When you are physically abused, it is easy to point to the bruises and bumps as proof of that abuse…even to yourself. Emotional abuse, being something done covertly and leaving no obvious evidence, can be a lot more difficult to acknowledge.
As far back as I can remember, I was afraid of her. She had a volatile temper, she was spiteful, and she had a mean streak. As a kid, I always thought she enjoyed finding things wrong just so she could punish me. And, being a child and lacking sophistication, I was unaware of the emotional abuse I was getting---I was just too focussed on the physical.
Looking back, I think I believed she had boundaries. She would go out bar-hopping while my father was at his second job in the evenings, but she always cautioned my brother and I not to say anything to my father about it. From a child’s perspective, I believed it was because my father was her authority figure, just as she was mine. And I think I derived a certain amount of security knowing that my father had the authority to control her.
My mother used beatings as a way of venting the anger she always carried around with her. Looking back, I can see my mother was always a brittle, tense woman, always ready to rise to the attack, almost chomping at the bit to get into a fray with someone. She released the constant tension by yelling at me (and occasionally my brother) and by physically striking out. I am still not sure of the mechanism, but the pattern was to find something “wrong,” blame me, yell at me about it, and if I didn’t respond appropriately (and I was never given a head’s up as to what was appropriate this time), give me a beating. And regardless of whether my transgression was great or small, real or trumped up, the beating continued until she purged her rage, at least for the moment.
I was afraid of her, I was afraid of displeasing her, I was afraid to speak to her for fear of saying the wrong thing, being in the wrong mood, or simply being where she didn’t want me to be…but until I was about 8 or 9, I did not fear for my life. I was confident she would not go that far because my father would not let that happen. And then one morning that changed.
I have some big gaps in my memory of my childhood. When I was around eight years old, my father moved out of the family home at my mother’s request and, according to family sources, he was gone for more than six months. This whole part of my life is a complete blank. I don’t remember him moving out, the months he was gone, or him coming back home. Occasionally I get a tantalizing glimpse of something from that period, but before I can grab hold and hang on and ride the memory out into the light of day, it slips away. One recurring little glimpse has to do with my mother’s handbag and this week I was able to squeeze a little more of the memory out of my brain.
I grew up in the 50s and my mother was quite young when I was born…by the time I was 8, she was only 25 and, like a lot of women that age, she was very wrapped up in looking good. She played with hair colour, lipstick colours, and was very big on having the flashiest clothes…her taste was atrocious and she couldn’t tell flashy and trashy from fashionable and trendy. One of the trendy little accoutrements of the period were “box purses,” hard little boxes with handles on them. She had one nearly identical to the one on the right. I remember it clearly because I coveted it—not for myself, mind you, but as luggage for one of my dolls!
The purse was made of a rigid base, pieces of brass-coloured rods welded to the base, and then strips of metal woven through the brass rods to give a basket-effect. The lid was also rigid, and the whole thing had a substantial weight to it.
I got up on a weekend morning, while everyone else was still asleep, and went out to the kitchen for a glass of water. There, on the green tile of the counter-top, sat my mother’s box purse and beside, was a handkerchief…a man’s handkerchief. And it was bloody. Very bloody. This alarmed me…there was also blood on the edge of the purse. I might only have been eight years old, but it was pretty clear that my father had been hit with the purse and it had broken the skin and he used the hankie to stanch the bleeding. I had to use the toilet, which was in the opposite end of the house, so I put down the glass and left the kitchen, pondering what I had seen. I planned to go back to the kitchen and examine everything more closely because it would never do to ask outright…that was the kind of thing my mother would interpret as being nosey or “too big for my britches” and could easily escalate into one of her rage-fuelled beatings. The safest route for me was to gather as much information as possible, figure out what I could, then watch to see how things played out and adjust my deductions accordingly.
I just read that last paragraph back…I was eight years old, for heaven’s sake…what a horrible way for a child to live, afraid to ask her parents questions for fear of a beating, measuring her life not in what was fun and entertaining but in what was safe and the least threatening!
