by Paola D’Ellesio
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, for me the destructive, generational, abusive cycle that was our family heritage began to rupture that day I phoned my mother. Phoning her is itself a noteworthy event, given the nature of our relationship and the way we communicate. In the past 12 years we’ve talked on the phone less than a dozen times, and I’ve initiated most of the calls. Via the conduit of my father, my mother has let it be known it’s my duty to call her. After all, she’s the mother and I’m the daughter.
My mother is a guidance counselor, working one-to-one with elementary school kids who have emotional problems. During this cataclysmic phone conversation, she shared a recent professional triumph of which she was extremely proud. In an exuberant voice she told me about Joseph, an engaging, gentle child of eight, unable to express himself in anything louder than a whisper because he’s scared to speak up. Joseph is a battered child: Physically battered at home and verbally battered at school. Acting as his advocate, my mother took action against his parents and intervened with his teacher and the school’s principal.
As I listened to the voice that makes my hair stand on end, my throat swelled, preventing me from swallowing. I had to hang up because I was overcome by the irony of this situation. At one time I too was barely audible. Like Joseph, I was battered and abused. The perpetrator was my mother.
he was 22 when I was born; by today’s standards, a child herself. Then, two years later, my brother was born. I used to believe my brother and I were at fault when she lost her patience and lashed out. I thought we deserved the beatings, that if we hadn’t behaved so badly, Mom wouldn’t have beaten us with her fists, or whatever household object was close at hand. When, as an adult, I found the courage to step back into the terror of my childhood, I discovered that we weren’t bad kids. I realized my mother’s rages had been unpredictable and, for the most part, unprovoked by anything we’d done. My brother and I were just regular kids. It was my mother who was “irregular.”
From the onset, she couldn’t cope with motherhood. She was burdened by a fury against unnamed, therefore, overpowering forces. She had been an emotionally deprived child and seemed compelled to pass that on.
My brother and I were beaten every day. He bore the brunt of her anger because he was unable or unwilling to give in to her show of force. When she smacked me, I cried, and she’d stop hurting me when she felt my humiliation was complete. My brother was different – tougher, maybe, or more stubborn. When she’d pummel him, he’d laugh in her face or he’d sing a nursery rhyme over and over. His seeming indifference to the pain fueled her fury. She’d hit him harder. And the stronger her punch, the more raucously he’d laugh.
I’m 37 years old and have had recurrent nightmares, haunting flashbacks I can’t exorcise where I am forced to relive the horrors of the past. In these memory dreams, my mother picks me up and flings me against the wall. My head smacks the edge of the book shelf and the impact sends books cascading to the floor. Aiming for whatever part of my face she can reach, my mother uses a book as a battering ram. Instinctively, my arms fly up to protect my eyes but they’re ineffective. My brother and I plead with her to stop and she relents for a moment. Then she redirects the attack onto my brother.
I watch as she yanks him by his ears and wrestles his pliable body to the floor. This hefty 29 year old sits on her small son’s chest, pinning his arms to the floor with her fat knees. She curses him, clawing the hair above his forehead. Using the thick strands as a lever, she bangs his head against the floor in an insanely syncopated rhythm. First I hear the profanity, then, unmistakable and frightening, the dull thud of my brother’s head against those wooden parquet tiles she’s so proud of. Apparently unfazed he chants, “Mary had a little lamb” as if to ward off the evil befalling him and to invoke the protection of the patron saint of five year olds.
I’m frantic. Terrified she’ll kill him, I jump on her back and try to pull her off, but it’s futile. With a swat of her arm she dislodges me. I pitch books to no avail. She stops bashing his head only in her own time, when my brother’s silence speaks to something in her that might be greater than her anger.
It was clear to me we needed protection. I went to my dad first, but he didn’t believe me. My mother reminded him that I was a storyteller, though she needn’t have interfered because my father rarely paid attention to me, unless I disturbed his peace and quiet or my mother reported that I’d been bad. Then he’d mete out extremely humiliating and entirely inappropriate punishments. It did no good to beg for leniency.
This was the man who made me wear a too-large, traffic-paint-yellow rubber raincoat and clunky, over-the-shoe, knee-high galoshes for four consecutive sunny days, to and from school – just because he’d “caught” me carrying my rain boots instead of wearing them. He escorted me to class all four days, not only to make sure I kept this ugly gear on, but also to remind my teacher that, because I was being punished, I had to wear this outlandish garb during lunch recess and free play too.
