I Am a Survivor: Elizabeth W.’s Story, Part Two
< Part One
Trigger warning: graphic descriptions of physical and verbal abuse.
Looking back, I can see that after we moved and no longer had immediate neighbors to hear the screaming when she beat me or my brother, she felt much less restrained and the violence increased in frequency and intensity.
If I was quiet and withdrawn (which was pretty much always) and mom decided my quietness was “rebellious” or “disrespectful”, or if I forgot to say “ma’am” after addressing or answering her she would begin screaming at me, calling me a disrespectful whore/slut/tramp/bitch, while simultaneously slapping me across the face hard enough to knock me down. She began to use bigger and better weapons than her hands and the bristle side of a hairbrush. I was beaten with length of copper pipe, pieces of two by four, a thick wooden yardstick (which broke on me eventually), thrown down stairs, had my wrists twisted until she forced me to my knees, screaming in agony, was dragged around the house by my hair and my head bounced off any and all hard objects. She tried to suffocate me several times, held me down and forced a pillow onto my face with all her weight, while screaming she was going to kill me and she wished I would die. I had my head and face forced under a pouring tub faucet and held there until I thrashed my way out of her grasp.
These things happened at least several times a week, sometimes more than once a day, interspersed with the verbal abuse, and her refusal to address me by name, but rather as “bitch” or “slut’. I was regularly told I was “ugly”, “fat”, “disgusting”, “crazy”, and “stupid”.
For those who think I may have been a “difficult” teenager from 11-16 or so when this pattern really took off – I never raised my voice to my mother, never cursed at her, never had friends over or snuck out, never wore anything other than black, baggy clothes (which is hardly slutty), never disobeyed a direct order, never did an illegal drug, smoked or drank, and only ever argued by politely stating I didn’t want to do something, or I thought she was mistaken. The latter two always resulting in a beating or several, so rarely did I dare say no to anything.
In public, my siblings and I were always perfectly behaved, rarely speaking, never making noise of stepping out of line. Mom only had to give us that angry glare that promised later retribution for us to think twice about doing anything at all. There was no one around who knew us beyond the brief homeschooling afternoons with the LEAH group who could have possibly known that anything was terribly wrong in our house. We were so isolated, there was no one I could have spoken to, even had I found the courage to do so.
We’d been trained to fear the authorities and Child Protective Services and had no friends or family to speak of.
Mom “volunteered” me to go work at St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen once a week to win points with the local Catholic church she dragged us to once in a while. At first I was furious that she had volunteered me without even asking me, but after a while I realized it was a few hours a week out from under her thumb and grew to enjoy it. Mom also signed me up for confirmation classes at the local Catholic church, after she had begun attending workshops run by a fundamentalist Catholic homesteading family who also homeschooled their twelve children.
Mom decided it was time for all of us to get more “spiritual”, and began three times a day “prayer circles” where we would all be forced to sit and read aloud from the Bible and sing hymns that the “Fahey’s” (the Catholic family she was imitating) sang. She instituted a clothing change, head-coverings for the girls (I refused), she began making ankle length dresses for herself and us (I also refused), and only long sleeved button down shirts for the boys. She threw out our shorts and t-shirts, started getting rid of her college feminist lit, and any and all of our books she found too “worldly”. Mom sold the computer my grandparents had bought for us, got rid of our tiny video and cd collection, and began instituting even stricter rules for us to follow. So during these changes I attended confirmation classes at the local church, which I despised and between the forced Bible study there and the forced Bible study at home quickly grew to despise Christianity and the confining, narrow-minded tenets the Bible espouses. I never spoke my thoughts aloud, but my mother could tell from my face when I wasn’t agreeing or complaisant enough and my face invariably led to new beatings and verbal abuse.
Mom began to use the Bible as an additional weapon, quoting the “Thy shall honor thy father and mother”, and telling me that God said I must be obedient and respectful to her. (Even though I was always obedient and never voiced any disrespect.) This just furthered my disgust for the Bible, although I now see that, like homeschooling it was simply being used by my mother to her ends, not necessarily bad unto itself.
