A Boy and His Father. The Complexity of Child Abuse.
Ca-thar-sis. n. the purging of emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.
When I was just a little boy, I placed this painful memory into a tightly sealed bottle and buried it beneath some dirt in our backyard. In this way, I have been able to relegate this shameful memory into the recesses of my mind and function as a “normal” adult. And then one day my niece, whom I adore, innocently asked me about…well…she asked my about something that wouldn’t fit inside that bottle. Her and my sister were visiting me here, (in prison.) She was sitting on my lap childishly examining and manipulating my face when she asked in a voice of concern far greater than her age, “Uncle Jimmy, what happened right…here?” And she ran her small hand along the length of a scarcely perceptible scar. The question caught me off guard. And I prepared myself to tell the lie I’ve told so many times that I have nearly convinced myself that it was true; but her eyes…she was looking up at me with those big brown eyes. The eyes of a child seem to see so much more than those of adults. And my niece’s eyes seemed to see right through me. “Where?” I responded with an odd sense of vulnerability. “Right here,” And she traced it again with her index finger. I turned away and searched my sister’s face for an answer. Her smile darkened around the corners and we both lapsed into silence. It was at precisely that moment that my bottle, my tightly sealed bottle, shattered into a million little pieces. The horrible memory that I had repressed for more than two decades came flooding back into my head. “That’s nothing!” My sister insisted, firmly and protectively, and then she placed my niece in her lap. I inhaled deeply and struggled to gain my composure.
MY BEST FRIEND AT THE TIME WAS KEVIN FILMORE. Many people thought we were brothers because we were always together and we looked very similar. Of course this served to strengthen our friendship, and I regularly introduced him as my brother, or at least my cousin. We were both bi-racial with light skin, slim bodies and curly black hair. I was about eleven. He was about a year older and slightly larger.
It was a hot humid stifling summer evening. Kevin and I were at the park a few blocks south of my house. We were having so much fun playing basketball that we didn’t notice the dark clouds rolling in across the sky – pregnant with a violent thunderstorm. But when a cool breeze picked up from the west, we realized a storm would follow close behind.
“I think we better head back home.” Kevin suggested as he shot a jump shot from the foul line. “It’s getting dark, like it’s about to storm.”
“You’re right Kevin,” I said playfully as I retrieved the rebound. “But we can’t quit now. I’m about to win!” I returned to the foul line and drove in for a layup. He blocked it!
Moments later, the air stagnated, the trees grew still, and the park fell dark and silent. A flash of lightning whipped across the sky, the thunder roared angrily, and then, as if hesitating, the storm began releasing huge rain drops. They splashed cold and wet against out hot bodies.
I secured the ball in my arm and we began racing along a tree lined path that lead out of the park. I was in front of Kevin. “I bet I make it to the street before you do!” I exclaimed, nearly out of breath; he was gaining quickly.
“I bet you won’t. You know I’m the fastest!”
Just then, I changed lanes to ensure that he couldn’t pass me and began sprinting as quickly as I could. “I can’t let him win!” I thought to myself. “I know I’m faster than he is!”
We were neck and neck for the next several strides. I was pushing myself as hard as I could but it was no use. My legs began feeling rubbery and within the very next moment Kevin dashed ahead of me.
“Told you I was the fastest!” He bragged when we reached the street. We were both panting and gasping for air.
“Only in your dreams!” I blurted. “The only reason you won is because I have the ball!”
“Excuses excuses, you always have excuses. Why don’t you just admit that I’m faster than you?”
“I’ll admit it when you are, until then I ain’t admittin nothing.” We were both laughing heartily.
By that time, the cold rain was pouring and the street lamps were flickering against a steel grey sky. Not because of the time, but because the storm had chased away the daylight. We were jogging along an old residential street lined with majestic trees toward my house. We were being careful to avoid tripping over uneven sidewalks caused from overgrown tree roots. We were soaked to the skin. We slowed down beneath a six lane overpass to catch our breath. From there, I could make out my house through the rain. It was a small ranch style wooden structure in dire need of painting. In better days it was painted white with black trim. Now, it was weather beaten and a dirty grayish color.
“Alright Jimmy,” Kevin said. “I’ll see you later. I’m going straight home from here.”
“I thought you were commin over.” I protested.
“I know Jim, but I can’t today.”
“Come on man. You can come over for a few minutes.”
“Can’t do it Jim, it’s raining too hard, plus my mom cooked dinner.”
“Alright.” I conceded. “What are you doin tomorrow?”
“My dad’s takin the family to visit my grandpa and we’re takin him out to dinner.”
“Where you guys goin?”
“I don’t know. My dad said it’s a surprise.”
“Well,” I boasted. “My dad took me, my grandpa and my great grandpa out to dinner a few weeks ago. He said it was amazing to have four generations of Black men in the car at the same time.”
“Wow! My great grandpa died before I was born.”
We resumed trotting through the rain. As we approached the front of my house, the sight of my father’s money green Cadillac made me pause at the end of our driveway. The playfulness vanished and a sick frightening sensation came over me.
