Background: [Some names in this writing have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.]
I am a wife and mother in my mid-thirties, living and working as a consultant in California. I grew up in small towns North Dakota and Montana. My parents raised my two sisters and me in an abusive home and in a restrictive, fundamentalist, pseudo-Christian church, which some believe is a religious cult.
My parents’ church claims not to have a name, but members call each other “friends” and refer to their ideas and methodology as the “Truth.” Some other people call it the Two-by-Two church, in reference to the church’s method of appointing its ministers in same-sex pairs called “workers.” There are an estimated 200,000 members of the “Truth” worldwide, with the largest concentration in the United States’ Pacific Northwest.
The members believe that they are God’s “chosen people;” that they are the only people who will have salvation in Heaven. They claim that their interpretation of the Bible and method of worshipping began with Jesus Christ, was passed down in an unbroken line of succession and remains today completely unchanged from Biblical days. They believe that all Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and the members of all other Christian churches (5.5+ billion people) will go to Hell. According to their belief system, one can only gain a chance at salvation by attending their bi-weekly religious meetings. In other words, a person who believes in God and Jesus, prays, reads the Bible and tries to follow it, and shares fellowship with other like-minded individuals, will burn in Hell because he or she never attended the meetings of the “Truth.”
The “Truth’s” unique interpretations of the Bible have resulted in several rules regarding dress and behavior. Members of the “Truth” do not often mix with non-members, called “outsiders” or “worldly people,” and most members do not dance, drink, smoke, play cards, listen to rock music, attend sporting events, or watch TV or movies. The women are not allowed to wear make-up or jewelry, or cut their hair, and wearing pants is frowned upon. The best way that I have found to describe my parents to people unfamiliar with the “Truth” is to remind them of the parents in the movie Footloose. My parents are the “Footloose parents,” I say.
Members of the “Truth” strongly believe that it is a dangerous sin to doubt the church’s methodology or teachings, or their leaders’, who they call “workers,” exclusive authority to interpret the Bible. They also fear that entertaining any doubt about their religious methods, teachings, or leaders will open the door to Satan and may result in the loss of salvation. The smallest doubt sprouting in the mind of a member leads to tremendous feelings of guilt and fear of eternal damnation. This system keeps most members compliant and prevents them from ever learning about other churches or from checking out the accuracy of things that they are told by workers or other “friends.”
My father joined the “Truth” at the age of eighteen. Shortly thereafter, he converted my mother and married her. In the forty years since then, he has drifted in and out of participation in the “Truth”, but has always insisted that his wife and children strictly comply with the rules of the “Truth”. In fact, he used the “Truth”, or his bastardized version of it, as the perfect tool to control the thoughts and behavior of his wife and children. It also became his primary tool for justifying his abuse of his wife and children.
One of my first memories in life is of my father picking up a glass butter dish off our dining table and hurling it at my mother. This happened sometime before I knew my own age – when I was a toddler. What I remember specifically is the dish, with butter in it, crashing into the baseboards below our kitchen cupboards. I can only imagine that I must have been sitting nearby on the kitchen floor, in order to see the dish crashing into the cupboard near my eye level. This fleeting image is the first of many memories of rooms filled with rage and my tiny body petrified with fear.
During the years I was in kindergarten, first, and second grade, my memories are not continuous but capture only isolated events. I have one memory of my family arriving home from somewhere, and me lagging behind in our Jeep Wagoneer after the others had gone inside. I was playing alone in the vehicle, exploring all of the buttons, handles, and levers. Finally, I tired of my little game and got out of the car. The next thing I remember is my father yelling and spanking me for locking the keys in the Jeep. Looking back, I assume that he had left the keys in the ignition when he went inside the house, and I must have unwittingly locked the doors at some point before getting out of the car.
At the time, I didn’t question getting spanked. It happened so frequently and I was so young that I didn’t have the perspective to analyze it. Now that I am an adult and have cared for many children, including my own, I can’t imagine hitting a child for inadvertently locking keys in a car.
The King James Version of the Bible (the version used in the “Truth”) instructs parents to correct their children’s wrongs, lest they lose their salvation; and it instructs parents to bring their children up in the admonition and nurture of the Lord. I have yet to understand how most of the discipline I received as a child bore relation to my salvation or the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” It appeared to me that my father was hitting me for the purpose of relieving his anger, and it had nothing to do with nurturing instruction. Even a child of six or seven can sense when he or she has become the target of unbridled, senseless anger.
I remember another particularly humiliating occasion, when I was six or seven years old, in which I wet my pants just as our family was getting into the Jeep to go somewhere. I was embarrassed of myself and didn’t want anyone to know, so I kept quiet and sat still. As we pulled away from the house, my father snarled,
“What stinks!? You peed yourself, didn’t you!” he accused.
Afraid to speak, I nodded. Yes, I had.
“Get inside and change, you stinking little piss-pot!” he ridiculed.
As my family waited, I went inside alone and looked for matching clothes to change into. Ashamed, I returned to the Jeep.
For reasons of which I am not fully aware, I struggled with pants-wetting during my entire childhood. I also suffered many urinary tract infections (UTIs) throughout my childhood. At one point my mother took me to a doctor who performed painful tests on me and prescribed medication that my mother said would “strengthen my bladder muscles.”
Looking back, I think the situation was a little suspect. Psychologists would say that pants-wetting may be a sign of emotional trouble. Many experts and doctors would counsel that chronic UTIs are a sign of possible sexual abuse. My parents didn’t ask me about either. My father’s solution was to humiliate me.
When I was seven-years-old, my second grade teacher asked each of her students make a book about themselves. On one page we were asked to write about a time that we got in trouble. Some of the children wrote about a time that they told a lie or a time that they fought with another child on the playground. I wrote about a time that my father hit me for touching my food with my finger at the dinner table.
I weighed only about 40 pounds in the second grade. I was always a tiny child for my age, and having small hands resulted in somewhat poor dexterity with silverware. On the particular occasion that I wrote about in my book, I was eating peas and was having a difficult time getting them onto my fork. My parents insisted that we eat everything on our plates, but the last few peas kept getting away from me. Finally I carefully pushed the peas onto the fork with the finger of my free hand. Before I got them to my mouth, my father reached out and slapped me in the face and ordered me to get my hands out of my food. When I think back on this scenario, I cannot fathom smacking a 40-pound child in the face for touching her food. But that was the kind of man my father was. That’s the way things were in our house.
Another of my father’s favorite dinnertime lessons was the “elbows off the table” lesson. Anytime he caught me with an elbow propped on the table, he grabbed my arm, lifted it up, and slammed it back down on the table elbow first. It seemed that he approached parenting as others approach dog-training or horse-breaking: inflict pain and the child will figure it out.
Our father had a variety of other rules surrounding dinner and eating as well. We couldn’t, for example, mix our toast and eggs on our plates, because that’s not the way he liked to eat his eggs and toast. We had to eat our food the way he ate his food. If dinner wasn’t served promptly at 6 p.m., or if anyone besides him was late to the dinner table, he was angry. If my sister and I came to the dinner table with exciting stories about what happened at school or wanting to talk about something that troubled us, we were silenced. Dinner was his time to talk, to blow off steam, to relay every event that had rubbed him the wrong way that day, and to pick apart the flaws of those around him. “Children are to be seen and not heard,” he’d say. Then he’d launch into a tirade about his co-workers, fellow church-goers, in-laws, family finances, the food, our mother’s eating habits, the rant du jour.
