Tarn Wilson
Tarn Wilson

The History of My Teeth

1

Hypodontia – a congenital condition marked by fewer than the usual number of teeth.

When I was five, I asked my father if all people have the same number of teeth. He told me that, generally, adults have thirty-two and children twenty, but I was missing some—my upper lateral incisors between my front and eye teeth--probably because my mouth was too small.
I had two reactions:
One. Irrefutable evidence that I was--as I had suspected--a mutant freak.
Two. In fifth grade, I visited a natural history museum and saw an exhibit on evolution. It began with an oversized drop of primeval ooze, progressed from legged-land-fish through modern humans, and ended with a life-sized model of the predicted human-of-the-future, a creature remarkably similar to the aliens from Close Encounters of Third Kind. Tall. Sunken chest. Skinny arms. Long fingers. Large eyes. And, because we no longer needed big teeth for ripping raw flesh, a small mouth.
I was tall and skinny. I had long fingers and big eyes. My mouth was so small, all my teeth didn’t fit. I was the shape-of-things-to-come. I was just more evolved than the average child.
Five percent of the time, I believed my evolution argument; for the other ninety-five, I was sure I was deformed.

2

Midline Diastema – a gap between the two front teeth.

My front teeth, which already looked too long and large next to my eyeteeth, also had a gap between them.
The space had its benefits: When my sister and I were in elementary school and took baths together, I’d squirt a stream of water between my teeth into her face, and she’d scream, “You’re spitting on me!” And I’d squirt her again, which would start another water-splashing, shaving cream fight. It also amused us when I carried small sticks in the gap.
But mostly, the space between my front teeth made me feel ugly. I hated my school pictures. Every year I hoped that this time I’d be beautiful. But always, that pale, thin face; that hair too short and choppy; and those two rabbity teeth.

3

Malocclusion – misalignment of the teeth, which can be caused by thumb sucking.

When did my teeth obsession begin? Before I began school, I rarely thought of my teeth. At that time, my hippie parents were attempting an experiment in living off the land on a rural Canadian Island and paid no attention to appearances. We rarely wore clothes or brushed our hair or teeth.
Once a month, though, when we would drive to town to pick up supplies, the town folks, mostly mining and logging families, would watch me sucking my thumb and shake their heads. “If she doesn’t stop, her teeth are going to grow in crooked. Have you tried Tabasco sauce?”
I knew that my parents--who told me only half-joking, “You can’t trust anyone over thirty”--wouldn’t take child-rearing advice from anyone who ate white bread. So I didn’t believe the town people.

4

Exfoliation – the process of shedding the deciduous, or baby teeth.

First, my tooth would move, just a little. I‘d press it with my tongue and rock it with my finger until I’d pushed up the first sharp edge. I ran my tongue over and over the sharpness, the first opening to the cave. When it loosened more, I’d suck it up then pop it back into place, like a puzzle piece.
Every hour or so, I’d inform my parents of the progress: “Look how loose it is now!” And now. And now. And when it was looser, I’d twist it until it hung by just one root. I didn’t have the courage for the last pull, but neither could I leave it alone. So I‘d massage the tooth with my tongue until my gums were numb and the tooth hung by a thread and finally let go with one gentle tug. And then the raw hole: tender, too soft, tasting like metal with a slight electric charge.
But I guess all children are obsessed with their loose teeth, with that bone-like certainty dissolving, that contrast of sharp edge and raw softness, with that decision between a quick pain and a slow loss, and with the symbol--still joyful then--of growing up.

5

Disclosing tablets – red dye used to reveal invisible dental plaque.

