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Divorce, Guest Posts, pandemic

Covid-19 and My Ultra-Orthodox Children

April 14, 2021
children

by Beatrice Weber

I am a mother of ten Hasidic children, and I couldn’t protect many of them from the virus. The community they live in has flouted restrictions—and while I know my children are at risk, my hands are tied.

In mid-March 2020, my 7-year-old son, my youngest child, and one of three who lives with me told me he knows why this virus happened. “Oh?” I asked. I was in bed, sleep teasing me, hoping he’d get tired, too, and go to his room. “My teacher told me it is because we don’t say enough blessings. He said that if we say 100 blessings a day it will go away.”

My son is innocent. Like kids his age, he is impressionable. He was one and half years old when I left my abusive marriage, six years ago with four of my ten children. He attends a yeshiva and visits his father, a rabbi in Monsey, New York, every second weekend for Shabbos. I am fiercely protective of him, but when he is not with me, I cannot control what he is taught or what happens to him.

Sleep now a distant memory, I caressed his face and assured him that the virus is not his fault and cannot be undone with blessings. “We need to be careful, and we will be okay.”

But the next day, I was not so sure we would be okay. On my way to work, I see a message that had been making its rounds on WhatsApp groups. In pink letters, adorned with lilac flowers and green leaves, the virtual flyer, titled “Unique Protection,” stated that rabbis encourage women to upgrade their head covering from wigs to kerchiefs (more pious), and in this merit, we will be saved.

I closed my phone and continued walking. I spotted a Yiddish notice on a lamppost stating that the contagion is a punishment for schmoozing during prayers. We must be quiet, and this disease will go away. Quiet, I thought—the one thing I fail miserably at.

For many years, I had prayed daily, fervently. “God, please help me to become a ‘Kosher woman who does the will of her husband,’” I would plead, quoting the words of the Talmud. Please help me to do this. I want to be a good wife to my husband. I prayed and trusted that things would get better in my marriage. But it did not.

I was expected to be a meek, obedient wife. When I would try to voice an opinion, my husband would shut me down and get the children to mock me, until, finally, I broke.

It was seven years ago on Passover eve, before the first Seder when I left. My parents, older children, and the rabbis vehemently opposed me leaving. When my parents found out, they worked with the rabbis to try and take away my younger children. The six I left behind were lost and confused. They were angry at me for abandoning them. They couldn’t fathom the idea that I would leave. I was their mother who had always been there for them. And I left with a heavy heart, the most excruciating decisions I ever made.

I eventually received a Jewish Get from the rabbis and custody and a divorce in family court, but the feelings of betrayal never left me. Betrayal by my own family and my own God.

I felt lost and bereft, and I searched for another way to live.

Before Passover last year, a month into quarantine, my son pled with me to let him go to his father for the Seders. “I want to be there with my nephews,” he said. I assured my son that his nephews won’t be at his father’s Seder, since it is not safe to travel now. But I was not convinced of my own words. I had heard the rumors and seen the flouting of coronavirus restrictions. I knew that his father would risk infection—for himself and his children—to host a proper Seder with our grandchildren from New Jersey, against all guidelines. And I was not wrong – he did indeed invite our  children and grandchildren and

Quarantined in my house, I lead a Seder with three of my children, joyfully singing the traditional songs and searching for the hidden matzoh, the afikomen. The sirens outside wailed, reminding me of the predicament we were in. The deaths in my former community mounted, peaking over Passover.

My friend who runs a nonprofit supporting young orphans in the community told me of the huge increase in requests for services. Families lost grandparents and parents, and communities lost rabbis, leaders, and congregants.

This became very real to me. The virus had infiltrated the community. And while I was hopeful that my children’s father and their community would take it seriously because the sheer numbers of infected and the dead pointed to a danger that required action, I was also skeptical because I knew what I would have done a decade ago. Instead of following the guidelines, I would have encouraged my sons to gather and study and covered for the men’s prayer gatherings. My belief that God would save us was so strong, I may have been compelled to trade my wig for a kerchief.

My skepticism was well-founded. By September, the second wave had reached the Haredi Jewish community in Brooklyn. My son’s yeshiva opened its doors while ostensibly following the rules that had been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. One day I found myself in front of the dark grey building. My son’s teacher had called to ask me to pick him up. He had come down with a strep throat the week before, and he was still not feeling well.

I hesitated before entering the building. Though I am a mother of six boys, I have rarely ventured into the all-boys’ yeshiva building. It was considered immodest and unacceptable for a woman to walk the hallways—and besides, I never had a reason to.

There is another reason I hesitated: I no longer follow the strict dress code of my former community. On that day, I wore my curly bob and black slacks instead of the black mid-thigh skirt and beige tights expected of me. I had never gone near the yeshiva without my hair covered and a skirt over my knees, but I had no time to go home and change. My son wasn’t feeling well, and I was going to pick him up. He needed me.

I peered into the classroom over the teacher’s head and saw the children gathered, with no sign of any social distancing or facial covering.

I suspected that the guidelines were not being followed but seeing this blatant violation of the rules horrified me. What was I supposed to do now with my son? He was required to attend yeshiva, whether it felt safe to me or not. If I chose to keep him home, my ex-husband would use it as leverage and surely come after me for custody. I was torn between doing what was expected of me by my ex-husband and the community my son still belonged to or following my maternal instincts.

I chose the latter, filing complaints with the city and state health departments. I pulled my son from yeshiva, knowing I risked a potential battle with my ex who might take me to family court, a serendipitous reason why he should be granted custody of my son.

Weeks later, a judge in family court ordered my son to return to school, disregarding the flagrant violations.  I comply, worried for my son’s health but also fearful of losing custody.

But for now, for then, I am still in charge. I do what I can protect my younger children, but what about my older ones. Who will protect them?

I don’t hear much from them. Since I left the marriage six years ago, there has been limited communication and it has tragically stripped me of any real relationship with them. They are angry that I left. I ruined their lives, they say. They went from being the children of highly respected parents to the children of divorce, shamed in the community. No one will want to marry them. They are damaged goods.

I don’t blame them; my heart bleeds but I could no longer sacrifice myself and my sanity.

Should I have stayed?

I have seven grandchildren whom I haven’t seen in years. I yearn to see and hold them. My children, too. I ache to be part of their lives and know how they are faring in these challenging times. But I am scared to call.

Will my daughter hang up on me like she did when I last called?

Will my son yell at me? I am too fearful, too vulnerable— so I sit at home and worry.

I worry that my children and grandchildren may not be okay. I am angry at a system that encourages them to ignore public health guidelines and rules meant to protect them. But I also envy them. I envy their faith and the unshakable belief that God will protect them.

But who will protect the rest of us?

Beatrice Weber is an Interspirtual Minister, writer, speaker, and coach. She empowers people who have experienced religious, familial, or community trauma connect with their own inner voice and create empowered and joyful lives. She was born and raised in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community and was married off to a Rabbi when she was 18, never having graduated High School. After 22 years of marriage and 10 children, she left the marriage with her four youngest children, despite severe opposition from her family and the community.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Bullying, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

77, and Still

March 19, 2021
ribbon

By Ceresa Morsaint

It’s a chilly first night of Autumn, and she’s sitting on the bench hidden behind the playscape, where no one has to watch her cry. She adjusts the hat on her head, trying to keep her ears from freezing. She tries not to break her fragile nails, or agitate the arthritis in her right shoulder. And as she does, she feels a familiar ache in her arms, remembering the way she’d undo the ribbons in her hair, and leave the red, satin strips on the bench of the playground in her younger years. Mother would be so disappointed when she got home.