I was falling deeper and deeper into a depression that seemed like it was swallowing me whole. I started sleeping really late every day, shuffling through my duties with my head down and my mouth shut. I began snapping at my siblings when mom wasn’t looking, I had no patience for their demands for my attention or their quarrels. My brothers began fighting viciously with each other, first when mom was out, later even when she was home, resulting in beatings for them as well as me. I knew my mother hated me, I didn’t know why.
I tried so hard, for so long, to be what she wanted me to be, obedient, respectful, responsible, but never seemed to find her approval or even a respite from her rage.
I am, at my core, fundamentally an honest person, having no talent for acting, for pretending to be happy when I am not. This was my downfall. If I had only been a better actress, perhaps I could have fooled her into thinking I was, in fact, what she wanted me to be, rather than merely doing whatever I was told with my face betraying my misery and despair.
I tried to kill myself twice.
Once, at summer camp, I stepped in front of an oncoming semi truck with a feeling of exultant freedom and calm. A boy who liked me happened to be standing nearby and turned around and yanked me out of the road as the truck went by. The second time, my brother Alexander and I were coming home from the paper route and I decided the easiest way to end my misery would be to poison myself. I picked a handful of deadly nightshade berries and was about to throw them down my throat when my brother jumped up and slapped them out of my hands and started screaming and crying hysterically.
I felt sad, resigned, and guilty for terrifying him so, and didn’t try to kill myself again.
1997, was the last year of my paper route as mom decided it was allowing me too much freedom and she wasn’t making enough money off of it/me to be worth the trouble, so she called my boss and “quit” for me. I was devastated by this, as it was among my last outlets for momentary respite from the hell that was my home.
The following year I got my first real job, washing dishes at a local pizzeria for minimum wage. I was ecstatic at being able to get out of the house a few evenings a week and being allowed to save a little money to buy a puppy for my sixteenth birthday. After about six months, my mother called and told my employer that I could no longer work there because I was sleeping with a married 30 year old man who was a coworker there. All this because I had spoken to him on the phone (about a dog) while she was listening in, and she said she could tell we were having sex by the tone of his voice. Really. There was no other evidence for her accusation, that was it. Mom convinced herself that this was true even though both he and I told her she was mistaken and crazy. She then beat me, off and on, for the next two days for this delusional belief until I could stand it no longer.
I packed my things and lived on the streets of Buffalo for next three weeks.
I camped out in the basement of an abandoned apartment building, slept in a refrigerator box when I could, and mostly just tried to process what on earth to do next. Going home was not an option, if I stayed another minute I knew I would kill myself, I felt as if I was being slowly crushed by my life and there was only a spark of life and spirit left. After a few weeks, I found a runaway shelter who helped me track down my biological father who came and got me.
My mother’s insults and degradations became ever more creative and hateful, designed to wound. They did. To this day, simply recalling these things makes me shake uncontrollably and I do not believe that my littlest sisters should have to wait until things get as bad as they were when I was driven to the streets before someone should step in. I have only waited this long because I had hoped that mom had changed her behavior as she claims, and because she is still my mother and I was, (and still am) hesitant to speak the truth and have her never speak to me again.
Contrary to what I’ve been told by DCS when I made a statement regarding my two sisters still trapped there, physical abuse is not the only threat to a child at home. Emotional and verbal abuse leave damage far deeper, with myriad consequences to a child. Emotionally fragile, sensitive teenage girls do not need to have what little self confidence and self respect they have destroyed by the one person in the world who is supposed to support them, believe in them, and give them strength to take on the struggles of life. My mother does not, and never has provided any of those things.
On the contrary, her words tore me down to the ground and I have spent half my adult life rebuilding my self image and confidence solely because of the things she said every day of my childhood.
End of series.