Excess Baggage – A Tale of Two Sisters

My sister (the beauty on the right) and I (the hairless one on the left) were the products of a teenaged marriage.  Our mother and father were divorced when I was an infant, and our mother remarried.  She produced 6 more children with our stepfather.

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There is much in the news over the last week or so about child abuse.  This post is not an effort to scream out  – “me, too”, nor an effort to elicit sympathy. Nor is it intended to assign blame or regret.  It is merely my attempt to produce my thoughts on the childhood I endured which shaped the person I have become.  What I usually do, when I am triggered to remember, is attempt to stuff the evil genie back into the corroded lamp of family dysfunction from which my flashbacks spring.  Those feeble attempts to erase the memories, deny the abuse and resist acceptance are met with the usual outcomes – nightmares, insomnia, and headaches served with a large helping of deep and abiding sadness.

Last weekend I watched a video on YouTube.  I told myself not to do it; I told myself I would regret it.  But I watched it anyway (as have 5 million others).  It was the video of the Texas judge who was “disciplining” his daughter with his belt.  The video was more than 7 minutes long, I believe, and showed the angry father spewing expletives and administering a beating.  The mother also briefly participated in the “discipline”.

I became physically ill watching the video.  A flood of memories, some a half-century old, washed over me.  That flood was so overpowering and so scorching that I could not endure it.  Nor could I stop the memories.  I have read that these flashbacks are a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and are very common, years later in life, for adults who suffered physical “discipline” as a child.

When I closed my eyes I did not see that video, but two little girls who often bore the brunt of their stepfather’s anger, and he was nearly always angry.  I saw a little girl of five being slapped from a stepstool she was standing on to dry dishes because he had found a wet glass in the cupboard. She was made to climb back up the steps of the stepstool, frightened and crying, to dry every dish in the kitchen which he brought from the cupboards and which her sister had been made to wash.

I remembered the beatings, sometimes with belts, sometimes with sticks or hands or whatever was available.  I remembered the awful, sick feeling of waiting for him to get home, knowing that if I had messed up anything in any way that day (and sometimes even if I hadn’t) I was likely to experience a slap, a kick or a punch.  I was literally afraid to walk past him for fear that he would connect either a foot or fist with some part of my anatomy.  Often, he did.  I remember being beaten, then beaten more for crying.  I remember vowing not to cry – my stoicism earning me extra punishment for thinking I was “tough”.

As the oldest of 8 children, my sister and I were expected to assist in the running of the household and “farm”.  These chores – endless mounds of laundry, piles of dirty dishes, gardening, barn work –  left us little time for socializing, which wasn’t allowed, anyway.  I remember only once visiting a friend’s home, and that was after I was old enough to drive myself there.  Our every move was monitored and controlled.

We were not allowed to ask questions, formulate opinions, nor express discomfort, unhappiness or displeasure.  It wasn’t merely that we weren’t allowed to express our opinions, we were told that we did not have opinions, because we didn’t matter.  I was told, until the day I left that “home”, that I was worthless, stupid (I was an honor roll student), and that I would never amount to anything.   That an education would be wasted on me, that no one would ever want me.  I was told these things every day.  Every. Single. Day.

While we both suffered his hateful abuse –  she sustained a greater measure than I, and in ways I couldn’t even comprehend.  His six children did not receive the violent, abusive treatment reserved for us.  My sister has described us as “someone else’s excess baggage” and as such we became whipping posts and punching bags.  Somewhere, away from the home that contained the abusive stepfather, was a father who was merely absent.  I have every reason to believe he knew exactly where we were, and yet there was never any communication.  No love, no help, no rescue.

Our mother did not participate in these abusive encounters, but she did not speak out to stop them.  I sometimes saw her standing at the stove with her lips pressed tightly together, with tears running down her face, but she did not speak out.  Perhaps she had in the beginning, I don’t know.  I just remember feeling very betrayed by her silence and my real father’s absence.