“I lost them playing tag!” She’d cry.

“Why do I even bother with the ribbons, Maria? Always ripping your stockings and losing your ribbons. You should be ashamed!” Her mother would curse in her Northern Irish accent. It made her laugh sometimes.

She wonders if her mother knew then what was really going on. Older boys don’t like girls with ribbons in their hair. She watches the swingset sway back and forth in the Autumn wind, and everywhere she goes, she only sees him. Her socks, now warm and fuzzy, were once long and laced. She tried visiting without them once. He didn’t like it.

“You look younger with your socks on. Keep it that way,” he smiled. She didn’t understand. But it made him happy, and so she kept wearing the long, laced, knee-high socks provided by angry catholic nuns from school. His words made her skin crawl.

“He can’t hurt me now,” she says. The words leave her lips and twirl in the air like loose paper. She says it, but why can’t she feel it?

“He’s dead, Maria. He can’t hurt you now.” She says, again. She still does not feel it.

From a distance, there is a crashing sound. A clank, maybe a thud. She jumps so hard, she nearly falls off the park bench and onto the cold cement floor.

“Christ, Maria.” She says to herself, “Should be over this by now. It’s only been 67 years, you old fool.” And though she says he can’t hurt her, he can’t even touch her, she’s still afraid. What if his ghost comes to haunt her? What if he’s playing dead to trick her into letting her guard down again?

“No,” she whispers “I’m too old for him, now.” Older boys don’t like girls with grey in their hair.

Ceresa Morsaint is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studies American Sign Language and writes for a small newspaper, The Siren. Her work has been published in The Book Smuggler’s Den and The Scriblerus. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and reading Frank McCourt novels with her cat, Burt.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Abuse, Guest Posts, Relationships

Love Thy Neighbor

March 3, 2021
told

By Kelly Wallace

Biking around my Portland neighborhood, I saw a moving truck with a good looking guy front of a house. He was photographing a Bianchi bicycle in front of the fence.

“Nice bike,” I told him as I cycled by. He was tall, thin, and looked Italian with dark curly hair.

“Thanks. I’m trying to sell it on Craiglist,” he said. “I used to ride it to my job. But since I retired a year ago, I don’t need it anymore.”

“Where did you move here from?” I asked. Up close, I noticed silver mixed in with his black bangs and sexy eyes.

“I was living in Florida,” he told me.

“Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” I said. “It’s a beauty. Good luck selling it.” Cycling to my exercise class, I made a mental note to try and strike up another conversation. It was exciting to have a hot new guy so geographically desirable.

He was often out in his front yard. I stopped to chat whenever biking by. We’d chat about cycling and his luscious garden. He’d managed to retire at 40 by never going on vacations, buying everything second hand and cooking at home, he said. He spent hours planting vegetables. As a 38-year-old, brunette business consultant, with fifteen years of recovery from alcoholism under my belt, I’d purchased my own two-bedroom bungalow but felt lonely living alone. An agnostic, I didn’t want marriage or kids. The only relationship I’d been in post college was five years with someone who couldn’t commit. As a survivor of sexual abuse, emotional intimacy wasn’t easy for me.

One night I asked him if I could try some cherry tomatoes from his garden. After the tomato tasting, he offered to make me dinner. We stayed up late talking. Within weeks we were an item. On Halloween we rode in the pouring rain to haunted houses, posting pictures of each other sitting on bales of hay. We sautéed Thai green curry with shrimp in his kitchen, then played cribbage on my sofa with my brown tabby Billie. He drank a beer here and there while he cooked but it didn’t bother me. My craving for alcohol had long since disappeared.

When I was sick, he made shakshouka, a middle eastern poached egg dish. He was a great cook and offered me tips, like the importance of having a good cooking knife. He taught me how healthy food was nurturing – something I needed after struggling with drinking and starving my way through college, another byproduct of my childhood trauma.

It was so awesome with him just a few houses down, not even a car, cab or Uber away. I loved popping into his place for dinner, snuggling up to watch old episodes of “The Jersey Shore,” then going home to sleep in my own bed. It felt like the perfect distance, the trick to finding love at last.

In June, during a city wide bicycle festival we road our bikes in the Bowie vs. Prince annual ride. We dressed up in David Bowie outfits, rode through town with hundreds of others and danced in competitions featuring the two iconic musical performers. On a rare Portland snow day, when the entire city shut down, we walked around our precinct, holding hands. We went to the mountain and tried cross country skiing, gliding along groomed trails, posting goofy pictures of ourselves with a frozen lake in the background on Facebook.

I invited him to my family Thanksgiving. Roasting cauliflower and delicata squash in the morning at his house, he prepared dishes to take to my dad and stepmom’s house an hour way. We feasted on turkey, mashed potatoes, and my stepmom’s famous lime green Jello salad. My dad and stepmom rarely drank. After years of not talking to them, we’d reconciled in therapy. On one visit, my stepmom and Dad sang “Walkin’ After Midnight,” by Patsy Cline in my beau’s living room while he accompanied on guitar. I loved watching him play, a remnant of his former life as a high school band teacher, before I knew him.

I was traveling a lot, mostly by myself. I went to the Women’s March in Washington, then to Atlanta to visit my cousin, renting Airbnb’s. I admitted that the owner of an apartment in Kyoto had invited me to go out for a beer, but I’d turned him down. Though I’d declined his invite, my boyfriend thought I was hanging out with him. I reassured him I wasn’t for hours over Skype.

“He seems too possessive,” my pal Julie said one night. “He’s sounds narcissistic.” She had a masters in vocational rehabilitation and knew about personality disorders. After a fight, I told him what Julie had said.

 “So Julie thinks I’m a narcissist? What did you say when she said that?” He asked while making parsnip puree at the hot stove.

“I told her I didn’t think it was true,” I said, but I had doubts, tucking away her observation.

A psychic once told me, “You are a loner in this lifetime.” At seven, I told my mom that I was being molested by my paternal grandpa. She believed me. My dad did not. At eight, I testified against my father’s father in a courtroom and his side of the family turned against me. They insisted I wasn’t telling the truth. He was found not guilty. I thought it was all my fault. I didn’t know sexual assault cases were incredibly difficult to prove in a court of law – the chances of conviction were less than 3%.

As an adult, I escaped to college 3000 miles away. Now, with my partner’s charismatic personality, he was a bridge to my paternal relatives, making me feel more protected and at ease around them. Besides, they had a four-month old border collie that he loved to play with and soon he got his own dog.

My boyfriend adopted a twelve-week old golden lab mix, Augie, and he watched YouTube videos to learn to teach him new tricks. At a special store that sold only organic pet toys, he bought the puppy a special synthetic tennis ball.