Perhaps my obsession began with the arrival of the Teeth People--a young man and woman paid by the province to visit rural classrooms and teach children about proper oral hygiene.
The Teeth People brought an oversized model of white, even teeth set in pink plastic gums. With an oversized toothbrush, they showed us how to brush: hold the bristles at a forty-five degree angle at the gum and stroke to the end of each tooth, at least five times. We should brush our tongues, too, to keep our breath fresh. Then they showed us how to properly wrap dental floss around our fingers and scrape between our teeth.
As they left, they gave us each a gift packet--a child-sized toothbrush, a miniature container of dental floss, and red plaque-exposing pills--and reminded us to brush our teeth at least twice a day. Then they said we must go home and teach our families what we’d learned.
At home, I couldn't get my father to stop working. He mumbled something about the bourgeoisie and schools telling him how to raise his children. My mother listened and nodded, not because she was interested, but because I cared so much.
I stared at my family’s teeth. My father had wide, strong teeth, a little crooked, mostly hidden by a straggly blonde mustache. My mother had perfect teeth: straight, white, no spaces, in perfect proportion. My sister--two years’ younger--had small, bright, far apart teeth, like little pearls. My mother told me her side of the family had soft teeth--she opened her mouth to show me all the silver in her molars, and she hoped I had hard ones, like my father.
My sister was only interested in the red pills, which came two-by-two in foil wrappers. So I explained that we’d brush our teeth as best as we could and the red pills would tell us where we’d missed.
I brushed my teeth twice, paying attention to each tooth. I brushed my tongue, all the way to the back. I brushed the inside of my cheeks. Then I showed my sister how to floss. I wrapped the string around her finger, but it kept unwinding. I wrapped my string too tightly and my fingertip turned bright red, then deep red, then purple.
“If I don’t take it off,” I said to Rima in my best teacher voice, “my finger will die and fall off.”
We dissolved the pills in our mouths, and I was certain I’d come out clean.
“That can’t be very good for you,” my mother said, followed by a lecture on the dangers of red dye number two.
I looked in my mother’s hand mirror. Although paler than my sister’s, each of my teeth was red at the gum line. I stuck out my tongue. It was vibrant and furry with a broken crack down the center. I brushed my teeth again and again, and still the red persisted for days.
I brushed and flossed every day until my dental floss ran out.
“It doesn’t matter,” my father said. “They're mostly baby teeth. They’ll all fall out.”
But I was afraid of my new knowledge. I thought I was clean and whole, but an invisible fault line ate away at what I thought was permanent as bone.
A month later, my mother left my father.

6

Power-biters – children who bite others because they have a strong need for autonomy, power, and control.

Not long after, my sister and I followed my mother to the city where we lived for a time with my mother’s friend Nancy and her daughter Geneva.
Geneva, who was also in first grade, was everything I was not. Even though she was smaller and two months younger, she was loud and bossy. I loved to look at her: olive colored skin, almond shaped eyes, and a tall, soft afro.
New to the city, I was afraid of everything--crowds, sirens, traffic, the complex maze of streets--but Geneva could take the bus by herself to her dance lessons, speak a little Chinese, do a few kung fu moves, paint her fingernails with red polish, and explain to me the more intimate details of various family members’ sex lives.
She had gotten in trouble several times in school for biting the other children and her teacher, and when Nancy, in her gentle way, tried to talk to her about it, she bit her too.
So when Geneva asked me to clean her room, I did.
“You don’t have to do everything she tells you,” my mother whispered--a little worried about the strength of my character.
But I wasn’t really afraid of her bite. I just wanted to be in the presence of this force-of-nature who knew how to use her teeth to get what she wanted.

7

Most Americans didn’t regularly brush their teeth until after WWII, when returning soldiers, trained by the military, brought the habit home.

In the summers, my sister and I would visit my father and he’d quit his log-salvaging job so we could live in a tee pee, or on a 1900 fishing boat, or camp on the beach.
He didn’t like it when I complained about my dirty feet--how I wanted to wash them before I put them in my sleeping bag, how the dirt had ground permanently into the creases on the back of my ankles. He didn’t like it when I complained we didn’t have any toothpaste. “We don’t need to brush our teeth every night,” he said. “That’s middle class crap. Indians brushed their teeth with sticks.” I still wanted to be clean, but then I was ashamed about it, some sort of weakness, like being a girl when your father wanted a boy.

