Am I the only the only one who gets emails waxing poetic about how much better the United States was in days of yore, when the only people whose rights mattered were healthy, white, adult males? I am? Let me add one detail- these emails are supposed to be jokes.
I love jokes, both because I love to laugh and because sometimes they reveal a cultural truth too awkward to reveal any other way. Jokes only work if the audience and the teller understand something the same way. The truth they reveal may not be a literal one- there are no penguins in North America, and they certainly don’t walk into bars and talk with the bartender- but American’s have a certain understanding of what penguins are like, and the humor in the punch line relies on this shared understanding. With these email “jokes”, the humor relies on the understanding that hitting, beating, and hurting children is good for them and our society, as are many subtle things to make non-white, non-male, non-healthy people feel like second-class citizens. And the punch line is that our society started to slide downhill when we changed our minds about this.
There are volumes upon volumes of evidence demonstrating that spanking kids- non-abusively- is bad for them (hitting them abusively is much worse, that’s also proven). The fact that corporal punishment doesn’t work is one of the most abundantly demonstrated facts in child development and psychology. Corporal punishment provides the parent practicing it with a release, so they feel better, and it causes the child to discontinue the behavior they were engaged in before they were hit. So the parent feels better, the child is no longer doing what they shouldn’t be doing, and a lesson is learned, right? Well, no, that’s where the breakdown happens, the child hasn’t necessarily learned what the parent intended to teach them.
But let’s pretend they have. For argument’s sake, let’s say that enough punishment can give you a perfect child. And in fact, that’s pretty much my parents’ experience. And I offer this story up to demonstrate that a perfect child isn’t a perfect daughter or son.
When I was about seven years old, my father herded me into his bedroom, loaded a gun in front of me, put it to my head and pulled the trigger. It was punishment for some wrongdoing I’ve long ago forgotten. Obviously, the safety was engaged, and I was physically unharmed by the experience. But in the span of a few minutes, I learned I was completely value-less to my father, and by extension, my mother, too, as children see both of their parents as omnipotent. I learned that all the “I love you’s” didn’t really mean anything. And I learned that any slight wrong-doing would put my life in danger. I wasn’t entirely conscious that I had learned those lessons. But when I look back on it, I realize I learned them, nonetheless.
While my parents would argue otherwise, I was pretty much a perfect kid. With great work and much anxiety, I became a straight A student. I never participated in sports or music (this was before it was common for suburban parents to prep toddlers for the Olympics or philharmonic, but by middle school, most of my peers participated in one or the other), for fear of not having enough time to devote to school work. I was extremely obedient. I learned what my parents liked, what they didn’t, and how to avoid presenting them with situations they wouldn’t like. To this day, I can read my father better than either my mother or my sister. This doesn’t mean I never did anything they didn’t like, but I chose my battles and calculated my risks with care. My parents were opposed to all the trappings of youth culture- fashion, entertainment, you name it. Not being allowed to listen to the music that was breaking into mainstream during that era- grunge, punk, industrial, and everything else “alternative”- was too much. So I kept my Nine Inch Nails cassette tape in a Celine Dion box, and I had friends dub Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Red Hot Chili peppers onto blank cassettes for me. I lived in constant fear of them catching me with this contraband, but I was fairly confident in my hiding and sneaking skills. I was a kid, but I was still a good one. By the time I graduated high school, I had never smoked a cigarette, or anything else, had a drink of alcohol (that’s not 100% true- I had my last drink at the age of seven), or had sexual intercourse. I was a straight A student, I got accepted into an ivy-league college and two ivy-league level colleges. I went to the most affordable one.
Pleasing my parents was important. I was always a bit heavy as a child, and when my father told me that my weight had gotten completely unacceptable, I lost weight. Fast. I developed exercise bulimia with restrictions, which is probably the most socially acceptable eating disorder. What it means is I restricted my calories severely, in the weird, superstitious, idiosyncratic way of the eating disordered, while exercising excessively and compulsively, with the occasional binge. I never disgraced them by becoming skeletally skinny. To a casual observer, I looked like a teenager who cared about diet and exercise, but the casual observer can’t look inside someone’s head. Each of my parents always told me to keep secrets from the other. I always obeyed. My mother always told me to tell her if my father sexually abused me. But when he lost his job, she lost most of her sanity. And when he did sexually abuse me, I knew the right thing to do was not to burden her. About a year later, an uncle of mine came out of the woodwork and started visiting me frequently, and within a few visits he was sexually abusing me. One night, he was talking about our relationship in front of my parents, and then started badgering me for intercourse in front of them. The next day, my mother asked me if my uncle’s boasting was true, and I said it was. She told me not to tell anyone, and for years and years, I obeyed her.