The puppy went everywhere with him. He bought a trailer for his bike to put him in and watched videos on how to get the canine to be comfortable in the carrier. We went out to dinner one night, biking with the Augie in the trailer as a test run and sat at a picnic table with us after we ate. “Take a picture of us,” he asked as he fed the dog the leftover pizza crusts. I uploaded it to Instagram. It seemed insanely cute.

Weeks later, I went to upstate New York for my college reunion. As soon as I landed, we argued over the phone. I didn’t tell my girlfriends what was happening. I thought I could follow what the relationship book I’d consulted said: keep the lines of communication open and try to make it work. My beau posted videos of himself training the pup. I was glad he had company while I was away.

On the last day, there was an event at a winery. Not knowing what to do with myself at the winery and surrounded by drinking, I followed my schoolmates, Melissa, Katie, and Tuesday, listening to their interchanges about their kids, and work life. All three were happily married. I broke down crying.

“What’s going on?” Katie put her arm around my shoulder.

“It’s not working out with my boyfriend,” I admitted. “We’ve been fighting all weekend.”

“Let’s go out the parking lot,” Melissa said. Tuesday followed behind.

“Your marriages are perfect and I feel like a failure in comparison,” I confessed. “But I feel stuck since he lives down the street from me and wants to be together.”

We stood in a circle like a college football huddle.

“We aren’t perfect,” Tuesday said.

 “But if you’re not in love and happy, you don’t have to stay,” Melissa said.

“He has his puppy,” Melissa reassured. “He’ll meet someone else.”

I finally realized I could put a stop to it, just like as a child when I told my mom what happened. I broke up with him calmly over the phone.

Now, entering my twentieth year of sobriety, we still live on the the same block. I see him walking his dog every day but keep my distance. We had some good times together and I don’t regret loving him but I’m relieved it’s over. I’m more comfortable being single. The only downside of dating a neighbor three houses down is I have to keep seeing him long after I stopped seeing him. But when I try out a new vegetable recipe I think of him fondly and all that he taught me about cooking and nourishing myself.

Kelly Wallace recently completed work on The Book of Kelly, a memoir, about her experience as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She previously had words in On Loan From the Cosmos and The Manifest-Station.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Trauma

I Remember My Dad As Brutal, But It Was Far Worse

August 14, 2020
father

CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse and/or assault.

By Caroline Leavitt

There it is, the photo I have saved to remind myself of the feelings I had tamped down. I’m at my Aunt Gertrude’s sedar table, standing for the obligatory family shot. I’m ten years old, in a starchy blue sailor dress my mother made me wear and though I am smiling, I am terrified, desperate to get away. I can’t, though, because my father is holding my elbow in a vise grip even as I lean away toward my older sister on the other side of me. She’s smiling, not coming to my rescue. My mom, who I love, is outside the frame, her face turned away.

Here are the facts: My dad is a bully who often uses a strap and literally screams so loudly that it sounds like his voice is tearing from his throat. When he talks, he belittles. He never says I love you, never hugs or kisses anyone, and the one time he takes me to a movie, he leaves me alone in the cavernously empty theater to watch the film by myself while he stays at the refreshment stand wolfing down candy. My mom endures him because she doesn’t know what else to do, my sister inexplicably loves him, and his rageful behavior is never spoken about in my house. No, that’s quarantined, a room full of secrets roped off by silence.

Family, I’m told, is everything.

Instead, I learn to bury my feelings, and in many ways, myself. I make myself small—as small as the last line on a vision chart. The one nobody can see.

I grow quieter and quieter because any sort of speaking up can get me hit. I’m not allowed to close the door to my room (and if I do, it will be yanked open and I will be yelled at or struck), but I learn to simulate privacy by getting lost in the world of books, and then writing. I do this for hours and hours because who can yell at me when I am so silent, so invisible? And in books, my writing, I’m lost in a whole other world which seemed much safer than the real one.

I grow up around my father’s rules. Don’t dress like a hippie and embarrass him. Don’t dare get up earlier than he does because I’d wake him with my noise and be punished. And, of course, the rules include what to think. I soon know that my thoughts are not respected, that any opinions have to match his. The government’s always right. Any war going on that the United States was raging is the right one. Women are lesser than men. We are to respect his mother and agree with whatever she does when we visit her every week, and if we don’t say good morning in the right way, he will give us the silent treatment for week, making us beg over and over, “What did I do?” until he would deign to tell us.

But if my thoughts are not my own, then either is my body. We are little girls, my sister and I, but my father never tells us we were darling or smart or beloved. Instead, my father keeps piles of Playboys around the house, the glossy centerfolds of women who look nothing like us, nothing like our mom or any woman we have ever seen, out in plain view and my sister and I stare at them amazed and uncomfortable. One day, my father catches me looking and snatches the magazine away. I go to sit on the couch, and turn on TV, and then my father strides over to me and takes my little hand and shoves it into his wet mouth. Horrified, I jerk my hand free and run to the bathroom, washing my hands over and over, and when I come back, he motions me to him, and he does it again, only this time he’s laughing.

And that’s when I begin to have nightmares. I sleep with the covers bunched over my head and only my nose poking out, terrified. Sometimes I call for my mother and ask her to lay beside me until I fall asleep and then gradually I can and it becomes a habit.

But my father doesn’t like that.

One night, my mother cautiously tells me, “Your father wants you to sleep beside him tonight.”

I look at her panicked. “I don’t want to,” I say. “Why do I have to?”

My mother sighes.  “Please do it. His feelings are hurt. He asked me to ask you.”

“Can I say no?”

I am five. I have no power. That night, I curl into my father’s twin bed, separated from my mom’s bed by a night table, my whole body turns away from my father, facing my mother, whose eyes are closed. All of us have pajamas on, and I’m careful not to let any part of him touch me. I move to the edge of the bed, reaching across to try and touch my mom. I whisper, “Mom,” but she doesn’t hear me. Her eyes stay shut. Mom. Mom. Mommy. In the morning, I wake as my father is getting out of bed, but he doesn’t have pajamas on now, and he is naked and hairy, and I stare at his penis, his balls, the first I have ever seen. He sees my eyes locked on his genitals and he shouts, “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What’s the matter with you?” My mother, rising, says nothing except his name, trying to calm him down. All that day I live in terror that he will ask for me to do this again, but he stays silent, and my mom and I never talk about any of it. But it roils inside of me.

Three weeks later, my mother is called in by the kindergarten teacher because we have been asked to draw paper dolls of our family and I have drawn mine all naked. My father’s penis is so large, it dwarfs him, reaching down to his ankles. His balls are like balloons. The teacher’s concerned but my mother shrugs it off. “She’s precocious and imaginative,” she tells my teacher.

When my mother comes home, she holds me and tells me about the meeting. “Maybe keep things in the family in the family,” she says gently. My sister, listening, looks appalled. “You’re disgusting,” my sister tells me. “You lie and lie and lie. You made Mom feel bad,” she says, and I feel a flash of guilt. I never think to ask my sister, does he ever make her sleep in the bed with him, too?

We grow, and I turn ten and then my sister tells me the facts of life. “It’s revolting,” she says. “No one wants to do it, except for guys.” She bangs two rocks together to show me, a violent coupling that scares me. I grow afraid when I think I’d have to do this with boys. “You just do it,” my sister says, and then she asks me if I want to touch tongues with her, if I want us to touch each other’s butts. I recoil. “Why would I want to do that?” I ask and she laughs at me. But it makes me wonder. Did something happen with my sister and my dad? Or did she escape it all? And if she had, how? What does she know that I did not?

