His main form of control was what my mom referred to as ‘terrorism.’ Using his words, tone, and facial expressions to keep us in a perpetual state of fear of what he may do next. Even if he had nothing planned, we were always ready, and at the same time never prepared.
Because my parents fostered children, I am one of seven. I am happy they were a part of my life though I am not sure they would say the same. The girls shared a room and we all had our own shelf in the book case for our worlds to live. The oldest the top, me the second, and so on, all of our consignment, and donated shoes with all of their soles missing, and holy existence tucked underneath. Each shelf gave a glimpse into the life of each child, their passions and desires, their biases and their triumphs. While mine was filled with books, antique trinkets, and porcelain dolls, many of my sisters preferred baby dolls. The kind that sleep when you lay them down, or the one where the hair is made of yarn allowing to be crimped and braided. And the doll to rule all dolls, a potty training doll.
The doll is filled with water that comes out the other end into a makeshift, potty chair. A simple idea and design but to a child, this was pure magic. But I knew what magic really was. Magic was a form of control, a way to terrorize children. If you spank a child too often they build up a tolerance to the pain and embarrassment and more and harsher punishment is needed, often leading to those headlines you see about discipline going too far, crossing the line into the legal definition of child abuse. All of us had built up that tolerance, after a lifetime of being hit with a belt on our bare bottoms. We did not care anymore. Our behavior never got better, as has been proven, physical discipline does not work, but in the eyes of my step-father psychological torture might.
Possessions are a part of identity, having them, loving them, being taken from us, all have an effect on who we are in the present moment. The homeless keep old, broken, and dirty objects that have no use to them, simply to maintain a self-actualization beyond their circumstance. The same is true for abused children. Something as simple as a doll that pees in a bucket can be a barrier between comfort and suicide. Somehow, though uneducated, my step-father knew this, thus convincing us he was able to turn toys into rubber bands.
We would whisper to each other in those few moments where we think we were alone if we thought it was possible, the eldest would say, ‘of course not!’ to cover their own inner monologues of anxiety, knowing with their wisdom that this was an entirely new level of manipulation. After our short lived pep talks, we would continue our normal routine, consisting of setting up the room as a library or a highway rest stop complete with maps, restrooms, and security. We set up these scenes in an attempt to get away from the world we were in. I am convinced of this, as an active participant, I put myself deep into that world for hours, and days. I WAS a librarian, and the next day a map maker for the local truck stop, and I was joyful to be somewhere of my own choosing. I cannot speak for my siblings but memories of those moments flash to my mind only giggles, smiles, and cooperation.
I did not sleep well as a child, I would lay for hours staring forward listening to my siblings snore on their designated bunk bed, two of them had to share due to the lack of space in our shack we called a house. Laying under a blue wool blanket, the sides lined with what I would have described as silk, I saw the door open by the hands of my step-father. The yellow light from the living room hit my eyes and I squinted to see, but also pretending to be asleep knowing that I would be hit if I were not. He stumbles, with grace toward our shelf, and then again out the door, and I wait a few moments.
I knew when my parents went to bed, the light in the living room would go out and the shouting would stop. I could hear more precisely the fish tank bubbling and the familiar white light from the tank contrasting the yellow would shine through the crack in the door. Knowing the consequence, I flipped my wool blanked to the end of the bed, getting up to move in slow motion toward the shelf. I can feel my pink faux silk Little Mermaid night gown brush against my shins and though I had never seen the movie I loved the feeling against my skin, it meant eight hours in my own world.
I hobbled toward the shelf where I saw him linger for a moment, and peering in I squinted to see a thick, beige rubber band sitting in the place of my older sibling, Mary’s potty doll. It was real. I moved my hand toward it, shaking, imagining it blowing up in my face or magically waking up my step-father just upon a soft touch of my finger-tips. I flicked it with the back of my right finger and seeing it move, jumped back to shuffle to her bunk bed, shake her awake, and putting my index finger to my lips, I escorted her. We stood staring, no words, until she mumbles, “What did I do?” Starting to whimper, she turns, climbs up the ladder to fall asleep, exhausted and defeated.
He does not address what we all knew, that he had used his magic to change Mary’s doll into a rubber band. We suspect on purpose as he never forgets. There was no library that day, no rest stop, no map making, just 4 little girls, sitting, waiting, petrified. We all came to a consensus that we would not leave the room no matter how badly we needed to use the bathroom. We would stay together until the day ended and tomorrow, this will all be over. Our plan was foiled at dinner time as we shuffled toward our designated spots at the table, sitting up on our knees, on the hard floor, two of my siblings made to stand and eat only lima beans, as per orders, this was dinner. We scarfed down our food in an attempt to get to our room before he finished his and we almost succeeded. Mary was asked to stay and the rest of us were instructed to go to bed, without anything to drink as Mary was always the one who advocated to get us a drink after our dinner, but she had no voice that night.
