[CN: emotional abuse]
A daughter is a bicycle. A daughter is a coffeepot.
A daughter is an implement, valuable only for her usefulness to someone else.
To anyone other than herself.
♦ ♦ ♦
The bravest thing I ever did as a child was to stand completely still. It taught me a lesson I have yet to fully unlearn.
The experience functioned as a touchstone for how to win in a conflict — or at least, how not to lose. Which is to say, how to lose less. How to not lose everything. I recognize the same stillness in myself even today, the superstitious paralysis that overtakes me as if “silent and motionless” means “safe.” As if it ever meant that.
Stillness was my touchstone for protection.
Touch stone. Become stone.
Only the stones survive.
♦ ♦ ♦
I had watched my brother learning to ride a bike the summer before, and I wanted no part of it. Over and over, I had watched as my father made him push the two-wheeler to the top of the driveway, up the sloping hill that felt mountainous to our short legs. Over and over, my brother climbed onto the bike’s brightly-colored banana seat and balanced himself the best he could. He and my father would take off down the hill, his feet pumping furiously just to keep up with the spinning pedals and my father running behind, holding the bike upright and then — without warning — letting go.
Over and over my brother fell.
Over and over my father screamed.
Some of his yelling I could hear from where I stood on the porch, a quarter-acre away: “You’ve got to look straight ahead! Don’t look down! Look far out ahead! You fall down because you look down!” Some of the yelling was more intimate, my father bent over where my brother still lay on the ground, his legs tangled around the bike, his knees scraped. I don’t know what angry words got spoken in those moments, only that my brother emerged from each interaction looking smaller than before. His face had the shuttered expression that I knew meant he was trying very hard not to cry.
Over and over. Over and over.
This summer was my turn. The same bike, the same hill. The same instructions: “Make sure you look straight out and far ahead. You look down, you fall.” I looked straight and far. I fell anyway.
But that summer I changed the rules. The first time I fell and my father began to scream, I refused to get back on the bike. My refusal lasted several days, I think, maybe even as long as a week, before I succumbed to his continued pressure and agreed to try again. Again I fell, he screamed — and I stopped. Over and over. And over again.
I don’t know how long I held out for altogether. Each time I resisted as long as I felt I could. In my mind, this was combat, and saying “no” was a dangerous weapon to wield. After two weeks of this, three at the most (or did it last the eternity it seemed?), my father quietly came to me with an offer.
“If I promise not to yell, will you promise to learn how to ride a bike?”
He got down on one knee to ask the question, putting us on the same eye-level. He looked directly into my eyes with the most intense gaze I have ever had from him, before or since. I felt extremely powerful. I felt extremely frightened. I stood very, very still as I looked back at him.
I stood still, and I thought hard. I knew I wanted nothing to do with the bike. I also knew total refusal was not a viable option. (Only much later did I learn the reason behind his urgency: my father’s happiest memories of his own lonely childhood involved riding his bike. He needed his kids to love biking, too.)
At last I nodded. Once, very slowly.
Over the next few weeks, my father managed to keep his temper — and I managed to ride a two-wheeler. With the exception of three years in upper grade school when I didn’t live on a school bus route, I have never voluntarily ridden a bicycle again.
♦ ♦ ♦
My mother referenced this negotiation off and on over the years as a main reason she never intervened on my behalf during one of my father’s tantrums.
“I knew, right then, you were going to be okay,” she has said. “You were always the only one who could make your dad stop. Me, everything I did just made him worse.”
I grew up believing it was both my power and my responsibility to control my father’s temper. I rehearsed strategies for success: be still, be silent, pick your moment. I ignored the critical message of the bike as completely as my mother had. That touchstone lesson was simply this:
Your only real option is total submission. Just with more or less screaming.
Good stones don’t feel fear.
The best stones feel nothing at all.
♦ ♦ ♦
Six months after my brother got his driver’s license, he was expected to drive the family sedan on a statewide tour of colleges. Mom and I sat in the back, surrounded by bags and travel supplies, while my father rode shotgun to oversee my brother’s driving. Tension came off both of them in waves.
