In which I take a jackhammer to the cement encasing my personal Chernobyl
tells shows you who they are, believe them."
--attr. to Maya Angelou
Whatever I said, whatever I did I didn't mean it
I just want you back for good
Whenever I'm wrong just tell me the song and I'll sing it
You'll be right and understood
--"Back for Good" by Take That, 1995
The books and the teachings all said that a wife must submit to everything except for sin. And making me give away my car wasn’t sin. In fact, it was a good deed. Why was I so selfish? What was wrong with me?
So I sadly but obediently gave away my cute little car to a poor man who worked at our Bible school (not telling him that I *had* to, of course) and then had to get up an hour early in order to drive Mark to work every morning. That hour early was horrid. I had to drop Mark off and then sit in the parking lot of my work for an hour every morning until my job’d doors opened for the day. It was miserable.
He was very displeased at my lack of cheerfulness about the situation, and made sure to let me know, in a pastoral way, that it was a mark of my lack of spirituality. A good Christian would have gladly given up her car at the request of her spiritual leader/husband, you see. Spiritual leaders know best, and the role of a follower is to cheerfully submit.
"Shutting off my Brain, Part 4" from "The Tale of a Passionate Housewife Desperate For God," by Journey
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it
--Omar Khayyam, E. Fitzgerald translator.
This is not a linear narrative, because I did not experience it linearly, but in a Groundhog Day
way, cycles of events repeating over and over again - or more like some video game in which one must keep rerunning dungeons, fighting the same bosses over and over again because there's no save point, and no way to skip ahead either. This is a Rashomon
narrative, because all narratives are Rashomon-style narratives - the way I
remember my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, and tried with the fury of a thousand suns to burn out of my mind, to ignore and cover over by living in the present, by telling myself that since it was all over and done now and only I'd been hurt it didn't matter - except that wasn't true, it wasn't "over" and it did
matter, as every single younger child in my family has gone through self-harming and depressive episodes too.
My father always claimed that he loved me, just like he loved my mother, and that the fact that he'd adopted me proved that he loved me even more than an ordinary parent.
At odds with that was how he behaved to her and to me in the subsequent years.
--People would say to me even as a kid - other children even, who already knew something of the ways of the world and were not always fooled by words: "Probably your father is so hard on you because you're not really his
," as if that were both necessary and sufficient condition for abuse - but even as a kid I knew that wasn't it, or not all of it: partly that was mere logic, because he was also
similarly hard on the rest of us, so it couldn't be mere genes determining reaction; he pulled the same stuff on my siblings who were his biologically, so it seemed to be more a problem with parenting generally, since absence of shared DNA was neither necessary nor sufficient.
And yet - there was always something
going on between us that I could never fully nail down, something nebulous and yet undeniable, like the Pleiades, some extra hostility and bitterness against me that went beyond the usual "you children just want my money/you children don't appreciate how hard I work for you,.you children hate your old man and dream of pushing him down the stairs in his wheelchair/a prophet is without honor in his own country/you don't appreciate what a sensitive soul I am/you're all trying to persecute me by [not getting perfect grades/jumping on the furniture/being loud on the stairs/etc]/if it weren't for me you'd be starving on the streets, I own everything that is yours and don't you ever forget it/etc" that he subjected us all to, daily.
I always loyally replied, "No, he hates us all equally," -- but sometimes I couldn't help but wonder if there was not, in fact, some sort of male dominance thing going on whereby he was jealous of my sperm donor's prior intercourse with his wife and I was the unerasable reminder of it--
Well, I wasn't wrong that there was more there than an angry suburban dude feeling trapped by his familial responsibilities, but it was way
worse than that.
Some time ago, in the course of one of his perennial attempts to get me to tell him it was all okay and he's not a Bad Person for having abused me all those years because he couldn't help it due to his background while simultaneously acknowledging that really I deserved it for being such a bad kid
, I finally got the real
explanation, the key that made sense of so bloody much which hadn't even made sense
Some of the seriously crazy-making things I could sort of figure out, over the years, like the way he would hurl the accusation that "I look so much like her" as if that were justification for his losing his temper at me in some outrageous fashion for some trifle or misunderstanding.
If he hated her, but wasn't allowed
to hate her in his mind, that made me, I suppose, a particularly good stand-in, the queen's tanist to be sacrificed in her stead, from a psychological perspective, but when he would switch from proclaiming her perfect sanctity and wonderfulness and how he failed to appreciate her while she was still alive, to in the course of a harangue over something like how I obviously hated the whole family and wanted their ruin because I had selfishly gotten myself a cup of coffee after everyone else had gone to bed while I was staying up cramming for my thesis defense and disturbed his slumbers and did I want him to be too tired to go to work? so he wouldn't be able to feed us? and then where would I be? and even if I
was too stupid/selfish to care didn't it bother me that my poor little brothers and sisters would be out on the street and etc etc etc and suddenly throwing in how I thought my mother was a saint and perfect and loved me and could do no wrong and if I only knew what she was really
like and really had done I wouldn't think that way - when I hadn't mentioned her at all, and was wondering where the heck that
had come from? quite apart from it not being true and not having
been true for a decade or more--
Things like that - which happened more than once over the years in varying scenarios - gave me the hint that perhaps he wasn't quite
as reconciled and forgiving to her as he always said; but why he (afaik) always used that line of attack on me
and not the other kids, why he would gloat that he knew things about her that would shatter my illusions (snort) while refusing to tell me them, saying that I was "too young" and no, no, I couldn't handle them - when it turned out that I'd already at the time
figured out most of it, I only had the particular individual under suspicion wrong for natural and obvious reasons (thought it was acquaintance X instead of acquaintance Y because Y was a nasty, crass, vulgar little twerp), and I had assumed that his Othellan suspicions had to have been in error at the time, because otherwise my mother would have had to have been lying on a regular basis about a lot of things, and I hadn't thought that
about her, at least. For some reason he seemed to blame me
for his longstanding problems with my mother, and that never made any sense to me. You wanted to marry her since you were teenagers together, she gave you what you wanted, and then you treated her like dirt because she wasn't a perfect housewife and she hated you in return
- but how did I
But under the liberating influence of alcohol I finally got the missing piece of information that chained it all together: he had often asserted to me, sometimes in maudlin self-pity, sometimes in those hate-filled tongue-lashings, that "she never loved me" which I dismissed as blather because, well, that would make her a serial liar since she always insisted to me
that she loved him, when as a small child I would ask her why we had to stay with him when he was always so mean to us? and didn't that mean they didn't really love each other--? Though I didn't have the wide study of disfunctional relationships, that would have explained to me that her frequent refrain, "Love is wanting what's best for people, and the best thing a good woman can do is marry an unsaved man and bring him to Jesus, just like St. Monica did," was not
love but a messed-up need to play the Rescuer, a very common love-mimic. --And then even more cynically, to wonder if that meant that she didn't like doing oral unreciprocated or didn't like being always "on call" as so many guys meant when they complained of "unloving" wives.