I slept on the opposite end of my bed that night as to be able to look out over the top of our sawed in half door. I needed to see his magic for myself. Mary’s long and thin pure blond hair flew backward gracefully as she screamed, begging him to stop snapping her, with what was to her, still her potty doll in disguise as a weapon of torture to break her. I always thought her hair was so soft, and as I watched it fly back, I imagined my fingers running through it, comforting her through my own kind of magic.
What struck me the most while writing this story wasn’t the abuse I lived, or the abuse my foster siblings endured, but the stark difference between what they went through, and what I was in some ways exempt from. As a child I believed I was just better “behaved.” That if they were getting harsher punishments that must mean they deserved it, and that I was a better child. The older I got however the more I realized that often times, what happened to them wouldn’t be classified as discipline or punishment, but maybe just something dad does when he is drunk, and he had his favorite children to torture, and lucky for me, I wasn’t one of them. I was never snapped dozens of times with a thick rubber band in the arms and neck. I was never made to stand in the middle of the room at dinner being served only lima beans for days. My naked body didn’t have to be inspected by child services twice a month. These were things that I always viewed as “experiences” but upon writing I now understand myself to be a witness to moments of child abuse that sit on the outskirts of my own narrative, making me both an insider and an outsider in my own sibling stories.
I began to feel guilt upon imagining Mary’s thin blond hair bouncing back, feeling my fingers running through it as she cried. Guilt because I never did that. I have no memory of comforting my sisters, only memories of times when I threw them under the bus to save myself, because I knew if I said one of the foster kids did something, I would be believed. I was not exempt completely, however. When I think back on the ways in which I avoided certain painful situations at home I realize, what often got me out of it was my ability to think critically. I was the only of my siblings that had 4 years of life (my first 4 years), without extreme abuse or neglect. The most important years of a child’s life, I spent reading, learning to write, playing outside, with toy instruments, going to museums, and being allowed to roam, cry, laugh, and smile freely. My siblings spent the first 4 years of their lives in conditions of incest, being tied to potty chairs, being cramped into cribs too small for them, and left for hours without being touched.
I began scrambling to think of a time when I had helped them. A moment when I made their situation just a bit better. I recall a time, sitting on the living room couch, the 4 of us squeezed in watching tv. We were being “too loud” and told to hold our breath until instructed otherwise. So we took in a massive gulp of air, and in typical kid fashion, allowed it to rest in our cheeks. He did this to us often and rarely remembered to tell us to breathe again, so I knew how to pretend to be holding my breath, by slowly breathing through my nose and leaving that large gulp of air in my cheeks. My siblings, however, did not know this, they could not put those connections together, and sat in agony. He got up to go to the bathroom, and when they took in their gasps of relief for a moment I chastised them for not just breathing through their nose. How could they possibly not know this, I thought? So I taught them. I taught them how to breathe when they were told they weren’t allowed to. That was my contribution.
I believe that the privileges I was afforded as a child are what give me the privileges and platform I now have as an academic. I believe the first 4 years of basic calmness and freedom I was allotted, that my siblings were not, made me able to excel academically, in ways they cannot. I am a professor. The only of my siblings to graduate high school in the traditional sense. On most days I think about my own struggles to obtain even just a bachelor’s degree, such as living with a mental illness, not being able to hold a job because of such an illness, relational difficulties that left me without a home on more than one occasion. Life was not easy for me. But it was EASIER and with every accomplishment I make I know where that ability comes from, and I hesitate to tell people outside my academic circle. I don’t want people to think I don’t know that my career was built on the backs of my siblings, who took the brunt of the abuse for me and continue to do so through the telling and retelling of their story.
I have few memories of my step-father wearing anything beyond sort shorts, or even at times ‘tighty-whities”, sprouts of sandy blonde pubic hair poking out the crotch. My step-father is an alcoholic and while drinking, he often used sexual language, such as routinely talking about his daily masturbation activities. I knew at a young age that he masturbated in the living room at night. Sometimes we weren’t asleep and he wasn’t always quiet. I often see the image in my head when I close my eyes.
“Don’t tease me like that.” My father said to me as I finished my popsicle only understanding what he meant half way through.”
This was the first passage I wrote, for a narrative about sexual bullying, that made me think on a deeper level about my experiences with abuse. It took 3 years of writing and sharing my stories to realize, and accept, that I was emotionally and mentally sexually abused by my step-father. I buried these memories, and the shame that accompanied them, because of the assumption that since he never touched me sexually, that meant it could not have been sexual abuse. “How dare I say I was sexually abused when there are so many victims of child rape and incest?” I thought. However, writing, along with research, helped me to understand sexual abuse goes well beyond touching.
“Do I need to go into her room right now and molest Amber!?” Lying in bed at age 3, I hear him use the threat of sexually abusing me as punishment for my 18 year old mother’s disobedience. She burst into the room, scooped me up, and ran into her room locking the door. I fell asleep to the sensation of my mother rubbing my back lightly with the tips of her fingers, and the sound of my step-father pounding on the door. Developing the fear of my father raping me, even into adulthood.
