It got a lot easier, in terms of my own ethical center and sanity - not that it got any better from a day to day basis, but at least I didn't have to angst over whether I was being a Bad Kid so much. But he hated unarguing compliance even more than he hated resistance and would mock me for being a milquetoast, "meek," "lukewarm who will be spat out of the mouth of the Lord" when I wouldn't give in to his baitings, the more bland and emotionless I managed to make myself, the better I got at wearing a faint, fixed smile so that I wouldn't be accused of "sulking" (even when I wasn't at all, when I was actually feeling fairly okay & just being quiet with my face its natural shape) and likewise wouldn't be interrogated over what I "had to smile about" for being too cheerful (if, God forbid, I actually was feeling happy about something.)
"You're taking the path of least resistance," he'd sneer - and how could I argue? If I tried to defend myself, I'd be destroyed even worse, again, as I always was when I tried to point out that he wasn't being fair. I couldn't get out of there - that is, I didn't dare, I'd been told so long and so hard by my mother that I'd be kidnapped and sold into "white slavery" if I ran away, just like all the girls in those fundraising letters from Covenant House that she had me read, and even when I began to suspect that I could indeed successfully get on a bus and make it to my grandfather's place, as so many other young people regularly did without getting forced into prostitution, I didn't dare seek asylum with him because - I was afraid of the Sin Cooties from breaking the Commandment, and deep down I was even more afraid that even he wouldn't take my side, and that things would return to the status quo ante only worse. (Be like water, said Sun Tzu.)
I was the prisoner of a relentless enemy, and I survived; O'Brien tried to get into my head, but ever I slid away, and he could not follow. I've been doing headology for a long, long time - you have to get good at it, when you're stuck in the power of a violent and vindictive man with no place to go, to try to figure out The Rules so that you can get under cover before the tornado hits - and I knew what Projection was long before I knew there was a word for it: sometimes in the course of such cornerings and grillings he would start asserting that he could "See right through me," that he knew everything I was thinking, that nothing I thought was hidden from him--
I guess, considering the art/science of Interrogation, that he was trying to get me to spill the beans to disprove him, but it kind of backfired on him when he would start ranting about what he thought I was thinking: at first I was terrified, thinking Urk! he's somehow read my mind and seen my mental Dr. Who/Westmark crossover LARP, that I've gone to my Happy Tardis Place and now he will mock it as he has mocked all my other hobbies and all the books that I admit to liking, even if they're ones he's praised to others but then when he said "You're thinking that when I'm old and in my wheelchair you'll push me down the stairs" - something which obsessed him a lot in those days - and I could honestly deny it, and at the same time wonder where the hell did that come from? What dark recess of his soul made it seem likely that anybody else would be thinking this? Guilty conscience? Or worse that that, his own hatred for his own abusive father making him fantasize about it?
And after enough experience being told I was thinking that and other things like it, I began to think to myself, "No, you're putting yourself on me, that's you, not me--" though I could not disprove it without giving away my secret mental escapes, so I had to put up with the accusations and simply deny them - though on a couple of occasions I did commit the unforgivable honesty of validating my denial with "I just want you to stop attacking me" which was always a mistake, because it would Make Daddy Feel Bad and he would have to redouble his efforts to prove that I was a worthless wretch who deserved to be attacked.
"You think you're so smart, you think you're so good," he'd hiss at me, "but I know you, I know what you're REALLY like inside" - but when he was perpetually surprised to encounter some snippet of the real (if fading) me, by chance, that assertion too lost much of its power - though not all, of course: the demon on my shoulder claimed to be the angel of good conscience, telling me that I was a worthless failure from the time I was eleven. How could I be sure that I wasn't the evil wretch he claimed I was? I didn't feel like a good person, I was always angry and indignant about being put in pain instead of being Joyful and Having A Contrite Heart and all that.
But there was no love to be lost, for years and years. I did what I was told, I tried to do what I was supposed to do before I was told, I got pretty good grades in spite of the growing state of tharn I was in, although both my parents would sneer at my report cards and tell me that they got straight As themselves back when schools actually required something of students and anyway perfection was the minimum requirement so why should I think I deserved some kind of special praise for it? Soldiers didn't get medals for just doing their duty after all - and so I could not even take any pride in my academic accomplishments. I endured, and made mental exceptions so that I could truly say I was honoring my mother and father by respecting, at least, that they were kind and decent and said things that sounded smart to me to other people's children, at least, even if they couldn't behave like anything but monsters to their own.
I retreated so successfully, in fact - this becoming so much easier when I was sent to work at the library, and able to be physically away from the house for most of the day several days a week, I could avoid his rampages more easily - that he began to go the other way, and would sporadically decide that he was going to Be Nice to me, (this sometimes coming after a maudlin bout of remorse) and A Good Father and Turn Over A New Leaf, and part of this Yo-Yo Treatment (after they fling you away, your abuser then yanks you back - and when you're back they fling you away even harder) was something that in hindsight is creepily similar to those home church sessions that the ex-Quiverfull families have described: after he'd broken me to the point where not even my "Satanic Pride" could keep me from breaking down in public tears - and if he was not in the sort of mood that would make him accuse me of being "manipulative"and a "typical woman" using tears to try to make him feel guilty, or the sort of mood in which he would say that this proved that women were weak and I needed to grow a spine and not be such a weakling--
--if he was in a merciful mood then, and feeling really emo, he'd relent and do a Comforting Session in which he'd make me sit with him on the sofa - sometimes next to him, sometimes on his lap - and hold me crushingly tight and demand that I tell him what was making me unhappy - only I couldn't tell him the truth, any of the truths, because the blowback would be so terrible. So I'd have to confess to Angst and Weltschmerz, and if he would as he sometimes did lament that he was such a bad father and he didn't KNOW why he was always so hard on me, he SHOULDN'T be so hard on a poor girl, I was supposed to reassure him that no, he wasn't bad, he was trying to be good and I recognized that, and he would hug me even tighter until I couldn't breathe and rock me and pet me with clumsy hands that pulled my hair and banged my glasses into my nose until he let me take them off, and wouldn't let me get up until he was done Comforting me to his satisfaction and had gotten his Emo out.