In reality, I had little hope that he’d help us. I was invisible to him, not because of my age, but because of my gender. My father has always been king of the male chauvinists. Because he has no use for women except when we serve his needs, I was discounted and disregarded. My mother fared no better. He treated her with condescension and disrespect. Though he never hit me, I was terrified of him and I’d mutter “mean old man” under my breath to his receding back.
Next, I told my maternal grandmother. I was seven years old and didn’t have the savvy to realize my grandmother couldn’t give credence to my reports; her acknowledgement could have wider implications. How could she accept the fact that her daughter did terrible things to her grandchildren? It might mean she too had been a bad mom.
My teacher was another dead end. She scolded me, insisting that if only I watched where I was going and paid more attention to what I was doing, I wouldn’t bang into things and bruise myself. She kept saying what a lovely person my mother was: “So sweet. So nice.”
She was right. My mother was nice – to our teachers, the neighbors, and, occasionally, even to our friends. But she was rarely nice to us.
I have heard that if a dog births pups when her instincts for mothering are immature or non-existent, the dog may simply abandon her litter. Maybe my brother and I would have been better off if my mother had deserted us, or acknowledged she didn’t love us or couldn’t care for us. Her truth might have saved us. But my mother couldn’t face these feelings. Instead she seduced us with, “I love you. Who else is going to love you the way I do?” Tucked in bed each night in my lightless room, I prayed that no one ever would.
The beatings ended abruptly when I was 12 or 13. We three were in the kitchen. My mother was chopping vegetables, my brother and I were eating at the counter, he in the seat closest to her, I next to him. Suddenly, brandishing the knife, she lunged at him. My brother ducked under the counter and ran out of the kitchen through the door farthest from where she stood. He took refuge in his room, slamming the door behind him. She flung it open with such violence that the brass doorknob punched through the hollow closet door directly behind. I was close on her heels, tearing at her shirt tails in a vain attempt to thwart her. Using the small pool table which stood in the middle of the room as a partial cover, my brother scooted around and crouched low. Awkwardly, my mother came after him.
In what seemed like slow motion, my brother stood up and reached for the wooden cue stick. At first, like a warmup batter, he rested the pool cue against his shoulder for one brief moment before he touched the blue chalk-stained tip to her breastbone.
“Put the knife down.” My mother didn’t move. She seemed mesmerized.
“Put that knife down.” Something in my brother’s voice scared her. It scared me too. Gingerly, she placed the knife on the green felt table.
“If you ever touch us again I’ll kill you. I’m going to break both of your arms and then I’m going to stab you. Don’t come near us again.”
Afterward, I stayed out of my mother’s way as much as possible until I left her house for good. I had no idea where my salvation lay but I did know that to survive I had to flee. Books and school became my haven. Men too. At 17, I married the man I fell in love with. The two of us became family. It was all the family I wanted.
From the time I became sexually active until well into my late 20s, I was extraordinarily vigilant about birth control. Just one method wouldn’t do. I used two and sometimes three different devices at a time because I was terrified of passing on my genes and my heritage. Just before my 30th birthday, my husband, the voice of sanity on this issue, suggested I examine the pain of my childhood in order to free myself from this fear.
It made sense. But I continued to sidestep the question of motherhood until my body, with an agenda of its own, flooded me with the desire for a child. Still, I shied away because I was afraid I, too, would be an abusive mother. I tried sedating myself with work, with food and then with alcohol. But ultimately, I knew, my past demanded attention.
I know so few of the details of my mother’s history. Because both her parents worked outside the home, my mother was cared for by her great-aunt, a woman she loved and who loved her dearly. Her father, absent more often than not, was the family disciplinarian although he didn’t believe in hitting kids. When she’d exceed the limits her folks set for her, her father would deliver excruciatingly lengthy lectures that my mother found agonizing. She said she’d have preferred a beating. My mother doesn’t talk about her mom a lot, but I too know the sting of my grandmother’s sarcasm.
For as long as I’ve known her, my mother’s been in a state of siege – an enraged woman unable to admit to the volcanic anger churning beneath the thin veneer of her sociability. Her frenzied emotions endangered us but the real devastation was caused by the denial of her feelings.
I have other siblings. None of us escaped unscathed. My brother had his first epileptic seizure at 19. Might his epilepsy be related to the beatings about his head? None of us knows. None of us talks about it.
