Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nov 16: In Which I'm a Victim of My Hair Color

Even then I carried around a pencil and pad of paper.
A few weeks ago I wrote about my trip to Iowa where I officiated at my sister's wedding. Something happened while I was there that I've struggled to write about, and yet I do want to write about it. I want to tell the story. I need to find my way into it though, so bear with me.

Recently I watched a video of a Texas judge beating his 16-year-old daughter with a belt. The video is over seven minutes long, and I watched every second of it. I'm not going to post it here; it's far more disturbing than killing turkeys and most people can't watch the whole thing. I was crying about a minute into it, but I kept watching because, even though that girl is now in her 20's, I needed to give witness to what happened to her. It's so rare that abuse is witnessed. It usually happens inside homes, where strangers can't see. Or it happens and nobody wants to see; they refuse to see. I watched the video because that girl needed for people to see what happened to her. I can give witness. I can take watching it.

And I also need to tell my story, because I need to see it here, in the open. I just need to tell it. It's long and it's not funny. I've given this warning before: if you came for funny and sexy, skip this one. I'll post something funny soon enough. Here goes.

We had some time to kill after my sister's wedding, before she and her groom arrived at the country club. They stopped at a bar for a drink or two, so we had lots of time to kill. After I helped set out the food, I was talking with relatives I grew up with but have rarely seen once I grew up and left home. My mom's side of the family was sitting together at one long table: my cousins and some of their kids; my mom's middle brother and my aunt, my mom and her husband. I was standing there talking to them when the following conversation came up. The characters are my cousin L, who is my age, her sister D, who is two years older, and another cousin K, who is 9 years older than L and me. L, D, and I were close growing up, although they lived in another town 20 miles away. We haven't kept in touch much as adults though, until Facebook. (My thoughts and explanations are in italics.)

Me: Remember that time you guys went into that old man's house to see his new TV? I was so scared for you.
D: Yes, I remember. You got us into so much trouble.
Me: Me? I got you into trouble? We were only allowed to walk up the block. Nobody said anything about going into some pervert's house to see his new TV.
L:  Oh, I don't think he was a pervert. He didn't do anything to us.
Me: No, that's because I ran back to Grandma's house screaming, "He took them in his house! He took them in his house!" and got your mom and Grandma to come and save you. (My aunt suffers from dementia now. She just sat and smiled through the entire conversation. I wish I knew what she would have said...)
D: You just wanted to get us into trouble, and you did. A lot of trouble.
Me: No, I didn't. I would never want to get you guys in trouble. I was terrified he was going to hurt you. I waited and you didn't come out. That's when I panicked and ran down the hill. I saved you guys!
D: Saved us! Saved us from what? An old man with a new TV?
Me: Why would an adult man who didn't even know us ask three little girls into his house to see his TV? What were we? Seven and nine? We weren't friend material!
D:  You got us into so much trouble. I was so mad at you!
Me: I saved you! How do you know what he would have done? Why did you go in there?
L: I was probably thinking how exciting it was to see a new TV. It was probably color. I wouldn't have thought he'd hurt us.
D: That's because he wouldn't have hurt us. That's ridiculous. Nobody was going to get hurt, but we got in a lot of trouble because of you.
Me: No, I saved you. I was terrified he was going to do something to you guys. And don't you think that was pretty weird? Really? Grown men don't invite little girls into their houses. I would still be suspicious.
D: I don't know what you're talking about. We were never in danger. You just wanted to tattle.
Me: (It must be nice to live in a world where strange men don't hurt little girls. Obviously I was never that naive. And I'm certainly not as an adult.) I never tattled. That was the only time, and I thought I was saving you. For all you know, I did.
D: We were never in danger. That's ridiculous. And we all know how you were.
Me: What do you mean, how I was? (This made no sense to me. In my world, getting in trouble meant you got hit, more than once. I never tried to get anybody in trouble. I've always known how to keep a secret.)
D: How you were. We all knew what you were like.

What I was like at age one

And now our other cousin, K, the daughter of my mom's oldest brother, chimed in.

