The Three BlowsBy Matthew Baldwin
March 17, 2010
I’m eight years old and everything is different.
We live in a new house, one we moved into after my mom finished divorcing my dad and she and her boyfriend G. sold our old one. This one has an extra bedroom where G.’s daughter can stay with us on his visitation days. My little sister and I have to go to a new school and make new friends.
The reasons for the move are never explained to us. My mother simply lets G. slip into the void left by our father and place his firm disciplinarian hand on the tiller of our lives. All the rules we now follow are his.
Nothing I do seems quite good enough for him, though he never actually says so. The disappointment and disgust are veiled in perpetual comments and criticisms. There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block. The way, I am endlessly told, that he did at my age.
One late Saturday evening when he and I are home alone I take a couple of my favorite dinosaurs out in a far corner of the back yard to play. The damp soil clings to my shoes and when I come inside to watch TV I track some on the couch without noticing.
When G. sees it he shouts my name and lunges at me. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t touch me, but his arms corral me in on either side and his face is less than an inch from mine. Once at dinner he let me sip from his beer, and now his breath smells the way it tasted. I retreat as far back into the cushions as I can.
“What is this?” he barks, pointing at a spot on the couch where my shoes have been. “You got mud on the couch.” I steal a glance, and just see some loose dirt, which could be brushed off with a swipe of the hand and not even leave a stain. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you think? Or are you just a dumb animal?”
He demands an answer and I don’t know what the right one is, so I just say, “I’m sorry.” When I do G. cuffs me across the face with his open hand. The shock of the blow winds me up into a ball of raw fear, too terrified of further punishment to even think.
He stares at me for a long minute. “Clean it up,” he growls, then returns to whatever he was doing elsewhere in the house, leaving me alone again. I sweep the dirt up into my hand and throw it out in the back yard. Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.
Because I believe G. parents with my mother’s full consent, I don’t ever mention it to anyone.
Not long after G. and my mother get us kids out of bed early one morning and have us dress in our good clothes. We go down to a botanical garden, where a Justice of the Peace marries them. G. is now my stepfather, his daughter my new slightly-older stepsister.
Afterwards we take a family trip to Disneyland. At one point my mother takes me aside and informs me that it would really make G. happy if I started calling him Dad.
I’m nine years old, almost ten. A dental abnormality requiring surgery has been discovered in my upper jaw, and I’m wearing a set of uncomfortable braces intended to space my teeth out enough so they can operate. I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.
It’s early spring and we’re moving again, this time into a house we’ve bought in the eastern part of town. The entire upper floor is a single master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom.
We have a sort of picnic celebration in the new empty house the day before move-in, sitting around eating pizza cross-legged on blankets and inflatable mattresses. My aunt and uncle are there with my little cousin, who is almost two. He’s recently started walking, and toddles around aimlessly with a big smile like it’s the best thing in the world.
After lunch we kids are sent up to the master bedroom to play with the few toys we brought with us while the adults drink beer and talk amongst themselves. The girls entertain themselves by improvising dances to the pop music station playing on my stepsister’s little radio and by doing somersaults and other acrobatics. My stepsister, who is taking gymnastics, demonstrates her handstands.
On impulse I tickle her during one of them. She collapses in giggles just as my cousin toddles past, pancaking him to the carpet. He starts bawling, and my aunt, like any first-time mother, comes running at this sound, whisking him downstairs. My sisters follow, telling the adults about what I did.
I wait until all the crying and fussing from the living room quiets down before slowly approaching the stairs.
G. is waiting for me halfway up, in a wide stance so I can’t rush past, his arms outstretched to either wall. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.
I know enough about alcohol at this point to know that G. is drunk, even though he never stumbles or slurs like the drunks on TV. I’ve seen him drink an entire pitcher of beer by himself without effect.
He takes me into the walk-in closet, and here he rips into me, about how I’m just a horrid, loathsome kid, rotten through and through, for daring to do something like that to a little boy. He prods me into the far corner with his finger, advancing as I retreat until I’m backed up against a wall that still smells of fresh paint.
This time I don’t even finish saying “I’m sorry” before he thumps me across the face so hard my head bounces off the wall and I slump to the floor. Because I am prone to nosebleeds I know the taste of my own blood as it seeps from my sinuses into the back of my mouth. I sniffle, trying to keep it in, because I’m sure he’ll kill me if I bleed on the new carpet.
He thinks I’m starting to cry. “Fucking baby,” he spits at me before he goes downstairs, leaving me in the back of the closest.
After I’m sure he’s gone I go into the bathroom to clean myself up. My already-tender gums are bleeding too, little red rivers seeping between the braces. Because there are no towels I have to dry my hands and face on my shirt.
I go back into the closet and stay there until someone calls up that it is time to go. No one really speaks to me. I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what a bad kid I am.
I am eleven years old, and on perfect trajectory towards becoming a teenage malcontent. My family considers me humorless, mostly because I don’t laugh at G.’s incessant teasing. I almost never speak around adults.
Standardized aptitude testing has revealed a higher than average intelligence in me, and I am shuffled into advanced education classes at different schools every year. No one ever explains what this means to me, or asks if it’s what I want.
I have no social life to speak of. Because I change schools so frequently I no longer really bother with making friends, as I know I’ll lose them once the academic year is over. When I am bullied at school I simply take it without fighting back, as I am conditioned to believe I deserve it.
At home I spend much of my free time in my room reading science fiction novels and comic books or building models, mostly sailing ships and spacecraft. My interest in prehistoric life has taken a backseat to space travel and adventure stories, and I spend my allowance money on the supplies to build these tiny vectors of escape.
G. is showing more and more gray in his hair, and has taken to working out more frequently. He swims laps in our pool most mornings and runs a few miles around the local park in the evenings. He’s mounted a basketball hoop over the shed at the far end of the yard, and sometimes drags me out there to shoot hoops with him.
One afternoon he comes into my room without knocking, as usual. His basketball has gone flat and he’s looking for the handheld bicycle pump I won at a school raffle. It came with a needle attachment for inflating athletic equipment, but the one time I tried to use it the needle detached inside the ball and I needed pliers to get it out again.
