I'm told that women memoir writers often get accused of narcissism, just as this stranger was doing to me.
You all saw the video. The one where Ray Rice, running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punched his then-fiancee in the head, knocking her unconscious then dragging her limp body out of the elevator. It was hard to avoid given how many times per day it was aired on television, shared on Twitter, and embedded in blog posts.
Now think about the discussion that took place afterward. It was all about how the NFL was handling it and how Janay was handling it. But all I could think about was how their child is handling it. She's only a toddler so it's safe to assume she hasn't seen the video, but I'd put money on it that she's witnessed the abuse in real life.
Just as the discussion of Ray Rice's suspension from the NFL was winding down, allegations that another NFL player, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, abused his children were brought to light. Photos of welts, bruises, and broken, bleeding skin were released. Those photos made me sick to my stomach. I've seen those wounds before. I've seen them on my own body.
My mother was just 16 years old when I was conceived. It was 1970 and she lived in a small town in Georgia, so her options were limited. She married my father, who was two years her senior, and he joined the military. I don't know when the abuse started because it's not a subject that I ask her about very often, but I'm pretty sure he hit her while she was pregnant.
What I do know is that I was just six months old the first time he hit me. Obviously, I don't remember it and I didn't find this out until a few years ago during one of the few conversations my mom and I have had on the subject. She said he pounded on my back because I wouldn't stop crying. She said she instinctively threw herself over me. I didn't ask her why she didn't leave him because I already knew the answer. She was a scared teenager with a baby and she was 700 miles away from her family.
For the first seven years of my life, I watched my father beat up on my mom. I have a vague recollection of a time when I tried to get between them, jumped in front of my mom and faced my father with every ounce of courage my tiny little body could hold, screaming at him "Leave my Mommy alone!" I don't remember what happened after that. I've blocked it out, so it probably wasn't good.
Eventually she managed to leave him. She joined the military, where she met the man who became my stepdad. While she and my stepdad were both away for an extended military training, I was living with my grandparents. My father showed up at their house and convinced them to let him take me for the weekend. (I think they were afraid of him. Apparently he'd threatened to kill them when he and my mom were still married.) He was in town on leave from his assignment in Germany, and just wanted to take me to his mom's for a few days. He never brought me back. Instead, he took me to Germany where I lived with him, his second wife, her son and my baby twin brothers.
Of all of the beatings I've had over the years, the first one that I can remember took place during my time in Germany. My stepbrother and I were fighting over something silly and my father took turns hitting us with a belt until one of us confessed to starting the argument. You would think that it would only take one dose of thick leather to draw out a confession but it was a no-win situation. The one who started the argument was in for something even worse, so it was better to just take the belt until his arm got tired. If we held our ground long enough, he'd give up. But it was my stepbrother who just couldn't take it anymore. He gave in and took the remainder of the punishment for both of us.
Memories of other beatings that happened in Germany are fuzzy at best. Scattered among my memories of watching Charles and Di get married and hearing about the murder of John Lennon on the radio are memories of being picked up and thrown over a chair. I remember exaggerating my back pain in the hopes that he would stop if he realized that I was seriously injured. I know he took me to the hospital but I don't know how he explained the injury to the doctor.
My stepbrother and I weren't his only targets, of course. My stepmother was a frequent victim of his abuse as well. Most of those beatings took place behind closed doors so we didn't see them, but we heard them. She fought back, taking a hammer to his Seiko watch and some scale model of a Coors tractor-trailer that he'd built. It was like an odd form of self-defense, safer than trying to protect herself, which only made things worse. Hurt me and I will hurt you back by destroying something you care about. It sent a message without putting her in more immediate danger.
She got sick of it after awhile and left. She contacted my mom, who had been desperately trying to bring me home. (I've seen the letters she wrote to President Reagan, begging him for help.) My mom and I were finally reunited and shortly after I returned home to her, she gave birth to my little brother. Soon my mom and stepdad were transferred to Spain.
As most of you may know, the laws related to obtaining alcohol are much more relaxed in Europe than they are in the States. By the time I was 13 years old, I was battling some pretty hellacious demons. Drinking became my armor. I was going to bars, hanging out with 17-year-old girls who were hanging out with 20-year-old airmen who didn't have a problem with providing us with alcohol. I went from fighting my own monsters to becoming one. My mom, who knew very little about what had taken place in Germany because I didn't talk about it, sent me to live with my father.
My father has been married eight times. By the time I went back to live with him, he had gone through another marriage and was dating the woman who would become his fourth wife. That marriage, like the others, didn't last long and I soon found myself in the position of living alone with my father.
With no one else around to protect me and no witnesses, the beatings my father inflicted upon me got worse. I had a phone in my room and when I threatened to call the cops on him, he yanked the phone out, then blocked my bedroom door, taunting me to try and get by him to reach the phone in the living room.
He used to wear these shoes called Docksiders, boat shoes with wavy lines carved into the sole. I carried wavy welts across my back for a solid week. Luckily I was old enough to wear makeup, because it covered the bruises on my cheek and temples. When he left the top half of one of my ears completely black and blue, my hair was long enough to cover it.
It wasn't until the abuse became sexual that the authorities finally stepped in and did something. Wife Number Five found out that my father had started molesting me and she reported him. A social worker showed up and I was sent to live with my mom and stepdad who were living in the Midwest by this point.
I wish I could say that my life improved once I was finally away from my father, but it didn't. I struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, unhealthy relationships that sometimes involved physical abuse. (I once paid a fine of $125 for assault on a boyfriend who threw me against a wall. In my warped mind, the ticket was a badge of honor because it was proof that I fought back.) I'm a mother myself now and I avoid dating because I don't always trust my own judgment and I don't want to take even the slightest chance that my little girl could end up watching a man put his hands on me.
As for my father, I don't speak to him or any of his family members. I cut everyone off for the last time back in 2010. We were all in Texas after one of my brothers passed away from a Type 1 diabetes-related incident. While we were planning the funeral and sorting through my brother's stuff, my father tried to manipulate and intimidate us all. But I'd had enough.
After 40 years of dealing with his shit, I was finally done. I was finally free.