My own recovery has been painful. My separation from my mother did little good because, unconsciously I’d assimilated her bitter legacy and her corrosive attitude about the world. Unconsciously, I’d internalized her spirit. My mother could wound with her fists or her words but I could perpetuate her self-denial, her masochism, her martyrdom. She was, after all, my first role model. From her I learned that a woman was a second-class citizen, slightly more valuable than the family dog because my mother, at least, earned her keep by tending to everyone else’s needs. I saw that a woman’s feelings and ideas didn’t matter. My mother kept hers to herself because no one cared enough to ask what she thought. I watched my mother cower in the face of my father’s aggression and learned that a woman never spoke up for herself; she wouldn’t presume to challenge a man. My father was the head of the household, the breadwinner, and as such, he knew best. She taught me that a woman didn’t dare harbor hopes or dreams for herself. What would be the point, since the best my mother could do would be to accept whatever place the men in her life, my grandfather and father in turn, allowed her? Above all, a woman was selfless, the needs of others always came first.
Like a girl scout, my mother was prepared, ready and willing to cater to everyone else no matter what the cost, no matter how great a toll it took on her physical, emotional or financial well being. From her, I learned women were powerless and doomed to a life sentence of drudgery, dependence and depression. My mother was a good teacher and I an attentive student.
Day in and day out, I mutilated myself, biting my nails to the quick and yanking strands of hair from my sore scalp. Always anxious and afraid I’d do or say the wrong thing, I wouldn’t speak spontaneously. Instead, I’d silently rehearse whatever it was I wanted to say, but by the time I finished practicing, the conversation had already passed the point at which my contribution would have been appropriate. So I remained mute. The rare times I spoke, I prefaced my words with a schoolgirl ritual: I’d raise my hand, then ask permission to speak, and when it was granted, I’d whisper. When introduced to someone new, I’d duck my head and stare at the laces of my shoes. I’d extend my arm in a blind handshake. It embarrasses me now to admit that I behaved like this until I was almost 27 years old.
Because I felt helpless in the face of larger issues, I sought relief in such meaningless things as sorting my shoes by color and style and lining them up in rigid rows on the closet floor. Alphabetizing the books on my shelves made me feel better, composed; it gave me a false, but needed, sense of self-mastery. I was compulsive. I’d re-organize immaculate desk drawers and re-wash and re-fold clean towels. As if on a one-woman crusade against city grime, I’d scrub my apartment with a vengeance born of misplaced anxiety.
And I expected more from myself than I did from anyone else. While I’d forgive my friends their mistakes, I couldn’t absolve myself. Essentially, I demanded the impossible – perfection – which doomed me to failure. There was never a time when I was good enough, smart enough, talented enough, funny enough, attractive enough or competent enough. I was deeply distressed. Clinically depressed. And though the healthiest part of my psyche knew I was troubled, I didn’t seek help until suicidal thoughts became a constant preoccupation.
What prompted me finally to phone a psychiatrist friend for a referral is what I now refer to as my “walking nervous breakdown.” On my way to work one morning, a good Samaritan stopped to ask if I needed help. Puzzled, I asked why.
“You seem upset. You’re crying,” he answered. And when I touched my face, wet and tear-stained, I was shaken. I knew then I was in desperate need of professional help because I was thoroughly out of touch with my feelings. When I confided in a trusted colleague, he wasn’t at all surprised. In fact, he said that during the two years we’d worked together he’d never seen me smile. Because I’d pictured myself a happy-go-lucky person, I was shocked. Obviously, something was “off.”
Therapy was a time-consuming and difficult process. It required courage and lots of money. Often, I lacked both. I made a few false starts. The first doctor was a Freudian who insisted I free associate while lying on the couch. Uncomfortable with this method, I pushed for face to face “talk” therapy. Still, I toughed it out three times a week for almost nine months, until the following unpleasantness convinced me that neither this method nor this doctor was right for me. During one 50-minute “hour,” I was interrupted by an electronic beep. The noise prompted me to ask if my sessions were being taped. The psychiatrist responded, “Well, what do you think?” Unable to get a simple “yes” or “no” I finally walked out.
Next, I saw a woman who was extremely empathetic and helpful. Unfortunately, we worked together for only a month before she referred me to someone else who had more time available than she. I felt betrayed and had difficulty trusting the new therapist. When he asked about my childhood I told him it’d been idyllic. That’s how I remembered it then. After more than a year of therapy he suggested hypnosis. With hypnosis, I recovered pieces of my past that I had long since buried.
After this, I worked with a woman trained in transactional analysis, then a therapist who helped me act out my anger and despair physically, in a protected environment. All told, I spent close to six years in therapy. At the time I was frustrated by the little progress I was making, but, looking back, I believe it saved my life. The high level of anxiety I’d always lived with (and therefore was unaware it was destructive) disappeared. As did my suicidal thoughts.
