For me, the core terror of parent-inflicted abuse is that the people who gave you life—parents—are apparently trying to give you death.
It is true that offspring die in nature, at the paws or claws of parent or parent-figure animals. In lions, it’s often a new male entering a pride who kills the cubs of the previous dominant male. Dead young may be devoured in famine, sometimes by the parent, sometimes by their siblings, for the purpose of survival. In cases where there is assertion of dominance by way of intimidation, as with wolves, the dynamic of it is straightforward. Actual malice seems absent, insofar as we human observers can tell.
I cannot say that of my father.
The Meanest Man
I lived my life in fear of my father. Part of that can be attributed to his height and build. At six-two (188 cm) and about 190 pounds (86-87 kg), my father was a large man, hard-muscled from a lifetime of physical labor. He had a loud, deep voice, and what some called charisma, others “presence”. He immediately drew all attention to himself by entering a room. The same held even when he died.
At his memorial service, two statements stood out of the many made about him. Several co-workers gathered in one corner called him, and I quote, “the meanest sumbitch foreman on the East Coast”. (I worked for him, officially, in his construction crew, and can confirm that.) The other remarkable comment came from a neighbor, who had seen two tours of combat in-country as a US Marine in the Vietnam War: “That’s one of the few men I ever met who could scare me.” That confirmed for me that I wasn’t hallucinating my father’s ability to strike terror into people in general.
As any abuse survivor knows, such validation is incredibly healing. It allows us to release that terrible feeling of being insane, paranoid, wrong. It is depressing as well. It would be nice to think we’d imagined it all.
With that snapshot of my father and reactions to him, I can forage ahead into the memory that snaps my life into distinct parts: Then, and After.
The memory was fully recovered after a session of EMDR meant to deal with a recent medical trauma. For me, that involved reattachment of emotions to events, and fuller recall of events. An entire childhood, in fact, basically exploded at once. The physical strain of that much emotional and mental recall caused me to collapse and be taken for emergency treatment. It was upon that occasion I was screened for various problems, and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I am, to be honest, delaying this. That moment was The Moment. I stopped feeling or knowing what my life had been until that point, and I kept it hidden deep from myself, in myself, for over twenty years. That was sanity, and survival.
My father had strict standards, no forgiveness for error, and rage.
At 17, I broke the law. I admit it. I own it. Stupid blind moment of self-destructive behavior, although it was (in fairness) a misdemeanor ultimately settled by payment of a fine and very lenient probation. (Basically, as long as I was not arrested for a certain number of months, my one-arrest record would be expunged.)
To many parents, who had a straight A student with scholarships to college guaranteed, this would be a shock and disappointment. That was my mother’s reaction, before consulting a lawyer to see what was required of us.
She also told my father, when he came home that evening.
To be continued
If you want to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder from prolonged exposure to traumatic events, try this site: Complex PTSD FAQ by Pete Walker.
Images by havlil and author.