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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

(1) A MAN CANNOT BE WHIPPED INTO SHAPE. NEITHER CAN A CHILD.

    It was the morning of August 24th, a week after my thirteenth birthday in 1934.  I was half asleep when I heard Mother calling Vaughan in a strange tone of voice.  By the time I got my bathrobe on, Vaughan had hurried to Mother’s room and was talking to her, trying to calm her down.  I knew something terrible had happened, so I went to the door and looked in.  The first thing I saw was Vaughan in the bathroom, cleaning up blood that had spattered all over the place.  Mother was sitting on her bed, white as a ghost.  “Mother!  Are you all right?” I screamed.
     She said she was all right, but she was going to lie down because she felt faint.  Vaughan said, “I’ll tell you what happened, Babbie, as soon as I finish mopping up.  Go get dressed and I’ll see you in a minute.”      
      My father had circumcised himself.  Mother tried to stop him, but he said he’d made his mind up.  He was sick and tired of having to clean himself every day, so he was going to take a razor and get rid of the damn, dirty nuisance.  With Mother begging him not to, he locked himself in the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub with a razor.  He used mother’s Kotex to bandage himself, and then he left.
     “You know how he hates doctors,” Vaughan said.  “Maybe he went to the drug store to get bandages and some kind of ointment.  If he’ll let me, I’d be glad to help him get through this craziness, now that it’s done..”
     Later:
     Daddy came home this afternoon, and he’s resting in his room with the shades down.  He told mother not to worry, he’d be fine in a few days.
     My brother wrote me a long letter about our father when I was at Smith.  Dick almost seemed to hate me when we were growing up, and the letter explained why . . .
November 6, 1939
Philadelphia, Pa.                                                                                        
     Your success at Smith and in whatever you attempt in the future is assured, whereas what may become of me is a riddle I cannot even begin to fathom.  I do not exaggerate when I say I am like a ship without a rudder.  I have run aground a thousand times, and know most of the rocks by experience.  If I did not have a tough hull, I would have sunk long ago.
      A child must of course, be kept from drinking poison, burning down a house, or murdering his brothers and sisters.  A child who plays with matches merely evinces a natural curiosity.  When this curiosity about fire is discovered, instead of being  punished without any explanation, the child should be taken to some safe place, where his mother can watch him, and be allowed to play with matches to his heart’s content.  If he burns himself, or some of his toys, so much the better.  Then he will know why it is “wrong” to play with matches.  A child should never be deliberately and severely burned by  holding his finger in a match.  This will merely make the child hate the parent. 
    Similarly about bed-wetting.  A child should never be punished for wetting the bed.  The parents should realize it is their fault, not the child’s.  The right habit can be taught by taking him to the toilet at intervals that will increase as the child learns to take care of himself.  To make a child stand for hours with his wet sheets draped over his head will not cure the habit but merely impress on him the cruelty of his parent and a needless feeling of guilt.
     The greatest crime is inconsistency.  If one parent punishes severely and the other never punishes but lavishes affection, and seeks to mitigate the punishment by secretly bringing food to the victim  and crying over him and saying that the other was cruel, what is the child to think?
     People on the outside, even you and Janeth, have seen my mother and father, not as they were to me, but as they were in their social and public relations, a good woman, a noble woman, and a noble and wonderful man.  They have seen me go through many trying periods and cause my parents -- kind, loving, well meaning parents -- an infinite amount of worry and suffering.  They never think that I may have suffered, or that my parents may have caused me to suffer.
     No one can understand another’s feelings, but I tell you that I would face war, mutilation, death and all the horrors and terrors of war rather than go through my childhood again.  I’m prepared by experience, knowledge, education for whatever may happen.  I can be afraid, but afraid of something known, not of the unknown, as when a child.  There is a great difference.  Also, I can be physically alone, without a person in the world, and not feel lonely -- the terrible crushing loneliness of a child.
  I would not want to injure your love and respect for your parents.  But you must understand that you and Janeth were raised in a different environment than I was, and by wiser parents.  It seems to be my lot to break the ground for you to tread easy on.  My upbringing was an experiment in which many blunders were made.  Much to their credit our parents profited by their errors as has been shown by their success with you.  
