(Trigger warning: child emotional abuse.)
This is the third in a series of related posts on sexual abuse and harassment, misogyny, and the science fiction and fantasy community.
The first post was here (“A Clockwork Clarion”).
The second was here (“My Childhood Sexual Assault, or, Patriarch’s Day Part 2”).
The assault I experienced at the age of 12, perpetrated by an older male relative, was repugnant and devastating. I’d felt horribly betrayed. But the deeper damage I took as a child came from the emotional abuse my father heaped on us throughout my childhood.
My father had many good qualities. During his life he was loved by many, including me. What he wasn’t, though, was a good father.
He was thin-skinned and anxious, and this manifested itself in bullying. When he walked in the door at the end of the business trip or the work day, he turned into a tin-pot dictator.
He had to have things exactly the way he wanted them at every moment. He criticized us constantly, using sarcasm and insults. He was always—always—scrutinizing us, looking for flaws. His default assumption, when we spoke, was that we were lying. He had shame and anxiety about his body and consequently obsessed on our bodies’ degree of cleanliness and skin exposure. He felt slighted by the smallest acts of independence and self-expression: he viewed them as threats to his manhood. He would verbally abuse us, or spank us for some minor infraction, and then demand reassurance that we still loved him. We weren’t allowed to do anything that included our mother, without him; that would be a rejection. He was convinced that we bad-mouthed him behind his back. (He was right.)
He couldn’t tolerate disagreement. Any speech or ideas that were not his own, he squelched. No one in the family could be angry but him. No one could finish a sentence or express an opinion without him interrupting to contradict us, to state his own, loudly, and make clear that his was the only opinion that mattered. From him I learned shame, fear, and self-hatred: for my opinions and for my body.
My mother, a highly educated and intelligent woman, understood that his behavior was destructive and inappropriate, but didn’t have the tools she needed to counter it. Her habits of self-effacement, emotional support, and conflict avoidance were too deeply ingrained. In the face of her silence, we had to cope with his bullying on our own.
Some of this was cultural. Parents of that generation were taught they were supposed to present a united front to the children. Mother was the caregiver, the nurturer, and Father was the disciplinarian: “large and in charge.”
Some of it was because he had his own early traumas, which had made him fearful and angry, cut off from his own feelings that, had he understood them, would have enabled him to understand us better, to empathize and to better control his anger.
I’m very sad to say it. I loved my dad. But growing up as his daughter was suffocating.
Every time I performed in public, whether it was at piano recitals or plays or dance class—whatever, he would tear me down for it (My neck was dirty (hello; 6 year old here!); my facial expressions were wrong (hello, I was a puppet; I was supposed to look like that); I hadn’t shaved my armpits (hello; age 10 here! Not shaving yet!)). He would scold and shame me at the age of 4 and 5 for not being able to hold a fork properly or tie my shoes. He would randomly accuse me of breaking things or stealing things or losing things when I had no idea what he was talking about.
There were the rage-y spankings. (He even spanked me multiple times as an infant, to make me stop crying*. Protip: that trick doesn’t work.)
One time, as an adult, I came across a box of child’s artwork my mother had saved. In it was a drawing I had done of my dad when I was around five years old. He had a look of horror on his face, and I’d drawn bleeding wounds and crisscrossed Band-Aids on his face and arms. At the bottom I’d written:
… as if that pathetic attempt at masking my rage would fool anyone who looked at that drawing. I can only thank God my dad never saw it, back then, or there would have been hell to pay.
When I looked at the drawing as an adult, my hair stood out on my neck and arms. I remembered a particularly severe spanking he had given me, because I had accidentally removed a handle from the garage door while he was working to reattach it. I had gone out to see what he was doing.
I put my hand on the handle casually while he was rummaging in his toolbox—it was right at waist height—and it had come off in my hand, so I had set it on the ground next to my foot. When he turned to attach it and saw it next to my foot, he said, “Did you do that?”
I said, “No.”
“Do you know who did?”
