The ways to screw up a child must be limitless. Some are grotesque and obvious. In my home, there was a constant presence of violence and drugs. At times, my father would be overcome with anger, and would act out in rage. At times, my parents’ desire to fulfill their addiction would win out and they would have to have something. It wasn’t entirely in their control, and I feel certain that my parents knew these things were wrong, on some level.
Unlike those things, there are many instances where my parents did bizarre and unacceptable things. And I don’t think they knew how wrong they were. I say that in part because I didn’t know they were wrong until years later. Only with time and distance away from my parents, away from the crazy, could I see that lines had been crossed.
My father was a mean drunk, but my mom never did anything to protect us. It was my oldest sister, Mimi, who took care of us. She called the police even though our mother always grounded her for it later. One time, (I was very young so I don’t remember all the details) but my sister struck my father, her stepfather, after one of his episodes began. When the police showed up to arrest him, he demanded they take her too. Days later, after they came home and everything was back to its “walking on eggshells” normal, Dad sat me down to talk about what happened. He told me he was sorry about what he did to my sister, having her arrested when she was just looking out for the rest of us. He told me he felt bad right away, but it was too late and there was only one thing he could do. He tried to kill himself by hitting his head on the wall in his cell. He knew she would be walked by his jail cell, so he used his blood to write to her on the wall, to tell her he was sorry.
I was six when this conversation happened. I don’t remember how I felt at the time. In general, I was very sensitive, raw, in tears at the slightest chastisement, and terrified of the man telling me this story. Blood and violence were normal to me, so this sort of blended into everything else, a quiet little story amidst screaming and breaking glass.
But it’s actually a terrible thing to say to a child, maybe to anyone. It’s literally a nightmarish image; my sweet, protector sister dragged in handcuffs in front of my dying father, his head bashed in, an apology smeared in blood. What could he have hoped to accomplish by telling me this? Was I supposed to forgive him? Understand him? Feel bad for him? How could he conceive that this story was a good idea? The story may not even be true, which only makes my father’s mistake more glaring.
More than anything else, I just can’t understand why he wanted to do that, to say such disturbing things to such a young child. But my father never made any sense. I don’t think he ever understood right from wrong, not really. I don’t think he ever understood how normal people behave and operate. He walks like a stranger through the world, mimicking as best he can the behavior he sees, a sociopath in his heart, unable to understand what being human really means.
Maybe this is part of what drove him to drugs. Maybe the drugs rotted his mind and with it his sense of morality. It could just as well be both. I can’t know for sure. But from my parents I inherited an inaccurate sense of right and wrong, a skewed idea of normal and abnormal, of appropriate and inappropriate. It is the subtlest of ways they have impacted me, and I walk the world like a creature, trying very hard to fit in but not quite pulling it off.