Tag Archives: adult survivor of child abuse

Popping the question

When he was four, he wanted to know if my mother was dead.  I told him she was.

When he was four and two months, he wanted to know what she died of.  I told him that she got sick and her lungs stopped working.

When he was four and two months and one day, he wanted to know how old I had been.  I told him two.

When he was five, he wanted to know about my father.  I told him he lived far away.  But then he wanted to know about my stepmother, and eventually, after the questions became more and more probing, I told him the truth.  She wasn’t very nice to me.

“Why wasn’t she nice to you?”

“I guess she didn’t like me very much.”

“But why didn’t she like you very much?”

“I don’t know, sweetie.  I don’t know why someone wouldn’t like a child.”

He wants to know more about what she did, I think.  He doesn’t have the words to ask because he doesn’t even know the word “abuse.”  It is all so vague for him, and it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on in that little head.

I sure as hell don’t want to tell him more than he’s asking.  He’s not asking to know that she beat me.  He shouldn’t even know that she hit me.  He’ll have sixty or seventy years of his life to understand the specifics of what happened to me as a kid; right now, it’s not necessary for him to know I slept naked on the hallway floor and ate my own vomit.

But I also don’t want to tell him less than he’s asking.  Kids left to figure shit out for themselves can imagine some pretty horrible stuff, although I guess he can’t imagine much that’s worse than what actually happened to me.  So, I wait for the questions and field them as they come.

Except when I don’t know the answer.

Because there is one question I’ve struggled with for years.  The same question that grown men ask me every single time they hear my story.  The question Zachary asked me the other day.

“Why didn’t your father help you?”

Why didn’t my father help me?  Why, indeed.  There are a couple of ways to go about answering this one, but “because he’s a narcissistic asshole” doesn’t really answer the question.  Plus, then I’d have to define narcissistic and asshole.

Instead, I went with, “I don’t really know.  I think maybe he just didn’t care that much.”

This threw Zach for a loop.  Having no experience with stepmothers, he can accept that some are bad.  But he has experiences with fathers.  In his experience, fathers care very much.

My husband thinks I answered wrong.  And maybe I did.  Unfortunately, my husband does not have any suggestions for better answers.  I think that’s because there aren’t any better answers.

How do I answer a four-year-old who wants to know why the woman on the cover of Time magazine has her nose cut off?  I mean, other than to wonder why the hell the grocery store put the magazine at precisely four-year-old height.    How do I answer when my children want to know about war and genocide and mental illness and homelessness?  I answer as honestly as I can, trying to help them understand there are injustices in the world that they can help to right.

But, when my almost-six-year-old wants to know why a father stands by and allows his children to brutalized, why my father did that, well, I just don’t know what to say.

Everything I need to know I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder

As we have already established, I have a somewhat unorthodox idea of what is appropriate children’s literature.  I prefer not to expose my kids to violence in its many forms – whether war or droids.  However, I don’t think sexuality – when explained in a healthy way – ought to be taboo.  My strange sense of propriety extends beyond books to life; I want to maintain their innocence about things like video games and Spongebob, but I have no problem explaining things like homelessness and bigotry.

As Zachary graduated to chapter books, I decided to start reading him the Little House series.  There were two things I did not realize.  One, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a fuckload of books.  Two, my child would become completely engrossed.

We have been at this for about four months.  We have read eight-and-a-half Little House books, all the way from the Little House in the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the First Four Years of Laura’s marriage to Almanzo.  We are a year-and-a-half into those four years, after which we will be finished with the series.  I fear he may ask me to start reading other books about Wilder.

For awhile, he would get the picture book versions of the books on his weekly trips to the school library.  I am pretty sure he is the first kindergarten boy the librarian has ever seen who knows exactly where the Little House section is.  But, he soon tired of those watered-down versions.  He decided the writing was not up to his standards.

Apparently, my kid is a literary snob.

The books bring up some tough questions, and I do not censor Ma’s bigotry.  Instead, I discuss with him that her hatred of “Indians” is prejudice, and we talk about why that is so bad.  When we hit the minstrel show, it got a little more complicated.  Ever try explaining to a five-year-old why blackface is so offensive…?

