The Nightmare is Over: James’ Story
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Mark Beery.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “James” is a pseudonym
CW: Child abuse, suicide, and attempted filicide
I recently graduated from one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. I have a solid academic record, a number of fellowships and awards, and I’m beginning my legal career in a major U.S. city, surrounded by friends and colleagues. When I tell people I was homeschooled, the typical response is something like, “Wow, your parents must have done a great job.”
Thanks, but no.
Let’s back up. I’m the fourth child of eight; I have two older sisters, an older brother, and four younger brothers (my parents believed that birth control thwarts God’s intentions). Before I came out as a transgender man in college, I was perceived to be the youngest of my parents’ three daughters.
My siblings and I were raised with a very patriarchal understanding of gender roles. My mother stayed home to teach us while my father, a self-employed manual laborer, brought home an income barely sufficient to feed us all. It was accepted belief that the place of women is in the home, caring for her children and her husband.
The fact that one of ‘us girls’ grew up to be a gay trans male lawyer fighting for LGBT and women’s rights in one of the most liberal cities in the country probably makes my mother turn in her grave.
I know each of my siblings has their own scars from our childhood. It is fascinating to hear their thoughts and stories about that time now, and it astonishes me that our experiences and reflections are so different. The major locus of “disagreement,” insofar as feelings can disagree, is our mother. My oldest sister Cara still openly grieves for her, ten years after her death. Other siblings know she was cruel and abusive, but carry some compassion for her in light of her mental illness. Personally, I often think—sometimes I even have the decency to feel ashamed about it—that her suicide was the best thing she ever did for us.
You know those occasional news stories about mothers who ‘go crazy’ and drown all their kids in the bathtub?
My mother was one of those—she just never managed to kill us properly.
It sounds like a dark joke, but it’s true. My sister Amelia will tell you about the time my mother drove us headlong into oncoming traffic, right in the path of a semi-truck. Amelia, thankfully, had the sense and the reflexes to pull the steering wheel in the other direction.
My mother totaled several vehicles in suicide attempts. After one such attempt, she was found sitting in a creek near the place where she had rolled her car off an incline. She was singing to herself and splashing her feet in the water.
Mom would often talk about ‘the age of accountability’, which is supposedly the age where children are no longer protected from God’s wrath (apparently he doesn’t send babies to hell). She would darkly imply that it would be ‘for the best’ if we died before we had the opportunity to rebel against God. She would gleefully predict the Second Coming of Christ—Y2K, 9/11, the standard targets—and then suffer immense depressive episodes when humanity would manage to survive.
Maybe that’s enough to give a general picture of what the woman was like to all of us. Like I said, we all have scars. But I believe that the trauma I experienced was unique and possibly more acute than that suffered by my siblings. Not that it’s a contest, but it’s taken some time for me to accept that I am still suffering in ways they are not.
Part of my unique trauma comes by virtue of being (apparently) a girl in a very patriarchal home.
My sisters and I were constantly reminded that we were inferior to men, and that our highest aspiration should be to be a good ‘helpmeet’ to our future husbands. Sometimes we could wear only dresses, other times we couldn’t play with Legos or other “boy toys.”
We all responded differently to our sexist indoctrination. Cara, the oldest, fell in line completely. She loved domesticity—cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the rest of us like her own children. She talked constantly about getting married and having babies of her own. It was no surprise to anyone when Cara got married at 17 and had her first baby at 18.
Amelia was on the opposite end of the spectrum. She was tough and rugged, and she didn’t take any of my mother’s sexist shit. She was the “problem child” who would climb out of the window in our shared bedroom on the second floor, onto the roof, and down a tree to go fight neighborhood boys at the ditch near our house. My mom gave up on Amelia early, sneering that her twelve-year-old soul was “seared.”
As for me, I was sweet, shy, and affectionate—which made me an easy target. I wanted to obey my parents, and I trusted them. I quietly internalized that I was inferior because of my gender. I believed it was true, even though it hurt. I didn’t have the guts to rebel, like Amelia, nor was I naturally drawn to a domestic lifestyle, like Cara. My passivity kept me close to my mother’s toxic waste for so long, letting her spiteful misogyny burrow into my heart and tear me apart.
I was twelve when my parents divorced, and I was the oldest child living with my mother. Cara was already married, and my mom and sixteen-year-old Amelia wanted nothing to do with each other. I am decidedly not as maternal (or paternal, as it were) as Cara, but I ended up becoming a caretaker for my four younger brothers, as my mother’s mental illness grew progressively worse.
“Homeschooling,” for us, was a bit of a misnomer.
When I was little, we mostly read the Bible for a few hours a day and practiced our handwriting. Occasionally we did some arithmetic. I remember a spelling test happened at some point.
As I grew older, especially after my parents divorced, I became very interested in good education. I took responsibility for my own education and that of my younger brothers. I spent countless hours flipping through the used homeschool books my mom picked up at yard sales, and I put together age-appropriate curricula for all of us. I taught my younger brothers how to read while I earnestly studied Creationist science that I would later have to unlearn.
The real turning point in everything came when I decided that I wanted to go to college. Somewhat predictably, neither of my older sisters had gone.