And then I turn sixteen, and then seventeen, and while my sister, the good girl, never rebels, I begin to tentatively speak out and this time, for the first time, my mom yells at me. “Don’t be so independent!” she shouts. She doesn’t like my fresh mouth, my wildly curly hair, the way I dress in skirts so short I’m always being sent home. My dad yells in chorus with her. My sister begins to date and I listen to my mom talking to her about “playing her cards right,” getting married as soon as she can, but not letting any boy get fast with her. “Men need sex. Women don’t,” my mother says, and I listen, bewildered. Was that true?

My sister, newly gorgeous, suddenly has all this male attention, boyfriends who came to the door with flowers and smiles, Is it any wonder I look for my own male attention? That I fall in love so hard and fast with any boy who pays me attention in a kind of madness? I’m skinny and unpopular, and when a known “bad boy” boy in school asks me out, my mother tells me I can go, but we never tell my dad.

That date is magic. The boy likes me. He really likes me. He holds my hands and talks quietly and by the time we arrive back to my house and I have my first tender kiss in our doorway, I am insane with love.  But just as we are about to kiss again, my father barges out in his boxers, his fly wide open, screaming at me that I’m late, and who told me I could date? My father sends him home and then shoves me. He tells me I’m never to see that boy again, and if I do, he will keep me prisoner in the house.

Go ahead and try it, I think, feeling a flush of power. And that whole summer, I lie to my parents about having a job as a camp counselor, about going on overnights, so I can sleep with my boyfriend at an abandoned ski slope by his house, because by then I know for sure that it isn’t just boys who need sex. We are together off and on for a year, and my family never knows it.

I keep dating. My father has no idea about all the boys I sleep with. I keep score in a notebook, as if the amount proves my worth. 70 guys. Then 100. Then more. Every one I sleep with feels like I am ripping away the seam that still connects me to my family.

I go to college halfway across the country to Ann Arbor, as far away as I can get. Every week I speak to my mom on the phone, and when my father gets on, all he says is that I should work hard. “Don’t think I won’t cut you off if you don’t,” my father threatens. He shouts so loudly I have to hold the phone away from my ear. Good, I think. Cut me off. Good.

Why don’t  I ever confront anyone? Because I’m told my memories are wrong, that I must have exaggerated, “the way I always do.” I’m told this  so often, that I begin to believe it. And so I replace those memories with something else: My father loves me. In his own way. I visit home once a year, for two days at the most, and nothing important is ever said. I sleep in my old childhood room, the door locked, the covers around my head.

I am 25 when my father dies. He’s 57 years old, obese, with skyrocketing blood pressure and high cholesterol, a man whose only exercise is walking from the car to our house. I feel nothing about his death. I come back home and my sister is sobbing, my mother wailing, “I want him back.” She is so upset, I didn’t have the heart to ask her why. Later my sister tells me that she thinks she sees him watching over her, his profile in a nearby tree. “He protects me.”

“How?” I ask. She shows me the tree and I stare at it blankly.

“What was so great about him?” I ask.

“Lots,” she says. She tells me when she was in high school and she went to a party, some of the kids were dropping acid, snorting coke, and afraid, she called him to come and get her. “You did the right thing,” he told her. He would always take care of her, she says. “Shame on you for saying those bad things about our wonderful father,” she said.

My father leaves my mother nothing, no insurance money, no savings, but she has the house, and a teaching job, and friends, and without him, she blooms. But for me and my sister, he leaves a legacy. How are either of us to know what a good male partner looks like when our dad was our only model?

Doesn’t it make sense that my sister marries young, a man like our father, someone silent with a temper, a sexist who likes to cup his hands in the air like he was weighing boobs when a buxom woman walks by. I cry at her wedding, begging her to change her mind. “Don’t be silly,” she says. She has kids, one after another, the way our mother had, focusing on them for happiness. When I ask my sister why she stands for his behavior, she says, “because I have to.” When I ask her why she doesn’t shout back at him, she says, “because he can scream louder.”

I’m afraid of marrying a man like my father, like my sister’s husband, so I go for the opposite, the fast talkers who never shut up, who fill the silence so I never have to feel uncomfortable in its danger. It takes me time to realize they keep talking only about themselves, what they want, who they want me to be.  But with all those motor mouths, no one really notices how quiet I am. How quarantined.

And then, in my 40s, I meet Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who’s kind and sometimes quiet and I can’t believe he might really love me, so I test him, yelling sometimes, and instead of leaving, he comes closer, wanting to solve issues, to make things right. He actually sees me—all of me. He wants me to be happy. And that makes me want to revise my childhood, to try to think about it in a happier way, too.

I try to talk to my mother about my upbringing, my voice quiet, composed, even sympathetic to what she must have gone through. “I don’t want to talk about this because I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she says, and then her whole face changes, and she looks a thousand years old, and because I love her, I can’t hurt her, so I stop talking.

I never find out the things I’m so desperate to know, not then, and by the time I’m ready to try to ask again, my mom has dementia, and then she dies. I try to talk with my sister, but she now feels angry with me. She says I’ve stolen her life, grabbing the happy marriage, the writing career, that she was meant to have. The more I try to help her, to talk, the worse I make things. Her rage grows until she estranges herself from me. I haven’t seen her or spoken to her in two years.

So who can I find answers from? How can I put this to rest? I ask my friends, my cousins what they remember about that time, they said only that my father was oddly quiet, that they just felt he had a blah personality. When I tell them what I remember, they see my father through the lens of my reality. “Oh my God, I never knew,” they tell me. “I never imagined. If I had known, I would have done something”.

One day, just before the pandemic begins, I’m sitting with my friend Leora, and she’s asking me about my past, and I start to talk, and as I do, I see her face changing. I talk and talk and when I’m done, she is so still that I worry. “I’m not making this up,” I insist, and she shakes her head and reaches over and takes my hand. She says quietly, “Caroline, you were abused. You have to look at this trauma.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever used that word: abused.

 CLICK.

There it was, the lens of clarity as my friend reflects this truth back to me. And now it’s my turn to look. How could I not have known from the start who my father really was?

And so I go to talk to strangers, therapists who might help me decode what had happened.  When I tell my first therapist that I feel nothing about my father, that my memories are all jumbled up, he insists I am not telling the truth. “You have to feel something,” he says. Then he asks me to consider my father as a man who had had dreams and yearnings, that I consider his feelings, what he might have been going through. And that’s when I get up and leave the room, wired with rage.

And then I find a therapist I love, a woman who tells me that the brain neurons fire and rewire when we’re young, that a lot of what I’m feeling is leftover responses and if I talk about them enough, the firing will get weaker—I will be able to safely bury the past. “And,” she says. “You need to write about it. Writing about it will help you remember what was really going on underneath it all. The brain won’t know the difference.”

And so I do. Here. Now. The old feelings come back in a rage blizzard. I write about my love for a mother who took me to the movies, and was funny and bought me books, but who couldn’t stand up to her husband to protect her daughter. I write about hurt for a sister who seems to follow my mother’s past path unseeing, one choice after another. And I write out my outrage for a little girl who never got to be the adored daughter, who went through terrible things that she knew were terrible but she never once thought: this is wrong. You need to stop.