I don’t mind these conversations.  He is learning history, and a part of that is coming to understand that attitudes are in many ways socially constructed.  He may not grasp all of this, but raising a child with any set of values is an ongoing process.  Frankly, it’s one of my favorite parts of parenting.

Not that the Little House mania has been all positive.  There have been a few unforeseen complications.  When he and his friends get together, they tend to play games themed around their obsessions – one friend loves dinosaurs, another Star Wars.  Lately it has been How to Train Your Dragon.  But, it’s hard to propose to a group of six-year-old boys, “Guys, I have an idea.  Instead of playing dinosaurs, let’s play Little House.  I’ll be Almanzo.  Who wants to play Carrie?”

And then there was the trip to the local living historical farm, which starts with a display of nineteenth-century farming implements.  As we walked in, Zachary walked up to the first display case.  “Oh, look!  A yoke!”  Turning to the next case, he exclaimed, “It’s a plow!  And a pitchfork!”

You don’t even want to know how excited he was to churn butter.

Of course, he was even more excited for Laura and Almanzo to get together.  You see, I had explained during Farmer Boy that the book was about Almanzo, who would grow to be the man Laura marries.  So, for all of The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, the kid would writhe with happy anticipation whenever Almanzo showed up.   Clearly, my child is a romantic.

Zach has gotten some queer notions about the way the world works from these books, however.  It took some time to explain exactly why Laura and her Ma both had to stop teaching once they got married.  And he hasn’t quite grasped that people don’t get married anymore straight out of their parents’ houses.  I had to explain that his teenaged babysitter is going to college, rather than finding a beau.

The books have taught him about engagement rings, a necessary education for all five-year-olds.  “Mommy, why do you have two rings?”

“One is my wedding ring, the other is my engagement ring.”

“Why did you marry Daddy and leave your parents’ house?” he asked, missing about ten years in the middle. “I bet you were glad to get away from your stepmother because she was mean, even though Daddy is sometimes stinky.”

“I didn’t marry Daddy right after I left. I went to college.”

“Did you go to college right after you left your stepmother?”

This was not a conversation I wanted to have in front of the sponge that is his three-year-old brother.  “Honey, can you come into the kitchen and I will be happy to explain it?”

He followed me in, and I bent down to his level.  I think my kids know when I am imparting important information, because I stop washing dishes and actually look at them.  “I didn’t leave when I went to college.  I left when I was about John’s age,” I explained, referring to our ten-year-old neighbor.

“Who did you live with?”

“My grandparents and then my aunt.”

“But you were happy to leave your stepmother,” he repeated.

“That’s true.  I was happy to get away from my stepmother.”

“Because stepmothers are mean.”

“No,” I said.  “My stepmother was mean.  But not all of them are.”

“Why was she mean?” he asked, a question I dreaded only slightly less than the other possibility: how was she mean?

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe she didn’t like you?”

“Well, that’s true.  She didn’t like me.”

Never one to be deterred, he pressed on.  “Why didn’t she like you?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know why a grown-up wouldn’t like a child.  Why do you think?”  At this point, I was hoping to get a sense of what he thought the issues were, so that I was not giving more information than he was actually asking for.  However, he had no idea why a grown-up would dislike a child, and the conversation stopped there.

But I am left with it, this knowledge that the conversations are rapidly creeping up on me.  He is asking more and more, wanting to process my life, to fit it into the world that he knows.  And, unlike the middle child – whose pleas of “tell me about when you were a little girl” can be assuaged with “I liked to climb trees” – this one is old enough to handle parts of the truth.

I just wish I could maintain his innocence a little bit longer.


Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance.  Repentance is a funny thing in Judaism.  We’re not big on heaven or hell, yet we make quite a fuss over our sins.  There are ten days between the start of the new year and Yom Kippur, during which Jews are supposed to seek forgiveness for their sins against other people.

Here’s the deal: if, truly repentant, I seek forgiveness three times and the other person refuses to grant it, the whole thing is over with.  I am supposed to walk forward and let it go, as I have done everything I can to atone.  As long as I have repented fully in my heart and deeds.

