Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Reader Shares A Confession

I have found this blog to be a welcome place, a location where instructors can tell the truth about the job, our students, and even our lives. In my own department, in my own college, I have no outlet for this story, and I hoped I could share it here. Any names and identifying details have been changed.

This past semester in my freshman composition course, my students read a short essay about domestic abuse. It was in a course pack not of my choosing, a text that led into an argument essay.

As a college professor, I always feel a bit as if I'm a guide to my students, not just to writing, but to college, to adult life, even to the morality that goes in to negotiating day to day life. As we read this article, and as my students flared with indignation about the abuser and the article's occasional sympathetic treatment of him, my own past thundered in my ears.

My dad hated us. Maybe that’s overstating it. Perhaps it’s more true to say he hated himself, the rest of us just got in the way. Mom always got the worst of it, though, from verbal abuse to physical, she was spared none of my father’s anger or hatred.

He was a hotel manager in our town, and well known and well-liked. His public persona was different from the face he showed the rest of us. He’d be smiling one minute at a cocktail party for friends, but when they went home he became the dad we all knew: screaming at me for not bringing the ice and the drinks fast enough, chastising my sister for not dressing up enough, insulting my mother for being a “fat, worthless bitch.”

Us boys, me and my brother Ken, avoided it as much as we could when we were young. We retreated to our music magazines and our stereos and hid in our rooms when things got really bad. My sister Kim was older and she’d leave the house, get in her car and drive off. Where she went we simply never knew.

At night I would lie in bed and wonder why he was the way he was. I never made friends easily so really only knew my own family. I assumed other families lived this same way.

Only once can I remember Ken standing up to my dad. He ran out of our room when the screaming was the loudest and threw his 14 year old body over my mother’s blocking my father’s fists. My father never missed a beat, instead slugging them both until he was tired of it.

Kenny came to our room afterwards and my mom did, too. She brought a wet rag and washed his face and hers and the three of us stayed in there together that night and many nights after that.

My mom stayed with him all through our high school years. Our family had little contact with the neighbors, except for an occasional police call that the people across the street would make. My dad would always greet the cops at the doors, usually somebody he knew. In ten minutes the cops and my dad would be standing on the lawn, laughing about something. When they left, my dad would come back and things would be worse than before.

When I turned 22, I got married. I had met Shelly at the small college where I was taking classes. I loved her, I guess, in my own way and we had great times. We hung out together, moved in eventually into her little apartment. I stayed away from my parent’s house as much as I could, calling once a week to talk to my Mom. I fooled myself into thinking that things must be okay there, since I never saw it. My brother Kenny did the same, but he went thousands of miles away to Florida. My sister, too, in the other direction, moved north to Portland.

I fast-tracked my way through an MA, and one night when I was in the last 3 months of my dissertation, Shelly raised the topic of children to me. We had talked about it a number of times and I had always told her I was not interested in kids. Kids would ruin us, I said. Case closed. I didn’t want to talk about it.

I thought about finishing the PhD, getting out of debt, doing something other than teaching adjunct in a too-tight town. This was not negotiable, as far as I was concerned. We sat a while longer and then Shelly began to cry. “I’m pregnant,” she said. “I stopped taking the pill; I want a baby so bad.”

What happened next still doesn’t seem real to me. I stood up from the couch, looked back at her. I raised my hand into a fist and brought it crashing down against her face. There was no sound but the thud of my fist against her cheek bone which emitted a small crack. Shelly looked up at me through tears, stood up and went to the phone. She called her Mom and went down the hallway and packed here clothes. Holding an ice bag over her cheek and carrying a suitcase, Shelly walked out of that apartment and my life forever.

As I sat on that couch, waiting for her to come home or to call, I searched my mind for a reason. How had I become the same kind of monster my father had been? Where did I learn that from? Where did I learn that a man could hit a woman if he chose, if he didn’t like the words that came from her mouth. I never found the answer that night or any other.

I had seen what I had seen as a young boy. The violence of my own home had been so real, so overwhelming, that even though it sickened me, the same flaws and the same horror my father lived in, had become part of me. Like I never forgave him, I never forgave myself.

A year later, the phone rang. My mom was at the bus depot and needed some cash. I drove down, taking all the money I had with me. I bought her a one-way ticket to Portland and I watched her get on the bus. I kissed her and waved good-bye and went back to my parent’s house.

Dad was sitting on the bench in the back yard, drinking, but not drunk.

“So, what do you want?” he said.

I couldn't think of anything to say. I haven't been back to that house since.

It is now a few years later. After finishing my PhD I did indeed teach adjunct in a too-tight town, but hard work and some luck got me into a nice tenure-track job in a medium sized city not so far away from home.

After reading my students' essays about the article on abuse, I spent some time and tracked down Shelly. She had re-married and has a fine young boy named Tony. I told her where I was, what I was doing, and I shared some of the story I've written above. She was kind to me on the phone, understanding, I suppose. She wished me well at the end of the call and I believed her.

My mom lives to this day in Portland with my sister Kim. My brother Kenny has come back from Florida, and now runs a computer repair business in the same town where I live.

My dad remarried, too, but we don’t see him anymore. I find I am still working through my fear and embarrassment and my anger and my agony about what I did to Shelly, and what I learned at the feet of my father. What I’ve come to realize is that we learn unspeakable things without knowing it. The lessons my father taught me linger. Hitting Shelly woke me up to the horrible fact that I was really my father’s son. Now, years along the road, I’m making attempts at forgiving myself for the mistakes I learned and the mistakes I made.

When my class raged about the abuser in that article, I did, too. I realized it was me in those pages, just as surely as it if the story had been written about me and Shelly and our past. I wondered what my students would have thought of me had they known. I wanted to tell someone, anyone, a colleague, a friend. But I was ashamed and guilty and have kept it inside. Until now.