It wouldn't have occurred to me that she was so
false and using that she would accept a proposal of marriage, as I learned that inebriated hour, to a man she didn't love at all that she knew and had known for years had been obsessed with her, and tell him directly after the ceremony that she only did it because she had decided his proposal was a Sign From God in answer to her prayers that a father for me would come along to save her from her lack of parenting skills - IOW, to no longer be dependent on her own father's benevolence and her grandparents to support and raise me when she was at work. (Because only a fool would think that some random jerk with a bad temper and no experience of raising children or even being around them would automatically make a Good Father just by virtue of posessing a penis.)
This doesn't excuse
anything: nothing kept him
, not being Catholic then, from walking away in disgust; nothing forced him to stay with a woman who had married him to get out of her parents' home again and let him think it was a reciprocation of his long-professed regard, and use this deception as justification for making her life and her child's life a living hell thereafter while in the process making his own no less of one.
But it does explain
why I got made the Scapegoat so early and so persistently. I had been scapegoated by my own mother, without any say in the matter, and betrayed into the trap of hate before I had a chance. No wonder my father never actually saw
me, never interacted with me
as a child, and no wonder he became so weird
to me when I hit puberty, and treated me so erratically and strangely the older I got - and looked. And at least I knew what he had to forgive
her for, when all those years his sufferings at her hands and voice had looked to me like nothing but blowback for his bullying and male chauvinist piggery to her--
couldn't forgive her for doing that to all of us, for laying that curse on our relationship from before it started: that revelation broke something crucial in the drive-train of my soul, where I had begun to come a bit to terms with her personal responsibility for her own choices and stopped simply exonerating her as a poor helpless feeble Victorian victim, locked into a marriage she couldn't escape by her religious duty, which was the only way I had been able to stand her or
her memory; looking at her as someone who made horribly flawed choices and considering why
had allowed me to balance them with her positive aspects, or what I thought they were: integrity, affection, altruism, and artistic talent. Learning that she had
tried at one point to leave the family for another man - though only after refusing to allow my father to leave her - put paid to that
notion entirely, and explained why at various times in their battles my father would try to turn my younger siblings against her by declaiming loudly "You poor little children, your mother doesn't love you," when she had run away to church; my silent retort at the time was "No, she doesn't love you
," but there was a "House Carpenter" situation going on as well, it turns out.
And all I could think after hearing all this was, So he was right then, about her not loving us children, it wasn't just a delusional rant at the time
and then I saw a red haze that I haven't been able to disperse since, whenever I think about this mess, because it also
made sense of why she never protected me
from him, and why the older I got and the worse it got the more she would join in, even, in picking on me - if I
was the Reason she was trapped in an unhappy marriage - never mind that she had chosen
to make me the reason, that I had never asked to be taken from grandparents and great-grandparents who loved and wanted me and given to the tender mercies of a violent and volatile stranger - then of course
she would externalize the family problems onto me, as much as possible, and make my
failings the "reason" there was friction in the family, even more than the rest of the children. If it hadn't been for me, she wouldn't have been stuck in this situation - never mind that it was her
choice to enter it, and her choice to stay. If she had actually given a damn about me, she wouldn't have let my father abuse me until I started biting myself and clawing holes in my scalp, but rather left me with her side of the family, who actually wanted
me to stay with them.
Yeah, he was right, that night when he was chewing me out for having been clumsy enough to let a cup clink, -- in a sense: I wasn't shocked or appalled that she wanted to leave him for another man, only by which
man, because it had been clear to me then, even in junior high, that she hated him and really, was he
surprised that she found alternatives more attractive, given his brutal behavior for the past decade? Even that she had lied about women not being subject to sexual passions the way men were, refusing to take back the lie even after discovering its untruth for herself, was a not-particularly-suprising denial. But once I knew the reason behind the whole damned mess, right down to the divorce refusals and counter-refusals, the role that had been forced on me and the position of catalyst
that had been assigned to me - no, I couldn't even even excuse her as a poor mixed-up kid when she committed social predation for a second time yet boasted of how much better she was than the Becky Sharps of the world thanks to her wedding ring, let alone someone who was trapped by her own strongly-held principles, not with her adamant rejection of divorce until
she had an overriding desire to get out and do her own thing. So much for principles! The best I could do, and have been able to do, is to say, well, tapeworms need guts, as much as foxes need hens.
When I was three my mother remarried - or married for the first time, depending on whether you accept civil marriage as a real thing regardless whether the Church declares that it never existed - after getting an annulment, to a man she had been friends, or at least comrades with, in high school, and who had "carried a torch" for her ever since, and we moved out of her parents' house, where we had been living with my grandparents and great-grandparents ever since her father had showed up to rescue us from dire poverty overseas where she had been scraping by for a year or so as a soldier's cast-off ex.
