I travel the feminist circles and hear the feminist assumptions. They have foundation, this blaming of patriarchy, but they confuse the patriarchy with the men. So when someone who comes along who has suffered abuse at the hands of women, it’s confusing to the other survivors, the ones who see the other women in their lives crouching in the foxhole with them, afraid to even think differently lest it be seen as some sort of defiance. When we speak of abuse, we raise questions of austere, distant father figures, more intent on authority than on child-rearing. It becomes about unsatisfied sexuality now perverted, and about the power of the man over the smaller thing.
In the abuse that I survived – and now I know without doubt that yes, it was abuse – the emphasis was always on power and authority. It wasn’t about why I acted out the few times I did. It was about how I dared to defy, question or see the truth behind the authority held over me. It’s why, the many, many times both my mother and my maternal grandmother slapped me in the face, it was always after I said something true.
When I would bring up behaviors and attitudes I felt were unfair to me – and they usually were – my mother would always respond with great sarcasm, “Oh you poor, abused thing.” She refused to address that perhaps she had been unfair, perhaps her treatment could be different: for her to assert her authority, I was not to be heard, ever. Sometimes within hours, this would be followed by some manipulation related to my protestation. At the dinner table, it was almost a mantra: how much worse other kids had it, how she’d seen abuse in her family, how it was so good that my sister and I were not abused. (And while my sister may think not always getting her way was abuse, it wasn’t. When there was household violence involving my sister, it was my sister who instigated it.)
Most of my mother’s abuse tactics were subtle, justified as “slightly old fashioned thinking,” or as “just not abuse.” While we were talked to in school about “bad touch/good touch,” and told that the abused kids would have bruises to hide, the stuff my mother did didn’t leave a mark, and never happened in front of a witness. To this day she’s careful to make sure my extended family thinks I’m “crazy.” Hell, my cousin Lisa spoke to me at my father’s funeral like I was borderline retarded. They want to believe this; there’s an odd obsession with authority and pecking order, and as the youngest in my generation, a pecking order ensures I am never heard and that I always lose.
My mother was always the one who dictated when we were “bad” that we should get “swats.” I had come to accept it, just as I accepted the household situation where I felt forced to sneak food, as did my father. Some days when my dad was out of the house, I would find myself on the receiving end of the paddle multiple times during the day. There was no clear understanding of what I did that merited it: perhaps I walked across the room while Mommy was vacuuming, or I had gained another pound that day. The reasons were always vague, and if I started crying, the hitting would come harder from her. I noticed when she ordered my father to deliver the punishment that it was in some way a punishment to him. He never hit that hard. I barely felt it.
When my grandmother visited, there was at least one occasion where she hadn’t been in the door more than ten minutes before she had me over her knee and was giving me a bare-assed spanking. I was maybe 6. I remember then being completely unclear on what I did to prompt the behavior.
For some reason, a few years later, it was just my grandfather and me in my parents’ house. He found the paddle my mother liked, the one with the holes in it. “What’s this?” he asked me.
“Oh, it’s the paddle.”
“Why doesn’t she use your father’s fraternity paddle?” That paddle hung on the hook behind it.
“She likes the one with the holes because it hurts more.”
A dark expression crossed my grandfather’s face that I’d never seen before. He told me to stay inside, and that he was going to work in my parents’ garden awhile. I didn’t question this – he was a brilliant gardener.
Alice went looking for the paddle a few days later and couldn’t find it. Dad wouldn’t let her use his frat paddle. The paddling punishments stopped, and except for the occasional slap in the face, she switched to punishments via long verbal dress-downs that addressed not just the behavior she found offensive (random and impossible to predict) but she would also call into and belittle any confidence, accomplishment or general opinion I had. The delivery was like a Baptist revival: either loud, or at a hysterical shriek.
Any kind of body-shaming delighted Alice, and my being fat gave her exceptional excuses. I consider this probably the single worst thing she ever did to me, and the rest falls into a truly disturbing behavior pattern. I was 11, and had yet another round of weight gain and a growth spurt. I was supposed to go to a Girl Scouts meeting, and it was cold out. She ordered me to put on my long johns and then my uniform. The long underwear were almost an inch thick, and the uniform she sewed me fit just fine without them, but with them was entirely too tight. The underwear had the unfortunate result of creating a pronounced pubic mound on me.
