HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Caleigh Royer’s blog, Profligate Truth. It was a guest post by Katharine Diehl for Caleigh’s “I Have a Voice” series and originally published on September 16, 2013.
About the author: Katharine Diehl is 22 and lives in Brooklyn, NY. She has a BA in psychology and her poetry has been published in Squalorly and Fickle Muses. She works part-time but she needs more money, so if anyone would like to pay her to write or be a professional poet, she is available. She blogs about writing and writes about other stuff at frozenseawriting.tumblr.com.
I can never tell if I have forgiven my parents.
Not for spanking my baby brother, who was crippled from neuroblastoma and died at the age of 5. The spankings were rare, compared to other families; my dad had a sort of business going, creating “spankers” out of conveyer belt. My sister and I laughed at the children we knew whose parents hit them with spoons or pieces of wood. I was tough. I could take it. But I hid and shivered when I knew they were doing it to my sick brother.
Later my dad held my brother, after the coma, after he was gone, and sobbed.
Once I put a few acorns in my winter coat pocket and zipped it up; when I opened it months later, there were tiny dead worms. I was a little girl and squeamish and terrified, and my dad yelled at me for not knowing that the worms would hatch, and he put the worms in his hand and chased me in a circle around the living room, trying to get me to touch them and clean out my coat. Later I had a nightmare he was chasing me with a WWII Japanese sword his grandfather had given him.
When I told him about it, he cried because he did not know I was afraid of him.
That is the essence of my childhood. I think that my parents loved us but were disappointed that they did not have good children, and blamed themselves, and read too many books by Dobson and the Pearls. I was not good. I had a rebellious attitude. I asked too many questions. My sensory integration problems made me afraid to touch terrycloth or crumbs or let others brush me lightly, and loud noises made me feel ill, and my parents worried that they were signs of rebellion. The other children in our church were so well behaved.
My friends’ parents told them not to tolerate my behavior.
Things got better after the black years of early adolescence — nights when even God would not listen to my pleas to take the burden from my heart and cleanse it. I prayed to him every day and read the Bible, especially the Psalms, but the peace that passes all understanding would not come. But I began college on a scholarship, found new friends, and took long, lonely walks for hours where I was able to inhabit my body instead of dissociating constantly.
I learned to soothe myself with reading and walking instead of food.
My parents, grown more liberal, allowed me to visit a therapist after some panic attacks, and when I got on medication it was as if the dirty pane of glass blocking me from the world had finally lifted and there I was, naked and standing in the singing air.
Last fall my progress shattered, that delicate glass framework that held me up, when my little sister overdosed on ibuprofen. I had seen her, homeschooled, isolated, only one friend who lived a state away, spending more and more time in bed during the day. She woke, ate breakfast, and retreated to wrap herself in a blanket and sleep again. She looked like a sad burrito, I joked, and she looked at me blankly. I found her thinspiration blog, and saw the cuts in her arms. I was afraid to tell my parents, though they were concerned, because I felt homeschooling caused her isolation and I could not say that to their face. After all, I’d turned out okay. Maybe it was a phase. I am ashamed to say that I did not advocate for her, did not tell another adult.
I was afraid like a little girl instead of the woman that I was. That I am.
I was about to present my proposal for my senior honors thesis before a group of professors when she called my cell and hung up. I called back and left a message. Finally she picked up — she was home alone — and asked me what happened when you took too many pills. I said she should go to the hospital, and she started to cry. So I did the only thing I could do. I called 911 and they swooped in and took my skinny little sister, cuts all over her arms, to a hospital and kept here there for a week.
She told the doctors she was trying to kill herself, and then she changed her story.
My parents believed the second story.
She, too, has gotten better — it was the catalyst allowing her to receive therapy. She also has Celiac, and her moods have improved since changing her diet. She went through an out-patient eating disorder program and she is a healthy weight now. She is dealing with other problems now that I don’t feel comfortable sharing, but all together, she is healing herself. She is making herself whole and it has ripped me apart and put me back together, I think, being able to see her do that.
My boyfriend has helped me. He has been my rock and my shelter, as blasphemous as it is to say that- because he is not a god, but a friend and a lover. I met him when I was 20 (I’m 22 now), and he is not a Christian. My mother has suggested I marry him (a law student) and “be very poor” with him. I think she doesn’t want us to live in sin any longer, because when I visit him, I stay overnight. Whenever I return home, my dad says he hopes I had fun — but not too much fun.
My sister says I am wounding my family by dating an agnostic. My aunts asked me if he loved Jesus with all his heart.
The answer is no.
But I love him with all of my heart.
And that is that. My parents have apologized for things that never bothered me — criticizing me too much, fighting too much. I know they love me, but they will never see that their insistence on those rigid Christian values and their insular homeschooling, their need to shelter us, are the things that have harmed.
They did not cause my little sister to become suicidal, but like a mushroom grows best in moisture and the dark, the conditions were there.
I had a dream once that my dad’s mother — an alcoholic in his childhood — came to me and told me that she was the mother of all our sorrows. I have always tried to place my troubles (and triumphs) in a narrative, in archetypes, because it makes them easier to bear; but I have rarely had dreams with such truth in them.
Trouble and sadness are generational. My grandmother’s mother, a strict Spanish Pentecostal, made her kneel on rice and pray for hours until her knees were embedded and encrusted with the raw grains. My dad’s father died in his childhood. My mother told me once that she felt she lived her life in a dark room with no windows. My parents have never forgiven themselves, though I have made halting progress toward forgiving them.
I say this to say that placing blame, no matter how it helps, can also hurt.
My blood has sadness in it from generations of mental illness and cruel religion. I don’t know who to blame. Myself most of all and least of all, perhaps. The blame is dispersed and I hope and pray and tremble that the sadness will leave us — that my children, if I have them, will never be taught about an angry God or fear that they are not scrupulous, pleasing, or pretty enough.
My precious children, I will say, you exist. That is beautiful and I know that is enough.
I pray that God, whoever or wherever He is, feels the same.