The gynormity of it all hit me a few days ago as I awoke at about 7:30 AM.
You could call it a re-awakening.
It seems to have taken about 40 days for my sister’s revelations to sink in, to percolate down through the deposited soils of six decades of having been protectively misled, lied to, prevented from knowing certain things, from having been put into a position in which everyone around me from the earliest days of my consciousness and my personal, cognitive and psychological development was not who they appeared to be but was a caricature created by my own ignorance.
So I sit alone inside a maelstrom, adrift on a raft in a gentle eddy in the center of a massive storm, carefully balancing the presence of wife and family; they are the only truths I know because they were not there; they were selected and created by my own free will, whatever persona I was then. They were not central players at the beginning of the mess but they now gravitate elliptically around someone they assumed was real and grounded but which, all along, was operating under a set of assumptions that turned out to be misconstrued, misperceived… that were inside out and backwards.
I started out as a child, to borrow from a well-known actor/comedian whose own projection was not what it seeemed.
I am going to have to enroll at Bright-Eye’s school of Theater in the Cavern.
Astute perception of old records by a nurse disclosed that my emergence from the hospital of my birth was delayed, that my discharge was unusually late because — well, see, right away I am into speculation, analysis and detective work — my recorded weight upon discharge was well beyond that of a newborn.
I’d apparently been kept after school.
I was in detention from the git-go and started the normal process of growth having been fed the formula given to newborns of that era whose mothers were absent.
My mother had died from — again, I’m into speculation, not having medical records, autopsy information, physician’s notes, or anything beyond what can only be considered as unsubstantiated hearsay because none of the people involved are alive and those who aren’t are working off distant memory built on hearsay in the minds of older siblings, shadows on the wall of the grotto of life, and I am hear at age 67 near the end of my life looking back through the mists of my own perception — blood clot to the brain.
It was explained to me years later — sometime soon after a distant relative, an esteemed member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School, looked in on the birth of my first-born son — over lunch at the Harvard Club by that same esteemed OB/GYN expert, that the state-of-the-art in obstetrics back then wasn’t what it is today, and that they were unable to counter-attack well enough or fast enough to save my mother.
It’s not unusually ironic, given a long history of similarly weird synchronicities in my life, that my own awakening to the gynormity of it all occurred on the anniversary of my first outward adventure into the world.
And there is now some further correlation to the old rumor that one of the contributory causes of my mother’s death five days after I arrived wet, startled, soon enough hungry, may have been trauma at the hands of my father.
My father was, through almost every moment of my life, a distant and often absent character. He had work. My job was to learn. He had two and a half other people to be concerned about too, and I am given to believe (and it naturally follows) that one of the reasons I was kept in the hospital was because of a great degree of uncertainty about who was going to take care of my brother and sister, four years and three years older respectively. and me.
I was on the fast track to an orphanage.
Men did not do household and child-oriented work then.
Mr. Mom was still in the future.
I do not know into whose arms I was placed when I was sent home but, soon enough, a series of nannies was hired. I am told there were four to six people who played that role in my early years. When I was about four, my father married his third wife, the woman I know as my step-mother, the woman who was the adult female in the house for fifteen years until I dropped out of college and married. She, I am told, signed on to a life-long contract to watch after three kids because she fell in love with the youngest one.
Preceding her was a mysteriously-unknown social climber from Yonkers, New York whose marriage to my father was annulled after eleven months for reasons unknown; the given legal reason had something to do with moral terpitude, but sometimes words are simply what was seletced to put in the blank space on the form. I have no pictures, only the vaguest of memories of a blonde in a fur coat, but I am told she was rejected imediately by my older siblings who, at one time, arranged for a bucket of water to fall on her from the top of the door as she came home from a dinner date with their dad. I was apparently on the floor in a playpen in the living room with her cat prowling outside the playpen which, it seems, provided some of the substance for a recurring nightmare about tigers prowling outside my cage. These are but old Kodak Brownie snapshots of the formation of a young mind and a young life.
Preceding her was a series of hired nannies, the dominant of which was one woman who apparently nurtured and loved me and had a secret crush on my father. She wrote to me when I was in college but, of course, I had no knowledge of and only the vaguest of memory about her. She was the source of a few old photos and one negative of a portrait of my mother, the one above. The nanny was a Mennonite (we lived in a major old industrial city on the fringe of Pennsylvania Dutch country) and she always wore the starched white cap that was emblematic of women in that sect. I have been able to ascertain the place where she was buried in Missouri.
