I recently read the essay, Motherless By Choice, by Katie Naum and felt awed by its honesty, its sincerity, and its wisdom. It struck a chord with me, and has spurred me to tell my own story. As always happens when I write stories from my childhood, the words came easily and almost wrote themselves. I ended up with over four thousand of them and have decided to post them as a series.
I’ve posted a few of the stories from my childhood previously on this blog (see ‘On Smacking‘, ‘Christmas Memories’, and ‘Letting Go‘). The young Louise relishes being able to tell her story—finally, after all these years, that child has a voice and she can be heard. I want people to know what happened to me. These stories from my childhood are a big part of me and I can’t pretend they’re not. My childhood formed and shaped me, and it left me bruised and scarred. Not physically so it’s visible, but the scars are there and they’re deep. I’ve tried, and am trying, to heal them, and giving the young Louise a chance to tell her story helps.
I’ve already been served with a writ for defamation from my mother for two emails I sent to uncles and a handful of close family friends in 2012. The emails weren’t defamatory but they did expose the truth about my mother, the facts she tries to hide. However, I’m not going to let the threat of a defamation writ stop me from telling my story: these things happened and I have a right to tell them.
Nearly eleven years ago, at the age of thirty-six, I closed the door on the relationship with my mother. We did reconcile during the last year of my father’s life, but that ended bitterly, too.
Giving up on the relationship with my mother was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I felt guilty for cutting off from the person who’d brought me up. I felt guilty, too, for making my children grandmotherless, and for leaving my father, even though he’d chosen to stay with my mother.
But I’d had enough. I’d hung in there, hoping she would change, but she didn’t. And I was sick of it. Sick of being flotsam and jetsam to her needs. Sick of being abused when I didn’t do what she wanted. Sick of the turbulence that always came with her.
I finally had to accept that she wasn’t going to change and close that door.
The Early Years
To the outside world our family presented not only as a normal family, but as a model family. Two parents and three kids. We were always clean, well fed, well dressed, and did well at school.
But the outside world didn’t know what went on inside our home, and as a kid, I couldn’t tell anyone.
I believed my mother when she told me how good she was: how she’d picked my father up out of the gutter, and built his business. Without her, he’d have stayed where she found him and we’d have had nothing. And everyday, she cooked and washed and cleaned for us, day in and day out. I believed we were lucky to have her.
Except that she physically, verbally, and emotionally abused us, not that I recognised that at the time. I thought maybe it was normal—this was how all families were. I had nothing with which to compare it, of course.
I was beaten, pants down over the knee. I was pulled along the carpet by my hair and left with friction burns on my elbows. My sister and I had our heads banged together if we fought. We were dragged to our room by our ears to tidy a messy toy cupboard. I watched as my mother beat my three-year-old brother and rubbed his nose into the patch where he’d peed on the carpet, then told him he was no better than a dog.
My sister and I sobbed and screamed the day my mother told us she’d burnt our dolls in the incinerator because we’d left them outside. I remember peering though the holes in the sides of the rusted forty-four gallon drum, searching the ashes for Marie (my doll), hoping she might have survived. Hours later, after we’d apologised and promised to never do it again, she produced our dolls, unharmed.
It was our own fault. We were bad and needed to be punished. From the minute I was born, my mother knew I was different and she had to be firm with me. It would have been easier for her to let me get away with it, she told me, but she couldn’t do that because she was a responsible mother. She didn’t like having to hit me, but I made her, because of my behaviour.
My most significant memories are of fear and shame. I was scared of her, of her raised voice and her raised hand. She seemed big and powerful. I didn’t tell a soul, not only because I’d be punished if I did, but because I was ashamed—I didn’t want anyone to know I was so bad I needed to be beaten by my mother.
So I kept going to school and to Mass each Sunday, always neat and always clean, smiling for the outside world and hiding my shame.