I explain this when I hand it over, but G. brushes my warning away. This is common; even though I am frequently told how smart I actually am nothing I say is treated with any merit.
I return to sanding down the mainmast of the two-cannon pirate sloop I’m working on. I barely have it fitted to the deck when I hear G. roar my name from outside. He storms back into my room, clutching the ball in his hands. Just as I predicted a half-centimeter of the needle is poking out from the rubber seal.
G. shakes the ball around like he wants to throw it at something, angrily sputtering about how he thought I meant something other than what I said. “I told you so!” I blurt without thinking. It’s the first time I have ever back-talked to an adult.
The ball launches out of his hands like a cannonball and hits me square in the face, immediately sending a gush of blood out of my nose. Either the ball or my flailing arm sends my model crashing to the floor.
I clutch my hands to my face and double over on my desk, expecting a rain of similar blows to crash down on my back and sides. The warm blood pools between my palms and my face.
When I open my eyes G. is gone, having taken the ball with him. Out my window I can see him in the backyard, sitting on the diving board and taking long pulls out of a bottle of beer. His face is unreadable.
I know that I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet was punished anyway. As the blood drips out onto the plastic drop cloth on my desk I begin to understand for the first time that I do not deserve the treatment I am receiving. And that I should not have to take it.
The next spring I tell my mother I want to start taking karate lessons.
What a C***.
Adults can be such terrorists.
Your stepfather sounds like a total mess of confusion. One minute wanting you to call him Dad and shoot hoops – the next behaving like a loathsome reptile.
I never understand why people put such stock in adults when more times then not they behave as bad as – if not worse – than children. Your stepfather was nothing more than a playground bully.
I’m sorry that you had to pay any sort of price for his intrusion into your life.
Awful subject matter, but nice writing Matt.
I love that you just called my stepfather a cunt–a capital “C” Cunt at that! It’s so gloriously unladylike. Most bogan.
My stepfather was a mess of confusion largely due to one particular thing: alcohol. I don’t refer to it too much here because at these ages I wasn’t all that aware of it, but he drank a lot. That thing about a whole pitcher by himself? Every time we went out to eat.
What’s really sick about this is that did this believing me to be his biological son. I can’t figure out if he was harder on me because of it or not.
I agree. This is great writing.
Stories like this are exactly why I get angry anytime someone guilt trips me for no longer communicating with my violent father, or guilt trips anyone else for no longer speaking to a family member.
If you weren’t related to them–if a stranger hit you–your family would press assault and battery charges and fight for justice on your behalf. But because you are related, you’re just supposed to take it and forgive them?
If you hit a child and make them feel worthless, scared and alone, you no longer deserve the privilege of being in their life. If you are capable of hitting kids, you shouldn’t even be allowed to own a pet.
And fuck your stepdad. I really hate him, Matt. You’re an amazing person and you deserved so much better.
I’m glad you learned karate. I bet that was one of the most empowering things that has ever happened to you, besides moving out of the house, yes?
It was. All the moreso because the dojo turned out to be a surrogate family for me. The two head instructors–a husband & wife pair–were much more positive adult figures to be around. And the training and discipline gave me the structure to understand and channel the residual anger being abused left me.
What was ironic is, my stepfather always wanted to shape me into some sort of athlete. Always. Just did not understand why I had zero interest in any team sports. So when I finally enroll in something physical–and excel at it–does he care? Does he take anything more than a passing interest?
Agreed. There are many jerks like G. My dad had some of G. in him. But he wasn’t as bad. Just a different kind of terrorist at times.
Dude. Lately, I keep hearing about different people’s experiences with abuse. It’s terrible, yet interestingly, the people I’m thinking of recently are ones who have grown into amazing, strong, good people. I wonder why that is.
Well look, dude, I want to know if you ever hit him back. I wonder about abusers… since they’re obviously used to violence and cruel psychological/emotional manipulations, I don’t think doing the same back to them would fix anything, yet it’s very tempting to see the abuser suffer the same pain they have caused others.
Is there any way to “get even” with a person like that?
Someone once told me, “Your success is the best revenge.” So far, I would say that’s dead on.
The best? Meh. Combining your success with, domestically, planting kiddie porn and meth in their apartment and then calling in a bogus child endangerment report or, if they’re traveling overseas (especially, say, Malaysia), FedExing cocaine from “them” to the concierge at their hotel and tipping the local authorities there is probably closer to “best”. But that’s just me.
I like the way you think, Anon.
Simon, Duke and I have bandied about the idea of forming a TNB revenge posse…sort of like that show Leverage I guess. We might have to include you in the roster.
Heh. The places I could take this if I hadn’t made certain promises (;. Of course, as long as we’re just talking virtual and hypothetical, I suppose we’re just gents having a friendly discussion….
I feel for you, Matt. My father was a little too hands-off to be considered abusive (if you exclude emotional frigidity) but my siblings and half the population of my environs more than made up for that until I came into my own. The trick, as with most things, is retaining the lesson while releasing the fear and pain. I’m glad you found a positive outlet.
I posted a piece about a kid who socked me. Revenge posse. I like that.
We’ll be a band of noble rogues, writing wrongs wherever we find them.
No, we never fought. The 1991 incident was the last time he ever raised his hand to me, probably because I went through a HUGE growth spurt when I was 12 and wasn’t a little kid anymore. He was a master of psychological abuse though, and that went on for years. There were a few times in my teenage years where I very nearly lost it. I stopped myself because–and I know this sounds melodramatic–I very likely would have beaten him to death. And he wasn’t worth spending the rest of my life in jail or a psych ward over.
Powerful story, and I like the tone–matter-of-fact, because what else can you do? Painful stories are more powerful when they are given to the reader straight. Love the line about the unsheathed knives.
And the ending line, which works very well.
Sorry I talk so much about craft. Can you tell I teach writing? That’s sort of weird, to say that, but it’s hard to turn it off sometimes.
Thanks for sharing this piece with the TNB audience.
I teach martial arts. My brain automatically deconstructs every fight scene I see in a movie, AND sizes up every single person I see for their potential threat. I can’t turn it off either.