Anyway, I finished my bathroom visit and quietly made my way back to the kitchen…and they were gone! Both the purse and the hanky were gone, as if they had never been there. I remember a chill going down my spine and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach—somebody knew I had been out in the kitchen and if that someone was my mother, I was in mortal danger! If she would hit my father with something as potentially deadly as a metal box with a handle on it, if she would hit the household authority figure hard enough to make him bleed…if she would hit him even though he was bigger and stronger and could fight back and maybe even hurt her…what might she do to me?!?
Petrified, I hurried back to my room, climbed into my bed and curled up into a tiny ball, shaking with fright. I had no idea my mother was that dangerous, that she could even hit Daddy. Not only had she hit him, she hit him with something more lethal than a wooden spoon and she had drawn blood…if she was capable of that with a grown man and the authority figure of the household, what might she do to a puny little kid who had no power at all and wasn’t big enough to fight back?
I did not see my father the entire day. He worked a full day on Saturday, so he was seldom home. We had dinner without him that night…my mother’s favourite opportunity to serve liver because he didn’t like it and she didn’t cook it when he was home for dinner. Pushing a piece of liver around my plate, I decided to test the waters and asked my mother if my father had cut himself shaving that morning. She looked puzzled and said “No, why would you ask that?” I replied with something like I had seen his hanky in the kitchen that morning when I came out to get a drink of water. It had blood all over it and it was on the counter next to her purse.
She stared at me very hard for a moment and while her expression did not change, she became shuttered and guarded and cold…I could feel the hostility emanating from her and suddenly I was afraid. But it was too late…I had spoken and I couldn’t take the words back. All I could do was wait for her to respond. My brother sat between us at the table and watched avidly, like a fan at a sporting event.
“You must have been sleepwalking,” she finally said. “Your father always puts hankies in the wash and I always put my purse on the dresser in my room when I get home.”
She gaslighted me! Of course, at that age I had no idea what gaslighting was but I felt the disbelief and outrage just the same. But I kept my face impassive…the wrong expression could generate “wipe that smile/smirk/look off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you,” from her which was inevitably followed up with a slap (if she was in an unusually good mood) or a whipping with The Strap (a thin leather dog leash from with the metal clip had been removed) if she wasn’t feeling particularly benevolent that day.
“Oh,” I replied. It was the only safe answer. “Okay,” and went back to pushing the piece of liver around my plate.
I knew what I saw. And because she had sneaked out to the kitchen and spirited away the evidence and then she lied to me about it, I was convinced my deductions were correct…why else would she lie to me? And so I sat there, trying to choke down a piece of liver, one of my most un-favourite foods on the planet, trying not to stare at the person I now realized could very easily kill me. She flew into uncontrollable rages and the one person I counted on to be able to control and restrain her and never allow her to go that far had now been shown to be no more capable of protecting himself from her than I was. I was horrified.
I went to bed that night scared. I had to close my bedroom door at night, but I was not allowed to lock it. I was afraid to go to sleep. I was afraid that she knew that I knew and that she would come in during the night, when there were no witnesses, and hurt me. I didn’t think she would murder me in cold blood, but I now feared each “spanking” in a different way: where I had previously been afraid of the pain she inflicted, now I was afraid that she wouldn’t stop until I was dead. The fear this struck into my heart was more devastating than any beating she had given me, more emotionally shattering than all of the indignities and injustices she had heaped on me up to that time: I now had a foretaste as to what kind of potential she had for violence and it was intensely disturbing, especially since I was the person she most regularly took out her rages on.
I never spoke of it again. I forgot about it, quite literally. But every so often I would have a brief snapshot flash in my brain: dim early morning light, green ceramic tiles, a metallic “box purse” sitting on the tile beside a folded white man’s handkerchief, stained with blood…but it would be gone so quickly I could only occasionally grab a tiny bit more of the picture. But today it is back and I am not surprised that I blocked it all these years. I have always known I was afraid of my mother, and I thought I knew why…but this casts a whole new light on it all.