My father has been married five times. My mother was his second wife. According to my father, I am responsible for the destruction of his third and fourth marriages because “I had not accepted the death of my mother.”
I only have one memory of my birth mother. For years as a child I had a fleeting memory of a woman with dark wavy hair and a blank expression on her face. She is sitting on the edge of a bathtub and I am sitting naked on the floor. The woman looks at me with her head in one hand. In the other hand is a folded up belt. She waits for a couple moments and then strikes me with the belt, hitting me on the left thigh as I sit there crying.
For years as a child I wondered what that memory was all about. Then in my late teens I saw a photo that included me and that dark wavy haired woman. I was dressed only in a diaper and there she was sitting on a blanket looking at me. She looked ill and tired. I was told that that was my mother. She died of leukemia when I was 30 months old and contracted it the previous summer. So, this memory was of an event that took place roughly when I had turned 2.
According to some of her relatives, she knew she was dying and did what she could to make me independent. For example, if I asked for a drink of water, she would talk me through all the steps necessary to do it myself. Maybe the belt swat was her way of trying to get me to hurry up and learn.
The only thing I remember of my first stepmother was the huge shouting match that culminated in her slamming the door. I made some flippant remark about it, indicating that such arguments were commonplace, and my father said “no, she left me.” I remember how awkward I felt. I remember things about my early school days but nothing about my home life with her. It was several years later that I found out she already had a young child from a previous relationship. The child would be in her early 50’s by now.
According to my father at least, the arguments were always about me and how I had not accepted my mother’s death. This in spite of the fact that I was just as much an imp and a brat, according to an aunt of mine, for a couple years after her death as I was beforehand. But my personality changed after that relationship. I remember a few bits and pieces from my school life in kindergarten and the first two grades of elementary school. In most of them I am very happy and playing with lots of other kids. But after that, I became sullen, easily angered, and would startle easily. In short, a bully’s dream.
I think there was at least some violence involved in that marriage. When I was in my early teens and in the foster child system, one of my foster mothers innocently moved her open hand across my field of vision. She was being handed something by one of her kids. As soon as roughly half her fingers were in view I suddenly jerked my body back. Everybody laughed except me. I was too startled and stunned by what I just did. I smiled once I regained my composure and agreed that what I did was funny but that I had no idea why I did that.
My second stepmother, by her own admission, didn’t care and resented my existence. I remember telling her that I was going to a friend’s house to play. She was sitting on the floor watching television. She simply said “I don’t care.” She didn’t look at me or even shrug her shoulders; she just said “I don’t care.” That hurt more than any of my father’s belt swings. That started when I was about 10.
They had two kids of their own, a boy and a girl. For years as a child I resented how much better they treated their own kids than they treated me. I am happy for them now. I hope it gave them a chance to grow up with loving parents for a while. I envied them. I admit that I was mean to them a few times, a fact that my father pointed out when I was in my 30’s. My meanness was prompted by my envy and also the desire to get things like homework done so I wouldn’t get any belts swung at me. It wasn’t the kids’ fault; they just wanted to play and be normal.
One time I decided to go out to play in the backyard. When I went to come back in, I pounded on the doors and rang the doorbell a few times but to no avail. I then tried the back door and found it unlocked. She was there with her two kids. She screamed at me, accusing me of being sneaky and sneaking out of the house. She also ran her fingers on my chest and arms and said that “hatred oozed out of every pore.” I just stood there and cried.
But I didn’t always cry. There was once when she had me sit perfectly still while she called her father. She ordered me not to make a sound. Very calmly, she asked her father for $1,000 so she could run away for a while and get away from me. Yes that is what she said. I sat there wanting to scream but I said nothing. I liked her parents. They were such a kind and friendly “old” couple, but her dad refused the request. I know that because she didn’t leave.
She didn’t always scream at me either. There was once when I had walked from the bus stop to the house and had a heavy raincoat on one arm. When I reached the back door, I let the coat fall to the ground. She calmly asked me “what game are you playing now?” In a hurt voice, I said “It’s heavy!” She went right on washing the dishes. A few decades later I looked up the distance in Google Maps. It’s roughly 1KM and I was 11.
We did have some family counseling at the time. They made a point of saying that there were frequent shouting matches and that I was always the reason. I honestly thought that my father did not know what was happening. I used to dread my father’s business trips as a result. Once when he was gone on a business trip, she smiled down at me and said “I can do whatever I want to you and there is nothing you can do about it!” I even thought that if only he knew what was really happening he would stop it. After all, she behaved with much less hostility towards me when he was around.
Things started to change around the time I turned 12, when I happened upon a magazine article in a library. It had pictures of kids who had suffered serious physical abuse, as in spiral fractures and cigarette burns on their skin. I began to wonder if I too had been abused, just not to that extent. So I started reaching out to adult authority figures at my new school.