K: Yes, we did know how you were. You were awful. Always holding your breath until you passed out so you could get your own way. You'd cry and then you'd hold your breath until you passed out. You did it to all of us.
Me: I've heard those stories, but you have to know now that babies don't do things like that on purpose.
K: (laughing) Oh, yes, you did. You did it because you always had to get your own way.
Me: No, I didn't. Babies don't do that.... (This isn't funny any more.)
K: You did. I would be allowed to walk you up the block, to the corner across the street from the park. And then when I'd say we had to turn around and go home, you'd start crying and then you'd hold your breath until you passed out.
Me: (Wait a minute. You walked me up to where the fucking park was just across the street, let me see it and then said we couldn't go there? How old was I? I had to be younger than two because Mom and Dad got married just after I turned two, and Mom and I moved out of Grandma's house...)  You walked me up to the park and then we turned around?
K: Yes, and then you would cry and have a fit and hold your breath until you passed out. You did that to me every time.
Me: (No shit! I'd cry now if somebody walked me up to a fun place and then said we had to turn around.) I couldn't have been doing it to you. Babies don't....
K: Oh, yes, you were doing it on purpose. And I tried everything to make you stop. I shook you and shook you and shook you. And I threw cold water in your face...
Me: You what?
K: I shook you and shook you as hard as I could. And threw cold water in your face. Over and over. Nothing worked. You still did it. You wouldn't quit.
Me: Wait! I was a toddler and you shook me....shook me as hard as you could?
K: Of course. You needed to be taught a lesson. We all did it. (laughing) You had such a temper. You always thought you had to have your own way.
Me: I was a toddler! (And you walked me to where I could see the park and then turned around, for fuck's sake. And that was the same corner where the man took L and D into his house. Maybe it's no wonder I was scared something would happen to them.) I wasn't doing it to....
K: Yes, you were. You always thought you had to have your own way. You had that red hair...
Me: What does red hair have to do with....?
K: You had that red hair and the temper to go with it. If you didn't get your own way, you had a fit. You were so stubborn, nothing we did made you stop.
Me: (So maybe I wasn't doing it on purpose if hurting me in various ways didn't make me stop!) So you shook me as hard as you could? You threw cold water in my face? You did that to me?
(It's hard to explain how I felt as this conversation progressed. The idea of somebody shaking a baby, a toddler, and throwing cold water in her face...any kind of abuse makes me feel like I've turned into hard, cold, sharp steel. A person who hurts children is less than a turkey to me. I could cut a bitch. And I have a degree in social work. I would take a child out of a home where this was happening. No question. But this time I was the baby who'd been abused, and at least one of my abusers was sitting there laughing about it and telling me it was all my fault. And my impression is that everybody else was laughing too. L, whose 2-month-old grandson was just feet away from her. I know she would never do that to him, but my impression was that they were enjoying hearing about how it happened to me.)

K: Of course we did. You couldn't be allowed to do that to us. We did what we had to do to make you stop.
Me: (Looking down at my mom beside me.) Is that true? Did you shake me and throw cold water in my face?

My mom laughed and told a story I'd already heard before. She said when she asked our family doctor about it, he said I was just trying to get attention and she should let me fall and hit my head. He said I'd stop doing it if I hit my head often enough and it hurt bad enough.

Mom: So I let you fall and hit your head a few times, but it raised up such a big lump on your head I thought that wasn't a good idea. Then I started catching you, laying you down and leaving so nobody would be there when you came to.
Me: Did it work? Did I stop?
Mom: Nope, you just kept doing it to me. Eventually I guess you outgrew it. We never did figure out why you did that to us.
Me: Mom, I didn't do it to you. I was a baby.

(I didn't outgrow it. I learned to control it. My throat still closes up completely when I cry sometimes. I just have enough control now to relax and breath. I didn't tell them that. They were all laughing.... I felt like I was in one of those movie nightmare sequences where the people's heads are getting bigger and smaller, and they look like fun-house mirror reflections. I expected an insane clown to run through the room with a bloody knife. It was surreal that they were talking about that level of abuse and they were laughing....and laughing that they'd done it to me. And that it was my fault.That they'd done it to any baby would have shocked me, but that they'd done it to me.... In my mind, I had an image of my granddaughter Coraline, born just six weeks before and the baby I was being just like her--only with that awful red hair....I wanted to protect that child--that little red-headed bastard child--they were talking about, and yet she was me and it wasn't happening now....But the laughing was and the saying I deserved it, that it was my fault, was happening now. But of course I do take the blame for anything that happens, so maybe .... I needed to escape...)

Can't trust a redhead. We're all crazy from birth.

K: See what I mean? Always have to have your way. We. know. how. you. are. 

Me: (No, you don't. You don't fucking know me at all and none of you ever did. And I don't know you either.) I did some research once and did you know when babies pass out when they cry it can be a symptom of iron-deficiency anemia.....? 

