CC image courtesy of Flickr, Chris Preen.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “TheLemur” is a pseudonym.
In this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four
Content Warning: Depictions of emotional and physical abuse
I’ll now turn to the authoritarian parenting. I should prefix it by saying my mother was subsequently diagnosed with major depression. For a fair proportion of my teenage years she ceased any real parenting or homeschooling. I believe her unstable, neurotic personality portended the impending collapse and joined in a perfect storm with the disciplinarian approach to parenting she had internalized.
I was accustomed to a certain pattern in familial life. Every few months, mum would blow up, ostensibly raging against the accumulating liberties I had taken since the last eruption.
Anything could set her off. One memorable occasion I omitted to say ‘goodbye granny’ upon taking leave of my grandmother earlier that day (I spent ions of time being dragged around doctors waiting rooms, hospitals, and at my grandmother’s house as mum sorted out her endless problems). Mum was obsessed we signed off respectfully, lest granny kicked the bucket and the last thing we said to her wasn’t optimal. To be frank, I grew largely indifferent to my grandmother, including when she died. You can probably detect a somewhat shocking harshness in my tone, but her unintentional, primary effect on my life was negative. That night after dad arrived home from work, she did her war dance and required me role playing saying ‘goodbye granny’. Dad regarded mum, probably out of necessity given her forceful personality, the expert. So he would make a show of playing second fiddle. What most annoyed him wasn’t so much what I’d done, but the fact it had triggered another maelstrom of ‘carry on’ he had to ‘put up with’ after a long day at work.
The worst (and I believe first) of these rages occurred when I was 8. Mum had arranged for a professional photographer to come out and take milestone photos of my brother and me. At the time, I had adopted a silly objection to having my photo taken. I derived considerable satisfaction from thwarting the photographer’s efforts to get a good shot. Mum didn’t say or do anything at the time, but after she left I realized a delayed reaction set in which followed the classic development of a plot. The photography session was the exposition. Later, came rising action. She was distant and somewhat unresponsive. She went for a nature walk with us. On the phone to dad, I heard her saying I had be uncooperative. That was a warning sign. Ringing dad up instead of waiting for him to come home indicated she considered by antics are higher echelon of misdeeds. She then started reading to my brother without calling me, which was unusual – we typically were read to together. Entering the room where that was happening, I was told to leave. I was definitely getting ‘extreme weather’ warning signals. The climax came soon. She had cornered me in the lounge, and proceeded to lash herself into a rage. I can’t remember what was said, but I do remember, indelibly inked in my brain, the climax. ‘YOU CAN GO TO SCHOOL!’ she yelled, beside herself, ‘and sit in a class room all day getting told by a teaching what to do, to draw pictures of ugly Maori tongues poking out! Is that what you want? I think you do want that, because you won’t obey me!’
Bear in mind making this threat played directly on the deep seated fear she had instilled about schools through her attitude and pronouncements.
If you went to school, your life was a failure. Only a lucky few escaped the fate, and that lucky few had better be grateful for it. Manifestly, I was not. I grabbed the phone to call dad. He seemed like the last life line. ‘What do you think you’re doing? You think he’s going to help you?’ She snatched the phone back off me, pushed me out the front door, and instructed me to check myself into the local primary school a few hundred yards down the road. Instead, I hid in the bush outside my front gate. She came out in a few minutes and dragged me back inside. Things are a bit fuzzy after that. I stayed outside and tried to play in the sand pit. Mum came out to tell me how she’d talk to dad, and I would be getting a good whacking when he got home. I was somewhat relieved. The whackings were the ‘falling action’. They signalled the end of the yelling was not so far away. So, dad gets home and does the dance for mum. He’s very disappointed, I’ve rebelled against her, bend over etc. Mum was still running white hot, however and had gained a new lease of life from a new audience. She served up tea, shouting, yelling, berating. Finally, the resolution. For once in his life, dad managed to pry himself out of his lethargic resignation to her tantrums and tell her ‘that’s enough’. The whole incident is one of my most vivid memories from childhood.
Mum wielded the threat of school pretty consistently every time she went from standard mad to full orbital rotation. She often harped on about how I could never survive in school – getting to classes on time, sorting out my books and lunch and so forth. So fond of this line was she it continued on about university.