Now, I get this, as it seems to me that there needs to be a way to move on past one’s transgressions.  There is room for abuse in the system, as a person who does not deserve to be forgiven blithely can move on from the crimes of her past.  However, it does seem that anyone who can fool herself into thinking she has truly repented when she has not probably would let herself off the hook with or without the third-time’s-the-charm rule, so really it just offers protection to those who cannot win forgiveness from those who really ought to allow them to move forward.

This brings up some interesting questions in my life, as there are those I have hurt.  I lived with my aunt and uncle for my teen years.  It was an unpleasant situation, at best, and I was not particularly treasured, but there was no abuse to speak of and they gave me a roof over my head and food on the table.  When I was in my early twenties, I sent a very hurtful letter to my aunt and that more or less severed all ties.

It has been fourteen years.  I feel sorry for hurting my aunt and uncle, for allowing myself to be separated from my cousins.  Yet, I absolutely do not want my aunt or uncle back in my life, as that relationship was incredibly toxic.  So, I could ask forgiveness three times.  But I could not do it the way they want, which is begging them to return to my life.  They made it very clear several times that in their minds forgiveness was tied to a continuing relationship.  I don’t want them in my life, and how do you say, “I’m sorry I hurt you, now bugger off?”  It seems that would hurt them all the more.

I don’t expect them to ask me for forgiveness, of course, but I’m talking about my side of things here.

Then, of course, is the highly theoretical question of what would happen if my father or step-mother asked me for forgiveness.  Could I grant it to the parents who abused and neglected me?  Is it right to do so?  I have made on in many ways, but to grant them forgiveness is to say that abusing a child is a forgivable crime.  It is not.  It never is.  So, although I have made peace within myself, I could not grant absolution.

Not that they would ever ask for it.  But, forgiveness is about both the asker and the askee.  Even though they may never ask for it, part of my healing is deciding whether I am in a place where I could forgive them.  I don’t think I am, although I desperately want them to ask for it.  I want some acknowledgement that what they did was horrendous.

What bothers me about the Ask-Three-Times-And-Then-Move-On Rule is that it is taking my power away.  I should be the only one with the power to offer forgiveness to my father and step-mother.  (I mean, me and all the other people who have been hurt by what happened in that household.  Like my kids who will forever be the children of an adult survivor of child abuse.)  The fact that a loophole exists bothers me.  I don’t want anyone else, even some mythical higher power, to have the right to forgive those parents.

I think, however, that the rule exists to free us all. It reminds us that forward is the motion of life, and constantly circling back is unhealthy for everyone.  Unfortunately, I am here to tell you that forward motion, while fantastic in theory, is not always realistic for those of us who were locked out for long afternoons in Western Massachusetts winters and sent to elementary school on empty stomachs after spending the night sleeping naked in the hallway.  We can move on and heal, but forgiveness is too much to ask of us.

Forgiveness is a funny thing.

From Emily, whenever they may find me

I don’t know how many of my family members read my blog.  I tried to sign up for Sitemeter, but it routinely tells me that no one has visited my blog, which is not only insulting but clearly untrue given that comments keep appearing.  It is either an issue between Sitemeter and WordPress or, and this is more likely, a user malfunction due to my complete idiocy.  Regardless, I cannot track where people are reading, so I have no idea if there are relatives out there, silently reading away.

It would take about thirteen seconds into a Google search for them to stumble onto this site, provided they know my married name.  Only half of them do, as I have been careful to never have my maiden name and my married name published together.  I simply do not want to be easily findable for my father, stepmother, and half-brother.  The rest of them, however, do know my married name, and they may well be reading these very words.  That is, if they have cared to Google me.

Make no mistake about it – I make it a regular habit of searching for all of them.  In fact, I paused writing this is order to click over to Facebook and see who I could find.  And then I clicked again, remembering another relative who might be there…

I search for my father and stepmother I think to make sure they are still alive.  I am not ready for them to die, yet.  When they are gone, there will be no one left who ought to feel responsible.  Reviling them is a little part of who I am, and to lose that will shift my identity.  It remains to be seen how much.