 And then I hear it again. CLICK. Like when you’re at the optometrist and you’re doing the vision test and you put your chin in the cup and stare at the chart, eyes wide, unblinking, and the doctor clicks different lenses in front of you as the random configuration of numbers and letters grow clearer and blurrier with each one. You see the first row, the second, the third—things seem clear. Then they don’t. CLICK. But the chart itself has not moved. Neither have you. And as you age, your vision changes, your clarity about your life changes, too. But the facts never change. The truth. You just may need different lenses to see it.

Now, I want to go back in time, first to my father to stand up to him and ask him why he did what he did, how dare he not treasure his little girl, how dare he not love her or want to know her? Why did he yell and abuse? Your loss, I want to tell him. You were wrong about everything, I want to say, especially me. Look at me, I want to tell him. I broke the pattern. I have a loving husband, a wonderful beauty of a son. No one yells. No one rages. No one hits or abuses emotionally or physically.

But you did. And it is your loss.

Then I want to go back to that other me, that quiet little girl in the starchy sailor dress and tell her, it’s going to be okay, honey. Because you are absolutely and completely okay. Right now. And later, too. You will be able to leave all of this behind. You will be able to be loved by someone who deserves you, whom you deserve—and you deserve happiness. You will have wonderful friends and work you love. You will continue to talk and talk and talk and write about all of this, telling the story of your family, the truth, until all that pain loses its power and all of your quarantine will be over.

You will remember. You will see.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

 

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cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

Six months after my ex-husband died, his brother left a message on my voicemail. He was going to blow my fucking head off, Luke said. While Tim was alive, Luke often showed up unannounced at our remote rural property. He was also apt to appear at the local café/bar and seat himself at my table as I visited with friends. Yet despite Luke’s history of violence, felony convictions, and easy access to guns, I was not particularly panicked. As a counselor, educator, and deputy sheriff, I considered myself skilled at soothing agitated men. I choreographed elaborate scenarios for how I’d rescue my students should a gunman appear in my classroom.

Besides, I’d known Luke since his birth; it was difficult to fear someone you’d first seen in diapers.

“Tim’s bothering me,” Luke’s message said. “If he doesn’t stop, I’m going to blow his fucking head off.”

I called Luke back. “I know about Tim bothering you. He bothers me too. But I thought I should point out that Tim is dead.”

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

“Does he have a gun?” the 911 operator asked. After Tim and I separated, and he took to showing up outside my window in the middle of the night, they asked the same question.

“I have no idea,” I said then. “Should I go out and ask?”

Tim often told me, “There are things about me you’ll never know,” and despite our fourteen years together, I had no idea whether he had guns. Prior to our marriage, he’d been a Buddhist monk, so firearms seemed unlikely, at least to someone as much in denial as I was.

I found out the guns were real the day before Tim’s death. His young daughter told me he visited the shooting range daily to perfect his aim. When he tried to force her to hold one of the guns, she called me, sobbing

“I don’t know if Luke’s armed,” I told the dispatcher. She took my name, and an officer called me back.

“Did you record the message?” he said. “If so, we have a crime.”

“I did,” I said. But when I tried to retrieve Luke’s message, it had disappeared. “I must have messed up somehow,” I said. The officer started the recitation: “no crime has been committed, no witnesses, no blood, get a restraining order.”

“I am a deputy sheriff,” I said. “At your office. Look it up.” For eighteen months, I’d coordinated a drug and alcohol program. “I’m quite familiar with the danger of having one’s head blown off, whether I recorded the call or not. I’d like you to do something now.”

Within the hour, Luke was arrested. The following day, someone called from the prosecutor’s office. Would I be willing to drop the charges? “It’s a lot of paperwork for us,” she said. I requested they proceed. From working in law enforcement over the years, I knew that if charges aren’t brought, the crime never happened. You need a paper trail.

I was glad I insisted, because a few days before Luke threatened me, he’d stopped taking his antipsychotics. When his case went to court, he was let off for thirty days served, with instructions to take his meds. I’m presuming Tim stopped bothering him, although my own nightmares continued for years.

Tim was one of the first American males ordained as a Chinese Buddhist Monk. When I met him, though, he was in an alcohol rehab center. As was I. We were married almost a decade before I knew he’d written a book. He probably realized that if I read it, I would have horrified at how he treated his assistant, because it was the same way he treated me.

Though many Buddhist teachings are about preparing for death, when Tim was diagnosed with cancer early in our marriage, he refused to acknowledge he was going to die. Although his oncologist explained that there was no known cure, he insisted he was going to beat this thing. However, she added, it was a “good cancer.”

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

“The average life expectancy is seven years,” she explained.

About six years in, Tim’s symptoms flared, and he volunteered for an experimental protocol, “the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“A walk in the park.” He handed me the document that authorized the treatment. I was chilled to the bone.

“Nobody’s survived this,” I said. “Not even the beagles they tested it on. The longest even a dog lasted was eleven months. If you do nothing, who knows how long you might live?”

One seeks to understand unhappiness or grief in various ways. Tim’s parents found sanctuary in the Mother Church, as Tim called the Catholic faith in which he was raised. For ten years, monk’s robes provided sanctuary for Tim. But his alcoholism lurked just outside the monastery gates. One afternoon, he stopped into a tavern and ended up roaring drunk. Ashamed, he left the monastery and found work as an orderly at a managed care facility. On what was intended to be a one-night stand with the night nurse, he conceived a child.

That’s what he told me, anyway. When I met him, he was still in inpatient rehab and still married to that nurse. After he died, I found passionate love poems he and the child’s mother exchanged early on. Whatever flame they had, though, did not last. As co-dependent partners do, I devoted myself to analyzing my husband. Through the Enneagram, for example: Tim was a One. Per the Enneagram, he could be a great leader. Or he could be a despot. My delusion was such that when his oncologist told us his cancer was incurable, I wrote in my journal that I would find a way to save him.

Tim’s parents lived an hour’s drive down Hood Canal from us, and in the early years, his young daughter and I accompanied him to holiday gatherings there. Each time, halfway there, Tim would go into a rage. “You don’t really want to go,” he might accuse us. Or he might scold his daughter because she didn’t finish her homework. Eventually, in the death throes of our marriage, I refused to go. Tim went alone, and on the way back, just as when he fled the monastery, he stopped in at one tavern, and then the next. When he finally arrived home, he apologized for his relapse and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But of course it did, and eventually I asked him to leave.

Tim’s ex-wife told me that the teaching brother Tim most trusted had molested him, but he never shared that with me. Instead, he repeatedly hinted that the teaching nuns and monks in the Catholic schools he attended from kindergarten until he was kicked out, had “done things.” He described inappropriate contact, but said it happened to a friend. He recounted physical abuse and beatings, but these anecdotes always implied he deserved it. The only part he did say, telling the same story again and again, was that he managed to get himself kicked out by hiding a bomb in the nuns’ car. And then he always laughed hysterically.