I hated dinnertime. I hated eating. And, I hated cleaning up the dishes afterwards. If my father happened to walk into the kitchen while I was doing the dishes and find fault with my pace or the method with which I did the dishes, he berated and humiliated me. He screamed at me and told me I was lazy. He acted out a little charade to ridicule me. He pretended like he was mentally retarded and disabled. He started his charade next to the dining table: turned his toes inward in pigeon-toed fashion, hunched his fat body forward, and held a single fork, limp-wristed, between thumb and forefinger, out in front of him. He spoke with his tongue thick in his mouth, trying to sound like a mentally retarded person. In this fashion, he took slow, jerking steps from the dining room, across the kitchen, to the sink, and plunked the fork into the dishwater. This was his imitation of me. Next, he snapped into “lesson mode”, grabbed the back of my neck, walked me fast across the kitchen, shoved plates into my hands, propelled me to the sink, plunged my hands into the water, made them pick up dishes and made them scrub. This was the correct method. “This!! is how!! you do!! the dishes!!” he bellowed. Apparently, he didn’t have anything better to do after dinner.
The Sandry House
Between second and third grade, we moved into a house in Williston, North Dakota that my parents named the “Sandry House” after the former occupants whose surname was Sandry. My parents told us that Mr. Sandry had died in that house. My sense of safety and security, my trust in human beings, my innocence, and my faith in God also died in that house. For me, the Sandry House was the setting for my most horrific childhood memories.
It was in the Sandry House that I first saw my father hit my mother. They were in the living room, and he was yelling at her in front of my sisters and me. I must have been seven or eight, my older sister, Jane, nine or ten, and our baby sister wasn’t yet two. We had grown accustomed to our father yelling at our mother, and we had learned that it was safest for us to pretend we didn’t notice.
My father is about five feet, nine or ten inches, and well over 260 pounds; and my mother is about half his size, at five feet, two inches. My mother was standing in the living room, a couple of feet in front of the door to the master bedroom, which stood slightly ajar. She was wearing the red rayon dress with flowers on it. He liked her to wear that dress because it had a loose neckline. The high-necked “prudish” dresses she normally wore angered him. The special red dress didn’t help her this time though. Suddenly, he rushed across the room and slammed her into the bedroom door. The door swung open, and she fell backwards into the bedroom, hitting her head against the wall. He landed on top of her, still spitting angry words and tearing the front of the red dress in his hands.
Jane and I ran, terrified and screaming, into an adjacent room and hid ourselves under the bed. My father came after us next. He pulled us out from under the bed and spanked us both. He spanked us for being afraid. We weren’t allowed to be afraid of him. Or maybe he spanked us for empathizing with our mother. We weren’t allowed to be on her side.
In the three years that we lived in the Sandry House, my father seemed to make it his mission to terrorize my mother and physically and emotionally subjugate his children. He would show us, as he said, that he was “boss,” “the king of his castle.” And, we obviously were his serfs.
This was not only my father’s personal view of how things ought to be, but it was the philosophy of family taught by the “Truth” – the man is the head of the household. The wife is subject to her husband and the children are even lower yet. The man is to be obeyed without question and may employ whatever methods he prefers ensure compliance.
My father was unemployed for about half of the time we lived in the Sandry House. He regularly slept until noon and sometimes never changed out of his pajamas. My mother got us up in the morning and helped us get ready for school. She went to work every day, and paid the bills. When she got home, she cooked and served dinner. Then she put us to bed. On the weekends, my mother, Jane and I cleaned the house and did the laundry. During our summer break from school, Jane and I took care of our baby sister until our mother got home from work.
My father frequently yelled at my mother about the food she put on the table. He refused any rice or pasta mixes and pre-packaged, easily-prepared food. I can’t count the number of times he loudly criticized my mother for not baking him his favorite, lemon meringue pie. It wasn’t enough that she worked full-time, paid the bills, cooked, cleaned and cared for the children; she was supposed to cook his favorite foods from scratch and find time to bake meringue.
My mother liked to sit down for a few minutes and read the newspaper after returning home from work. For reasons I’ll never understand, my father loathed the sight of my mother sitting, relaxing, reading the paper. He’d sit down across from her and quietly pick up a pillow or a bedroom slipper and fling it at the back of her upraised newspaper, causing it to smack her in the face, and scaring the daylights out of her and also out of me when I was nearby. Then, he’d glare at her when she looked up at him. I don’t know if the idea of her having peace of mind angered him or if he couldn’t stand to have her attention focused on something besides him, but this was one of his more common attention-getting tactics.
Another of his favorite tricks was to throw cold water on her while she was in the shower. It wasn’t a funny joke, and she didn’t laugh. Sometimes, he laughed at her startled cries. Other times, he just threw more water on her. One Saturday on a warm summer afternoon, he upped the ante. My mother was napping in their bedroom. The window above the bed was pushed open to let the cool breeze into our warm house. While she slumbered, my father snuck around the side of the house and pulled the garden hose behind him. He raised the hose and sprayed a stream of water through the screen and onto my sleeping mother, jerking her out of her sleep and eliciting a scream that rang through the house. My mother’s cries unnerved me; they made my head feel like it would explode. Be vigilant. Be still. He’s on the warpath. Watch yourself. Be careful. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole.
Other methods of harassment included finding fault with her clothes and the way she wore her hair. She could never strike the proper balance between being modestly Christian and properly alluring to her husband. The bun in her hair was too severe; and why couldn’t she wear it down the way he liked it. He also yelled at her for being “too neat and tidy” around the house. He referred to her as a “clean freak,” although our home was no cleaner than any other average family home.
My father criticized every friend that my mother ever had, usually calling them losers or weirdos. He made fun of her for hanging out with them. He has never had any lasting friendships. I remember one friend he had, a guy from the “Truth” named Jack, who he hung out with when I was three or four years old. They were friends until Jack married a lady named Phoebe. Then my father became resentful of Jack’s wife and decided she was a “snot.” His friendship with Jack ended. After we moved into the Sandry House, my father had no close friends and had only superficial “friends” in the “Truth,” who he constantly criticized, but who were spiritually obligated to socialize with our family.
One of the things my parents fought about most, however, was my mother’s family. My father hated nearly every member of my mother’s family. He purposely mispronounced their family name, using the mentally retarded-person voice that he used to ridicule me when I did the dishes. He constantly insulted my mother’s mom and sisters, calling them “loud-mouthed” and referring to one aunt as a bitch. His persistent complaint was that they didn’t treat him the way he expected to be treated. It never seemed to occur to him that the mother and siblings of his wife might not be fond of a man who degraded, slapped and pushed around their sister and her children.
My maternal grandmother has been hearing impaired since her childhood. Her hearing impairment and Ukrainian heritage resulted in a slight speech impediment. My father thoroughly enjoyed mimicking and mocking my grandmother’s speech. If her name arose in conversation, he’d either insult her and my grandfather, or start repeating things she’d said earlier, using the mentally retarded voice, and then laugh at her.
My father also made fun of my aunts’ husbands. He called them “wishy-washy” and “a bunch of wimps.” “What do you want – to be married to a wimp, like your sisters?” he’d ask my mother. My uncles are all really nice, decent men; real stand-up guys. I assume that he thought my uncles didn’t properly ensure that their wives and children knew “their place.”
Male privilege was a favorite topic for my father. He repeatedly invoked the Biblical principle that wives must “submit to their husbands.” He never, however, quoted its companion principle which states, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church… Men ought to love their wives as their own bodies… For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourished and cherished it…” Ephesians 5:25-29. Likewise, he admonished me many times, “Children obey your parents,” from Colossians 3:20, but didn’t follow with Colossians 3:21, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” He made it clear that his wife and children would do what he commanded, and in turn, he would do whatever he wanted to do to us. That’s the way real men ran their families.
My mother usually tried to defend her parents and siblings against his insults. Her efforts resulted in long, drawn-out fights with my father. During these and other such arguments, my father would badger and yell at my mother for hours upon hours. While doing so, he often commanded my sisters and I to go to the basement and stay there.
