A Double-Edged Sword: Abuse As A Topic
Author’s Note: I wrote this post several weeks ago after being bombarded by an avalanche of negative family responses to my post about aging parents. I didn’t write it to justify anything or apologize or to help them understand. I’m a writer. I had to write it. After the fallout, I wasn’t going to post it, but revisiting it, I thought what the hell? I’m a writer. It’s what I do.
Being a writer means being an observer. Listening and watching people go about the messy business of life is our nature. I primarily write fiction, but I also weave a lot of the people around me into my characters.
I recently spent a lot of time with a person who I realized is the voice of Satan in my novel about Hell. Not in a bad way, but this guy’s attitude is exactly the POV I envisioned. I can’t explain it. It just is.
I’ve deliberately avoided publishing or posting anything serious about my family because it’s close. Too close to the quick. All of my work is dear to my heart, but the issues in my family were, in part, too sad for me to look at with seriousness.
I’ve been called spawn. I’ve been called uncouth and ungrateful. I’ve been called coarse and crass. I believe I’ve been disowned, at least that’s what I think “I hope you die and rot in Hell” means. All because I don’t worship my parents at the alter of “we don’t talk that way about family.” Not talking that way about family kept me in an abusive marriage for ten years. F*&^ that.
My most recent post about the struggles of dealing with my mother’s oncoming dementia hurt. It hurt to write. It hurt not to write. I look at that piece and still see only sorrow and mourning for people growing old. Nothing I wrote was untrue. That, I think, is the most painful. Of course, it’s the first piece of mine that my parents would read.
I’m sorry. Oh, I’m not sorry I wrote it. I am sorry that they don’t know me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t brutally honest with them fifteen years ago. I tried to be gentle because they’re my parents. My parents never deliberately hurt me. It happened unconsciously and as a matter of habit.
To clarify, I was never burned with a hot poker. I wasn’t starved or forced to live chained. I can count on two hands the number of times I was spanked. They used a two inch by a quarter inch board with the words, “Reserved for Julia’s Bottom” written on it. They kept it in a kitchen drawer. I can tell you I remember only twice when I was left with welts and bruises.
The rest of the time it was the face slap. Swift and without warning, either of them could land it at the slightest infraction. I flinched whenever my father reached for something until I was thirty.
As a counterpoint, I also had a great childhood. I grew up in the ‘drank out of the hose’ generation when seat belts were a nuisance, and station wagons had rumble seats facing out the back. No helmets, no knee pads. Three channels on the television and cartoons only on Saturday.
My parents took me camping and water skiing. I learned to snow ski and remember when lift tickets cost fifteen dollars at King Soopers.
My mother was the volatile, lose her temper type. My father was cool in a crisis, but could lose it over the tiniest of things. When he snapped, he grabbed you by the throat and shook you silly. A couple of times, I remember bruises and scratches. Several shirts ripped, but that too happened infrequently. This was the age of corporal punishment. “After all, they were spanked and they turned out all right.”
I am a survivor of sexual molestation. It doesn’t matter who did it. It wasn’t either of my parents. From the age of approximately three-years-old off and on until I was eleven or twelve, I was touched, fondled, coerced into performing oral sex and taught to ‘play house’. I didn’t tell my parents until I was almost seventeen after I nearly vomited all over my date while necking in the bed of his truck. He had brushed his fingers along the inside of my thigh. Something I still cannot stand today.
I had sex for the first time to see if I was a virgin or not. My mother had refused to take me to the doctor to find out. I had just turned eighteen and had graduated high school. He was a boy I knew from school. Goodness, he was cute and sexy. He was kind and gentle. We danced to Quicksilver Girl while watching The Big Chill. He spent the night. I have nothing but fond memories of him. It could’ve been worse. It would get much worse.
It was also a time when child abuse wasn’t a thing. Kids were hit and spanked. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Sexual abuse was unheard of in the public arena. I think I remember an after-school special about a girl who seduced her older brother-in-law, but it wasn’t about abuse. It was about sibling jealousy and evil girls. My maternal grandparents used a belt and liked to lock my mother in the dark. That was a house of screaming and yelling too. My grandmother tried to shoot my grandfather. Not a lot of love, or maybe too much.
My parents fought like hell when I was younger. Big squalling rants by my mother while my father would go silent. He could go days without speaking to anyone. She would follow him around in a frenzy. There was no shortage of broken dishes, crashed plants, and a time she pushed my father’s Moto Guzzi over. Once she crashed the car into our house trying to hit my father, who stood in the driveway. The El Camino! I was in the passenger seat. Sure, we tell it funny now.
My mother is a sharp-tongued woman. I used to think she was sassy, but over time learned it was mostly mean. “Why aren’t you wearing make-up? You look so pretty when you do.” “Garduno women are always fat. You’re going to be struggling with being fat your entire life.” She packed SlimFast for lunch off and on from the time I was fourteen. I was on some diet or another throughout my adolescence. She gave me her amphetamine prescription three months before my wedding so I wouldn’t be fat in the pictures.
I have a love for old and new movies courtesy of my mother. My father worked some nights, and we watched television.
I once was grounded for an entire summer because I double pierced my ear. I didn’t get to the second one, and it hurt too damn much. My neighborhood friends would come to hang out in the side yard by my window. The one with the screen I removed so I could sit on the sill and hang out. My parents only held me to it for a month, but it was a fun month.
