|Me (left) and my best friend in Salem, Illinois. I was about seven or eight when this was taken.|
As anyone who has followed this blog knows, I was subjected to abuse as a child by my mother. I have previously written about this subject on this blog here, here and here. I have also written about it on blogs that are now closed, and I will likely be republishing those posts here on this blog.
On February 20, 1995, I wrote the following letter to my mother. I have never before published this letter "publicly," nor have I shared it with anyone but a few family members. But for reasons of which I am not entirely sure, I feel compelled to do so now. Perhaps in some way, this may benefit my own children, who only know their father through lenses which have permitted them only to see darkly. Perhaps it may help others who have experienced abusive childhoods. (I have edited the letter slightly and have added headings for ease of reading.)
I have been trying to deal over the last few months with something which I thought I had long ago forgave and forgot. I speak of the abuse, physical and otherwise, that I suffered as a child at your hands. This letter is an attempt for me to explain my own feelings not only to you but also to myself and to let you know how I am feeling at this time.
To properly put in context what I have been feeling the last several months, I have to relate some things which have happened in the past 5-6 years.
Coming To Terms With the Abuse
As you know, I have been troubled with migraines for years. These became much worse when I got married and started law school. While I was in school, I went to a number of doctors and other health professionals in an effort to determine the cause. I was able to obtain some relief, but the headaches kept coming back.
In 1990, after I had graduated and just after I started working, I happened to be treated by a person I know who is a "touch therapist." I won't go into the details, but suffice it to say that it came out that I held a lot of anger and anguish inside of me which stemmed back, according to this therapist, to one incident in particular. This was the time when I was about seven years old when you banged my head repeatedly against the dining room plaster wall in the house in Salem. I'll return to this incident later. Suffice it for now to say that the memory of this incident triggered a massive physical reaction in me as a 31 year-old adult. It also made me wonder, because I thought that I had long since "forgave and forgot" about this and other incidents that happened when I was a child.
A couple of years later, I was experiencing a recurrent feeling in my chest which felt like a heart flutter. I became concerned about it and went to see my medical doctor. He examined me, found nothing seemingly out of the ordinary, then asked me - out of the blue - if I had been abused as a child. I was surprised at the question, but responded that, yes, I had. He said that the symptoms I was displaying were typical of adults who had been abused as children. This caused me to ponder once again just what lay inside my subconscious that stemmed from things that happened when I was a child. Nevertheless, I didn't go for counseling at that time, feeling that this was something I could deal with on my own.
Now I fast forward to this past fall. A number of things happened which made me come to realize that I needed to deal with things from my past. One of the things which made me realize this was my own behaviour toward my own children. I was responding to their behaviour in a way that I didn't find acceptable, and when I examined it, I realized that my behaviour was really replays of what I experienced as a child.
A series of breakthroughs occurred in early and mid-December. I realized that I definitely had things I needed to deal with. I also realized that, for most of my life - especially after I joined the Mormon Church - I had justified your behaviour toward me as a child, based on the fact that I knew that you had a rough childhood. What I came to realize was that the abuse and dysfunctions which you endured as a child may explain your abusive behaviour, but these things were not an excuse for what you did to me. I realized that I was the child and that you were the adult. I realized that I was not responsible for your behaviour; you were.
This realization opened up things for me. I began to seriously look at my childhood and I started to try and reconstruct memories which I had long ago made a practice of turning away from because they were too painful. One of the first things I discovered was that I couldn't remember a whole lot, so I really started working at it. This was about the time you came up for your visit in late December, and I'll come back to this later.
Investigating the Abuse
After you went home, I started talking to Karen and Dan [two of my three older siblings] in an effort to try to remember things. So much of my childhood seemed to be a blur. What I learned of your abuse shocked me. I had vague memories, but Karen and Dan had specific memories which involved me, too. I still can't remember some of these things specifically, but I think that, someday, the memory may come back.
What were these things? Well, as I said, I specifically remember you banging my head repeatedly against the dining room wall. I can't remember why you did this or my reaction to it. But my doctor helped me to put this in perspective when he asked me if I could imagine doing something like that to Sarah [who as then seven years old, the same age I was when this incident happened]. I was horrified at first, then very, very sad, because I realized you had done that to me.
Then there were the "spankings" with Dad's fraternity paddle or a belt. Although I don't have a specific conscious memory of it, I know that I was hit at least once around the head and back and arms with a belt, because I have had flashbacks about this in the past few weeks. Then there were the times when we had our mouths violently washed out with soap ...