Now, there are two conflicting reports, which cannot both be true, of why my stepfather - whom I have always called my father, as my sperm donor was never in the picture - was allowed to "discipline" me as harshly as he subsequently was by my mother: the story which I believed without question until I was in my latter teens, and only hesitantly began to question then when certain present facts seemed to contradict it, which is that I was as a tot such
a monster of defiance and uncontrollable bad behavior that I needed
to be severely punished and constrained for my own good, because my grandparents and great-grandparents had "spoiled me rotten" by giving me everything I wanted, and being belt-whipped and locked in my room for hours on end and lectured about how sinful I was for even more hours was the only way to save me from my wicked nature.
Possibly this is true: possibly, I was just the worst preschooler in the western world, the Bad Seed who had to be savagely tamed for my own good as well as that of everyone around me. I concede the possibility, as I accepted it and repeated it unquestioningly for so many years, defending my early treatment as necessary and out of lovingkindness for me.
version is that I was a perfectly normally rowdy, not even particularly hyper, three-year-old who wasn't any more rebellious and bratty than usual and who did not need to have her spirit forcibly broken any more than a yearling colt needs to be "tamed" with a two-by-four. Lending support for this wussy liberal Dr. Spock notion is my father's own word, directly conceding this - "I was too hard on you - we were too hard on you, but we were young and had no experience with children and didn't know any better, so you can't really blame us," - as well as the fact that when I was required to be the babysitter for my younger siblings, and keep them quiet and sort out their quarrels, my father would rebuke me for being "too harsh on them" when they were being much rowdier, rude, or rebellious than I had ever managed as a child.
Either that level of misbehavior was
worthy of far harsher punishments than I ever meted out, or
it wasn't, but it couldn't be both - not and be a rational, objective thing. If I deserved to be spanked hard for drawing on the wall as a five year old, then surely they
did not deserve no
punishment at all beyond a stern warning not to do it yet again; if they did not deserve anything but a talking-to, then surely I had not deserved so much worse, in justice.
Some who I've discussed this last aspect with, have suggested that the reason it was "wrong" for me to scold my siblings or give them short time-outs for things that had (or would have if I had ever dared to do them) gotten me whipped and locked up for hours was because they
were my father's biological children, and I was not; but if it were it was not an acknowledged thing by any of us. And since he was harsher than I was, as a babysitter, it tended to be more an act of dominance, an undercutting of my authority even while it had been nominally given to me, as he played "Good Cop" and "Fun Father" to my obligate "Joyless Mother" role for a brief while--
Complicating the storyline is the combined version, which I got like the first revisionist version, in one of the phone calls my father would make after I moved out of the house and stopped being such an easy target, phone calls in which he would call me up to "apologize" for something and end up spending the whole conversation explaining why either what he had done wasn't really that bad or
he couldn't help doing it because he had so many other burdens or
it was okay because I really deserved it for something, even if not that particular incident. "Yes, I was far too hard on you as a child - but you really were a horrible brat, you know" - which was an interesting synthesis as "you made me hurt you" had never before been combined
with an acknowledgment that the hurting had been out of line.
That was the night when I realized I had to get Caller ID, no matter the expense, because the subsequent sleepless nights spent pacing in my not-always-successful struggle to not
pick up the X-acto knives again was doing nothing at all for my physical health, let alone my barely-maintained mental equilibrium. Either I had deserved it, or I hadn't; either I had been the Bad Seed needing to be beaten into submission - submission which was later mocked as cowardice, when I became ever more afraid of being beaten or otherwise punished, and tried fervently to "be good" in my terror. Because it's the cowardice of a whiny girl
to be afraid of being struck in anger by someone more than twice your size, just as it is to be afraid of being hit with belts and brushes, or to be kept in solitary confinement at the whim of adults who frequently
remind you that they don't have
to feed or clothe or take you to the doctor, let alone let you have books or toys or dessert, they just do so out of the goodness of their hearts and ingratitude is a sin--
I was never afraid of the dark as a small child: I remember playing in the moonlight, before things grew really bad. But it was easier to deal with the monsters under the bed, than the real ones in the house.
Heisenberg's Bastard: because by Church law I both must be, and yet am not, illegitimate; I am
the child of unwed parents, to the Church, or my mother could not have lawfully remarried, and therefore I am
a bastard, or else the word is meaningless. That the Church does
say that the children of those whose marriages are annulled are nevertheless granted legitimacy says that the word is
meaningless, or else the claim that the Sacrament of Marriage creates an ontological difference in sex acts must be a lie, a fiction too - but powerful ones, magic words that have had an awful lot of influence over the real world of stuff.
I used to be ashamed and embarrassed when my younger siblings would say that I was one, using such pure logic, unaware of the arbitrary and inconsistent rules of the Church; but as part of entering the reality-based world I came to embrace it, in all its ambiguity and logical inconsistency, as if it were the medieval title - daughter of a gun, camp follower's bastard, bred and born in the baggage train of empire, never lawful except by self-contradiction several times over, since as the religious grounds for annulment aren't accepted by secular courts, in order to remarry a divorce is required as well to prevent secular bigamy - but the children of divorce are not regarded as bastards by the secular government, so again, someone in my position is simultaneously a bastard and not a bastard at the same time.
(The cast-iron vernacular meaning I count as no disgrace, either.)
Was I a "bad kid," after all? I once scratched some paint on our beat-up old car into "pretty designs" with a nail file, when I was a preschooler but "old enough to know better," once I was playing with scissors and cut a snip in a sheet, once I made a path of stepping-stones with pillows to avoid falling in lava playing tag with the neighborhood kids in our house, once in a squabble I pushed the girl next door off the steps into the dirt, I used to fidget in church, I once picked up a shiny bead that had fallen under a shelf at Woolworth's out of a broken package and carried it out with me, I once parrotted the neighbor lady's favorite phrase, "None of your beeswax" to one of my grandparents when asked what I was doing, all these were heinous sins I committed before I was old enough for first grade, for which I was severely punished by either my mother or my father or both of them. I only did any of them once, except the fidgeting in church.
Oh, and as a three year old I broke a cup which was part of a set belonging to my grandmother because it wasn't the drink I wanted - I had that thrown in my face as proof of my innate wickedness for so many years that I still
feel guilty and horrible remembering it. And I didn't like cleaning my room, and I tended to get distracted from anything I was doing by whatever printed material happened to be at hand...
