You've never met anyone like me. Unless, of course, you've met
someone who survived her mother trying to drown her and now lives with
an alcoholic father. If there are other people like this, I want to meet
them pronto. Pronto, which is my current favorite word, is what they say
in cop shows when a detective wants information fast. There would be a
lot I could learn from those people, especially if they are older than
me, which is almost twelve. As it is right now, I have to learn most
things on my own.
This is what I've written in my real diary. I could never say
this out loud. Never.
If you want to know, I have a real diary and a fake diary. The fake
diary is the decoy, the one you hide in plain sight. If someone finds it
and reads it, he will think you are normal and move right along. When
you write in it, all you have to do is pretend an adult is reading it
and say something like:
This was a great day. I got an A on the Math test, and I met a new
friend named Denise, who hums during Algebra.
The real diary is just for me. Private and true. Lately, I've been
writing about problems I'm trying to work out. Here's what I've written:
There are two weeks of school left. As soon as the final bell rings,
I'll have two giant problems.
Problem 1: I'll have a boring summer and be forced to stay at my
grandparents' boring house.
Problem 2: I'll have to go to seventh grade in three months and be
forced to do that horrible Family Tree Project that Lisa's sister had to
do this year. Everyone at school will know about my mother.
I can try to change Problem 1, but Problem 2 is tragically unsolvable. I
can't figure out any way to get around doing the project unless I move
away and go to another school. Investigate this option.
It's a little bit difficult to keep two diaries going, but it is
necessary. I have to keep facts, clues, and lists of words where no one
will see them but me. Not every person responds to words the same way.
Some words are trouble words. A trouble word will change the face of the
person you say it to. Love can be a trouble word for some people.
Crazy is also a trouble word.
I should know.
Once, when we had just moved to Garland, into our ugly, brown rent-house
on Yale Court, my dad had tensed up like he might hit something when I'd
used the word crazy to describe my mother. It was because of
career day at school. Dad had asked me if I had any idea what I wanted
to be. To be honest, I had still been thinking about it because I was
waiting to see if I turned out crazy like her.
So I said to Dad, "Why not wait until you figure out if you are going to
inherit crazy before you decide on an occupation?" I don't know why I
said this out loud. I'm usually careful with words.
I saw a hurt in Dad's eyes that made me want to leave the room. But
because he was blocking the only way out of our U-shaped kitchen, there
was no place to go. My backup plan was to climb inside a kitchen cabinet
and hide. That is saying a lot when you think how rent-house cabinets
are the most disgusting things you will ever see. If there is a list of
grossest places on earth, these cabinets are on it.
"I'm sorry," I said.
He took a deep breath and told me no, I wasn't going to be crazy and
please don't ever, EVER, use that word to describe her again,
young lady! I couldn't say anything back, because I was afraid. I wish
I'd had enough guts to tell him I'd looked up crazy in the
I knew I'd chosen the right word.
crazy adj.: mentally deranged; demented; insane
I added crazy to my list of trouble words.
I hide the real diary between two folded towels under my bathroom sink
and leave the decoy on my nightstand. It has a shiny gold lock on it, so
you think it's hiding important words.
I was only two when my mother filled the kitchen sink with water and
tried to drown me. Sometimes it feels like she was the mother of some
family across the street and we watched her story on the news thinking,
Wow, too bad for that poor family. The counselors my dad once
sent me to spent all their time trying to pry details out or put details
into my brain about what they called "the incident."
One of the counselors, Dr. Madrigal, was so sure I could remember some
detail about that day, he asked me constantly if I had nightmares about
water or a fear of water. No, I don't. But I tell you, if I'd gone to
his office much longer, I'm pretty certain I'd have developed a fear of
So even though I'm her daughter and she tried to kill me, I know the
story only from what's written in black and white. You would think I was
an investigator. Many of the details are available to anyone with a
computer. I'm scared to look up anything at home, so I've conducted my
investigation at the library, using the search terms Jane Nelson
Jane Nelson is my mother.
If you do this search, Google will tell you "there are about 821,000
results." That is how famous her case is on the Internet. You can click
on her Wikipedia page first and learn simple facts. Jane Nelson was born
in Texas. Her mother was killed when she was nine. Raised by her father.
Went to nursing school. Became a mother at thirty-one. Committed to a
mental hospital at thirty-five.
You can also click on articles about her trial and find details you wish
weren't true, such as:
JANE NELSON TURNED ON THE WATER AFTER HER HUSBAND, TOM NELSON, LEFT FOR
She drowned me first. Then Simon, my older brother. He is my twin, born
three and a half minutes before me. A UPS deliveryman came to the door
and found my mother dripping wet. She asked him to call 911. The rest of
the story is all about court cases and who was right and who was wrong
and proving she was crazy.