Then there was the time I fell down the basement stairs when I was about four. I still don't have a conscious memory of this incident, although I have a memory that it happened. Karen and Danny, however, remember the incident clearly. They remember you standing at the top of the stairs and yelling at me and hitting me. Somehow or another, I ended up falling down the stairs.
There are no doubt many other incidents of which I don't have a clear recollection. The point is that I was physically abused by you.
I have a clear recollection of standing in the bathroom outside your bedroom in Salem when I was about six or seven. I remember quite distinctly saying, almost in a wistful tone, distracted, that I wished I had never been born. Looking back on it, I can't help but wonder what would have made a seven-year old boy in comfortable middle-class family say such a thing. I was obviously very unhappy. Yet, how did you respond? You slapped me, hard, shocking me, and told me never to say such a thing again, that it was a mortal sin to say such a thing. Needless to say, your reaction was one more hurtful thing that you did to me.
Then there was the verbal and emotional abuse. I don't remember ever being told things like Danny was, when he was compared to me academically and called "stupid" and a "dummy". Nor do I recall you saying mean things to me like you said to Karen. But I do know this: I have no memories of you being a tender, loving mother. You have spoken in recent years of how you used to sit and read to me. I have no memories of this. All I can remember is that you were always either angry or depressed or otherwise unavailable and distant.
These things continued when we moved to Carmi. The physical abuse (at least as far as I have been able to remember) tapered off to ordinary whippings, but you were still distant and cold and often irritable. I have since learned that perhaps this was probably attributable in no small part to your addiction to both amphetamines and tranquilizers. But, once again, this is not an excuse; it is perhaps part of the explanation.
Dissociation and Repression
Before I go on to my teen years, I will just comment briefly on what I think some of the effects of all of this were on me. First of all, at a very early age, I learned to be afraid of you. I also adopted the survival strategy of being "the good son" in an effort to both gain approval and avoid further punishment. I figured if I was "good enough," I could stay out of your way and avoid further abuse. Karen and Dan both commented on this.
I also learned to very quickly repress memories of what had happened. I realize now that so much of my childhood is a fog because, at a very early age, I learned to repress memories and dissociate from what was going on. In the past few weeks, I have realized through flashbacks that if I had consciously realized as a young child what was going on, it would have killed me. By this, I mean that if I had fully, consciously realized what it meant to have my mother beating on me, I think my psyche would have broken down completely.
So, I did two things: I disassociated myself from what was happening and I repressed memories, telling myself that these things didn't happen. I know that I disassociated myself because I discovered in the past few weeks that, when thinking of what memories I have of my childhood, I would usually be "viewing" these memories as if the "adult me" was a third person: I would see myself as a child, as though I was looking down on the scene, rather that actually being that child and seeing the world through that child's eyes.
The tragic thing about all of this is that large chunks of my childhood are sealed to my memory. I can't remember the bad things; but I also can't remember the good things. What I have been left with for years is a warning signal that goes off every time I start to look too intently at the past.
I have also discovered in recent weeks that my headaches -- which I can remember having as young as 10 years old -- are probably attributable in no small part to repressed anger. We were never allowed to express emotions when we were children - even though you regularly expressed unbridled emotions.
We certainly we never allowed to express anger at what you were doing to us; that would only get us more punishment. Besides, I was not rebellious by nature, as Mike and Dan were. They both eventually got to a point where they rebelled against you and refused to take any more. I never did that because that wasn't in my nature and because I was too afraid to. I'll come back to this later.
Nevertheless, I still felt things, including anger, as a result of what was being done to me. All of those feelings were simply stuffed away in my subconscious, deep inside of me. I never let them out. Now, as an adult, I am starting to let them out because of the destructive affect all of this repressed anger and hurt is having on me as an adult.
My Teenage Years
Well, I'll now go on to the separation [of my parents, in 1971]. This was a very painful period in all of our lives. What I realized upon looking back on this, however, was that I had anger toward you because you never focused on the pain that we children were going through. All you could focus on was your own feelings. I remember you sitting out there on that screened porch that summer for what seemed like weeks after Dad left, just sitting there for hours, staring off into space. Finally, I went to you and asked you to please stop it because it was only making our lives that much more difficult.
Then you went to work and I was left to take care of Martha. Before I go on, let me say that I have written to Dad about this, too, and expressed feelings of anger and frustration toward him, too. Once you went to work, I basically became the parent to Martha. I could never leave home while you were away and Martha was there because she couldn't be left alone. After all, she was only in first grade the first year we lived on Kirk Street. I never had the chance to be a normal teenager and go and come and be lighthearted and carefree. To the extent that I wasn't one already, I became, overnight, an adult. I had to be at home with Martha, I had to get her dressed every morning for school, and I had to come home right after school to be there when she got home. Then there were the household chores. When you went to work, I was left with a large share of the household chores because you simply weren't in any position to do them, for whatever reason.