On the flip side, I got good grades when I started school, I tried to do what I was told, I didn't deliberately break things after that one time, I was excited and happy, not jealous, when my oldest brother was born, and believed that he would be my friend and I wouldn't be lonely now that I was no longer an unfortunate Only Child, I learned how to change his diapers and feed him and get him safely in and out of his playpen and crib, and I vacuumed, even though I didn't enjoy it, and got in trouble for not being very good at it, when the vacuum cleaner weighed as much as I did, and I would hang the laundry and bring it in even though I wasn't very good at it, being a short eight year old, and do the dishes, even though I wasn't very good at that either and got in trouble for crying for being yelled at for not getting them clean enough and not being happy and excited to do my chores --
Other kids at grammar school would ask in a sort of Truth-or-Dare game at lunch, "Which parent do you love/hate more?" And I would always say that I loved both my parents the same, because by my mother's rigorous definition of love, love was wanting the best for someone else, love was wanting them to go to Heaven when they died, and hate
was wanting them to go to Hell. So I didn't want my father to go to Hell, we weren't supposed to want that for anyone - but I did want him to just go away and leave me alone, because there was so rarely anything for me but pain in his presence. At best he'd forget I existed, and that was okay, that was generally the best I could hope for, although occasionally he'd be good company - but that never lasted very long, a few hours at best before he started sneering at me or making fun of the books that I liked or telling me to go away, or worse.
--I can number all the times that my father was explicitly and specifically kind to me, before our mother died, and that is stretching to include things like allowing me to watch while he worked on a project without shouting at me or swatting me for getting too close, or letting me listen to a record I liked instead of taunting me and teasing me before perhaps giving in ; they were so few and far between, and so surprising when they happened, that they stand out like gold flecks against the dreary sameness of alternate cruelty and aloofness.
Is this normal? I know people who say that their fathers were always fun, always caring, always kind men who tried to be available instead of shoving their children away and making them feel bad for even asking for anything; I know women who say things like "oh, fathers are always nicer to their daughters" because that is apparently their experience, no matter how surreal these statemens sound to me. I don't think
I should have to wonder if I can include "didn't hit me that time on a family outing" or "let me go on a field trip without making a bit deal about it" or "gave me something left over after he finished making a present for my brother" in order to make the list fill out a dozen, maybe most
good parents don't like going to their children's activities and either don't, or turn it into a huge cookie-demanding production when they do that makes it more trouble than it's worth, maybe most
good parents usually do force their children to beg and plead and abase themselves to win any sort of concessions, the way my father used to force my brothers to kiss his shoes if they wanted to go to a movie with friends, to prove how serious was their desire to see it; maybe there's nothing off at all about that.
Even when he wasn't actively gunning for me, that just meant that it was a decreasing matter of time before he would snap and start tearing into me for having failed in something - it was a fearful matter to watch him get "moody" and start stalking around looking for something to start a fight with someone over, and worst of all when I
was the thing he decided to start a fight with my mother over...
I didn't start actively wishing I was dead until after we moved, though. [An Historickal Aside]
Then, he was around more often, and I had no place to go now: I was suddenly no longer allowed to venture around the block - even though we were supposedly moved to a safer state, a safer town - and we had only one car, so we didn't go anywhere when he wasn't at home as we had in the years before he finished grad school and got his job, my mother was now trapped all day at home with us in suburbia, in a house she hated, in a dead mill town with no way to get to the library (she wasn't willing to ride the bus that then came by our house, for some reason, so we never did) or the park as we had before, and as I said my father was also home now, and when he was home he had no distractions, no thesis or dissertation to work on, and no hobbies but picking fights with us.
"When we move to New England it will be perfect, all our family problems will be over, and it will be a wonderful place to live," my mother promised me, over and over again, to console me for losing my friends, to get me to stop crying about the rages my father fell into the closer we got to the end of his school career "because of stress," only it wasn't and they weren't. It was the exact opposite, and she got mad when I would ask her why - why my father was quicker to whack us for getting in his way, why he had even fewer intervals of pleasantness or good, or at least not bad
temper, when we had attained all those things whose absence was supposedly the reason things had been so bad before--?
It got worse, as I got older: but was I a worse child? The parental warfare was escalating every day, my mother no longer had a car to get out of the house, and there were now four of us children and increasing, and so I did the laundry and the dishes and tried to keep the toys and books picked up and cleaned the bathroom and still got good grades in middle school and junior high, never acted out - beyond asking if I could wait until a commercial break or until Buck Rogers was over before going to do my chores (Ans: no, that's selfish and anyway it's a trivial show and do you think that's more important than the family/good of your soul?) - and sometimes not being instantly ready to leave at the end of such after-school activities as I was grudgingly allowed to attend (always with the threat of them being taken away if I were not sufficiently good) or when staying at the few friends' houses I was allowed to visit, and making my father wait an unforgivable five or ten minutes for me to get my stuff together.
It got worse, as I got older: I did not argue with any of my parents' decisions for me, I did not protest when they made me switch schools, to one where I knew nobody
and had no
friends (and was a real mess, too) and I did not ask for new clothes or a fashionable bookbag or protest the ugly uncomfortable shoes he made me wear; when he forced me to wear a coat when I was roasting and feeling faint at a country fair, and when I begged him to allow me to take it off, he flew into a rage and threatened to make the whole family go home and spoil the holiday and it would all be my fault, so I wore it, and was heat-sick and miserable all day, and thereafter I simply stayed home from family outings when I could because there was no way I could deal with that, but I didn't fight, I didn't drink or smoke or do any of the things that "all" teens do to act out; when he noticed I had blackheads and insisted that I start using a particular brand of acne medication I did, and my big huge act of defiance was to quietly stop and switch to a different treatment after the one he said I had to use only gave me what looked like bad windburn on top of the pimples - for this, when I was caught as a refusnik, I was subjected to a tirade about my "arrogance" in thinking I knew better than doctors as well as him, and how I would deserve to have bad skin for my pride -- I didn't, the Neutrogena etc I purchased out-of-pocket worked wonderfully, but what's a little reality weighed against principles of might-makes-right?