I search for my cousins to make sure they are doing well, happy and successful.  They are, as far as I can tell, although their Facebook pictures can only tell so much.  I hope to see a wedding one of these days, but they are either gay (the state they live in is one of the 45), single, cohabitating, or just not into publishing their marriages.  I get that; I did not have a wedding announcement because that would have pretty openly connected my maiden and married names.

My half-brother, however, did have a wedding announcement.  Actually, it was an engagement announcement, but it was published at the time of the marriage, as though they were perhaps afraid of making the event public knowledge in advance.  Did they fear I would show up?  What did they think I would do?

This is a recurring theme with my highly un-Googlable family.  For a group of professionals, there just ain’t much out there on most of them.  Have they done this for the same reason I kept my married and maiden names separate?  Are they thinking of me the same way I am thinking of them?  Are they concerned that I may show up?

Only my two cousins are openly out there, and even they keep their Facebook cards close to the chest, as do I.  Perhaps they are the ones who know I will leave them alone.  They are the most innocent of all, and I will never impose my version of my relationship with my family upon them.  When they want to find me, I am easy to locate, because I am the most Googlable of all my relatives.

What I think it comes down to is that I search for all of them because a part of me wants to think that they are searching for me.  That we are quietly watching one another’s lives, even though we are never likely to openly communicate again.  I vaguely consider us all tied to one another by the web of estrangement, living our lives but every now and then, late at night, crossing paths over the internet as we seek one another out.

This post is for Jen, but I think it might also be a little bit for all of them.


Thank you to all of you who went to support my friend as she begins to tell her story.  She has a new blog dedicated to testifying about the abuse she suffered.  Here in our little corner of the internet, we have a history of supporting each other through these things, so I hope you will add her to your reader and listen as she tells.

Also, don’t forget to check out Edge of the Page, my new book blog.

And, yes, we had two earthquakes within an hour last night.  Can I move back to Philly now?

I think the apostrophe should come after the S

            Friday was the Mothers’ Day celebration at the boys’ preschool, which meant that I scored myself a heart pin with rhinestones, a beaded necklace that Benjamin continually told me he had made for me while at the same time insisting he wanted it, a card Ben’s teachers had made and a card on which Zach had written “I love you Mommy, Zachary,” a keychain with my eldest child’s name on it, and a puppet that was supposed to look like me.  That last was wearing an awful lot of jewelry, so it was really Bling Emily, and Zach’s teacher confided that he had informed her, “My mommy doesn’t wear jewelry.”  I guess he was hoping I’d take the hint and learn to accessorize.

            All in all, a mighty fine haul. 

            The bummer about the day is that the school combines Teacher Appreciation Day with Mothers’ Day, as though they can just sort of glom all the women in these children’s lives together.  The “Buddies” get their own day, the “Grand-pals” get their own day, but mothers and teachers don’t really do all that much, so we have to share our day.

            The first part of the event is an assembly for Shabbat and Teacher Appreciation.  Come to think of it, that means the mothers are actually sharing the day with both the teachers and God, who frankly gets plenty of attention as it is.  At any rate, the Rabbi and the other Rabbi were up front, leading a large crowd of mothers, children and teachers in the service, although “leading” is a dubious term when dealing with a hundred preschoolers.  Zach sat next to me and Ben sat on my lap, an arrangement that made me rather nervous, given the hit-or-miss nature of the child’s potty training.  Next to me there was an empty seat.  Gil, a little friend of Zach’s, sat on the other side, continually turning about and craning his neck to look at the entrance.

            “Your mommy is coming,” I told him.  “It’s just hard to find parking out there.”  I looked back at the entrance, noticing a family seated a little behind me to my right.  All four children were there, as were both of their parents.  There was, however, no mother.  Because these children, although they have two parents, have no mother. 

            I don’t remember how I felt about events like these when I was a preschooler, sitting there without a mother while those around me cuddled in the maternal lap.  As I grew older, though, I was bitter about the assumption that everyone has a loving mother and a father.  I felt marginalized by the institutionalization of the family model.  This past Friday, I wondered how those four children felt at the Mothers’ Day assembly.  Was it different for them than it was for me because they have (to all appearances) a happy home and two parents, even if neither of those parents is a woman? 