(I would have said something about how they started feeding me mashed potatoes and gravy from the table when I was 2 weeks old, and how they only put whole milk and dark Karo corn syrup in my bottles instead of formula because I wasn't sleeping through the night by the time I was 2 weeks old.... All of them seemed to be laughing harder and harder and looking at each other as if they knew something I didn't. And for years, they did. They did know I was a bastard, and I didn't. Now they knew "how I was." And there was my aunt, looking at me and smiling so sweetly. I don't think she understood what was going on, but I can't imagine she would have laughed.)
K:  You. weren't. sick. Nobody said anything about anemia. Even the doctor said it. You just had to get your own way. You always had to get your own way. You and that red hair of yours.
Me: (I stood there with my red hair, in my little black dress and my sister's borrowed shoes, and I felt....broken. They all knew how I was. They'd always known. But I tried to defend that child who had been me once more.) Babies don't do that! Babies don't pass out to get their own way. I didn't choose that.

I felt trapped in the nightmare, so I finally just turned my back on all of them. My sister Suzy was sitting at the next table behind me, so she was to my right when I turned. I put my hand on her shoulder to make sure she was real.

"Looks like you need another drink," I said. I couldn't tell if her plastic cup was empty or full. It didn't matter.
"I'm about ready for one, but I can go down and get it."
"No, I need to go down anyway. I'll get it for you," I said.
"Wait. Let me give you some money...." She reached for her purse. It would take too long.
"No! I'll get it. Just let me get it." And I ran downstairs to the bar.
Nobody else was down there, just the two bartenders. "I need a Smirnoff and tonic. Take your time making it."

I've been a bartender. I wouldn't have asked questions and neither did they. The older guy just poured the cocktail, set it in front of me and took my money.

I sat on the bar stool and looked out at the golf course where my best friend and I once road double across the greens on the back of a guy's motorcycle, holding lit sparklers out on each side. I tried to figure out how I could sneak out, go back out to Mom's, load my van and hit the road--without hurting my baby sister's feelings and causing a scene at her wedding. I needed to run ..... but I couldn't. I was both the minister and the big sister who drove 675 miles and hadn't been home for over two years. I had to stay and act like nothing had happened--now or then. Piece of wedding cake. I'm a pro at hiding behind a smiling face. And I did. I laughed and danced and partied for hours after that. Hours.

I picked up Suzy's drink, tried a smile on the bartenders, and turned toward the stairs in time to see a pair familiar long legs coming down the stairs. My first best friend, Steve, all 6'4" of him. I screamed and ran to him and he picked me way up in his arms, about four feet off the ground. Finally I said, "Better put me down. I think my panties are showing."

I already wrote about that, so I won't again. But I've rarely been so glad to see anybody in my life. He'll never know it, but when he lifted me off the floor and hugged me, I could feel myself again and I knew I could make it until the next morning when I could leave. 

There's a lot more I could write about this and maybe I will as I sort it out. About how another family member did cause a scene late in the evening, and by the end of it screamed (among other things) "Get the fuck out of here. Just leave like you always do," in front of my baby sister's children. I'm still not sure what that was about, but I don't care. I also consider that kind of behavior in front of children to be abusive, and I'm not about looking the other way and pretending it's OK.

And I could say more about how I couldn't hold it together any longer as Suzy and I drove back to Mom's house after the party. I told her about the conversation earlier and she, I think, cried with me. She said, "I never understood why you called yourself the red-headed bastard stepchild. We all just thought of you as our big sister, no different from us. I get it now. I get it." And how she was afraid when I left I would never come back.

About how Elvira called my cell while I was still on I-80, cruise control set on 80 mph. She had talked to Suzy already and knew something had happened so I told her. And then I wished I hadn't, because she was 600 miles away holding Coraline and crying too. And how both of us couldn't imagine .... Let's just say nobody better ever hurt that baby girl.

And eventually I may say more about how suddenly so many puzzle pieces that explain my relationships fell into place. About how I've let people lead me to the corner across the street from the park, and then blamed myself when I was disappointed and unhappy that I didn't get to go play. About how I always manage to blame myself for other people's fucked up behavior. It helps to know where that came from.

Something else happened two weeks later. Something amazing. I'm going to write about that tomorrow though. What I have to say about the effects of my family's attempts to fix me could fill a book. And this is a blog, not a book.