Sexist education poses an enormous entry barrier for women, and neither of my sisters was as invested in academia as I was.
I didn’t expect to go a good university—I had spent far too many years learning that my female brain was not calibrated for higher education. My older brother Daniel was geared to become the first in our family to attend college, and I enthusiastically soaked up as much of his wisdom on the matter as I could.
When Daniel scored a 28 on the American College Test (ACT), my parents showered him with praise and admiration. It is admittedly a very good score, especially considering our woefully inadequate education. As I started to study for the test myself, I was reminded that I shouldn’t compare myself to Daniel, and that no one would judge me if (when) I didn’t do as well as he did.
I scored a 34.
My mother seemed pleased and enthusiastic at first. It probably felt like a feather in her cap, a testament to her excellent mothering. Her enthusiasm waned as she saw how my success had fueled my ambitions. Before I took the test, I thought timidly of perhaps attending the local community college. I could even save money by commuting from home. (Daniel, of course, was heading to a good state school.) After the test, I was getting bombarded with brochures from Harvard and other top universities.
For the first time, I saw a life for myself outside the crappy small town I grew up in.
I saw a future that did not involve me becoming a stay-at-home mother, and I wanted it so badly.
My desire to attend college became a growing tension in our house. My mother called me selfish for wanting to leave. She said I was defying God’s will, and that my place was in the home. At that point, I was the main caretaker for the house and my younger brothers, so I believe she was terrified of losing me.
I think my mother expected me to give in. I had never defied her. I would stand quietly even when she would get drunk and yell in my face, or shatter glass dishes on the floor at my feet. I never yelled back. I was the good girl.
I was torn inside. I truly wanted her approval, and I felt responsibility toward my younger brothers. I was also angry, furious that I had been taught all my life that I wasn’t smart when it was clearly a lie. Something rebellious lit up inside me and I started pushing back for the first time.
I would talk excitedly about Yale’s curriculum, or about how fun it would be to live in dorms. It gave me a sick thrill to see the pain and anger on my mother’s face as she contemplated living without me. Ultimately, I didn’t choose Harvard, Yale, or any other Ivy League school. I had years of pent-up bitterness, and I drove the knife deep. I picked a very good private university in Missouri, the school my mother had wanted to go to when she was young.
In retrospect, many of my mother’s sexist beliefs were likely a coping mechanism. They were a comforting story she could tell herself to explain why she was, at 44, divorced and living with five children in a small crappy town in Colorado, with little prospect of ever marrying or working again. All of it was only okay if it was within God’s plan for her as a woman.
My attending college—the same university she had wanted to go to, no less—upset that narrative.
I reawakened her old doubts about herself. She couldn’t stand to see her youngest daughter succeed where she had failed because it would confirm her fear that she, too, could have made it if she had just tried harder.
Maybe you think I’m making it up. Rewriting history ten years later. Speculating wildly about the mental state of a clearly unbalanced woman. Maybe I am—but listen. The timeline speaks for itself.
I submitted my single college application in November 2004. I begged the $50 application fee off a family friend. (I was surprised to learn later that most people send in many applications—but they also have parents who are willing to pay for them.) I stole my mother’s tax documents to fill out the financial aid forms. I forged her signature to get the required vaccinations.
Almost immediately after I mailed in the carefully crafted essays and assorted materials, my mother stopped talking to all of us. Literally.
At first, she wore duct tape over her mouth. She took it off when she went out, but she never spoke to us or anyone else. She would nod silently at cashiers in the grocery mart as they loaded her cart. When her mouth began to blister from the tape, she graduated to wearing a niqab so that only her eyes were exposed.
It’s a testament to how verbally and emotionally abusive my mother was that my brothers and I were relieved when she stopped speaking. We fell into a routine: I would make breakfast, lead the boys in their morning lessons, do the breakfast dishes, and then retire to my room to study until it was time to make them lunch. We would repeat the routine in the afternoon, and maybe play games or have a bedtime story in the evening.
Sometimes I felt a pang of guilt when I thought about leaving my brothers alone with my mother, but I selfishly stifled the feeling by reading and rereading my chosen school’s curriculum catalog. I planned four years of classes, then scrapped my work and did it again with new classes. I called Daniel, enrolled in his first year of state school, and pressed him for “college stories”—interesting classes, eccentric teachers, pranks on roommates. I drowned my uneasy feelings about my mother, who read her Bible in silence for hours each day, in fanciful daydreams about college life.
Despite my constant, careful planning over a year and a half, it still came as a shock to me when I received my acceptance letter. It was real, I was actually leaving. I cried in joy and relief. My mother didn’t say a word.
A week later, two days after Christmas and three days before my seventeenth birthday, she jumped off the Colorado National Monument to her death.
Sometimes I tell people (a few close friends) that I killed my mother. I’m always only half-joking. I know that her mental illness and insecurities drove her up that mountain and made her leap off. But it’s inescapable that I was the catalyst, the trigger that finally drove her to it. I say it without guilt, even knowing that I went out of my way to make my leaving painful for her.
There is no room for guilt or grief.
I think of that scared, lonely little girl who stood quietly as plates shattered near her feet, hearing her mother scream that she is a selfish little bitch, and the only thing I feel is relief that the nightmare is over.