My parents did a Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) course when I was eleven (I wrote about that in ‘On Smacking‘) and I hoped things would improve after that. However, because I was so bad, PET didn’t work on me. The only ‘language’ I understood, according to my mother, was physical punishment so she had to keep hitting me.
The Teenage Years
By the time we hit our teenage years, Dad’s plumbing business was doing well—he successfully tendered for big government contracts, like the plumbing on the Scottsdale school, the new Police Buildings, and the new Launceston General Hospital.
My parents drove luxury cars, and Dad owned a boat. They built a holiday home overlooking the ocean, and a majestic house just outside of town—a sprawling home, with marble bathrooms, slate floors, Persian carpet. Even a bidet and a chandelier! My mother wore designer clothes, and to the outside world, we looked like we had everything.
Yet home was becoming increasingly volatile—even the shower wasn’t safe. My mother would unlock the bathroom door, or if she couldn’t, she’d pull the handle out, spindle and all, and pull me from the shower. She’d drag me, wet and naked, to whatever it was that I had or hadn’t done. One time, it was to the kitchen sink where I’d left a dirty cup, which she then made me put in the dishwasher.
I also watched as she abused my sister and brother, and my father, but stayed quiet and out of sight. If we dared stick up for each other, then she turned on us.
When I started school, my teacher told my mother that if the whole class was like me, she could have brought her knitting. I managed to stay good all through primary school, and in Year Six, I was House Captain and won the Junior Citizen of the Year Award.
After that, things slid downhill, and quickly. By the middle of Year Seven, I suspect I was the naughtiest girl in the year, doing all sorts of attention-seeking things—eating in class, writing notes, acting the class clown—and spending significant periods in the hallway outside or in the Principal’s office. In the end, they moved me out of Year Seven and into Year Eight before I tearfully begged to go back and promised to be good.
No one questioned why the Junior Citizen of the Year had spiralled downwards in less than a year. Nor did it occur to me—hadn’t I always been bad? Wasn’t the ‘good’ me only a facade? My mother was right, after all.
I knew I was making my parents suffer, but I couldn’t stop misbehaving.
Still my mother was doing nothing wrong; it was us, always us. The abuse was worse when no one was around, and if we tried to tell Dad, ‘She’s lying, Geoffrey,’ she’d say. ‘That’s not what happened at all …’
Sometimes, we all tried to talk to her, as a family, and tell her to stop. She’d start to cry because we were ungrateful and selfish, after everything she’d done for us, and how she’d stood by us through thick and thin. And my father would be reminded, again, of how she’d found him in the gutter, and I’d be reminded, again, of all my misdemeanours. Then, she’d pack her suitcase, sobbing as she did, and telling us that she had to leave because none of us wanted her.
We’d cry and beg her not to leave. We’d tell her what a good mother she was, how wrong we were, how sorry we were for what we’d said, and how much we loved her. Finally, she’d agree to stay, but only if we never did it again.
And the next day, we’d step outside with smiles on our faces.
I believed my mother when she said she’d never force us to attend Mass, but, at the age of twelve when I told her I no longer wanted to go, I was hit until I climbed in the car, red-faced and puffy-eyed, and once again walked down the aisle to sit at the front of the church with the family.
It was the first time I remember really hating her. From this age, I began hinting to others that my mother wasn’t all that she seemed. But the image of her, with her perfectly made-up face and hair, wearing her designer clothes, at Mass every week or helping out wherever a hand was needed, made me appear a liar.
‘Your mother’s so nice …’
‘Your mother’s always there to help …’
Everyone, it seemed, loved her and as soon as I detected that I wasn’t going to be believed, I shut up. I couldn’t have coped with pouring out my story, only to be disbelieved.
I couldn’t explain to anyone how vastly different was the mother they saw, to the mother I knew.
Next week: Part 2 starts with my teenage years and early adulthood, both of which were pretty bleak, until I turned my life around. Then, the final straw—the reason I finally called it quits on the relationship:
I could tolerate almost anything if it only hurt me, but no way was I going to let her harm my kids.