Jane and I would take the baby down to Jane’s room. It was the only finished room in our concrete basement. We tried to protect the baby from the fighting. We sang to her in an effort to drown out the frightening voices and heavy footsteps reverberating through the house. We played games with her to keep her from crying and distract her from the shouting and unmistakable sounds of physical altercations happening above us. Sometimes, we spent the entire day in the basement listening to them fight. Sometimes, we spent most of both Saturday and Sunday down there. Two years in a row, we spent all of Halloween, which happens to be Jane’s birthday, locked in the basement, listening to the fighting above. It was more important to my father to scream at his wife than it was for him to observe his child’s birthday or take his kids trick-or-treating.
From time to time, Jane and I had a disagreement and she ejected me from her room. Then, I had to go to my “room,” which consisted of the rest of the unfinished basement. The cement walls were dark and crumbling, with uncovered two-by-fours spaced a few feet apart running from floor to ceiling. I tried to make believe it was a real room by tacking posters to the two-by-fours and setting up metal folding chairs for furniture. I bought dingy cloth flowers and vases from neighborhood garage sales to place on the beat-up cabinet that separated my “room” from the “hallway” to Jane’s room. My twin bed sat off to one side of the open space, near the cat box, with a ratty little rug next to it covering the cold concrete floor.
The twin bed often doubled as my altar. I kneeled on the ratty little rug and leaned forward with my elbows on the mattress. I clasped my hands, closed my eyes tightly and prayed. Dear God. Please make Mommy and Daddy stop fighting. Please Dear God, help Mommy and Daddy love each other. Please make them stop fighting. Please, God. Please. Please make them stop. My tears formed a wet stain on the bedcover.
From time to time, my mother emerged from her bedroom in the morning with bruises on her legs where he had kicked her, or on her chest and upper arms where he’d grabbed her or hit her. He never left marks on her face or in other places that she couldn’t cover and hide from her co-workers and the “friends.”
Jane and I often heard my mother plead with my father to stop “before the neighbors call the police.” We lived between an auto-mechanic garage and a Chinese restaurant. The only neighbors were the people living in the apartment above us, who were my father’s renters. It wasn’t likely that they would call the police on their landlord, of whom I’m guessing they were already afraid. During one chaotic, violent episode, Jane and I tried unsuccessfully to call the police ourselves. It only took once. The lesson he delivered ensured that we would never try that again. He also let us know that it was “nobody’s business what happened in our family”, and besides, “outsiders” – those ungodly, unsaved people outside the “Truth” – wouldn’t understand anyway. The message was clear. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t protect your mother or you’ll be next.
I don’t remember what their fight was about on this particular day, but I remember that he threw my mother out of the house. After I heard the door slam, I went to the doorway of the kitchen and stood paralyzed, watching him. I watched him take her house and car keys out of her purse, reopen the backdoor, and throw the purse out after her. She was on the cement steps outside the backdoor, without a coat. It was the cold time of year in North Dakota. Fear spread over my scalp and filled my chest. Worries lurched through my brain. Where would Mommy go? How would she get anywhere? What was going to happen to her?
Instinctively, I hurried down the painted-green wooden stairs to my crumbling basement room. I kneeled against my bed, squeezed my eyes shut hard, and prayed… Dear God, please help my Mommy…
Then I heard her, and saw her above me, at my window. My mother was on her hands and knees on the grass outside. Her arm reached awkwardly into the narrow window well and pushed at the dusty pane. Quickly, I darted across the room, and with my skinny little-girl body, I dragged one of the metal folding chairs under the window. She had swung open the pane, and I saw her feet coming towards me. I remember vividly, hauntingly, my mother’s legs, her dress pulled up around her hips and her stockings dirty and torn, lowering herself into my room. Her face appeared streaked with tears and dirt, tree leaves and bits of earth stuck to her hair. I stood below her, mortified, with my hands clutched to my lips in little fists. Suddenly, I froze at the sound of my father’s feet slamming down the wooden steps. His caustic rage engulfed my dark basement space. My mother backed in reflex against the wall and I, daring only to move my eyes, glanced sideways in his direction. My hands had reflexively positioned themselves to shield my head. Before my eyes could even focus on him, I felt a blow to the backside of my body.
“You mind your own damn business!” he spat, tightly gripping my arm and delivering another blow with his free hand. My knees buckled and my back jerked violently forward. My mother started for the stairs. He dropped me and pursued her, slamming the basement door behind him.
Numbed by shock and simultaneously coursing with adrenaline, I set myself gingerly on the edge of my little bed. My face crumpled and pulled tight with grief. My bones ached, and I released the tears. Why was this happening to me? Why did God hate me so much?
The older I grew, the more frequently I became the target of my father’s wrath. And after my mother finally used the law to take refuge at a battered women’s shelter, he learned that it was less complicated to take his anger out on me instead of her. His spanking and slapping evolved into more ritualistic forms of punishment. He substituted his belt for his hand when spanking me, and his beltings followed a pattern. First, he commanded me, “Get in the bedroom.” I knew the routine. I was to go into his room and kneel in front of the bed, the same way I knelt to pray. He followed me in and closed the door. He made me pull down my underwear and bend forward, as he stood behind me. I suppose that exposing my nakedness was meant to humiliate me while he spanked me, or maybe it was to add that little bit of extra pain that my thin cotton panties might have spared me. I really don’t know what his point was. Once I was bent over with pants down, he struck me on my thighs and backside with his belt. Between lashes, he often made me repeat apologies or say over and over, “I will not call my sister names” or “I won’t be late,” according to my offense. The day after one of these beltings, my mother noticed purple welts down my behind and thighs. Maybe she will make him stop, I thought, maybe she will tell somebody. But she didn’t. She just shook her head and frowned.
I was punished like this several times for coming home late from a friend’s house. Tardiness was not only a problem for me, but was a problem for our whole family. My parents were chronically late people. They were late for everything always. It seemed that every Sunday and Wednesday evening, we walked into church 15 or 20 minutes late. Thus, at the age of eight or nine, I knew nothing of time management. No one had taught me how to ensure that I would arrive on time. Instead of showing me how to manage time, my father bought me a watch and told me that I would get one lash with the belt for every minute I was late. If I was 10 minutes late, I knelt in front of his bed and he gave me 10 lashes. If I was 15 minutes late, 15 lashes. Again, my father’s dog-training principle was at work: inflict pain and the child will figure it out. He found it easier to beat his children than to parent them.
Eventually, he tired of using the belt and decided to create a spanking paddle. He had seen a wooden paddle in a gag-gift store and thought it would be pretty nifty to make his own. He went out to his workbench one day and selected a board. Next, he went to his saw and cut the board into a paddle, about a foot and a half long, with a handle, customized to fit his grip. Then, I imagine, he proudly put the finishing touches on the instrument that he had created for the purpose of hurting his children. I remember him threatening, “If you don’t watch it, I’ll have to go get my Nigger-Be-Good-Stick.” He let me know that if I did something wrong, I was no better than a “nigger” to him. And we knew what he thought of “niggers.” “I don’t have anything against niggers,” he’d laugh, “I think everybody should own one.” And, “If you ever come home with a nigger, I’ll meet him at the door with my shotgun,” he warned.
Eventually, the paddle splintered in two across my sister’s behind. My father promptly announced that he would have to design a newer, stronger paddle to hit us with.
The most ironic, bizarre, and ultimately damaging aspect of my years in the Sandry House, is that my father chose me as his primary confidant and helper during that time. I stood in for the friends he didn’t have and the spouse that he had alienated.
As his special little buddy, it was my job to assist him with his personal hygiene. He was too obese to trim and clean his own toenails and apparently he could not coerce my mother into performing the disgusting task. “Go get the clippers,” he’d say. “Pick my toes. It relaxes me.” I tried to appear busy with something else. His tone grew louder. “I said, get in the bathroom and get the clippers! It won’t kill you to help your Dad out.” I knew I couldn’t tell him no. No one defied my father and got away with it. On other days, he’d flop belly-down on the living room floor and instruct me to go get the “zit-getter.” Then, he made me straddle his back and extract pus from his acne. I was his “right-hand man,” he told me.
