This is number two in a multi-part narrative. For those of you who are joining our story already in progress, you may want to go back and read ‘reaction junkie‘ in the archives.
• • •
I was beaten so often as a child that for several years I had huge thick calluses on my butt and upper thighs. I almost always had a couple of large bruises or the splotch of broken blood vessels on my back or belly or some other less frequently beleagured body part. Occasionally I had small burns on my arms or face. I often had bruises and scabs on my throat or upper arms where my mother’s fingernails dug deep enough to break the skin.
It’s the stories of my physical abuse that people usually find most horrific. I mention the scope of it here only for context, so that you will have some frame of reference when I tell you that comparatively, the physical abuse was a cakewalk. As counterintuitive as it may seem, I’d have endured twice as much physical pain if it would have saved me from the mental and emotional abuse.
• • •
For most of my childhood, my father worked long hours in an office and my mother stayed at home. I had no siblings. No family lived nearby, and my parents rarely had visitors of any sort. So much of the time it was just my mother and me.
My mother used disposable dishrags in the kitchen, these striped paper-cloth things that we used until they fell apart, and then threw away. It was very important that they be squeezed out properly and laid along the side of the sink to dry out so they didn’t sour. That much I knew.
The exact placement of the dishrag was a different matter. We had a double stainless-steel sink. My mother told me to lay the dishrag out along the center divider (perfectly flat, of course, because any wrinkles might cause mildew). So I did.
Until she went to wash her hair. My mother washed her hair in the kitchen sink, rather than in the bath or shower. And she would find the dishrag on the sink divider and fly into a rage, because it was in her way. How could she wash her hair with the dishrag in the middle like that? It was supposed to go on the side of the sink.
So I did. Until the next time she went into the kitchen to rinse a dish, and found the dishrag on the side of the sink and flew into a rage. She couldn’t set the rinsed glasses on the counter because the dishrag was in her way. It was supposed to go in the middle, between the two sinks.
She’d scream and hit me for the one thing, and then scream and hit me for the other. If I protested that she’d told me to put it there, she’d deny it and tell me I was crazy, that it had always belonged … wherever she currently wanted it. If I persisted, she’d beat me for lying.
Take that incident, and multiply it times two or three per hour, every hour that I wasn’t in school or asleep (and I didn’t get a lot of sleep). For almost seventeen years. “Wash this load of clothes, and use a half-cup of detergent and cold water.” Five minutes later she’d open the washing-machine, look at the quantity of suds, and demand, “How much soap did you use?”
“Half a cup.”
“I told you to use a quarter cup!” And I’d be punished for having not paid attention, and again for wasting water because the clothes would have to be washed again, and again for talking back when I protested, sobbing, that I only did what she told me to do. Next time I’d get the soap right but use the wrong temperature water. Or I’d put an item in the wrong load. Or she’d decide there were chocolate cookies missing, or the thermostat had been moved. A million tiny things, each a punishable offense. I’ve hated chocolate my whole life. Who ate the cookies, then? I don’t know. It must be me, because there was no one else.
For years I thought I was crazy. Then I thought she was crazy. Sometimes I thought we were both crazy. Reality was utterly fluid. No safety anywhere, in anything. Just me and my mother, and no one else.
• • •
Today is my mother’s fifty-fifth birthday.
I’ve got a point in mind, but I need to take you by the scenic route, because without a lot of context I don’t know how much sense it will make. It may take me several entries to get where I’m going. And I’m a little worried that I won’t be able to tell it well enough to make anyone understand. But I know I have to try.
• • •
To say that I was abused as a child wouldn’t really convey the magnitude of the situation. It was a lot more like seventeen years of relentless, purposeful, systematic torture. Rather than digress into a proof of that here and now, for the purpose of this entry I’m going to ask you to just accept that as given.
My mother was a monster at home, but she had an excellent public facade. I suppose it probably didn’t stand up well under close scrutiny — as I think back, she only really had one friend during my entire childhood. (Lacking any basis for comparison, it never occurred to me that this was unusual.) But people who met her in superficial situations tended, so far as I could ever tell, to think she was perfectly normal.
I was about thirteen before I began to really catch on to just how unusual my home life was. But I didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone, because I thought I’d be revealing some horrible thing about me that would cause them to despise me. My parents presented everything as my fault, and I had no one to tell me otherwise.
