June 05, 2020

The Persistence of Violence

I wouldn't characterize my father as a violent man. But one of my first memories is being spanked by him.

It wasn't just a little tap on the bottom to startle me, like you'd whack a puppy on the behind with a rolled-up newspaper.

It was brutal. And it was ritualistic.

His weapon wasn't his bare hand, but a bare plank—raw, splintery wood that he'd carved my name into. It hung from the beams of the basement ceiling near his work bench, where he kept all his tools, next to the table where my mother kept all her extra cleaning supplies.

And when I got spanked with the monogrammed board, I didn't benefit from the protection of pants or underpants. I had to strip down to my bare bottom and let my father lean me over his knee.

That seems to be the bit that alarms most people who hear the story—maybe because they thought there was something sexual about making me strip from the waist-down. It's impossible for me to know now what was going through my father's head back then, but I always assumed the no-pants rule was just to make the punishment as effective as possible.

I can't remember one thing I did to serve "the board." But I got it several times in my youngest years.

Only one incident really stands out to me—only once of actually being spanked with the board, and not just standing under it, looking up at it, knowing what it was for, and hearing my sister joke about it.

My dad got so violent while spanking me that time that my mother—the chief physical and mental abuser throughout my childhood—had to intervene and tell him it was enough. He'd lost control, his face straining and sweating, his black hair falling against his forehead where it was normally slicked back.

I hadn't thought about that one time until just recently, when depictions of person-on-person violence began to dominate the news cycle—one video of murder on repeat (the first time I think I've ever actually seen anyone killed close up) coupled with videos and images of brutality against those who protest it.

If you've been on the receiving end of violence, it really sticks with you.

It may go into hiding for awhile—even lay dormant so long you think it's finally gone for good. But like desert deadwood or the summer cicadas, it always comes back in one form or another.


It's worse when that violence doesn't just happen "in the heat of the moment" or in a fit of "temporary insanity." Authority figures often justify their tactics—as though you "deserved" it or it's for the "greater good." And my parents were no different.

My mother said repeatedly throughout our childhood, "Your father and I believe in corporal punishment." It was surprising to me and my sister, given my mother's own history of being abused by her father, often without provocation. But it turns out my grandfather trained her well—to exert an "absolute authority" over her two daughters.

She spanked us with wooden spoons, the vacuum cleaner, and her bare hands. She slapped me across the face so hard once, my eyeglasses bruised my nose. Otherwise, she was careful not to leave any marks that might be visible to teachers or guidance counselors at school, who thought she was such a good mother because we happened to excel in our classes.

She always insisted that she never struck us out of anger. The obscenities she'd spit out—and the tears that would stream down her face as she called us names—told a different story.

When we were a little older, we tried to argue against our parents' tactics. But you can't reason with authoritarian rule.

My one victory was that I came out of that nightmare scenario understanding how wrong it was. And that it wasn't my fault.

But somehow in my 20s, I fell into other violent situations, mostly with strangers. I got punched on the New York City subway, on my way to my first job after college. A person was blocking the exit door, and all I'd done is tap him with my umbrella after he didn't respond to my "Excuse me."

He knocked the wind out of me with his fist, but I went to work anyway. What else was I supposed to do?

I also got molested on the subway more than once on my way to that same job. All my boss could offer in comfort was the advice to choose a less-crowded car on the train the next time.

I spent years subjecting myself to the dangers of NYC nightlife—men who were rough with me when they reached into my panties and left me bleeding, men who secretly removed condoms before entering me, a male friend who crashed at my apartment and started having sex with me while I was asleep.

I may not have gotten beaten up—but every single one of those situations was an act of violence. And I blamed myself for letting it happen. I wondered why I didn't kick and scream then—and why, a decade or more before, I never found a way to escape my parents and their hatred for who I was as a person (or, I suppose, my mere presence).

So, in times like this—when riots and looting and police brutality is happening within earshot, a mile or two away—I'll admit I get triggered. My PTSD is raging, right alongside my anxiety.

I'm in full-on fight-or-flight mode, even though I'm not being directly attacked.

It feels like I could be. It feels like I will be.

For the last three months, the resounding message has been "Stay safe." I've even said it myself (usually adding on "and sane").

But how do you "stay" safe when you never felt safe in the first place?

None of what's happening in the streets of Los Angeles right now is about me or my childhood. And I don't want to make any of it about me.

But I know what it feels like to be targeted. And I know what it's like to feel trapped—and to witness the same horrible things happen over and over again while the perpetrators and their enablers deny, excuse, rationalize, and shift blame.

Most of all, I know all too well how the violence of the past persists, encircles, and comes roaring back with a vengeance. It never becomes "ancient history."

We still feel its repercussions after a lifetime has passed. Some viscerally experience the brutality of the past generations later.

And that was something I had to share—particularly with those lucky enough to have had the luxury of living a life free of violence.

Related Posts:
Standing With Those Who Choose To Not Stand
The Anxiety of Anxiety

1 comment:

  1. I sincerely hope you find peace in these times. Thank you for being sharing and being vulnerable.