I listened to his stories until I stopped listening, and that is my loss. As reports of priestly abuse proliferated in the press, including at the schools he attended, I felt guilty. Surely, if I had pried forth Tim’s secrets, I could have healed him. Placing smoke bombs in the nuns’ car was his only cry for help, and in its way, it worked.

But to me, Tim’s descriptions of his father throwing shoes as his young son as he stood against a wall or dressing in a bear costume to scare him for leaving his bedroom at night seemed worse. I had little doubt that if young Tim had tried to say anything, his parents would have suggested he burn in hell. Even as he lay dying, helpless at last, they had him, a Buddhist, anointed with last rites.

During Tim’s final weeks of life, his daughter seized my hand. “No more blonde,” she said. I glanced at her. That week, her hair was the color of eggplant.

“What are you talking about, no more blonde? This is my natural color.”

“Not anymore it’s not.” She narrowed her eyes. The child I’d met at four, scared and mousy, had transformed into a striking beauty. “Brown, I think. Dark brown.”

After Tim and I separated, I dated a younger man, although we too soon split up. “Our love-making makes me insane,” he texted me. “I can’t do this without a traditional committed relationship. I feel empty and lost.” When I called to tell him Tim was dead, he wept. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Not for him,” the young man said. “For you. For how much he destroyed you.”

“You don’t ever have to be afraid again,” my friend Carla said. Still, I sobbed and screamed.

“You abandoned a dying man,” my father said.

Eleven months after the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants, Tim died. Two weeks later, I landed flat in the New Year, widowed yet not widowed, with dark brown hair. I inhaled the scent of seaweed and salt from the bay outside what had been our dream home. I exhaled in cries like the call of the loons that gathered just offshore. The first day one pair arrived. The next day five pairs paddled in a loose cluster. By the end of the week, dozens of the arched spotted backs trolled up and down, up and down, on their quest for the Pacific herring that spawn here.

And startlingly, Tim’s walk in the park had killed him, and I was free. I walked with my dog in Northwest fog and rain, and to keep from shaking to pieces, I filled the bathtub with as much hot water as I could bear—a lot—and sat for hours. Water embraced me. Water was my solace. I descended into the tunnel of winter, days that rarely saw light, only changed from one kind of darkness to another. What about death, I wondered. What about suicide? Maybe I should just commit suicide slowly, one breath at a time. From the time of Tim’s diagnosis, I felt he wanted me to throw myself upon his funeral pyre. “When people grow ill,” his ex-wife said, “They become more of what they are. Nice people become nicer. Mean people get meaner.” M.F.K. Fisher says as we age, we revert to whatever we were like at birth and as toddlers. The final day of his life, in the ICU, Tim’s body bloated, and his skin stretched as far as skin can stretch, and it seemed he were drowning in his own fluids. Blood oozed from every pore.

My hands and arms went numb. Pens, notebooks, cups and forks dropped from my hands and crashed to the floor. “Definitely MS,” his ex-wife told me. “No doubt about it. You’ll be immobilized by the end of the year.” She seemed pretty excited by the idea. The symptoms worsened. I’d hold a cup of coffee to my lips, and then the cup would fall and shatter, the coffee scalding my chest. At other times, my hands balled up into tight fists, and I had to manually unlock them.

Just as I lacked a handbook for navigating Tim’s cancer, when I became a stepparent at thirty, I was equally clueless. Before Tim’s cancer was diagnosed and he was pronounced infertile, I pored through books on every stage of pregnancy, birth, and the developmental phases of a child’s life. When I became a stepparent, the pickings were sparse. Several books asserted never to allow the child to call me “Mom.” This would confuse everyone. My stepdaughter concocted elaborate stories about how I was actually her real mom. “Are you sure you were never pregnant?” she once asked. “Maybe when you were in rehab?” When I said I was sure, she said, “Maybe your mother had another baby she forgot about?”

As for cancer, the patient fought the courageous battle. And he never died. He passed.

After Tim died, his daughter asked repeatedly, “What are we to each other now?” She told me that everyone asked why she bothered to speak with me at all. As when she was little and asked to call me Mom, I remained obtuse.

“I am here for you no matter what,” I said. But I wasn’t. We were both on our own, stumbling through the forest without light or path, gauging where we were by the space between the trees.

K.C. Pedersen holds an M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Stories and essays appear in numerous journals and have been nominated for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. Pedersen lives above a saltwater fjord in Washington State.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Surviving, Tough Conversations

On Survival

May 10, 2019

By Serena Trujillo

Step 1:

The trick is to stay alive. Like clockwork. There is a clock that lives in the dining room, it is my fathers. It is the only thing in the house he cleans. The clock looks like marbled wood and is shaped like a stain. I am too afraid to touch it and far too small to reach it. “The trick is oil”, my father whispers as I stretch my body toward the plaque of time, “and keeping it high enough so that you and your sisters cannot reach it”. My father is short, I bet I can reach it in a couple of years. He laughs.

Step 2:

My mother tells me to stomp. “Keep your legs and your head up high.” It is a fifteen minute walk to the coin laundry. We go at night because that is when my parents are awake. I am afraid of the dark but I am not allowed to say so I just stomp. It keeps the cockroaches away. It keeps the dark away. The dark can’t be loud, can it? Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts, Surviving

The Inedible Footnote of Child Abuse

February 20, 2019
beets

By Diane Sherlock

Beets.

String beans.

Cooked carrots.

Cottage cheese.

These were the flavors of my childhood abuse.

There was no bodily autonomy in the house I grew up in. No privacy, no warm baths without ice water dumped from above, no agency over my body, and my brothers and I had no say in what we ate. Three seemingly random vegetables were force-fed.  Why those three? Why not? They were the favorites of the reigning narcissist of the house. They were our mother’s favorites. Reject them, reject her. The essence of narcissistic abuse.

I cannot be forced to donate blood, organs, or tissue, even when I’m dead, but in my mother’s house, I had no say in much of anything to do with my body. Suicide ideation became a way of life. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts

F*ck Self-Help

October 21, 2018
By Zoe Brigley

Because I work and teach on domestic violence, people sometimes write to me unexpectedly with their own stories. They are usually women (though abuse does happen to men and non-binary folks too), and often they have questions about whether a partner’s behavior is abusive. Very often it is.

Sometimes these can be liberating stories. A woman once wrote to say that finally, after ten years of an abusive relationship, she had left, and her life had changed irrevocably. Food was more flavorsome, smells were more vivid, colors luminous, as if she had been imprisoned in grey world.

Other stories are less comforting. I spent a month writing back and forth with a friend on Facebook living in another country. Her abusive boyfriend had dumped her, except she wasn’t really dumped: it was more a test to see how much she would put up with before he took her back. We talked many times about working to forget him, and to create a new life. Then one day on Facebook, she posted a photograph of the two of them on vacation, relaxing at a beachfront hotel. She stopped writing to me then, and while I hope that she is happy, I can’t help thinking about what I could or should have done to help her. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts

Closet Shots

April 20, 2018
closet

By Adele Zane

Your father just shoved you into his bedroom closet and slammed the door, entombing you. You tell yourself to get a grip, but your ears still pound and your hands still clench. You pant through your nose, purse your lips, squeeze your eyes shut, and grit your teeth. You do all of this so your head won’t explode like a watermelon rifled against a wall. So what, you tell yourself, this is nothing. Why not view it as a refreshing alternative to his usual forms of discipline? This one beats a harried chase through the house till he corners you in the dining room where you drop to the floor and curl up like a pill bug.

