Living in a different place helped. I had that figured out by the time I went to school. I was one of those kids who always seemed to be underfoot at my friend’s houses. I hated going home. Home was a dangerous, unstable place full of yelling, hate and hitting. My mother was one of the most violent people I ever met. And I have met a lot of people.
I remember the time she threw a chair at me across the room. By then, as a teenager, I outweighed her and I think, no, I’m sure, she was afraid I’d start hitting back. I never did.
When I was 14, she had her boyfriend hit me for her. I went to school with a black eye once, and another time, with a fractured jaw. No one saw the bruises under my clothes, so they believed my excuses.
When I was five, she used to take me out to the back yard, she’d pull a switch off the willow tree there and beat me on the back of my legs until they started to bleed. Then she’d go back in the house. One of my earliest memories was stamping on the ground in a rage after she had left. I pretended I was stamping on her grave. I swore to myself that someday, when she was dead, I would go to her grave and beat it with a willow switch and then piss on it before putting it, and her, behind me forever.
She knew how angry I was and she used it against me. She told people she couldn’t tell me about all the money she was giving my sister, or the way she was going to give her the house and everything else because she was afraid of me, afraid I’d “blow up” if she talked to me about these things. By then she was crazy but it is interesting how she still had the cunning to protect herself. At the time, I lived 3,000 miles away and was doing my best to remain in touch and to be kind to her, something my sister never bothered to do.
Once, when I was a teenager, she actually tried to kill me. She put her keys between her fingers and stabbed down at my head as I was trying to get away from her. It was in my attic bedroom. I was on my bed underneath the slanted roof, as I rolled away, she miscalculated and hit the wall with all her might. Her hand crumpled like a deflated balloon. The next thing I knew, she was standing in the middle of my room, cradling one broken hand in the other, and crying.
For most of my life, I was so afraid of her, I didn’t know how to manage it. I’d try to cut off contact to no avail. She’d nag my friends, our relatives, my workplace, to get me to call her. She’d bemoan the fact that I was such a terrible daughter to abandon her. Finally, she had a heart attack and who do you think she called? Of course it was me. Of course I had to go to her. She had her attack on mother’s day. Couldn’t have planned it better if she’d tried.
She was furious that I left my hometown and went to school, on my own dime, on the other side of the country. I needed help. Paying for school was hard. I had a boyfriend back home who helped me a little because he had to, at the time the B.C. government considered us man and wife by common law, but it was too little and he resented it. So I worked. But I worked as a writer and then as a teaching assistant, and that enraged her even more. How dare I do these things? They were jobs performed by special people. There was nothing special about me. So she poured more money into my sister. She bought her new appliances, subsidized her rent, provided child care for her kids, bought her a car. And she was disappointed when she didn’t get the “blow up” she predicted from me.
People have suggested that it was as hard for my sister as it was for me but Sandra took to it like a duck to water. I have no sympathy for her. My mother saved her violence for me. Sandra could have struck off on her own if she had the courage or the character to do it, she never did. She just sat there, at home in the nest, having babies and taking the money and hating me for getting myself to freedom.
I’m watching Castaway Diva right now, and I’m finding myself horrified and somewhat baffled at the violence of the main characters’ fathers. I’m baffled by the way everyone, even as adults, is so afraid of these violent parents. There’s only one remaining at this point and he is getting old, obviously weak. Yet the family that has escaped him still lives in fear of him.
I thought that was odd until I reflected on how I had lived my life in fear of my mother. It felt as though she could always reach out and “get me.” I’m not even sure what I mean by that. Was I scard she would drag me back to the west coast? It was partly that but mostly, I was convinced she could take all the good things in my life away from me. Just like the characters on the TV show are afraid.
She was a great liar, as all violent parents are. I’m sure I don’t know half of the slanderous tales she told about me. Every time I hear one, I’m surprised. She told everyone she could that I sent the police after my father in England. That’s not even possible. I still shake my head at that one. I’m sure there are more and probably worse but there’s no point speculating. As my therapist once said; “crazy people do crazy things.” Also, I never expected her to be as fixated on my life as she was. She never seemed proud of my accomplishments or even very interested in them. But looking back, there were clues.
When I married, she first tried to talk me out of it bribing me with financial help if I chose to return to Canada. Then she told me he would never commit to me. Finally, when we called her on our wedding day to give her the news, she tried to flirt with my new husband and whined “where’s my Steven” even as her partner of 35 years sat in the next room. (a kind and patient man who was, nevertheless, a spectacular enabler.) It made me cringe. It made me worry that he would think he’d married into a family of people who are comfortable being inappropriate with each other, which, I guess, is the truth.
The night before my open heart surgery, her only concern was that I try harder to get along with my lazy, toxic sister. Unbeknownst to her, I had sent greeting cards and made attempts but they were met with hostility as my sister schemed to get my mother’s money out from under her. I’ve never fully understood my sister’s hatred toward me but at this point, it’s reciprocated so who cares?
Anyway, here I am watching this very good show and wondering why these smart people don’t stand up to their scary, toxic parent. And then it dawns on me that I never did. I sent my mother gifts, called her on holidays and told her I loved her, until the day she died. Why did I do that?
