Monday, February 24, 2020

The Experience Behind My Authority, Pt. 1

Trigger Warning: Child Abuse

For a long time, I've been telling this story about my Grandma and Grandpa... Grandpa only had one leg, but was perfectly able to get himself a plate of spaghetti and a can of soda from the kitchen by getting about on his crutches. However, sometimes, he would just sit back in his room and, when Grandma had made dinner, he'd just bellow, teasingly, "where's my dinner???"... which would set Grandma off, and she'd grouse and gripe at him for several minutes while she made him a plate and brought it to him. 

When I was... I think eight? nine?... I was hanging out in his room, watching his TV while he slowly, carefully, did his word searches. His hands shook, badly, and each word looked like it was meticulously surrounded by a thorny little hedge. I'd flip through his old puzzle books, looking at the ones he'd done. Grandma was making dinner, and we reached this point in the play; he yelled "where's my dinner", which set her off and she hollered and grumbled at him for several minutes while she prepped his plate... 

... and he listened to her go on for a minute, chuckled, then went back to his word search. And I realized what they were doing, this routine of him lightly needling her and her grumbling at him, but still coming through. It felt like a practiced, comfortable comedy routine. 

I've always chuckled, myself, relaying that story, when I realized Grandpa was being a pest... but not cruel. It was a small thing. I've always held that story close to my heart. 

But, today, just now, I relayed that story... and all it did was make me realize how incredibly tired I am. I am reminded of it, but I can't feel the happiness that relaying that story used to bring up in me. 

I think the performance was for us. In my childhood, "Grandma and Grandpa's House" was the only "safe zone" I'd ever identified, and they spent a long time trying to keep it that way as we upended their quiet life, then left, then came back and upended it again, over and over. I was never able to feel safe anywhere else... and I had moved about a dozen times by the time I was thirteen. 

Dale tried to invade the sanctity of it when I was... eight?... and I had to openly decide to "ruin Christmas" to drive him off and make sure he knew this was where he had no place. It came back to haunt me when we moved back in with him on Stone Ave; while my older half-brother Camden was ready to kiss his ass and dude it up to avoid the belt, and, being four years older and more popular and sporty, was able to be out of the house more and also do "Dale-approved" things, Dale knew that my tiny, weird, smart, sensitive, space-cadet, easily-scared self was who he was going to have to break to make the family belong to him and do what he wanted. I knew it, too. 

Our time with him on Evergreen Ave had shown me one thing: when people are desperate to "just have a working family", a bad person will find ways to walk a line to justify almost any transgression with almost any response. If you've ever heard my "ice-cream spoon" analogy, this is where it came from. Anything at all could justify a full-on beating, or assorted other bruises if they couldn't be explained away as "the boys were playing" or "we were just horsing around". If I accidentally left a spoon with a little ice cream on it on the counter, and it made a small mess, it could be worked into a rote of transgressions, real or imagined, that, on a larger scale, "justified" a massively excessive response. The lesson here: no matter how small the transgression, I could never "provoke" him into violence; he would find a way to hide, silence, or justify any action afterward. 

On Stone Avenue, after the lesson I'd learned at Christmas (when even Camden was all-to-ready to tell me I'd "ruined Christmas" by refusing to interact with Dale or his "gift" for me), I had to work out how to fight Dale. Eight years old, and I'm strategizing in terror about how to deal with a huge, laughing psychopath with a belt. The answer was, simply... 

... nothing. Nothing at all. Literally, don't do anything. Just exist. 

Dale would just randomly get it in his head to pick on someone who couldn't fight back. Cam was bigger than me, and sportier... both a better Dale clone and more of a problem, if he chose to be, although, at twelve, he was still very vulnerable. And Cam could be gone more, playing sports or at friends' houses. But me... I was ideal. I was already a problem to him, and, at eight years old, completely unable to fight back. I was also scared to, because... y'know... "justification to escalate". I didn't know that phrase back then, but I understood the mechanism. But Dale never needed a concrete excuse. They never do; if they can justify it in their heads, it's enough for them to comfortably act on, and then spin it later. Exploit the mindset that “it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.” 

