My family was always involved peripherally or otherwise, in psychology. My mother was a great reader, we always had copies of “Psycho-cybernetics,” “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and such around the house, “I’m OK, You’re OK” – self-help classics. In my late teens and when I returned home in my early twenties, it had gone to Alice Miller, Jon Bradshaw, ACOA. This was the early 1980s. My brother was working in an emergency shelter for teens and getting his degrees, and one sister did that sort of work as well. Both of my sisters were big readers and were on voracious journeys of psychological self-discovery. I’d say the elder was more based in the classics, Freud, Jung and R.D. Laing, and the younger loved Alice Miller during that period – I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know who she’s been reading since. So this is what all the conversation was about in that time, around Mom’s house. Suffice to say, I came by this obsession honestly.
Mom had been taking in foster kids, teens. Screwed up kids were our world, either we worked with them, or we were still busy being one, like me. Or both, I guess. We’d also had some sexual abuse in the family.
During this period, talking Bradshaw, ACOA (would invoking Suzanne Summers’ name help or hurt here? She was the voice for Adult Children of Alcoholics, wasn’t she?), and Miller, it seemed that there were many sorts of abuse, and that almost no-one escaped them all. After all, we all have problems, and this whole survivor movement was based in the idea that it was childhood trauma that caused our disorders. Physical, sexual, verbal, emotional abuse, abandonment, alcohol and substance abuse, divorce, there were books, support groups and movements for all of these traumas . . .
. . . and it was starting to look to me that lines were being drawn between them all, I had a creeping feeling that everybody, despite the support, was somehow on their own, fighting their parents’ particular brand of abuse. It began to look to me like all parents were abusing their kids, and yet no-one was saying that, no-one would say all parents were abusive. It was starting to feel apologist in that way. Most parents are good, they all mean well, but a certain percentage of them are violent. They all mean well, but a certain percentage of them are drunks. They’re mostly OK, but some are child rapists. Mostly, they’re good folks, they’re doing the best they can, but some abandon their kids, and some are emotional blackmailers. Parents are good and selfless, but many are verbally abusive. Now, I know this is to some degree the ranting of a developmentally arrested person, but it’s all adding up, isn’t it? I was starting to sense the presence of a common denominator.
I wish I could say when the exact moment was, when the crux of the matter occurred to me, that punishment was abuse, that punishment, despite its legitimate status was, uh . . . scientifically, functionally . . . made of the same stuff as abuse. I can’t, though. This wasn’t the moment, but maybe it was the catalyst: when I moved from my rooming house in the town where I took my trade school and home to Mom’s house, I was twenty-three, and I ran into a girl I’d known before, during my lost years. It was love at first sight, well, first sight after several years.
She was twenty or twenty-one, she was just separated from someone, and she had a little boy. He was around one year old. It wasn’t long before we had bought her parents’ condo and we lived together for three years, and I brashly, foolishly took the role of the boy’s father, as if he didn’t already have one. These are regrets, I look back on that time and I’m embarrassed and horrified, the whole period seems like a bad dream. Taking on the role of husband and father with that prefabricated family was like putting on a suit of clothes or something. It seemed to me that I knew everything about it, automatically; it felt like a programmed thing, like I was living on autopilot, and I barely remember it now. I don’t think I was actually conscious. But one episode I do remember.
She was emotional and kind of volatile, and I had come home from work one day and found her at critical mass, waiting for me at the front door. The toddler was driving her nuts, and it going to be my turn.
“He’s not doing” something, or “He won’t do” something else, she said. I don’t remember much, I’ll warn you. I wasn’t high or anything, I wasn’t smoking during my time with them, but drinking weekends. I was just unconscious. I wasn’t angry before, I don’t think it had been a bad day or anything, but as soon as she complained about her son, as soon as she gave me a target, it triggered me. I was instantly pissed off too, and I marched into the house, yanked that two or three year-old’s pants down and smacked him several times, hard. That is the end of that fragment of memory, I’m afraid, I can’t say how we got through that, what the rest of that evening was like, but I think the spell was broken. I think after that I realized that I was living someone else’s pre-programmed life. That was nearly thirty years ago, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never hit another kid.
His mother and I went our separate ways, and a few years later I met my present and only wife, the mother of my kids and by the time our girls were born in the mid-nineties, the thought had come. There would be no punishment, at all.
The lesson of my poor little rent-a-kid, the guilt of that beating, and the unconsciousness, the feeling of having been . . . used, there is no other way to say it, used by some generational repetitive process with a life of its own, that lesson stuck with me. I hated that feeling. It cropped up on other occasions while my girls were young, while my wife and I were fighting over our child-rearing (I mean, what were the odds my wife would come to all the same conclusions as me, and on the same schedule?), that feeling of repetition, that feeling of doing just what my parents had done. It was like Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, or some evil Deja Vu experience. I hope it’s not necessarily true, but I worry that the feeling meant I was doing something terribly wrong. Of course I did. I was a full-time pothead through those years, always out in space, emotionally unavailable, physically unavailable for half an hour or more at a time, every three to four hours, for a smoke. The smoke was there to make that feeling go away, but of course it only operates on the feeling and doesn’t change anything concrete.
Still, though. Those are problems, things that will have their impacts on the kids, bad things that will leave some scars, but even so – most kids get stuff like that, and punishments and all that they mean as well.
You know, maybe addiction is a fractal sort of thing, a theme that runs all through the lives of folks like me and the people around us. I think maybe that feeling of unconscious repetition was the same one that made it so easy, and made it seem so natural to slide into that first family situation, with my live-in lady and her little boy. Feeling automatic, feeling that I could know how to do it, having never studied it, having never put conscious thought to it for a minute, it was like my first high, the free one, the best one, the one you end up losing the farm trying to recapture. Did I learn to associate that sense of comfort with a trauma, like a kid who gets wasted and crashes the car, killing a loved one? Was whooping that kid’s ass my car crash, and now the feeling of repetition and familiarity, that sense of life as it has always been fills me with terror and guilt?
Whatever it is, I have tried very hard to be a father and a husband consciously this time out, and that has had my wife and I swimming against the current since the kids were born, fighting the grandparents, at odds with our friends, the parents around us, and fighting our own urges for control, because we feel control requires force. If it weren’t for each other, meaning all four of us, which it always has been, it would have been a lonely journey.
It hasn’t been though.
My first experience as a father was a trauma, a horror. This time around has been the exact opposite.