     However, my father was not your father, nor my mother your mother. He was a man who rarely smiled.  He rose early in the morning, had a glass of hot water before breakfast.  It was a sort of ritual.  I rarely saw him during the day, and when he was away I was happy.  My mother was away most of the time, too, with singing lessons and concerts.  I loved her because she was good to me.  She was always gentle and kind.  Most of the time I was in the care of servants who left me to amuse myself.  I was inquisitive, mischievous and destructive.  Mother was always bringing me new toys, which I played with until I tired of them and then I would amuse myself by throwing stones at them or taking them apart. 
      Father was always tired.  He had splitting headaches.  He had to use laxatives and pills and have enemas constantly.  He was always irritable, and it particularly aggravated him when I had been “bad,” and broken a new toy.  Toys cost money, and he was having the devil’s time to meet the bills.  Mother was extravagant -- always getting new hats and dresses, and her singing lessons were expensive.  So my poor father was worried to death, and it is no wonder he had little patience with a boy who was not meant to be quiet and docile. 
     When he came home, I could expect to be whipped with the razor strap.  Mother always took my part and several times she threatened to leave him, not only because of his treatment of me, but of her.  They had terrible quarrels which I did not understand, but they hurt me, frightened me -- even terrified me.  I imagine it was generally about money and bills, although father was terribly disagreeable and often said mean and inconsiderate things to mother -- of course he suffered from his headaches and when he felt better he would write beautiful letters to make it up.  But at this most impressionable time of my life when a child needs security, I was faced with a continual succession of terrors.  I felt that my father was cruel and wicked.  I dreamed that I would marry mother and take her away when I grew up.  She would always come and comfort me after I had been beaten, and if I had been sent to bed without supper, she would surreptitiously bring me food, and I would say my prayers to her.  She was the only friend I had.
     How little parents realize the effect of their actions on the minds of children.  To the adults, a quarrel is not an overwhelmingly bitter experience -- they get over it.  But to a child a parents' quarrel may be like the death of the gods.  It brings division and discord into his world, and fear, oh God, what fear.
     My world was a world of terrors.  I was afraid of the dark.  I saw terrible creatures hiding in wait for me in the shadows.  I would always hide under the covers, and then I would have dreams of falling, drowning, being strangled.  Many is the time I wished I were dead.  As long as I had mother, there was one bright corner in the world. 
     When you were born, I was no longer an only child.  The last shred of my world crumbled, the last remnant of faith and hope, and with it went love.  You usurped the place which was mine in my mother’s regard.  Then I hated everybody, believed in nobody.  Of course some of that hate was directed at you, and you are lucky, and so am I, that you are alive today.  I remember being whipped when you left your bicycle in the driveway, and it was damaged.  I was supposed to watch you, I guess, but I had forgotten.  That did not increase my love for you or for father.
     He was always telling me to do things I didn’t want to do, and I would forget.  Then he would fly into a rage, and I would be struck.  You don’t remember the temper he had.  I don’t know why I was the particular victim of my father’s wrath, but when I think of the times I was slapped and struck and beaten, I don’t wonder that I hated him.  Any child would.
     Burning a child’s finger in a match is a cruel and unjust action, no matter if the person who did it were in all other respects a saint.  To the child he will be not a saint but a devil.  Since I have been away from home I realize that I am not really bad at all.  I feel a natural inclination toward love, and kindness and a  need for self-expression which, it has seemed to me, was always thwarted, repulsed, and distorted by the impressions I received of home life in those early years.  A man cannot be whipped into shape.  Neither can a child. 
     But that same confusion and insecurity that is the heritage of my childhood persists.  I have no definite goal and no firm convictions, no faith, no hope, no trust in anyone.  I do not even love anyone -- my family perhaps least of all.   However, I do not think that the capacity for love is utterly dead in me, or even the capacity of belief, but it will take a strong medicine to restore what has been lost.