Then there was your behaviour. You frankly weren't a very pleasant person to be around during those years. I can well remember the times you threatened to take your life and the times you woke us up after we had gone to bed, telling us to get dressed because we were leaving and never coming back. And, as always, there was your irritability and temper.
Yes, there were a few good times, but I became an adult overnight. I was left with responsibilities which properly belonged to you and Dad. My childhood had already been wrecked, and my teen years were taken away, too, because of events beyond my control.
I have never confronted you about any of this. In fact, the only time I have ever confronted you about anything that I can recall was the one time in my senior year when you complained about me practicing Methodist hymns on our piano at home [after I left the Catholic Church and joined the Methodist Church]. I replied that I didn't think you had any right to do that, considering you hadn't attended a single band or choir concert the entire time I was in high school. It was as if you simply lost interest after the separation in anything involving us kids.
Your Dealings With My Children
I still haven't worked out all the ramifications of what happened to me when I was growing up. As I said, I still can't remember a lot of the abuse that happened. Yet, I felt I needed to tell you what I have been going through. These feelings were heightened when you were here because I saw how you interacted around my children. Sarah asked if you wanted to play a board game with her. You responded, "No. I didn't play board games when my kids were little and I'm not going to now." Well, that told me a lot about how you were with me as a boy, and it showed me how you were with my children now. You seemed disinterested in them and jealous of the time and attention I gave to them when you were there.
I also became angry when you questioned me about how the children refer to Ruth [my step-mother]. I had told you before what they called her ["Grandma Ruth"] and you had expressed your annoyance that they called her "Grandma" at all. Well, I became angry because you have no right to dictate to me or them what kind of a relationship they have with Dad, Ruth or anyone else. You did that to me and Martha when we were teenagers [with respect to Ruth, our new step-mother], but you cannot do that to my children.
If you are to have any relationship with my children, you will have to earn it. They don't owe you anything. We have taught them that you are my mother and their grandmother, and they have normal feelings of love and respect toward you because of that fact. We have explained to them in very simple terms why their grandfather is married to someone else. They understand that you were once married to Dad, but that Ruth now is.
You cannot expect them to love you when you act as though they owe you their love. If you show no interest in them as children and as persons, then you should not be surprised if they in turn are distant from you. I cannot force them to love you.
You Were the Parent; I Was the Child
As far as my own feelings are concerned, I think it is fair to say that I have grown increasingly distant from you as the years have gone by. I was not really that close to you when I was at home, but this was not my doing. In fact, I felt a great sense of duty and responsibility to you when I was at home. I cannot, however, say that I was close to you because of your own behaviour toward me ever since I was little. You abused me physically when I was a younger child and you became emotionally unavailable as I became older. I have searched my memory for one, tender, nurturing moment between you and me, and I frankly cannot recall one. This is a source of great sadness to me, but the fault for this does not lie with me. I was the child; you were the parent.
One of the main realizations I have made in all of this is that what happened to me as a child was not my fault. I have learned that, unfortunately, most abused children tend to blame themselves for the abuse they suffer; this is their way of coping. They can't blame the person who is supposed to be protecting them and loving them (but who is instead abusing them) - that would be too psychologically devastating. Instead, they blame themselves. Well, I am now an adult, and I realize that it was not my fault. It was your fault.
I wish we could have some sort of a relationship from this point on. Frankly, that is going to depend an awfully lot on you. You cannot expect that I now owe you the kinds of feelings that I would have liked to have had from you when I was a child. I am angry now, as well as sad, and I may be for some time to come. That anger will eventually cool and the sorrow may become less painful, but I cannot guarantee what sorts of feelings I will have toward you when the anger does cool. Again, a lot of that will depend on you, just as your relationship with my children will depend a lot on you.
Well, I guess I've said enough. I regret that circumstances were such that I need to write this letter, but I cannot change that. The future holds hope, and I guess it is toward the future that we must both look.
My mother did not respond to this letter for a very long time. When she did, it was a written note, saying that she did not remember any of this.
Though I saw my mother off and on for the next 11 years until she died, we were never again close, nor could it be said that we had any kind of "relationship." This was a source of great sorrow for me, but I eventually had to just let it go.
Several months after my mother died, I learned that her surviving brother had found this letter among her personal effects when she went into a nursing home. He returned it after she died. I found it interesting that she had kept it. Perhaps she did mourn - over many things. I genuinely hope she found a bit of peace that carried her into the next life.