Content warning: gaslighting, domestic violence, sexual abuse of a child
I am standing in my mother’s kitchen, sponging bits of turkey and mashed potatoes into the garbage disposal while Mom scrapes platters of leftovers into plastic bowls and Sis clears the table. Crowd noises and referees’ whistles emanate from the TV in the living room where the men rub their taut bellies and boast about the merits of their latest gadgets. Through the window, I watch the kids playing catch with the dogs and, for a moment, everything seems picture perfect. But the truth is, these family gatherings are getting tougher for me.
Mom always blamed Dad. He was the selfish one. He was the one we had to tiptoe around lest we wake the beast. He was the one who wouldn’t come home after work and drank away our money. He was the one who made her behave the way she did.
"No one will ever love you the way I do,” she’d tell us kids. I am grateful for that. I never wanted to be loved that way.
Dad’s beatings were brutal. His thrashing belt was as wild as the fire raging in his eyes. But at least it was over quickly. The welts and bruises would heal in time.
Hers were mental beatings that left permanent scars. My hypervigilance became omnipresent. Where is she now? What am I doing wrong? I’d better turn down the TV. Don’t laugh too much or too loud. Don’t look at her wrong. Don’t say the wrong thing. And by all means, don’t talk back.
Much of my childhood was spent gauging her moods or analyzing in hindsight what had set her off. A better word might be ‘wasted’ rather than ‘spent’ except that I was developing a skill that would help ensure my survival.
At six years old, I’m in my bedroom coloring an outline of Cinderella dressed in her ball gown. I hear the door swing open and I drop to the floor, pretending to be asleep. I don’t realize my tightly shut eyelids and stiff posture give me away. But I can’t look at her. Not after what she’d done.
I am frightened. My lip is sore and swollen from when she’d smothered me that morning.
I had developed a tic. I did this thing where I blinked my eyes tightly and often. She had told me to cut it out.
“I can’t,” I say, trying not to blink.
"Yes you can!” she shouts. “You stop it this instant.” She stares at me, waiting for me to defy her. I try to turn away but she holds my chin.
I hold off as long as I can but the urge to blink is strong. When it happens again, she slaps my face. Then she orders me not to cry, but I can’t stop the tears. Suddenly, her hand is covering my mouth and nose and I cannot breathe.
“I said stop it!” she screams. By now I am sobbing but the air cannot escape. I somehow manage to exhale through her cupped fingers but she tightens her grip and I cannot breathe in again. Wild-eyed with terror, I squirm and try to twist away from her grip, but she is strong. She hisses, “When I take my hand away you’d better not make a peep, do you understand?” I nod frantically. All I want is to breathe.
The sound of air being forced through her fingers stays with me forever. Years later, I am reminded of that sound when I blow into a clarinet for the first time. I never pick up the clarinet again.
Now, a crayon snaps under her foot. I sense her looming, studying me, and I hear her breathing. I am too scared to move but I feel my eyelids squeeze shut and I try not to cringe against the smack I fear is imminent. I am relieved to hear footsteps walking away.
When I am eight, I lose a key in the snow. At least that’s what she tells me. I am sure I gave it back to her. She calls me stupid and raps the soft part of my temple with her knuckles. It hurts, but I do not cry.
At dinner she says, “Do not come home for lunch tomorrow. Stay outside and look for that key.”
That night I pray, “God, please don’t let it snow.” I wonder how I will dig for the key. Will I have to use my hands? I know my crocheted mittens won’t protect them from the icy cold. I worry and have trouble sleeping.
That night I dream my baby sister is drowning in the bathtub. I must save her, but I can only use a spoon to empty the tub. I cannot scoop the water fast enough and she is dying, pleading with her eyes for me to save her.
I wake up crying and I move through the darkness to her crib. I need to see her. I caress her chubby leg through the bars just to be sure she is really there. It is cold, so I cover her. I want so much to kiss her and hold her and tell her I’m sorry, that I tried to scoop the water faster, but if I lower the side rail it will creak and I mustn’t wake our mother.
In the morning I plan to sneak a spoon from the kitchen drawer and hide it in my coat pocket. I am not a sneaky person by nature and I hate what I have been reduced to. But Mom is watchful and by the time I am ready to leave, my sister’s highchair blocks the narrow doorway to the kitchen.
Later at school, I have difficulty concentrating on my work. I keep looking at things, trying to gauge their worthiness as a shovel. I wonder if I can sneak my teacher’s yardstick out of the classroom.