--It wasn't like it sounds like.
It was more like I was a puppy or a kitten and he was feeling lonely and wanted something small and warm to snuggle, and just wasn't very good at realizing he was hurting it. I was more like a teddy bear than anything else, at that point.
Plus it gave him an excuse to put off the other kids' needs for attention and pit me against them: No, I can't watch you come play ball/ride your bike/fix your toys, your sister needs me because she's in a bad way because of school/because she's a teenager - though I had always tried desperately to not let him know I was feeling even more down than usual, and certainly never asked to be made into his cuddle-toy and forced to bare my soul - or in reality figure out things to say that were the technical truth, if casuistically, so that I wouldn't be sinning by lying, but wouldn't give him anything which he could use against me later since he always did, and so I wouldn't hurt him and make him go off on his "I should just kill myself" shtik again.
Nope, no way in hell would I admit that what was bothering me was that it was Saturday and I knew that tomorrow when we went to church he'd spend all Mass sighing and grim and slyly hitting and jabbing me when I didn't successfully stop the other kids from fidgeting and yet yell at me after for being so harsh with them and I was trying not to anticipate this and failing--
My job was really to comfort him, by letting him use me as a doll to act out his Nurturing Impulses upon safely, and I realized this and endured it, because the only choice was to hurt him with honesty and thus be hurt worse in return - no such thing as a pure motive, for a prisoner.
Sometimes in the course of this he would go further, and assert that he was "my only friend" and the only one who really cared about me and understood me, which was not exactly the truth: I didn't have any outside friends because I wasn't just shy and phobic, I wasn't just the school pariah, I wasn't allowed to socialize, I was barely allowed to go anywhere even with other art/honor society students, and I certainly couldn't bring anyone over to our house, into that Psychic War Zone where I couldn't count on my parents behaving fit for company any more. He might have succeeded in breaking up my prior friendships, he might have made it impossible for me to make any others, by telling me that people only invited me out because they pitied me, or because they didn't know what a monster I really was, and wouldn't like me if they knew the real me as he did, but that didn't make him my friend, either. But that was how he saw it, Rashomon-like, though he didn't know me at all and didn't want to.
Still, it was devastating when after such a Comfort Session, he'd turn around the next morning and start berating me for not being fast enough finding matching socks for my siblings and spilling a drop of milk on the table when I made his coffee and what was wrong with you, girl? or just ignoring me and giving me the cold shoulder and grunting when I asked what was the matter...
"You're so beautiful when you're angry," my father would say to my mother, after baiting her with declarations of the inferiority of all things female; and smirk, and say that it was just an honest compliment and why was it making her even more furious? and that was an irrational, and thus typically feminine, way to react.
After she died, he would use that line on me.
Okay, it's creepy. But there was never anything sexual about it.
--Okay, there was that one Deerskinish moment that is why I have never allowed myself to be alone in a bedroom with him if there's no one else in the building, the forced fully-clothed spooning right after my mother died where I had a total panic attack because I couldn't have done anything else if he had done anything else, even though again he said it was just that everyone needs to hold someone sometime, and there was the rarer repeat of the Comfort Sessions when he'd make me sit on his lap and crush me to him and make me cry and tell me that I needed to be touched and held because everyone needed physical affection when I was in college and after and sigh and say that he prayed God would give me a gentle husband who would be kind to me and not hurt me--
Okay, I'm not even going to bother denying that there was creepy Freudian stuff going on. Not with all the "You look SO much like your mother" talk.
But he only ever fucked with my head.
(I have resolutely not contemplated what my mother would have done, if it had been otherwise and she to find out. Especially after learning that she suspected the neighbors of incest against their daughter and that's why she wouldn't let my sisters stay there - but that's all.)
For some twenty years my father has loved to tell a story - a Narrative, rather - that proved what a great male defender of his daughters he was, with myself as the Damsel in distress. It was RPF, really, though there was more correspondence with reality than in other such Narratives in which I have been forced to star, and damaging both personally and as a reinforcing Myth of Masculinity.
The way my father tells it, he's the Big Damn Hero who saved me from a potential Stranger-Rapist, the one who went up to the kid who was harassing me at school and told him he'd kill him from behind when he saw him at a mandatory parent-student parish confirmation class meeting and wondered why I had started shaking, and when he saw that this kid was football-player sized instead of the "pencil-necked geek" that his "poor stupid little" daughter had been complaining about as he'd assumed the harasser must have been, he saw red and went up to him at break and put the fear of the father into him, and after that I was fine because that kid was so terrified by his rage.
It's rather bizarre that he has continued to tell this story for so long, because of another individual who isn't dead at his hand, but this is the one in which he gets to be the Big Damn Hero playing Dirty Harry, so I guess you have to take what you can get.
The way I remember it is - rather different. But the differences are embedded in the way he tells it, too. First, he always says that he ignored and laughed off my despairing warnings that I was being harrassed, for months, because, in his own words, he "thought [I] was scared of some pencil-necked geek" - never mind that he had been steadily warning me of Schroedinger's Rapist, lurking in the dark alleys of every man's mind, for several years now; never mind that at 5'2" in shoes and 110 pounds soaking wet, awkward, vision-impaired and klutzy to boot, even the most stylus-spined of male specimens in high school was a match for me, then - never mind that I had no friends or allies there to rely on, but was regarded as a suitable target for all sorts of bullies - he still even after the fact thought his ASSumptions about me being a fool and a coward and thus blowing me off were fully justified, DESPITE the following acts of this drama.
