for slowness, of putting off job or housing applications

for months while I work up to them. Her conviction that people were stealing

our bank passbooks to get private information,

that police plotted to rape me so they could show she was selling me.


That dismal house a bastion of safety–how, by staying in it

you could ward everything off. The magic of

a house that could barely hold itself up protecting us.









          ACE stands for “Adverse Childhood Experience.” Studies, including the original San Diego study, have linked ACEs to various health problems later in one’s life. For more on the concept, see “What ACEs/PCEs do you have?,” ACES Too HighNews,


          “Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often . . . Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?” 

          “Did you often or very often feel that . . . No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?”

          “Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?”

          “Were your parents ever separated or divorced?”

          “Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?”




ANN TWEEDY's first full-length poetry book, The Body's Alphabet, was published by Headmistress Press in 2016. It was awarded a Bisexual Book Award in Poetry and was named as a Lambda Literary Award finalist and as a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist. She is also the author of three chapbooks—White Out (Green Fuse Press 2013), Beleaguered Oases (2nd ed. Seven Kitchens Press 2020), and A Registry of Survival (Last Word Press 2020). Additionally, she has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and two Best of the Net Awards. Her poetry has been published in Rattle, Clackamas Literary Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, Literary Mama, Naugatuck River Review, and many other places.

Besides writing poetry and essays, Ann is a legal scholar writing on both tribal civil jurisdiction and bisexuality and the law. She currently serves as a Professor of Law at the University of South Dakota, where she focuses on Native American Law.

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