“Your dad’s new car is s-w-e-e-t!” Kevin said. I did not respond.
“Did you hear me?” He asked. “You look like you just saw a ghost or something.”
“Oh yea, I heard you,” I said as casually as possible. “Thanks’. It rides smooth too.”
“Alright Jim, I gotta go. It’s raining too hard to be out here admiring your dad’s new Cadillac.”
“Alright, but don’t forget I’m callin you later.”
“Okay, but make sure it’s after dinner. You know how my dad is about phone calls during dinner.”
“I know I know.” And as I watched Kevin’s figure disappear up the street, my thoughts began to race and tangle. “He’s usually not home this early.” I reflected. “I hope he’s not angry. For some reason he’s been very angry… Maybe I shouldn’t go inside. Maybe I should catch up with Kevin and hang out over his house, at least until the storm is over. But it would seem odd to Kevin’s parents if they knew I ran past my own house during a nasty storm, especially since I’m soaked.” I was a reticent secretive child and I didn’t want anything about my family situation to appear any more suspicious than I knew it already did. “But if I go inside,” I continued. “My dad might find a reason to attack me, again. And even if he doesn’t, I’ll be terrified that he will. But if I go over Kevin’s, he might be even angrier when I finally return home. But, I could call to tell him that I …”
After a few indecisive moments of standing in the rain, I realized that Kevin was probably already home, and my time to decide had expired. “I must learn to make decisions more quickly!” I scolded myself; thinking of my father’s advice. “Otherwise, someone might hurt me, or take advantage of me.” Finally, as if hesitating, I lowered my head and began trudging slowly down the driveway toward the side door. As I walked past his Cadillac, I ran my hand through beads of water which had collected on its freshly waxed angular fender.
The side door opened into a narrow dimly lit enclosed patio which ran the length of the house. Four or five paces forward and to the left, there were five cement steps which my father had recently poured. They lead up to another door which opened into a small crowded kitchen. An egg shaped Formica table with stainless steel legs hogged up most of the kitchen floor. It was decorated with a heavy over-sized glass bowl that sat boldly in its center. The bowl was tinted blue and had an unusual texture, as if it had been splashed with broken marbles during the manufacturing process. It was filled with wax fruit: one large pineapple, yellow bananas, red apples, bright oranges and deep purple grapes. The cupboards were made of plain sheet metal painted with yellow latex paint. As a result, there was random peeling and visible brush strokes everywhere. Further, the paint had been completely worn away around the handles. A brand new shinny side-by-side refrigerator sat uncomfortably in the corner. Its freshness seemed out of place against the other items in the kitchen; like my dad’s new Cadillac looked peculiar in our driveway. More of the same plastic fruit adorned the kitchen in various places. A velvet painting of a white sailor boy hung over a waist high metal cabinet we used to store canned goods. Despite its small size and cramped conditions, there was not a speck of dirt in sight. My mother made absolutely sure of that.
I opened the patio door as quietly as possible and stood silently just inside the door. My heart was beating slightly faster than normal. My senses were tense and at maximum keenness. I listened intently for the sound of voices. I had grown accustomed to the sound of screaming and yelling that often accompanies domestic violence – and I was braced to face it again. But on this day, all I heard was the sound of the wind and rain splattering against the roof. I inhaled deeply. After a few minutes I began to calm down.
Just then, the door at the top of the steps cracked open and my mother, a small beautiful Korean woman with delicate features and long silky black hair, quietly, as if sneaking, stepped onto the top step and pulled the door up behind her without completely closing it. Her eyes showed trouble and concern. “I thought I heard you come in.” She said in her best English, and then she took another step down to get a closer look at me. She was bunching up a brilliant red kimono in front of her. Her hair was wrapped in a neat bun with enamel chopsticks. “You soaked. You alright?” She probed in a low voice, nearly whispering.
“Yeah, I’m alright.” I said timidly, while looking up at her. “What kind of mood is daddy in?”
“That why I meet you here,” She said, now fully whispering. “He been getting high so he very mad, you go straight to your room. Lisa will bring you food later.”
Lisa is my sister. She is three years older than me. When my mother mentioned her name, her caramel colored face, Korean features and silky black hair flashed across my mind. “W, w, why is he m, m, mad at me?” I managed to stutter. “I h, ha, I ha haven’t d, d, done anything wrong.” As I spoke, I scolded myself for not going over Kevin’s.
“I know you haven’t done anything wrong,” She said carefully. “But for some reason you father been very very angry with you. And today he feel like you disrespected him because you didn’t come home before storm, especially since street lights on. So he in living room waiting for you…”
“B, bu, but the street lights are only on b, be, because of the storm.”
“I know that. But you know how you father get when he high.”
“W, w, well, d, do you think I s, sh, should go over Kevin’s?”
“Too late for that now.”
At that moment my father bellowed, “Is that Jimmy?”
