Sunday, November 30, 2014
THE WINGS OF FREEDOM
In 1979, I was seventeen. For more than a few years it had been just my mother and me living in that small apartment above the H & R Block in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. My older sister moved away to college in 1975, leaving me all alone to receive the abuse from whom I then thought of as “The Beast.”
My daily torture consisted of being isolated from other kids, screamed at, called names (lots of names)…
A small sampling of “Ma-isms”:
--Can’t you do anything right?
--I have more sense in my little finger than you have in you whole body!
--You’re as slow as molasses and twice as thick!
--Get out of my sight! You make me sick to my stomach!
--Who the hell do you think you are? The Queen of Farouk?
--You’re nothing but a spoiled, rotten brat!
--You lazy, good-for-nothing kid!
--You little snot!
--You little shit!
--I’ll fix your little red wagon!
--I’ll knock some sense into that hard head of yours!
--I’m gonna straighten your ass out!
--I’ll smack you so hard, you won’t know what hit you! You’ll see stars!
--I’m gonna bust your head wide open!
--I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!
I think the verbal threats did more damage than actually being socked. Her words hit so much harder than her blows.
I was molested by men more than once during my childhood.
When I was of preschool age, there was a family member in my life on a regular basis. He was an alcoholic. At night he liked to climb into my bed and spoon me with his naked body. I was not wearing pajamas. I don't know why that was; I just remember his naked skin and penis rubbing up against my behind. I could feel, hear and smell his vile booze-filled stench as he snorted out his drunken breath next to my ear.
I have memories of being in the bathroom with that same man. We were both naked. I don't recollect all that went on, but I do recall watching him as he sat on the toilet in the nude.
When I was twelve-years-old, my mother took me to the pediatrician for my school-ordered yearly physical. My doctor had always been Dr. P - a jolly, paternal and very kind man. I never cried when Dr. P gave me a shot. But at this visit, I learned Dr. P had retired.
The nurse showed me into the examination room and introduced me to Dr. F. He was in his thirties, thin and wore glasses. The nurse left and my mother went to run an errand. So I was alone with Dr. F.
He told me to lie on my back on the examination table. He pulled my pants off and told me to put my legs up in the air. He crouched down at the end of the table as his gloveless fingers prodded my private parts.
I remember thinking, "Dr. P never did this."
I peeked from around my legs to get a look at him. I can still see the expression on his face as he molested me. Here it is, some forty years later, and I can still see that disgusting face - those leering eyes squinting through the lenses of his aviator glasses. And I can still feel those cold, clammy digits violating my body. It is as clear today as it was then.
When my mother came to pick me up, I felt very angry at her but I didn't know why. I suppose I wondered how she could have left me alone with such a terrible man. I felt confused and extremely dirty.
I didn't say anything to her because I was afraid she would blame me and I would end up getting hit or punished in some other way.
And Ma did love to punish.
For example, she never allowed me to take showers.
“Showers make you bald. Your father took showers and he lost his hair!” So my mother told me which day of the week I could bathe in the tub.
I could not run my own bathwater--she needed to ensure that it was scorching. I would stick my finger in and say, “Mommy, it’s hot. It burns me.”
She screamed, “There’s nothin’ wrong with that water! Now get in before I make you!”
I held my breath. Somehow if I held my breath it would not burn as much (as least that is what I told myself). Then I inched myself into the steaming porcelain cauldron. Once I got in, I could not move--the pain was so excruciating--beyond the surface of my skin, but rather, right down through my muscles and into my very bones.
And I dared not cry. Oh no. If I cried then I would really get it. So I soaked and soaked until my skin pruned. When I lifted myself up, the bottom half of my body was as red as a plum tomato. The terrycloth of the towel felt like Brillo as I tried ever so gently to pat myself dry.
While the weekly scaldings eventually stopped (showers remained forbidden, but the bathwater temperature became more tolerable), the weekly head torture continued throughout high school.
My mother did not allow me to wash my own hair. She shampooed it once a week and afterward gave me a set with gigantic, hot pink, fang-toothed plastic curlers. My hair was very course and curly, so it tangled easily. This made her more furious than her usual level of rage. She cursed at me as she hit me in head with the large and especially thick shampoo comb, yanking hard at the knots. If I moved my head in the slightest, she yelled louder, “Keep your head straight!” Then--WACK! Another firm smack with the comb.
The oversized bobby pins she used were like humungous nails jabbing into my scalp. I could never say, “Ow,” not if I wanted to escape a beating. I trained myself to endure pain in silence.
