As I grew into my youth and my teenage years,
the physical and emotional abuse deepened. While my brother and I lived with an internal home environment of physical and emotional abuse, my mother was also active in keeping away what she perceived, people who presented a questioning attitude about her system of control in our lives. Not only did these people represent a potential threat to her narrative, but she was also paranoid that they would discover the true nature of what had been happening.
All of this had a massive impact on our family climate and negatively impacted relationships with family, friends, and neighbors who had a genuine care for us and our well-being.
After spending any significant amount of time around my family, people who had an overall healthy worldview would start to notice that there were nuances and oddities.
As you may have gathered from reading A broken family – Part 2 and A broken family – Part 3, my mother’s behavioral and emotional issues made dealing with her difficult. Most people didn’t have the time or inclination to deal with all the emotional instability.
Her obsession over the internal control of my brother and I, mixed in with her paranoia over external ‘threats’ from other people, was braced by a firmly held belief that her status as a widow justified and qualified her for near constant financial care…either by the local church, community charity or the state.
In her mind, this narrative-of-victimhood, in conjunction with homeschooling my little brother Ben and I, justified her choice not to work.
Our only income growing up was a few hundred dollars from Social Security, some Food Stamps and a small stipend from welfare. We had state medical care, and the apartments we lived in were also subsidized by the state; as was a small portion of the utility bill. The New England winters were rough. There would be times, to conserve heat, my mother would have my brother, and I nail up sheets in all the inside entrance ways and doorways, just to keep the heat in one room. All three of us would then huddle up in one little room to eat, sleep and live.
The only financial reprieve throughout the year was money my brother, and I’d receive from my Nanny and Papa or our uncles for the holidays or birthday. Ironically, even though my mother was adamantly opposed to contact with my dad’s family in any way, she wasn’t opposed to us receiving their generous gifts.
My brother and I would receive a fraction of the money…some would go towards rent, bills, food or some other essential.
Then there was our food situation. I can’t count how many times we had to reach out to the local charity, use their food pantry service and request a ‘food basket’…what was basically a week’s worth of groceries packed into a box. Sometimes the cans were too severely dented to use, or there were partially opened boxes of dry goods which would have little mealworms and beetles crawling around at the bottom.
Several times, the food pantry wouldn’t even help us out at all. The manager would have to tell us that we’d had been there too many times in too short of a period and that our family didn’t even qualify for assistance in the first place since my mother was capable of working; she just refused to seek employment.
If we weren’t able to get help from the food pantry, my mother would resort to calling one of her friends at church and ask to ‘borrow’ enough money to buy groceries…they almost always said yes. The older I got, the more embarrassed I was, every time people would help us out. It was an awkward situation. Everyone seemed to know that my mother was able to work; she had the intelligence and talent, but that would mean enrolling my brother and me in public school, and she wasn’t going to let that happen.
People in the church genuinely cared and wanted to help us. The solutions were glaringly apparent to everyone else.
They’d recommend my mother go back to school, get training for a decent paying job and enroll my brother and me into public school. Whenever someone would try to give advice or insight on how she could fix our situation, my mother would get emotional, animated, defensive and hostile.
This irrational behavior strained relationships and was one of the causes for us leaving a few churches. Each time someone would step up and give some guidance, my mother would push them away.
Adding further layers of dysfunction to an already broken situation, was my mother’s religious extremism and legalistic behavior. She had this odd tendency to lean towards legalistic religious ‘do’s & don’ts.’ We didn’t celebrate holidays, birthdays; anything patriotic or military-related was forbidden. Sometimes she was kind of relaxed about those things, and other times she would become emotionally unhinged and irrational. There was never any strict, consistent standard with how she enforced her religious or doctrinal views.
My mother was not only easily given to fanatic religious legalism, she always somehow found a way to act as a center of gravity for other people who had the same legalistic leanings. In the church, we never closely associated with the people in the main-stream…aka ‘normal people.’ My mother would seem to orbit around the eccentric and odd folks.
One time, she made friends with a lady who had either a Mennonite or Amish background. My mother started hanging out with this woman on a routine basis and getting all kinds of ideas on how to center our life and family as far off ‘the grid’ as possible because mother thought, it would be a holier more devout life.
My mother’s strange way of thinking was so severe that at one point she absolutely refused to get her driver’s license. According to her legalistic interpretation of the Bible, photographs were forbidden, and because a driver’s license has one, it too was forbidden.
Ironically, she didn’t mind if other people had their driver’s license and gave us rides everywhere…she just wasn’t going to get one. Never really made sense to me.
The erratic and extreme behavior affected nearly every aspect of our lives. Food, clothing, entertainment…you name it. If there was a doctrine dictating it, she would embrace it with enthusiasm. Whenever she was in a manic state of adopting one of her many legalistic extremisms, she would not only force us to live that way, but she would attempt to recruit others in our church to her way of thinking. Most people would gently push back; those who did were met with increased fervor and pressure from my mother.
We were like philosophical and doctrinal gypsies, being drawn towards lifestyles and beliefs that put an emphasis on lots of rules and minimalist living.
