Posted by Anonymous.
My dear mother-in-law,
I don't know that you realized this weekend how much your cavalier comments regarding the abuse that I endured as a child have wounded me. Your flip responses and unwillingness to hear what I was saying have thrown me into a tailspin, causing me to recall many of the painful, humiliating, terrorizing events of my childhood. I feel that I need to clarify exactly what I mean when I say that I was abused, so that you can make your own decision whether or not to believe me.
This weekend you repeated to me, multiple times, that you assumed that my father was "only" verbally abusive. While "only" being verbally and emotionally abusive may seem like a trivial matter to you, the fact is that those are the wounds that never seem to heal. The bones that have been broken and the bruises that I've had are long since gone, but I deal with the after effects of the emotional abuse to this day. While you may have convinced yourself that I was "only" verbally abused, I can recall several occasions where I discussed with you about exactly what my childhood was like and described the abuse that I endured. The fact that you don't recall these conversations forces me to believe that you did not take my history seriously, and dismissed it. If you once again choose to disregard my truths, I'm afraid that for the best interest of my marriage and my child, I will have as little to do with you as possible. I simply cannot tolerate your type of negativity and close-mindedness – I have worked too hard to build a happy, productive life.
For your edification, I will give you a few examples, and a bit of history:
My very first memory is of my father lunging across our kitchen table to try and strangle my mother. She had made some sort of financial mistake, and written the wrong number in a ledger in pen. He pulled out a large clump of her hair – she never even fought back. I was sitting on the floor, playing with the dog. I couldn't have been more than two and a half when this happened. Shortly thereafter, his attention and anger shifted toward me. I bore the brunt of his abuse until I left home at 18.
In another of my earliest memories, Dad had made me cereal for lunch. He was taking care of me that day, because he was in college and preschool was expensive. I was eating the cereal out of a bowl that stuck onto the table by means of a big suction cup on the bottom. While trying to get the last of my Cheerio's out of the bowl, I accidentally upended it, spilling the milk all over the kitchen floor. Dad made me lick the milk up off the floor, telling me that I had to get every drop or he would beat me. He then made me spend the rest of the afternoon crawling on all fours like the "animal I was." He didn't like messes, you see.
When I was in elementary school and had gotten in trouble for something (I don't remember what) Dad forgot to hit me where my clothes would cover the bruises. I lipped off, and he hit me with a balled fist. I got a horrible black eye – I had a laceration on my eyelid and my eye itself almost swelled closed. My Mom, who was teaching in the same school as me at the time, told everyone that I had fallen down the steep stairs to our basement. They believed her. I learned a hard lesson that day. Adults were quite willing to believe a story told to make them feel better, at the expense of the well being of a child. Of course, I was too scared to tell anyone what really happened. Sadly, it seems to me that you, too, would rather invent for me a happier childhood than the one that fate dealt me.
The day that I was graduating from high school, I spent the afternoon home with my father and grandmother. Dad decided that I absolutely had to change the oil and filters on my car before he'd allow me to go to my graduation. I was graduating 8th in a class of four hundred and something kids, and receiving several awards for academic excellence. He said that he "didn't give a fuck what I'd done in school, that I would always be an arrogant little bitch, and he was going to teach me a lesson." He did. He knocked me around, pushing me to the ground in the garage and shoving my face underneath the car. I somehow managed to change the oil and the filters and still make it with minutes to spare to the graduation ceremony, though I remember still having grease on my hands. It was a hard day for him. It's always been difficult for him to see me succeed where he'd failed, and he dropped out of high school at 17. All I could think about was how the end of high school and my childhood meant that I could get away, far, far away, from him.
I thought that leaving home would be the answer to all of the problems that I had with my father. I had always baited him when he was angry and spoiling for a fight, because, quite frankly, I was the only person in the family who could endure his wrath. I always figured that if I diverted his rage towards me, my mother and sister would be safe. And it worked, until I left home. As soon as I left, he turned his abuse more towards them, and I was powerless to do anything about it from thousands of miles away.
I accepted plane tickets from him to come home from college over spring break; despite the fact that I knew it was a bad idea. By this point in my life, I realized that everything he'd ever given me came with strings attached. But I was desperate to see my mom and sister, to make sure that they were doing all right, so I came home. Within a few days of my (two week) vacation, he decided that I'd broken his computer. And when I couldn't fix it quickly enough, he threw me into a wall, then another, then a chair. When I reached out to hit him back (by this time I was in therapy and realized that I could not let him abuse me and retain what shreds of dignity I had left), he grabbed my wrist. I heard it snap. I got in my car and called a friend from the the out-of-state college that I was attending who was in town visiting high school friends at the local University. She told me to go to the doctor, and I did. I had 3 broken ribs and a hairline fracture in my wrist. While this was the first time that I'd had x-rays to show that my ribs were broken, I remembered having the exact same pain many times as a child. The x-rays showed that my ribs had many previously healed fractures. I can't say that I was surprised. I spent the rest of my break staying with a stranger (a friend of a friend) in the dorms, because I didn't have anywhere else to go. I swore then that I would never let him hurt me again.
