June 11, 2020

Falsely Accused

I had a strong sense of justice as a kid, even as a little kid.

It wasn't just a matter of me crying out, "That's not fair!" and my parents shooting back, "Life isn't fair."

It was the vicious cycle I'd entered very early in my childhood and could never get out of.

You see, my parents always seemed really volatile when I did something wrong. There was never the inclination to excuse or forgive any behavior as that of, say, a toddler.

My mother would never be one of those to say to a stranger, "Well, she's only five."

But their use of force always seemed to be disproportionate to whatever I'd done.

So, in my little head, I thought the trick would be to make sure I never got caught doing something wrong. And if I had done something wrong—or failed to do something right—I tried lying my way out of it.

I was terrified of getting into trouble, but my attempts to evade trouble only brought more trouble my way.

My parents pegged me for a liar early on.

Sometime in kindergarten, I'd gotten a splinter in my leg at the babysitter's house and told my parents about it. They didn't believe me, not for days. In fact they didn't believe me until the splinter had festered in my leg to the point of erupting into a welt.

My dad had to painfully dig it out with some sharp implement, as I cried.

They blamed me for their not believing me.

Not getting the help I needed from those who were supposed to protect me would've been bad enough on its own. But it got worse.

Because they didn't believe my proclamations of innocence, either. And over the course of my childhood and adolescence, I got accused of a lot of weird, bad stuff that happened around the house.

There was the wooden, stick-style chair in the living room-style setup we had in the basement, a chair that I was responsible for dusting once or twice a week with an oiled cloth. My mother claims she found the seat of it all scratched up and presumed my guilt, giving me no opportunity to clear my name.

If not me, I couldn't explain what or who had scratched the wood. I suspected my mother had done it herself to set me up, but of course I could never say that out loud (or prove it).

There was the sky blue wallpaper with the white puffy clouds that our mother had foolishly paid to have hung on the bathroom walls—though not as foolishly as the money she'd spent installing wall-to-wall carpet on the bathroom floor.

She'd already lost her mind once when the hairspray my sister and I used to spritz our bangs into place caught the light—and her attention—after having splattered on that wallpaper. But she went absolutely bananas when she "discovered" a series of swirled lines carved just deep enough into the surface of the paper to show.

She said that she could just see me tracing my fingernail along that exact path. Never mind that I wasn't yet tall enough to reach the nearly invisible graffiti. Or that she hadn't actually witnessed it happening.

My punishment for that alleged crime was to remit some exorbitant sum of money—I remember it being hundreds but maybe it was only $50—out of my meager allowance to compensate my parents for the damage. But paying the fine wasn't the worst of it.

I got sent to the hot attic of our nearly 100-year-old house to clean it for hours on end. In my teenage years, this had become a popular punishment for me—because I was too easily entertained when sent to sit in the corner or to my room. Solitary confinement would've been a relief.

Instead, they had to send me to the hot box.

In between those incidents, I got blamed for saying things I never said—even unspecified things that were, according to my mother, too horrible for her to repeat.

"You know what you said," or "You know what you did," she'd say.

And when I professed my innocence—and quite frankly, my bewilderment—she'd claim that I must've blocked it out, blacked out during the encounter as though I was in some kind of fugue state.

She spent a lot of time trying to convince me I was crazy. And trying to make me confess to crimes I hadn't committed.

The injustice that stuck with me the most—and shook me up the most at the time—was when my father stormed into my bedroom late one night to drag me out of bed and downstairs. I remember the pendant light above the kitchen table glaring at me like the bare bulb of an interrogation room. It took me more than a minute to figure out what was going on.

My father was shaking a paperback book at me, snarling, "Did you do this?"

I didn't even know what the book was, much less what had been done to it.

Then his line of questioning changed, as he slammed the book down on the kitchen counter and grabbed me by both arms. "Why did you do this?"

All I could say was, "What?"

At some point, my mother or my father—I forget which—pivoted the book under the midnight chandelier glow to show that the soft cover had been pitted by something.

My mother had a hunch that I had been standing by the window—reaching over the trash can—to click a retractable ballpoint pen onto the book, some kind of self-help book that she'd borrowed from her counselor at Catholic Charities and would now have to return damaged.

This was the perfect storm of a crime—because not only was my mother obsessively materialistic after having grown up dirt poor, but she was also keenly focused on saving face.

Once again, I had no other explanation. They took that as an admission of guilt.

Nothing I ever did could ever prove my innocence, so at some point I'd given up. I knew the fix was in. It was easier to get slapped around, fork over the money, and head back into the attic than to fruitlessly fight the charges.

I'd do my time and pay my penance, just for some peace and quiet.

My parents would say, "If you really weren't guilty, you'd be pleading 'I didn't do it! I didn't do it!'"

But that's not how it works when you've been profiled, targeted, and given an unfair trial (or no trial at all).

Eventually, I embraced the strength that those punishments had given me—the calloused world view that helped me protect my sister when my parents shifted their gazes towards her.

When I became a boss early in my career, I always told my staff to not cover up their mistakes. Tell me, and I'll help you fix it. If it's unfixable, I'll take the blame.

If they were just honest, they'd never have to worry about getting "in trouble." I was strong enough to take the heat for all of us.

You'd think that an entire childhood of  being falsely accused would've taught me that there's no point in telling the truth—that is, as long as no one was going to believe me anyway. But actually, it's just the opposite.

I put my cards on the table and play it straight. I don't worry about anything I've done, as long as I did it with good intentions and integrity.

But I still worry about the things I haven't done, which might one day come back to haunt me.

Related Posts:
Don't Blame It On Me
The Persistence of Violence

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