I was five years old at the time. My memory is coloured now by a veritable collage of old newspaper clippings and the stories told to me by adults as I was growing up. The latter linger in my mind like ghostly tape recordings while a selection of the former sit in a shoebox at the back of my wardrobe.
It’s oddly comforting to think of that shoebox from time to time, though I rarely take it out. I picture it receding into the darkness where its contents cannot be read by others. I imagine the smell of the dust, shoes and clothes. The inside of the box is completely black. However, the black space is more present than any of the other props I think of for the sake of imaginative realism. It is like a compartment in my head, it just happens to also exist in reality, up in my bedroom.
“Knife Wielding Mother”, one headline begins, “takes 5-year-old daughter to rob a bank”. This one I hate most. It’s incorrect from the outset. Well, not completely incorrect, but it immediately distorts the events of that day by omitting an important detail. It was a breadknife.
In the same way I think of the shoebox, I think of the breadknife; in this case the actual object isn’t in my possession. A breadknife doesn’t have a point and the blade is not sharp. That it was designed to cut bread is significant. Bread is a staple food – bread provides a basic sustenance for a family. I think bread represents a certain threshold. What the newspapers missed in their sensationalising of that day was that a fundamental human threshold had been crossed. I’m not talking about a personal threshold, even though, as the armed police closed in on my mother, she gave up without a struggle and spoke of dire financial straits. I’m talking about a threshold between the basic needs of people and a ludicrous, greedy financial system.
In retrospect, I think there was a cultural turning point at that time. Capitalism could no longer sustain its trajectory while peoples’ basic rights were being denied and the world’s resources were depleting. Banks may represent financial security, but in the same breath they also stand for the fact that wealth – which exists for some in large amounts – isn’t shared with those who really need it.
‘To wield’ means ‘to have and exercise’ or ‘handle effectively’. “Breadknife Wielding Mother” doesn’t make sense in the way “Knife Wielding Mother” does. In my eyes, mum took a very direct stand against something she felt was unfair. She was reported to have asked for thousands of pounds, but she was and still is an intelligent woman and I do not believe she ever considered the possibility of actually getting money. Nor would she have considered hurting anybody. The power of financial institutions makes inequality seem necessary and their injustice seem intangible; my mum pursued what she knew was a futile course of action, when she felt no other was possible.
My mum, Anita Eisner, is in a nursing home now. That day was deemed the only newsworthy day from a lifetime of struggle. The newspapers make her sound unhinged, or worse, an irresponsible and careless parent. They make her ‘escapade’ into a cheap and insignificant aberration. People are always made to seem foolish when they stand up to lucrative businesses, but mum was a sincere woman demonstrating in a bank.
My dad was at the job centre when this all happened. Despite being a well qualified man he had found it impossible to get work. I was put into his custody when mum was taken away. He wasn’t cross with mum for what she’d done, but would, in later months, ask why she hadn’t left me with family, giving an excuse. I think it was because she wanted me to be there. She wanted me to feel the mix of fear and courage that allows people to do extraordinary things. She wanted me to remember: to piece together; to imagine the shoebox and the breadknife. She wanted me, as someone she loved, to bear witness to what she felt she had to do. She was driven to it by her love for her family and people in general, not by her neglect.
After mum had been taken to the police station she was released on bail. She immediately went out again and tried to ‘rob’ another bank. She was imprisoned for 4 years.