The next year, I returned to my hometown to attend the state school there. I knew that, academically, it was a poor decision. I had a 3.95 GPA and a great scholarship at my out-of-state school – it wasn't as though I'd had any trouble succeeding there. But the suspense of worrying about my family day in and day out was wearing on me, and I made the decision after the spring break incident that I needed to be closer to my sister. At that time, she was only 10 years old. I wanted to be able to provide that safe haven for her if she ever needed it, the one that I'd never had. So I rented an apartment with another student, rather than moving into the dorms. If she needed a place to stay, I wouldn't be allowed to take her in with me in the dorms. An apartment had no such restrictions.
At school in my hometown that fall, I met your son. I was, when I met him, prickly at best. I was just learning how to live on my own, and dealing with many more issues than most other kids my age. Nevertheless, his kindness and generosity helped convince me that every man was not necessarily out to hurt me. Quite simply put, he restored my faith in the opposite sex, and taught me that the way I was brought up was the NOT way it had to be. I fell in love with his kindness first, because I was unaccustomed to a person who genuinely cared for someone else without expecting something in return. Without feeling the need to hurt them. Until I met your son, I had thought that pain and love were inseparable, at least in my life. I credit his upbringing with the majority of his kindness – you should be proud of him. He is a truly good person, in a world where such character is increasingly rare.
That brings me back to why I'm writing you this letter. Because, you see, I have worried for years that I would not be able to break the cycle of abuse. And now that we are expecting a child, it weighs increasingly on me. I know in my heart that I would not intentionally hurt my child, but I still fear it. That was what I was trying to express at breakfast the other day. But you chose to misinterpret what I said, to twist it. I don't know if it was your ignorance that prompted your comment about "having to set my child's bones" or some sort of hubris, but I want you to know that it was out of line. That it hurt me deeply, because to me, that comment and those that followed proved to me that you either never listened to my story, or have chosen not to hear it.
With a child on the way, I will again be in a position where I need to protect someone other than just myself. I will not allow anyone else to again twist my childhood to make it appear something it was not. I lived in a house where irrational anger and unexpected tirades ruled. I learned to cover bruises with makeup before I was 10. I have risen from that upbringing to become a generally positive, productive, successful adult. Your son has played the major role in my transformation. He, too, has sacrificed so that we could live near my sister and create a home for her, should she need it. He, too, has deflected my father's anger many a time.
I know that it is difficult for you to reconcile my relationship my family with how I feel about the abuse. Simply put, I abhor the sin but love the sinner. While I have managed to forgive everyone involved, I still would not trust my father not to hurt me or someone else again. That isn't ignoring the abuse, that's just being responsible. He has proven over and over again that he is incapable of controlling his anger, and it is only prudent for me to take the appropriate precautions to protect myself and those that I love.
By denying the conditions that made me who I am, you are ignoring what I consider to be one of my greatest achievements. I stood (close) by and bore witness to my father's abuse – to the extent that I was able, I did not allow him to pass that abuse on to my sister as he had to me. I have protected my mother whenever I could, despite the fact that she was, at best, complicit in most of the abuse. I have been there for them. My mother and sister have known that I would do everything in my power to protect them. My sister always knew that if she wanted me to, I would sue for custody of her. For the last eight years, she has had a safe place to go, with strong locks on the doors. She had a haven to run to when he was being irrational and she was afraid. And she needed that safe place, many times. She never had to sleep in a car when it was below freezing outside, as I did. I am proud of that. I think that your son is, too.
In the interest of maintaining a relationship with you, I can't allow you to insist that I am lying about my childhood. I can't allow you to twist my reality to fit the mold that you would like all families to fit. It is simply too important to me that I remember, so that I can bear witness against it should I ever face that demon again in my life. So that I can stand up for others who do not have the resources or fortitude to stand up for themselves. You can choose either to accept my less-than-perfect upbringing, or not. But if you continue to dispute me on it every time it comes up, I will have to have as little to do with you as possible, for my own self-preservation. I still fall apart when these memories are called, unbidden, from the deepest recesses of my mind. I have been a mess for days. I am hoping that clarifying what I have lived through will help you to be more compassionate, and less aggressively argumentative when I discuss such things around you. If you can't handle it, I understand that, too. But it means that you will play a seriously limited role in my life, and that of my child.