Long ago and far away, though it seems like only yesterday, my mom wrapped herself in a cocoon of silence. My dad viciously beat her regularly, but she refused to tell her mother or her sister about it. Most nights from the time I was nine years old, I would lie in my bed, locked in my bedroom, listening to the pattern of abuse, hearing the swearing, hearing the flesh being whacked with a fist or open hand, hearing the insults, hearing my mother crying.
One particularly bad night occurred around the time of my 8th grade graduation. My parents had gone out to dinner to celebrate their 15th anniversary. For some reason, probably because he was drunk, my dad had forgotten to lock my bedroom door. When the beating was in full swing, I went into my parent’s bedroom and saw my dad in his underwear, kicking my mom into the wall. I shouted at him to stop, but he told me my mother deserved it, and he spewed out vile, ugly words. Again, I shouted at him, and this time I threatened to call the police. He sneered at me and told me his "brother cops" would never do anything to him, which, sadly, in the days of the early 1960’s was probably true.
My heart broke to see my tiny, nearly naked mom, huddled in a corner of her bedroom, curled into a ball in order to protect herself as well as absorb the beating better. I walked toward her and bent to pick her up. She looked so broken. My dad shouted obscenities and stormed out of the bedroom.
The next morning when I got up to go to school, I saw my dad sleeping in the chair in the living room. He woke up when I passed his chair. I ignored him. He asked why I didn’t say “Good morning” to him, and I said that I had no respect for him anymore because he was a bully who beat my mom. As usual, he called me insulting names, but I stayed silent.
When I got home from school, I discovered that my mother could barely walk. She was wearing pajamas and a robe, though it was very hot that June day, and we had no air conditioning. I pleaded with her to tell her mom, my grandma, about what dad had done to her. She told me that I didn’t understand, that my dad had apologized, that she loved my dad. I was disgusted and told her if that was love, then I hoped to never love anyone.
The next day was my 8th grade graduation. My mom could not attend the ceremony, as she could still barely walk. My dad told everyone that she had the flu. When we got home, I pleaded with my mom to go into the living room and show everyone her bruises. I told her that I’d help her walk. She refused. I threatened to tell the whole family and bring them into her bedroom because it was the only way to stop dad from beating her. I turned to leave her bedroom. My mom got out of her bed, and with tottering steps came toward me. She touched my arm and told me she loved me and was sorry to miss my graduation. Then, she told me that if I told anyone in the family what had happened that she would tell them I was lying.
I was shocked!
I spent the rest of the evening in a surreal fog of bizarre comments about how everyone hoped my mom’s flu would be over soon. I will never forget the triumphant smile that my dad bestowed upon me. The bully knew he had me beat. He knew that I couldn’t bear the thought that my grandparents might think I was a liar (though how they would think that if they were staring at my mom's bruises, I have no idea). To this day, I feel shame that I did not speak up, that I was a coward.
Fast forward five years, and I am startled awake at six in the morning by a strange sound. It was a gunshot. My mother had finally freed herself of her brute of a husband by ending her life.
I decided, then and there, to break my silence, and I told everyone about the years my dad beat my mom. No one believed me. My dad told everyone that I was a liar and had started using drugs. This would have been funny if I could have made anyone believe me. I had never used anything stronger than aspirin! I was lectured by the police, who investigated my mother’s death; I was lectured by neighbors; I was lectured by family; but the most heart-breaking moment was after the funeral when my beloved paternal grandpa cupped my face in his hands and, with tears in his eyes, pleaded with me to stop using drugs and stop lying about my dad. Alice down her rabbit hole never felt crazier than I did at that moment.
Soon after the funeral, I moved away to live with friends. Before my mother died, I had been my dad’s backup punching bag. After my mother’s death, I had been promoted to primary punching bag. I had not protected my mom, but I was determined to protect myself, and the only way to do that was to leave. If only my mom could have, would have left...
I deeply regret my silence on the day of my 8th grade graduation, but regret is meaningless unless it translates into action. Consequently, I have spent my ensuing years talking openly about everything. Some might suggest that I am too open, but I don’t know if you can be too open. I know first hand that silence can kill, and, at the very least, silence causes unnecessary misery, and I am determined to lessen some of that misery.
But being open isn't easy. Sometimes it hurts; sometimes it results in ridicule or misunderstanding; sometimes it is lonely. Being open requires the conviction that the risks of being open are worth taking in order to reveal the truth hidden by silence.
To that end, I am willing to talk openly with anyone. Talking frees you from the prison of silence, and talking results in change and understanding. After all, if people don’t know you need help, how can they help you? If they don’t know you are in pain, how can they comfort you? Being open is freeing. Being open is lifesaving. Being open leads you from the darkness to the light. And most importantly, being open robs silence of its destructive power.
In loving memory of my mom, who died, smothered by silence, 43 years ago this March.
"By naming and framing our stories in words, we can face the truths of our lives in little steps which allows growth to take place organically, without devastating crises." Gabriele Rico