There was no remorse, no apology for having misjudged and blown me off. Instead, he went from laughing at me as a foolish female to furiously-violent when confronted with a rival male threatening his property, to boasting about how he'd driven off this threat to his pack, and never looked back to question any of his behaviors anywhere down the line.
Which, since that was only the end of that particular sexual harrasser's explicit threats, meant that he went on to rinse, repeat - only the remaining menaces he never dispersed, never protected me from, and again blew off my reports of their harrassment.
Yup. Once again, I was the "stupid little girl" whose word and opinion could not be trusted without a male witness, so once again, I went through the whole situation over again.
Because that one guy was only one of a pack of them - as I had said from the beginning! - and the only one whose name I knew, who went to our church, and the rest of them were also big burly jocks with a few weedy hangers-on, and while the kid my dad had threatened ostentatiously made a point of turning his back on me after the threatening, that threat had no effect whatsoever on the rest of the bully boys. (In fact the whole "I'm staying away from you" display was itself a threat - the boss stepping back and letting his minions carry on for him.)
The school was no use: the bully squad even broke into my locker after my father's Warning and destroyed some text books, but I couldn't prove it, only that some of them had laughed as I stood there in dismay and I didn't even know any of their names, so I stopped trusting in locks as in laws and instead carried all my books to all my classes at all times, which wasn't fun and was exhausting but did build up my endurance and carrying capability running them up 3 and 4 flights of stairs.
It was also then that I started hitting them with oversized steel rulers borrowed from the art department, and large art books, when they pressed against me on the stairs and touched me inappropriately and pretended it was accidental, and wearing a set of metal spikes in my hair that could be quickly whipped out and used as a weapon, and going (for me) full-metal crazy because demure and modest hadn't helped.
He also boasts that he "taught me to fight back" on the playground in grammar school - when I'd been socialized that I was never supposed to fight, after being beaten for getting in shoving matches as a preschooler, now I was given permission to hit other kids who were picking on me, and this was a great act of magnanimity on his part - but when my enemies were too big for me to hit, he was AWOL. So much for the protective powers of the patriarchy!
Bizarrely, I got a reputation for having magickal powers, because I eventually began responding to the "I wanna FEEL you, I wanna GET INSIDE YOU! I want your CUUUNT!" (what's a cunt? is it ...?) "MY DICK HUUURTS! I HAVE BLUE BALLS! I NEEED YOUUUUU! I LUUUURRRVE YOU" bellows from across the hall with an absolutely expressionless, unblinking stare until they began to twitch - I didn't expect it to work, the first time, to be honest, but I had reached a point of internal no-return where I didn't care if they knew they were getting through to me - they already did, when I scuttled away red-faced and trembling - but by God they were going to know how fiercely I hated them, and that I'd defy them however uselessly, wishing I could kill them dead where they stood, but they were not going to shame me into running merely because I had tits and a vagina, from then on.
I didn't think this would have any affect on them but to amuse them, but weirdly enough it worked to make it not so much fun for them, instead. Just like I only had to hit a very few guys, before they stopped pressing up against me in the halls and on the staircases especially. They looked away, they fell silent, it was an effective strategy for some strange reason.
I laughed, hollowly but laughter nonetheless, when one day instead of asking me if I wouldn't be willing to date/marry/fuck one of the Bully Boys, their latest cringing little Tabaqui-messenger asked me if it were true that I had the Evil Eye and could put it on people - I certainly never started that rumor, but I suppose when you wear all-black (or even odder getup) and don't behave the way that anyone else does you should expect to be accused of witchcraft. Other people, not so hostile, but timid, asked if it was true, too: I was astonished that such superstitious credulousness could persist in the late 20th century. [/irony]
And I worked on my ability to lift and carry ever larger and heavier loads of books at work, as well as training myself to swing over the basement railing in the stacks and drop down silently to the sub-basement level, to leap down or pull myself up even in a full skirt and dress shoes, quickly and efficiently, so that I would be stronger and faster and more agile than I had been, if still as small. I found a few lurking places, on the campus, too, where teachers who were sympathetic to me even if they did not fully grasp my dread allowed me to hide out, even when I wasn't suposed to be there.
But I studied, and I learned, oh, how I learned from that experience: that my parents didn't give a damn about my actual safety or well-being, only to talk about what good parents they were (my mother's response when I tried to tell her about the bully squad was to laugh at me and say that all teenage guys did that to all girls - after all her years of telling me that only immodesty provoked harassment) and that the school authorities were likewise useless and the only person in all the world I could depend on to look out for me was - myself.
And that - for all I was a silly, feeble, ignorant little girl confronting a pack of large jocks - I could be scary if I tried, and that even large jocks didn't like to be hit with sharp edges or heavy objects any more than I did, and that I could get away with breaking rules and never be suspected by the authorities so long as I paradoxically was discreet, and open about it, sinning boldly as though of course I had a right to carry jack knives and razor blades and to go through the halls with or without a hall pass at my discretion. And also that I could even wear a fitted 18th-century bodice with a triangle neckline all the way down to my minimal cleavage over jeans and Cossack-style pointy-toed boots and not get whistled or hassled, iff I kept my head high and my stare steel (and a large book in hand), where proto-Prairie-Muffin getup had been no shield at all--
(I can palm a compass and keep it out of sight in my sleeve, ready to shake down. That's why I don't bother to, any more.)