And I see that it has just gone past midnight on the east coast so, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
It always makes me angry with the Mothers who allow this to happen to their children. I mean, I don’t know your Mother, but I do know I have been a single mother for 16 years, because I have not met the right man for me, nor the right stepfather for my kids. I would never put financial security or the guise of a love relationship ahead of my own childrens safety and happiness.
I am sorry this happened to the 8, 9 and 11 yr old Matt.
There was absolutely no period of transition, no point where my mom was a single mother. Soon as my dad was out my stepfather was in – because they had been cheating on their spouses with each other. Weirder, my dad had been cheating with G.’s ex-wife at same time, so the two divorces were like some fucked-up episode of Wife Swap.
The two links embedded in this essay connect with the two other posts I’ve written about my family, for further reading and information.
First I want to say that the way you wrote this story was well thought out. I have to pick two, out of many, passages that punched me right in the gut:
First this one:
“Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.”
I know this is a real experience because I have been there. It is fabulously rendered.
Then there is this passage:
“‘Where do you think you’re going?’ he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.” The adult bully always speaks softly. I got shivers and goosebumps when I read the description you came up with for his voice. Beauty. Pure beauty out of horror.
You are a killer writer, Matt.
Use that material, kiddo, just keep on using it!
(Oh, and just FYI? I have a carry permit and I’m not afraid to use it.)
That middle section always stuck with because it was so scary. He wasn’t coming up the stairs; he was standing in the middle, waiting for me to come down. Like a predator. He was drunk, for sure, but his mind still had something nasty planned.
Florida requires a carry permit for a lightsaber? I didn’t know that. But I guess it makes sense. There are all sorts of vision-impaired, half-demented elderly retirees down there – we wouldn’t want them lopping off each other’s limbs willy-nilly.
It IS scary!
(Now the bold is supposed to stop, just saying.)
Like a predator! Damn you are still scaring me!
Yes, but as long as you prove you can handle your lightsaber, you get an official card. I’d copy it and show it to you, but the picture is so hideous that I’d have to black out the whole picture.
When I draw that mental image up in my head–of him waiting on the stairs for me–the closest comparison I can come to is of a lion crouching in the grass, just biding time before the attack. It was really, really unsettling, then and now.
I refuse to believe any photo of you could be hideous.
Too many of us have had experiences with abuse. All forms. I wonder what it means that we have found each other over thousands of miles. Whatever the answer, I’m grateful.
I’m sorry for what you went through but it has made you the person you are. The person we love. I wish I could hug 10 year old you but I guess that little boy didn’t need it as much as we would think. I guess grown-up Matt doesn’t need a hug either but I think you still deserve a few.
Great writing, as usual, Matt.
What was really strange was how so many of my friends in college had similar stories of abuse, mistreatment or dysfunctional family life. It’s like there was something about my immediate age group and the parents who raised us which led to that sort of thing.
Which means, of course, some of us got into dysfunctional relationships with each other….but that’s another story.
You and I have a LOT in common…
I’m glad you are here.
I’m glad you’re here too.
Matt, Thank you for sharing your experience. I believe it is important for those abused to share how it effected their childhood. I hope this was healing for you to write and now you can release it.
Thank you, Lorna.
This isn’t exactly news; I’ve talked about it pretty extensively in the past, since unlike everyone else in my family I flatly refuse to keep quiet about it. But it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve started to write about it in a nonfiction context.
Matt, this is strong and powerful. I think we were raised by the same G. I grew up wishing that I was a boy, so that I could fight back. Or that I’d had a brother. But, obviously, bullies are not gender specific and I am sad that you had to go through this. Sure, sure, you’re no worse for the wear, but a child deserves a childhood and the whole time I was reading this, I just wanted to run into the other room and hug T and I and just tell them I love them.
This is beautifully written. It wants to be bigger, more. There’s too much here for a short story.
Why I centered it around the three specific times he hit me. And I cut about 800 words out of the 2300 I wrote originally. This was a long, grotesquely-wound drama, and even though it’s over now some of the scars still ache. But I need to save some of that material for later entries.
Matt I know
how hard it is to write stuff like this
to give it the right balance
& really this is why
more than book deals
We write to find out who we
Karate for the enemy
Writing for the enemy
Good show sir
When I started writing this the
words flowed like the blood.
A gushing torrent I had
to clean up a bit afterwards
there was so much of it.
This is very well written story, Matt. Excellent, evocative writing.
It’s tragic how repulsive adults can be. I have a very dark outlook on life, and it’s because I see so many people like G. Human beings are naturally weak and that lets them do awful things. It’s easier to hurt someone than to help them.
The smashed model almost broke my heart. I don’t know why, but it’s really difficult for me to even think about that.
That was going to be a beautiful little ship. It was from a kit, but it had actual wood parts built into it, and actual cloth and rope for the sails. I’d had enough practice that my technique was getting pretty good. Sadly, it busted up too bad when it hit the floor, and I wasn’t able to salvage it.
This is really good, Matt.
Having been both father and stepfather to sons, I know how complicated it can get — but what you got wasn’t complication, it was raw abuse.
Mary was wondering about getting even.
How to you get even with somebody like G?
You don’t pass it on. It stops with you.
That’s the best revenge, showing G that he failed to turn you into him.
Even just knowing you at a distance via TNB, I’m sure it will stop with you. But, sad to say, with many it doesn’t, so abuse just begets more abusers.
My revenge has been to not keep quiet about it, which has been the family M.O. for far, far too long. I don’t care if it shames or embarrasses people that this happened – too much refusal to acknowledge the injury just perpetuates the cycle.
Like any other bully, G. completely fell apart once I confronted him about how insecure and powerless he really was, and denied him any sort of authority over me. It was a long, long time before I finally had the intellectual weapons to do so–middle of college–but once I did, that was it.
“I don’t care if it shames or embarrasses people that this happened – too much refusal to acknowledge the injury just perpetuates the cycle.”
YES. Oh my god, one thousand times yes. I couldn’t agree more.
You don’t want people to talk about how shitty you’ve been, don’t be shitty. It’s not that hard to be a decent person.
The wheels on the cycle of abuse are greased by silence.