When my sister finally escaped the nightmare that was our homelife and spoke out about the myriad of abuses, my mother sat me down and told me that I could leave as well, go into foster care and then perhaps the home of the absent father.  My stepfather had left the house, temporarily, while things were being sorted out.  As the remaining stepchild, I was one of the “details” to be sorted out.  I was told of all the abuse my sister had endured – more even than I had encountered or could have imagined.  I was told I would have to choose.  I looked at my mother, so shattered, so weakened by the revelation’s turn of events, and I felt I could not leave.  It was not much of a home, by anyone’s standards, but it was the only home I knew.  I opted to stay. Our step-father returned, and I was never again touched.

Our hardscrabble “raising” produced two very strong women, perhaps made stronger by having to endure so much so early.   Each of us deals with our childhood memories in very different ways.   I cannot remember, on a day-to-day basis – she cannot forget.  I do not remember, unless triggered, and have tried mightily over the years to tamp those memories down, do my best to ignore them when they do rise up to consume me.  She remembers.  Remembers everything.  Remembers every day.  Those memories hurt her, and that pains me as well.

We are strong women who can put our heads down and tackle any job given to us without complaining, because we learned how.  We both find shreds of joy when things look bleak, because we learned how.  We both work hard for what we want, because we learned nothing would be given to us.   We strove to ensure our children would not receive the treatment we received – that the cycle would be broken.  We still, all these years later, must remind ourselves (and be reminded) that we are strong, intelligent, capable, and worthy of love and respect.

So this week, amidst all the talk of abuse, perpetrators, victims, and society’s role – if you are a victim, speak out.  Put words to the atrocities that you endure now, or have endured in the past.  If you can’t speak it, write it.  Remember that you did nothing to deserve abuse.  Remember that you are worthy of love and respect, from yourself and from everyone in your life, in your community, and in this world.  Speak out because sometimes the people who should be protecting you are the very ones you must escape.

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45 Comments

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45 responses to “Excess Baggage – A Tale of Two Sisters

  1. OMG – I have heard of such awful abuse. I was one of the fortunate ones. My sisters and I grew up in a loving household – oh yes, there were arguments and an occasional slap on the leg or bottom, but no abuse.
    I applaud you for speaking out – does it help you? I hope it does. I know that you can never really put the memories behind you but you and your sister are making good lives and great memories of their childhood for your own children.
    Thank you for sharing your story with us.
    I am not going to look at that video. I hope the judge is in jail. He would be here because one is not even allowed to slap a child!

    • Judith, I think that it does help. I started this post after watching the video, but couldn’t write…then the headaches all week, and nightmares. I had much thinking to do, memories to sort, and after a great many fits and starts I was able to finish it. Now that it is complete, I feel drained, as I often do after writing about highly charged emotional things.

      I am often envious of people with very happy childhoods, and who had fathers who adored them. I am happy for them, as well, because it helps restore my faith in humanity a little.

      • Some 5 years later I have reread this post and it still hurts me thinking of your pain. Young children should know only love and caring not physical and mental abuse that you endured. BTW I still haven’t looked at the video.

  2. You are worthy. You are worthy. You are deserving.

    • Georgette, thank you so much. I always appreciate your comments and taking the time to read. I love reading about your family, because you make it sound so safe, loving, and stable.

  3. These stories need to be told. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story. I echo Georgette, you are worthy and deserving–an incredible and loving, strong woman. Abuse or neglect leaves scars behind that not many people can see or even know exist. Although my father was a loving man, my mother was not. She did not abuse us physically, but with her words. I was made to feel belittled and humiliated when I was a child. She had serious mental issues, and basically lashed out at us kids with her anger (mostly me, being the only girl). I still can’t bring myself to write about how this affected me. I applaud you for being brave and letting your story be told.

    • Darla, I did not think I could write this post. Then I did not think I could publish it. One of my goals in writing this blog is to learn to put words to the depth and breadth of the emotions and events of my life. It is easy to write about the joyous love I feel for my husband, children, and grandchildren, even the melancholy I feel at being away from them, and the stresses of everyday life. But this took real digging, real scraping, and real searching for the right words to convey the rawness I was feeling. I do believe it has been therapeutic. But it couldn’t happen until I was ready.

      I am sorry that your mother chose to wound you with her words. The pain of a slap or spanking does go away, but the effects of verbal and emotional abuse can be, and often are, repeated over and over in one’s mind. Hugs.