I remember one left-hand turn vividly. We were in the center turn-lane of a five-lane road at a point with no traffic light, exiting in front of oncoming traffic. “Go. Yes go, go NOW,” my father ordered. Then, “Wait, no, STOP. Yes, wait. NO! GO! GO NOW,” as my brother hesitated, started, stopped again, and finally gunned the engine.
I slumped down in the back seat, my eyes shut. I clutched a pillow to my chest and pretended to be sleeping as I listened to my father bellow — “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” — in a tone that implied my brother’s novice driving was about to get us all killed.
Touch stone: Given the right circumstances, you may be put in a position to accidentally kill your entire family. Don’t let that happen.
When my turn behind the wheel came two summers later, my parents never forced me to drive — nor did I ask either of them to let me, until quite predictably I failed Driver’s Ed due to insufficient practice. I held my breath at dinner that night, waiting to see what the consequences would be.
“So I guess I should take her out to do some driving,” my mother offered. My father grunted assent, and that was the end of it.
The following morning, as she and I were heading out, dad called out one final word of advice: “Always remember to look far ahead of you when you’re driving! It’s just like riding a bike.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Among my chores was cleaning my parents’ new coffeepot. An Italian-design stovetop espresso maker, the whole thing consisted of a bottom chamber that you filled with water, a central filter to hold the grounds, and a top pot for pouring. Both top and bottom were aluminum and heavily beveled, with many hard-to-scrub angles.
I was in the kitchen one afternoon, for what reason I don’t remember, when my father came in to make himself a second cup. My back was to the drying rack when I heard him cursing.
“Can’t rely on anyone!” he snarled. “Anything I want done right, I guess I gotta do it myself!” With a fierce tug, he turned the faucet on high and started furiously scrubbing some part of the coffeepot, muttering loudly to himself.
I braced myself and asked in a voice that only shook slightly: “What did I do? If you can show me, I’ll try not to do it again.”
Whether or not he heard me, he never paused. Scrubbing away any trace that could have showed me my mistake, he railed against how unfairly he was always being treated — how undependable all other people were, how he alone in the world cared that things be done right.
I did not speak again, nor did I leave the room. I stood frozen in place, afraid of making any movement that might draw his attention or bring his fury down on my head.
Touch stone: The most dangerous errors are the ones you aren’t even sure you made.
♦ ♦ ♦
More than 25 years later, I still clean my own similar coffeepots with excruciating care: scrubbing far longer than required, nervously examining for nonexistent residue, often doing a second wash even after I’ve determined they’re spotless.
During a recent visit, my mother offered to wash the breakfast dishes. As I took the coffeepot out of the drying rack to place back in the cupboard, I saw she had left a few dark oily streaks on the inside. My immediate thought: Is this what my father saw that morning? I dropped the pot like hot coals and abruptly left the room.
“Are you really going to wash that thing a second time?” I spoke aloud to no one. “Are you really going to do that?”
I began laughing — an irrepressible, unfunny hahahahahahahaha — as I returned to the kitchen to rewash hahahahahahahaha the coffeepot. I turned on the faucet hahahahahahahaha as hot as I could. I added soap hahahahahahahaha to the sponge. My mother came into the room hahahahahahahaha to ask what was going on, and when hahahahahahahaha I explained, she chuckled warmly, as if one of us had told a joke, and began to critique the timeframe hahahahahahahaha I had given for my original memory. Something about when they started making coffee at home, versus when they bought espresso at a café.
As she talked, I scrubbed at the streaked pot as if my sponge could grind away metal shards. Braying laughter continued to ripple through me like sobs.
♦ ♦ ♦
Mom may be right. I’m not entirely sure which year this took place. It doesn’t matter, though; something similar happened most years. Like an episode shot on green screen, the backdrop can change while the central figures remain the same. The kitchens shift across time and place: from Connecticut, to Texas, to Tennessee, to Colorado. My father is always screaming at an object; I am always standing a few feet away, motionless and silent. My mouth is a graveyard filled with words I do not say. I stare straight ahead, and I do not look down.