Yes, I was a wicked, wicked girl, in high school. That's why he was always bursting into my room to see what I was up to with my door shut, including walking in on me changing clothes sometimes - and then demanding why I was changing my clothes in the middle of the day, as though I were to blame-- No, as a hormonal (hur, hur) teenager I couldn't possibly
have sweated or bled through my clothes once already in the day, it was some sort of bizarre female/teenage/individual thing, that I was putting on a different sweater or pair of slacks at four in the afternoon--
(What was I being so secretive about? No way in hell I was going to let him read my skiffy attempts, or worse yet, my poetry
-- not after the way he mocked me for years and years for what I'd written in middle school and junior high. The fact that he would also sneak up on me and grab me to make me jump and scream, and then laugh about it, when he was being nice
, and encouraged my younger siblings to try to sneak in like ninjas, and do the same - "because your sister needs to be shaken up!" - if I didn't shut my door, was also part of it.)
I changed bedrooms whenever I was ordered to - I had gone from the little room I was in (smaller than the one I'd shared with my brother before we moved) to a tiny room of my own barely long enough to fit a bed in, to the first room shared with multiple siblings to a different room shared with multiple siblings to back to the tiny room without arguing, each time being ranted at that I was taking up valuable space that belonged to the whole family and I should be grateful
to have any space at all and didn't I care about my little brothers and sisters and he was suffering living in this tiny house too but you didn't see him
complaining (only of course we did, but of course you couldn't point it out) and so on until I just wanted to slit my wrists, starting age 11.
This is the horrible thing about my father's haranges: he would insist we be virtuous
, and yet he wouldn't let
us be virtuous. You were never given the opportunity to do something willingly, he would always start in with the assumption that you were going to resist (or even not be overjoyed to serve, the way he
was always overjoyed to do things for us and never, ever resisted or balked at all--!) and then you got the scolding and the laying on of guilt for it as if you had
Or if you said "Okay!" and got right on it, before he could start in on the tirade, then he became suspicious that you were just putting it on, for some reason, trying to pull one over on him, faking virtue to make everyone think
you were a saint, I got accused of this, too, all the time, until I became convinced it was true, that I was Inauthentic
by the time I was twelve - the same if you actually tried to be nice to him, everyone's just after his money or trying to get other things from him, none of us could really feel sorry for him or even just be treating him with normal human interactions in some of his nicer periods, and so it was a Catch-22, and most of us ended up just backing away from him, which resulted in him lamenting that none of his children liked him, nobody wanted to be friends with him, wasn't it so sad? But if you constantly attack people whether or not they attack you first, even when they're trying to have a normal friendly conversation with you, assuming the worst of your dependents (let alone are incapable of apologizing after for the misunderstanding) then you can't be surprised that everyone backs off after getting repeatedly burnt.
But it became clear to me quickly that he resented giving me anything at all - food, clothes, education, medical care (my visual handicap was always thrown in my face as an example of the extreme generosity he lavished on me, getting me glasses) but in particular space
: this wasn't exclusive to me, he mimicked his own father's similar tirades about how he owned the house and everything in it and we just had it on sufferance, nothing was ours
and what the father giveth the father can take away - if he could have claimed to be paying for the air along with the water and electricity and mortgage, then he would have begrudged that
, too. If he could have thrown me out he would have, I often thought then - the way he would tear into me for my room being a mess, saying that this proved I didn't care about any of my stuff, and then threaten to throw away all my books and collectibles until I groveled and wept and begged him not to - because he did
do that, had
done it to our toys in some of his rages - and then he would go away, angry at me for having made
him be a bully...
I knew he hated me, I just didn't know why - the old argument that I was such a monster child and he loathed me because I'd been a brat as a three year old began to wear a little thin, those days.
One of his favorite tricks was to tell one of us to do something, and then get frustrated that a small child wasn't very good at it, and come over and yank the trash bag or whatever it was away from them and declaim loudly about how useless we were, no, no, he would do it himself, he'd just suffer because we were no good, he'd do it, while whichever wretch was the target of it would beg and plead to be allowed to keep trying--
Eventually I would just shrug and let him go on with his self-martyring ranting histrionics, since it was clearly so important that he get to display his physical and moral superiority over children to him, but it took a while before I grew numb to that sort of display.
Whatever I did was done wrong, and whatever I was doing, I should have been doing something else. He couldn't just say, "Would you please take out the trash?" he had to come in while I was drawing or doing my homework or practicing music or reading a book and say "You're not doing anything important
, are you?" and if I tried to say yes - even if it was something I should be doing, under other circumstances - I would get slammed for being selfish and so the only answer was "No" and the result of years and years of that
is that doing anything for myself is so fraught with bad associations and convictions that anything I want to do is wrong and so I get immobilized and have to battle that--
(What I was doing was never
important enough for me to be doing it. If he caught me doing something selfish - like reading a book for pleasure, like drawing - then he would find
some chore for me to do; if he couldn't argue that I shouldn't be doing it - like my homework - then he would grunt and stomp off, thwarted and angry that he hadn't been able to engage in a little bit of domination.)
When I was told starting at 15 that I needed to get a paying job so I wouldn't be a burden on the family - apparently doing my homework and doing the chores (including rinsing out the shit-filled diapers in the diaper pail by hand in the toilet) when I was home was burdening the family - I got one as soon as I was able, and then when I was told I was burdening the family by needing rides to
that job I walked the mile-and-a-half after school each day with all my books, and when I was told that I also needed to start cooking dinner for the whole family and was attacked for not having already volunteered to do so I learned to cook for the whole family, and when my mother got sick I quit my job to help take care of her and the household, and through it all he got nastier and nastier to me, as if my not complaining and not arguing with him and my asking for less and less as I made do, did without, or secured my school supplies for myself out of my own minimum-wage paycheck was an affront in itself.