8

Before the invention of nylon in the late 1930s, toothbrush bristles were made of boar or horsehairs.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher invited fathers to come to our class and speak about their careers. By this time, my mother had moved us back to Colorado, and my father, still in Canada, had started a business, something to do with computers, which, at the time, was new and interesting. So, when my father came on a rare visit, I invited him to my class.
When he said he would, I started to worry. He didn’t look like the other fathers. His teeth had grayed near the gums; his wavy blond hair was always a little greasy at the roots. I figured asking him to give up his rumpled jeans was too much. “Would you,” I asked, “before you come, take a shower and brush your teeth?”
He didn’t answer me.
And he never came.

9

The town people were right.

In fifth grade, I was still sucking my thumb before I fell asleep, and sure enough, my rabbit teeth with the space between them began to twist.

 

10

In Nigeria, spaces between the front teeth are considered beautiful, and some people have cosmetic dentistry to create them.

When I was in seventh grade, my mother thought I should get braces. I already had acne and I didn’t want a mouth full of silver, but neither did I want to be a twisty, gap-toothed adult. And I wanted boys to like me, although I wouldn’t confess that to anyone. I also thought that people with funny teeth didn’t look as smart as people with straight teeth. And even more than I wanted to be beautiful, I wanted to be smart.
My father didn’t want to pay. “More middle class bullshit. What does she need braces for? Her teeth are just fine. They aren’t hurting her, are they?”
“You don’t understand,” my mother tried to explain, “what it’s like to be a girl.”
“You aren’t going to let her buy into all that shit, are you?”
I didn’t want to. Buy into it. I didn’t want to be frivolous. I didn’t want to be expensive. And yet I knew that there are some things that make moving through the world easier. Besides, my father always fell for beautiful women--not crazy-toothed ones--so I had a sneaking suspicion that while Jack was making me feel like a woman of insubstantial character, his primary motive was avoiding the cost. So I stood, equally balanced between guilt for my feminine vanity and frustration at my father for all the things he hadn’t been willing to give us. Child support. Shoes for the first day of school. A phone call on my birthday. A letter saying he loved us.

11

My mother agreed to split the cost.
My orthodontist was a wannabe cowboy. He wore a Stetson hat and plaid shirts and lived on a large ranch on the edge of town.
When I complained my teeth were aching, he answered, screwing my braces a little tighter, “Little lady, if ya wanna find yerself a husband, wer gonna have to fix these teeth.”
I was quiet. Still imaging myself a woman of depth, when he took his fingers from my mouth, I answered, “I hope the man I marry doesn’t love me for my teeth.”
“Honey,” he answered in his affected Western drawl, “ya gotta catch one first ‘fore he can appreciate ya for yer finer qualities.”

12

obsess - 1503, "to besiege," from L. obsessus, pp. of obsidere "besiege, occupy," lit. "sit opposite to," from ob "against" + sedere "sit." Of evil spirits, "to haunt," is from 1540. Obsession was originally (1513) "the act of besieging," then "hostile action of the devil or an evil spirit" (1605); meaning "persistent influence or idea" is first recorded 1680. – Online Etymology Dictionary. www.etymonline.com

 

My sister’s teeth grew in perfectly, like my mother’s: white, proportioned, no spaces between them. And she had a wide, movie star smile. Sometimes she’d dry her front teeth with her finger, tuck under her front lip, and talk to me in a high, nasal voice, “Hi, I’m Chucky Chipmunk.”
When my sister was in fifth grade, a stranger broke into our house and molested her. He raped our mother.
We moved from Denver to Boulder, and my sister and I--trembly and disoriented--changed schools in the middle of the year. Compared to the college-town kids, we were poorly dressed and undereducated. My sister already had hints of a woman’s body, so a classmate called her fat.
At night, my sister would brush her teeth for a full half an hour. Then floss. I’d watch her as she carefully dried each tooth with a washcloth.