I can cast my mind back to other major blow ups. At the splinter group church I mentioned earlier, I liked to run around with my friend. It was, after all, the only time I got to play with someone my own age. Mum objected to us running around on a Sunday after church, and so was royally incensed upon discovering mud had found its way onto her home-made ‘good church pants’. She came roaring into my room, absolutely spitting mad. I was reading, propped upon the bed. She started off the discussion by smacking the pants across my face like a whip.
Another one happened after mum visited a Catholic lady whose daughter could read time on an analogue clock.
Mum just assumed I, a homeschooler, at 10 or so years of age would know that.
She twigged I could not read time that afternoon after I asked her to tell it for me. Her awe inspiring crescendo was ‘a three year old, Roman Catholic girl can tell the time, yet you can’t.’ Dad said mum got mad because if I didn’t know something like that, it reflected badly on her. ‘Well, maybe she didn’t do such a bang up job, in this case,’ I thought. Similarly, at an event where a group of children had to write down the contact details, she became angry it took me longest (I’d never had to do it before and didn’t know them).
There was the shower incident too, in which suddenly enraged about something, she came in to the bathroom while I was taking a shower, wooden kitchen spoon at the ready. She opened the door and used it against my bear thighs and calves. ‘I will have respect for your father, I will have respect for me, I will have respect for your brother, and I will have respect for the cat’ was the takeaway message this time, each phrase interspersed with a crack on the leg for my greater edification.
On the day we went into town for our music lessons and mums round, we were supposed to have completed a number of jobs before getting in the car. I didn’t, on one occasion. Mum hauls me inside for six of the best, then sends me back out to the car. What turned this rather run of the mill spanking into a particularly egregious one for me was that she decided the initial six had been insufficient. I was required to submit myself again to the same punishment.
I was 13 when the boy next door and I planned a trip into my Aunt’s horticulture farm. He was bit of an arse really, but when you were short on friends, beggars couldn’t be choosers. Under his influence, I got caught nicking some chocolate coins from the on farm shop. It was an End of the World scenario for my parents. It wasn’t that I had clearly made an error of judgment.
It was simply unthinkable I could be that unrighteous; Mum moped for days and frequently noted how lucky I was I had been allowed to stay in the house.
‘We will not hesitate to kick you out in future’, she said. At 13, she may have been on some shaky legal ground, though. There were more whackings involved here too; I think the last one (for an unrelated offence) was at 15.
My nature diary, where I was supposed to make entries and drawings every month was a constant source of conflict. I hated drawing and the long laborious neat writing. It generated more threats to send me to school than anything else, a place that would make me paint ‘ugly Maori drawings’ instead of beautiful flowers (it was one of her favourite comparison between the ‘righteous’ homeschoolers and ‘evil’ schools).
There are loads of other, lesser instances, but they still serve to illustrate a staggering ability to disregard nearly all facts of a case and solely rely on her initial reaction. I had to be perfect in front of her family in order to demonstrate what a grand success our family was in contrast to them. My aunt was having some ‘do’, and I had been eating cheese and crackers from the sideboard. I’d only had a few pieces, but they were the last ones. My dad strolled up, and my aunt flippantly remarked ‘the kids have eaten all the cheese and left none for their dad’. Mum immediately went Defcon 1, giving me the come hither finger to follow her into the deserted passage. ‘Do you see that?’ she hissed. ‘You’re being observed. And people noticed what you just did.’
The appearance of Godliness – being nicely turned out in what she considered decent, being well behaved while we waited for her and granny in doctor’s, wearing smarter clothes than my friend’s family at church – exercised her mind constantly.
I was said to be guilty of many things I thought unreasonable. I kicked a ball through a window just once in my childhood, quite by accident. Mum insisted dad whack me for it. ‘Do you want them terrified of me when I walk in the room?’ he protested. The whacking went ahead as scheduled. It was discovered I had fallen arches. Without hesitation, mum berated me because it would not have happened if I had worn runners everywhere (the cause is completely genetic). And in one of her most confounding leaps of logic, she proposed dad reading me Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books about ‘adventure’ had somehow influenced my chocolate coin robbery.