Matt, your step-dad and mine were cut from the same cloth. I know how hard this must have been to write, because it was hard for me to read without picturing my step-dad in G.’s place.
Jesus, the beer. The fucking beer!
It’s amazing how they trick you into believing you’re a worthless piece of crap, not once, not twice but practically your whole life. I’m just grateful for having stood up to him one time and moving to a different city (in with my grandmother) with only R300.00 in my back pocket. But that’s a whole other story for another time.
Well written, Matt. You have me in tears. I’m with the Bogan in the first comment, your step-dad was (is) a C***!!!
My stepfather was what is referred to here in the States as a “functional alcoholic,” someone who drinks more or less constantly but never seems impaired or intoxicated. I can’t even begin to count how many beers he would go through over the course of the week.
Convincing me I was crap was his principle parenting strategy, but for the most part he did it passively. It’s amazing how much a parent can injure a child just by repeatedly implying “that’s good, but not good enough.”
You got an A- on you history exam instead of an A? That’s not good enough.
You only lost ten pounds? That’s not good enough.
It took you an hour to mow the lawn? That’s not good enough.
You got the supporting lead in the school play? That’s not good enough.
For thirteen years.
Oh, yes, that’s exaclty how my step-dad could be described, “a functional alcoholic”. Never knew there was a term for it.
I don’t recall him EVER drinking anything else but a cup of tea in the morning and then beer the rest of the time.
My step-dad’s favourite was to compare us to our cousins, whom he thought because my uncle and aunt were a little wealthy, that by default my cousins’ rooms were always clean or that they got better grades that what we did, or whatever the topic of the week was. They were always better than us.
I know all about parents trying to convince you that you’re something that you’re not. The worst part about it was that my mom was scared of him and only stood up for us when she thought she could. His house, his rules. He also thought that the world owes him everything. Did your step-dad have that train of thought as well?
Oh yes. He was the unquestioned authority on everything, at least in his own head. He could be speaking with Nelson Mandela or Steven Hawking or Albert Einstein and still behave like he’s the smartest man in the room.
G. never really drank in the mornings, or when he was working. He wasn’t even necessarily drinking all the time, and never acted like the rest of us do when we’re blotto. But he couldn’t be around alcohol and not drink. We’d go out to a restaurant to drink and he would consume an entire pitcher of beer by himself.
being bullied is lame. the past is always with you, no matter how many changes you make to ensure that your life is right. that’s even lamer. still, though, there’s something to be said for making those changes. good for you.
The desire to change, to take ownership of the things that have been done to me has, I think, been the principle thing that’s allowed me to move on. Heavy as it is, I’d rather carry my past than let my past carry me.
You’re right. Bullies are lame. Now gimme yer lunch money.
Okay, this sentence wrapped tight around my heart and guts: “I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.”
Your pain is tangible–I flinched as I read this–but what emerges, too, is your incredible resilience. You were and are stronger than the man who treated you so cruelly, than the adults who failed to acknowledge and comfort you.
I don’t mean to be cheesy or religious when I say this, but the truth will set you free. Peace and healing are on the other side, even if it’s a long long road to get there. Thank you for bravely sharing this story.
A photographer came out to shoot a family portrait when they were married. In it everyone is smiling. Except me. I’m wearing a stone, emotionless poker face, which became my default expression whenever anyone pointed a camera at. People would always see that portrait hanging in our living room and comment, “Wow, Matthew sure is a grump.” No one ever knew why.
These events are kind of, well, old news. I’ve been talking about them for years, especially among my college friends, many of whom seemed to have similar stories. But as I mentioned above, this is really the first time I’ve written about them without masking it in fiction.
Oh, Matt. This makes me so mad…and sad, but mostly mad. Adults who take their own rage and self-hatred out on children really make me sick. Cunt isn’t even a harsh enough word for it. There is no word for child-abusers. Our language simply doesn’t have a word loathsome enough to do it.
I want to think those karate lessons one day resulted in a sweet vengeance, but that’s probably my own unchecked aggression leaking out. Either way, I’m glad you were able to overcome this experience.
There was never any physical revenge, but in college I was able to finally get some psychological and emotional revenge–which I allude to in one of the stories the above links in the post lead to, if you’ve never read them before.
This demonstrates so achingly the fragility of childhood and also the makings of a quiet inner strength that has surely contributed to the wonderful human you are today. There is no excuse for using a child to physically and emotionally vent your anger, disappointment and frustrations — yet you have managed — in the very poignant telling– to show us how weak and insecure a man your stepfather was without directly maligning him and that, Matt, is an incredible feat of restraint in your elegant phrasing.
The story you chose to share is horrific in its abuse — but a triumph in the telling. As Ronlyn and many others before me have said, thanks, Matt. Thanks for trusting your TNB “family” enough to tell this story.
Well, thank you Robin. I’ve been reading Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club for the first time lately, and it knocked a few things loose in the ol’ crackerbarrel. I’ve discussed these events before, but never in writing, so I thought it was time to give it a try.
The thing I learned as a young adult dealing with G.–and what, perhaps, really allowed me to break out of the spiritual closet corner he had me in for so long–was that when you strip away all the self-imposed justifications and rationalizations for a person’s awful behavior and just let it stand in it’s own context, more often then not it reveals what sort of person they really are.
You don’t defeat a bully by bashing him down into the dirt. You do it by exposing him for the insecure coward he really is.
Matt, this is phenomenal. As a little kid, you pretty much never look behind the behavior of your friends. If a kid is quiet or shy, most people seem to just accept that the kid was somehow born with that personality, rather than acquiring these behaviors during ugly and unseen moments.
You invoke so much compassion in this piece, as well as intense anger towards G. I hope that an eventual installment of your story ends with him receiving the karmic payback he has most surely earned, either via a kicking or a profound realization of what he is.
According to some of my relatives, when I was little (about 5 or 6), I was an energetic–even rambunctious–child, very outgoing and gregarious. Massive sea change in my behavior after that point, which would be when G. first moved in with us.
I wonder why no one bothered to ask why.
Though I would agree with the point Uche stresses below: some kids just naturally tend one way or the other. It’s not always indicative of what their home life is like. Even under the best of circumstances my sisters probably always would have been more social than me.
