I don’t WANT to write any of these stories. I don’t want to build this edifice to child abuse. I didn’t want to live in it back then, either.
How can something as simple and innocent as taking a nap turn into such a memory of terror?
My sister Cindy was 2 1/2, I was 4 1/2. We had been put on my parents’ double bed for our nap. We slept on a chenille bedspread. (This lets me know that my youngest sister had probably been born already – because she was probably sleeping in our room.) On this day, when mother came in to get us up from our naps, she found that nearly a whole line of chenille had been picked off from the side of the bed my sister slept on. There were tiny little fluffs of bedspread chenille lying on top of the bed and in little tufts upon the floor.
She immediately snapped into a horrifying rage at me for committing this crime, grabbed me by the arm, dragged me off of the bed as she screamed and beat me. Trying to get away from her blows I moved to my left, but because she had a firm grip on my left arm she just followed my body around in a circle. “Linda, why are you such a terrible child? Look at my bedspread! You have ruined it!”
I tried to tell her as she rained her blows on my little body, “I didn’t do it, Mommy. Cindy did it,” which only escalated her rage.
“Don’t blame your little sister for this! I know she would never do such a thing. You are lying, and you are trying to get you sister in trouble for something she didn’t do! You did it and you know it. I’m going to teach you not to lie to me, to tell the truth when I ask you something. I’m going to teach you not to lie to get your little sister in trouble! Cindy would never do a thing like this!”
Cindy remembers this beating. She remembers first that she tried to hold onto mother’s skirt to get her to stop, to tell her that she HAD done it, that she was sorry, to please stop hurting Linda.
Mother shoved her out of the way, and as the beating continued Cindy hid behind the bedroom door, helpless and terrified, feeling guilty and to blame for what was happening to her sister. She never forgot this, like a flashbulb memory of trauma inside her little mind.
Mother beat me so hard that day her hands hurt, even though she took turns using them. She took off her shoe and began beating me with that. She swore that day that because I had gotten so big she would have to use a belt, so she made Daddy put a hook on the back of the bedroom door and give her one of his belts with a buckle that she could keep there to use on me whenever she needed it. This way she wouldn’t have to stop and go find one. She would always know right where it was. She wouldn’t hurt her hand, either.
This incident proved to my mother that not only was I willfully and intentionally destructive of property, but that I lied and blamed my actions on my little sister to get her into trouble. That was proof that I hated my sister, that I was jealous of her, the I selfishly wanted to be an only child. There was no possible way I could intervene on my own behalf and tell her otherwise. Neither could my little sister, no matter how hard she tried. The more I tried to assert my own truth the madder it made her that I was lying.
Throughout the beating I was keenly aware that I was not lying, that I did not do this, that I did not want my little sister to get in trouble, and that Cindy was there watching the whole entire thing, I could hear her sobs as my mother screamed, and there was nothing either of us could do to change anything. We were both absolutely helpless.
A word about dissociation: Perhaps it was because of this consistent twisted mental component of my “getting into trouble,” this glaring incompatibility and inconsistency between what mother SAW and what I KNEW, that kept me mentally present during the beatings as much as was possible for me to do. While I was not consciously aware that, “This is ME being beaten,” I did KNOW that things happened in a different way than what she interpreted.
I think that this ME that knew things were different than what mother said they were kept me present during her beatings. I was not free to leave or to dissociate. Some part of me was always invested in trying to change something. I wanted her to know I had not ‘done it’. That part of ME wanted MY truth to be known, even though that was always impossible.
That sense of “No! No! No! No! That’s not what I did, that’s not what happened. Please, listen to me!” created a clash of realities in the present moment, even though my perceptions always remained invisible and had no affect on anything that happened. But this conflict kept me from dissociating during the beatings. I remained present, unrecognized, unknown, and unheard, and nonexistent as a person separate from what my mother projected out of her own distorted mind onto me.
Looking back, I had this sense of contradiction of realities between mine and my mother’s. But the contradiction could not take form in this world. It could not travel from my knowing, from my mind, into the world of physical reality and change anything – not even through the forms of my words. I had no power to assert what I knew to be the truth, what I knew really happened. I had no power to ever contradict her.
Perhaps this is why I grew up never feeling angry at my mother. I never knew what my mother did to me was wrong. I just knew she was ‘not correct’ in that what she said I had done and why I had supposedly done it was ‘not right’. I remained a creature unborn but unexpressed, even though I might try as hard as I could as a very small child.
Any outward effort I ever made to ‘defy’ her and to assert my own version of reality from within myself always made the punishments worse. Even her perception of my ‘willfulness’ was added to her abuse litany. There was never anything I could do to ‘win’. I always lost. But I endured and I survived. I had no other choice.
My mother, as my perpetrator, disallowed contradictions. But they were not entirely under her control, as much as she hated that fact.
Perhaps this is part of what “saved” me from a very early age, along with the necessity as time went on and my body grew larger and her beatings grew correspondingly more intense and brutal. I had to be present in my own body to protect myself from being killed by hitting objects in the world around me as she beat me in her out-of-control rage.
In this memory, there was only the edge of the open door with Cindy behind it and the edge of the bed near me. As I recall this senseless, brutal beating I can remember how it felt from within my own body. Not fun, I assure you, but at least I know I WAS THERE.
It was like the fact that I was present in her world meant she had no choice. She HAD to beat me. My being alive — simply that — caused her to abuse me the way she did. THAT was my fault. That I existed at all. Along with the other fact that I did not have Shirley Temple curly hair and did not have dimples, either, like my sister Cindy did. Because I did not look like the special, favorite “good” dolly I believe I represented the ‘bad little girl Mildred’, and not the lovable one. She did not know I wasn’t her, and it was her never ending job to beat the badness out of me. I was simply hated and ‘doomed’ in the same senseless way that Cindy was cherished and ‘saved’.
This incident over the bedspread is perhaps the clearest example of how my mother’s childhood traumas had distorted her mind. Because she could not know her children were not dolls, there was no hope for change or resolution. Just as she had projected herself onto and into her dolls when she was young, she did the same thing with us. We were as captured within her child-origin patterns of thought as if we were her own childhood dolls. I Believed that she had believed that she was two of them: The good doll and the bad doll. The good one (Mildred) could be tolerated, kept and loved. The bad one (Mildred) could not be tolerated. It had to transform — or be destroyed.