His fancy eel skin belt, the buckle flying, raining down on your back and thighs. In fact, when you think back through the fifteen long years of your life, as far as his punishments go, this shut-in-the-closet one is easy. It hasn’t involved belts, wooden spoons, or yanking of hair. So get ahold of yourself, calm down, and above all, do not cry. He hates that. He says it’s manipulative and that he’s way too smart to fall for what he calls crocodile tears. Whatever that means.

It’s Saturday afternoon and time for his nap. No one in your family will want to wake him once he falls asleep. Even as a toddler you knew not to go near him when he slept, but if you had to, to wake him for a phone call or because it was dinnertime, it was safest to stand at the foot of his bed, and say, Daddy, Daddy, several times with increasing loudness. If that didn’t work, then you would touch his big toe lightly, recoiling fast so he couldn’t clobber you when he came up from his dreams, arms swinging at imaginary assailants.

You realize you could be in here for hours. The door doesn’t have a lock; you could open it if you wanted to, but you won’t and neither will anyone else. Now that you’ve calmed down, you better find some way to entertain yourself. You slowly turn around and move your arms like you’re doing the wave at a football game until you find the pull chain to the overhead light. You wonder if turning it on is against the rules of his new made-up-on-the-spot punishment. You decide to chance it and pull the chain, real slow so it doesn’t make a clicking sound. The bare 40-watt bulb illuminates two identically tailored pinstripe suits, one brown and one navy, from Roos/Atkins, his favorite store, and lots of work pants and shirts from Penney’s and Sears.

On the floor are his polished black dress boots and his dusty work boots—the ones he whistles for you to come and remove from his feet when he gets home from work. You quell the urge to kick his stupid shoes and yank his dumb clothes from their hangers because you know your father can go from charming to ballistic in less than a second without discernible provocation. This would be too discernable an act of provocation. You could go through his pockets—maybe there’s something interesting in them—but he’d know you looked, for he’s all-knowing or so he tells you and you can’t take that risk even though you doubt he would really know. You dare yourself to look in his jacket pockets anyway. Nothing much—a silver lighter, a toothpick, and a couple of pennies.

What is interesting is what’s lined up against the wall to your left, almost as tall as you are. Careful not to touch, you use your index finger to count them. There are a total of nine zippered cases of soft beige suede, each holding either a rifle or a shotgun. You don’t know what makes a rifle a rifle or a shotgun a shotgun. Is there a difference? You’d never realized he had this many, but then again, you’ve never hung out in his closet either. To your right are shelves he built. On the shelves are boxes and boxes of bullets and a pair of sheathed hunting knives. He’s got enough firepower to kill every deer, duck, and quail in the state of California, and maybe Nevada too. At least that’s what it looks like. He’s even got handguns nestled in boxes. You read their labels: .44 Mag, .357 Mag, and something called a 1911. Why the heck does he need all these? To sneak up on an unsuspecting pheasant? You think it’s extreme overkill to own so many guns and smile to yourself at your wittiness.

You hear the thwack, thwack of a tennis ball being hit back and forth. Your father, now lounging on his bed atop a faux fur bedspread the unnatural color of a teddy bear, smug in the knowledge that his oldest daughter is confined ten feet away, has resumed watching the Wimbledon finals, a match between Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. You hear him fire up a Camel no-filter. His chain smoking makes your family and your house smell like you all roll around in dirty ashtrays.

But back to the guns. He didn’t put you in here so you could peruse his gun collection, choose your favorite one.

For a moment you flirt with the fantasy of hurting yourself, but it seems too obvious a move given the situation. Too bad you didn’t pay more attention when he first showed you how to load his BB gun, then how to aim and shoot at the paper target he’d taped to a stepladder in the basement. A good starter gun he’d called it. You’d bawled and made it clear that unlike him, you weren’t interested in weapons or hunting or killing animals. Besides, your eyesight is so bad you didn’t even come close to hitting the target itself let alone the bullseye.

To kill time, you imagine the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, if you successfully loaded a gun, and managed to fatally shoot yourself in the closet’s three-by-six-foot space. Poor Misunderstood Girl Shoots Self Dead in Father’s Closet. Now you’re feeling sorry for yourself. How about Trapped Teenage Girl Shoots Self Because of Idiot Dad and Stupid Family. Your attempts at amusing yourself wear thin, and you collapse down to sit cross-legged on the cherry red shag carpet to wait him out. You cover your face with your hands.

You’re lulled into sleepiness by the sound of the television audience’s polite applause and the announcer’s soothing voice as he loudly whispers Love, Fifteen. Your dad’s rooting for Connors. You think Connors is a hotheaded jerk and hope he loses to the black guy Ashe. If your father knew you were dozing during your punishment, it would anger him even more. You don’t want to do that because he can be inventive. Besides his trusty belt, he has a dog whip for special-occasion infractions. It stings like hell and leaves the nastiest welts, worse than the belt buckle. He’s careful to hit you above your knees so the marks aren’t visible below your skirts, but his thoughtfulness doesn’t keep you safe at school. It’s against the rules to take your gym clothes into a bathroom stall to change, but you do it anyway. You don’t have a choice, you have to; you know instinctively that if anyone were to see your body, it would be too difficult and embarrassing to explain.

You imagine standing in front of your dresser and contorting your body in the mirror so you can count the multicolored welts that adorn your butt and thighs, fingering them gently, monitoring them day to day as they change from angry red to mellow yellowish purple. Proof of his unfairness or your uselessness. You’ve dozed off but wake up fast when you hear your mother’s voice. Maybe she’s come to remind your father you’re still in the closet.

“Manuel. Wake up. Ashe won, but Wide World of Sports is about to start or maybe there’s some soccer on. Want me to get you some Sanka?”

You’re happy Connors lost. Then you hear the jingle of the keys that hang from your father’s belt. A sound that elicits fear in your family because it tells you he’s coming but doesn’t telegraph what mood he’ll be in when he gets to you. The closet door opens before you can jump up to pull the chain and turn off the light. You pray he doesn’t notice.

“Had enough?”

He looks down at you on the floor. You look up, squinting against the daytime brightness. You pull yourself to a standing position using the ammo shelves as leverage. Your legs don’t quite cooperate. You remember to drop your eyes to the carpet because looking directly at him is considered a challenge to his authority. Yes, I’ve had enough, you tell him, because that’s what he wants to hear.

“Good, I hope you learned your lesson,” he says.

“Can I get back to my algebra homework, Daddy, please?” you remembered to say please.

He flicks at a speck of cigarette ash on the ratty terrycloth robe he wears over his work pants.

“Say sorry to your brother then go make me some Sanka. Not too hot, and don’t fill it too full either.”

“Yeah, say you’re sorry.”

You raise your eyes at the sound of your seven-year-old brother’s voice. Across the bedroom, he stands next to your mother and little sister, his arms folded across his chest like an angry genie-child denying wishes. You grit your teeth and take a deep breath through your nose, careful to keep your face blank. He is the worst brother anyone could ever have in your opinion, but you don’t want to sit in a gun-filled closet for the rest of your life so you apologize to him.