13

Me? I bit my forearm, from the wrist toward the elbow. Harder, harder, harder, daring myself--the skin so thin between my teeth. The next day I had a row of purple half-circles, a deep ache that would stay with me for weeks. In school, I’d raise my sleeve a little to see if the circles were still there. As my math teacher droned, I pressed the tenderness, a little frightened of the person who’d do such a thing.

14

LONDON, Jan 29 (Reuters Life!) - Straightening children's crooked teeth with braces may improve their smile but it is no guarantee of happiness and improved self-esteem. A 20-year study by scientists in Britain that looked at the impact of braces on more than 300 children in Wales showed that having straighter teeth had little positive impact on their psychological health later in life. Patricia Reaney

At the end of tenth grade, my orthodontist removed my braces and, first thing, sent me to the periodontist. The Cowboy explained we have ligaments attached to our teeth, which act like natural rubber bands, and we needed to snip mine or they’d pull my front teeth back apart.
This procedure concerned me: without ligaments, would my teeth be all loose and sloppy? But neither did I want a gap so big I could shoot water through it. I acquiesced.

15

The eyeteeth got their name because they fall just below the eye. They are also called upper canines, cupids, dogteeth, and fangs.

Just after my braces were removed, we moved to Colorado Springs, where I attracted the attention of the boy I wanted, the soccer player who lived across the street from my new house.
I loved his teeth. His mother was Puerto Rican and petite--his father stocky and Polish. He had has father’s wide face, too old for a teenager, and a mouth so big he could stuff in a whole McDonald’s hamburger. I have a photograph of the two of us, taken on a ski slope. His eyes are chestnut brown and his grin is laugh-out-loud wide. His teeth are straight and even, except for his eyeteeth, which are a little longer and slightly pointed. Although my passions for him have long since faded, I still want to kiss those eye teeth.

16

“Gap-toothed was she, it is no lie to say.” Canterbury Tales

In junior English, we were reading Canterbury Tales, and our teacher explained some medieval lore: the space between the Wife of Bath’s teeth signified that she was highly sexed.
What did this mean about me? In my relationship with my new boyfriend, I was constantly monitoring the murky line between yes and no, stretched between my body’s longing and my fears about risks to my heart and future. I was a good girl, going places. That was the story I told myself. Did my formerly gapped teeth mean I, too, was highly sexed? Did my now-closed teeth mean that I was highly sexed, but had hidden it from the world? Was I hiding it from myself?

17

Before my junior year was over, my perfect teeth began slowly creeping apart. Even without their ligaments, they had a memory of their own, their own stubborn resistance to change. We’d moved away from the Cowboy and run out of teeth money, so there was nothing to do but leave them to their slow journey home.
My senior year, my boyfriend left for college and my art teacher developed a crush on me, although I wouldn’t realize it until much later. He was a new teacher from the University of Kansas, tall, dignified, handsome, often exasperated by teenagers, a perfectionist, an African-American with a splash of native American, our football coach, a Kansas farm boy, and an exquisite colored pencil artist.
Of course, I must have considered that it wasn’t normal for a senior girl to hang out with a young, single teacher, go to his apartment, to the movies.
When I turned in my assigned self-portrait, he said, “Look, you even drew the little gap between the front teeth.” By the way he said it, I knew suddenly that he had looked at me closely, the way you do with someone you love, and I felt ashamed--shame for what I couldn’t yet admit to myself: attracting the attention of a forbidden man.

18-21

English – Wisdom Teeth
Turkish – Twentieth Year Teeth
Arabic – Teeth of the Mind.
Korean – Love Teeth, for the age of first love
Japanese – Unknown to Parents Teeth

My upper wisdom teeth never formed. When I was nineteen, my lower wisdom teeth were pulled. Four missing wisdom teeth. I honor what is missing. Wisdom. Fathers.

22

Those who have studied the reports of alien abductions say that the “gray” aliens, the ones with silver-black skin and large almond shaped eyes, have a small, slit-like mouth, no tongue, and cartilage instead of teeth.

