When I was growing up, I was taught that abuse was something that happened to disadvantaged people. Uneducated people. Trashy people. People who, because of their social status, “didn’t know any better.” If a woman was hit by her husband, it was too bad that she was too dumb to be with him to begin with. If a child was beaten, it was also too bad, but we all know how kids can be annoying. When I was a kid, physical abuse was the only kind of abuse I ever heard about. Sexual abuse was too taboo to mention. Emotional abuse simply didn’t exist.
My parents were reasonably well educated. They had professional careers. We lived in the suburbs. Therefore, in their minds, it was impossible for them to be abusive. After all, we had a roof over our heads and we were not starving or bleeding. Usually. My parents had created all sorts of complex ways to barricade themselves from the truth of their own behavior. They were (and still are) incapable of understanding that abuse comes in many forms.
Enough had happened by the time I was a toddler for me to be removed permanently from my parents, and for them to go to jail. Yet, there was no possible way for anyone to intervene.
Over the last thirty years or so, we’ve come a long way, collectively, in recognizing various forms of sexual and emotional abuse, and its long-term, insidious effects. It’s always been widely acknowledged that a calm, supportive, loving home environment is the best kind, but in my family, there was a major disconnect. We were supposed to be “normal” because we were middle class. Was irrational yelling normal? Were drunken rages normal? Were silent grudges normal? Was it normal for a young child’s daily routine to be to get herself off to school, come home to an empty house, and spend the rest of the day alone in her room? Was it normal for a teenager to be reluctant to have her friends spend the night because her father would walk around naked in front of them? Was it normal to have a mother who passive-aggressively talked her children about wanting to leave, but made vague excuses, like, “Well, he’s handy around the house…”
The facade had its cracks at home, but even so, my parents tried their best to maintain it. More important, however, was for them to maintain it at all costs in public. My mother was especially skilled at putting on a good face. She was professional. Her persona was friendly. She had a casual laugh. She would make comments about whatever her children’s most recent accomplishments were. Her mask was on at all times. She had fully convinced herself that she was a good person, dammit. It is because of her enormous denial that kept all those secrets in place that made her so much more complicated to deal with.
My father’s alcoholism and erratic behavior was harder to mask as he got older, but that actually was a huge relief to me. It meant that some other people actually saw that something was off. After many years when the alcoholism was finally admitted, it quickly became the excuse for everything. The alcohol made him do it. He didn’t remember because of the alcohol. Even so, admitting that something was at fault was a step toward chipping away the facade.
My husband worked for a time in the medical division of a county jail, where I occasionally volunteered. As a writer, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to interact with a population of people I wouldn’t normally have access to. I thought I might interview some criminal masterminds, as expected from watching too many TV procedurals. Perhaps I was picturing some exchange with Hannibal Lector. Instead, I did mundane tasks, like comb the lice out of a pregnant inmate’s hair. Of course, as any hairdresser knows, it’s a good way to get to know people. What I discovered was that there were a number of humble, kind- hearted people behind bars. They made mistakes and freely admitted it. They were sincerely sorry for their actions. Some simply needed their meds. Others simply needed counseling. Many of them got caught simply because they were not smart enough not to. As a child of people who were too smart to get caught, I found this deeply refreshing.