“I don’t believe you,” he says, tapping his foot for emphasis.

“That’s enough Mark,” your mother says, “she’s been in the closet for hours.”

You blink your eyes slowly and force your mouth into what you hope passes as an apologetic smile and try again.

“Really Mark, I’m sorry,” you say, “sorry I yelled at you. I just got to study.”

Your brother looks at your father, then back at you and states, “I can come in your room anytime I want.”

You admonish yourself to stay calm. Yes, your father shut you in the closet because you yelled at your do-no-wrong brother, interrupting an important tennis match, as well as your homework; however, this closet punishment trip wasn’t so bad, you handled it.

“Sure, anytime you want, Mark.”

He smirks with triumph.

You remind yourself that in three years you’ll graduate high school, you smile for real at the thought and head to the kitchen to try to make your father the perfect cup of Sanka.

Singer and songwriter Adele Zane was born in Brazil, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York with the fine artist Richard Rosenblatt and their rescued terrier, Wally. She has taken memoir writing classes at both FreeBird Writing Workshop and Gotham Writers Workshop.

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

 

Join Jen at her On Being Human workshop in upcoming cities such as NYC, Ojai, Tampa, Ft Worth and more by clicking here.

Family, Guest Posts

Hallmark

January 28, 2018
hallmark

By Sheila Grace Stuewe

I darted into my neighborhood Hallmark store and held my breath. To my left stood an endcap stacked with plastic potpourri bags. Who’d buy that? Someone with a sewer back up? Homes should smell of pancakes on Sunday morning as mine once did, not like chemically altered flowers.

Past the dust-catching collectibles—statues, candles, and ornaments—to the rack of Father’s Day cards, I sped. I didn’t know why I had an urge to send Dad a card. In September, he’d reached the three-quarters of a century mark. He wasn’t going to live forever even with his Prussian peasant genes—stocky, sturdy, stubborn, and seemingly impervious to the effects of decades-long alcohol abuse. And I needed to stop exhuming what may or may not have happened forty years ago.

Standing in the middle of the dad-of-the-year aisle, I felt my throat close—an allergic reaction to that artificial scent? I coughed. I tried to swallow. I rifled through my purse for a bubble gum ball (the only kind I’ll chew—no mint for me). I popped it into my mouth. As my teeth bit through its hard surface, a burst of cherry—red, tart, yet much sweeter than the real thing—my childhood favorite. If only I were on a swing in Marquette Park, Dad pushing me higher, me leaning all the way back, my legs soaring in the air. Instead, surrounded by doodads and sentimentality, I wondered if I’d find a card I could send my father. Continue Reading…

#metoo, Abuse, Guest Posts

On Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, My Past and My Daughter’s Future

January 21, 2018
story

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.

By Jane Rosenberg LaForge

My father was a storyteller. He most enjoyed telling stories about his family, my sister and I included, how life befuddled and bedazzled us, as it did to his immigrant parents. He consumed novels, newspapers, and magazine articles, and then sought out his usual interlocutors, my mother among them, to comb through every last detail so he might glean the correct implications. But he hated science fiction and fantasy, because so much was left to hocus pocus, or some deux de machine that you had to accept, lest you deflate the whole project.

My father also experimented with religions other than the Judaism he was born into. He investigated everything from Scientology to Catholicism, because he wanted   a “proscribed life” without the endless debate of the familiar Talmud. He wanted to rely on an already tried wisdom, not just rituals but an ethos that would be all encompassing and reassuring.  That he wanted this spelling out of what to do and how to do it on his own, secular terms belied the purpose of religion, and he wound up settling for a life of doubt, since the alternative—faith—could not be explained in rational terms, and was too supernatural. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts

Kintsugi, or Golden Joinery

December 17, 2017
kintsugi

By Michelle Oppenheimer

  1. Poetry Workshop in a Domestic Abuse Shelter

On Tuesday there will be a poetry workshop. Flyers taped to the kitchen cabinets, posted on the bulletin boards that line the front hallway announce it. Some of us sign up. Some of us want something more, something to do with our time, something to release us from the hamster wheel of the present. One of us drags a cracked plastic bin from under her bed: the poems she’s written for years that she hides still.

We show up for the first meeting, not knowing what to expect. The poetry lady is young, wears a funky dress and red-plastic framed glasses. She begins by lighting a jasmine-scented candle, asks us to focus on the flame as we calm our breathing. She reads aloud a poem about a diver exploring a sunken ship. She asks us what we think it is about. A woman in a crisp ironed blouse and floor-length black skirt says it is about finding our own truth.  The poetry lady, making eye-contact, nods. A woman in plaid pajama bottoms and broken purple flip-flops says it is about women being silenced. The poetry lady agrees and suggests it is also about salvaging what is ours. She invites us to write a poem, perhaps inspired by what we have just heard. Some of us begin scribbling right away. One of gnaws her pencil eraser. One of us gets up, banging into furniture, and leaves the room. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, love, Mental Health, sisters

Piece

July 28, 2017
beaten

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.

Note: most names have been changed.

By Noreen Austin

Gere’ December 1993

My sister Gere’(Jer-ray) has been missing from her North Hollywood, California group home for several days. Raoul, her counselor, a stocky man, coiled with a black belt in martial arts, has the skills to survive in this socioeconomic oppressed part of town. He cares for the mentally disabled. His home is a place of refuge in hopelessness. But he can’t keep Gere’ safe after all, and he files a missing person’s report with Los Angeles County.

My father calls me in my Northern California home from his apartment in Southern California and explains, “She was badly beaten.” The police had interviewed Gere’. They told Raoul they had never seen anyone so severely beaten and still able to walk.

“She wasn’t taken to the hospital?” I ask.

“She bolted before the ambulance got there.” My father says.

Gere’ is 29-years old, has Tuberous Sclerosis, a gene mutation that causes tiny benign tuber-like tumors to grow onto the ends of the synapses in her brain. Autism, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, anger and defiance behavioral problems, ash-leaf shaped skin pigmentations, and seizures are a few of the symptoms of this condition. Some people with TS don’t have seizures. But Gere’s started when she was eighteen months. Each seizure causes brain lesions, which contributes to her cognitive decline. It’s easy for me to understand her confusion. The police are there to arrest bad people. The police are talking to her. It’s when the police leave the room to get some information from Raoul that Gere’ runs. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts

Fool Me Twice

July 14, 2017
fool

CW: This essay discusses domestic violence.

By Zoë Brigley Thompson

So a student e-mails me. She works at a domestic violence shelter, and she has a question.

Many of the women I meet, she writes, have been abused not once but multiple times by different people. But why?

I think about the problem logically. I see what she is thinking – how perhaps without realizing it, she is shifting the blame from the abusers to the women. I send her a study from the Department of Justice on “repeat victimization.” I point out the victim-blaming. I do not say that I know repeat victimization very well. I keep the personal to myself.

There is a well-known saying: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, and it applies so well to what people think about repeat victimization. But this framing of victims as masochistic is just another way for abusers to excuse responsibility. People often ask about victims of intimate partner violence, Why didn’t they just leave? But they don’t understand the emotional and psychological power that abusers have over their victims, especially in repeat victimization. Continue Reading…