I Am a Survivor: Elizabeth W.’s Story, Part One
Trigger warning: graphic descriptions of physical and verbal abuse.
My name is Elizabeth and I am a survivor.
I am the oldest of seven children, two of whom are still trapped in the isolated, abusive world created by our mother. My mother began “homeschooling” in the fall of 1993, immediately after three of her four children were returned to her by the state of New York. I had been placed with my biological father for the previous nine months, while my siblings were in a foster home as both their biological father and our mother were in jail.
Our mother had been charged with child endangerment and was mandated to attend counseling.
I am unsure whether she did or not, however, her abusive and violent behavior continued only to escalate after this time. I had been miserable being placed with a father who was virtually a stranger to me, and over a thousand miles away from my brothers and sisters. In October of 1994, I finally convinced my dad that I wanted to be with mom and my siblings, so he took me back. A decision I would live to regret in many ways, but looking back, would not have chosen differently at the time.
My mother informed me that from now on we were all going to be “homeschooled” so that no more nosy teachers would be interfering in “our” (her) lives. One of my youngest step-siblings had made some mention to a teacher of the rampant domestic violence that routinely rampaged through our home. (Thus the subsequent investigation and arrest of both our parents.)
Homeschooling was the first step my mom took to make sure no one could get involved through children’s loose tongues ever again.
While mom had always been explosively violent with me I didn’t remember quite so many constant beatings and verbal abuse before this all happened. After my return from my dad’s house, mom began to turn on me with sudden and unpredictable rage. She slapped me across the face multiple times, knocked me down and dragged me around by my hair, repeatedly slamming my head off the floor or walls. All the while screaming that I was lazy, stupid, ungrateful, “just like your father”, “you’re a traitor, you’ve betrayed me”. Often the attacks seemed to be triggered by her simply looking at me, and not liking my facial expressions, she would look at me and say that I was looking “rebellious” if I happened to be unhappy and withdrawn that day. I often heard that I looked just like my father, which also seemed to set her off. We stayed in the new apartment for another month or two before mom and my stepdad got back together and moved into a new place in Buffalo, New York in December 1993.
Mom and my stepdad together were a volatile mix, two different kinds of mentally unwell and two different kinds of violence. My stepdad beat her and she in turn beat us, mostly me. She often told us that if we ever spoke to anyone about what was going on that we would be separated and sent to foster homes and juvenile detention centers for bad children where we would be beaten every day.
She also taught us to fear the police and whenever she saw one or they were called to the house to investigate all the screaming, she would freak out and tell us to hide and keep our mouths shut.
Once in the new apartment, mom continued to “homeschool” us, which consisted of buying a few textbooks (sometimes grade appropriate, sometimes not) and telling us to go to our desks and “do school”, for a few hours a day. Many, many days I was interrupted by mom telling me I needed to “watch” the newest baby for several hours while she talked on the phone or went and did errands. I spent so much time caring for my newborn sisters that two of them actually called me “ma”, until mom heard. This was one of many things that set off her punching, kicking, pulling me by the hair and trying to break my face routine. I can honestly say that was the extent of my “schooling” for the next six years until I left. Mom did the New York State required “quarterly reports” on our progress, usually late and always false. We also took the mandatory annual CAT tests and usually scored fine on some subjects and poorly on others. Mom officially enrolled us in the Clonlara Homeschool Association that year, which meant she bought “curriculums” from them (which we never used) and we went to their annual conferences a few times.
Spring of 1994, my mother arranged for me to work a large paper route that covered 12 city blocks on our street. I worked that route for the next four years, eventually adding another 12 blocks. I was robbed twice in two years, first when I was thirteen and a guy in a football helmet jumped out of the bushes and held a gun to my back and demanded I hand over the money (paper route money). My mother took all of the money I earned except for what I needed to buy dog food for my dog. She also pushed me to take other jobs. I mowed people’s yards, did landscaping, house cleaning and babysitting. I was never allowed to keep any of the money – this was how she was supplementing the family budget, as she never worked.
Soon after we moved to Buffalo, Mom joined a local homeschooling chapter of born again Christian homeschoolers, LEAH (living education at home). Aside from the one or two weeks a year I was allowed to go to a local YMCA camp, and the occasional summer soccer games with the kids on our street, LEAH was the first regular social interaction I’d been allowed since I left public school in 1993. None of us kids were thrilled with the group, being very religious and preachy and we were not (yet). However it was a few hours a week that we got to leave the house and be out from under mom’s constant supervision and iron rule, so we made the best of it.
The winter I turned 14 our car was repossessed and mom began sending my little brother and I to do all the errands during “school” time.
We walked miles through the Buffalo snow to get groceries and the mail (at the post office) every few days. I was also expected to do nearly all of the housecleaning, mopping every room, sweeping, dishes, folding laundry (for seven people) as well as most of the babysitting. There was very little time I could have done “school” even had I been brilliant enough to teach myself a sixth thru tenth grade school education. As it was I spent my free hours immersing myself in books I borrowed from the library, ranging from fiction to history, anthropology, classic literature to feminist studies. I credit the natural inclination of my curious and inquiring mind combined with my access to a library with my ability to survive any and all later academic pursuits.
Before long the constant screaming of our mom and my stepdad echoing through our apartment drove our neighbors crazy and they asked the landlord to evict us. Winter of 1996, we moved a mile down the road into a HUD (low income fixer upper) house, the first my parents had ever owned. Outwardly, things continued much the same, I had my myriad jobs, housecleaning and babysitting duties and mom sat at home and talked on the phone or did “bills” all day. We still attended the LEAH group, though not regularly, and often escaped for a week or two of summer camp.
After the move, we didn’t make new friends, so spent even more time in the house, and grew gradually ever more isolated. Mom slowly alienated her family although her parents and sisters made a valiant attempt to stay in touch long distance. Mom had an unparalleled ability to say cruel and hurtful things and make people recoil and stay away. My stepdad’s family was not accepting of the biracial aspect of our family and with the exception of one uncle, made no attempt to be part of our lives. Neither mom nor James had a single friend that I knew of, no one ever came to our house. We weren’t allowed to have friends over, talk on the phone, use the computer, listen to music, or even have uncensored mail.
This quickly put a stop to any attempt on our parts to have even casual friends.
Part Two >