The murmurs and memories that come echoing back (all who lived then are dead now, except for my sister) all say that the prime focus at that time (post-war America, after the bombing of Japan but before Korea) was finding homes for the three kids. Could the father sustain the family? He had work, but needed household help. He needed a mother for his children. All manner of effort was made to keep us together and to keep us out of homes, institutions, the uncertain roiling seas of society where children were at risk.
As I understand it, my older brother and sister, being about a year apart, formed a team and gave numerous elders significant doses of pre-school grief. The kid in diapers simply needed to be fed and have his diapers changed.
And what exactly happened to each of us over the next several years and why remains murky to this day. My own ability to form and keep a coherent memory was still in formation, and their’s hadn’t had a lot of practice yet. Neighbors (the source of the information about my father hitting my mother as she went into labor) didn’t leave any diaries, testaments or testimony; people didn’t talk about these kinds of things back then. [They still don’t.] And children’s physical and psychological well-being is still at risk.
My father’s boss, whose picture remains on my hard drive, having made the geographical and technological transition by some sort of para-normal IT event (it hijacked a ride on a disc) after I discovered his name and identity in connection to an alleged pedophilia/sexual abuse ring, introduced him to my eventual stepmother, to whom he may have been distantly related. These are things I discovered on my own in my 50s.
He was a heavy drinker, as was she. He was a batterer and an abusive personality. She battered me and psychologically abused me, but apparently not my sister or my brother. He was a stern disciplinarian to us all and occasionally used a belt, especially when directed or prodded by my step-mother. My sister last month reported an attempted sexual advance by my father when she was in her early teens; my step-mother was very protective of her. My brother’s history remains very cloudy. There are some facts I can attest to, but he is dead now, the victim of estrangement, manipulation, possible sexual abuse at the hands of unknown people, and eventual death resultant from exposure to Agent Orange as an airman first class in the early years of the Vietnam War. My brother was mustered into the US Air Force and spent time around locations known to have been involved with Operation Paperclip activities. All of this is deniable, of course. But back in 1952, when my step-mother arrived on the scene, her entire task was to lend some measure of stability to a family teetering on the edge of dissolution.
I have no doubt that she did that. She was an occasionally-battered woman and she frequently battered me. Was this a kind of “reverse psychology” to insure that I did not grow up to be a batterer? It could have backfired. Through the grace of God, it did not. I’ve read enough of Arthur Silber and Alice Miller to know better. I’ve read Derrick Jensen’s “A Language Older Than Words”; my experience is insignificant when compared to what he suffered at the hands of his father.
Both my parents were deeply troubled people. My father’s own upbringing was troubled. He was an elitist, a racist, a misogynist and had been immersed in a culture of eugenics. He disowned me when I married a Catholic of French-Canadian descent. He despised Catholics and believed in the supremacy of the white male Anglo. [I believe i have managed to shed most if not all of these influences.] Once, however, he got to know her (she was very intelligent and he admired intelligence, and she was a computer operator and programmer back when few knew what a computer was or could do and they required large air-condiitoned spaces), he warmed up to her. So he disowned me a second time when we divorced. He refused to attend our wedding ceremonies (one in a Protestant church, one in a Catholic ceremony). And he wasn’t much impressed when he discovered my second wife was an Italian-American. He hated Italians too.
He married a Scots-Irish Presbyterian and always said she was the love of his life. Growing up, I was never allowed to know anything about her. I’m told she was a creative individual involved in crafts; she sung in the church choir. No pictures (or mention) of her were allowed on the household during my youth. I am beginning to think that this was not out of some viciously assertive jealousy or need for dominance as the female person of the household on the part of my step-mother, but may have been a means of protecting my father from his own self-destruction, mental breakdown, or ‘black alcoholism’ which we saw only very rarely. Rermember, I spent the first four years of my life totally in the dark, and the next ten years isolated away from any exposure or awareness.