  5. I hope with all my heart that your life(and your sister’s) is sweet and gentle now. I had loving parents and if I could, I would turn back the clock and bring you home with me.

  6. That is very sweet – thank you. I am surrounded by gentle love, much laughter, and peace.

  7. Powerful and empowering, both. You and your sister are amazing women. You have given a strong and certain voice to this important discussion. Thank you.

  8. Thank you for sharing, and helping those of us who have had traumatic childhoods understand a little more, that we were not the only one.

    • I did not know, growing up, that people lived in happy homes – that parents loved and protected their children. I simply did not know. You were not the only one; certainly I was not, either. I hope you are happy now, and loved.

  9. My job is to represent children who are in families like yours. It is such a huge responsibility for a child to be the one who “tells”, to take the brunt of the results of telling, to be the one who has to move from the only home they have known, be separated from siblings, moved to strange homes and attend new schools. The foster system can be as abusive as the homes children are living in. Many people would be shocked by your decision to stay in the home. You explained it very well. Thankfully, by your sister’s “telling”, the physical abuse stopped for you. But my guess is that the emotional abuse continued.
    I am in awe of your strength, your intelligence, your persistence. You should be very proud of yourself for having taken your life to another place. I feel honored that you shared your story with us. Thank you.

    • I am proud of the life I’ve carved out for myself. I am surrounded by love and support.
      My choice to stay put was not an easy choice, and more than once I regretted that decision. I admire people like you who work with children whose families are not the loving environment all kids deserve.

  10. You are amazing. To have survived that experience and become a person with such strength, warmth and wit…amazing.

    • I firmly believe that what you’ve done makes you what you are, and that we all end up exactly where we are meant to be. Do I wish the journey had started out easier? Of course. Did I figure out what I wanted and needed from those around me to feel safe and loved? You bet. Did it make me strong – without a doubt. Thanks for coming by.

  11. i experienced what you did. amazing how many of us there are. i never did have a talk with my father about his “anger” before he died, i came to understand that he didn’t know any better, that he took his frustration with his life out on us, and i forgave him. as you have, i also gave myself full marks for being very worthwhile. i always say that my father shouldn’t have had children…a piece of black humor i find amusing. again, i say continue…

    • I am always surprised at the number of people who were subjected to brutality at the hands of their parents. And those are just the few cases that get reported, or people who speak out, sometimes years afterwards. I am glad you could forgive. I’m not sure I’m at that point but I am done being angry about it and wishing it had been different. I’m glad your father DID have children, aren’t you?

  12. I was afraid to watch that video. I’m so sorry to hear about what happened to you and your sister. I’m glad it finally stopped, but wish it had never happened in the first place.

    • I purposely did not put a link to that video, it was brutal. There is no way to change what has happened, all I can do now is deal with it, which I haven’t really done very well over the years. I am hoping that having “spilled my guts” I can continue to put the past behind me.

  13. I started my own blog as a “writing blog.” That bored me very quickly–I think by the second post?–and it became my therapy.

    Writing about the hard moments of my own childhood has been such a gift. I can’t undo those moments, but I can and have set many of them free by articulating them. And with great struggle.

    When my siblings and I were young, my brother was the one who would step in when he didn’t think something was right. He would get in trouble himself instead of sitting in silence as did the rest of us. Even though I was very young, and even though I later started speaking up, I am haunted by that silence.

    I can’t imagine how someone who wasn’t seven or eight years of age at the witnessing can endure the guilt, or what stories they have to tell themselves to believe they bear none.

    • “…I can’t undo those moments, but I can and have set many of them free by articulating them…” Exactly.

      I knew that you, if no one else, could understand what I was trying to do and say. Thank you for that.

  14. I’m so, so sorry that you went through this pain, and I really admire your writing about such a tough subject.

    I heard someone say that we get 2 tries at happy childhood – once when we’re the child, which we have no control over, and again when we are the parent. How wonderful that you chose to break the cycle and embrace a happy home life the second time around!

    • I’m having a third childhood, then I guess. I am filled with wonder, learning, growing, laughing and loving – all the things I should have done as a child, if I hadn’t lived in such fear and dread.