After Evergreen, and returning to the "safe space" of "Grandma And Grandpa's House", I knew my mother wasn't willing to pay any price for the illusion of a nuclear family; she was receptive, and I, as the youngest, was the most vulnerable... and that mattered. My only path of resistance was to be available. If Dale and I were home, I could go hide upstairs, in my room, playing quietly, wondering what random, small, accidental noise I made would be enough for me to hear Dale get out of his chair, make his way up the stairs to my room, and... threaten me? Hit me? Break my toys? Maybe just talk at me in that low, casually-threatening tone that suggests he's amused, but could whip my ass at any second. I could sit in my room, play quietly, with half my brain constantly listening to the house to hear his movements and try to work out his intent. Maybe he's just going to the kitchen for a snack. Maybe he IS coming upstairs, but just to go lie down and take a nap. The farther the distance... the more work it took to deliver idle threats... the less likely he'd bother. I could go hide in my room. 

And I did, sometimes. Make no mistake. I was eight. There's only so much fear a little kid can take. 

But, sometimes... I didn't. If I were more easily accessible, it'd be easier for him to accost me. Possibly to hurt me. And, if he hurt me badly enough... maybe we could just go back to "Grandma And Grandpa's" house, where they tried so hard to take care of us and make us smile, and not go back. 

So I could go play, quietly, in my room, waiting for fear or reprieve. Hey, maybe he'd leave, and I could pretend to be normal for a couple hours! Enjoy some Nickelodeon, maybe, if Camden didn’t insist on MTV. Well… even MTV would be okay. As long as Dale was elsewhere. 

...or I could get some pencils and crayons, and sit quietly in the dining room, and draw. I drew monsters. Nothing related to reality, mind you... I drew fantastical monstrosities, with big back spines that could store bodies, or conveyor-belt bottom jaws that people would fall onto and helplessly get dumped into a stomach full of Alien-blood acid. Ludicrous creatures. I also drew fight scenarios... maybe people fighting a big monster, with a hundred-foot-tall steamroller front legs, three stabby triangle heads, and a tail that was a giant lightsaber, or maybe just groups of people fighting each other. Tanks. Machine-gun turrets. Planes. Bombs. Etc etc etc. 

...or I could sit quietly on the far end of the couch, very small and still. Maybe if I seem interested in the stuff he watches on TV, he'll treat me more like someone that belongs. Desperate for peace, to not be scared anymore, to not get hurt, but almost sure I was going to get hurt. Again, I didn't have it worked out in words, it was just a feeling I had. Sit there, watch whatever he was watching, pretend I liked it. But quietly. Present. Close at-hand. 

Available. 

It worked. Shockingly well, now that I look back. It was rare for he and I to be alone together that I didn't come away with a new bruise or welt, or freshly hurt and terrified all over again. Cam always thought it was so funny that I'd lose it if I got hit in the head at all; Dale is why. He'd get it in his head, and he'd come for me. Come look at what I was drawing, ask me rapid-fire questions, get "mad" at me when I couldn't reply, clip me upside the head for being "rude", trash my picture, maybe poke me or push or tip me out of the chair. If I'm on the couch, it's time to complain about me making noise (I wouldn't even tap my fingers or foot... remember: "justification to escalate." Sit. Very. Still.), or maybe I smell, or I look dirty. I'd have to prove I'd bathed recently; he'd rapid-fire question me as to when, tell me to strip down, slap me for "lying" if I "appeared dirty" (I'm going to note, here, that I was the only brown person in a white family, it took me a long time to realize that he was punishing me for not being white. An inescapable excuse to escalate). On several occasions, while I was stripping down, he grabbed or poked at my junk and laughed at how small it was. 

Y'know... an eight-year-old boy's junk. 

