HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Lani Harper” is a pseudonym.
Trigger warning: graphic descriptions of physical abuse.
How to sum up the first twenty years of my life in a few paragraphs? The stories are too numerous and shocking for me to process, let alone speak of.
The memories tumble over one another, leaving me gasping for air as I look with new eyes at my childhood. A childhood I thought was near-idyllic for many years. Even after I started to see my parents as too harsh on us as kids, it took nearly a decade and a half for me to put the label on it. The stories are many, but they all begin with a single point. I cannot tell the rest until I tell the beginning, the root from which all other things sprung. I am a 36 year old woman, a wife of more than ten years, mother to three.
Yet I still feel like a 6 year old girl being tersely instructed to not tell, or else.
They taunted me with mysterious unnamed events that they assured me I didn’t want but would befall me if I spoke, told me they were only able to spare me these horrible things if I kept the Code of Silence. They told us that this was how Christians disciplined their children. Other people outside of our faith wouldn’t understand why we did things this way. They were ignorant, through no fault of their own, and we had to spare them this particularly harsh reality of Christian families.
Logically, I know that he will not beat me or physically harm me now, but emotionally, psychologically, I still hold a terror that he will. Yet I am compelled to speak and encouraged by those who have gone before to tell their stories. Sad, that this is how we bond, that we have been reduced to clinging desperately to one another in our shared woundedness.
My name is Lani Harper, and I was abused.
I am the middle child of five, the third girl, and my father always introduced us like this: This is Number One Daughter (hand on Libbie’s head), Number Two Daughter (hand on Andie’s head), Number Three Daughter (I always tried to duck his hand; I hated the heaviness on my head), Number One Son (a pause while he puffed himself up with pride at introducing our brother Dale), and Number Five (hand on Evie’s head). Number One was better than Two, Two better than Three, but we all paled in comparison to Number One Son. He was never “Number Four”.
I grew up in a house where my father JD exercised complete and aboslute authority over all. His word was, we joked then (but with an underlying seriousness) law. And he brooked no challenges, no contrariness, no insubordination. To do so was to incur the wrath, to bring down his heavy hand of judgment in the form of severe disciplines. I suppose he may have always had this sort of near-obsession with power and control, and joining the military because he was flunking out of college only reinforced these authoritarian tendencies and cemented them by practice, giving him tools and methods to use on us, his insubordinates. He often commented on how running a house was similar to running a ship. And, he would say, I want to run a tight ship.
We were commanded to fall in line and to call him Sir.
Children in this culture are viewed as the property of the parents, and especially of the father. When termed that way, instead of viewing a child as a gift, a blessing, an individual entrusted to two people to nurture into an independent, educated, intelligent, functioning member of their community and citizen of their country, one begins to see how little children are valued.
Children are not people. They are not worthy. They are born sinners, with the innate and persistent duty to sin against their parents. It is an us-versus-them mentality: the children are against us, are going to undermine us, are going to undo us at an elemental level. Consequently, the parents’ focus becomes the need to stand firm against their children’s “wiles”, and to guard themselves against being drawn astray by their children. To be strong and stronger than their children. To resist their children anytime the parents feel pulled against their will, their desires, their instincts. And then to deny their children as they ask for things, in an attempt to show the children, as my father would say, who’s boss.
With this perspective, every small blunder became magnified under the perception that we were elementally sinful, deliberately devious, manipulative, intentionally-subversive.
And it was punished as such. It was a society obsessed with control, evidenced by the behavior of the man’s children. We were brutally instructed on how to act, how to speak, how to comport ourselves in the home such that when outside the home, we would not embarrass them with our childishness. We were drilled a horrid play-acting at home with severe punishment even for transgressing in practice – until we relinquished our will and just did things the way he wanted them.
So we sought to learn the mercurial rules, learn to be good, learn to do anything and everything we could to not bring about the abuse.
We were happy because children are happy until given a reason to be otherwise.
Happiness, I believe, persists as a desperate pursuit in order to feel normal, and to try to balance out or paint over some of the darkness in the home with something beautiful. It is a pursuit critical to their sanity, offering an escape from the horrors they have to face.
It took years after having kids of my own before I gathered courage to myself to describe to my husband how my parents spanked my siblings and me. After hesitantly giving the details, with a guarded watchfulness in my eye to see if he’d scoff or brush it off as inconsequential, he surprised me.
That’s not a spanking, he said, that’s a beat-down.
I had to change my definition: I now refer to them as “beatings” and not “spankings”. Definitions make all the difference.
The beatings began, like for most children raised in this early pre-solidified fundamentalist culture, in infancy. The weapon of choice grew with us, beginning with a wooden spoon or ruler. Then it was a ping-pong paddle, then a yard stick, and finally JD’s very thick leather belt folded in half, and beatings were given for any number of perceived-failings large and small.
During dinner one night, I stood to reach into the center of the table to give myself a second helping. I remember being excited, though whether at serving myself or being granted a rare second helping, I am not sure. I was about eight and small in stature, and I had a half-full glass of milk. In my childish exuberance, I reached over my glass and knocked it over. And froze. Maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe they would let it go. The milk seeped into the crack between the leaf and the rest of the table, wetting the place mats and the table runner underneath the dishes.
Let’s go, JD said with a sigh of exasperation and thew his napkin on the table, looks like you need a lesson with the belt.
And so, in the middle of the meal, I was escorted to The Bedroom. I knew what doom awaited me. All for spilling some milk. I knew that, if I were allowed to finish my meal, that I would be allowed no further drink because spilling my glass might have been purposeful.
He closed the door behind us, and told me to pull my pants down and bend over as he dramatically pulled his belt out of the beltloops of his pants.
Part Two >