Now, years later, I sometimes suddenly feel as if I’m an alien seeing the human form for the first time: the bare, freckled skin; jointed arms and legs; stretched drips of fingers and toes with crispy nails on the end. Bulbous heads with long, protruding fur; twisted fungus ears; and two rolling marble eyes. All of these are odd and ugly--but mouths are downright disgusting: fat lips opening to a cavernous hole with a tongue thick and wiggly as some sea creature. Teeth like chips of exposed bone, something that should be hidden in a private space, not right in the middle of one’s face.
“Look!” I say to my friend. I’m lying on my back on the living room floor, having just finished a rented movie. I bare my gapped teeth, wiggle my tongue and stretch my fingers and toes in his face. “Humans are so weird!”
“You are weird,” he says.

23

Diagnostic Criteria of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) According to DSM-IV
Preoccupation with an imagined defect in appearance. If a slight physical anomaly is present, the person’s concern is markedly excessive.

Several of my high school students with impaired social skills have told me--not as an insult but as a cheerful observation--that I look like a rabbit. Some days, when I catch a glimpse of myself unexpectedly, perhaps in the rear view mirror or a store window, and see my teeth, I feel so ugly for the rest of the day I can barely concentrate.
Some days, when I wake up in the morning, the gap between my front teeth seems wider than usual. Perhaps I’ve been swallowing all night and pressing my tongue-too-big-for-my-small-mouth against the inside of my teeth. On these days, or on the days of special occasions, I sometimes tie my front teeth together with dental floss or wrap them with a rubber band to squeeze them together. It shouldn’t work. But it does. I don’t do it too often—I’m afraid I might loosen them and they’ll fall out. And I am a little disturbed by it, too. I can’t let go of the idea that teeth shouldn’t be able to move like that: they should be permanent as bone.
A few years ago I noticed that when I closed my mouth, the line between my two top and two bottom teeth didn’t match, were, in fact, a full quarter inch off. Another secret deformity.
At the same time, I saw a documentary on beauty that showed how the faces and bodies of beautiful people are governed by certain mathematical principles. As a side note, they also proved that the bodies of world-class athletes have an unusual degree--almost perfect--of symmetry. If I ever wanted evidence of why I can’t run faster, I just have to look at my crooked smile.
But worse, this discovery made me realize that none of my teeth fit together particularly well, and because of it, I often leave my mouth hanging open just a bit. Whenever I am quiet and alone, particularly driving, I obsess over this. How can I face my students when I can’t even close my mouth?
So why don’t I just pay to get my teeth fixed? I still hear the voice inside me--is it my father’s? --saying “frivolous, frivolous, frivolous.” You are such a girl. You care too much for appearances. Think of the useful things you could do with that money.
Maybe I’m addicted to my obsessive thinking. Maybe I know that if I get rid of that obsession, my anxiety will only attach itself to something else, say my inner thighs.

24

The name “molars” comes from the Latin “mola,” meaning millstone, as most mammals use their molars to grind.

Don’t think I don’t know my obsession is a little crazy.
At this very moment, someone in the world is being raped, beaten, cheated. Someone is hungry, dying, grieving. Someone has lost a home, a limb, a child, a country, this year’s crops. Somewhere, a bomb explodes, a vote isn’t counted, a sniper hits its mark. We pour our poisons--and tigers, polar bears, and desert tortoises are all one season closer to extinction.
What’s wrong with me that, in the face of all that suffering, my thoughts travel again and again to teeth?
But maybe that’s the problem: that great mass of suffering for which I can envision no solutions. My teeth are merely tangible objects on which to project my formless fears.

25

The Word becomes flesh. The fears become tooth.

26

Did salt’s teeth come
from a bitter mouth?

Pablo Neruda

Not long before my father died, I looked at his teeth, which I hadn’t really noticed for years. “Hey, your top and bottom teeth don’t match up, just like mine.” His drinking and smoking had turned them yellow and gray.
My father who made fun of me for wanting to brush my teeth, for any concession to beauty, answered, “Don’t look . . . they embarrass me.” And my world shifted.

