Monday, November 27, 2006

Cast suddenly back into Hell…

Sixteen days ago I took my lunch and plopped down in front of the TV at noon and clicked on Dr. Phil to watch a show originally aired in the States in May. Here in South Africa, our Dr. Phil broadcasts are delayed by about six months.

Some things never leave us, even when we are sure they are dead, buried, and gone. Within minutes of the show’s start, I found myself catapulted more than fifty years backwards, horrified and helpless in the middle of an emotional firestorm.

You have to see the show or read the archive, which includes transcripts and photos from the taped footage, to begin to understand. Karen, a stay-at-home mother of five, rages at them constantly, and reserves a particularly large helping of scorn…including physical assault…for her oldest child. I felt chilled watching her and listening to the child plead for surcease…but here is where it gets weird: as that woman hit her ten-year-old son and chased him into his bedroom and assaulted him again…as the gooseflesh of recognition and empathy erupted on my arms and as my gorge rose…at the that very same time I found myself detach from the entire event. I felt as if I were viewing it through a long telescope. Some of the visuals even had a kind of dark yellowish tint in my eyes, as if viewing it through a filter. And as I heard the boy sob and beg his mother to stop hurting him, my mother’s voice echoed in my head “oh, that’s not so bad.” And then I heard the woman on tape speak my mother’s own words: the boy complained his knee was hurting and he could not walk and his mother said, her voice dripping contempt, “oh, bullshit!”

With few exceptions, this woman could have been my own mother. My mother had only two children and thankfully she was not a stay-at-home mother, but what I saw on that tape was still like peeling back the years and standing alone and vulnerable in the face of a vicious hurricane. Mercifully, the bits of tape were short and Dr. Phil immediately called the mother on the carpet for her behaviour, which she tried to blame on the kids. With her confession that she has convinced herself that her abuse is really their fault…that they provoke it with their own behaviours…I started having a creepy déjà vu sense. Wasn’t this, after all, how my mother excused her own conduct? “Don’t make me hurt you!” echoed around in my head.

But the kicker came...I found myself sitting there, mouth agape, heart racing, shudders wracking me…when one of the most terrifying experiences of my early childhood showed up on the tape: in the middle of a terrifying, towering rage, the telephone rang and the mother picked it up and spoke normally…even cheerfully…to her caller. To this day I find people who can turn a consuming fury on and off, as if they were flipping a light switch, absolutely terrifying.

This has taken 16 days to write and I’m still struggling to write it. She told me not to tell, that she would beat me within an inch of my life if I blabbed, that I was not to air our dirty linen in public. It’s not that I’ve been silent over the decades, for I haven’t. But it took a distancing, a detachment from the reality of events, to loosen my tongue. Fifty-plus years after the fact, five years of intense therapy under my belt, and my normally nimble brain becomes sludge when I try to talk…or write…about it without first donning the filter of detachment and distance to blunt the pain.

Have you ever seen something so horrible that you can only look at it in little peeks? So awful that simply looking at it full on is more than you can bear? Without the cushioning effect of distancing myself, that is how I find myself viewing my early years. Five years of excellent therapy brought me to a kind of truce with the past, a realization that the past is back there and that I control whether or not it taints my present and my future. Most days I don’t think about it or if I do, the protective filters are firmly in place. But on rare occasion something strikes that responsive chord and I am cast suddenly back into Hell. My reasoning brain tells me it was not so bad…that’s what she told me, too. She never broke any bones or drew much blood, I was sufficiently fed. I had clothes and shoes. I even had toys. How bad could it have been?

But I lived in fear. And I knew hatred at a much-too-young age. I had no security…her mercurial nature terrified me, for I could not know from one day to the next what would displease her. And to displease her was the worst sin I could commit. My very existence seemed to displease her at times, a circumstance that could only be mitigated by servitude. At seven I cooked breakfast for myself and my younger brother, standing on a chair at the stove. At ten I baked a cake twice a week after school, peeled potatoes for supper, mopped the kitchen floor every Saturday morning, and dusted and cleaned the house daily after school. But, lacking instruction in how to do these things, I often made errors…the floor wasn’t clean enough in the corner, the cake frosting was too thin, I missed a spot on the dishes…I did the best I could, but it was seldom good enough.

It has taken days to get this all written down and arranged in some semblance of order. The memories come out in disconnected jumbles, each one sharp and dark and haunting, and I don’t want to look at any of them very closely or for very long. The writing is easier now, I have been pulling away, detaching, trying to remember the facts and emotions without actually feeling them. The dark, shadowy edges are clearing from the memories, and the vignettes are clearer, less difficult to look at. I am starting to see events now, without becoming emotionally engaged by them…

Mother and I are standing in the bathroom, the water running from the tap, me stifling my sobs, she is screaming at me, her face puffed-up and suffused with blood, her carmined lips large and terrifying. “Don’t you ever tell me that you can’t again!” she is shrieking at me. I want to cringe away, but I know that will earn me a slap or yank of my hair. I can feel tears leaking from my eyes and running down my face and my lower lip is trembling, and I can only pray that she is too wrapped up in her rage to notice. “When I tell you to do something, you’d damn well better do it, and do it tout de suite,” only she mispronounces it “toot sweet.” I am nodding my head mindlessly, knowing that my only possible salvation lies in agreement with her. The water is still streaming from the tap and she points to it, her diatribe continuing unabated, my agreement ignored. “If I tell you to tie a ribbon around this stream of water, I don’t want any excuses, I don’t want any whiney ‘I can’ts’ from you, I want you to just do it and do it fast! Do you understand?” That last is delivered in a bellow so forceful it makes my ears ring. “And stop that blubbering,” she commands me. “If you want to bawl, I can give you something worth bawling about.” My face immediately goes blank, my tears stop, my throat grows a lump the size of Kansas. I wait silently until she exits the little bathroom, then turn off the tap and creep to my room, shutting the door as quietly as possible so that nothing draws her attention back to me.

She’s dead now, she has been for several years. She can no longer lie to the family about me, manipulate my children, or beat me for blabbing. But still, when I force myself to fully look at my early years, without flinching or changing the subject in my mind, without the numbing effects of detachment, my brain slows, my normally articulate self disappears, my fingers stumble on the keyboard. My words come out choppy and slow, hesitant and clumsy…my eloquence deserts me and I find myself staring at the words on the screen, motionless for long periods while snippets of the past race darkly through my brain.

Some things never leave us.

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