And when my mother beat my body with her favorite brown leather beating belt, she did so with all her strength--stretching her arm way back over head before whipping my flesh. She stopped only when she became exhausted. For weeks, I was left with swollen black and blue bruises over my back, buttocks and thighs. Oh, she never hit me in the face or anywhere else that was not covered by clothing. After all, she may have been sadistic, but she was not stupid.
I could never show distress at all, or else she would bellow, “Pick that lip up off the floor or I’ll pick it up for you!”
So every week I sat there--for an hour--being comb-smacked and jabbed and shouted at. Then I had to try to sleep with all that hardware jammed into my skull. The enormous bobby pins and hard rollers made head dents, which I still have to this day (maybe the wallops with the shampoo comb contributed too).
My mother expected me to service her. By “service,” I mean massaging her feet, as well as scraping her scalp. My sister preferred the scalp, while I thought the feet were a better deal. Scalp duty consisted of using a fine tooth comb to scrape off the crusty residue left behind from copious inundations of Adorn hairspray. Chunks of scalp scabs would pop in my face as I tried so desperately not to show my disgust. Yes, the feet were definitely smelly, corned and calloused, but at least nothing jumped out and landed into my eyeballs. Once my sister moved out, I was stuck with double-duty: the feet and head combo. My mother demanded manicures as an added bonus.
High school was exceedingly lonely. My sister left just as I was beginning my freshman year. I was not permitted to call girlfriends (although sometimes I was sneaky and asked my friend Hilda to call me when my mother was not home). There were no school dances, Girl Scouts, movies or sleepovers. Well to be perfectly accurate, I was allowed to visit Hilda at her house once. In addition, her mother took us to a movie, Great Adventure and a Broadway musical. I visited my friend Mary Kay once, and another friend, Donna, once. And that was the extent of my high school social life. Dates with boys were not permitted. Heaven forbid!
I immersed myself in books and watching old movies on our little black and white portable TV that we had to turn on and off with a pair of pliers. I escaped into my own special fantasy world. It was how I survived.
I tried to run away, but when I became too cold and hungry, I went back to Ma and the abuse.
She put me in a hospital and while there, I was examined by a doctor. He wore a dark brown suit and black tie, was very overweight and sported a bushy mustache. He closed the curtain around the bed and proceeded to sodomize me with his fingers. I cried. Neither my mother nor a nurse was in the room.
When Ma returned, this time I told her what had happened (unlike with the molestation of Dr. F).
She looked at me with an icy stare and sputtered, "Whatever you got, you deserved!"
I have now come to realize how very ill my mother was all those years. She was clinically paranoid and never sought help. I grew up being told that our apartment and phones were wire-tapped (this delusion only became worse after Watergate). She told us our neighbors were plotting to kill us. All the windows were nailed shut and the shades and shutters remained always closed. The Girl Scouts were going to drug us with LSD. When I was nine, my only fourth grade friend, Linda, asked me to her birthday party. My mother told me the cake would be spiked with LSD. (In the late sixties and early seventies, I suppose LSD was often in the news. My mother had such a fixation on it.)
She required control over every aspect of my life. I was not allowed to paint my toenails or shave my legs. I could not sit in our kitchen or living room. I was ordered to remain in one tiny, 9 x 10 bedroom. I watched TV there, did my homework there and ate there on a folding card table. I was not even allowed to close the bathroom door--ever.
My mother lived a life dominated by fear--a fear that stemmed from her mental illness. I cannot be angry at her for being ill. It was not her fault.
But I digress…
On January 3rd, 1979 I was supposed to return to school after the Christmas break. Despite my being in my last semester of senior year, I just could not stay another day in that apartment. I was tired of being constantly screamed at and told that I was a piece of garbage. I was tired of crying in secret and wanting to die.
I went through my mother’s dresser drawers and old purses and gathered every coin I could find. On that frigid January day, I waited until after she left for work, put the handful of coins in my pocket and headed out the door. I didn not take anything with me--only the not-so-very-warm peacoat on my back.
Instead of walking to Mount Saint Mary Academy, I ran to the bus stop on Front Street. When I say I ran, I mean I really RAN! I ran like I had never run before. In fact, that was another thing my mother never allowed me to do--run. So that morning, I believed I was flying--spreading my wings and heading for lucious liberty. Feeling a hundred pounds lighter, I finally could breathe.
My future was unknown. But what whatever it contained, I knew it would be better than living in that den of hell.
I left my mother and all her paranoid fears behind. For the first time in my life, I felt no fear.
I was free.