My father also had an aberrant fascination with my personal body functions. He liked to call himself, “Doctor Rick,” and check various parts of my body. He often made me lie on his desk and aimed a bright fluorescent lamp at my head while he dug in my ear canal with a bobby pin. He found satisfaction in extracting bits of wax from my ears. My older sister and I both lost part of our hearing prematurely, and I have always wondered if this was one of the reasons for my loss. My father also enjoyed pulling my sisters’ and my teeth as soon as they showed signs of loosening. We weren’t allowed to let them fall out by themselves. My younger sister once refused to allow him to pull a loose tooth, and he promptly spanked her for her insubordination. My father liked to lay us on his desk under the bright light and tie dental floss around our loose teeth. Then, he worked the tooth back and forth, gradually tearing it from the flesh. He had a shiny steel drafting knife that he used to poke around the tooth and loosen bits of skin clinging to it. When I squirmed and cried, he directed me to “lie still,” and told me it wasn’t that bad, and “stop being a cry-baby.” Once he got the tooth sufficiently loosened, he either jerked it out himself, or made me tie the tooth to a doorknob and slam the door while he monitored me.
My sisters and I were continually sent the message that we had no privacy or bodily integrity. Our bodies were not our own; they were his to do with as he pleased. Jane was made an example of one Saturday afternoon while the family was gathered together in the master bedroom. My father was lying on the bed and Jane and I were sitting on the end of the bed. My father, in an attempt to “bug” Jane, slid his foot under her bottom and poked her with his toes. She squirmed with discomfort, and told him to stop. He immediately rose from the bed and spanked her. He made it clear that we would not have any say over what happened to our bodies. He continued to make that message clear for the remainder of the time I lived in his home.
In moments of calm, my father often came to me and told me that I was “his little buddy,” and that we were going to go for a ride in the car together and be buddies. On these evenings, he took me out to a diner for coffee, or for a drive into the countryside. I gladly accepted the rare opportunity to have the undivided attention of a parent. No matter how these buddy sessions started, they inevitably degenerated into long monologues in which my father dumped out all of his adult problems. He shared with me his disappointment in his marriage, and I sometimes shared with him my feeling that my mother didn’t understand me.
During one of these sessions, he told me that, years earlier, my mother had ignored my infant cries and refused to hold me; that she had left me to my aunt to care for. He explained that if a mother loved her child she would pick it up and hold it. He had me scoot over to sit on the console between the front seats of the Jeep; put his hand on my knee and reminded me that we were “Buds.” As we sat in the dark Jeep, he told me that my mother was a cold, unloving mother and wife. She was frigid, he said. She didn’t fulfill his sexual needs, he went on to explain. “Men have needs,” he told me, when I was about ten. “It’s a physical need, like an animal. When men get like that, they just can’t help what they do. I want to have sex three or four times a week, and your mother only wants it once or twice a month or every couple of months,” he confided.
I didn’t understand about grown men’s needs or about sex, but I came to believe that my mother was inadequate in some way; that she was somehow tormenting my father emotionally like she was doing to me. I also understood that sex was something that men take from women’s bodies and that good Christian wives dole out. More than fifteen years passed before I learned that sex is something that two people are supposed to share with one another. I also learned from a therapist years later that psychology has a word for when a parent puts his child in the role of an adult, and shares with the child adult topics that the child is not emotionally equipped to handle. It’s called emotional incest. Emotional incest is self-serving behavior disguised as special love for a certain child. A child who is put in this position learns to second-guess her instincts and eventually learns to distrust the motives of those who pretend to care for her. It can be one of the most confusing, emotionally scarring, and enduring forms of child abuse.
My father used our “buddy sessions” to share with me his contempt and disrespect for my mother. He told me that she never supported his plans and dreams, and that we didn’t have enough money because my mother hadn’t let him finish college. He made it obvious that he wanted me to side with him against her. He accused my mother of being too friendly with, and flirting with, her boss, and insinuated that my younger sister was someone else’s child. He also shared his revenge fantasies with me. He told me that he fantasized about pushing my mother in front of a train, or hacking her up into little pieces so that no one could find her body. My father also used these moments alone with me to convince me that my mother did not love me. The more he isolated me, the more susceptible I was to his manipulations. My father coldly used me as a pawn in his war against his wife and, in the process, deprived me of the bond that children naturally form with their mothers.
The “buddy sessions” with my father were part of the many confusing contradictions and hypocrisies of my childhood. While my father and I were alone, he wanted me to empathize with his contempt for my mother, but later, at home, he raged and punished me when I showed open disrespect for her. Like many young girls, I didn’t get along with my mother. And, feeling no bond with her, I was often disobedient and sassy towards her. When he caught me behaving in this way, he grabbed me, slapped me, and yelled at me for being disrespectful. Hurt the child, and she will figure out when to show contempt and when to show respect.
When my father’s rages began, I instinctively put my hands up to protect my face. He screamed at me, “Put your hands down! Put your hands down so I can hit you if I want to!” If I didn’t put them down, he grabbed my frail wrists and jerked them away from my face. Once my hands were away from my face, he slapped me alongside my head. Other times, I tried to get away from his blows by running, but he chased me around the house, kicked at me, caught me and hit me more. To this day, 20 to 30 years later, I am torn from my sleep by nightmares of him screaming and chasing me, trying to hurt me.
My mother didn’t spank or discipline me often, but when she did, she didn’t particularly care how she did it. One morning, I stood groggily in front of my dresser trying to muster up the verve to get dressed for school. My mother came along behind me. “Get dressed!!” she snapped and smacked me in the back of the head with the heel of her hand. My head jerked forward smacking into the dresser-drawer knob, half from her blow and half in reflex as I saw the blow coming. The skin split open and blood trickled down my face. Later, as the doctor stitched me up, my mother stayed in the room to ensure that he got the story she wanted him to have about how it happened. I sensed that she was scared that the doctor might start asking questions, and I might let something slip that would reveal my parents’ abusiveness. On another occasion, my mother lost her cool with me while the two of us were cleaning up the kitchen, and came after me with the broom. She caught me in the corner of the foyer, turned the broom upside down and began hitting me with it. To this day, I vividly remember crouching down in the corner, with my arms up protecting my head as she poked at and hit me with the broomstick. Usually, however, my mother preferred shaming to violence. She told me often that I was lazy and dirty. “You’re going to grow up and live in a pig-sty, like your aunt Barb,” she predicted. “You’re such a little brat!” or “I’m ashamed of you!” were her other common indictments.
Around the fourth grade, something changed in me. I began to fight back, internally if not externally. I began loathing my mother; if she didn’t love me, I wasn’t going to love her either. And, I stopped crying for my father. When he hit me, I set my face in an unmovable stare. Tears ran down my expressionless face, but my face didn’t crack and I never made a sound. My refusal to cry enraged him further. He put his face inches from mine. “Don’t give me that Goddamned stone face!!” he feverishly screamed, “DON’T GIVE ME THAT FACE!!” He slapped me harder, and then even harder, trying to bring the sobs that gave him release. I wouldn’t break. I wouldn’t satisfy him. No matter what he did to me, I would stay strong.
From then on, I only cried in private. Sometimes the terror of his rages came back to me in the middle of lessons at school. I took the hall pass out of Mrs. Peterson’s fifth-grade classroom, and silently sobbed in the bathroom stalls of Webster Elementary.