The more dysfunctional a family is, the bigger the role it plays in the lives of its members. When I went to college, it felt like I was leaving huge parts of myself behind. But I learned that the self is incredibly regenerative. For the first time in my life, I could draw some boundaries between me and my parents, and I was surrounded by people my own age who had always done so. I almost flunked out of college- I was learning so much about becoming healthy, but unfortunately becoming healthy wasn’t something I was being graded on. But I managed to stick with it and graduate in four years. I was cohabitating with a boyfriend, and after graduation, we both got minimum wage jobs. We kept getting better and better jobs, and soon we were playing the roles of working adults. Once again, I didn’t feel I knew how to play that role, so I did some field observation of my co-workers. I noticed my co-workers seemed to have casual, friendly relationships with their families of origin, and I decided I wanted one, too. I worked Tuesday through Saturday evenings, and Monday nights I would talk to my mother. We would have casual conversations, about pets and recipes, and we were both happy. Then my little sister started asking me about being sexually abused by our father, because she was starting to feel the effects of her past abuse. Within a year it became very obvious that my father was molesting other little girls. And after that, I could not make myself talk with my mother about pets and recipes every week.
As the first wave of accusations came against my father, my boyfriend was going through his first major bout of depression and round after round of suicide attempts. Had I been communicating much with my mother, I wouldn’t have discussed that- I simply didn’t have a clue how to. Eventually, my boyfriend lost his job, and I married him to save money on medical expenses. Within a few weeks of the wedding, my husband applied for Social Security Disability benefits. As we waited almost four years for the judge to decide on his case, we defaulted on all of our loans except our mortgage and car payment. I needed a car to get to work, and we needed a roof over our heads. Moving back in with my parents wasn’t an option, and moving in with either of my husband’s parents would mean relocating to a town where I’d have great trouble finding a job. Our third pre-SSD winter we went through a stretch where we simply didn’t heat the house until I got unlimited overtime at my job. I’d go nine-month stretches without calling my parents, then call to beg for money, celebrate Christmas with them, say hi once, and start the nine-month cycle again. Life got dramatically better after my husband won his SSD case, but somehow I had no desire to change my relationship with my parents. In time, I caught wind of two more girls my father was molesting, and I swore that I would maintain enough of a relationship with my parents so that I could provide law enforcement with useful data. And that’s where it stands today.
I’m sure some of you are reading this blankly now, not seeing any connection between spanking a child and performing a mock execution on them. The two acts really differ only in degree. In both examples, fear is used to motivate the child to change their behavior. Corporal punishment doesn’t work unless the child is afraid of the adult, it’s that simple. I’ve known some extremely good, mindful parents who never intended to spank, and then one day, when they were absolutely frustrated, they lost control and spanked. And the child laughed. These children had already spent the first 24-36 months of their life viewing mommy as nothing but a source of comfort and love. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of mommy being something else. Yes, she was doing something strange, but it didn’t really hurt, so it must have been some kind of a game. In fact, such children usually drop everything and hit their mommy on the same part of her anatomy she hit them on, giggling all the while. If there’s no fear, it’s a game.
And the flip side is that ultimately, parents want to be able to influence their children’s behavior without fear. Children, boys especially, often grow bigger than their parents, making corporal punishment difficult at best. They become more and more independent, needing less and less from their parents, and giving parents fewer things they can take from them in order to influence their behavior. And this is also the age when parents become aware of some really frightening aspects of youth culture. Yes, sex, drugs, alcohol and violence have been a part of the teenage experience for a long time, but have they always been such a big part? This is the time when the parent relies on their bond with their child in order to influence their child’s choices. The parent hopes the child respects them enough to believe they have some perspective and wisdom. They hope the child cares enough about them to not inflict emotional hurt upon them, and if the parent has played their cards right, the child realizes that hurting themselves hurts their parents deeply. If that bond isn’t there, neither is the parent’s leverage.
If someone wanted to argue with me, they could bring up all the good that must have come from my parents’ choices. After all, I am a law-abiding taxpayer who is married, healthy and literate enough to blast her parents on the world-wide web. True enough. So let’s look at the perks- I graduated high school without ever smoking, drinking or using any other mind-altering drug. And as an adult, I’m still a teetotaler. So my strict upbringing spared me the pain of drug addiction, right? Well, maybe, but statistically it’s normal for American teenagers to partake of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana while in high school. Most of them don’t become addicted. Interestingly, sobriety wasn’t something my parents demanded from me. My father, an alcoholic, always encouraged me to drink alcohol. He said he believed that teaching kids to drink responsibly at home was beneficial, which is a common, albeit discredited, line of thought. I also know addicts often want to surround themselves with other addicts to normalize their behavior, and I have noticed my father has this tendency with many of his pathologies.