Then I think about my new red binder with the blue and white stars, a Christmas gift I was allowed to choose myself. It is the prettiest shade of red I’ve ever seen and I cannot remember wanting anything more. I remove the paper from it and carry it home.
After a few scrapes in the snow, my beautiful binder begins to crumble. The cloth covering hangs loose over broken cardboard and, for a moment, I am crestfallen. But I have no time for regrets, I must find the key.
After ten minutes, I remove my mittens to breathe warm air onto my fingers. The field is an endless expanse of white and I have made very little progress. A heavy gloom bears down on me as I kneel in the snow, feeling helpless and on the verge of tears. My stomach growls and suddenly I feel very tired.
My mother sticks her head out of the window of our third floor apartment and hollers for me. I start at the sound of my name and look up.
“What are you doing down there? You get up here now!” she yells. I wonder why she is angry because I am only obeying orders. I quickly bury what is left of the binder in the snow.
“I was looking for the key, like you said,” I say as I step through the doorway, my hands raised like little shields.
She sneers. “I never said that.”
I don’t argue. She hasn’t smacked me and I don’t want to invite one. I eat my sandwich in silence while she irons my father’s uniforms. I return to school, feeling empty inside.
Similar scenes play out over the years. She becomes especially skilled at gaslighting.
In California she says on the phone, “I’m at the neighbor’s house. Bring me the culottes I sewed for you. Cathy wants to see them.” She adds, “Go out the back gate.”
At home later I ask, “Where is Lady? Lady! Here, girl.” I click my tongue, expecting to hear the jingle of her collar and the padding of her feet on the carpet. But there is only silence.
My mother is eerily calm when she says, “She ran away. You left the back gate open. Your father is out looking for her.”
I am heartbroken and consumed by guilt. I cry in my bed and wonder why I am not being punished. Later, Dad comes home sans Lady and I despair all over again. No one comforts me.
A week later we move to an Air Base in Turkey.
Twenty years later, I will bring up the subject of Lady to my aging father.
“She ran away,” I’ll say.
“What do you mean?” he’ll ask. “No. We gave her to a couple who lived in Apple Valley. We couldn’t take her to Turkey with us.”
The color will drain from my face and I will feel betrayed and angry that I’d carried that guilt all those years. But I will repress it because Mom would only deny it and tell me I’m crazy.
I am sixteen. It’s around midnight the night of my grandmother’s funeral and I am the only one still awake. Light from the television illuminates the small bedroom we use as a TV room. I am sitting on the floor leaning against the studio couch. That adorable Nadia Comaneci is trying for her fifth gold medal and I am cheering her on.
Soon, my grandfather staggers through the front door. He’d flown in for the funeral and is staying with us. I don’t know him very well and I feel uneasy when he plops down next to me, reeking of alcohol.
“Hello, Grandad,” I say, concealing my discomfort. “It’s late. Where have you been?”
His words are slurred. “Oh, jus’ out with your Uncle Bill.” We watch in silence as Nadia prances across the screen.
“I miss your grandmother,” he says suddenly, in a high-pitched whine. Is he crying? I look, but his eyes are dry.
“I know,” I say, “me, too.”
“Whyn’t ya give your ol’ Grandad a hug.”
I do, even though it’s awkward. He hugs me too long while he smells my hair and caresses my back.
I finally pull away, unsure of what is happening. In my peripheral vision I see his sagging head bob with each breath he takes. A nasal whine emanates from his nostrils and I wonder if he is asleep.
He lifts his head. “I think I’ll go to bed. Whyn’t ya give your ol’ Grandad a kiss,” he says, tapping his proffered cheek. I roll my eyes, but by now I am an excellent complier. Besides, what would my mother think if I refused to kiss her father?
I purse my lips and lean toward him, but he is sly.
He turns his head and plants his lips fully onto mine. His hands press against the back of my head and his pointy tongue pokes through my lips and encounters my teeth. He rolls his tongue over my gums and inside my cheek. I struggle to pull away, but he is strong. He reaches a hand under my pajama top and that’s when I roll away and stand in one quick motion, like Nadia.
“I . . . I have to go to the bathroom,” I blurt out in a voice I don’t recognize. I dash across the hall and lock the door behind me, my heart and mind racing. The smell of his saliva on my lips turns my stomach.
I open the bathroom door and dash across the hall to my bedroom. I push in the lock, the kind anyone can open with a wire hanger, and I stand there, listening. I hear him on the other side of the door and I jump when the knob turns, not trusting that it’s locked.
But it is. He jiggles the handle a few more times, then chuckles to himself as he walks away.
