CONTAINS TRIGGERING CONTENT
To begin a story is necessarily to omit. If I begin my story of assault at age 12 with my father’s attack, then I am omitting my mother’s physical abuse. I am leaving out the fact that my earliest memories are full of violence not from men, but from a woman. A woman in her early thirties who towers over me, screaming and crying and spitting and stuttering with a rage she cannot control. It was the way her rage ripped through her like a tsunami that scared me most.
Every time I saw it come over her, I stood stock-still and said nothing, not even backing away, because I had learned that any movement, any word from me could nudge her from tantrum to violence. A deer in the headlights, I always hoped it would be enough for her to throw things against walls and slam doors and scream into the air. But it wasn’t. If I froze or if I ran, it ended the same way. Every time, eventually, she grabbed me. Panic clenched every muscle. I was wound tight enough to burst, but she had me pinned down. There was nowhere to go. I knew better than to struggle, but I was only a preschooler. Reflexively, I always squirmed, which made her angrier. I screamed pleas for mercy. No, no, no, please, Mother! Don’t, don’t, don’t! Which only resulted in harder slaps.
Neither of us knew it then, but those tantrums of hers were probably due in part to her grief over a software engineering job at Boeing. She had fought so hard to break into computer science in the early 1970s, shrugging off sexist professors and classmates. Later on the job, she tolerated the solitary graveyard shifts that she was assigned—only to have a mental breakdown by the mid-seventies and move back in with her parents. By the time she had regrouped and started rebuilding her career, she discovered she was pregnant with me and converted to Mormonism in 1982. At the time, the Church pressured all women to give up careers and education in order to stay home with their children. It was a disastrous choice for my mother.
I also suspect my mother lives with undiagnosed and untreated Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her rages were triggered not by the usual breaking points of new parents—one too many sibling fights, flagrant rule-breaking, hours of endless crying—but by my building blocks or dolls not being put away in exactly the right place and in exactly the way she preferred. Or by my laughing or talking too loud. Any disorder in her environment evoked intense anxiety, which could swell into rage and then violence.
But to accurately tell the story of my mother’s violence would require I tell her history, and her parents’ history. Beginnings always omit because even our beginnings are the ending to another beginning.
I wonder if sometimes this is what perpetrators resent in the stories told by their victims. If deep-down, they think, Sure, I did that. But you have to understand why.
Understanding why is essential. If we are ever to end this cycle of beginnings and endings, we need to understand why so many human beings inflict intentional pain on other human beings.
But understanding never, ever changes what was done and the lasting effects of it. If people say I’m not telling the whole story, that is true. But I will try, and for me, my experience of violence begins here, with my mother.