     Well, I have wandered off the subject and talked rather too much about myself.  The few thoughts that I wanted to pass on to you will have to wait for another time.  Of course I can’t expect that this will mean anything to you.  But it is, I think, as unbiased a picture of the sources that have separated me from you, and from my home, as I am capable of giving.   With best regards, Dick. 
Circa 1935 
      My father’s word had always been the law, even with my mother.   One night when they were going to a party, I watched her go downstairs to the front hall, where daddy was waiting for her.  I heard him say in an angry voice, "Take that thing off this minute."  
      I felt sad when I saw mother coming back upstairs with her head down.  She had been so happy when she showed me her new dress.  There were flowers all over it and you could see through it except there was a pink slip underneath.. On the hem of the dress were shiny blue beads that clicked against her knees when she whirled around.   The shoes on her pretty legs were the same shiny color as the beads.  She told me she had bought the dress as a surprise for daddy.     
      I heard the water running in the bathroom for a long time.  At last she came back to my room, wearing a longer dress.  "Do my eyes look all right?" she asked.  I knew she meant, "Do I look as if I've been crying?"  I said, "You look beautiful.”  She always did.
     The dress ended up in the third floor attic.  Mother let me dig it out of the box when Ida Kellaway and I played grownups. 
      My brother got a lot of beatings in the basement.  Usually I didn’t know what his crime was, but I remember a time when it was sort of my fault.  Mother and Janeth had gone somewhere, so Dicky and I were alone in the house.  He had discovered he could crawl out of the window in the hall bathroom and make his way along the roof to get into his bedroom.  He showed me his stunt and told me I should try it, it was fun. 
      After much coaxing, I sat on the window sill with one foot testing the roof's shingles.  They didn't seem to be slippery.  “Come on, you can do it,” said Dicky.  I was flattered that he was paying this much attention to me.  I carefully slid the rest of my body through the window while my brother said, “That's great, just follow me, we'll be there in a jiffy.”  I used my arms to hitch myself along the roof.  “Don’t look down,” Dicky said.  I looked down and saw the sidewalk about a mile away, but it was too late to go back.    “You’re doing great,” said my brother, climbing through his window. 
     Then my mother drove in the driveway.  She got out of the car in time to see me dive into Dicky’s room.   She was upset.  She thought Dicky was trying to kill me. 
     The day passed slowly.  We knew mother would tell daddy who would start by ordering Dicky to his room without dinner.  After dessert he would call Dicky and say, "Take my jackknife.   Cut bigger switches than you did last time."   I huddled at the top of the basement stairs with my fist in my mouth and cried out my pity for my screaming brother. . . .
      I probably won’t write this much from now on, dear diary, but I wanted you to meet my family.
November 9, 1939
       My brother’s recent letter was full of revelations about his abuse by our father. I remember my cousin Florence saying that he was the saddest looking little boy she had ever seen. His personality was as deformed as the bodies of victims whom Turks imprisoned in a squat jar when they were children. 
BROTHER DICK CLEARLY  FELT LEFT
SAD AND LEFT OUT WHEN I WAS BORN
      Dick thinks his father was a different father from the one Janeth and I had, that we saw him as noble and wonderful.  Will I be betraying Mother if I tell him how untrue this is?  I can’t help it, I want him to know I completely understand every word he wrote because we were victims, too. . . .

4 comments:

  1. Such an amazing post! Thank you so much for sharing and warm greetings from Montreal, Canada.

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    1. Dear Linda -- You have given this old girl (94) a heart full of joy. It has been a long time since anyone took the time to comment on my meanderings, and yours is such a lovely one! Warm greetings gratefully returned!

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  2. Hello Dear Aunt Barb/Other Mother,

    I have been reading your latest posts...and realize that among mother's papers is "the letter" or a copy of it, about my grandfather's self-administered circumcision. After reading that letter a few years ago, all I could manage was a shake of the head and another epiphany about my mother's behavior during my childhood...her childhood experiences explain so much!

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    1. Darling Linda/Other Daughter,
      I am sure you are right about the far reaching effects of childhood traumas. It would be great if we could recall only our pleasant experiences, but life doesn't work that way. I was fortunate that Vaughan was still with our family, ready to explain as best she could certain bizarre goings on.

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