I never lacked for anything. Both of my parents worked. I was a latchkey kid, but on average we ate dinner together four nights a week. I grew up eating wheat bread and deli cheese compared to Wonder Bread and cheese product wrapped in plastic. I have the same story everyone has…I don’t eat lima beans. Ever. It was the ‘you will sit there and eat until they’re gone’ story. Cold lima beans, shudder. My hubby doesn’t care for sweet potato for the same reason.
For the most part, I was what is now termed a ‘free range kid’. Outside of getting sick or getting busted at school, I raised myself. I was a pretty easy kid overall. My trouble didn’t spill into my parents’ awareness. I like to think it’s because I was clever, but some of it was kindness and luck.
I saved up over two hundred dollars to buy a new waterski the summer after I turned eighteen. After a random, self-destructive night, I feared I was pregnant. I turned to my mother for help. “Well, you’ll have to use your waterski money for an abortion because your father and I certainly won’t help you.” That was the last word from her about it. Fortunately, after a few torturous weeks, I found out I wasn’t. Not because she took me to the doctor, but because my period started. It was the first time I asked to see a counselor about the sexual abuse. “Are you kidding? We don’t need to talk about IT. You’ll get over it.”
No one knew any better.
The first time I called 911 for my mother I was ten or eleven. She was suffering from a multi-drug interaction. It was the beginning of her chronic medical emergencies and surgeries. I will be brutal. I think she likes the attention. Not to say my mother hasn’t had some real medical issues, but she manages to find doctors who are willing to reaffirm her ailments.
My mother is a talented artist. I wish she’d discovered it in my childhood. I think she would have felt recognized and valued for something other than her most recent illness.
I attended college. First at Colorado State University and later at Metropolitan State College. It was the day and age when you could work a summer to pay for a semester of school. My folks helped me pay for most of my first Bachelors degree.
There is more to my life. Obviously, somewhere along the line, I had a failed, abusive marriage and three kids. Longer story. Suffice it to say, I returned home twice for help to get away from the marriage. The first time a year into my marriage after my ex held me hostage in our house for three days after writing profanities in permanent ink all over my body, beating me up, and attempted rape. Full disclosure, I had random, self-destructive sex with a stranger. They sent me back with a “You deserved it.” The second time was ten years and three kids into the very broken marriage. Full disclosure, my ex was convinced I was having an affair with a co-worker. They refused to help with a “You’ve made the mess. Clean it up yourself.” Upon return to my home, my ex broke my nose, cracked my cheekbone, and damaged my larynx in a strangulation attempt.
I don’t tell this story to blame them. I sincerely feel it was the best thing that happened to me at the time because I, me, and myself had to get my poop in a group.
A person can grow up both being loved and abused. Not criminally abused. I wasn’t whipped, flogged, or water boarded. It was more of a ‘they don’t know any other way to do it’ situation.
There are days I hate my parents. Hell, my own kids have those days about me. There are days I love my parents. I’ve never blamed them for anything that happened to me. The sexual abuse wasn’t their fault. The lack of knowledge about the effects of sexual abuse wasn’t their fault.
I’m a parent of three kids and for a long time I did it solo. The minute I hurled a shoe at my four-year old’s head in fury was the minute I chose not to become my parents. Not my raging-tempered mother. Not my violent over nothing father. It was a choice to find a different way to be a parent.
Have I made mistakes as a mother? Boy howdy, I have. Being a parent is torture some days. I understand my parents did the only thing they knew how, but I will not pretend our life was perfect. I don’t think my childhood was the tenth circle of Hell. It was complicated and messy and yes, damaging.
I have no delusions about the people my parents are. It’s a hard truth to learn about your parents. They are human. Flawed, frail, and broken. As they grow older, they have changed even more.
When my mother was speaking to me, she would say how proud she was of me. I believe her. I also know it took her three years and digging it out from under a pile to read my first book. Even I don’t know what that says about our relationship. The only reason they read the Drama Mama post was because someone in the family sent it to them under the auspice of protecting them from my maligning, delusional attack.
Over the course of my own struggles, I’ve fought hard for the clarity to say, “This is Reality. No matter how many times you say it’s not.” I may joke about my mother’s idiosyncrasies, but it doesn’t excuse the behavior and she knows better. She’s told me hundreds of times, “I should probably see a therapist.” It’s that self-awareness that makes me the angriest.
I’ve done the work. It sucks, but you can grow into a better person. They’re just not interested in trying. And that’s okay. It is what it is.
My mother and father aren’t terrible people. I know terrible people. They are damaged and I accept that about them. They put on their best dress manners and are charming for the short term. Three days, if the visit is longer than three days they slip and show their ill-mannered, bite. It’s not good or bad, it just is.
Neither this post nor Drama Mama contains fabrication. Some family members are going to write me off as a hater. I know a few family members have declared me a free-range lunatic and my parents’ put-upon, innocent and slandered souls. Some family members have outright attacked me. That’s okay. No matter how many times you say something isn’t, it doesn’t change anything.
Call me pathetic, call me spawn, call me whatever makes you feel better. I have no control over it. I do take issue with delusional because as anyone who grew up with some kind of abuse, finding and holding onto what’s real is a hard fought scrabble.
And lest you forget, I know a lot about your own closet of skeletons, dear family. When you say “pointing a finger at someone leaves four pointed back at you” I suggest you take your own advice because last time I checked, I know about your foibles and upsets.