She leaned back and cracked the door open to answer him. “Yes sir, I was explaining to him that he should have come home before the…”
The door was snatched from her grasp and swung completely open. My father, a slender muscular young man with clean features and deep set eyes appeared in the center of the doorway. His handsome brown skin glistened with sweat. He wore a plain white tank top, diamond cut gold necklace, burgundy gabardine dress slacks and matching alligator shoes. He was standing with his arms hanging down freely, back military straight, feet shoulder width apart. My mother, being petite, immediately descended the steps to clear a path for him, but he did not follow her. Instead, he stood there watching us through suspicious eyes. It was apparent from his stance and the speed in which he appeared that he suspected it was me. He also suspected that she and I were having a secret meeting against him. My mother detected this and began to tremble.
The light behind him illuminated his silhouette. His face was stern and solemn, his movements were quick and mechanical, like he was a coiled spring. He scrutinized me from head to toe and toe to head; then he repeated the same examination of my mother. Unable to determine what he wanted, I stood in silence, soaked and quivering.
After an awkward moment of silence, he began speaking distinctly. “That’s right, you know God damn well you had no business out in that storm. And how many times do I have to tell you to get your rump home before the street lights come on before you learn your lesson?”
My thoughts were spiraling out of control. I was panic-stricken. I knew the wrong answer could ignite violence. I scanned my memory again and again, but I could not form a response. I stared up at him with a blank look on my face.
“Don’t you dare act like you don’t hear me boy…answer me when I’m talking to you!”
I looked up at him and said, “Y, y, you w, w, won’t e-v-e-r…”
“Don’t pretend you can’t speak because you’re scared or under pressure, you’re too old for that. Speak!”
I inhaled deeply, as deeply as I could and tried to organize my thoughts. “Y, y, you…” and another deep breath, “w, w, won’t ever have to tell me again s, s, sir.” And I exhaled.
“You God damn right I won’t! And I better not have to! And where were you? And you better not lie to me!”
“He was at park playing with Kevin.” My mother injected defensively, and then looked back down, frowning.
He looked back and forth between us. This was the evidence he needed to prove that she and I were conspiring against him and it infuriated him. Then he said, “Jimmy! Go to your room!” And he took a quick step forward and raised his hand as if he were going to strike me. I backed up and ducked. He continued, “I don’t even want to see your face!”
I felt an immediate sense of relief at his command. It meant I had escaped another beating. I began slowly, cautiously ascending the steps. He did not move. I was careful not to bump him as he was more like a motion activated bomb than a man of flesh and blood.
As I passed him, I noticed that his full attention was now directed at my mother. “When I am training that boy,” He growled. “You keep your mouth shut! Do you understand me! I have to teach that boy how to be a man and to have respect for his elders! Do you understand what I’m saying to you! I have a God given responsibility to get my only son ready to survive in a man’s world. And it’s cold and cruel out here… especially for a Black man! Do you understand me!”
“Yes sir,” My mother agreed pitifully. “But you know your anger throws the poor boy into confusion, and that makes him stutter.”
“Makes him stutter!” He shouted while pointing his finger in her face. “Makes him stutter! There’s no time to be stuttering out there in the real world, and don’t nobody care about him stuttering but you!” He was moving toward her. “Now you listen, when I’m training that boy, keep your God damn mouth shut! Do you understand me? How am I supposed to teach that boy to respect me while you’re sneaking around this house teaching him to disrespect me?”
“I not teaching him to disrespect you.” She said defensively as she backed away.
“Then what were you doing out here on the patio?” And on and on and on…
I was standing silently in the kitchen watching through the doorway. I felt guilty because I knew my actions would result in yet another beating for my mother. I had seen it a thousand times and I felt hopeless against my father’s aggression. At that moment he appeared in the doorway. “Didn’t I tell you to go to your room! Get moving! Now!”
I instantly retreated to my room and closed the door firmly behind me. I removed my wet cloths as quickly as I could and slipped into something dry; not pajamas – I rarely slept in pajamas. I preferred to sleep with my cloths on – just in case I had to come to my mother’s aid in the middle of the night. Otherwise, I kept a full set of cloths arranged next to my bed in such a way that I could get dressed quickly – in case of an emergency. In retrospect, it really didn’t make a difference whether I was dressed or not. My father had warned my sister, Lisa, and I that we were not to interfere with him and my mother. And I took heed to his warning. Thus, even if I were awakened by the sound of my mother screaming and crying out for help, I would sit helplessly on the side of my bed, fully dressed – but I would not emerge until the beating was over.
On this day, I dressed unusually rapidly. The argument grew louder and more intense by the second. My father would shout something, usually about respect. My mother would scream something in return. Soon the shouting would be replaced by the sound of shoving and pushing and slapping and punching and screaming and horror and furniture being thrown and knocked around. I imagined my father standing before my mother, fists clenched tightly, teeth grinding, eyebrows pulling inward, about to deliver a destructive blow to my mother’s delicate face. Then all at once, the argument stopped, like someone turned off a radio.