He said that my mother "never loved him" though he always loved her - yet she was the one who sat and held him in the dark on the porch when he cried for the first time I'd ever seen a man cry, bawling his eyes out over yet another maternal rejection over the phone, yet another paternal mockery of him for being "a loser" - even though he'd taken her great-grandmother's music box that she'd asked him to have repaired, and pawned it, claiming that that was what she had told him to do, and refused to get it back for her, no matter how much she cried.
Why do we stay with him? Why do we have to stay with him? I demanded then - and was told that it was because we were Catholics, and divorce was forbidden, and anyway it was her duty to save his soul...
Sometimes - rarely, randomly - he'd be cheerful and halfway polite to me - politeness was a thing that children gave to adults, but not vice versa in his book, it was always a shock when he actually said "please" to me and "thank you" was even rarer, because he felt it was a stooping to thank an inferior and often had to temper it with some sort of fault-finding, he could never just say "Thanks" and be done with it - but then he would suddenly grow cold and instead of just being oblivious to me, would grunt at me or snap at me while I tried to think what it was I had done wrong or neglected to do. This was when he wasn't having a raging temper tantrum, that is.
Sometimes, if I were lucky, I would find out what it was I was on the outs for - sometimes it was some real, if minor offense; more usually it was something I hadn't done at all, but that he had gotten, through a misunderstanding due to inattention or from who knows where, out of the AU in his own head, fixed in his mind that I had
and thus needed to be punished or shunned - and be able to defend myself; but any such correction (no, I hadn't done X, or X wasn't what he had decided it must be w/o bothering to ask me, in the Star Chamber of his head) was at best a Pyrrhic victory because if proven wrong in judgment he would just go and find something else I had done or failed to do to retroactively "justify" his attack on me.
There wasn't any point in self-defense, iow, in trying to fight back and correct his misunderstandings (escalation!), because he would always
find some fault, because nobody manges to be perfect, particularly before the hypercritical gaze of the perfectionist - or if he couldn't think of one, he'd go for the general attack, demanding if I thought I was perfect and if I didn't know I was a sinner and be honest, you must
have done something wrong in thought if not word or deed - and when you're raised on pre-Vatican-II examinations of conscience of course
you can think of any number of sins or Near Occasions not swiftly-enough avoided to damn yourself utterly.
So better to meekly accept the Penitents' haircloth put on me, and try to find a mental avenue of flight, because I could be damn sure that I didn't want
him to apologize, because if he did
admit that he was wrong, in that one particular instance
, the amount of bile and venom he would have to dump on me to avoid feeling bad about it would be infinitely worse than the initial injustice.
You would think that when this
kept on happening, a reasonable individual would start doubting their own ability to interpret situations and to always assume the worst of his family, but that would require an absence of hubris and a functioning memory. The words "reset button" are powerfully resonanant for me, because that's how we experienced real life in our house. --You think it's frustrating watching a series in which characters fail to learn and grow from experience? Try living
And he did it to all of us, year in, year out. Has he stopped, at long last? Has he finally "mellowed" after all? Beats me. He says so - but then, he always did. And then every couple years it comes out that he's still doing it, as another kid runs away or gets caught cutting or what have you.
The problem was always
that he would say
he was going to (or had) turn over a new leaf, and thus it was unfair to
use pattern recognition in self defense
be wary of him behaving the same way, and we were obliged to act as though amnesiac, to pretend that the past had never happened over and over and over again, and that it was totally unjust to be afraid of repeat bad behavior and to think that it was starting up again - this proved
that we were all bad-faith actors who wouldn't let
him be virtuous! Charlie Brown must
let Sally hold the ball again, or be a wicked judgmental sort who deserves
to have it yanked away from him.
And this virtuous mode would last for a little while, a few hours to a few weeks, before reverting to form - new leaves always withering fast, once turned.
So I had stopped taking professions of reform and a kinder, gentler dad seriously by the time I was twelve - except that I always kept falling for them, too: maybe this
time it would be different, maybe he really had
succeeded in triumphing over Sin and it would be my fault if he backslid because I didn't trust him this time. C'mon, Charlie Brown, kick that football! Promise I won't pull it away!</i> It was easier - if stupider - when I
was the one he was professing to be reformed in regards to, because he could only "be good to" one person at a time, ever, even for a short time and that meant that everyone else got even shorter
straws until it was their
turn, however briefly, to be the recipient of the New Leaf.
This is the key to a huge amount of our disfunction: interesting study has been done and written about the role of the Scapegoat in families, but what I see which turns out to be not unique but differing from the common descriptions in that it wasn't a fixed role but a shifting one, for us. Instead of there being one designated Scapegoat, there were many, and the cast of choices kept expanding. Anyone could be The Bad Kid at any time, and anyone The Good Kid, from day to day or hour to hour - which of course fomented rivalry and misery and feuds among us, as it was intended to (divide & conquer tactics), anyone could be made into the visible, tangible Cause of All The Problems Here, Why Can't You Just Behave? for the time being until they were sufficiently broken, until someone else needed
breaking, or my father happened to forget the first person existed. (He tended to forget we existed a lot, and resented being reminded of it rather explosively.) We all prayed to be dropped off his radar, which caused its own problems - but wasn't as bad as being under the spotlight and "sweated" for indefinite amounts of time.
And as long as someone else was The Bad Kid, well, then the spotlight was off you, at least for that moment/hour/day/week/month, which is of course selfish but when you are powerless in the control of a violent, verbally-abusive bully who is actively working to foster rivalry and backstabbing (the reward for "telling" being often getting to be The Good Kid for a while which will destroy or at least disrupt any alliance among the subject peoples), it's not surprising that everyone ends up this way. I understand the Plantagenets a lot better than most historians, I suspect.
Typically in disfunctional groups, someone is on the Pedestal and someone is Scapegoated, but in families like ours, Pedestal and Scapegoat were both shifting, and Heisenbergian states.
This rolling Bad Kid and Good Kid role is already different enough from the "typical" Family Scapegoat scenario, but the really surreal part of it at the time, and something that none of us (being divided as well as conquered) could see for the longest time was that it was possible to be the Good Kid and the Bad Kid at the same damn time in the same damn respects.