Make me younger in this scene, and the coffeepot might become a carton of milk left too long on the counter.
Make me a few years older, and I am myself the coffeepot he screams over.
♦ ♦ ♦
I never knew until recently what set him off that August night, what smudge in the pot that was my body brought him pounding down the stairs, first slamming every bedroom door he passed. He paused at the entranceway long enough to open and slam the front door several times as well. Even at the back of the house, where I sat curled on a couch with my boyfriend, the approaching bangs crackled with his anger.
Panicked, I tried to stand and collapsed forward instead. On my hands and knees, I choked and heaved for air, my breathing suddenly razor-shallow gasps. My boyfriend, himself more puzzled than alarmed, helped haul me to my feet. I was standing statue-straight by the time my father entered the room.
The yelling didn’t start until after my young man had been hustled out of the house. I had difficulty understanding at first, confused by the disconnect between my reality and the version my father’s words painted. When I finally realized what he was protesting, I attempted a few futile interjections.
“WE WEREN’T HAVING SEX,” I spoke loudly against the noise, “IF THAT MATTERS TO ANYONE.”
He didn’t seem to hear me. He didn’t seem to hear my mother either, as she added her own running commentary in an oddly conversational tone: “We can always get her an abortion. It’s a disease we need to worry about.” My father raged unabated.
For the next three hours, I stood in the center of the kitchen and listened to myself be screamed about. About, not at: while my mother looked only at my father, he himself looked always somewhere just over my head as he ranted through all the ways “she” had injured him. How she had materially damaged him. She had dealt him a once-in-a-lifetime blow, with this evening’s imaginary loss of her virginity. His only consolation was that she could never hurt him this badly again.
And me? I stared straight ahead. Far out ahead. I did not ever look down — and I did not fall.
Touch stone: A bicycle does not own itself. It can only pass from one rider to the next. Girls? Same thing.
When at last my father ran out of words, he stood a moment looking down at his hands on the counter, then turned and left the room, followed by my mother. I listened to the quiet creak of the stairs, then the floorboards overhead. I imagined the click of the their bedroom door shutting. Not until then did my shoulders begin to unclench and the muscles of my face to soften. I stood in the quiet as time stretched to five minutes, eight, almost ten. I took a final deep breath, expelled it slowly, and went up to my room.
The next morning we all behaved as though nothing had happened. Just another carton of spoiled milk, thrown into the trash and forgotten.
♦ ♦ ♦
A glimpse down a teenager’s shirt, an oily streak left on a dish, a child not in love with what her father loves. Over and over I learned the same lessons: Stay quiet. Stay small. Obey — or better yet, hide. Any assertion of self makes you a vessel through which the universe can reach out, and down your father’s throat, and rip out his heart.
If you get cornered, try to make him feel special.
♦ ♦ ♦
Less than a year after my divorce and still in the early stages of realizing just how much of myself I had lost under that other man’s control, I visited my parents. My father repeatedly urged me to move out west to live with them. The hopeful picture he painted of our return to some pastoral ménage resembled no family history I recognized.
“Here’s to being with my two favorite people in the whole world!” my father toasted jovially one night, raising his wine glass first to my mother, then to me.
The pit of my stomach sank.
“You mean your ‘two favorite women,'” I corrected him. “Not ‘people.’ My brother isn’t here.”
Please, I thought, please. Do not be saying what I know you are saying.
My father assured me he had said exactly what he meant. “Your brother, well. . . he’s difficult to love.”
The tendons in my throat tightened. I thought about my brother as he was now – impassive and brusque to interact with, yearning for kindness underneath — and how he was exactly the man our father had trained him to be.
“Not like you!” my dad continued. “Something in you is so easy to love.” He grinned at me happily, impervious to my horror, and drained his glass.
I felt sick, listening to how easily my brother was removed from the family — and how readily I was claimed back into its core. I could feel tentacles, grasping and sucking, already starting to wind their way around my ankles and up my legs.
Touch stone. Eat stone.
That was the day I decided to die.
♦ ♦ ♦
In 2013, I finally fell.
And I began learning how one gets back up.
