>>>>>>CONTENT FLAG<<<<<< Trigger warning: memories of child abuse
She wore red pants with a long-sleeved white shirt broken up with thin red, green, and blue horizontal stripes. Her hair was pulled up on each side into ponytails, tightly bound with elastics bearing transparent red plastic balls. The expression on her face was utter terror; she was afraid she was going to die. I was afraid she was going to die. At the age of about three, this is my first lasting memory of the world I came into. Watching her hung over the railing from the second floor, being mercilessly shaken, jostled up and down, hands dropped and swatted from grasping any safety. You screamed at her that you wanted to kill her, shrilly, repeatedly. That voice could shatter glass. You threatened to drop her as I stood frozen in fear at the top of stairs. When I moved toward her, you moved her further away. So that there was even more distance between her and the floor so far below her. It might as well have been a mile. I was a child, it looked like she was dangling over a cliff from my point-of-view. But she wasn’t. She was hanging, swinging precariously at the ends of your hands, your hands acting in wild madness. Not as with the gentle, loving hands of a mother, but as with those of a monster. Her fear is burned into my memory thirty four years later. I can feel her tears burning holes in my skin, in my heart. It plagues me. It haunts me. I wake up in a cold sweat.
When she confronted you about abusing her years later, you looked her straight in the eye, and you told her it was all in her head. You told her, as she gave you an opportunity to redeem yourself, to repair the rift that had become miles wide, that she was crazy. That it was all in her head, as though she only wanted it to be true. You made yourself the victim and tried to pull me in to wallow in your pity. I saw her walk away, something inside her now broken. She bared her heart to you and you brushed her off, dismissed her as though she was inconsequential. And she was never the same. Distressed, distraught, grieved. Over the years, I have watched her punish herself for what she couldn’t reconcile. What she couldn’t heal because she couldn’t understand. And a part of her, I think, felt she was crazy. Knowing that at times, this pain led her to crave an end to her life. Knowing, as with repeated stabs to my heart, that she has shouldered and suffered the pain because of me. And all the while my mind took me back to that evening on the stairs where I was forced to see her most private pain on display. The torment she endured. The fear and anguish in her eyes, that, years later, still shows on her face. Still governs the distance between us, between her and everyone else. She has drifted off to the side and watches unwarily. Her ability to trust was shattered, and even though she has managed to glue so much of her life, her worth, and her value for herself back together on her own, of her own strength and beautiful will to overcome, there are still cracks showing, and there are still holes. She has an incomplete heart.
My first memory, certainly not the first instance of abuse I witnessed, but powerful enough to erase everything that came before. The three of us learned a costly lesson that day, my brother, my sister, and I. A costly lesson about not shouldering the blame for things you do and instead pointing the finger at an innocent. A lesson by violence that no child should ever have to learn. On this day, it was my fault. She still blames me for what was done to her, and I have always blamed myself. So much so that when I had my own experiences later on, I felt it was my punishment for the emotional trauma I had forced upon my sister. As an adult, I logically know that no matter what I did, I was not at fault for the cruelty inflicted upon my sister. It was my mother, and had it not been me that morning, it could have been my brother. There were other things done to her: a broken arm, verbal abuse, and most likely many things my sister will never tell me. As an adult, I know this. As a child of maybe 3, I did not. I was not aware that I had no control over what a parent, out-of-control, did to my sister. And there is a side of me that still blames myself for what she did. Over three decades later, I cannot let that toddler have peace. It will always be her fault, and I will always heap coals upon her head, this naïve, unknowing, once innocent child.
Later still, my sisters from my mother’s second marriage endured varying degrees of verbal and physical abuse at the hand of their father who was quite fond of the drink. I shouldn’t have been surprised that she would turn the other cheek as he would punch them in the head as they lay on the carpet playing. A punishment for talking loudly enough that they could be heard over the races or football games on television. Or how he would pick either of them up and throw them several feet off onto the floor because they dared to climb on his lap when his team was losing. Slaps I heard booming in the kitchen, through a closed door, across a twenty foot long family room, over the television. When they would be sick in the middle of the night, crying for a parent, someone, anyone to come in and care for them, and they would be there in the dark waiting for affection that was not to come. So I would. Having to force emotion down long enough so my sister could run to me, begging me to make her father stop, asking me why he didn’t love her so she could just change it. So she could fix it and make him love her. So she could be a better child, a good child that he would be proud of.