That is to say, to your face,
you could be the target of endless criticism and put-downs for what an unworthy useless wretch you were who was ruining life for everybody else and why can't you be more like So-and-So?
- but when you were not
were the So-and-So to whom everyone else was being compared to and found wanting, and thus hated and resented for being so "perfect" that everyone else could never measure up.
Other people, not family members but friends & acquaintances could also be pulled into this game, knowingly or not: "Why can't you be more like So-and-So's kids?" (I dunno, why can't you be more like their parents?) "Why can't you be more like your friend X?" (Geez, last week you were complaining that X was a bad influence--) and sometimes this was even done in front of the Pedestalled, causing embarrassment and friction and helping to make it difficult to make and keep friends even before my parents - they both did it, though my father was the champion at it - would try to worm secrets out of them about you and "turn" them like agents by flattery and giving them the Good Kid role without the risk of being Scapegoated, which is a really attractive proposition for children who in turn are the Scapegoats at their own homes but can suck anyone in, really (do you really want to subject your friends to this? You can't bring anyone over, because it's a madhouse - and they'll end up tattling and being as untrustworthy as any of us siblings--)
This simultaneous rolling scapegoat status
doesn't show up in the profiles of Family Scapegoating that I've found, though it does show up in quite a few anecdotal accounts. Where it does
show up with a great deal of frequency is in the Workplace Bullying syndrome
, in the psychological power games that take place between nominal equals who are all dependents upon their fiscal superiors, it is a common and consistently-applied tactic of dividing and conquering within an office or department. Which I also experienced and saw done, though I did not recognize it as anything but the family tradition carried over into the family business.
Pit your subordinates/dependents against each other, tell them they're losers and why can't they be more like So-and-So while separately telling So-and-So that s/he should be more like them
, tell everyone that So-and-So says thus-and-so about them and vice versa, with generous applications of misinterpretation (at best) and Making Shit Up (at worst) and convince them that they
are the Flaw that will Bring The Company Down, the one who's presence is the
destructive element harming everybody else - until the inevitable result comes of the target quitting, unable to take the abuse any more, either convinced that they are really a bad person or that everyone else there is crazy.
Meanwhile, however, the target may be retained for a long time, pulled back with a sudden reversal and told that they're not
bad, not worthless, and what's wrong with them that they have so little self-confidence and are so messed up that they think they're the root of all evil? what Luciferian pride, what irrationality! and in fact they are invaluable
to the organization and will harm it irreparably by their leaving--but if you want to go, if you want to be so selfish as to leave us to struggle on our own, to sink or swim, then go, no, no, you must
do what's best for yourself - oh, well, all right, if you insist - you suck and everything you do is awful and you better prove it's worth keeping you on, starting right now!
IOW, it's living the plot of Gaslight
, and it's bad enough when it's at home, bad enough when it's at work, but when there's no division between the two? Forget it! Of course you can't quit
when it's your home and you're a minor, except by running away - and how many kids who run away run away from such circumstances, I wonder? - or by killing yourself, but I've already talked about how much of a temptation that was, for us all, and again I wonder how many teenage suicides are due to living in such outwardly-"happy" Bedlams? - but you can
withdraw and build a protective shell...until your abuser plays the Turned Leaf card and tricks you into lowering your defenses again. And if you work for an outfit you believe
in, even if it isn't also a family business, then quitting can be
like running away, like destroying yourself--
Yes, I walked away mentally, resolved not to fall for the trap of trying to win paternal approval, and got sucked back yet again
, because after my mother died I got put on the Pedestal she had attained after going full-out on the Surrendered Wife thing, and so I know
intimately all the temptations to play the Patriarchy game, because - even if it's just a cessation of abuse, as so many DV diagnosticians have pointed out, when you're the one benefitting from it, it's such a relief and such an advance over what you've known, that you start telling the others who are being bullied and/or scapegoated that it's not so bad and they should just haul up their slacks and be good and stop causing all the problems, he really has
changed this time! when in fact all that's happened is he changed towards you
And then he remarried and put her
on the Pedestal and well, there's only room for one on the Pedestal in his mind, and so I went back to being the Bad Kid who was depriving everyone else of needed resources and sent down to the buggy basement room which had no privacy because it was was where the fusebox was located and told how much of a burden it was that I was going to college, which I had been ordered to do and obediently had done, even though it wasn't what I wanted, in so far as I was capable of wanting
anything between the haze of my years-standing depression ("You don't need to go to art school, you can teach yourself everything you need to know 'cause you're smart, right? You don't want to draw naked guys and be around all those godless liberals, do you?" "Um, no, of course not--") and the fact that now
I was abruptly the family Bad Kid again, having done absolutely not one thing different, it literally happened overnight
in which he started pitting me against my stepmother and accusing me of wanting her to be unhappy and to suffer and totally infantilizing her as a pathetic incapable victim who needed to be protected from everything and if I didn't want to be Part Of This Family Any More I should just take a hike-- the fact that I didn't want to be Part of This Family was proven by things like I didn't realize that now
it was once again an offense against God to, say, leave a cup in the sink, whereas before when I was on the Pedestal I was encouraged to let things slide, make the younger kids do it, don't be so hard on yourself, don't be so anal about things, it won't kill anyone to let the cup sit in the sink for an hour...
And now I was Lucrezia Borgia trying to destroy everyone around me, because I wasn't able to anticipate everything, to read his mind, to know that when my stepmother said she didn't need nor want help doing something that I was supposed to override her without ticking her off and do it for her anyway somehow, that I was bad and resentful and lazy and I should have rushed to empty the catbox already, did I want to hurt the new baby? even though I didn't notice it needed it and how could you not notice, you walked right past it and your brother
has pulled his act together and gotten his grades up and is so nice and helpful and what's WRONG with you--
It was as if the Reset Button had been hit, yet again. As if we had been shot back to five years earlier, with nothing intervening. It broke me, worse than the original years of psychological warfare had, because after a year and change of being treated like a human being and near-equal, comparatively speaking, I actually had
fallen for the claim that he'd "reformed" - and this was utterly demoralizing. I started cutting again, where I hadn't for the past year and a half; I had increasing difficulty making it back and forth to classes especially since I had to go over a very high bridge over another river each way, and I was pretty certain that I could accellerate enough on the downhill to crash through the railings, and sometimes the only thing that stopped me was recalling that it wasn't my
car but the family one I was so generously being allowed to borrow, when I couldn't convince myself that anyone in my family, from my father to my stepmother to my younger siblings who were all playing or going along with the Scapegoat game again, would be harmed by it.