I don't understand a lot about the trials. And, yes, I mean trials.
There were two.
First, my mother's, which led to a plea of insanity and a sentence of
undetermined length at a mental-health facility here in Texas. Second,
my dad's for failing to protect us. Don't ask me how to explain this
since he was at work when my mother became a criminal, and of course he
would've protected us. Still, the newspapers didn't write nice things
about him, even after he was found not guilty.
The only thing I know for certain is that Simon wasn't as lucky as I
was. He is dead in a tiny grave in Houston, and I'm in this ugly, brown
house in Garland with a shiny pink cell phone making the Crazy
Frog sound, which is how I know it's Lisa calling.
I put my diary to the side.
"Did you see?"
"Emma Rodriguez is officially in a relationship."
If you want to know, Lisa is obsessed with relationships.
"With who?" I ask.
"Go look and call me back."
"Just tell me, already."
When we hang up, there is a cloud of annoyance all over me. This is what
she does. Tease people with information. It would be nice if I could
talk to her about real things.
Dr. Madrigal said I should try "sharing my feelings" with kids my age,
but what does he know? He always reminded me that my mother's crimes
weren't my fault. Well, I figured that out on my own, thank you very
much. My mother didn't know me the way a person really knows a person.
She was sick and I was only two. You would think this all doesn't
matter, because it happened a long time ago, but that is not the case.
News reporters like to keep reminding people about our business.
When there is a new story about a woman killing her child, there is
almost always some reference to my mother. Her story is that famous.
So you can see why I am dreading seventh grade with a capital D.
It's simply impossible to imagine myself presenting a Family Tree
Project with names, details, charts, major historic events in your
family, and "what is the most interesting connection you see across the
Lisa's sister did the project last year, and all Lisa talked about,
besides how she'd steal her sister's project and not have to do one, was
how her grandmother once sang on Broadway. Lisa said that was why she
was going to get the lead part in Guys and Dolls, which she did,
so there was no shutting her up.
Of course, I could lie and make up a whole family with nice qualities
like a talent for woodworking. I could say, Oh, my family made
bookshelves for George Washington, and look at this pencil I just
But I would still have to be around all these braggers like Lisa who
have something good to look forward to, and my neck would turn red when
I lied anyway. Especially if I have to present before fancy-dresser
Angela Nee. Angela and I are side by side in the school yearbook, but
that's pretty much the only time we'll ever be together on anything.
Angela Nee: Tall and green-eyed. Perfect shiny black hair. Often
mistaken for a model. Raises hand in class with correct answers.
Sarah Nelson: Short and brown-eyed. Short brown hair in need of style.
Often mistaken for a fifth grader. Must be called on to answer.
Maybe I don't want to be a seventh grader with a Family Tree Project
that informs the world that a crazy gene runs in my family, but wouldn't
I like to know a few more things about my mother? Yes, I would. I would
like to get information about her and have it all to myself. Like maybe
we are both good with plants. Maybe we can both make them bloom, no
It turns out that Emma Rodriguez is in a relationship with Jimmy
Leighton. That is why Lisa teased me. She knows I like Jimmy. Well.
After I finish writing about Problems 1 and 2 in my diary, I count up
the days until school is out for the summer. Thirteen more days of sixth
grade, including the weekend. Lisa is going to camp as soon as school
lets out, so "sharing my feelings" with her is no good.
So I write down that what I need is an informant, which is a word I
found in the dictionary one night.
informant n.: a person who supplies data in answer to the
questions of an investigator
If you want to know, the pages of my dictionary are rubbed soft. I have
favorite words highlighted in blue. Dad hates how I write inside books,
but I love words of all sorts, and this is what I must do.
Dad should be my chief informant. But an informant talks, and he does
not like to talk about anything but what he needs to pick up at the
This is an example of a conversation with my dad: "Are we out of milk?
Cereal? How about I make pancakes on Saturday?"
In his conversations, your own input is not really required. I have to
pry real information out of him. He is hard, frozen ice cream and
I am a weak spoon. What I've learned is this: You don't get much ice
cream for all the hard work you put in, and the spoon ends up bent.
Like always, I have to figure out things on my own and answer the
questions my brain creates. If you want to know, I am looking for any
signs of going crazy. The more information I gather, the better I can
defend myself against the world, against the brain inside me that may or
may not be like hers.
So far, I've decided only one thing about how to solve the problem of
going to seventh grade. I will be on the case, as they say in crime
shows. I will look for clues myself. I decide to write the names of all
the people who know more about my mother than I do. They could be my
sources. Dad, my grandparents. And, of course, my mother herself. When I
get enough information, I will know what to do.