My step-mother’s upbringing, emotional and romantic history, etc. are a mystery to me. There was a man, a sailor from World War II. She never ever discussed him; no one knows the story. Perhaps he died in the war. Perhaps there was some other reason he was no longer in her life. She was a prototypical ‘Rosie Riveter’ working in one form of industrial work or another during the war years and, as such, was part of the vanguard of feminism. She was a hospital worker, perhaps an LPN, a Civil Defense captain, a social worker, a Cub Scout leader, engaged in the community, a social drinker who could pack away three Martinis PDQ. She played industrial league softball. He was a Scotch drinker and an inveterate pipe smoker who spent some time on Wall Street just before the crash in some low-level investment banking job. His father was an expert in mechanical engineering, a 32nd-degree Mason who was the shop superintendent at a major firearms manufacturing plant in New Haven; the two of them had a falling out over the fact that the son would not quit smoking.
In response, I played the role of “the reclusive child” I ran away a lot, hid myself in the woods, got lost in reading.
So to have learned these latest revelations late in life… that my father made his third wife walk to the hospital when she suffered a bout of appendicitis, then forced himself upon her in the hospital bed after her surgery, is to have suffered a synaptic WTF that almost forces a kind of psychological plasticity.
Will someone invent an online brain game for this kind of thing? They could call it Illuminosity.
To finally be able to have a conversation with a sister three years older than I about our lives six decades ago… to be in a position to divulge things about our brother she never knew because we were all prevented from knowing what went on in the lives of our siblings and because I developed enough curiosity to ask about the truth of what else we were told…. sets up further tensions, and these undoubtedly will reverberate in unknown ways down into later generations.
But the real enormity of the need for a massive re-thinking is the awareness that, through all those years, others around me must have known or sensed what I never knew or what was hidden from me.
Human beings are pretty astute, and they talk. My step-mother worked at the private day care schoool I attended, and those students (some of whom were the children of my parents/ peers, co-workers, social contacts) likely overheard or were told something about me and my life that I didn’t even know at the time. And middle school and high school teachers have experience in dealing with hundreds of families and thousands of kids, and they have access to educational records the kid never sees.
Not knowing meant that I acted and behaved in a certain way.
Their knowing whatever it is they knew or thought they knew drove their behavior.
Our interpretation or “reading” (socially, sub-consciously or consciously) of those interactions drove impressions, choices, and opinions.
Who wants to go back through that tapestry and meditate on the pattern of the weave?
What’s past is past. What’s left is
32 Ways You Know You Grew Up in a Dysfunctional Family
If you need more, simply tune into reality TV shows, family sit-coms or the evening news.
Dysfunctional Families: Recognizing and Overcoming Their Effects
originally written and developed in 1993 by Sheryl A. Benton, Ph.D., Counseling Services; updated/modified for the Internet in 1997 by Dorinda J. Lambert, Ph.D.
“Is there a silver lining to growing up in a dysfunctional family?
Bestselling recovery author Karen Casey looks at stories of people who grew up in dysfunctional families and “the good stuff” that can come from the experience. “Throughout my many decades in recovery rooms I have interacted with thousands of women and men whose journeys reveal, in detail, the harrowing history of dysfunction that has troubled their lives,” says Casey. “But what is also apparent in their stories is their eventual and quite triumphant survival, often against extreme odds.”
Casey interviewed more than 24 survivors of families rife with dysfunction; survivors who willingly shared their stories and came to realize they had, surprisingly, thrived as the result of their often harrowing experiences. In “The Good Stuff from Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family,” Casey shares the stories and the skills these survivors developed to live more creative and fulfilling lives.
“… If a culture is based on emotional dishonesty, with role models that are dishonest emotionally, then that culture is also emotionally dysfunctional, because the people of that society are set up to be emotionally dishonest and dysfunctional in getting their emotional needs met.
What we traditionally have called normal parenting in this society is abusive because it is emotionally dishonest….”
“Last December I saw an advertisement outside an electronics store. There was a little boy, delirious with delight, surrounded by computers, stereos, and other gadgets. The text read: “We know what your child wants for Christmas.” I stared at the poster, then said to no one in particular, “What your child wants for Christmas is your love, but if he can’t get that, he’ll settle for a bunch of electronic crap.”
― Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words
Read that book. Start with the quotes in the link above. Go to the library and borrow the book. Better yet, buy it directly from the author. If you need to save a buck, look online and find it at a used book seller, here or here; I’ve used and recommend both.
Read the book, not to learn more about Jensen’s experience or mine, but for his insight into what the psychopathology of the dysfunctional and abusive household means for your world and what is going on today in virtually every corner of the plant, in most societies, in the minds of the governance currently in place and looking to cement itself in place.
Then move on to the next level and find and read both volumes of Endgame.
It’s getting late.