♦ ♦ ♦
I reconciled with my parents several months after my third and final suicide attempt, and last summer, I had a long conversation with my father about my childhood. I wanted to know if he remembered what he said during his rages or if, as it sometimes seemed, he blanked them out of his memory afterwards.
“There was a particular day I’m wondering if you remember,” I started.
My father’s face collapsed into sorrow and shame.
“I know, I know.” He shook his head, crestfallen. “The bicycle.”
I listened to him describe his memories for several minutes before stopping him.
“That was all my brother,” I said. “You don’t remember how I refused, each time you yelled? How you had to agree to stop yelling before I agreed to learn?” You don’t remember my only significant act of defiance?
He shook his head, a puzzled look furrowing his brow.
I took a deep breath and held it a moment before trying again. “Do you remember the night you decided you’d caught me having sex?”
He let out a tired sigh and nodded immediately.
“Do you remember what you did?”
He shrugged. “I turned around and went back upstairs. What else could I do.”
“You don’t remember that you came back down the stairs fifteen minutes later?”
My father turned pale and stared at me with wide eyes. He shook his head silently.
“You don’t remember how you screamed at me until two in the morning?”
This time he mouthed the word. No.
“Well, dad. . .then I guess I have a story to tell you.”
♦ ♦ ♦
I have told my parents many stories over the past year. Some they remember; many they don’t. A few of the stories are purely mine, and they are hearing them for the first time. I don’t imagine any have been easy to listen to.
After hearing about the night in the kitchen, my father struggled to understand how he had never prepared himself for the possibility of his daughter being sexually active before marriage — never given me a version of The Talk he gave my brother, never considered my growing-up years in the light of his own youthful dating behavior.
“Fathers raise sons,” he offered as explanation. “Fathers raise sons — and mothers raise daughters. Isn’t that the way it goes?”
My mother had similar difficulty articulating why she had sided with my father in every dispute, or decided that even at six years old, her child could and should fend for herself against a bullying parent.
“Children come and go,” she said at last. “But a woman’s husband? She chose him. That’s forever.”
♦ ♦ ♦
There is an uncanny feeling that comes with having both your parents tell you, back-to-back, that you were as irrelevant as you always felt. It jarred against the concerted lie of my family’s happiness and the repeated assertions of how completely and dependably we all loved one another. At the same time, it confirmed my own judgment and my earliest sense from childhood: that as long as I was myself, I would not matter.
I recognize their words today as liberating, even if I do not yet feel entirely free. A daughter may always be a thing; a person simply is. A daughter may only have value when she is helping a man feel good about himself; a human being has value purely in her own existence.
I do matter, even if only to myself. To myself is enough.
And you, who are reading this now? In case any of you are wondering: the answer is yes. Yes, you matter too.
We all just do.
♦ ♦ ♦
My parents visited Philadelphia a few weeks ago, their first joint trip in several years. The day after they left, I took my lunch to a local park, where I sat on a bench, ate chicken salad on a croissant, and watched children playing tag beneath a distant tree. It was a warm spring day, though mild in the breeze and shade. I felt a strange hollowness — or perhaps an openness — flowering inside my chest. I closed my eyes to breathe into that space, and to name the feeling.
It was the absence of fear.
I opened my eyes, my face lit with a strange half-smile, and looked around. I looked ahead, far ahead, to where the children pranced and rolled in their preschool exuberance. I looked down at the sandwich in my hand and took another bite, which I chewed slowly, noticing its taste and texture. I glanced off to one side, where cars could be seen passing, though too distant to be heard. I closed my eyes again.
“This moment,” I thought to myself, “this feeling — I want this to be my new touchstone. Or, even better, my touch-ground.”
Touch ground, touch earth. Touch grass growing.
Touch the sound of children’s laughter, touch warm spring air, touch a wooden bench and a sandwich made at the deli. Touch my own hand. Touch my own face. Touch skin to my own skin.
Touch life, I thought. It is safe, I promise.
And it is time.
“Portrait of the Statue as a Young Girl” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Previous installments can be found here.
[Featured image via]