Sometimes, I cried in private up on the roof of the Sandry House garage, where no one could get at me. Lying on the scratchy roof tiles, I squinted up at the sunny blue sky and desperately imagined that I was adopted. I wasn’t like the people in my house, I thought. Someday my real family would come for me, I daydreamed. My real Mommy would realize that she had made a big mistake in giving me away, I told myself. She and my real Daddy would return and take me to my real home, far away from the Sandry House.
Most of the time, however, I cried alone in my bed at night. Many, many nights I laid awake with insomnia and cried silently into my pillow. For almost ten years I never cried in front of another person. But even today, decades later, I am still too humiliated to cry aloud in front of another person. I remain alone with my deepest grief, just as I was as a child.
In the middle of one of those long sleepless nights of my childhood, my 55-pound frame grew too weak with despair and resignation. My bones were so tired. The light at the end of the tunnel was so far away. It would be years before I would turn 18 and could get away from this house of chaos and anger. I got out of bed, walked up the basement stairs, and made my way through our house to the dark kitchen. I found the largest of my father’s butcher knives, raised it with both hands, and pointed it at my heart. My limbs trembled and great silent sobs racked my body as I willed the knife into my heart. I wanted so badly to die. I just wanted to not exist anymore; to be far away from the Sandry House, the arguments that floated into Jane’s room while we sang to the baby, my cold inadequate mother, my raging father, the pain, confusion, loneliness, and the defeat aching in my bones and pounding against my head. I wanted to die; but I couldn’t do it. I remembered my mother’s words, telling me that you couldn’t go to Heaven if you killed yourself. Destroying God’s creation was an unforgivable sin, she said. So I went to bed and woke up to another day in the Sandry House. Not Lucifer’s hell, but mine.
Growing up, I learned to love school. Going to school was my refuge. It was another world for me; it was seven hours each day that I could pretend my life was normal. I was good at school and everything that came with it: academics, social interaction, athletics, and leadership. My teachers liked me and told me that I did a good job. They didn’t scream at me and call me lazy or brat, and they didn’t shame me or make me feel invisible like my parents did. My teachers liked me just the way I was. They didn’t constantly tell me I should be something else. At school, I was valuable and special.
I made lots of nice friends at school and much preferred to be with them and their families than at home in the chaotic Sandry House. It didn’t take me long to realize that the screaming and violence that went on in our house didn’t happen in my friends’ homes. When the weather was nice, I played outside with friends as long as possible after school. I avoided being at home as much as I could. When we weren’t playing in the neighborhood, my friends and I went to the local armory and played volleyball and basketball. My parents criticized me for wanting to play sports with my friends. My father said, “Female athletes are a bunch of sweat-hogs. No daughter of mine is going to be a sweat-hog!”
My mother told me that good Christians didn’t participate in athletics or other extra-curricular activities, except for music. I was made to feel guilty for having interests in anything besides music, which didn’t excite me. My mother, however, encouraged participation in music because she liked music. Since it was the only thing she supported me doing, I joylessly signed up for music and choir. My father, however, took no interest in attending my music or choir concerts.
As soon as I became old enough to form really close friendships, my father began what would be years of nagging me to stay home with my family. He didn’t like me to have friends, just like he didn’t like my mother having friends. “It won’t hurt you to stay home and spend time with your family,” he’d say. I never understood why he thought I’d want to sit at home and listen to him scream at his wife, or be locked in the basement while he bullied his wife free from the interference of his children, who knew how to dial 911. I didn’t understand why he thought I’d want to spend time listening to him ridicule my grandparents, my aunts and their families, the people at church, his boss, my mom’s friends, my friends, and whoever else crossed his mind. My father was a sea of negativity and his company wasn’t enjoyable.
When the weather was too cold to play outside and when my father forced me to come straight home after school, I came home and went immediately to sleep. I always hid behind the biggest chair in the living room near the heat vent, where no one would notice me. I covered my whole body and head with my little pink childhood blanket, and slept from 4 pm all the way through dinner if I could get away with it. I loved to sleep because my dreams took me away from my reality. In my dreams, I was big and strong and I had control over my world. Nobody could hurt me in my dreams.
My parent’s completely ignored the possibility that there might be something going wrong with a nine or ten-year-old who preferred to hide behind a chair and sleep instead of play with toys after school. Any psychologist on the planet could explain that excessive sleeping is a sign of depression; but my parents were too obsessed with themselves to make such an inquiry. Tending to the emotional needs of their children always took a back seat to my father’s angry demands and outbursts. By causing the most chaos and fear of anyone around, my father ensured that he came first on everyone’s priority list. His wife was left to choose between attending to her children’s needs or her husband’s problems, and my father would never stand for being second to his children. I was constantly aware while growing up that, in my family, children existed for the benefit of the father; parents did not exist for the benefit of the children, as they did in other families. We, as children, were there to clean the house, take care of our baby sister, glorify our parents in front of fellow church-goers, side with our father against our mother, and support and care for all of his emotional problems. Other than that, we were to shut up and disappear. Love was always conditional; we were only important in the family to the extent that we sacrificed for our father.
In December of 1987, my father picked up his family and moved us to Montana, so he could attend college there. Our family of five moved into a small apartment in the campus married-student housing. I began the second semester of eighth grade, where I immediately made many friends.
During the first week of school in Montana, I met the girl who would become my life-long best friend. She walked up to me, introduced herself, and asked me if I wanted to spend the night at her house that weekend. She knew a lot of other kids in school, and my friendship with her led to friendships with a large group of boys and girls, many of whom are still close friends of mine.
School and time with friends continued to be my escape, and my peers gave me the acceptance that I never got at home. The kids I hung out with were smart, fun, talented, and had a great sense of humor. My friends were very involved in school activities and were good students. They were kids who were headed for college – kids with a future. They came from normal, middle-class families. When I was with them, I felt normal and relaxed. We just laughed and joked and didn’t worry about anything. When I went to my friends’ houses, their parents asked me about myself and what I was up to. They took an interest in who I was and who I wanted to be. They always opened their homes to me and made me feel comfortable and valued.
Meanwhile, in my own household, my parents continued to fight with each other and eventually separated. My mother moved into another apartment with my sisters and left me alone with my father. I felt obligated, just as I always had, to support my father. I soon realized, however, that in my mother’s absence, I would become the primary target for my father’s rage. On many evenings he came home after work and began his tirade. He screamed at me for forgetting to take out the garbage, for not making his bed, for not doing his laundry, for not doing the dishes “correctly,” or for talking to my friends on the phone. When he wasn’t screaming at me, he was cataloging my mother’s flaws. I was required to sit for hours and hours and listen to him convince me of my mother’s worthlessness, telling me all the ways in which my mother had wronged him. I got to hear about the crushes my mother supposedly had on every boss she’d ever worked for: Chuck at Coast-to-Coast; Frank at the trailer court, who was probably my younger sister’s “real” father; Mr. What’s-His-Name at the Credit Union; so many that I’ve lost track of all their names.
When he tired of talking about her, he picked apart his boss and co-workers, his relatives or in-laws, or the people we knew from church meetings. “I saw Mrs. So-and-So in the store with two other bun-heads. She thinks she’s so high and mighty – pretends she doesn’t even know me.” Blah, blah, blah… If he had nothing else to rag about, he ragged on perfect strangers – someone who had “irked him” by parking crooked, or not using their turn signal, or some “pinko-liberal” professor who insisted on saying “he or she” instead of using the universal pronoun “he.” And, “why should we have to call Indians “Native Americans” – why do we have to cater to a bunch of niggers and lazy, drunk Indians in this country?” Blah, blah, blah… If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.
Our relationship was all about him, just as it always had been. He never asked me what I was going through, how I was doing emotionally, or what concerns I had about my life. He never asked me who my friends were, or if he could meet them or their parents. He never talked to me about what colleges I might want to attend or what I wanted to study someday. He never talked to me about my spiritual walk with God or answered my questions about the Bible. It just wasn’t about me, ever. In fact, the only time he seemed to really notice my independent existence, was when I did something wrong. It was a fabulous system for him! He took credit for anything I did right and gave me credit for anything I did wrong.