I came in front of her as she sat drinking her morning tea, wanting to ask her if perhaps I could just ditch the long johns. She looked me up and down from her seat at the dining room table, and then grabbed my crotch, and hissed something at me about being fat, and lazy, and obsessed with eating.
I changed clothes quickly and got to school, and I realized that first of all, my mother had gone straight into bad-touch territory, just like they talked about in those film strips, and that second, all the adults at school knew and liked my mother and would refuse to believe she did any such thing.
Yes, my mother was abusive, as was my sister. Between them, I was threatened and harassed on a daily basis for doing innocuous things like enjoying clothing or working hard to get good grades. Any new relationship, friendship, or hobby was an excuse for an invasion. During the brief period in my life where I lost a lot of weight, even my weight loss was an excuse for psychological abuse. On one occasion, when my mother’s poor communication skills resulted in me flooding the garage (after I had asked her repeatedly for a way to avoid this result) she screamed at me, “Now that you have a waistline, you don’t have a brain?”
A year later, when I found myself enjoying fitness, she began “grounding” me from working out, and would obstruct me getting fit to the point where she and my sister alternated between accusing me of anorexia and getting to fat, sometimes within days. Notably that Kris would eat the meat market food rationed for me if I didn’t eat it all within a day of getting it did not factor into why I was choosing to eat in self-defense.
I wasn’t getting beaten on a daily basis. I just lived in an atmosphere of constant fear and oppression. No confidence or self-expression was safe, ever.
Another occasion that might not seem so bad, but to me was just as bad as the crotch-grabbing incident: my mother screamed at me over dinner about talking back to my orchestra director. Mr. Deal was a greedy man, and my health was deteriorating because of his sense of entitlement to me, a sense of entitlement that my mother in particular encouraged. He and Peg Schaeffer are the reasons I will never again pick up a musical instrument, and I am glad not to. Moving that clarinet out of my life was what finally let some joy in.
There was no way on God’s green earth she wasn’t out of line. She wasn’t just in the wrong, it was obvious she was bullying me. After dinner, she forced me to hug her. She DEMANDED affection when she knew I didn’t want to give it to her – and she did it again twice more after that incident. As I learned later, it’s extremely common for abusive people to do this sort of thing.
A lot of this is hindsight, but looking it over now, accepting that yes, I was abused helps me understand now. My mother, like most abusers, is obsessed with having her authority recognized. It’s why she gives out all the obnoxious fucking advice. It’s why, after I was married, she actually tried to do the “I am your mother and you will do what I say!” crap. No decent mother tries that shit with their adult child, not if they want a good relationship. She was completely pissed off that Mike didn’t seek her permission when he wanted to marry me, and was upset that I didn’t consult her. Why? Because it would give her power and authority.
My mother has attempted multiple times to continue our abusive relationship into our adulthood. I haven’t let her.
But I do hope she reads this, somehow. She needs to know I’m onto her, and so are the people who know me well that have read this. By making it public, I end up taking away ALL her authority. It’s a public record of why I won’t have children: even if the poison isn’t in me, she might try to get at any child I might have, and I can’t have that. Perhaps my mother-in-law will see this, and understand why my initial response to her “concerned” inquiries and bigoted-religious reaction to me when we first met is why I’m quite likely to actually use the words “Fuck off,” if she ever tries to assert authority with me instead of treating me as a fellow adult.
In my second year of college, my parents were digging in their back garden, and they unearthed the paddle. My grandfather buried it, because, given my sister’s obsession with fire, she probably would have been blamed for burning it. Alice asked me about it in a phone call. I think she was hoping I’d confess to burying it.
When I told her Gramps did it, she was silent, and then changed the subject.
In our family, after our loved ones die, they send us dreams and updates. My father less so lately because I’m processing, really processing, what’s been done to me (is it normal this much later?) and I’m furious with him for standling idly by, and even angrier for his demand I “don’t abandon” Alice and Kris when they deserve that and worse from me.
Kris once told me, when I was still trying to have a relationship with her, that Alice had a dream after my grandmother died that they were driving down the road, and that he stopped and looked at my mother, a very serious/unhappy expression on his face. She wondered why.
I know why.