My first attempt was a disaster. I asked the guidance counselor if I could have an IQ test to see if I really was as stupid as I kept being told. That social worker hounded me incessantly to give me permission to talk to my parents. When the day came for the meeting, my parents gloated at me. They were going to set him straight. They were going to tell him all about what a horrible problem child I was and how I ran away three times. Yes, I did do that. After the third time, my father told me that if I ran away again, he would kill me and put me in an orphanage “where nobody cares about you.” I said to myself “Does anybody care about me now?” but I did not dare say that out loud. Anyway, one snide remark from the guidance counselor the next day confirmed for me that they had succeeded.
So I stopped trying to hide the marks. If my father used his belt on me I simply rolled up my sleeves the next morning and walked around the school as if nothing at all was wrong. The kids noticed and even the bullies left me alone. If the teaching staff noticed, they didn’t say anything. A few days later I decided to try one last time. I wrote a note to my homeroom teacher describing how I felt surrounded by enemies. I asked him not to tell my parents and told him nothing about my home life.
A couple hours later my father produced the note and asked me to explain it. I refused so he went to his room and retrieved my suitcase. He then threw it beside my dresser and started roughly throwing some of my clothes into it. I asked him what he was doing and he said “I think you desperately need medical attention.” I was bewildered by that, as I felt fine. He then drove me to the children’s hospital in that city and I found myself being admitted to a psychiatric ward. All of a sudden complete strangers were poking and prodding me and asking me very personal questions. I even got yelled at because I didn’t answer some of the questions. I had no idea why I was there. It was the most traumatic day of my life.
I didn’t find out until I was in my early 30’s that the note was interpreted as a suicide note. But nobody told 12 year old me that. Everyone just assumed that I knew. But I didn’t. I had no plans to commit suicide. I just wanted an adult authority figure to give a hoot and believe me. To this day, part of me is still that bewildered 12 year old wondering why he is locked in a child psychiatric ward with bars on the windows. My greatest fear is to suddenly find myself involuntarily committed and never see the light of day again.
I was there for two months and was discharged into the foster child system. I refuse to dignify my experiences by calling them care. Going from the frying pan of my home life to the fire of my foster child life caused me to forget how much I feared my father but remember how much I loved my father. My father did pay a price for throwing me away. His mother never spoke to him again and his father was so ashamed that he never spoke of it for months. My father told my maternal grandmother that he was ashamed that he could not keep me. He told me that for months he agonized about whether or not he made the right decision.
But the foster child system gave me new people to fear. About six months after I was discharged, my social worker picked me up at my then placement and said “let’s go for a ride.” I said sure. We talked for a while in the car and then about 10 minutes into the drive the conversation went like this:
Him: “Oh, by the way, you are moving today and I am taking you to your new place”
Him: “Oh and we pulled you out of school a month early. You were doing well anyway.”
Me: “Why am I only finding out about this now?”
Him: “We didn’t want to upset you.”
And that, gentle reader, is the worst thing about the foster child system: You have no guarantee that the bed you wake up in in the morning is going to be the same bed you fall asleep in the following evening. Today could be moving day and you will be the last one to find out. Even now, over 40 years later, there are strict limits to how far I will trust people.
Fast forward to tenth grade and still in the foster child system. I was in my basement bedroom studying when suddenly the live-in boyfriend of my foster placement burst in and, without saying a word, picked me up and threw me against the wall. He then walked out without saying a word. I screamed at him, asking him what I ever did to deserve that but he kept right on walking. A few minutes later his girlfriend came down and explained it all. He had a bad day at work and that made it all make perfect sense. I then asked her if she was serious about something she said when I first moved in a few weeks earlier. She confirmed that she was serious when she said that I was there to do male related chores like taking out the garbage. That hurt more than being thrown against the wall because someone four times my size and strength had a bad day at work. I didn’t bother reporting it as there were no witnesses.
But my next placement was even more of a winner. He bought me a watch as a Christmas present. He then demanded that I pay him back for it. I later found out that he would have been given extra money to buy it in the first place. He also demanded that I trust him. I told him that I didn’t. I tried to explain why but I didn’t have the chance. He slapped me, thus confirming my mistrust of him. He would also brag to a couple friends that he believed in ‘Might makes Right” and in something he called “The Old Ways.” I’m supposed to trust someone like that implicitly?
I did have the occasional snow shoveling job. I said I wanted to put some of the proceeds into a bank account. He slammed me against a wall, bared his teeth at me and yelled at me. He also found little ways in which I had to pay for things I needed. I had a babysitting job before I moved in but that came to an end. I would not have seen the proceeds from it anyway. I am sure I would have subsidized a meal or two or something else whether I wanted to or not.