A large huddle of what looked to me to be naked 12 year old girls crowd the TV screen. All of which are shaking, and crying in fear as a man wearing military garb walks amongst them, grabs one, throws her to the ground and proceeds to sexually violate her as a large group of other military men cheer him on. This is one of a long list of movies my father would watch throughout the weekends, with all of his children in the room.
While lying in my bed, exploring my body, at 15 years old, I heard rustling leaves outside my bedroom window. I stopped, pulling my blanket up to cover my half naked body in terror, to see my father watching me through the window. It made me wonder how often he would watch me like that. Did he watch me dress? Did he watch me in the shower? Did he take pictures? I learned, even before this, that my body was for others to enjoy.
He would turn it on, and we would run. When he caught us, and he always did, he grabbed our left arm, scraping his rough calluses on our skin, and shove the drill into our anus, as far as he could, as he laughed. We did not know the screw was not intact and since it hurt so much on our sensitive skin, our young minds fully believed our father was getting sick pleasure out of drilling the assholes of his crying, struggling, children.
“Who did it!?” He held up a ball of tangled gray string in our face, that I did not recognize nor did I know what “it” was. I learned later one of my 3 sisters, whom I shared a room with, had pulled that wad of string from the mattress of our bunk bed. Apparently, a crime punishable by repeated bare bottom beatings until someone fessed up. We stood there, in a row, exposed, pants-less waiting for our next turn to lay naked across his lap. There were multiple rounds of this throughout the night before he got too drunk to continue and sent us all to bed. I can still feel the blow of the fan and the sting of his cigarette ashes on my naked body. This was a repressed memory I was made aware of through the act of writing.
I sat still with a lump in my throat, waiting in the bathtub for him to enter the bathroom, I always hoped he wouldn’t, but he always did. As he entered he pull his pants down, exposing himself, and begin to shit as I sat, naked, watching him. Hearing it fall into the bowl, and smelling the stench. He then would leave, and almost always, turn off the light behind him. To this day I cannot stand to hear people talk about their bowel movements, tell me that they are or are about to, or smell it, without thinking about those moments. I also have a tremendous fear of someone walking in on me while I am in the bathroom, particularly in public. I will check the lock multiple times and never feel safe.
Christine Kiesinger, in My Father’s Shoes: The Therapeutic Value of Narrative Reframing, remembers a conversation with her father about family communication where she believed she truly taught him something (Kiesinger, 2002). This resulted in her father claiming that was ‘the best conversation he’s ever had’ with her (Kiesinger, 2002). This says to me there is hope in situations of abuse, to an extent, for forgiveness. This passage reminded me of an unusual moment between me and my father where I was able to create a new and ‘reframed’ narrative for us.
“Dad Calling.” I sat on my boyfriend’s couch staring at the screen on my phone. When I was 20 and moved out of the family home he, for the first time, laid his hands on my mother, back handing her in the shoulder. The police were called by the neighbors and my parents divorced.
He made his rounds just after, calling each family member before my mother could to get his story out first, trying to get everyone on his side, and now he was calling me. The very idea that he thought he could put his step daughter against her own mother says how narcissistic of a man he is. I answer, feeling as though I had no choice, I knew he would keep calling until I answered anyway.
“Hey! Whatcha up to!?” I had grown to know and understand his different personalities and I knew he hadn’t started drinking yet. He told me he knew he hit my mother though he didn’t think it was hard enough to hurt her. He admitted it. He told me he ran after my brother down the street that night, tearing his shirt off and choking him down to the ground. Though he didn’t think it was hard enough to hurt him. He admitted it. He then told me he knows now that some of the things he did may have caused psychological damage. He finally realized it was hard enough to hurt me. He admitted it.
It was the writing and telling of my stories that helped me to remember this moment, as well as the bowl of chocolate morsels he allowed me to eat for breakfast when I was 4, the new violin he bought me when I was 12, the late night games of RISK and ice cream, and the funeral he orchestrated for my first pet iguana.
I believe my stories are not just tragic, but tragically beautiful in many ways. They display sibling love and support, an ongoing and unfaltering desire to improve and move away from the seemingly inevitable cycle of abuse and mental illness, and above all else, forgiveness. In Bird on a Wire: Freeing the Father within Me, Art Bochner wrote of an explanation for his father’s abusive behavior. Sharing that his father’s failed dream of being an artist due to stigmas about his faith and immigrant status, is what filled him with the rage he took out on his family (Bochner, 2012). This inspired me to decide that the abuse I endured was a portion of a bigger picture that goes beyond individual moments. Writing helped me to understand the severity of my father’s alcohol addiction. Writing helped me to separate the behavior from the individual. Writing helped me, essentially, to forgive.