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.
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.