I'm not sure they were the lessons that I was supposed to be learning, and they weren't cheap, but they were real: God had not answered me, nor Man, but Nature teaches us that even small animals can escape or fight off predators, the mouse bites the fox and gets away, the cornered rat may not be worth the expense of taking. (But of course I wasn't a feminist--)
When it was just me who was having nervous breakdowns and developing tics and being depressed, that was proof I was the defective one in the family.
When my older siblings started to manifest their own versions and symptoms, then it was due to maternal DNA, something defective in our mother's genes, according to my father.
Now that all of his children have suffered from suidical ideation, self-harming behaviors, sleeplessness and so many other symptoms of depression, across a sample where no genetic matter is shared, what is the excuse? Ockham's Razor is often imo misused, but this doesn't seem to be a difficult call...
"What do you have to be unhappy about? You should be grateful you're not one of those poor women in Bosnia right now."
My mother, invoking St. Teresa of Avila, conceptualized God as an abusive lover - and then got angry at Him for being such an asshole. But she stayed with Him, thinking that if she just tried harder He'd finally be nice to her...
My parents both loved Billy Budd and waxed sentimental about the protagonists' fate.
Meanwhile I lost my voice, and Claggart tried to push me into resisting him on a regular basis, until I nearly electrocuted myself deliberately on the live current that was in our cellar for a long time, because I had read enough about hangings gone wrong in my real history source texts that I wasn't sure I could successfully kill myself that way, and they kept saving people who jumped in the river...
I know what it's like, being on the Pedestal. I remember. Thus when my stepmother - very young, from a bad family situation, desperately lonely and pathetic, needing to be taken care of and protected as my father told me over and over before he married her - proved to be incapable of dealing with the resumption of the Scapegoating behaviors I didn't hold it against her, at first. I knew how difficult it was to see, let alone resist, when you were being treated nicely (if only sometimes) for the first time. I pitied her, when I saw her falling apart, and I didn't hate her for running away, since I knew she was a broken child from an abusive home who was weak and helpless and couldn't be expected to have any grit in situations of conflict.
(Later, after I'd moved out, when she told me flat out that nobody could give her any advice or tell her anything - except of course my father - and still later said quite smugly that she had told her own biological sons that if it came to choosing between them and her husband she was siding with their dad no matter what - the same rejection that had sent my father into such tears and depression when it happened to him, almost word for word - I couldn't help but think that some of that family conflict she was complaining about was not entirely just happening to her.)
But there was a time when my then-three-year-old brother wouldn't eat his soup, and so my father ordered that he eat nothing until he gave in and ate it, that it would sit there in the fridge until he ate it and ate it cold, and when my brother was too stubborn to give in, for almost 24 hours, we let it go on, and did not say "This is child abuse" and defy him. We just wrung our hands and pleaded for my brother to give in and blamed him for making Dad mad.
I'm going to hell for that, if there is a hell. That's what I'm going to be damned for, standing idly by in cowardice. I, at least, was old enough to know better then, I at least should have put a stop to it, no matter what happened to me, I should have spoken truth to power then.
But I didn't dare. Yes, I was only nineteen. So what?
Whenever I hear somebody saying "I was beaten and it didn't do ME any harm" I hear the Black Knight saying "Only a flesh wound" - usually you can see the damage all over the one making the declaration, the open bleeding wounds, and then there's the fact that almost invariably the person saying so is saying so to justify beating their own children, which makes the claim suspect in the cui bono? way. But you wouldn't anyhow expect someone to be a good judge of this - you don't listen to people with shock or sunstroke who insist that they're just fine, do you? The only reliable mark of how bad the damage is, I suspect, is seeing how the beaten child as adult handles responsibility and conflict: if in turn they are compelled [sic] to lash out, to domineer, to beat down challengers, or else to grovel and appease and try to pretend that everything is fine, when opposed.
I haven't even scratched the surface of the headfuckery over the years. I haven't even begun to get near the reactor core, particularly the giving of poisoned gifts (oh GOD, the time I wanted to get a Walkman so I could listen to music without "giving him a headache" or "disrupting the family" and -- argh, it's the kind of thing people don't want to believe because who could be so irrational as to a) refuse to let someone listen to their own records on the family stereo, b) refuse to let them buy their own little tape deck and headphones because they won't know how to pick out a good one and not waste their money, c) eventually after several months "give" them not a tape deck as asked for but an expensive amplifier that only works when hooked up to the family sound system, so they CAN'T USE IT AT ALL FOR THE PURPOSE, and demand that they be grateful for it since it was so expensive and that they acknowledge that it is in no way/shape/form a present to himself--? And then refuse, and get very very angry at my selfish ingratitude, when I tried to go out and buy myself a little tape deck and headphones so I could finally listen to my folk music in peace...)
But this is a representative sample. It's enough, for now.
Maybe it's true, maybe I deserved it all for being the world's worst three year old. Maybe it's a parental right, to bully, that can be bought with money and the fullfillment of minimal legal obligations. Maybe might does make right. Maybe "but I meant well" is a get out of consequences free card after all.
I won't, however, hear that I should let it go, "forgive and forget," that it's a bad (feminine!) trait to have long memory and hold grudges, that I'm wicked for not doing so, from a man who for thirty-odd years has talked nonstop about how his father took away his toys and smashed them in Nineteen-Fifty-Something (and so that makes it okay for him to do it to his own children), favored his siblings over him (though they say the reverse!) and his mother told him that she'd support his father no matter how much she hated him because he paid the bills (but Wollstonecraft wasn't right) and who himself held a grudge for a quarter century against an eight-year-old for a misunderstanding that was his own damn fault - not when he has kept on doing all these same things to each new batch of kids in turn, and excuses them because NABA his old man--
Cycles don't break by themselves. And they don't break painlessly, either.