The religious extremism became in an invasion on my academics and learning. My mother would interrupt my school lessons to share with me her lofty dreams and ideas of what she envisioned our family being like someday.
There were so many times where I’d have to get up from my desk, sit cross-legged on the floor and listen while she would sketch her made-up house plans on paper, complete with horse and buggy. I’m not kidding folks!
Remember what I said earlier about the extreme ideas she was subscribing to? Well, here is just one of the many ways they manifested themselves.
During one of the more severe episodes, the extremism morphed into delusion. During 6th grade, I had a book report assignment about the biography of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, from the American Civil War.
I received the biography book which was mailed to me as part of my annual school curriculum package. Sometime after I started working on the book report, my mother started reading the book. She became obsessed with everything related Robert E. Lee. At first, I thought it was some kind of weird joke, but I quickly and sadly realized that my mother was fully committed to a disturbing and mindboggling delusion.
It became so severe that one point she was starting to pray and believe that he was actually her long lost love. She thought that he was going to be resurrected (instead of my dad, which she believed for the longest time) and that they were going to live this grand antebellum life, off the grid, just as she felt God had intended for everyone.
I would sit and listen…I had to. If I showed any sign of objection or skepticism, she would become hostile and defensive. My mother would become physically confrontational, and it was all down-hill for me from there. I would usually end-up standing at attention, hands at my side and unflinching as she slapped my face.
Any kind of arguing back or challenging my mother’s beliefs would incur any variety of physical abuse or emotional abuse.
My brother and I never really got to enjoy things like Christmas presents or birthday presents. The things we did have, were often given to us by local charities, people in the church or were gifts from relatives.
On occasions, our mother seemed to relax her legalistic stance on certain things like action figures, military toys, and sports. These seasons of reprieve wouldn’t last long though. Usually, her mental and emotional climate would dramatically change back to the legalistic and oppressive belief system she had been so easily drawn toward.
Nothing was spared from my mother’s fits of religious mania and legalism. During her fits of anger, she would go through what few toys and collectibles I had and fervently throw stuff away, all while I stood and watched with tears pouring down my face. I was a poor little kid, so I didn’t have much and what little I did have was ripped away. Whole collections of baseball cards were tossed in the garbage because, in her words, they were considered idolatry. Any military action figure was hastily banned and thrown away; but not before I had the chance to play and get attached to them.
Toy guns and plastic weapons of any kind were strictly forbidden, even getting caught playing with the neighborhood kid’s toys was grounds for punishment.
One time, in particular, that really stands out was Christmas 1994. Surprisingly, my little brother Ben and I were allowed to pool what tiny bit Christmas money we had, and we buy, what was considered back then, the most popular and advanced video game console available,
There was a free game included in the box and Ben, and I played it for about a month…until one day, our mother made us get rid of the game because she saw one of the characters was a cartoon ghost.
I’ll never forget protesting as she threw it in the trash; my brother and I were begging her not to get rid of it. She quickly silenced my little brother. He had already seen how many times I was beaten and didn’t want the same to happen to him. I on the other hand persisted. I tried to stand up for the both of us. Big mistake on my part! In usual fashion, my mother beat me, telling me that I was being used by the devil to bring an occult object into the home and that dark demonic forces were influencing me.
This kind of random and spontaneous behavior and abuse went on for years. As I got into my teens, the control became more invasive into the personal areas of my development as a young man. My mother’s long sit-down talks with me started to include the topic of her choosing my mate. I would get long lectures on how she believed that arraigned marriages were the correct and Biblical way of getting married. My mother would go into in-depth, hours-long discussions as to why it was her God-given duty to pick my wife; that dating, courting or even trying to romance a girl, outside her purview, was expressly forbidden.
Because I was homeschooled and spend nearly every moment of my life around my mother, I felt I was doomed to face that prospect. My choices and venues for talking to girls were minimal.
The only viable social outlet that I had was the youth group at church. There were some girls my own age that also attended; one Sunday afternoon I asked one of them to be my girlfriend.
That evening, I made the mistake of telling my mom. I was proud…talking to a girl was a big deal to me; I was 16, and I felt pretty good about myself. But I should have known better; I had heard all the twisted lectures about how having a girlfriend was forbidden.
My mother became unhinged! I tried explaining myself, but it was already too late. She shot up from the table, told me to stand at attention against the kitchen door, and she proceeded to unleash a barrage of insults at me, as she slapped me about my head and face. In between her slapping and yelling, I remember her grabbing me by the hair and banging the back of my head against the back door. The door was a heavy metal door leading from the kitchen to the backyard. Every time my head slammed against it, I saw stars.
Monologue: In and through all the madness which defined my childhood and youth, my little brother Ben was always in the periphery. While I was taking the brunt of the physical abuse, he would be just out sight or near enough to see, hear and witness everything that was happening.
Ben was quietly taking all of it in and doing whatever he could to prevent being a target of our mother’s abuse and tirades. It wouldn’t be until after I left home and joined the Navy, that he would end up experiencing what I went through…