My paternal grandmother died while I was under his thumb. He made my grandfather, her husband, tell me directly. He also told me that if he heard me cry over it he would beat me. I believed him as hitting me was the only thing I could trust him to do. I cried myself to sleep that night but I was careful to do so at a whisper. My paternal grandfather’s funeral 18 years later gave me an opportunity to finally mourn her passing properly.
He was charged with assault by his next foster kid. I would have done so too but I was too terrified of him. Besides, I didn’t think I would have been believed.
My father and I were reconciled shortly before my High School graduation. That’s when I found out about the social worker and my father’s guilt about his decision to throw me away. We were superficially friendly for a few years and he even paid for plane tickets a couple times so I could fly out to the city he lived in with his new wife. It all came crashing down a few months before his father’s funeral.
I wrote him a letter, telling him about an operation I had; the latest in a series. He wrote back saying that I was lying in an attempt to get money and sympathy from him and that I would get neither. The letter went downhill from there. I wrote back, saying the letter was abusive, underhanded and vile. He wrote back and went into a long tirade about what a mean miserable kid I was, how I should go feel sorry for myself, how I was beneath contempt, that all his marital problems up until I was thrown away were all my fault, that it would be no trouble at all if he never heard from me again, and that he now believed he did the right thing in throwing me away. As a result of those two letters, I concluded that he knew all along what was going on with my second stepmother and I and that he approved. It was the first time as an adult I had realized what a pathetic loser my father thought I was. I was a weak, cowardly, pathetic crybaby and not the tough, macho, ambitious and aggressive manly man he was.
We met again at his father’s funeral a couple months later. We were superficially friendly like we had been for almost 15 years beforehand. He made the strategic blunder of asking me if I had any more operations. I showed him the scar tissue from the operation he said never took place. He drove me back to the inter-city bus station on the day I left, and asked me to write to him. I haven’t. That was over 25 years ago now. I still have had no contact with him. Every once in a while I check for an online obituary for him but so far have found nothing.
Yet I refuse to hate him. During one of those visits, he told me how devastated he was by the death of my mother and how her parents, probably acting out of their own grief, blamed him for her death. He never got along with his younger brother, who was an alcoholic in his early 20’s. If it is true that complex trauma lies at the root of most addictions, that really makes me wonder what was going on when he was growing up.
In spite of how different I am to him, I am also similar to him. I have his introversion. I have his love of reading of learning for the sheer joy of it. But I also have his hair-trigger temper and predilection for holding grudges. I think I can honestly say that I forgive him. I pray for the healing of whatever warped him into the aggressive and abusive father and manager he became, but there can be no communication between us. I am now 3400KM and an international border away from his last known address.
I think I have forgiven my two stepmothers as well, but I do not know what would happen if we ever met again. I think I can say the same for my various foster placements as well, but I am not sure how I would react if I ever saw them again. That goes double for the two violent ones I mentioned.
I should mention that my childhood was not all abuse and neglect. I had a child psychiatrist, whose first name was Mary, who was very influential in many positive ways. If I had a daughter, she would have been named Mary in her honour. But I was such a mess in my 20’s that I didn’t bother dating. I pushed women away who wanted a romantic relationship with me. I knew it would have been a disaster for them and any kids we had would most likely be abuse survivors as well.
But on the other hand I had a desperate desire to be loved. I still remember a dream I had when I was in my early 20’s. In the dream, I had died and gone to heaven. My “Eternal Reward” was an entire planet all to myself: definitely an introvert’s dream eternity! But before I could take possession of my planet, I had to fill out some forms. While I was doing that, I remember thinking that I would give it all up in return for being loved. I used to be very “touchy-feely” as well at that time, probably because I craved that physical contact.
I have had sporadic counseling in my adulthood, but I have strict limits on how much I will share, as always at the back of my mind is the fear that once again I will be whisked off to some psychiatric facility somewhere, never to see the light of day again. I was also active on various online abuse recovery oriented forums. It helped me a lot and I was known for being supportive.
It would be great to be able to say that I was an executive at some big megacorp and was making a six figure monthly paycheck, but I am not. I am just a gardener and technical writer. But I did graduate from High School in 1981. I also graduated from university with honours in 1987, in spite of changing majors, changing universities and having to take a year off because of poor academic performance. I have held jobs in multiple fields. I’ve lived independently for a few decades now. There are times when I still struggle with depression, anxiety, and self-hatred. There are also times when I wonder if I have any capacity to love.
If you have read this far, you have my thanks. I just wanted to say a few things in conclusion. First of all, if you are a parent please give a hoot about your kids, even if you weren’t in the room when they were conceived. Don’t write them off and throw them away. Second, if you want to be a foster parent or work at a group home, don’t treat them as if they were a paycheck or a fee or an income subsidy, and don’t knock them around just because you had a bad day or they said something that made you angry.