"Did you mean any good by it?" asks the old Witch, the triple goddess in her role as Crone, the incarnate Archangel in the old preacher's saga. Merely saying so doesn't make it so.
Some people suffer, and think that that gives them the right to inflict sufferings in their own turn, revenge their childhood abuse on their own children, misery loving company and making more of it. Others of us think that that means that nobody should have to go through what we went through, and try to put a stop to it.
So many nightmares, in so little time. Every little thing - each one of them little, like a drop of poison from a serpent's fang - and each of us enduring them in our own separate ways, in our own turns, day after day, year after year with no relief--
Some of them are obvious, the shoving and hitting (sometimes deliberate acts of anger and impatience, sometimes out of clumsiness but NEVER to be apologized for in the latter case because you should have moved faster you shouldn't have been underfoot or in the way you should have known to get out of the way) and my father yelling at even the very smallest children that "that didn't hurt, you're faking to make me feel bad," when they cried out - the way that you could never know what would get you into trouble from one day to the next, it was All Calvinball All The Time (though I did see patterns, and tried to discreetly get the younger kids to avoid triggering psycho-Dad episodes - which itself would bring one on if I got caught saying "don't do X inside, it will give him a headache") or the slamming and banging of things and the declaration that if you didn't like how things were here, you were free (as a minor child!) to move out, because it was HIS house and HIS food and HIS clothes on your back and HIS toys to smash and throw out if he wanted to and--
(Yeah, doesn't that just sound like Lewis' description of human sinfulness and selfishness? Only we were supposed to understand human Fatherhood as a metaphor/mirror for God's divine benevolence--)
But other things, some are just surreal, and since they don't involve violence, or raised voices or even insults in the strict sense, how could they possibly have been abuse? Things like telling one person that another person said X, and then telling person two that person one said they said X when it was all made-up shit, or trying to get people to reveal confidences about friends or siblings in the pretense that it was because he was worried about the target, and then telling the target that "even your friend So-and-so says X about you," or "N__ says X about you," which was technically true but--! or the Interrupting Game, which is a form of headfuckery that I've never run across in anyone else's accounts but I'm sure cannot be unique to my father and I don't even quite know how to describe, except that it makes the headfuckery in No Exit look like the work of rankest amateurs.
Or the way that my younger brothers were not simply allowed but encouraged to watch R-rated movies even when 9 and ten years old on the grounds that "boys needed to see this stuff to toughen them up" while "girls shouldn't be exposed to such things" (and what was wrong with me that I wanted to see "that kind of thing") so that I didn't see Alien or Apocalypse Now or Conan and was banished to my room as a teenager as the boys had the living room and I might catch a glimpse of it and be irreversibly contaminated, having to beg permission to come out and get a cup of water and be scolded back to my cell - while at the same time, in my day job, I was filing Amnesty Int'l reports and film journals with reviews of X-rated as well as R-rated movies and books on the Holocaust and Norman Mailer novels and T. S. Eliot plays with humorous little jingles about how every man secretly wants to kill a girl and mess around with her decaying body and early aviation histories that talked about why the RAF didn't want to put parachutes in its fighter planes and what the consequence of that was and and mouldering Red Cross reports on civilian casualties in occupied villages in France and Belgium in the Great War and Mithridates he died old--
Or the time I was forced - by shaming and being
Resenting your children for not suffering as much as you and trying to make up that gap, is what normal parenting is, as far as my experience goes. Writing happy families, affectionate couples and parents, even in stress and in strife, for whom anger, manipulation and cruelty are the exception and not the rule - is always the hardest and most pure Fiction, for me.
Being told before that, at I could no longer climb trees, at age twelve, because it wasn't ladylike was differently horrible - before that, before we'd moved, I'd spent so much time in the tree in our back yard that I'd jury-rigged a reading desk up there - and I never could say if it was better or worse. (I still feel like I ought to go to confession every time I take a book to the park and find a comfy branch...)
Where was my mother in all this? At best, absent, fleeing the scene and leaving me to deal with the house and its domestic tyrant (her word, not mine initially); at
"It's okay to be angry at your mother for having died," or "I expect you're angry at your mother for dying, that's one of the normal Stages of Grieving," and when enough people had said that to me it suddenly clicked in my brain and I said out loud, "I'm not angry at her for dying (that would be irrational) - I'm angry at her for living, that is, for the way she chose to live."
But what could I do about it then? Nothing. There was no court of appeals, no justice to be had now - and I told myself that since my father had (really, truly) THIS time "reformed," it was irrelevant, and poured layer upon layer of cement over it, shutting the reality of her treatment of me from the time I started "developing" out of my thoughts.
There was the way she started making a point of telling me sweetly on many afternoons when I got home from high school that she'd made some yummy after school snack for the kids - but hadn't saved me any because she "forgot that I existed" while I was out of the house - this after having for years told me that I shouldn't ever wish I was dead no matter how miserable I was or how bad a sinner I'd been convinced I was, because I was her reason for existing, if it hadn't been for having to take care of me she'd have killed herself so I had an obligation to her somehow, and now she was smirking at me that out-of-sight for an extra hour of the day meant out-of-mind - though it never stopped her from saving chores for me--!? What the fuck was going on, that she enjoyed taunting me this way, day after day?
But what could I say? You're lying? You're insane? anything but "Oh, that's okay, I wasn't hungry anyway" would have got me in a world of even bigger hurt.
No, she just wished I hadn't existed, so she wouldn't have "had" to marry a man she didn't love to
Both of them thought that presents ought to be able to buy indulgences.