And she turned her cheek. She let him do what he wanted, so maybe he would leave her alone. Several calls I made attempting to report the abuse as a teenager were not taken seriously. And they continued to suffer as the drinking worsened. As a teen, I spent many of my mandatory weekend visits at my mother’s stepping in between an angry drunk and my elementary-aged siblings. Putting myself at risk, because they were too young to defend themselves, and I couldn’t stand to see them get hurt and not do something. Anything. Even if it meant it would happen to me, because I, as a toddler, couldn’t stop what happened to my older sister. I was once powerless, but in this growing body, I no longer was. And I knew the other parent would allow it. Prior to this, I had always been respectful to my elders, even when I disagreed, but I have to admit, the sassiness I can sometimes let loose took root during the midst of this chaos. I developed the ability to keep him in check with my mouth, long enough for my sisters to get away. I spoke up when my mother would not. His children from his first marriage despised this. They thought it was not my place, and I disagreed, because it was not my sisters’ faults that they were not born boys. They were trying for boys and failed. And the older of the two took the worst of the treatment, and has a deep-seated belief in her that it was her fault. That she could have somehow changed or stopped his behavior altogether. If only she was enough.
After high school, I moved in, because I simply did not trust anyone in the house with their care. It was clear that I needed to be there to be a buffer and calm, soft place for my sisters in the midst of the lion’s den. Then one day, when I was over at a friend’s house, it happened. And I knew the second I called my mother by the tone in her voice that he had turned on her. In a drunken fit of rage, anger at the world sparked by her disinterest in sports and subsequent letter-writing, he put his hands on her. I knew by her voice, and I came straight out and asked her, and she told me. Then tried to force me to keep silent. When I got home, I had a conversation with him about his behavior and we came to a little understanding, him and I. And things were tense but with me in the house, he didn’t dare step over the line and become violent. Until I went to college.
Not long after I came home from school, a forced exodus from a severe bout with depression that would persist for years almost ending with a suicide attempt, I learned that things had reverted to their former state during my absence, and I had to restore order. A few years later, bless her tired and struggling soul, my younger sister, now on the verge of adolescence, had her fill. This time, she stood up to lacking parent. She gave her no choice. Go with me, or I report you, too. Act to protect me, just this once, or you will share his fate. She protested but gave in out of self preservation, but she finally stood up and protected her child, one who almost died in the womb before she was even born. One whose twelve years on this earth were marred by year after year of enduring unspeakable cruelty at the hands of an uncaring father, angry that he was not able to produce a boy. He was removed from the home, and never came back. When he passed a few years later, my sisters carried immense guilt and confusion. They could not understand how a man their loved as their father could cause them so much hurt. They couldn’t reconcile the bad things they had felt and said about him with the natural love any child has for their parent. They loved him and hated him all at once, and they never were able to sort this emotional hurt and confusion out.
Now that we have all entered adulthood, many of us are far from whole. Even though the violence has stopped, some of us for many years, the damage is still tainting our lives. How has it affected us? Four of the five children my mother had have (or still are) suffering long-term and dangerously perilous effects of severe depressive disorders. Lack of self-esteem. Low self-confidence. A few have had trouble with battling suicidal thoughts. Two of us have tried. All of us have trouble trusting others and are wary of newcomers. Some of us stand off to the side and isolate ourselves from others because of emotional inability to interact. A few of us got entangled with abusive partners. One of us nearly died before she was able to get out. On some levels, even though we are now grown, the fear lingers. Sometimes, nightmares intrude, stealing our sleep. We are insomniacs. Sometimes we flip to the other extreme and try to sleep life away.
We are all cognizant of our need for companionship, friendship, and love in our lives, but a few of us avoid pursuit of such things, lest we be betrayed and violated again. It is not a luxury some of us feel able or fortunate enough to afford, because rejection comes at great cost to us. It reminds of those years we were not enough. When we felt unloved. When felt it was our fault and we deserved it. For some of us, the pain is so great, we would do almost anything to avoid revisiting this pain.
Even though not all of us have been affected the same way by the abuse we endured and witnessed during our most urgently critical years in terms of emotional development, I speak of us all as one. For we are not just children related by blood. We are not only family. We are children of violence, and the unspoken bond that exists between us is a lifeline of understanding and acknowledgement that no outside can break. Even though parts of us are damaged, we have survived. Some of us have faired better. Some of us have had to reach up for help from the others, and we never leave each other behind. If one of us falls, we all fall. If one of us is wounded, we all bleed. If one of us were to die this very second, the others would feel a piece of their heart fail and fade into the shadows. I am them, and they are me.
We are children of violence. Our lives are examples of the far reaching effects the devastation of child abuse and domestic violence has on our hearts, our emotional lives, and how it affects if years into the future. If you know someone who is a child of violence, reach your hand out to them and help them. Resources are available. Do not let them stumble through life without the ability to heal. As we bear witness to you today through the words of one, we all suffer the effects of abuse from decades ago to this day. And we all will for years to come.
We are children of violence, but we are also sisters. We are friends. I am them, and they are me.