In years that followed our dad’s passing,
my brother and I were shrouded by a cloak of mystery and secrecy that my mother had built around us. On the surface, those who were closest and spent the most time with us knew that something wasn’t quite right. They could pick up on subtle nuances, which were just symptoms of what was really going on – they had no idea of what was taking place behind closed doors.
The ‘apron-strings’ were really made of iron chains which held Benjamin and me within arm’s length of our mother. Ben was seven years younger than me. For the most part, this meant that I took the lion’s share of the chores as well as bore any initial assault caused by our mother’s paranoid outbreaks or zealot fueled tirades.
After dad died, our mother not only became increasingly (and oppressively) protective; she started growing emotionally dependent on me…as if she was somehow trying to replace the social and emotional companionship she had lost.
I was only a kid, but that entire dynamic made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t mature enough to engage in the depth and scope of discussions she wanted to have, nor was it my responsibility to do so in the first place. Although I never verbally expressed it, her dependence on me was downright suffocating; at times it felt like I was living in an insane asylum.
Whenever I tried to express those feelings, my mother would get angry and hostile. I would be labeled as ‘disrespectful’ and having ‘a rebellious spirit’, which would be followed by a bout of her painful physical ‘discipline,’ which only deepened my resolve, that the entire dynamic wasn’t right.
Her paranoia and fear would be some the most manipulative, erratic and unusual behavior I’ve ever witnessed. Our already fractured family infrastructure was kept in a constant state of instability, which was manifested in some of the strangest and mind-boggling ways.
There were times when my mother would wake me up in the middle of the night. She’d say that strangers were outside, shining flashlights through the window and stalking the house we lived in. On several occasions, I would be too tired to wake up. Even if I did wake up right away, I would be too sleepy to stay alert.
Either way, my failure to quickly respond to her demands, how she wanted and when she wanted, would result in extreme physical pain. While I was lying down, my mother would reach over and grab a handful of my hair and yank me up out of bed; “How dare you ignore me…get up…there’s people outside!” she’d seethingly whisper, as my scalp’s nerve endings painfully bore my bodyweight. The sudden shock of such violence and agony would make me gasp for breath. My eyes watered and squinted from the sharp, searing pain, as hair was being pulled lose at the root.
This brutal and sadistic method of ‘punishment’ wasn’t just reserved for those middle-of-the-night ‘…there’s a stranger outside…’ wakings.
As I mentioned in ‘A broken family – Part 2’, homeschooling became the primary conduit through which my mother could impose both her control and will upon my brother and I. Nearly every detail of our lives was entirely under her micro-managing and demoralizing overwatch, which would later evolve to become borderline emasculating as I entered my teenage years.
Because I was homeschooled, I was in constant contact with my mother. This allowed a lot of time for me to commit a near infinite amount of ‘offenses’ against her extremely legalistic religious zealousness and paranoid delusions, which almost certainly resulted in her exercising cruel and antagonistically painful physical punishments.
Sometimes, if I did something during the day that made my mother angry, she would wait until I was asleep. When whatever thing that I did earlier that day festered long enough in her mind, she would go wake me up, usually by pulling my hair. After jolting me awake, my mother would proceed to yell and rail at me, followed by slaps across my face, digging her nails into the backs of my ears or sometimes I would have to brace my hands against the wall as she clawed my bare buttocks, leaving fingernail shaped cuts in my skin and nearly always drawing blood. I would have crescent-shaped scabs on my arms and bottom which lasted for days.
The torture would go a lot faster if I didn’t resist or fight back. If I did…well…it lasted a whole lot longer. Often, these beating sessions would continue until dawn. My face would be stinging from the slaps, my eyes would be burning from all the tears, and it was hard to breathe because my sinuses were swollen from all the snot.
As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, when the all-night beatings were over, my mother wouldn’t even let me go back to lay down and sleep in my own bed. Instead, adding dehumanizing insult to the eviscerating physical injuries, she would make me lay down in the bed next to her. Every time this happened, I felt my very core shrivel up inside my soul and my skin crawl with revulsion.
What she perceived as ‘backtalk’, would result in me having to stick out my lower lip or tongue, so she could forcefully and painfully press her thumbnail into it; that one was probably the worst. The thumb-nail-shaped wounds in my mouth would turn white and fester; they burned every time I tried to eat or drink anything acidic like orange juice or fresh fruit.
Other times, my mother would dig her nails into my arms; squeezing so hard that it almost always broke my skin. I would have the marks of her four fingers and thumb gouged into both my forearms. It was notably worse in the summertime heat and humidity. On the rare occasions I was allowed to go outside and play with the neighborhood kids, she would rub noxious white diaper rash ointment into the cuts, cover them with bandages (if we had any) and then make me wear a long-sleeved sweatshirt or sweater to cover the evidence up, before I walked out the door.
The backs of my ears were also a target of opportunity for her to grab and dig her nails into. I used to wear glasses a lot when I was a kid. During those hot New England summer months, the earpieces, mixed with my sweat, would make the wounds on the backs of my ears sting relentlessly. After a few hours of playing outside, she’d call me back inside the house and ask me if anyone saw the wounds she made. Of course, I’d say, ‘No…no mom…no one said anything or even saw them’. I’m really not sure if anyone did…I just didn’t want to jeopardize my chances of going outside and enjoying what little bit of freedom I had.