Hard one for me to comment on. As with many Nigerians (an attitude I think common in other modern, non-Western cultures), I don’t automatically find corporal punishment to be worse than any other form of discipline, but this is not the place for me to discuss that further. I will say that for me, what makes G. most cruel here is that he seemed out of control of his impulses, and incapable of basic fairness. No punishment by a parent should ever be undertaken with vindictiveness. That’s a tall, tall order: we’re all human, so it’s all shades and tones, but it seems clear that in this case, there was far too much about these episodes tied into his chronic underestimation of your worth. I suspect that constant lack of regard was the deep-lying magma that left you with burns, brought into unmistakable relief by the occasional eruptions. Nothing, however is more important than for you to have found peace. I took on Karate as a 9 year old fan of Bruce lee, but in all these years of martial arts I have known many wonderful training partners for whom it was inestimable exercise of demons. I think that in having found peace in writing as well as martial arts, you have followed the road of the great Musashi himself.
@Joe, Caution, please. Not every shy kid is that way from emotional or physical abuse. Shyness is a normal and respectable human trait.
I don’t think it’s limited to non-Western cultures. There are places in the U.S. where corporal punishment is not only not considered abuse, they have rules and regulations on what sort of sticks and paddles can be used to give a spanking.
My stepfather was beaten by his father, a Mexican immigrant, but I didn’t learn that until I was an adult. While these were the only times he physically assaulted me, he psychologically pummelled me in daily increments.
His upbringing was never spoken off at all; it was as if we as a family had no sense of history or legacy beyond the moments we were living in.
I’ve found a bit of peace, yes, but it’s the peace of the ocean; the surface may appear calm but there’s always something going on below the surface. And from time to time storms happen.
“Not every shy kid is that way from emotional or physical abuse.”
This is true, but I just want to point out that it is also a mistake to assume kids are inherently quiet or shy.
My little sister started out the same as Matt: outgoing and gregarious. Our parents divorced, she and I moved in with a new stepfather and his older children, and my sister spent ages five through eight being constantly raped by his nine-years-older son. Nobody understood why she wouldn’t smile for family pictures, or why she stayed locked in her room doing artwork all of the time.
My rambling point: it stinks, but bad things sometimes happen to kids. I think Joe’s thought was just that we shouldn’t assume all children come by shyness naturally. Ask questions, listen to the answers, and most importantly, believe them when they tell you things, even if they’re telling you things you don’t want to hear.
Kids, like everyone else, change personalities over time according to their environment. Shyness happens naturally, as does gregariousness and even meanness. But a drastic change in a kid’s temperment is always, always a huge clue that something is wrong at home.
I sort of agree. A massive change in temperament is always a reason to ask serious questions. I don’t think that means that the answer has to be such a dire problem at home. I’d rather those asking the necessary questions didn’t lead with that assumption. Assumptions are very bad for the truth.
Oh, agreed. And even hand, a friendly temperament, and a willingness to be objectively open-minded serve the situation best.
…but then, that’s true for much in life, isn’t it?
I think you make an excellent distinction there, physical discipline versus abuse. I believe I spanked my daughter all of once – she had locked me out of the house while dinner was on the stovetop and thought it was highly amusing to repeatedly tell me “No” when I first asked and later demanded to be let back in before something caught on fire. From that one episode, she considers spanking to be “the nuclear option” and the realization that she has ignored all other forms of warning, discipline and punishment leaving me only that last resort has always been enough to bring her back to her senses.
Still, to resort to violence first and in such disproportion to the gravity of the situation is abusive and contemptible.
My mother used to spank us, when she was still married to my dad. Had a wicked-looking wooden spoon reserved for just that purpose. Sometimes she actually took the time to tell us what we did wrong and why we were getting spanked. Mostly, though, I remember her being very, very angry as she paddled our backsides with that damned spoon. Which was scarier, and hurt way more, deep deep down, than the spanking ever was.
Until G. came along. The spankings stopped, but the guilt trips and psychological punishments G. doled out were far worse.
This is similar to how I got cuffed by Grandpa. There was no food on the stove, but he picked me up from day camp at the Y, and I had, at some point, lost my towel. He asked me where my towel was, and rather than just say I lost it, for some reason, I made up my mind to tell him, “I’m not telling you,” in my best tiny, snotty voice.
Why? Why would I do that? Grandpa was not a mean man or someone who didn’t understand that kids lost things. “I lost it” would have been fine. We’d have gone in and looked for it. No big deal. He had 3 kids. He knew how it went. But I just wanted to be a little shit. I just wanted to play my testing game.
This went on for some time, with me sassing and talking about how I wasn’t telling him and he couldn’t make me. As it turns out, he could make me.
My grandpa had an artificial knee and walked with a cane. I pouted the whole way back to his house and then wouldn’t get out of the truck. He said something about doing it the easy way or the hard way. I said, “You’re an old man! You can’t carry me!”
Yeah. It turned out he could do that, too. Stuck his cane under his arm, heaved me kicking and screaming over his shoulder and put me in boring guest bedroom time out for an hour. Never questioned grandpa’s disciplinary abilities again.
There’s a French film entitled L’emploi du temps (or Time Out, as it was called by its American distributor), which is one of my favorite movies of the last decade, and your final remark about wanting to take karate reminded of it, though the movie has nothing to do with abusive relationships per se. But it’s definitely worth a watch. Oh, yes. (I’d post a link to the trailer, except that it’s horrible, and in no way does the movie justice.)
We’ve never spoken — in person, I mean — about our respective childhoods, but maybe one day we will. Because I have a few stories I’d like to share, but won’t for now. But I empathize, believe me.
I’ve just stuck it in my Netflix queue.
I’ll give you a ring when I get home tomorrow night. Been meaning to do that for a while, actually, but I keep getting distracted by things in my immediate proximity.
matt, to echo everyone, this was painful to read, and yet beautifully told.
i’ve a good friend who went through a similar experience – also learning martial arts as a way to defend himself – and i just want to get in a time machine and go back and rescue the both of you.