Under my dad's name, I make a note that he doesn't always tell the
truth. 1. Unreliable source
2. Tells people he's a widower
Next, there are my grandparents. I write their names on a new page, make
some notes about clues they might offer.
1. Besides Dad, they are the only people I know who knew my mother
before "the incident."
2. My grandmother called her bohemian once.
bohemian n.: a person, as an artist or writer, who lives
and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices
Her tone didn't make it sound complimentary. It was the same way I
sometimes tell Lisa her outfit looks "fine" when it's clearly a
On another diary page, I write my mother's name. I stare at it for a
The page stays blank.
I wish I could just walk up and ask (the way my English teacher does),
"Please, in your own words, tell me what happened the day you tried
to kill me." But I can't. I close my diary and put it back in its
hiding place between the towels. Then I stare into the mirror until my
eyes are like those of a person who is calm and not at all scared. I say
to myself, I want to know, in your own words, what happened. Before
you answer, know that I will not hold a grudge. I'm just conducting an
interview. Your cooperation is appreciated.
I rehearse lines in front of Plant, which, if you read my real diary,
you would know for sure is my best friend. There are only two things
we've had at every rental house: Plant and the miscellaneous box.
I take Plant inside the new house, and Dad leaves the miscellaneous box
in the garage. When I asked him about the box, he said
miscellaneous is stuff you don't know you need until you see it.
Most days when I water Plant, I have a new trouble word to tell her. All
of them are mixed deep in her soil. If secrets were seeds, she could
bloom leaves that would make me blush.
And if she did bloom and show the world all my secrets, I just don't
know what I'd do. Probably lie and say, "Oh, she was here when we moved
in. These are the secrets of another girl."
Plant agrees with me. We'll start our investigation as soon as school is
out. For now, I'm suffering through a hot Saturday afternoon with the
knowledge that Jimmy Leighton is in a relationship.
I officially hate this day.
Now, I try not to use the word hate. One of the reasons I like
watching The Rifleman on TV is that the cowboy Lucas McCain
always says stuff like "Hate is too strong a word to use just because
you don't agree with someone." But if it is only one day before your
twelfth birthday, this should be a fun day where you get to go to the
mall and pick out your birthday present.
Well, Dad trashed that plan when he decided to hang out with Jim Beam
and get drunk. This is not unusual. When he is sober, he is the Secret
Service. But put a drink in him and I am on my own. So sorry, Lucas
McCain, aka Rifleman, but I still hate this day.
Dad hides the Jim Beam in a Dr Pepper bottle, but I still know. And when
he drinks, it is almost always because of my mother. Well, didn't I see
this coming? My birthday makes him sad. My birthday is never fun for
him, so I should have known not to get my hopes up about the mall.
Of course, my birthday is Simon's birthday, too, which is one clue about
why my dad doesn't like to celebrate. Or it would be his
birthday. We talk about Simon even less than we do about my mother. His
name is a trouble word times ten.
It makes me sad to wonder what he would want at the mall for his
birthday. When I see things boys my age have, I sometimes stop and
think, Would Simon like that? Would he want to read this kind of
book? Would we be doing the same things? Since I don't know for
sure, I give him imaginary presents. This year I gave him a
motor-powered scooter with blinking lights and night-vision goggles.
Last year I got him a boomerang and The Dangerous Book for Boys,
which I've read several times (especially the parts about girls). Simon
suggested this book to me in a dream. We both thought it was good.
Yes, I talk to my dead twin brother sometimes. This is a sure sign I am
going to turn out crazy, but who am I supposed to talk to about some
things? Besides Plant, he is probably the one who knows me best.
Sarah's confidants = one living green organism and one dead brother.
Dr. Madrigal once told me it's better to think of how things really are
and not how things should be, but you can't always control your
imagination. Lately, I imagine the way it would be if my mother were
here. I could fill up a blank page in my diary with how it should be. We
wouldn't live in a dead-end cul-de-sac, staring at gray ground and
listening to that annoying dog barking and clawing at the chain-link
fence. My hair would be long and braided, and my clothes would be folded
fresh from the dryer. If you want to know, my hair has never been
braided, and most days I pull a clean, wrinkled shirt from the laundry
"How about we go to the mall?" Dad had asked, pressing a hand to my
shoulder, his breath already tinted with Jim Beam.
"Sure," I told him.
But then he sat on the couch and watched Westerns or whatever crime
shows he had recorded. Watching shows is one of his favorite things to
do, so I guess that's the only thing we have in common. But watching too
many shows is another sign he's unhappy.
Excerpted from "Sure Signs of Crazy" by Karen Harrington. Copyright © 2013 by Karen Harrington. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.