This phone call to my mother left me debilitated. Regressing to that once familiar childhood behavior, I was speechless. I couldn’t ask for details about Joseph nor could I ask about my memories. At a loss, I hung up and wandered aimlessly around my apartment, talking to myself. Angry and bewildered, I tried to make sense of our conversation. Who is this woman to whom I’m still tied? What motivated her to defend a child in her care when she’d been unable to tend to her own with compassion? And, most importantly, how could I put closure on the past? Temporarily incapacitated, I paced, repeating my personal mantra, “calm is the key.” This worked. And with the advent of self-control, I sat down and wrote my mother a letter.
Dear Mom, You often suggest we meet so that we can catch up and stay in touch. But when we’re together I’m disappointed and uncomfortable. Disappointed because we’re unable to have an authentic conversation and uncomfortable because I sense that you want something from me.
I was taken aback by our last conversation, about Joseph. Timid Joseph, afraid to speak up because his father beats him and his teacher calls him names. I was staggered by the irony because I was just like him. Unbidden, childhood memories plague me still. I can’t begin to understand your behavior. What drove you to act as you did?
I know that, like every other woman, you had no preparation for motherhood. On-the-job-training meant following your instincts and relying on the models others provided. It must have been difficult having us so close in age when you were a young newlywed. Everyday chores must have been a nightmare when we lived in that second-floor walk-up. How did you manage the stairs with the two of us and a stroller? I don’t remember a babysitter. I know Dad wasn’t home to help. Did anyone relieve you? I can imagine how hard it was with an active toddler, and a chronically-ill newborn.
Isn’t it absurd there’s no training for parenthood? Unlike driving a car, no license is required. We spend years in school getting degrees, preparing for our future, but parenting isn’t part of that. How bizarre!
Standing up for Joseph shows how much you’ve grown. Your brave deed gave me a chance to re-examine my idea of who you are. It made me think about your personal struggle. What made you decide to protect Joseph? How did his welfare become your priority? I’m glad you helped him.
Unlike Joseph, I’m an adult now and don’t need protection. What you couldn’t give me then, you can’t give me now. I have to leave the past behind. It’ll free me to envision my future and seize its possibilities.
Do my prospects include a genuine relationship with you? I don’t know if it’s possible to forge a new way to be together.
Today, I’m thinking about the sweaters Grandma knitted, particularly the blue turtleneck she made when I was a teenager. The pattern gave her trouble, and more than halfway through, she abandoned the written directions altogether to follow the promptings of her imagination. When she finished, the sweater didn’t fit. Unhappy with the way it’d turned out, Grandma unraveled the wool. Holding my hands upright and parallel, I mimicked the function of a spindle as she re-wound the blue yarn around them. First, she smoothed the once-used yarn, then tied it tightly into a ball. She began all over again.
Using her example, I want to re-weave the threads of my past into the tapestry, the work-in-progress, that is my life. This is one of many letters I’ve written to my mother over the years. I’ve mailed none of them. But this time there was a difference. Instead, I decided to meet with her to talk about the past.
That evening was difficult for both of us. I felt guilty because she was at a distinct disadvantage. After all, she didn’t know the evening’s agenda. I tried to be gentle; still I wounded her. And her tears unsettled me.
First, she denied my account and my memories, accusing me of having an overactive imagination. She suggested I talk to my brother to learn the truth about what really happened. I agreed he’d be a reliable source.
It was from my youngest sister and not my brother that I learned my mother, visibly upset, appeared on my brother’s doorstep, unannounced, a week after our meeting. He said only that his childhood happened long ago and he thought it best left forgotten.
A month after our dinner, I phoned. During our chat, my mother touched on our meeting only once and very briefly, saying, she’d considered sending me a letter. Now, many months later, I’ve received no letter and she’s never mentioned our talk again. Our relationship remains unchanged.
But something had changed – by finally confronting my mother with the truth, I had made a breakthrough within myself. I no longer felt like a frightened, abused child but like an empowered woman with the inner resources and resolve to break our deadly circle.
Passed from one generation to the next, this circling had seemed to be my legacy. Now, for my own sake and for the sake of the children I hope to someday have, I decided it must end. And so I have stopped it; because I am determined that my children’s birthright will not be one of fear and abuse but one of love. And acceptance. And laughter.
Paola D’Ellesio is the pseudonym of a writer living in New York City. She is author of many articles on social and ecological issues.