I was going to change my name to "Kassandra" legally, at a couple points in my life - in high school, if I survived to adulthood, and after when it all went to hell again, when I was working for my father and he never believed a damn thing I said, no matter how many times I was subsequently proved to be right: either I was too stupid to know what was what (because I was always wrong and stupid) or I must be lying for perverse reasons because I was such a messed-up and unhealthy woman, and every single damn time that it would turn out I was right IFF I could "prove" that I'd actually predicted an outcome or described a scenario - say, I had said something about a national corporate marketing campaign being a stupid one IMO, and he would mock me for thinking I was wiser than the professional money-makers, and then six weeks or months later it would be revealed that it had failed dismally for the reasons I had named, and he'd bring me the Time or even-the-liberal-NYT article and read it to me as if I had never ever told him so, and then when I would tell him "that's what I said back when" (silly naive me, the first time this happened I thought he was apologizing to me in a roundabout way) he would refuse to believe me, because I couldn't have said so because I was stupid and how could I have known that this was a bad idea? and anyway it was petty of me and showed how small-minded and vindictive and cruel women were to say "I told you so" until I finally stopped bothering at which point he'd claim that no, really, he VALUED my input and my insights and my advice and I shouldn't hesitate to give them and I was being a Bad Employee for refraining out of fear that I'd be put down for it, I should rejoice at the chance to sacrifice myself for the Common Good, I should be brave and not proud and--
(Most of the time, X-acto knives don't even leave scars, if you know what you're doing. Practice makes (almost) perfect.)
And then we'd go through it all over again, where I'd say something was a good idea, and be laughed to scorn - only when a male employee suggested it it was suddenly a stroke of genius that needed to be "jumped on" and made to work - or a bad idea, and be attacked as "negative" and not having a can-do attitude and threatened with firing and shutting up until it all went to hell as I had warned and maybe getting a concession that he ought to listen to me next time and rinse, repeat until eventually I started arguing against the positions I myself held, in hopes of getting them a hearing...
By the time I was fourteen, I had learned how to breathe silently, because to sigh was to express unhappiness for the purpose of reproaching him, and what right did I have to be unhappy anyway? And if it wasn't a sigh, if it was just a loud breath or a yawn, and I tried to say so, I was of course lying.
So I devised a way of breathing very, very slowly at long intervals with flared nostrils, so that I wouldn't inadvertently be audible and thus called out for the crime of sighing. Then I got in trouble for being too quiet and "sneaky"...
We were supposed to all be smart and academically-devoted children - but if I used a word like "inadvertently" I was accused of showing-off and/or being a snob. My functional vocabulary shrank and shrank, until I discovered Usenet.
He can't accept that maybe I can sometimes assess circumstances correctly and make logical choices, and the Reset Button means that no matter how many times I prove it it never takes. Partly this is due to his internalized stereotypes -
I find it almost impossible to look at anyone directly, because if I did I was accused of staring in a hostile way, even when I wasn't - yes, I was regularly punished for "eyeballing" as a teenager. Believe me, I knew when I was staring at someone to make them uncomfortable, but - everything I did, including breathe, made him uncomfortable.
Kobyashi Maru - it doesn't surprise me that Vyckie Garrison calls it that, too.
"Eat bread and salt and speak the truth," says the man who has always punished those he regards as his ontological inferiors for truth-telling. "Be direct, I'm always direct," says the man who has played intrigue all my life, going around behind his children and employees' backs to play them off against each other, never coming out and asking someone directly what he can drag a third party into, constantly badmouthing his absent children in ways that usually reveal male angst when they're not just about personal resentment. Or saying things that aren't supposed to be taken as true - and the burden is on the hearer to work out what's just bullshit-spouting and what's real.
But I'm not a mind-reader, though I don't know if I'm actually Aspergers, or merely have acquired a lot of Aspergers-type symptoms over the years: I didn't used to be self-conscious to the point of incapacity about speaking or being seen before he started attacking me for my voice and my stance and my "modesty" day after day, but I always was hyperreactive to physical sensations in odd ways (sound/taste/touch/smell) and I have always had trouble with lies, though this may be because I was told I should always treat people in good faith as if they were telling the truth and thus discount my own impressions.
Thus I really can't tell when a flat statement that "well, if it's so damaging to you to be around me, maybe you better stay away from me for your own good" is meant not as truth but as an attempt to make me say "No, no, I don't want that!" or the declaration that "I don't have time for you and your boring details of your life, you don't even exist in my mind most of the time, because I have all these other kids with their illnesses and needs and my time and energy is limited" wasn't meant to be taken at face value and shrugged off with an "Okay, that makes sense," and a blithely going about my own business until being reproached with a "You know I can't help but worry about you all the time, I worry about you when you don't tell me what's going on in your life, and it CONSUMES me and you should know that," and well, which is it? Was the first just a cow-flop dropped in an attempt to hurt my feelings? or is it the second, bullshit attempt to guilt me into opening up to him again?
One contra-indicates the other, you know?
But the whackiest part of it - and the thing that undercuts both assertions - was the way he turned out to be Yahoo-stalking me (this was back before Google) online, years after I had moved out of the house, after he'd said "didn't have time" to listen to me, that I had a "boring" mind and soul and this even when he'd asked me something and I was trying to give him a good faith answer (this is part of The Interrupting Game) - and then suddenly came out with the fact that he was following my Usenet postings, and gloated over some silly banter or earnest argument, the way he'd mocked my conversations with my friends and my poetry and stories in middle school. And I was like WTF? I thought you said you didn't care about my personal life? And what exactly, are you trying to accomplish with this smirking, gloating revelation of yours?
(Hey, it's not as much of a Boundary Issue as constantly "fixing" my collar without permission, "so that you won't look like such a slob" or untwisting one of my earrings instead of telling me it was crooked - is it?)
