Content Warning: Descriptions of child abuse, sexual abuse, animal abuse, and transphobia
It was 5am. I woke before dawn and got ready for work in the dark. I went outside into the cold fall air, my breath visible. I went around the side of my car and my heart stopped. My father was kneeling in the frost and gravel next to my driver’s door. He didn’t say a word. I quickly ran back into my house, bolted the door, and woke my boyfriend. “My father is outside,” I said, my voice shaking. “I think he’s here to scare me or kill me; I’m not sure which one.” He jumped up and went outside, but my father was gone.
In the aftermath of that day, I broke family scripts: I called the police.
His behavior alone was creepy and stalking. But the more disturbing thing was that he shouldn’t have known where I lived. Unbeknownst to me, my younger brother had disregarded my concerns about my safety and told my father where I lived. The day before, my older sibling had mentioned to my parents that I was working early the next day. And my father was waiting for me that morning.
It’s been 5 years since that day. For the first 2 years, I left my house every morning for work, prepared to do battle with a spook, a stalker that may or may not be there. And every day he wasn’t there in body, he was there in spirit. I lived my life with the knowledge he might be around the next corner. I wouldn’t know if he was empty-handed or if he had a weapon. Or even worse, I might never see him coming.
Growing up, I worried a lot about the day when my father would snap and murder all of us.
One day, us three older siblings sat my youngest brother down and said “Nathan, what do you think would happen if mom tried to leave dad?” He thought about it for a second. And then without missing a beat he said “I think he would try to kill all of us.” We looked at each other and said “Even he sees it, even he knows.” He was 11. We lived with that reality from birth.
I worried. I worried so much. I worried that if my mother spent too much money on groceries, my father would get angry. I worried that if I didn’t read the Bible long enough each morning before breakfast, my father would get angry. I worried that if I wasn’t contrite enough in spirit, my father would get angry. I worried that when my father got angry, he would hurt us.
Like the Sunday morning my brother went to church with my father’s hand-prints bruised around his neck because he had the audacity to try and walk out of a room when my father was angry. The youth pastor teased him about the bruises being hickies from his girlfriend.
Like the night at the kitchen table when my father became angry. He reached under the kitchen table and pulled out the 60-pound dog lying there. He picked the dog up by the throat with one hand, and threw him down the basement stairs, closing the door in a calm, controlled manner.
See, some people think anger is an explosion. Sometimes, it is. And sometimes, it is the coldest thing you will ever experience.
And sometimes, the anger wasn’t the scariest thing. Sometimes, it was the sound of my bedroom door softly sliding across the carpet at 2 a.m. It was the sound of my breathing as I tried to regulate it so he wouldn’t know I was awake. It was the feeling of his rigid cock pressed into my lower back as I hoped he would leave without raping me.
Sometimes it was the existential agony of knowing that my abuse was either sanctioned by god and I deserved it or god didn’t care enough to intervene.
It was the soul rending pain in my heart, knowing my father was right – I was worthless, useless, and unlovable. It was the bone-searing rage that wanted to tear apart all the people who saw the signs of abuse and turned away. It was the trapped animal in my brain, trying to cut me free from this torturous captivity through the surface of my skin.
And my father was the good Christian who sang hymns at church, chatted with the teens and deacons, and made small talk with everyone. So at the end of the day, if I said something negative about him, I was told I was a bad child, a rebellious teenager. That I must stop speaking ill of my parents, that I must stop lying.
I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist Christian household. I was homeschooled kindergarten through 12th grade. And somehow I escaped.
I wasn’t supposed to.
My life was not built to prepare me to fly; it was built to contain me in a cage with my wings clipped, never thinking for myself, never dreaming any bigger than the bars that held me.
My narrative is similar to many others who went before me and will come after me, though it is complicated in some ways by the fact that I am both queer and transgender. Neither of those things blatantly came to the surface growing up. I had far more pressing things to worry about, like survival of my physical body and preservation of my mind and spirit, and so I buried my gender and sexuality as best I could. But I couldn’t bury them deep enough. Even if people didn’t often target me directly, they spoke with derision and scorn about queer and trans people in general. My parents and the church I grew up in were homophobic and transphobic. I knew from a young age that who I was, deep inside, was an abomination, anathema, and abhorrent. Those attitudes heavily impacted my internal self-concept; I still struggle with feeling broken and shameful regarding my queerness and transness.
My younger brother did not escape; he left but his wounds were infected with my parents’ poison. He was my best friend for years but he became increasingly racist, homophobic, transphobic, controlling, and abusive as time passed. A few years after I helped him leave my parents’ house, he cut me out as I set boundaries around his increasingly abusive behavior. He made it clear he reviled my gender and sexuality. My youngest brother is still at home with my parents. He has not escaped either. The minimal contact I had with him through text stopped completed after I came out to him as trans.
My older sibling has escaped; they live an hour away from me. They are queer, just like me. We support one another. We have an adult relationship now; we have worked past the experience of our parents pitting us against each other. We are able to affirm for each other what childhood was like.
With time, I found myself wondering if I imagined things or if I made them out to be worse than they truly were.
After being a victim of [gaslighting] for so many years, it’s hard to believe your own brain. But having a comrade to tell you “oh no, I remember that. Do you remember this?” is validating and bonding. It is family. I have begun to build my chosen family of partners and friends, people who love and respect me.
I am 28 years old. I left my parents’ house when I was 19. I have not returned. They still live in the 4 bedroom colonial where I was raised. They still send me mail to a PO box I set up when I moved. I didn’t want them to know where I lived because I was afraid of being stalked and killed. I did not register to vote at my new address for 3 years because I was afraid: voting information is public record.
But there came the day when I had a dream. Until that point, my dreams had always involved my father trying to hurt me or someone I loved. In the dream, I would be too slow, like was I stuck in molasses, or I would hit him and it would do nothing. I would be a helpless observer to abuse, as I had been throughout my childhood. But there came the day when I had a dream. And I beat the shit out of my father. I knew then I had really and truly escaped.
I am no longer afraid of my parents. I have not just survived; I am thriving. I know myself and what I can endure. I am no longer afraid what would happen if my father showed up. Because I have grown and know now that I am stronger than he is.