  15. Thank you for your bravery and compassion for others. To speak of what you have tried to bury is noble and helps everyone understand that these things we hear are not as isolated as we would hope. Thank you.

    • Thanks, prttynpnk. These things are not isolated, in fact I think we only hear about a fraction of the atrocities children endure. Burying the memories hasn’t worked especially well for me, I’m hoping this tactic is more helpful, to me and anyone who may learn from my experiences.

  16. Doc

    I was floored by this post. I could not have been as brave in revisiting such pain. I tell myself that I had a happy childhood but often I’m not sure. I have so few memories.

    • I also had few childhood memories – I simply didn’t/couldn’t remember much of anything. Not only could I not remember the bad stuff, but also couldn’t remember anything that was good. And there must have been some good parts. I appreciate your comments – I don’t know that is brave as much as it was necessary.

  17. Remarkable story. Thanks for telling it (so well) and congratulations on how far you have come!

  18. You had me riveted to the screen from the first word to the last. My words can’t begin to express my deepest admiration for your courage in telling this story with such heart and healing. You can sleep better knowing that you did something really good here. Really good.

  19. K8, I am behind in my reading… I read this one after I read the ‘When I write” post, and I am glad I happened to read the posts in that order. When you write, you help others, K8. Truly. Thank you for sharing your story. As others have already said – you are worthy. You are worthy – and you have come so far – so very far.
    Wow. I am grateful you write, K8.

    • Oh, Lenore. I hope that I help others with my writing. It was both terrifying to write (relive) and liberating to release. I am also grateful that I write for it has truly made me examine my memories, thoughts and feelings.

  20. Pingback: Excess Baggage | I choose how I will spend the rest of my life

  21. Judith sent me. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story. My heart breaks whenever I hear of a young child being mistreated. I’m glad to hear a story of triumph and victory after living under these circumstances, and this is the legacy you will carry forward for the generations that follow you. Thanks again, for writing the words of your heart.

  22. Your well-articulated post hurt so to read. Like you, I don’t have many childhood memories. My father will die soon, and I am glad. My siblings and I suffered physical abuse at his hands, emotional abuse from both him and my mother – and his words continue even now. The two of them also verbally abused us. I tried very hard to break the cycle with my own children. But I find myself unable to believe I am enough, that I am worthy, that I have a use and purpose on this planet. God bless you, my dear, for speaking out.

  23. Talk to me...I'm your Mother

    Thank you for your bravery in sharing. I’m one of those parents who spanked and was spanked (as I have written), yet I hope It was ignorance and not anger; punishment and not sheer brutality. And as a child I was thankful that my father did the physical punishment since my mother was much less rational.
    When we know better, we do better. And my children have done better.

  24. First, I feel so sad for that little girl (s) and send wishes for better things to come.
    Second, that is exactly the same upbringing my (ex)husband had right down the line but his continued unabated until he went into the service. To this day I feel that was one of the problems in our marriage. I was blessed to come from a relatively good childhood and I think envy and resentment caused him to resent our children and eventually me. I could sympathize with, but never totally understand that kind of abuse.

  25. Friend, your persistence in the direst of circumstances alone would qualify you as a tremendous heroine, but that you now dared to revisit a past you’d done your best to leave behind, in order to shed light in dark places and free others from them–that, in my view, puts a genuine halo on your head. Sainthood isn’t about being perfect or coming from perfection, it’s about living in the face of all that *isn’t* perfect and finding a way to be wise, loving and joyful in spite of all that, something you are so evidently doing. I am deeply moved by both your strength and your willingness to show vulnerability in this way. You are inspiring. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Kathryn, thank you for those supportive and thoughtful words. This was a very difficult post to write, but very cathartic. Thanks for coming by, for reading, and for your heartfelt comment.

  26. Pingback: WHEN A MOTHER FAILS TO HELP HER OWN KIDS – 10 YEAR OLD STEPS UP TO HELP HER SISTERS « THE WORD WARRIOR Bonju Blog

  27. I followed the link at Deb’s place back to you.
    I do not have the words but can only say, I am so so sorry and how much I admire the strong caring diamond who was formed in that dreadful crucible.

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