As I transitioned into high school, I developed a robust social life with school friends. Like most American kids, many of the kids I knew had begun to date, have parties, and drink alcohol. I joined my peers in partying and dating. My parents had never talked to me about drinking, except to say that it was un-Christian. By that time in my life, however, my parent’s opinion about what was Christian didn’t mean much to me. Christianity hadn’t stopped my father from behaving selfishly and violently. During my parents’ separation, Christianity hadn’t stopped him from going to the bar, drinking, and hitting on women, despite his supposed Christian beliefs. Most importantly, Christianity hadn’t brought love and peace into my parents’ lives or into our home.
My teenage partying and attraction to boys gave my father more reasons to hit me and scream at me, and when he didn’t have a reason, he found one. He embarked on a witch-hunt to find reasons to condemn me. He obsessively searched through my belongings, reading my diaries, letters from friends, greetings other kids had written in my yearbook, and anything else he could get his hands on. I am a sentimental person who keeps all kinds of old things. I have three huge boxes of letters, notes, journals, photos and mementos. My father pilfered through all of these items when I wasn’t home. I have literally over a hundred letters and notes in those boxes. I have tried many times to imagine what kind of controlling, obsessive paranoia would drive a person to sift through piles and piles of personal items belonging to someone else (especially a teenager – how boring), in order to try to find incriminating pieces of evidence.
One evening, after a day of sneaking through my belongings, my father burst into my room and began screaming in my face and slapping me. “You little slut!” he screamed, “Do you want to get pregnant? Is that what you want? If you get pregnant, you’re gonna be out on the street, do you understand?” He grabbed me by the arms and shook me violently. “No daughter of mine is gonna run around like a little tramp!” He threw me down on my bed, picked me up again, and pulled me close to his face and screamed, “Do you want to get pregnant? You little slut!” He slapped me over and over again before storming out of my room and leaving the apartment. Most every family has their own version of “the sex talk,” in which parents counsel their children about sex. This was my father’s version.
During his rages, my father never allowed me to speak or explain. I learned as a child that trying to explain or defend myself when he was hitting me resulted in a worse punishment. This time was no different. He never asked me if I was having sex, either before or after he beat me. And I wasn’t given the chance to tell him that I wasn’t having sex. Sex was not even within my realm of thinking; it wasn’t even an option in my mind. I was still at a stage in which sex seemed a little gross to me. I didn’t even know anyone at my school who was having sex. But that didn’t matter. My father played the prosecutor, judge, jury and sentencer, and he had decided that I was guilty.
While he was hitting me on this occasion, I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know what I was being punished for. It just seemed like he was going crazy. I later learned from my other family members that my father had read a letter from an old friend of mine in North Dakota, from which he gathered that I had taken a dare from a friend to experiment with a boy. It was something lots of the kids I knew had done as a kind of joke. To me, it was just stupid teenage high jinks. After that, however, my father was obsessed with my assumed sexual activity and continually imagined me to be the town slut. He went to the bar one evening to drink and overheard some college guys talking in a sexual way about a girl with the same name as mine. He automatically assumed they were talking about me and told my mother he thought I was screwing college guys. I was only in the ninth grade, and I didn’t know any college guys.
On another occasion, he came upon a sexual comment that an immature male classmate had written in my Junior High yearbook, and assumed that I was having sexual relations with the boy. My father never asked me about the comment. But over a year after it had been written, the boy stopped by our apartment unexpectedly and my father threatened to throw him off of the second-story porch.
My father’s characterization of me as a slut was another of the great contradictions of my childhood and adolescence. Five of my best friends and I were known around school as the most prudish of all the girls. I remember one day after school when a friend and I were walking out of the school building, a couple of guys we knew from school began taunting us by shouting that we were “nuns.” At school, I was called a nun, but at home I was called a tramp.
My father screamed at, slapped, shook, and threw me around several times in the few months that I lived alone in his apartment with him. I was constantly frightened of him and his temper. One particular raging episode left me so angry and desperate that all I could do was think of ways to get back at him. I went to the mall, walked straight into a drugstore and started putting things in my pockets. I didn’t bother to look around to see if anyone saw me. I was overwhelmed with anger. I didn’t care what happened to me. I didn’t care if I got caught. I shoved several cosmetics into my jacket and walked out of the store.
Right after I walked out into the parking lot, a security guard grabbed me and led me back into the store. The guard summoned my father and a police officer to the store. The police officer told my father that he could release me into my father’s custody, or arrest me. “Arrest her,” my father said, and turned and left. The officer looked embarrassed. He apologized as he hand-cuffed me and walked me through the store to his waiting police car outside.
I was sentenced to community service and probation, and the charge was erased from my record when I reached age 18 with no subsequent offenses. Community service turned out to be a rewarding experience; I read stories to a wonderful elderly gentleman at a nursing home. The worst part of the ordeal was my father’s comment when I returned home from the police station. “How long have you been stealing?” he asked. I was shocked at the question, and tried to tell him that I hadn’t “been stealing.” He dismissed my answer and muttered that he knew that when a person was caught stealing that they had been stealing for a long time before they got caught.
This is the way it always went with my father. If I had a single sexual experience, I was the town slut. If I stole once, I was a habitual thief. If I drank beer, he suspected me of using drugs. I was constantly being demonized and falsely accused. His freakish paranoia skipped over reality and painted me as an uncontrollable criminal child.
One Friday evening, after another of his violent, out-of-control rages, he left me trembling on my bed and stormed out to the bar. Once I heard his car roar out of the drive, I made my way to the bathroom and stood looking at my red, tear-streaked face in the mirror. I hated my life. I hated my parents. I wanted to disappear. I reached for a bottle of painkillers in the medicine cabinet. Taking aspirin and antihistamine to cure my aching head and relieve my insomnia had become habit. I shook two aspirin into my hand and swallowed them. Then I stared at the open bottle for a moment. Numb and without thinking, I shook two more aspirin into my palm, then four, then six, and then eight or ten. I swallowed the pills and went to bed. Sometime on Sunday, I rose from my pillow feeling drugged and groggy. My father had come home from the bar Friday night and couldn’t wake me, so he left me in bed where he found me. I don’t know if he was afraid that taking me to a doctor would alert authorities to his abuse, or if he hoped I would die.
Eventually, my father told me to go live with my mother. He told my mother, who later told me, that I had better leave before he “really hurt me.” Living with my mother, who I’d been taught to disrespect over the years, and sharing a room with my older sister wasn’t pleasant either. While my mother didn’t frequently hit me, we never saw eye to eye. We often argued, and my mother went through my clothes and threw items away that she didn’t like, including underwear that she thought “wasn’t modest.” I never understood why she thought anyone was going to see or care about my underwear. She also forbid me to wear anything of the Swatch brand (popular at the time) because she thought Swatch sounded like a dirty word. She, like my father, implied that she thought I looked and acted like a tramp. And, like my father, she found reasons to pick me apart.
After a particularly heated argument with my mother, I jumped out of my bedroom window and ran to a friend’s house. About an hour later, I called my father and told him where I was. I needed to get away from my mother, but I didn’t want my family to worry about me. Even though I called my father and told him where I had gone, my parents accused me of running away. A few days later, my father came over to my mother’s apartment with some papers. He told me that he was arranging to commit me to an institution because I was “uncontrollable.” I didn’t hang out with delinquents. I maintained high marks and rarely got into trouble at school. I didn’t smoke or use drugs. But, I had gone to the movies and to school dances without permission. I had gone to parties and drank beer. I fought with my mother. This, they decided, was “uncontrollable.” Apparently, that is what my parents were going to tell the judge when they put me away. If I didn’t shape up, my father threatened, all he had to do was sign on the line and I would be institutionalized. Yet again, actual parenting was too much to ask of them. It was much easier to threaten to send me away or lock me up.