“I don’t know—maybe Kay did it**.” (Kay is my older sister.)
He first found my sister and checked with her, and then he went all rage-y on me. He pulled my pants down, laid me across his knee, and spanked me so hard for so long that afterward I couldn’t sit down, all the while yelling at me for lying to him. He left me there and went back outside. I stood in the middle of the living room, sobbing. I couldn’t stop. I hiccoughed and gulped and wailed for at least half an hour, I think. Finally my mother took me outside, took off my shirt, and doused me with the garden hose***.
Looking at that picture as an adult, with my mom standing next to me, I wondered how she could look at that and not see the rage I had felt. I had wanted to hurt him. I’d wanted him to have a dose of the humiliation he’d administered to me.
Yes, I’d lied to my dad. And that wasn’t the only time. Because I was fucking terrified of him.
Besides which, it wasn’t only when we lied that he punished us, berated us, criticized us, denigrated us—it happened all the time. There was no percentage in being honest.
And you know what else? I sneaked around behind their backs, too, once I got older. Because from an emotional standpoint, my dad kept me in a tiny, crabbed, little dark box of a life, with no air, no light—no room for me to express a single opinion, take the time to learn a skill without ridicule, or speak in public without my appearance being mocked or denigrated. And my mom enabled him, out of a sense of duty and a desperate desire to somehow close all these impossible gaps in the fabric of our family.
I had to construct my own identity out of sight of my parents. There was no room for me in that household, other than some cardboard cutout version of me whose outlines didn’t conform to my real ones, at all.
Every parent knows that it takes hard emotional work to be a good parent—checking our worst impulses, seeing our kids’ needs clearly, teaching them to be good people—trying to be that better person for their sakes. And over an eighteen-year period, we can easily can screw up and fail our kids. I get that.
Let me also be clear: we were not a completely broken family. He worked hard to provide for us. And I could tell how much he loved us. He was playful, when he was relaxed enough, and during those times he laughed easily and was a great joy to be around. I have fond memories of watching cartoons with him on Saturday mornings, of playing Frisbee and catch with him and the dog.
He protected us from getting hurt (I owe him my life, in fact: he saved me from drowning when I was five). Once on a hike, when I was about eight, he saw me struggling, and without a word, scooped me up and carried me when I couldn’t make it up a very steep slope. I learned my love of the wilderness from him.
Even when he was angry, sometimes, I could see that he was trying to engage with us—he worried about us and what the world could do to harm us.
He was also smart, despite his lack of post-secondary education, and he taught himself to abandon many of the racist habits he had grown up with. As a Ranger in the Army, he had served in Korea, and had seen his fellow soldiers do and say casually hurtful things to the people there, and it made him very angry.
From that moment, he made a commitment to be accepting to people of different ethnicities and cultures. Learning how not to be racist is a lifelong effort in our culture, but I owe my own early awareness to him (and to my mom).
He donated his time to Meals on Wheels. He would drop anything and do whatever it took to help his friends and family, if they were in need. He was well liked by the his social circle. Do not read this encapsulation of my father and think you know him: do not caricaturize him, nor assume that he was a cardboard cutout villain.
Furthermore, he and I spoke of these things when I was an adult, once I entered therapy, and we worked through them. He expressed remorse. In the course of the years, I made peace with him. He became a stronger man in my adult years, and a better father and grandfather. I’m grateful we both lived long enough for me to get to know that side of him.
But the man whom his family and friends remember when he died was not the man who raised me. He abused his power over me in myriad ways, over those crucial childhood years, when I was too small to protect myself, or even able to understand why what he was doing was wrong. He did me serious, lasting harm.
The Moral of the Story
The point is this.
Abuse is not only about individuals, because people are not just individuals. Throughout our lives, we actively build our identity in interaction with our surroundings: our family of origin, our adult friendships and colleagues, our society at large. Individual behaviors matter, but behind that is a large-scale backdrop: a set of societal rules that everyone takes for granted is the way things supposed to be. And some of those rules enabled my father, even encouraged him, to dominate and bully us. Otherwise he wouldn’t be a real man.