            Sure enough, a few minutes in, Gil’s mother arrived, and he settled down, assured that he had the Mommy required for the Mothers’ Day event.

             It is not uncommon for me, this vacillation between assuming a certain status in my children’s lives because I am their mother and resenting the whole Cult of Traditional Families that oozes through every event I attend.  I can’t even define “mother,” because the truth is that there are biological mothers and adoptive mothers and foster mothers and people who mother who are not female and bad mothers and do they get to be called mothers because they aren’t mothering but they begot the child.  Yet I am such a plain-vanilla, easily-defined-as mother that I am loathe to give up the built-in recognition for the sake of the children with families that are not so clear-cut, such as the one that tore me into little pieces.

              Who shows up for Mothers’ Day when there is no mother?  In an ideal world, is there always someone mothering?  And what the hell does that mean, exactly?  Was my abusive step-mother closer to a mother than either of those two Dads sitting a little behind me to my right, simply by virtue of being a woman?  That sure as shit doesn’t make any sense.

               They occupied a moment, these doubts, and then we moved on to the brunch downstairs, where I got all teary in Zachary’s four-year-old room as he sang the sappy songs with the hand motions and in Benjamin’s two-year-old room as he stared blankly at the ceiling while all the girls sang the sappy songs with the hand motions.  And when we got home, I went to get my hair cut (it looks fabulous – check out my About page) as a little Mothers’ Day treat for myself.  After all, I have no mother to buy for and no mother who will think of me on this day.


                Most of the time, I wander about, any old mama in a sea of other mamas.  On Saturday, we went to another event.  I had been invited because I am apparently part of the New Media (a relief, since the old media doesn’t want me).  I am getting solicitations to review crap here on my blog, despite the fact that anyone looking at this place for twelve seconds will realize that I don’t even carry ads.  I won’t try to sell shit to my readers, but I am more than happy to bring my family to your promotional concert, because I’m cheap as hell and times are hard. 

               We arrived late because we have three kids and simply going to the toilet and putting on shoes before leaving takes fifteen minutes.  The concert had already begun, so I sat in the back in the shade with the kids where I could assess whether my new haircut was within the category of all the other mothers about my age.  Betcha didn’t know I was so insecure.

               The singer was doing a little number about a kid who eats way too much ice cream, resulting in the requisite giggles from the under-seven crowd.  (And yes, I did like the songs, mostly because I am sick to death of children’s musicians who seem intent upon appealing to the adults as well, while Debi Derryberry sings songs the children actually understand without asking 72 questions.  They gave us a CD on the way out, for which I am incredibly grateful, as my children have kept me on a steady Peter and the Wolf, Dame Edna version diet for the past two weeks.)  There were chocolate covered bananas and fruit-kabobs, all meant to tie in to the theme of the Flying Banana puppet that Debi conversed with throughout the concert, which was really much less annoying that it sounds, although both of my sons now want a banana puppet.

               The whole thing was impossibly cute and well-rehearsed.  Except.  There was one moment, right near the end, when Debi mentioned something about “your moms and dads.”  We all do it.  Hell, I even do it, and I, of all people, ought to be more sensitive to the fact that not everyone is the Cleavers.  No one would have thought twice, but that perky little performer in her orange pants and teal top caught herself.  “And your grown-ups,” she added, stumbling a bit as she said, “We have so many wonderfully diverse families here today.”

               You had me at “hello,” lady.  You want to know how to get props here at Wheels on the Bus?  All it takes is recognition that one size does not fit all. 

              As we headed back to the car, the kids were worn out and whiny.  Lilah was wearing strawberries all over her face, and Zach had a drip from a chocolate-covered banana straight down his shirt as he clutched the gift bag and the card with the singer’s signature.  And Benjamin insisted, “I want Peter Wolf.”

               The definition of a mother?  I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I reached over and turned on Dame Edna.

Cold feet

             My in-laws have a shoes-on house, but old habits die hard and Zachary and I usually take our shoes off anyway.  Benjamin, my little nudist, is in good shape if he’s wearing pants, so footwear is pretty much shooting for the moon.