Ever since, I've always written online - and spoken IRL - as if it were entirely possible that my father was simultaneously aware, lurking, and pretending not to know what I was saying, Schroedinger's Stalker, because that's the kind of thing that would make him feel powerful and smug. Every time I talk to another family member, even if it's supposedly in confidence - I try not to request sub rosa any more, because it's not fair to put them into that situation - I do so under the full awareness that they may have been tasked to ferret out my secrets, that they may be reporting back on me to the man I've thought of as "The Spider King" ever since I was reading about European history back in fifth grade.
I just put it in the category of "things I have no control of, like the weather," and carry on regardless, because either it is or it isn't but there's sweet damn-all I can do about it and when I'm cornered and someone is trying to humiliate me some line gets crossed where I stop caring. I don't like being mocked, but it negates at least in part my ability to feel soiled and tarnished as my soul is pointed and jeered at.
Yes, I'm paranoid. Only it's not, if you know someone has spent time online tracking your activities as an adult who is supposedly no longer of interest to them, secretly, for months, as well as recruiting siblings and friends to report on you, what you do, who you associate with, how bad your housekeeping skills are, to the point that I wouldn't be surprised if he's engaged a PI on us from time to time - not after he showed me a dossier he kept on one of my brothers who had also moved out and was trying to have his Ownlife, and said that he had them on ALL of us.
Because he cared.
Maybe normal parents keep secret dossiers on all their children - they won't go to their school activities except under duress, will tell them that their art isn't worth hanging in the kitchen, their school prizes worthless baubles, but will keep clipping files on their activities instead. I just don't know. (Not as paranoid as assuming your children are just waiting to kill you gleefully and take your property, or that any employee is likely to knife you for no reason...)
He didn't want to hear anything I said - but God forbid I look to anyone else for any sort of company or moral support. Even other adults he had recommended I "spend time with" to improve me - I learned the hard way not to praise even his own friends to him, to gush about how nice they had been to me, how helpful and patient in tutoring me, because this would start making him twitch, and shift, and the dark "mood" / persona come over his face/into his voice, and then he'd be cold and distant even to his own friends the next time he saw them. So I shut up about them Being There for me, because I didn't want to make trouble between him and his so-few RL friends...
One of the teachers I had in college who did the most to keep me from killing myself the last few terms (whether he knew it or not) along with providing remedial music training, one of the ones who made me wonder (hope) - with his outwardly-egalitarian marriage and his daughters who didn't seem to have any tics or suppressed desperation and their apparently-REALLY-joyful Christian Humanism, if there might not be a better world out there than the Weltanshauung I was raised in after all - my father derided as not a man at all, but sneered, "I only saw a girl with a mustache," after finally meeting him: a statement so bizarre even for him that at first I thought that I couldn't have heard it - Professor So-and-so didn't look like a girl to me, he wasn't bishie at all and, well, gee, he wasn't any more of an academic nerd-type than my dad himself was--!
But I hadn't been able to avoid praising his kindness, his encouraging and clear way of teaching, the way he got a passle of people who had never performed in a group together - or at all! - to sound really quite respectable, quite fast and yet to have a lot of fun while we did it, to go away wanting to come back and do it again--
Mene, mene, tekel upharsin...
(So she locked it away in her heart and pondered it, until eventually it did make a sort of twisted sense)
"I couldn't have said that, I must have been joking, because that would have been an unkind/untrue/un-Christian thing to say - and you are stupid/malicious to have interpreted it this way" - only if I had multiple "objective" witnesses would he sometimes concede that maybe he'd just said something nasty to hurt me or fuck with me because he was "in a bad mood" (yet it was women who were too moody to hold positions of responsibility) and nevertheless it was petty of me to remember it and women and their long memories and grudges, why back in Nineteen-Sixty-Something his mother had still been angry at his father for things done in WWII... [/unawareness-of-situational-irony]
"Will you be as good as the Boston Camerata?"
I'd invited him to our Renaissance Consort's end-of-term concert, with some trepidation, knowing he wouldn't want to go but if I didn't he'd get in a snit about my assuming he didn't want to go; but I was expecting (silly me) a flat "Don't wanna" and not a complicated bit of soul-destruction, at least.
Oh, sure, we'll be as good as a world-renowned concert group that's been together for decades, even though we're just a bunch of beginners who've only been playing for a few months but I bit back my sarcasm and meekly said, "No, I don't think we are, but we do have some nice pieces that are coming along pretty well, some by composers that you like," to which he replied, "Well, if you're not going to be as good as the Boston Camerata, why should I come hear you guys?"
"You don't, if you don't want to," although I had sort of hoped that he would come and recognize that I wasn't totally worthless, that I had put in the efforts to be part of a larger good and after all, wasn't that why he'd insisted that all of my siblings take recorder lessons--?
"Don't be so sensitive," he said condescendingly. "If it really means that much to you I'll Make The Time to come, even though I don't get very much free time since I have to work such long hours to put bread on the table for all you kids." But that he really didn't want to go, and wasn't just messing with me, was proven by the fact that he didn't insist on overriding me when I told him that no, it wasn't an big deal, I didn't want him to come if it would be a burden on him...
The worst part was the way he totally destroyed my ability not only to draw/paint, but to even be able to stand to look at others' art. He turned it all into something as horrible and soul-sucking as he had turned mathematics for me, for over five long years. The one thing I had both been good at (as good as one can get with a little bit of training) and enjoyed without bad associations, was utterly destroyed and inaccessible by his nonstop putting down of my abilities, demanding if I really thought that something were any good? denouncing it as 'trashy, trashy, TRASHY!" or telling me there was something wrong with me and I was trying to destroy the company and ruin the family by proposing something so wretched and inappropriate as a layout.