I did it because I thought being a better daughter to her than she was a mother to me would somehow heal me and fix her. I believed that, at the end, she would see reason and there would be some acknowledgement of the suffering she inflicted on me. I thought she would ask me to forgive her.
She did tell me she was proud of me once for leading my own life. She told me that if she left any life lesson behind it was that no one should live like her. No one should do the things she did. That broke me. To think a woman in her seventies would look back on her life and consider it wasted seemed so tragic, I wanted to change it for her, right then and there. So of course, I stepped up the phone calls and the gifts. I cried for days after hearing that. I guess I wanted her to love me. She took advantage of that and became so slyly toxic on the phone that my husband started insisting he be on the calls every time.
Still, I kept the relationship going. Partly, I did it out of pity, partly from a sense of duty and partly I did it because she still scared me. I was raised to be afraid of her. She was the scary monster in our house. When my grandmother died, (I was nearly four) there was nowhere to go and no one to protect me. I was trapped with her. She knew it and she took full advantage of it.
I stopped living with her when I was 16. As soon as I was legally able, I got away. I was right, it was safer not to live with her. I had to worry about money, and food and shelter, but I no longer worried about getting hit or threatened at home. I no longer worried about her flirting with my boyfriends, embarrassing me in public by competing with me, about the constant insults, the guilt trips the accusations of being unfeeling, all the emotional manipulation that goes with living with someone abusive.
But they never really let you go, do they? Abusers will dog you until you give in and let go of your own life or until they die, whichever comes first. I realize now, when she was asking me to “get along better” with my sister, she was trying to transfer ownership of the family whipping girl. She was trying to make sure I never completely broke free. It almost worked, but it didn’t work. My husband is a reasonable person, he can take away the fun house mirror and hold up a light of truth in all this, for which I am grateful. So I’m not afraid of Sandra anymore.
In my mother’s medical records from the nursing home where my sister sent her to live out her last months, there is a report of her nocturnal behaviors. She was clearly mentally incompetent. Her edges were frayed, she was no longer able to keep up the meek and mild facade she had adopted in my absence. They took her phone away and considered restraints. People were surprised that she would lie in wait in the hallway near her room and try to stab the nurses with a butter knife. They were shocked that she had the temper and the strength to pick up a dresser and throw it at a nurse in a fit of rage. The things she said? Well, they’re best not repeated. She claimed Black men were waiting just outside her room, to rape and kill her. She was insane.
I wasn’t shocked. The root of her sickness was showing itself, the thing she’d kept hidden had nowhere to go. She was doing it to them because I wasn’t there. She couldn’t do it to me. It was a tiny bit satisfying to know that finally people were getting to see the monster she kept hidden under the polite exterior shell. The monster who controlled my childhood. Madness does reveal some inner truths.
My sister and I are in court right now over the estate. She seems to think mooching off my mother for 30 years makes her the better daughter and therefore more deserving. Initially, my attorney suggested I take some comfort in how my mother’s karma came round to the point where she had suffered what I considered to be abuse at the hands of my sister, my mother’s favorite. Now he’s come around. The fact that my mother was terrible at the job doesn’t make me an orphan. It doesn’t relieve her of her legal responsibilities. The fact that I tolerated behavior that looks like something from a KDrama does not disqualify me as a member of her family. In B.C. the law is clear about that.
More importantly, a pattern isn’t broken until it’s broken. I need to know other people understand what it looks like when a miscarriage of justice has lasted a lifetime. I need for this to be officially addressed and made public. The only way to clean this wound is to expose it to daylight. And I am going to see it out to the end.
I’m sharing this because it’s surprisingly common. You shouldn’t feel alone if this is the kind of mother you had. The beatification of motherhood in this culture is deeply problematic for a lot of reasons but one of them is surely because it makes the people who had bad mothers feel as though they did something wrong, or they deserved it somehow.
You didn’t. You were a child. Your mother was at fault. She was the only one. There is no shared guilt, no “two sides to every story” in an abusive family. The abusive parent is the guilty party, period. Stop trying to figure out what you could have done to make it better. The answer is, nothing. Not one thing. Abusers like to abuse. It’s a hobby to them. They’re going to do it as hard as they can for as long as they can and if it isn’t you taking it from them, it will be someone else. Until we all say no to being treated this way, as the nursing home did, it will just continue.
If you have a life you love despite having this kind of mother, you should be proud. You have climbed Everest. I’m also sharing this because my sister is stalking me and threatening me every chance she gets. My attorney tells me there is nothing to fear. I am going to take him at his word. (Hi Sandra, welcome. I’m not going to cover up for you anymore.)
Unlike the characters in the KDrama I’m enjoying, I am going to be the sensible adult in this story. They can’t “get me” because I haven’t done anything wrong. Those willow switches are a long way away and while I may never actually act out on my childish fantasies of revenge, they say the best revenge is living well. So I’m getting some. I’m awake, I’m alive. I’m grateful for every minute of every day. I have a happy marriage and lots of little day to day worries about money like most people do, but other than that, no deep concerns. I have to take care of my health but when I lie down at night, I can see the stars from my pillow. My conscience is clear and I’m not afraid someone is going to come into my room and hurt me. I answer the phone when I feel like it, and I don’t have to be sure my husband is at my side in order to feel safe. She can’t hurt me anymore.