Thank you for the sentiment, Angela. The younger me would have loved a ride in a time machine. Nowadays I’d be all worried at stepping on the wrong butterfly.
I think the saddest part of these situations is that, ultimately (and this is my non psychiatric-trained opinion here) we need to recuse ourselves from them to really achieve any sort of closure. Otherwise it becomes too easy to remain trapped in the state of victimhood.
Fortunately your friend and I each found a means to do so. Many others aren’t so fortunate.
Beautifully horrible Matt.
Damn it, I was going for horribly beautiful! Ah well.
Ick. I don’t know how kids manage to deal with parents like that. You’re lucky to have turned out to be such a great guy. Was it hard to convince your parents to let you take karate lessons?
Not really. It helped that I did the legwork beforehand; I went to different schools, got information on pricing, had one chosen close to the house. I think they figured I’d do it for a couple of months, get bored, and drop out. Eighteen years later and I’m still going strong.
Powerful and sad, Matt, as so many commenters have said. An odd and surprising-to-me outcome of my reading this is to appreciate my father who himself was often beat up by his biological father. He also witnessed his father beating up his stepmother. My father chose never to bring such hell into his own wife’s and children’s lives. I’m glad for your courage in leading me and others to carefully think through our family experiences with a view to active, positive life choices.
Thanks, Judy. I’m gald your father was able to break the cycle of things, and not pass on what had been done to him. I hope I’ll be able to do the same when it’s my turn.
Well, Matt, it seems that countless fathers and mothers who’ve themselves been abused have chosen not to perpetuate it; hence, you’ll be in a huge group of positively-directed folk whom we seldom hear about in the media, but they live all around us and deserve our congratulations.
It’s not always an easy ride to refrain from abusing our kids; it doesn’t “just happen”, and there are times/contexts/situations that tempt us to take out our frustration on the weaker people in our lives. Honestly, I don’t know any parents—female or male—who have not felt guilty about being too harsh physically and emotionally with their kid(s), and I am certainly one of those parents. The fantastic wonder is that we see, as you say, the cycle breaking. You’ve chosen to be a good father, and that is the most fundamental qualification for being a good father.
My first thought was the same as Zara’s (Zara, I think the missing letters are U, N and T. What do I win?)
Matt, not keeping quiet is definitely the way forward. It’s also, as has been mentioned, an effective form of revenge – made much sweeter by the fact that you’ve told the story so well. Didn’t you write it in a day, eviscerate it the next and post it the next? Proper job.
Yeah, I wrote this is in a bit of a lengthy spurt Wednesday evening, 2300 words in a single 3-hour sitting. Cut it down about 800 words and tinkered a bit the next morning. Hit “publish<” readit over and spotted a few errors WordPress had added of it’s own accord (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). Corrected those, and BAM! that’s how it’s done.
I feel you, man. I feel you.
Nicely written, too.
this was a great write. i had to barrel through it twice. what do i say? well, it seems to me the folk above nailed it. abuse is a motherfucker and it’s terribly sad that tales like this are even exist. you have a great writing style and the tone (someone mentioned tone) is right on. later, man. thanks for the story.
Thanks for making the two attempts, bro. Some people read something like this and they just can’t hack it, give up after a few paragraphs. Glad you took the time.
Fucken A, Matt. I wanna read the next part where you go all Bruce Lee on G.’s ass. Woof. No one should have to put up with the shit that you did. Onward and upward, bro.
Never was any physical vengeance, but I certainly got it by other means. By the time I was in college I figured out exactly what he was about, and let him know; I believe my exact phrase was something along the lines of “You’re nothing but a scared and angry eighteen year-old boy in the body of a fifty year-old man.”
Beating a bully doesn’t necesarrily mean violence. Victory begins just by saying “no.”
I am a friend of Irene Zion. She recommended I read your piece. I got sick to my stomach while reading what you had to endure. Where was your mother during all this??? Personally, I won’t be happy till I hear G’s dead.. Bless you for being able to move on with your life..Bless you for being able to express your thoughts and feelings so well… I hope you find much peace an happiness that you so well deserve…
Thanks for reading, Pamela, and thanks for the comment. I’m glad Irene pointed you in my direction.
My mother was doing the same thing too many women in abusive/dysfunctional relationships do: turning a blind eye because accepting it seems the lesser struggle than trying to go it alone. To be fair, she didn’t know about these assaults, as it was never spoken of until I was an adult and they were divorcing–and he was so drunk and/or high during these incidents that he pretty much blotted them from his memory as well.
Hey Matt, I was just diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s partially from all the shit I endured as a child too. I have a nine year old daughter. My husband wants a divorce. He has been verbally abusive to me in front of her. It’s mortifying. I tried to stop him but he didn’t care. She took my side which breaks my heart that she would even think to have to take sides. I have tried to talk to her about everything that is happening in our lives and give her the opportunity to be a part of decisions. She’s okay with the divorce. Daddy’s actually nicer now. I’m the loser that loves him despite the abuse. I’m getting therapy.
One thing that I did when she was six was enroll her in a Kung Fu program called Girl Power. It has given her the self-worth and strength I lack. Everytime I go to her class Si Gong or Mr. Girl Power says something that makes me cry. Why didn’t I have this when I was littl?. I’m so proud of my daughter and I am doing everything I can to help her grow up without the pain and suffering that so many people do.
I’m so glad you found Karate.
Wow, that nested weird. See comment below.
Dude, the way the girl came in for the kick in the first picture, it’s no wonder she ended up in in the position of the second 😉
Hmm, sorry, I actually read that comment from bottom up. I went to the link first, made my smart-ass comment, and then read the rest.
Tammy, I’m sorry to hear of that. One of the most disgraceful things any parent can do is talk to another parent disrespectfully in front of the children. I think some people think they are getting one-up in terms of the child’s regard. They are contemptible idiots, and they are hurting the child as much as their spouse.
You are exactly right that the damage is manifested in your daughter’s having to take sides. A father and mother’s first responsibility is to the child’s sense of security. Your husband has shattered that security, and I hope he comes to his senses.