27

Historians have conjectured about Mona Lisa’s teeth. She may have ground her teeth at night, worn them down to stubs. Or they’re stained black from the mercury cure for syphilis. One dentist says she has the smile of someone who has lost her two front teeth.

My obsession spilled onto other people. I worried about the Mona Lisa’s teeth. I stared into the mouths of strangers.
When I was asked to teach a writing retreat for women, I first noticed how many participants had odd teeth. Teeth strangely pinched together and overlapping. A line of teeth shorter on one side than the other. And even as I noticed them, I was horrified with myself. I’m here to be these women’s mentor and inspiration and I am noticing their teeth?
Even more, I knew that by the end, when I had witnessed the risks the women would take with their words, they would no longer be their strange teeth, but something bigger. I almost couldn't wait for the workshop to be over so I could see these women as more than their mouths. And sure enough, at the end, every molecule of these women was beautiful to me.
So why do I still see their teeth first, when I know better, when I want to be different?

28

I have heard that in France, gapped teeth--called “les dents du bonheur,” the teeth of happiness--are considered lucky.

I try to improve my dental-esteem. I keep a mental list of beautiful people with gaps between their teeth: Lauren Hutton, Amelia Earhart, Madonna. On the web, I find, but do not join, groups celebrating gap-toothed beauty.

29

Last year, when we went for a hike near our house in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my friend found a deer skull. I took it in my hand. So narrow nosed. Turned it over. It had two teeth left. I tugged at one, and it fell into my hand, a shape like a broken and worn seashell. Curved. Smooth long roots. Worn and cracked enamel. I tugged at the other and it, too, fell out in my hand. Smaller. A dark cavity in the center. Someone else’s life.
I wanted to take them home, scrub them with soap and a brush and put them on a shelf above my writing desk.
But my friend said, “Put them back.”
I held them in my palm. Little sad jewels, clicking together.
“But I’m writing an essay about teeth.”
“Do what you like.” He looked away. “But at least ask him if he needs them.”
I looked at the head. Did a dead deer need teeth? And what would he want with just two?
I tried to wiggle them back into place, but I couldn’t find the right angle. A bad puzzle solver. I left them behind, more awkward, loose, and crooked than I’d found them.
I let them go.

30-31

I have never grown my upper two lateral incisors. I honor the gaps. I honor what is absent or delayed. Answers. Beauty. Control.


32

And at whom does rice smile
with infinitely many white teeth?

Pablo Neruda

Here, I break the unwritten rules of essay writing. I’m not supposed to tell you about the process. I’m not to show you the movie camera at the edge of the scene. But I have no other way to tell you the whole story. I wrote the first draft of this essay a year ago. I couldn’t find its shape. I couldn’t find its ending. A puzzle I couldn’t solve. Deer molars I couldn’t shove back in their sockets.
But the moment I tucked the essay away, a miracle happened. My obsession shed. Naturally as baby teeth. I no longer rubberband my front teeth together, or stare at my students’ mouths, or fear, when I catch an unexpected glimpse of my face, that I’ll not be able to make it through the day in such ugliness. It’s gone. Gone. Gone. I’m growing up.
I’m not sure of the source of this gift.
Maybe writing was the equivalent of pressing my tongue over and over against my loose tooth—against what felt strange and uncomfortable. I let the soft skin underneath toughen, and when I finally felt brave enough, I twisted, gave a gentle tug, and my obsession released.
Maybe the writing was a disclosing dye, revealing some of what has been invisible to me. Perhaps I let go when I finally understood: saw my red teeth next to my parents’ separation; the rape next to my sister drying her teeth with a washcloth. My fears were wandering hermit crabs who’d set up house in my teeth.
But these are guesses. I place my thirty-two sections--my thirty-two teeth, present and absent, next to each other--and still there are gaps. Mysteries. Wisdom I’ll never have.
But, this I can say: I’m neither a mutant freak, nor highly evolved. My mouth has morphed into the smile of an ordinary person.