My sophomore year in high school I got involved in drama, and among that group I made real friends for the first time. After being at best outcast and at worst a pariah among my peers ever since I was in preschool, suddenly I had a sympathetic audience … and the floodgates opened, spilling out the stories of fifteen years of abuse in a rush.
I became a reaction junkie. It was indescribably gratifying for me to mention one relatively small incident and watch the shock and horror it produced in my listeners. Every moment of sympathy and belief from someone else was like cold water on a burn. I’d never had that before, and I couldn’t get enough.
One of my best friends that year was a girl named H. After some months of close friendship at school and through drama, I invited her to spend the night at my house. This was something I rarely did; I’d learned early that there was no quicker way to lose a potential friend, because my mother would humiliate and punish me in front of the other girl. No one ever wanted to come back, and most wanted nothing to do with me after an experience like that.
Like all of my drama friends, though, H knew a great deal about what I went through at home, and hadn’t shunned me yet. So I took the risk. We saw a movie and she spent the night; my mother took her usual tack — pleasant towards H, vindictive towards me. The next day H’s mother came over to pick her up, and she and my mother chatted amiably for — oh, maybe half an hour or so.
That conversation spelled the end of my friendship with H. Her mother decided, after meeting mine, that I was lying about my parents and my home life, and H believed her mother rather than me. She severed our friendship in a nasty public scene in the school cafeteria sometime not long after. I was shocked and hurt by her abandonment, but it was her disbelief that sent me reeling. It was like having the floor yanked out from under me. I needed to be believed. It had become my lifeline.
That was the most severe example. Several other people thought I was exaggerating, or else just made it clear that they didn’t care. I didn’t try talking directly to any adults because I didn’t trust people in authority, generally speaking, and I had no reason to think anyone other than my friends would believe me.
Many of the drama group did believe me and tried to be supportive, but over the months wore thin under pressure. I suspect that I pleaded and pushed for a level of sympathy and attention that would have been enormous for any adult, never mind teenagers who were angst-filled and uncertain in their own right. A couple of them eventually told me that they couldn’t stand to hear about my problems anymore, because the enormity of my situation made them feel like their own problems were insignificant by comparison — but of course it didn’t make those problems go away, it only made them feel guilty and selfish. And they blamed and resented me as the source of those feelings.
I owe an enormous debt to the kids who stuck with me anyway. I was grateful at the time, but also terribly demanding, and it was only years later that I began to truly realize how difficult it must have been for them.
L was one of the ones who offered unfaltering support. I didn’t know when she began reporting to her parents what I was telling her about mine, nor did she tell me that their response was that I had to be making this stuff up for the attention it brought me. I’m not precisely certain why — I’m guessing that the stories were just so … extreme that it was easier to believe that a teenager would be lying than that such things could really go on in an apparently normal upper-middle-class household.
This had been going on for some months when the local PBS station held its annual fundraising auction. My parents both volunteered to answer phones, and I went with them to be a gopher (run around and bring things to people). As it happened, L’s parents were also volunteering, running some part of the auction. L and her younger brother came to the studio with them. (I don’t recall for certain, but I don’t think I knew in advance that L’s family was involved or expected to see them there.)
At one point soon after we arrived, my mother and I ran into L and her father. We all said hello and chatted briefly, and then went our separate ways. Later my mother let me go find L and hang out with her. At which point L got me off by myself and told me that she’d been confiding in her parents, that they hadn’t believed her, and then delivered the following message:
L’s father had met me before, but the surprise was that he’d also met my mother. He worked for the State Department of Transportation, and my mother worked as a transportation consultant or somesuch for the Chamber of Commerce. They’d come across each other professionally at some point in the recent past.
But he’d never, until seeing us that night, realized that that woman had any connection to his daughter’s friend. After seeing us together, L’s dad turned to her and told her that now he understood. And he told her to tell me that very night that if I ever needed someplace to go, I could come to them. Which she did.
I have no idea what had passed between L’s father and my mother that primed him to believe that she was a monstrously abusive parent. I didn’t even put any stock in the “if you need someplace to go” part — at the time that bounced right off me. I was too busy boggling at the fact that an adult actually believed me.
Turns out he meant it, because when I finally ran away from home, L’s family took me in. But that was later, and another story.