But I have one more thing to say about what I learned that night. I can't blame my 10-year-old cousin for doing what she did back then. She was fairly well neglected herself, and I know stories about that too. She didn't have good parenting models. And apparently it was a free-for-all when it came disciplining baby me. I've pretty much dealt with my mom, and her parenting practices, over the years by doing the opposite. Hard as it was to listen to what they did to me, I could forgive them in that time and place. (And I don't really even know how my other cousins, L and D, or my uncle reacted to it. My impression of everybody laughing could be entirely wrong.)

What I can't forgive is that they still laughed about it in the year 2011. That they still thought it was a baby's fault and that their methods were a reasonable response to a child who loses consciousness when she cries. The emotional damage aside, they could have done severe physical damage or even killed me. It's not OK to shake a baby or throw cold water in her face or abandon her when she's unconscious. It's wrong. I live almost exclusively in the gray areas of life, but this time it's all black and white. It was really fucking wrong.

And that's what I can't forgive yet.

Me with my grandma. I don't remember her ever hitting me.


  1. I feel like crying myself. This is so horrible. They could have shaken you into brain damage. It wasn't you. it wasn't your fault. you were a beautiful little kid! and that you managed not only to live through it and with your brain intact and raise your own children right, that you can see it's wrong and that they still can''s amazing. You have the goodness inside you and it won.
    and they think it's ok for little kids to go into an old strange guys house to watch tv??????

  2. Oh, Sweetie. I cried with you. I'm so sorry you were treated that way. You're right. It was really fucking wrong.

  3. I'm so happy you put those pictures in of you as a baby. Absolutely darling. And perfect. And totally undeserving of all of that - then and now.

    I try hard not to speak badly of people's families. It might be a southern thing, but lines are often blurry. But in this case, I'll risk it. What they did is horrible enough. But they were children and most of the time, kids act with some tacit approval from the adults near them. What is NOT acceptable is that they continue to laugh at such a situation. They are so wrapped up in their own defensive crap that they cannot even SEE what is acceptable behavior now. Are they stupid? I feel like this must be in some very backward hillbilly setting. I don't think that's the case though, right? You should possibly consider a letter to them. Something to get it out of your system once and for all.

    And I want you to promise yourself that you will never again put yourself in a situation where they have an opportunity to hurt you. They are not and never will be good people. You simply don't have to let yourself hope they will change. That's the part to let go, hoping that any of them are going to be regretting or remorseful. I'm sorry to write so much here, but I just feel like I have so much to say to you.
    You were a beautiful baby. And you are a beautiful woman. Inside and out. You left there because you are SMART. And you knew it was a toxic environment. And now you can see why you do some things and make changes.

    Sending you love and healing thoughts, my friend.

  4. Sue said everything I was going to say.

    I'm crying, too. And feeling that same pang of recognition I had when I saw the judge beating his daughter.

  5. And she said it very well. Sending love and appreciation for who you are and how you've worked to create a world where that doesn't happen around you or your loved ones. EVER.

  6. I love you guys.

    I'm not going to try to answer every comment like I usually do. I want to be clearer about a couple of things though.

    My cousins L and D were close to my age. And we were close growing up. I adored them. We were laughing during our conversation about them going into that man's house because our perceptions were so different. We were teasing. But, no, my aunt and my grandma did not condone it. They got in trouble. I'm sure my grandma knew the man too. It's a tiny town, under 1000, and he lived a block away. I don't think either of my cousins would want their grandchildren to do it either. We were stubbornly holding our positions in a lighthearted way, which we could do because nobody got hurt that day.

    And I also have to say families are complicated and complex, and so is writing about them. I could sit down tomorrow and write a poignant, Norman Rockwellesque post about growing up in a small town, about playing in that very park up the street from my grandma's house with my cousins, about family dinners and all the yummy food and playing together all day while the adults did their thing. I could write tons about that. It would all be true.

    I could either write or leave out that at big family dinners the grown ups--except Grandma--started drinking bourbon and vodka late in the morning as soon as we got there, and the men were snoring in front of the football game all afternoon while the women cleaned up.

    It would all be true, but I choose what to write about and what to leave out. I rarely write everything I observe and hear because I am always aware of my audience these days.

    But the description of how I was treated as a baby and toddler when I passed out, and the perception that I was willful and needed to be broken because of my red hair, that I can't candy-coat. It was wrong. And it hurts to think about, even though I don't remember it.

    But wait for tomorrow's post. The story isn't finished yet.