The summer before my sophomore year in high school my father told me that I was crazy. He had read something in my private writings in which I had written that I hated my mother and that I was so mad at her that I just “wanted to kill her.” Most people have used that phrase in a non-literal way out of anger or exasperation. Of course, I didn’t mean kill, as in murder. I certainly wasn’t confiding in small children my fantasies of hacking her up in pieces or shoving her in front of a train, as my father had done. Despite my father’s obvious hypocrisy and senselessness, he accused me of being crazy and sent me to a psychologist.
Contrary to what he had hoped, the counselor explained to me that there was nothing wrong with me individually, but that my family was dysfunctional. She, and every counselor I’ve visited since then, confirmed for me that my parents have some deep problems, and they created a pretty messed up family. After a handful of counseling sessions, which obviously were not panning out as my father had hoped, he halted the process, saying that he wasn’t going to “waste” any more money on me. Again, any real parenting took more effort than he wanted to expend.
In the months following my father’s threat to commit me to an institution, I began turning down my friends’ offers to go to parties and started keeping my parents abreast of all of my whereabouts. I had become very frustrated with the disconnect between my parents and myself. I had misled them several times about where I was and who I was with, and I was tired of living like that. To purge myself of my dishonesty, I wrote all my misrepresentations in a letter, along with their corresponding truths and apologies, and gave the letter to my father. It was part of my attempt to start fresh. On the other hand, my parents had created a vision of me that was far worse than reality, and that vision represented another level of disconnect. I wanted to be able to tell them that I was going to the movies with Susie, Jane, and Kristy, and that boys might be there too, and not have them freak out and think I was dropping acid and having sex. I wanted my parents to be normal. I wanted my family to be normal. I was trying to do my part to make it normal.
In the winter of 1988, shortly after my sixteenth birthday, my parents reconciled and our family moved into a house all together. Right after we moved in, my father called a family meeting. We all gathered in the living room. My father put on his most contrite and sincere face and told us that we all were going to start fresh. There would be no more fighting in our house, he said, things would be resolved with open discussion. He promised everything was going to be different this time. Would life at our house finally become normal?
I soon discovered that my father’s promise of things being different did not apply to his relationship with me. He continued, as he had when the two of us were living alone together, to direct all of his life’s anger at me. And my mother, grateful that she was no longer his scapegoat, looked the other way.
We had only lived in the new house for a few weeks when his first rage erupted. My mother, my younger sister and I were cleaning up after dinner. Jane was at her fiance’s apartment, where she spent nearly all of her free time in those days. My father was in the bathroom (there was only one in the house), and I went to wait outside the door for my turn to go in. Having always had a weak bladder, I became anxious as five minutes turned to ten. I muttered under my breath, “Come on.” And as my mother passed by, I continued to myself, “There are other people in this house who need to use the bathroom besides you.” When he finally came out and I went in, my mother stopped him and told him what she had overheard me say.
My father immediately turned and followed me into the bathroom and started screaming that it was his house and he could do whatever he wanted in his house. “Do you understand!!” he screamed. Petrified at his violent and unsuspected outburst, I all could do was nod. He lunged at me, grabbed the front of my shirt in both hands, lifted me off the ground and slammed me against the wall and the towel rack. “GODDAMN IT, YOU BETTER ANSWER ME!!” His screams were feverish and crazed. “Yes,” I responded. He dropped me to the ground and slapped me in the face. “Do you understand?!” he screamed again. I said, “Yes,” louder this time. He glared at me with rage and hatred, and slapped my face again. “YES,” I repeated. He slapped me again before storming into his bedroom. I crept into my room and snapped the lock closed behind me. Suddenly, I heard him slam his body into my bedroom door. “YOU BETTER OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW, OR I’LL BREAK IT DOWN.” I opened the door. He came in screaming, “You aren’t going to be locking doors on me, not in this house! If you ever lock that door again you’ll be in big trouble!!” Then he went to bed.
Christmas Eve was a short time later. Everyone was home that day for the holiday, but my family had never celebrated Christmas. It was part of my parents’ religious belief that Christmas is a pagan tradition and that only “fake” Christians celebrated Christmas. By the time I was sixteen, Christmas meant nothing to me; it was just a day off from school. However, my younger sister had asked if she could buy presents for us this year, and my parents broke with tradition and gave her money to do so.
I was sitting on the floor in the room that Jane and I shared, sorting through old magazines. I saw the day off as an opportunity to clean house. My little sister, who was eight, decided that she wanted me to open her present at that very moment. I told her to wait until I was finished sorting magazines. She hollered from the living room, entreating me to come and open the present now. She told my mother to make me come open the present right now. Annoyed at her insistence, I put down my work, went into the living room, and sat down on the hearth of the fireplace. I petulantly informed my little sister that it wasn’t nice for her to be so impatient. “I don’t know why I can’t open it when I want to,” I groused.
Without warning, my father was on me. He grabbed me with one hand and began hitting me with the other. He was completely out of control. “Why can’t you shut your fucking mouth?” he screamed, “Why can’t you ever shut your fucking mouth.” Between his crazed screams, he slapped me again and again, knocking my head sideways into the rock fireplace mantle. “Why isn’t anything sacred to you?!!” he screamed. “Why isn’t Christmas sacred to you?!?” he spat his senseless question at me. Christmas? Sacred? The pagan “fake-Christian” holiday. Huh?? “Why did you have to open your fucking mouth!! Get to your room!” he screamed. In my room alone, I shook with terrified sobs. What was going on? Why was this happening??
A few minutes later, he entered my room. For a second, I thought he had come to apologize or see if I was alright. He began telling me that I had ruined Christmas. I had ruined everything for everyone, he said. I always ruined everything for everyone, he told me. I stood silently staring into his furious face. He reached up and grabbed my chin in his hand. “Why can’t you just keep your fucking mouth shut?” he hissed as he scratched his fingernails down my cheek.
Later that day, I told my mother that I thought the things that my father did to me were child abuse. I told her that if it happened again, I was going to tell the psychologist that I had seen the summer before. The next day, I showed my father the bloody scratches he had left on my cheek. I told him he had made those scratches. He gave me a look of disdain and called me a “fucking liar.” That was the moment that I became certain that my father was seriously mentally disturbed, and that he would say anything to cover his tracks.
On the evening following Christmas day, my father, mother, little sister, and I were sitting down to dinner when my father let me know my mother had warned him that I was going to report his abuse. He didn’t inquire as to why I felt abused. There was no fatherly concern for my emotional well-being. He mocked me. “You think you’re so abused,” he ridiculed, “You don’t know what abuse is!” He told me that I was making a mountain out of a molehill. He reminded me that all he had to do was sign the papers and he could have me institutionalized. “Get over here and stand next to me,” he ordered. I got up and stood on his side of the table. “Come closer so I can hit you if I want to,” he taunted. I stepped closer. “I only hit you about… this hard,” he said as his hand smashed into the side of my face. My little sister froze in her place and my mother yelled out his name. “You shut up!” he threatened her. She protested further. He picked up his glass of water and threw it in her face. She started down the hallway towards the bathroom and my father followed right behind, pushing her into their bedroom. He began yelling at her for not sticking up for him. The topic of argument went from me to my mother’s sister and continued into the evening.
I went to my room and got out my journaling notebook. Mr. Ross, the guidance counselor at school, had given me the notebook to write in when I was upset. He told me that writing often helped people cope when they had no other way to deal with their anger. I wrote in the journal that I hated my life and my parents and that my father was an asshole. I wrote that I knew my parents didn’t love me. When I was finished, I hid it in the top drawer of my dresser.