I pull the pillow and blanket off my bed and lay in front of the door in case he returns. It is a long time before I can sleep.
I decide to wait until my grandfather is gone before I tell my mother. Instead, I tell my cousin, who tells her mother, who tells my mother. I am scared, like I’ve done something wrong. But I soon discover there is no need because no conversation ever occurs. Days later, I ask my cousin what happened.
“She didn’t believe your story,” she says. “She said you must have dreamed it.”
I don’t know what to say. My hands tremble and my knees go weak, but I cannot put a name to how I’m feeling.
My cousin places a hand on my shoulder. “I believe you,” she says, “and so does my mother.”
The following month we read “The Raven” in English class and I find the word I was searching for. It is ‘desolate’.
Now I’m thirty-six and the Florida heat is oppressive. I am driving Mom to my hairdresser’s forty minutes away. Nellie does good hair and she’s reasonable because she works out of her house. If Mom likes her she can use her, too.
We are stopped at a traffic light just before the entrance to the toll plaza.
“Roll down your window,” she says.
Roll down my window? “What for?” I say.
“So you’ll be ready when it’s time to take the ticket.”
I am annoyed. “Mom,” I say, “I know when to roll down the window. You don’t have to tell me.”
“Don’t argue with me and roll down the window,” she insists.
For once, I stand my ground. “Why are you telling me to roll down the window?” I begin spouting the thoughts that swirl through my mind. “We’re stopped at a light. We’re not even close to the booth yet. It’s hot outside and there’s no need to let the cool air out. I’m a grown woman, Mom. Don’t you think I know when it’s time to roll down the win – ”
Smack. In the right cheek. I am in shock. She hasn’t hit me in fifteen years. I fume. The light turns green and I step on the gas. As I take the toll ticket, I know I cannot sit next to her for forty minutes.
Once on the highway, I get up the nerve to say, “I should leave you on the side of the road.”
“Hah! You don’t have the guts,” she says, taunting me. She’s right. Instead, I get off at the next exit and drive her home. She leaves without saying goodbye and the incident is never brought up again.
Ten years later, my mother stops calling. I don’t notice right away that I'm the only one calling but, once I do, I let a few weekends go by without phoning just to be sure. The weeks turn into months.
My hindsight analysis reveals the reason; she’d phoned and I hadn’t returned the call. There was no message, just a missed call. I was busy at work and had forgotten about it. She had complained about it once before and I’d said then, “If it’s that important leave me a message.” She’d dismissed the suggestion and insisted I should return any missed call from her. We never came to a consensus and just let it lie.
So we text instead. Why have you stopped calling? I ask.
I haven’t stopped calling, she insists. I’m so busy I don’t call anyone anymore.
She is retired, how busy can she be? That evening I ask my sister, “Has Mom called you lately?”
“Yes, just yesterday. We talk once or twice a week,” she informs me.
I check with my brother. She calls him, too, although not as often.
The thing about gaslighting is that you never develop a sense of identity, especially when it begins at an early age. You continually doubt your thoughts, your judgments, even your experiences. You don’t trust yourself to make sound decisions so you give your power away. You accept blame for things that go wrong, believing you somehow caused it, and you have no sense of pride in your accomplishments because you think you came by it fraudulently. The psychological damage is extremely difficult to overcome and years of therapy might bring only slight improvement.
It’s Thanksgiving Day at Mom and Dad’s and the whole family is here. I’m sitting on the couch with my new husband when Mom comes to ask him for financial advice. They talk, I listen. She tries to mentally calculate the interest on her money. I come up with the figure and tell her.
“Shut up,” she snaps, “I’m trying to think.” My husband looks away and I am embarrassed.
Now, I think about it as I sponge off the dishes. She doesn’t see me as a person, I realize.
I had tried over the years to bring these things up to her, to clear the air and start fresh, as adults, as friends.
“It was me against the three of you,” she’d say. “Your father never helped. And you were such a difficult child.” Then the wall would go up.
Once, I asked, “Remember when Grandad tried to kiss me? Why didn’t you believe me?” She’d looked surprised and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But we both knew she did.
I stand the last plate in the dishwasher rack and I think, We all have baggage to carry, but sometimes we have to know when to lighten the load.
I kiss her goodbye and allow the perspiration from her cheek to linger on my lips. I have decided this will be the last time we ever see or speak to each other.
I am sad but feel a little taller as I walk away.
Tomorrow is Black Friday. Maybe I’ll go shopping for a new binder. A pretty red one with blue and white stars on it.