Or, when he did have a good word for something, or someone else complimented my work, he claimed credit for it: She only does it because I make her, he'd say, and often, "yes, she can do good work, when I have her arm twisted up behind her back as far as it can go" - playfully grabbing my wrist and miming it. IOW, he only liked my work to the extent that he'd micromanaged the hell out of it, and there was nothing at all left of me in it; that it wasn't my design sense objectively that was bad, but me he hated became clear after I left and he reused some of those rejected submissions I had been derided for - you know, the "TRASHY!" ones..
Ah, I thought, this is what they meant in Medieval Metaphysics class when it was said that all our good deeds are to God's credit, and all our misdeeds our own fault. I thought it was pretty much rubbish then, and experiencing the mundane version of it didn't improve my opinion.
I'm not the only daughter to have been held back from going through with a suicide attempt by fears that he'd exploit it to gain pity for himself - after his latest reformation.
When being harrassed verbally my mind would go blank. This proved I was stupid and deserved to be mocked and derided for my own good, to make me "strong" and able to cope with anything.
Family dinners, post-reformation, when everyone sits around a single table loaded with delicious home cooked meals and eats a steaming shit sandwich while jammed in so tight elbow to elbow that it's impossible for something not to get knocked over or smeared, bringing its own miseries. He picks on one person and everyone hopes it won't be them; he attacks others at random, or expounds on something that allows him to "teach" us while making everyone look stupid. Only if there's company over is there relative peace and pleasantry at dinner, though it doesn't mean that there won't be plenty of random humiliation still, sniping and back-biting at targets both present and absent.
My sisters, born after my mother gave up the idea of child-rearing, who weren't inculcated as strongly in the Duty and Virtue=Obedience as I was, eventually refused to sit down, eventually took their meals standing and fled as fast as they could, refused to be guilted into it, braver than I. What's that line about better a meal of beans on the porch than a feast in a quarrelling house...?
"You should just tell me to back off, if I'm being too hard on you!" Thus the burden of responsiblity is transferred to the victim and in fact not stopping the abuse becomes the child's fault, too.
My mother loved that story about the Royalist general who told the enemy to kill his teenage son and his son to die bravely and go to Heaven, rather than exchange hostages, during the Spanish Civil War - so very, very Vorish.
In my father's world, bootstraps work - for everybody else. You ought to be able to turn yourself into a financial success with no fiscal or physical resources, no backing, no support, you ought to be able to just compel others to give you good jobs or resources with no qualifications other than your own wit and will, no connections pulling strings or certifications
Not that he's ever done those things, but he's never hesitated to put any of his inferiors down for not being able to do things he can't do, either.
It's not that he doesn't have any pity/compassion/empathy for anyone: it's just that there's only one permanent Pedestal in the family, for the Surrendered Housewife, and one temporary Pedestal for all us kids to share/fight over, and all the remainder of his compassion is reserved for himself, with what's left going to the children of strangers. Other people's crises were always more important than ours, the lives and woes of his students - grateful, isolated, appreciative, and above all having no just demand on his time, placing no obligation upon him - were infinitely more interesting than ours, they infinitely more Deserving victims whose needs inevitably took precedence.
This is, I have read, a very common thing with people in pillar-of-the-community roles, as regards their own families.
It's also not uncommon for hypercritical, hostile, resentful parents to nevertheless brag on their kids when those are absent, I've learned as well: thus creating in the minds of outsiders the feeling that they must be the bestest most wonderful parents EVAR while baffling their own offspring. This is because, according to what I've read in psych texts, when the child is not present to be a source of irritation, and in the rivalry-creating presence of an outsider, they become an extension of the parent and thus to boast about our abilities and successes - when we are always put down and even our successes turned into worthless dust and ashes to our face - becomes a way for the parent to make themselves look good, to claim our successes for themselves (I made them! Anything good they do is all to MY credit!) without doing so explicitly.
Where these impulses crash into each other makes for some amusing, if painful, social drama: the parent whose child is praised to them by an outsider is not boasting about them for themselves, but having the skills of a rival - their offspring - held up to them to measure themselves against. So they have to put us in our places, minimize our skills - "Yes, well, he's good at X, but he won't do anything else right" or "Yes, well, they're well-behaved in public but if only they'd be helpful and cheerful at home" (hypocrisy much?) always with visible signs of discomfort, while the outsider adult tries still harder to praise the child and get the parent to "realize" what a treasure they have... I've watched it happen as a bystander often enough, when a teacher or other parent tried to compliment mine for a sibling's work.
One of my earliest memories is my father grabbing our new kitten in his huge hands and slamming her against the floor, grinding her face into a pile of shit she had left on the hall floor before she was litter trained, shouting and screaming at her to "get it to learn" that it couldn't DO that, dammit! while I wept and pleaded for him to stop hurting her. For some reason she was still willing to be around him, sometimes, even though she was never properly socialized and always somewhat hostile to humans after that...
I learned not only to not want things, but to not be too appreciative for the things I was allowed. Why? Because if I seemed too happy about being permitted to go out, to keep taking a class that I liked, about being allowed to keep going to work, about a book or other gift - then he would threaten to take it away from me, on the grounds that I was growing too attached to worldly things. So I had to find the right balance between being Properly Grateful even for things I didn't want, and not appearing to enjoy anything too much, where that could be used to hurt me.
Eventually this became apathy, since the only thing I wanted more than anything else was to have him not ragging on me, which itself drove him crazy - you must want something, there has to be something you desire, what is it? As if I would have told him, if I could have still made myself care that much about anything in the grey haze of hopelessness that was my waking life. Not when he'd either mock it or mock me for being selfish or gloat over how I couldn't have it.