***Trauma Trigger Warning***
PEOPLE SCREAM IN HORROR MOVIES when the unthinkable happens. But in real life — that is, in my life — I froze like a deer caught in headlights, the terror wedged in my throat. (A line from my memoir, which is still a work in progress.)
Both of my parents were abusive at times. However, as her primary scapegoat, I have been the target of my mother’s abuse far more than my dad’s.
But my dad was a close second. In 1965, when I was twelve years old, he was arrested, then hospitalized, after nearly murdering my mother. During his hospitalization, my dad was diagnosed with schizophrenia. A couple of years later, he told me that his diagnosis had been changed to multiple personality disorder.
Crazy as it sounds, my father really did have more than one distinctively different personality living inside him. Although I did not understand it in those terms at the time, I saw evidence of his multiple personalities going all the way back to my earliest childhood memories.
One of my dad’s personalities was evil. There’s just no other word for it. His “dark” personality once held me over the side of the Oakland Bay Bridge, chanting in an eerie sing-song voice that he was going to throw me into the water and I was going to die.
I was not quite three at the time and I did not know what it meant to die, but this trauma is seared in my memory. In my mind, I can still see the dazzling bright sunlight shining off the water and hitting me in the eyes, and a small boat, so far below that it looked like a toy, bouncing in the wake of a larger boat. I can still feel the cold hard metal railing pressing into the back of my legs, and hear the zoom zoom zoom sound of traffic going by just a few feet away. Did anyone notice the skinny man holding the little blonde girl on the bridge railing? Did anybody care?
Most of all, I remember how small and helpless I felt, and how everything inside me went numb as a stone when I believed that my daddy was about to toss me into the bay. I felt, in that terrible moment, like I was already dead.
A few years later when I was nine, my dad held my sister, who was two at the time, over the side of the top floor of a four-story parking garage. She appeared to be dangling loosely from his hands, while he chanted in his eerie sing-song voice: “I’m going to drop you, Nina* — I really will! I’m going to drop you!” Meanwhile, her two-year-old twin sister, Cara, and I screamed and pleaded and tried to pull our sister back to safety. But he ignored our pleas, stopping only when we heard a car driving up the nearby ramp.
For many years, I told no one about these things. I was too young to tell, the first time. I simply did not have the vocabulary, as a toddler, to tell my mom what daddy had done on the drive from Oakland to San Francisco to get my mother from work.
The second time, when I was nine and my dad dangled my little sister so high above a busy street, I did not tell because I was in too much shock. I literally could not speak for several hours afterward. Then I forced myself out of my shock, by focusing on the fact that our dad hadn’t actually hurt us physically, he had only scared us half to death. He was “just kidding,” so it was “no big deal.”
I do not know if my twin sisters, who are now in their fifties, remember this. I have never asked them. That’s how hard it is for me to talk about these horrible things.
Thankfully, these terrifying episodes with my father were few and far between. His predominant personality was a loving, caring dad, a good provider, a faithful family man, and the minster of a small nondenominational church. This ” good preacher daddy” personality is the one I still think of as my “real” dad. (Although I have reasons to believe that he was not my biological father, I did not know this growing up, so to me he was my dad.)
My mother, on the other hand, has only one personality, that of a covert malignant narcissist. (This is just my layman’s diagnosis. To my knowledge, my mother has never gone to a therapist to be diagnosed with anything.)
Most of the time, my mother hides her true nature with a fake-sweet persona. But underneath, she is always the same, supremely selfish and devoid of empathy. My father’s main personality, on the other hand, was loving and empathetic.
After my dad almost killed my mom, when he was arrested and then hospitalized, we lost our home to foreclosure and our family went on welfare. A few months later, my mother confessed to me that she had been trying to gas our whole family to death, all those nights when the gas furnace stopped working.
On each of those nights, when I noticed that the house had gotten very cold, I got out of bed and went out into the hall to turn the thermostat up. But I discovered, every time, that the thermostat was already up as high as it would go, all the way past ninety. Then I looked in the utility room and saw that the pilot light had gone out on the furnace. Each time this happened, I woke my mother so she could light the pilot, because I did not know how.
Every time, after re-lighting the gas pilot, I saw my mother turn the thermostat back down to its normal setting on the way back to her bedroom.
One day, about a week or two after the last time the pilot light had gone out, I came home from school and my mother told me she needed to talk. She had a confession to make, she said. It was something so big and so awful that she could not live with it any longer, without getting it off her chest. But she warned me that if I ever told anyone her terrible secret, she would go to prison for the rest of her life and the five of us kids would go to five separate foster homes and never see each other again.
When she told me this, I promised my mother that I would not tell anyone what she was about to say.
Through sips of beer and puffs on a cigarette, my mother told me that she had been trying to gas our family to death on all of those nights when the pilot light had gone out and the thermostat was turned up as high as it would go. She did this, she said, because life is very hard, and she believed she would be doing us a favor by killing us… and dying in our sleep from gas fumes would be an easy way to go.
“I brought you five kids into the world,” she told me. “I have the right to take you out.”
Oh how I hate it when people say this as a “joke”! I actually walked out on my college education many years ago, when a female professor, whom I greatly admired, said this in class about her misbehaving daughter. I burst into tears, and blurted out that no mother has the right to kill her child for any reason. Then, when I realized that everyone in the room was staring at me in shock, I gathered my things, walked out, and never went back to college again. (This was before I knew I had PTSD.)
When the gas did not kill us, my mother explained, she realized that the furnace had a safety shut off valve that turned the gas off when the pilot light went out. So the last time she attempted to kill us, she had used a wrench to break the part where she thought the safety valve was located. She said she felt positive that we would not wake up the next morning. But we had survived again, so now she was looking for a cliff that was high enough, and close enough to a road, to drive us off of…
There are no words to describe the horror I felt when my mother told me these things. But I took my promise to tell no one, very much to heart. The thought of my mom going to prison for life, and my four preschool siblings and me going to five separate foster homes and never seeing each other again, was almost worse than death to my deeply traumatized, twelve-year-old mind.
So I told no one, for many years. Instead, I lay sleepless in my bed night after night, listening to the heat cycling on and off. And every time we went anywhere in the car, I sat up front beside my mother, hyper vigilant, scanning the horizon for possible danger, and rehearsing over and over in my mind how I would grab the wheel and steer us to safety, if the unthinkable happened.
My mother has hated me ever since that terrible day, in the winter of 1965-1966, when she made me her private confessor. Although she has told me many times over the years that she never stopped loving me, she just “does not like” me, actions speak louder than words. And my mother’s actions, since I was twelve years old, scream HATE.
Half a century later, my now elderly mother still hates me. Why? I don’t know. I guess it’s because I know her horrible secret.
When I finally began to talk about these things a few years ago, guess what the majority in my family of origin said? They said I am crazy. They said I am a liar. They said it never happened. Our mother might be a little “weird,” one sister told me, but she could never in a million years do something as horrible as THAT.
My seventy-six year old aunt believes me, however. She is my mother’s only sibling, younger by five years. My aunt believes me, because she was also abused as a little girl by her sister, my mother.
Some people wonder why I am talking about these things now, when it all happened so long ago. I talk about it now, because I could not talk about it then.
For fifty years, I’ve had a scream stuck in my throat. I need to let it out.
*Names are changed
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