What was it like to grow up in an abusive family in the 1950s and 60s--a time before Child Abuse Hotlines and legally mandated reporting of abuse by teachers who suspect it? It was hell on earth and to this day, I can't believe I survived to tell the tale. The statistics I will be referencing in this post are current, but certainly they can be applied to the past. Patterns in human behavior are universal.
If you were to look at my sisters and me, accomplished and educated (two of us are Ivy Leaguers), you would never guess at the unspeakable horror that was our childhood. From the outside, neighbors saw a family of six. The typical suburban family. We grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. At the time, it was one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country. Father, dressed in a fine suit, left for work in his Mustang each day for his job with the federal government. Mother stayed home and . . . .
According to expert Dr. John Mersch, child abuse and neglect is strongly associated with poverty: "While children of families in all income levels suffer maltreatment, research suggests that family income is strongly related to incident rates. Children from families with annual incomes below $15,000 per year are 25 times more likely than children from families with annual income above $30,000 to be harmed or endangered by abuse and neglect. Poverty clearly predisposes to child abuse."
That was not the case in our house. Dad evidently got his jollies beating his wife and four daughters nearly every weekend. On Saturday, he would wake up to find that mother had not cleaned the house all week. Admittedly with four children it could not have been easy but he didn't appreciate that. He would look around and see the toys and trash, cloth diapers decomposing in the toilet, baby food jars all over the place and begin cursing. "Jesus Christ!" Our father (what an unfortunate phrase) the athiest would begin yelling.
We girls scattered and tried to hide under furniture or in closets, but it was no use. After he was done battering mom, he would hunt us down one by one, grab us roughly by our little arms, dragging us to one of the bedrooms where he would demand that we pull down our panties exposing our bare bottoms--sometimes all four of us at once. "Put your nose down on the bed!" he raged, eyes bulging with fury, and we did so crying and pleading with him not to hurt us.
He did this to his little girls?
Yes. Dr. Mersch's studies indicate that girls are somewhat more likely to be abused. According to statistics published in 1996, about 52% of victims of maltreatment were female and 48% were male. Data obtained in the federally funded 2005 study demonstrate no significant change in these values.
His sessions with the belt were long and protracted. He must have enjoyed them. The brute struck us over and over until he was satisfied or until he became tired. My older sister had to tell me the rest of this story.
Father was an up-and-coming computer engineer who was working with a young couple, Russian scientists, and together they were creating the first American/Soviet computer network for both governments. Rudolf and Ariadne were very charming and paid attention to us something our parents rarely did. Ariadne would bring us little gifts each time she came such as sock monkeys and carved leather child's purses. It was enchanting to hear about Russia from the two exotic strangers who spoke a strange language and even taught us how to say a sentence that I can still remember: "I speak to you in Russian."
One evening, I was so charmed, I just didn't want to leave them and go to bed at the appointed time. Father demanded that I go at once and I complained that I wanted to stay and listen to Rudolf and Ariadne. This obstinacy really set him off because before these poor startled people who were guests, he took off his belt and struck me repeatedly on the steps to the bedroom until . . . my sister says until I stopped moving. Tearfully, she led me, all but unconscious, to bed. She washed my face with a cloth, and helped me into my pajamas. I did not wake until the next day. My mother just watched this and did nothing.
That was not an isolated instance. Far from it. Remember I said these beatings happened nearly every weekend. My sister recounts that one time in junior high school, her butt and legs were so black and blue with copius deep welts that she said "R" instead of "Here" for the roll call in gym class. "R" meant that a girl was having her period and was allowed to skip the required shower those days. The poor girl hadn't begun to menstruate yet. She had to hide her shame.
This is not to say that there were no presents at Christmas or bicycles for birthdays. Remember this is an affluent family but there was other strange behavior that I find unaccountable except for cruelty. For example, father never ate with us at the table. One of the reasons is probably because while he was eating steak, the children were eating hotdogs and boxed mac and cheese.
Talk about hopelessness. Dad was an avowed athiest and he beat mother and his girls whenever she took us to church--usually on Easter when we were dressed up in our new dresses, hats, and gloves. There was no loving God. Nothing. Nobody cared on heaven or on earth.
Before you turn to me and defend my mother who was a victimized battered wife, you should understand that she matched his cruelty and perhaps even exceeded it. Someday when I am ready to face the sadness and feelings of despair, I will write the rest of my story and what it was like to be her daughter once she divorced dad and moved my sisters and me to New Mexico. She became a drunk and married a man who sexually abused her daughters.
Looking back, I can only express sorrow. There are huge blanks of nothingness in my memory and sometimes my sister has to fill me in on the details of a childhood I have tried desperately to forget. Do I feel a certain amount of vindication writing this tome? Not really. As a matter of fact, I am saddened and surprised at the sense of shame I still feel for having this as my childhood. My one consolation is knowing that the cycle of child abuse was broken with my own family. I would never ever strike a child.
I thank heaven that there are abuse hotlines now and I pray that children who are in this situation will make the call for help and that teachers and neighbors will speak up for and defend the defenseless ones who are too small or too frightened to express their suffering to the authorities. Thanks for listening. I am going to lay down now.