Just make sure the Girl Power Academy is teaching her that she should avoid kicking an assailant above the abdomen without complete assurance she can land the blow. Sorry. Couldn’t resist 😀
1.) Everything your husband is saying/doing is entirely reflective of his own issues, insecurities and personal weaknesses. It’s not a reflection on you or your diagnosis. It’s him using your diagnosis as an excuse to act out. Which is pathetic, and unworthy of your love.
2.) Good for you for communicating with your daughter the way you do. It may be the thing that saves her when this is all said and done. My own mother pretty much left us to our own devices while she dealt with her own issues, so what we ended up with was nothing but fear and confusion, no real understanding of what was happening in our lives.
You’re not a loser. That’s him talking.
What a motherfucker!
My friend Julian is a psych, and we frequently make the same lament: ‘Why isn’t there such a thing as a parenting license?’
And very, very strict punishments for operating without one.
Wise lament, Simon. Once, with a new acquaintance, I was trying to find *any* common ground upon which we’d agree. I said: “Look, we don’t see eye to eye on politics, religion, the economy, or art. I guess motherhood’s the only thing we wouldn’t argue about.” He said, “Children should be raised by professionals. That way, if things go wrong, they can be fired.” After the initial shock, I had to admit he had a point.
Thx Matt. I’m doing the best I can. So far Izzy’s awesome.
A fine piece of writing on a difficult subject, Matt.
Among the awfulness, what stands out most of all for me is the casual but mandatory instruction to call him Dad. I hate when people throw that word around nonchalantly. Also awful, and in its own way worse than the violence, because it requires so much forethought, is the constant moving around. It’s terrible to uproot your kids, unless it’s for their safety. It can be traumatic. My guess is, “Dad” didn’t really think about that all that much.
Thanks for sharing this.
Also: got your postcard, and it’s terrific! Thanks!
It wasn’t mandatory, per se, but more along the lines of a strong suggestion..and one I think my mother was making without prompting, though I can’t confirm that either way. I was never able to do it, though. The word just started to seem alien to me around that time, and I more or less quit using it entirely; my “real” dad wasn’t exactly up to snuff as a parent either, as I’ve mentioned before.
What really makes this all seem insidious to me (and admittedly, I’m not the most objective person in this matter) is that both G. and my mother were already certain by this point that I was G.’s biological child. Much of the way he treated me was an attempt to subvert my personality into what he thought his son should behave–and he did this believing we were biologically related. Who knows what sort of treatment I (or my little sister) wold have recieved if that weren’t the case.
Will mention here what I mentioned on facebook for sake of conversation, with elaboration and the preamble that I understand your experience was totally different from mine.
I admit to siding with Uche in theory. A well-timed and rare spanking in a case of exceptionally bad (or dangerous) behavior does not, in my mind, a cruel or abusive parent make.
I’ve gotten a few spankings–maybe three or four–in my life. But they were never sadistic or rage-fueled or disproportionate to the “crime” in my memory. Frankly–and I’m sure everyone will be shocked–I was an extremely defiant and strong-willed child. Occasionally possessed. I can say, with no self pity and no traumatic psychological scars to show for it that in the two spanking cases I remember, I deserved it. I was the kid who had wild screaming tantrums if I didn’t get my way. Totally out of my mind. In my mom’s words, there were one or two times where I was “just gone” and would have seriously hurt myself if something wasn’t done to bring me back to earth. I believe her.
My grandpa slapped me in the face once. He was not drunk and I was being a total mouthy shit, as was my way. I have the distinct honor of being the only grandchild to have ever made him that angry. I was not traumatized, but I never spoke to him like that again. I had (have) a way of testing limits. I found his.
All that said, none of what you’re saying here sounds like my experience. I never lived in an environment of intimidation or psychological or emotional abuse. My parents were supportive and kind and treated corporal punishment as an absolute last resort for the most serious of circumstances. That is to say, I was never confused by their discipline. Maybe that plays, somehow, into any “appropriate” application of corporal punishment.
I think I’m more or less in the “method of last resort” camp, too. The difficulty is that everyone’s point of “last resort” is different.
In my stepfather’s case, there was minimal to no tolerance for any sort of testing whatsoever. The moment I acted up in any fashion, I was immediately slapped back into my “place”–though I continue to stress that these were the only times he was physically abusive to me, and in each time alcohol was involved. The psychological/emotional stuff was ongoing, day-in and day-out, though.
I think, as you mention, the understanding of the punishment (whatever form it takes) is the crucial factor. Rationally informing a child “You’ve been naughty by doing ______, so you’re going to get _____paddles/minutes in time-out/nights without dessert” etc. makes a world of difference than just administering punitive measures while angry.
What was scariest about my stepfather’s rules was that many of them were completely arbitrary, often times just made up on the spot because he didn’t consider my behavior “proper” for a male kid my age (oh yeah, he had a sublte but pretty firm gender bias too) to be engaging in. Made it so that any time I was around him I was pretty certain I was going to be punished for something.
I hate to challenge the status quo here, but after reading I was left wondering if G. and you ever had any good moments. This feels…tendentious. Regardless, I respect how difficult it is to let people in on this sort of thing and then post it on the web for anyone to read.
Thanks for the read,
Few and far between, and given the arbitrarily-exercised nature of his authority, perpetually tinged with fear that I might do something that would result in getting punished.
We didn’t do too many father/son type activities, mostly because I wasn’t into sports, and he didn’t really care for any of the things I enjoyed. When he did take me to do something I liked, he always acted impatient and half-bored, like there was something better he could be doing elsewhere.
There’s a bit that I put in the original draft which illustrates this perfectly: when I was 8 or 9 my mother had him take me to the Natural History Museum to see a new exhibit. Instead of coming in he just gave me the entrance fee and made himself comfortable outside on a lawn chair he brought with him. When I came out afterwards I got in trouble for being ten minutes late for the deadline he’d imposed, even though he’d never mentioned any such thing.
Biting my lip yet again so I don’t launch into an anti-G. tirade.
I’m sure this must have been difficult to write about, and you did so very well. I hate bullies, and really there isn’t much better about their enablers, which in this case it sounds like your mother might have (unwittingly?) been. I couldn’t tell from the post if she knew about the events, but even if she didn’t, I feel like it’s the biological parent’s responsibility to carefully watch the new spouse with his or her children. Integrating families is a tough thing and you never know how the various parties are going to react.