Often, the episodes of physical violence would last an hour or more. At the onset of each and every encounter, my mother was determined to, as she used to say, ‘…break the will; not the spirit…’. She believed that if I showed concession and surrender, that my will was broken; which in turn meant compliance and obedience to her will and desires. Sometimes I’d give in and ‘break’ right away. I didn’t enjoy having my face slapped until it was swollen, my hair pulled until my scalp burned and hair was falling out; I didn’t like the aftermath of her nail-marks dug into my lip, tongue, arms, ears or bottom. Other times, I wasn’t in the mood to back down. I wasn’t going to take it.
Those were the times when she’d have me standing at attention with my back to a wall or door. As she’d rear back and get ready to slap me across the face, I’d either flinch, pull away or block the slap altogether. Any reasonable person would do the same, and here I was just a kid…I wasn’t even old enough to drive or work at the local supermarket. This resistance instantly incurred further wrath from my mother. By this point, I’d already made up my mind that I wasn’t not going to just stand there and allow myself to be tormented and abused. No one else was there to stand up for me…I had to do it myself…even though I knew that at the end of the day, she would get her way.
These were the times that the ‘punishment’ could go on for hours…non-stop. Whatever schoolwork subject I was working on at the moment, came to a screeching halt. This pattern would prove to impact the timeliness and accuracy of my grades throughout the years.
Not only were these hours-long fiascos taxing on me physically and emotionally, but to make matters worse, whenever my mom felt she wasn’t effectively ‘breaking my will’, she would try a uniquely manipulative technique.
Often, during mid-course of one of her physical and emotional tirades, my mother would suddenly stop. Her emotional climate would change from angry dictator to helpless victim. She’d tell me that she was calling either my grandpa (her dad) or one of the older men in the church to get help; she was going to tell them that her son (me) was being defiant and resistant to her authority. Sure enough, she’d grab the phone and call one of them up…whoever answered first got an earful of weeping and wailing from a mom whose adolescent son ‘…was in full-blown rebellion and defiance…’.
She would cry on the phone, telling them how hard life was for her raising boys, alone without a man in the house, and that I was making it especially difficult because of my ‘…defiance and strong will…’. She would tell them that she felt helpless and vulnerable against me. Of course, no one knew the whole story; they didn’t know what was really going on. They hadn’t seen the last several hours of physical and emotional agony I was suffering through…they didn’t see my swollen face, scratched-up arms and cut lip. It was an effective psychological play by my mother. She had positioned herself as the victim and made me the bad guy.
Remember, nearly all this took place from the time I was about 8 or 9, all the way up until I was about 15 or 16. I have to admit, it actually kind of scared me the first few times she did it. After a while though, I started to figure out what was really going on. Sure, I didn’t have the language or words to best describe it at the time, but I knew she was playing the sides to shape the narrative.
My mother was looking to gain unwitting partners and allies so she could validate the dysfunctional system she was perpetuating for her, my brother and me.
Ironically, the state child protective services were called on my mother twice when I was growing up. The first time was back when my maternal grandmother passed away in 1986. The second time was when I was about 10 or 11 years old. We had just moved from an apartment in Charlestown to a townhouse in Narragansett. Both times, the social workers closed the cases. My mother did a good job of hiding her violent and abusive side. The ‘…poor young widow, with two young boys just struggling to survive…’routine must have worked its charm.
What made matters worse, is the fact that I really didn’t think I had any chance of leaving. My mother did such an effective job of making me think that the treatment was necessary and justified in preventing me from becoming rebellious, reckless and straying from her vision for my life…and that there was a conspiracy, by the general public, to break-up and hurt our family.
I thought that if I told anyone about what my mother was doing, people would come and take my brother away and I would never get to see him again…and, in some kind of odd way, I actually didn’t want my mother to get in trouble. The physical and emotional toll, that all of this took on me, was massive and took years to correct.
Do I think that there was a grand scheme by my mother to be hurtful? Do I think she’s a bad person? Absolutely not! I love my mother…dearly.
She had experienced severe trauma and abuse during her short marriage to my dad, violently lost the only man she ever loved and endured some unspeakable hardships during her own childhood. I think all of that left wounds with visible effects…but that’s her story and path that only she can walk.
Monologue: Each of us has to be true to our own individual stories and the events which have shaped us. We have a responsibility to steward our own unique experiences…good, bad, high and low. Sure, some of these experiences will wound…and some of these wounds will even leave scars, but I believe scars should be shown – especially the big nasty ones. They show that no matter how big or how bad the thing was which caused the scar, a person can overcome it and they come out bigger, better, wiser and stronger.
Those who turn away and hide from the scary bad parts, pretending they never happened, will often miss the great treasure that can be found through the fire and pressure of hardships; caused by the trials of life and yes even the poor choices of either themselves or other people.
Better to boldly embrace and bravely face that which tried to crush and break us; for that’s when giants are slain, mountains are overcome, and trauma is turned into testimony…this is where I’ve driven my stake.
As I continue to unfold my story, I’ll unashamedly piece together some of the more specific events behind the drama I’ve shared so far. I’ll also share how, many years later, I would navigate some of my most sorrowful losses. Most importantly, I’ll reveal the moments where Eternity overruled time, faith overcame the odds, the peril was replaced by promise and brokenness was exchanged for healing…