My parents put tremendous pressure on me to be a straight-A student, and ultimately I was. They always insisted that I spent a lot of time after school doing homework. I didn’t realize until I got to college that I had learned to do my work very slowly. I struggled greatly with spelling and penmanship both before and after my mock execution. The only real difference was after the mock execution, I was terrified of tests and report cards. Ultimately, I learned that I could get an acceptable grade on spelling tests if I studied the day before. I never retained what I learned, and to this day I’m a terrible speller. My penmanship is terrible, and it always will be. But as I got older, I had more opportunities to use computers to type (and check my atrocious spelling), and I got graded on more things besides spelling and penmanship. I always did well in math, I loved to write (once we got the penmanship issue ironed out), and I was good at history and science. It’s very hard for me to imagine myself not excelling at those- they are things I truly love learning about. Statistically, child abuse survivors are more likely to fail in school than their non-abused peers, but there is a subset who find school, their studies, and the successes that come from school to be a haven. To them, academics become the one thing in life they can control, and this is indeed a better coping mechanism than many. I think I would have been in that subset, no matter how much pressure was put on me to succeed.
What good does being a straight-A student do after high school? It did get me into a good college. I almost flunked out because, emotionally, I was so unprepared. I couldn’t have made it into grad school right after graduation on account of my grades. Theoretically, I could have cherry-picked some classes after graduation, built my GPA back up and then thought about grad school. But that would have meant working part-time, not full-time, and to survive on that little money I would have needed to move back home. I met a man who I loved and who loved me in college. When I was 20, I wanted to marry him and start a family. I didn’t want a high-paying job, just enough for the two of us to survive. The comfort I got from that relationship meant more to me than any kind of an impressive career in my future. I was very lucky that I landed a “good enough” job shortly after college, and I hold it to this day. But I work alongside people who weren’t straight A students, and who collect paychecks identical to mine.
Life isn’t exactly fair, but it is a lot more fair in the long-term than it can appear in the short term. I live a good, happy, healthy life full of adventure and accomplishment. I have a few adventurous road trips each year, I’ve published a book, I’ve influenced the New York State legislature, and I really believed I’ve helped a lot of people in a lot of ways. My mother is too entrapped in her broken body to be able to move very much, she mostly sits around the house and bellows at people to do things for her. She is too paralyzed by fear to go someplace she has never been before. As far as I can tell, she spends every waking minute when she’s not at work watching TV or playing computer games. I talk with her perhaps twice a month, some months less. She doesn’t know that I’ve written a book, she rarely knows when I’m on an adventure, and she couldn’t name the organization I volunteer for. I try as hard as possible to avoid all contact with my father, other than knowing his general whereabouts, and I give him as few windows into my life as possible. Somehow, I have a feeling this isn’t what my parents envisioned when they decided to become parents. Denial is as important to my mother’s survival as food and air, but sometimes I wonder if her denial is strong enough to believe that she and I have a healthy relationship. I know I’m not a very good daughter. And I’m comfortable with that.
For me, the discovery that every significant thing my parents ever told me was wrong has been absolutely delightful. Sometimes that joy is interrupted by the realization that they should have provided me with something I don’t have, leaving me to decide how valuable and acquirable what I’m missing actually is. When I was driving home from my sister-in-law’s baby shower, my now-husband was talking about the importance of dressing little girls in pink and ribbons. I was listening to him, and something wasn’t computing inside me. I almost said “I can’t understand how someone can love a little girl that much”, but I had a feeling that uttering those words to a man I wanted to marry would focus his attention on scars that, back then, I was intent on hiding. That was nine years ago. I have watched my niece grow, I have gotten pregnant and I have come close to adopting a teenage girl, so I do understand how someone can love a girl so much (although I still don’t get the pink and ribbon obsessions). While I wonder how scarred my heart is, most of the time I think I could successfully parent if my biology were to cooperate. I have learned, again and again, that the world is a more beautiful, wondrous, loving place than I was raised to believe it was. With every breath I take, I am grateful for that revelation. As I meet more survivors, I see that not all of them have been gifted with that knowledge. And they are the ones who motivate me to keep trying to change this world, to make sure that children are always treated with decency and kindness. And as I go about this, I can’t help but be upset by the pervasive current of thought that children simply aren’t entitled to that. Even if it is ”only a joke”- it’s disguised as a joke because, upon closer inspection, it really is too unpalatable for most of us.