For the first few of my teenage years, I used to keep a few hundred dollars stashed in an envelope ‘just in case’.
What really highlighted to me her conduct was abnormal was dad taking my brother and I away for a weekend together. Dad’s natural parenting method, if mum wasn’t goading him, lay at the relaxed end of the spectrum. ‘Now look boys,’ he’d say, ‘I just want a nice, relaxed weekend way, so let’s not have any trouble.’ And we would have precisely that. Drama, conflict, and mistrust between authority and the objects of authority evaporated if mum was removed from the picture.
To be fair, mum has changed her ways a lot and admitted she made many mistakes, and often interacted poorly with her family. She now is attempting to embrace grace in practice as well as theory. Moreover, she did a lot of good things while we grew up. She would put on birthdays for us, bake and decorate fantastic birthday cakes, and do her very best to ensure we had the best possible educational resources. Both parents read to us extensively, and so I came to read extensively, a factor to which I credit my tertiary successes. They paid for us to have private music, and speech and drama lessons. And there were times as a family we all got on well.
The problem is, the bad can cancel out the good easier than the good the bad.
By way of analogy, a stock market can make consistent gains for a decade, then have it wiped out in a single day. Nevertheless, I don’t blame my parents. I realize the real perpetrator was close minded thinking, a system we spontaneously adopt. Our minds are attracted to certainty, however chimerical. For me, it’s enough they recognize the wrong.
Lemur, I am quite close-minded about many many things. When I allowed my children to leave public school and unschool, I began to learn from them about how they needed to pursue their passions and interests. It has been a long road of learning (for me), sometimes frightening and frustrating but NEVER, NOT EVER would I speak to them as your mother spoke to you, hit you as your mother hit you, disparage and berate you for being a child. I bet you too as a parent would at all costs avoid the violence she visited on you as a child. What she did was despicable. And your father was a weak man, unable to stand up to her abuse. I weep at the thought of him striking you because he was told to by her! Fucking coward. And then when alone with you he told the truth: Don’t cause me any feelings I have to deal with… this is going to be a quiet weekend, okay?
We are not parents to be loved and obeyed but to love and listen to our children as they grow.
The biblical bullshit about children obeying parents is totally unnecessary when a parent bonds and loves a child. Stupid rules are lesser life. Children honored and loved do not need to be forced in obedience! What nonsense.
I think, quite honestly, and I say this as an ally who has been on a similar road: You still write in some denial about the depths of harm you have endured. You speak very intellectually. What happened to your feelings? Where did they go? You end your blog today with the stock market? Please help me with that one…
It is not just a close-minded thinking at all that is at the root of this kind of abuse: It is feelings out of control, total aberration of thought, thoughts subject to extreme pain that then become child abuse.
Thank-you once again for your thoughtful writings…
Emotional reasoning is never a good thing. Outrage clouds our judgment, distorts our memory, and sacrifices the long term on the altar of the The Spectacular Now.
In a legitimate efforts to acknowledge and process past wrongs, one must be wary of co-option by a social milieu which seeks to indefinitely nurture and identity of victimhood for partisan ideological ends. If no interval, in which space for objective reflection, and emotional processing, is said to exist between the past and present, a victim will be doomed to endlessly relive the past. The expectations of our therapeutic culture through which the postmodern audience interprets narratives of wrongs, although seemingly benign and affirmative, can prevent the emergence of a resilient individual with the narrative agency to define themselves.
I’m not here to give a public performance, but to clinically dissect and highlight a systemic problem in a New Zealand subculture by relaying to myself and others a considered narrative. As you correctly note, so much of fundamentalist culture draws from the destructive angels (to paraphrase Lincoln) of our emotional spectrum. Breaking this cycle through a meticulous recourse to reason is one way to redefine and differentiate oneself from a traumatic past.
I believe I have noted elsewhere the impact my upbringing had on me, and that I am ultimately the best judge of that.
The spectacular Now! A wonderful phrase. In fact, the spectacular now is what religion sells by talking all emotional-like about eternity in Heaven so that we crawl into glory in the now with our emotional attachment, our wishful feeling, our hymns and prayers, our hearts given to the Lord! What a spectacular NOW!
Thank-you again, John, for the sharing….. best wishes, Brian