There were several times, when it was just he and I, where he chased me, smacking me with his belt, to the stairs as I escaped to my room, or to the tub, or half-beat me as I stripped for inspection. If a chase ensued, he was usually laughing, or making smart remarks about "that's right, you better run!". I think, looking back, that he was getting the reaction he wanted: me, in terror, unable to think clearly, panicked and scrambling. A few times, when bathing was in question, it'd result in him grabbing me, dumping me in the tub, and running a bath of cold water and telling me I could come out when I was "clean". (Again: I’m not white.) 

At one point, he questioned me about the last time I had bathed, belt in hand, in front of someone else. I was unable to answer, utterly terrified, and he went to hit me with the belt, but the other person told him I'd bathed that morning (which, I then remembered, I had)... so he started laughing at my terror, smacked my butt half-heartedly a few times with his belt, and then dragged me to the tub and made me take a cold-water bath anyways. Until I was "clean". I knew what it was... it was him testing the waters to see if he could get away with doing this around others. I didn't have the language to express that, back then... but I knew he was seeing if he could normalize it. 

A number of things contributed to the final breaking point. Dale went far over any line one day; he beat me and my brother, both. I don’t remember why, but it was savage; the two of us crying and screaming and trying to cover our butts, being warned to “move your hands, or it’ll be worse”. Also: my mother was pregnant with his child, my sister Effie. She saw this happen, and got us the hell out of there. Back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Home. My “safe place”. 

The next day, in the evening, I went to take a bath. The entire back half of me hurt. I was still in shock, shaken, easily-startled, unable to relax entirely, but relieved to be “home”. Mom knocked, and came in, and talked with me; she wanted to take pictures of what he’d done. She wanted proof for the police, and she wanted to make sure he never came near us again. Us, or my unborn sister, his child. She wanted to keep him far away from all of us. 

I agreed in a heartbeat. Even at eight years old, I knew “proof” was critical; I knew, without knowing the words, that “making a paper trail” was of utmost importance. 

And, I wanted to see. To know for sure. To be able to say. 

So she took a few pictures with a Polaroid, and I insisted on seeing them immediately. Having it happen is one thing; seeing the result on your own backside is another level. She showed them to me; I think she knew, small as I was, that I understood, on some level, just how crucially-important making this effort was. I’d put a lot of work into getting to this point; I needed to see. 

I was black and blue, covered in stripy bruises, from the middle of my back, just below my shoulder blades, to the back of my knees. When there’s untouched flesh between bruises, it tends to take on a discolored brown color, as the shading of the bruise seeps in from the edges. There was none of that on the back side of me, except at the upper and lower edges (just below my shoulder blades, and around the back of my knees), and on the sides, where I, myself, could twist around, and see the jagged, brown-edged bruising his belt had left. 

*****

I’m writing this part a year after I started this document. I turn 45 in less than two months, and I’ve since re-discovered the amusement I found in relaying the anecdote about Grandma and Grandpa… but the scars of this run deep. Between the violence, the instability, the fear, and the escapism, I never really recovered; I’ve only recently, in the last few years, sought treatment for what’s since been diagnosed as PTSD, both from this childhood abuse and instability and from my years spent homeless. I didn’t get the Graves diagnosis til I was 35, over two decades after it started impacting my health (Graves kicks in around puberty). Both have deep complications. 

This is the price I paid for my family, and for my unborn sister. I wanted Dale as far away from all of us as possible; if we couldn’t get him arrested, I wanted him too scared to try again. I know my mother went through a terrible ordeal, as well, while my older brother was also scared, and also beaten beside me, sometimes. But I found myself having to make decisions to fight this psychopath, and, until another adult made a better decision, I found myself having to do it alone, taking risks whenever I could find my courage, and constantly vigilant for unexpected attacks. Seven and eight years old, and trying to protect myself and my family the only way I knew how… by taking the hits, not resisting, and hoping it became obvious enough fast enough. 

Nowadays… well… Dale died in 2004 of a heart attack. I saw him a couple of years before, while I was working at Sears, and he acted like we were old friends. I was on the clock. We were on the sales floor. Sears was already looking for excuses to fire people in the post-9/11 retail climate. I had to cope with the encounter, and he seemed to find it funny. But, honestly… and I know this sounds spiteful… I’m glad he’s dead.

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