            One evening, as J bathed the kids, I emptied the diaper pail.  We emptied it every night as a courtesy to the noses of our hosts.  I went down to the garage and stepped out onto the cold concrete floor.

            The memory was vague and elusive, yet it was as strong as it was instantaneous.  Something about that cold concrete floor came from long ago, that other time, that other house, that other life when I was the child but there were not any parents.

            That was all the memory I got that time – just the recognition of cold concrete on bare soles.


            We are having a heat wave in Los Angeles.  My laundry, hung out at two in the afternoon, is folded and put away by four o’clock.  (That’s a lie; it sits in the basket for at least five hours, and when I put it away, I mostly shove it unfolded into drawers.  But, I pull the dry clothes in by 3:20, crisply baked from the sun.)  I keep the blinds closed and even resort to the air conditioner.

            Lilah, sniffling from the cold her grandfather shared, sleeps hard in the afternoon and then nurses with gusto.  Her brothers sound disconcertingly friendly in their play, and when I come out from feeding her, it is clear they need to get out of the house.  It is too hot for a playground, and I am not brave enough to take all three anywhere else on my own.

            The mall is three blocks away, and there is a soft play area on the third floor.  If we use the double stroller so the boys alternate riding and walking, we can make it there with little risk of dehydration.  I pack a cup just in case.

            I try to make sure Benjamin is riding and Zach is walking when we cross Pico and Overland.  Ben has a dangerous habit of looking anywhere except where he is going, and the intersection is too busy for him to be on foot unless I can grasp him firmly by the hand.  Zach, obedient child that he is, will hold onto the stroller as we cross.

            As we cross, I urge him to go faster.  The lights are quick here, and we need to make it across in time for the next light or we may all get sun stroke waiting for the next WALK signal.  His skinny legs hustle.

            This time, the memory is more detailed.  The combination of thin legs, oppressive heat, and the mother urging the little child to run faster.  I hear my stepmother on her bike, forcing me to run faster, feel the heat of the summer in my lungs, the desperation of a child who cannot go any faster but has to.

            Zachary has my body; looking at him sometimes evokes the abuses meted out on my thin limbs.  Benjamin’s body is so different from my own, and I relish the sturdiness that seems unassailable. 


            Lilah has my sister’s eyes, and something about her sweetness reminds me of my sister.  Maybe my sister looked at our mother this way, pausing from her nursing to touch the face always just above her own.

            Looking at her, I see my sister.  I cannot decide if the emotion I feel is poignant loss or another chance.

            These are my children.  They are the next generation, touched by family tragedy but one generation removed, as if Faulkner had created a whole new batch of Quentins.

Violence Unsilenced

            If we are silent…

            If we hide the bruises…

            If we lie about the past…

            If we hold their secrets for them…

            Then we are honoring their violence.  We are accepting their estimation of us as worth a buck-fifty plus tax.  We are letting them write our stories.  We are feeling their shame as our own.

            And we are accomplices in allowing it to happen to us and to someone else.

            Go.  Read these brave stories.  Visit every week.  Because I for one am worth at least the price of a latte.

Having my head examined

            When your childhood is a series of insults punctuated by violence and decorated with festive bits of crazy, you have two choices: you can become familiar with either the inside of a bottle or the inside of your head. 

            We adult survivors of child abuse are the Analysis Lifers.  We cycle in and out of therapy for decades, not to become healthy but instead to become comfortable with our dysfunction.  If we’ve survived in one piece for this long, we are self-aware enough to know that we’re never going to leave our childhoods behind.

            I tend to wander back into therapy when I am seemingly doing well.  I find it more constructive to plumb the depths when the surface is not a mess of red tides and nascent hurricanes. 

            What brought me into a psychologist’s office five weeks ago was sadness.  I was sad.  For me, that’s unusual, a big step.  I do angry or happy, but not sad.  So, when this genuine feeling of mourning popped up, I thought I was probably ready to work on something.

            Plus, times are hard, and I’m doing my part to jump start the economy, one co-pay at a time.