  7. Oh, this gave me tears and goose bumps. I can't begin to imagine what you felt like as you heard all this...I kept thinking 'surreal.' Maybe sometime you might do a ritual for Younger Self - send her a healing message.
    (I don't remember any red-hair prejudice growing up, just my 3rd grade teacher embarrassing me by insisting my mother must 'put something' on my hair to get it that color. )

  8. Holy fuck. My mom was the bastard in her family; I know from her of the feeling of not belonging, of being so different from the people around her. She wasn't red-haired, though; hers was raven black, straight and fine. Her family was afraid people would mistake her for a Mexican. In fact, it probably came legitimately, from her Cherokee maternal grandmother. She does occasionally use the phrase, "red-headed step-child."

  9. What a brave, brave person you are. I love you, and I send you and little Reticula big hugs.

  10. 'Zann, in a way this confirmed what I felt that was hidden or denied. I have yet to write about it, but the ritual was done for me. You'll see.

  11. Felicitas, yes, the not belonging. It was/is something I felt, not something that was thrust upon me--at least not outwardly. But I always knew a part of me didn't belong. I just didn't find out why until I was 12. That's another story.

  12. AutoD, thanks, but I don't think I'm brave at all. I've just managed to live through some things that left wounds and scars. I don't believe those sayings about the things that hurt making you stronger. I'm not stronger for having been hurt--not then and not now. When I'm hurt, I hurt for a long time and I blame myself for whatever I did to fuck things up, and I blame myself for not getting over it faster or easier. There's no honor in surviving the damage that can be done by human relationships.

    But I do feel your love like warm salve. Thank you.

  13. This sort of story isn't supposed to be real. There aren't supposed to be people who really did, or do, or laugh about such things.
    People who are so oblivious that they don't even realize the wrongness of what they do.
    But there are.
    And it sucks.

    Thinking of you today.

  14. True, Linda. People are oblivious. And I'm the only one who knew how I was reacting inside. I allowed the oblivion--didn't cry or hold my breath to get attention or anything.

  15. Reticula, let me clarify. I think you are incredibly brave to have shared that post with the world. Yes, we do what we need to do to live through the pain, but witnessing the pain (our own pain), and sharing that pain with others, is a special type of courage and bravery that can't and shouldn't be minimized.

    In regards to this: "There's no honor in surviving the damage that can be done by human relationships," I both agree and (respectfully) disagree with you. We all have scars. Some people have big scars, some have small ones, some have lots of scars, some only have one, some scars are in places you don't notice them, and others are on our faces--by being human, we sign up for scarring from human relationships. There isn't "honor" in the emotional scarring, you're right. We aren't out to collect emotional scars like patches for a Girl Scout uniform. There may not even be honor in the surviving of the damage: we can chalk that up to resilience or willpower or necessity or a million other things. There IS honor, however, in witnessing the damage and in being willing to re-engage in human relationship. In this post. you did both of those things, and that requires bravery.

    Love. <3

  16. Wow....AutoD. Thank you. You really got it.

  17. Catching up on my promise to comment on every post this month...

    I have nothing new to say to this story, but it reminds me again of how I have no qualms with eliminating the toxic people from my life. Even family.

    It sounds like a good thing that you don't get back to Iowa very often.

  18. Diplomat, it's a mixed bag, Iowa. Lots of people I love there. Sometimes I go back and it's nothing but a love-fest, like when I went back 2 1/2 years ago to officiate at another cousin's wedding, when she married her wife. That was a healing journey. You just never know. But, yes, there are times when even a family member needs to be put on the too-toxic list.

  19. It's taken me awhile to be able to post on this. Difficult memories.

    I remember one time when my dad beat me in front of my best friend when I was in 5th grade or so...I was used to being beat, but having it done while my friend watched was so incredibly shameful. He never came back to my house again after that.

    I also feel shame in that I didn't act perfectly with my kids while they were growing up. I did slip up a couple of times before I could catch myself. That early training is hard to break. I regret those times.

    I do remember the power I felt as a 17yo, standing next to my 19yo sister as we told our dad that if he EVER touched our younger siblings again, we would call Child Protective Services on him.

    It's difficult all around.

  20. He can't hurt you any more. And you were more powerful than you knew. I'm sure of that.

    You did the best you could when you were a young mom, and then you learned to do it better. There's a learning curve when you have to figure it all out for yourself. I can think of lots of things I'd do better or differently if I could go back. Lots of things.

    {{{{}}}} Thank you.