A couple of weeks later, in late January, my parents allowed me to go (chaperoned by a friend’s mother) to a nearby town with some other girls for a basketball game. I arrived home from the game before 12:30, which was my curfew. My father was sitting in the living room when I walked in. Jane was at her fiance’s apartment, and my mother and little sister were asleep. My father had a boiling look on his face; I recognized it as the look he gets when he’s been angry and brooding for hours. I was instantly on eggshells. I sat across from him on the couch and asked him what was wrong. He reached into the briefcase next to his chair, pulled out my journal, and threw it at me. I picked it up and set it next to me on the couch.
“You know, you’re a real joy to have for a daughter,” he said sarcastically. He asked me how I could write “garbage” like that. I tried to explain that I had been upset, but he interrupted to brag that he had burned all my cosmetics in the fireplace while I was out, because they “weren’t necessary.” “You don’t need to go around like a little tramp!” he sniped. I reminded him that he had told me months earlier that, although he didn’t agree with it, wearing make-up was my choice. I bought the cosmetics with my own money. I told him that if he had asked me to throw them away, I certainly would have. That really set him off. He lurched across the room and grabbed the front of my shirt. He lifted me off the couch and screamed in my face, “This is my house and I don’t have to ask you anything!! I can throw your crap away if I damn well please!” I put my hands up in front of my face as I had instinctively learned to do to protect my head. He grabbed my stiff arms and began violently shaking me.
He spit out through his clenched teeth, “Why can’t you ever say you’re sorry for anything?!” I didn’t understand what he was talking about. “I don’t understand what you’re asking me,” I whispered. He jerked me from the couch and threw me across the room into a chair. Then he grabbed me again and threw me into the corner. “SAY YOU’RE SORRY!” he screamed. “I’m sorry,” I replied. He hit me in the side of the head. “Say it again!!!” he commanded. “I’m sorry,” I said again. He slapped me across the face, “Say it again!” I repeated, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” I turned my face into the corner and put my hands up to ward off his blows. “You look at me! You turn around and look at me so I can hit you if I want to!!” he raged. When I turned around, he slapped me again. Satisfied, he sat down in his armchair. “Get in your fuckin’ room and get out of here,” he ordered.
I went to my room, laid down, and waited for him to go to bed. Although she must have heard the commotion, my mother never got out of bed to see what was going on or if I was alright. Shortly before 1:30 a.m., I heard my father’s footsteps disappear into his room. I waited a while longer, for him to fall asleep. Then, I tip-toed back to the living room and picked up the phone. I called Barbara, the psychologist he had sent me to months earlier. I whispered into the phone, “I can’t stay here anymore, Barbara. I have to leave.” Barbara knew our family history; she understood the dynamics. “Pack a suitcase and come to my office first thing in the morning, before he wakes up,” she instructed. I went to my room and quietly packed my belongings.
Jane came home a few minutes later and found me crying and preparing to leave. I told her what had happened, and she offered to give me a ride in the morning. The two of us got up early, quietly put my things in Jane’s car and went to Barbara’s office. Jane and I spent the better part of the day relaying to Barbara the history of our father’s abuse. She noted the bruises on my arms and explained that she was professionally obligated to report the abuse to the proper authorities, even if I didn’t want to. At the end of the day, Jane dropped me off at my best friend’s house. I never returned home.
On National Public Radio, I once heard a survivor of the holocaust tell her story of having been in a Nazi forced labor camp. She told of the day the Russian army came and liberated the camp in which she was imprisoned. She and the other prisoners wandered out of the camp after being freed, and tried to make their way back to the places that had once been their homes. They were poor, weak, and destitute, and many of them found their homes decimated. But, she said that during the summer following the liberation, she felt the greatest sense of peace she had ever felt in her life. It was like warm sunshine on her face every day, and it didn’t matter that she was poor or homeless. The peace was overwhelming. Although my experience doesn’t compare to hers, when I heard her speak, I knew the sense of peace of which she spoke. The two years after I left my family’s home were the two most peaceful years of my life. I moved from home to home, living in several different places before the state of Montana placed me in a foster home. I had no idea what would become of me, but I knew that I was safe and I was free at last. In all the years that have passed since I left home on that early morning, I have never once doubted that leaving was the most important and best decision of my life.
This story represents the memories of the author. She does not have documentary proof of many of the details of her abuse, but has attempted to record the events of her past to the best of her recollection.
Several years ago, the ministers in the “Truth” – the workers – asked my father to hold Wednesday night Bible studies in his home. I made the workers in his area aware of the way that he had treated my mother, sisters and I throughout my childhood. I also made them aware that the state of Montana had severed my parents’ parental rights over me and placed me in a foster home because of the way I was treated by my mother and father. The workers with whom I spoke told me that they did not approve of my father’s behavior or methods of child-rearing. However, they also said that they were not going to tell my father that they disapproved of anything he had done, and they continued to hold fellowship meetings in his home. My father denies doing many of the things that he did to me and continues to claim that he was a good father. He maintains that he was merely raising his children according to “God’s will.”
Apparently, no one in the leadership of his church finds it important to provide him with spiritual counsel regarding his abusiveness. Maybe being straight-forward with him would not serve their interests. I told the workers that I was surprised that they would choose a man of his character as an “elder” in their church. They told me that, despite having the Bible study in his home, he was not an “elder,” but there were few homes in their area in which to hold Bible studies and they needed to use the homes that were available.
I interpreted that as meaning that the workers are opportunistic about where they hold their meetings. Such choices have nothing to do with the character of those who own the homes they use. I seriously question the judgment of any organization that would put my father in a position that holds the appearance of spiritual authority, no matter what their excuse is for doing so. I have to ask, and I invite others who read this to ask, what kind of an operation are these people running?
The story above is mine. I gave permission for it to be posted on this site.
Due to a family funeral, I recently had the occasion to see my parents for the first time in 10 years. In the last 10 years, my father, who still has meetings in his home, has managed to drive away his other two daughters as well, including the one who remains “professing.” The man is such an incredibly deceptive and evil person that nearly every member of my nuclear and extended family can see it (no one wants to be around him), but somehow the “Workers” continue conveniently not to see it.
You’ve got to love my father’s hideously self-serving approach to his wrongdoing: When anyone mentions to him that his now-adult children still deal with emotional suffering today due to events of their childhood, he says, “How dare you bring up the past. God has forgiven me for anything I did in the past; therefore, you have no right to bring it up.” God has forgiven him…
Baw, ha ha ha haw! What a joke. Apparently, in his world, you don’t have to admit your wrongs, atone for them, say you are sorry, try to understand the pain you’ve caused or even spend a minute feeling bad about what you’ve done. You just have to say that “God has forgiven” you, and then your victims and everyone else need to shut up and forget what you did. I mean, how dare those victims have the nerve to continue to suffer! How inconsiderate of those pesky abused children to grieve the childhood that you tore from them! Who do those victims think they are to keep having PTSD and low self-esteem! The nerve of them!
Let me tell you, those Workers sure know how to spot a compassionate and godly example to help lead their flock, don’t they! I’m sure my father is just raking in the lost souls at his meeting. I mean, who wouldn’t want to follow this guy, right? Doesn’t everyone want to be him?
I realize that I’m being utterly sarcastic here, but this church (2X2s) is just so ridiculous to me. They have absolutely zero standards for their leadership. My father, obviously, makes up the rules for himself as he goes along, and the Workers keep supporting him. They have watched all of this man’s children suffer for all these years and they pretend that they can’t make the connection that it’s HIM, its not us who has a problem.
Most people with a brain in their head would say, “Hmmm, three out of three children in this family don’t want to be around their father. Maybe he’s doing something wrong here…” But not these people!
By A Survivor
January 29, 2011