Love that you started karate as a way to build your confidence and end the cycle of abuse.
As I mentioned in a few of the comments above, I’ve been discussing this pretty openly for about the last ten years, so writing about it wasn’t all that hard, though it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve taken it out a fictionalized context. The first link embedded in the story details the events that led to my “breaking point,” where I decided that I simply wasn’t going to silently put up with it anymore.
My mother wasn’t aware of the physical abuse, for sure–ironically, neither was my stepfather, as due to the alcohol and his own staggeringly large sense of denial regarding his own faults, he didn’t remember a thing about it. My mother, sadly, is a massive co-dependant, and has for most part been a passive participant in her own life. I’m not exaggerating when I said she turned over the reigns of our family to him. Once he was there, she pretty much went along with whatever he wanted.
Ugh, reading this made me hurt. What a cold bastard. I mean, beyond the horrible acts of physical abuse, things like this–
“There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block”
–are just so sad and insensitive. I’m very sorry you had to live this out, though your words, as usual, are strung together w/ exquisite beauty. Nice work.
Wow, Matt. I’m skipping the comments, so I don’t know what’s been said. Funny how these things shape our lives isn’t it? So much of the good in what you do now is the product of the bad you endured.
Without going into to much detail, I will simply say that you and I share similar stories. Mine is not as bad in that I was not as young as you were. Nevertheless, I was only a year or two older and had a stepdad that thought punching children solved problems. He didn’t drink, he was simply an asshole. I hid it from my mom as often as I could.
I swung back a lot, even at 12 and 13, but it took me until I was eighteen to finally win. Watching him bleed at my hand was one of the most satisfactory moments I can recall. My mother divorced him that same year. I empathize all too well with your stories. It’s terrifying to be that child.
And I also shared your affinity for dinosaurs. I still find it cool that i can rattle their names off at will, even today. Dinosaurs, models, spaceships, and particularly Legos. I hid in my room a lot back then, building things and drawing pictures and crafting stories. In a way, that violence forced me to create.
I’m over all of it now. It was years ago, and there weren’t any lasting negative effects. I wouldn’t mind taking another swing at him now though. I still owe him a few.
Damn, all of us geeks hid in our rooms and took up the same pastime. I lashed out at society. Took up hockey for years. I’m still trying to deal with old issues. Do you think it helped or hurt more to win that last fight, Slade? Just curious.
Yeah, it probably would have been a very different game if he’d come along when I was an adolescent. As it was, the divorce between my mom and dad was prolonged (almost two years with the various alimony/child-support battles) and nasty, so my sister and I were both at really vulnerable point when he came along.
Much as I would enjoy taking a swing at my stepfather, I know that disowning him and cutting him out of my life hurt him far worse than and physical blow ever could. Being rejected like that cuts right through his egomaniacism to his own sence of inadequacy and self worth–and that’s a wound that never really heals.
Ah, dinosaurs. I still love being able to rattle off all the names, eras, etc.
@ Nick – I don’t know, honestly. I’m relatively apathetic about it all now. I truthfully walked away from it all with no permanent scars. At the time though, it felt really good. Then again, you don’t know shit at eighteen. Or maybe I was twenty. That’s how little I really hang on to all of it.
@ Matt – You have nothing to prove anymore. You’re right in that that is a far worse punishment. My parent’s divorce was a nightmare too, btw. I’ve never written about it publicly, though I have challenged myself to go back and find the “funny” in it. It’s an ambitious goal, and one I have failed at miserably thus far.
Slade and Matt: I think I can find the funny in my parents’ divorce. But then I don’t know if anyone else would find the funny. Glad that we all could walk away in some respect from hurtful childhood moments. Though they add to who we are.
It’s there. It is. In some aspects I feel a bit guilty for finding some things funny. In retrospect anyway. I feel like I might be insulting family members that were really hurt in the process. This now is beginning to allude to Susan Henderson’s piece.
I can’t find the funny in mind, mostly because I was too young to really remember anything other than the scary and the sad. My mom and my dad physically fighting with each other Christmas morning, for example.
And yeah, Slade, you’ve got to be careful with stories involving the family, especially if you’re still close with them. Despite omitting everyone’s name and changing a few key details so no one with a bug up their ass for research can ferret them out, the two previous stories I wrote about my family pretty much got me ostracized. Not that it was a big loss for me, but other people might be concerned.
This piece brought me to tears for several reasons, including moments where I have been so angry I wanted to thump my kids. But being angry I learned only imprints on kids’ minds a terrible scowl that lasts a lifetime in nightmares.
I spend my childhood feeling mostly alone, not wanting to deal with or talk to adults. I’m sort of the same way still. Always more comfortable hanging out with kids and watching cartoons than dealing with adult issues.
Probably too much personal information from me. But your piece made me reflect on a lot.
Kids make us angry. It’s part of what they do, testing boundaries and learning what is permissable and what isn’t. Getting angry at that is a human response. It’s how we deal with that anger that defines us as parents and role models.
And let’s face it, adults can be scary or intimidating to kids under the best of circumstances. They’re all so big, and adult world so strange and scary.
Kids are way more fun to hang out with.
My boys are tougher than me now too. I don’t stand a chance. And there’s two of them. And they carry guitars and sharpened violins and hockey sticks. I can only tackle ’em with my wits. And I don’t have much of those left either.
I agree. Kids are freakin’ fun.
Haha, Nick. I picture them with torches and their improvised weapons chasing monsters through Switzerland. (That is where Frankenstein was set, no? Damn. Now I have to go look this up.)
[…] the workspace and craft supplies with us are G., my mother’s partner in adultery and the man who would become my stepfather, and his daughter, […]
Wow, Matt. This is heartbreaking. Most kids never get beyond abusive parenting as they grow up, and they become just like their parents. It seems like you had enough gumption, even then, to find an outlet where you could channel your energy and feelings.
I hope you kicked his ass.
[…] the illegitimate child of his abusive stepfather, but doesn’t know for certain (or feel the need […]
I agree. This is great writing.