The system that gave him permission to be a bad parent, a bully, without consequence was the notion that men are the real humans, the ones the stories are about. That they are the ones who should be in control, the ones driving the ship. Those rules tell us that women are the un-men. We hold all the traits that men aren’t supposed to have—and in fact, are mocked for having: empathy, kindness, fear, grief. (“You cry like a girl.”) Boys are trained that the last thing in the world they should want to be like is a woman.
Because the lesson of patriarchy is that women are lesser beings. Meant to be men’s supporting characters: mothers and wives and mistresses and daughters, teachers and nurses and assistants, supporters, fans, servants and whores and hags and virgins, pussies and cunts. Some of those roles are protected and others are reviled, but all of them are subsidiary to the male. We are defined by our relationships to men. Even now, yes.
You’ve heard all this before. You see it everywhere. Our job is to play bit parts in men’s narratives. If something bad happens to us, the important part is, how did it affect the man?
And we need to be controlled: physically, emotionally, sexually, and intellectually. Diverge from the constrained roles assigned to you as a woman, and my oh my; just watch the shit storm fly.
This is not to say mothers can’t be abusers, too. And obviously, it’s not to say that all fathers are. The patriarchy could vanish tomorrow, in a puff of logic and good will, and we’d still have child abuse, sex abuse, famine, and lots of other bad stuff. (We probably still wouldn’t have world peace.)
But when you train a man from the ground up to believe that he’s only a man—only fully human—if he “sheds blood before shedding tears,” and uses force to dominate others, and then tell him that men are the ones that are supposed to be the one in charge, the leaders, in all social and public spaces, how much more likely is it, then, that men will abuse their power than they might if they were taught to take turns, to share, to modulate their anger? To create a safe social space for them to express other emotions as well, such as empathy and fear and grief, without those emotions being labeled as effeminate?
Abuse is endemic in a culture that treats unfettered male dominance (or any kind of social dominance) as something natural and even desired.
Patriarchy is nothing more than civilization-scale bullying: physically or emotionally dominating others who are smaller and weaker than you, or over whom you have other power. This is what men, to a greater or lesser degree, are trained to do as a matter of course, and women are trained to submit to: to take it without fighting back or even pointing it out. That is what the patriarchy is, and that is how it works.
In every social setting, there will be people competing: for status, for attention, for whatever values and accomplishments that community values. That’s normal, and expected. But there are rules. There is fair play. Patriarchy puts its thumb on the scales, by making it seem normal for (white, cis, straight, able) men**** to fill the center of the space, and for everyone else to be shunted off to the side.
This conditioning we get to normalize and ignore abuse also makes it easy for other people (such as my mother) to ignore, minimize, or turn a blind eye to the abuse. He’s just acting that way because “that’s what men do” and there’s nothing she or anyone else can do to stop him.
The abuse is often so personal and so unspeakable that we literally stop speaking of it, and stop seeing it, because it makes us heartsick. But it’s not just personal. That’s the point. Abuse is a poison seed buried at the root of patriarchy.
It’s not until we start pointing it out again, and speaking up against it, that we can root it out. But first we have to point it out and see it for what it is.
And that’s why I’m writing these posts.
*I was one of those high-need infants, who cried all the time from two months of age till I was 10 months old. So yeah, I’m sure it was awful for both him and my mom, not to mention my older sister. But I’m also pretty sure the spankings didn’t make things any better.
**Hey, I was only five. And I was scared shitless of him. But that was a really rotten thing to do, and I’m sorry for blaming you, Kay.
***Which is kind of weird, looking back, but it worked, and I don’t recall being upset about it. It was summer, she wasn’t doing it in anger, and it probably felt really good, after being overheated from so much crying.
**** I’m not even touching here on how race and gender preference and disability, and other marginalized identities, get shoved to the side. But those are very important dynamics to understand as well.