I lost my voice, again - I had developed a stammer in high school, with my father making fun of everything I said or
making me repeat it over and over again until I had a suficently "dulcet" tone of voice, with nothing that he could interpret as "shrill," or "strident", whereupon he made fun of my stammer, so that I became quieter and quieter and then got yelled at for mumbling, and finally stopped speaking at all if I could possibly avoid it. This went along with his method of making me more poised by mocking me for being a klutz, and trying to make me startle and drop things to "train me out of it", which of course made me even more stiff and clumsy "break things out of sheer dread" like the girl in The Hero and the Crown
, a resonance my sisters also found in their time, and then I would be scolded for being awkward and self-conscious, why do you walk funny? why are you holding your arms like that? why can't you stand up straight? until I just wanted to be invisible, to X myself out of all human vision.
Only at work, where my supervisors and clients treated me with at least minimal respect, did my stammer, and even some of my clumsiness, go away. But now it came back with a vengeance. I knew almost no one there, and the world of day students from those who lived on campus was very separate, but nevertheless I was reproached often as a loser for not having made a bunch of new friends - and not being as stylishly-dressed or having as good hair as the other female students my father saw on campus when I needed rides in the complex and fraught carpool situation, which was also
all my fault--
But I got through it, in less than 4 years without any summer school, getting an exception to take additional courses, even though I stayed home from class so often when a family medical condition - and these were many, with so many people in such a stressed environment - meant that I was needed to babysit, that I nearly flunked Formal Logic; the emotional abuse I faced whenever I was home - or when I called home to check in to see if they needed me to cut class again to babysit - set me beating my head against a wall in the lower levels of an empty classroom building, many days, but I pulled my grade in that class back up to a B, on my own, and I graduated with a Magna Cum Laude without cracking up once unlike both my parents and everyone else in the family
, all the while being told that it was worthless because the courses weren't as challenging as the ones my father had taken in his day and I was only working part time for him summers and as a freelance designer during the year not full-time as he had done (before dropping out, was unsaid) and lazy/worthless/stupid/wicked day in, day out--
I consoled myself that at least he wasn't being - so far as I could see - as mean to the younger kids any more; this was, as I later learned, an illusion, it's just that the Scapegoat/Good Kid-Bad-Kid game was played differently with them when I was away at class.
I made it, paying for my own gas and my own books and tuition not covered by scholarships or loans, and either eating at school whenever I could, or fasting when I couldn't afford to buy gas and books and eat too, and then I got a different level of accusations of failure and malice as I lived in the basement which now, abruptly, was to cost me money since I was a College Graduate and the magic sheepskin meant that I should be able to be gainfully employed unless I was a total
loser, never mind that I had no idea how to find work, no idea what I wanted to do - really I only wanted to be dead, I wanted the pain to stop, all the things I had hungered for as a kid were cut off from me, my school had given me no help once I said I didn't plan to go to grad school, and I had no resources except a little bit of savings from my summer work and my freelancing, but hey, bootstraps!
then that the Pedestal I'd been on had been not simply a temporary thing but an arbitrary
one in the strictest sense, any praise of me external to me
as individual, and thus meaningless - perhaps I was as wicked and worthless as my father insisted, and had always been (sometimes in the latter Scapegoating he'd point out that he had
liked and praised me back before he remarried, and what was wrong with me that now I couldn't do anything right? when I had not changed at all, except to fall back into my fearful, clumsy, self-loathing teenage ways in response to his behavior) - or perhaps all
of it was in his head and I was neither shining saint nor wretched parasite and sinner, but what I was
, how could I tell? I had no yardstick I could trust--
And then I walked away again, as far as I was able - that is to say, after my resourceless and untrained attempts to make it as a freelance designer/illustrator had simply eaten up all my savings, I took a night shift job the next town over to start paying off my student loans and the basement room rent - he "Didn't like the idea" of me driving at night but at least did not forbid it, since he had no alternatives - at a printing plant where they blasted Howard Stern over the loudspeakers every night and fistfights broke out on the production floor between a couple of the androgen-taking weightlifters who made up a large part of the staff, and I learned lots more sexual slang, and basically it was just like high school including the part where when I mentioned how stressful it was and how menacing some of the men were to the very few female staffers, he laughed and told me that now I'd learn what it was like in the real
world, whereupon I stopped at the cooking store in the mall one day on my way in to work and bought the biggest, sharpest butcher knife I could afford and improvized a sheath for it to secure it invisibly to a concealed area on my car, where I'd be able to draw it without looking in the parking lot if I had to.
He laughed at me, just as he had in high school when I told him I was being stalked and sexually harrassed; the only thing that really
bothered him and over which he bothered me was the idea that I might catch Sin Cooties working for a secular outfit. How? He couldn't or wouldn't explain, beyond "you might have to work on something immoral", "what will you do if you're asked to work on something for an immoral client?" while I wondered what might be immoral about packaging for fish sticks and trash bags and board games and ads for mortgages and cars and pens and bottled drinks (it wasn't like he had a Critique of Capitalism thing) and only when I had to stat ads for, I think, the UCC talking about how inclusive and welcoming they were, with pictures of gay couples and divorced-remarried couples and singles and scientists all talking about how they were welcomed and able to worship there without being persecuted, did I run into anything that made me wonder if I was Sinning By Participation in the activity.
* As in "baah," or rather, "BLAAAARGHHHH", and as an alternative to lamb--
Tags: autobiographical, family, grrr argh, intersectionality, religion, rl, sexism