I now saw that talking to my parents was pointless.
So instead, I typed them an email.
I need to talk with you about things that happened in the past. I have a lot of memories I’m just trying to make sense of. I know no one’s perfect, and we all have made mistakes. But in order to move into healthier adult relationships with you both, I’d like to hear your side of it. I think that would really help me heal and move forward with you as a family.
I hit send and leaned back in my chair. I blew out a long breath. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding it.
* * *
My parents and I had regular phone calls once every week or two that lasted perhaps 15 minutes, sometimes less. We talked about changes at work and the price of milk. That was it.
I couldn’t do it anymore.
The phone calls electrified me with rage. When I was 12, my father had beaten me until I thought I was going to die. He had denied me medical care after an injury, locked me into dark rooms just to hear me scream, told me I was ugly and sinful and unlovable. He had sexually assaulted me. My mother had accused me of being an instrument of the devil. Then, they had locked me into their Texas home, threatening me with the police if I tried to leave.
Now I was supposed to calmly discuss price tags and work hours. I was supposed to pretend that we had a relationship.
And I couldn’t.
I just couldn’t.
* * *
After a week or two, my mother wrote back.
We received your request, and we just don’t feel that this is a good time. We are dealing with some financial issues, and we just don’t feel that we can have this conversation right now. Maybe in the future.
I showed it to my brother. “What does that even mean?” He asked, scanning it again. “And who says that to their kid? We can’t talk right now because of money?”
I knew it was a brushoff. I knew it meant my parents thought they had called my bluff. They thought I would play this poker game the way the rest of our family did, ultimately backing down. Letting things slide in order to keep the peace.
All it really showed me was that even after 25 years, they still didn’t know me.
Not even the smallest part.
* * *
A month or two later, I typed out another plea for a real conversation. This time with greater urgency. I need to know, I explained. For my own healing. I’m going through a lot right now, and I want to bring you guys along with me into the future. I want to still have a family.
This time I was rebuffed without any explanation. We can’t talk about this right now.
I typed back. Okay, then when? Because I really need this. And if you’re uncomfortable having this conversation with me, we could involve a counselor. We could go to family therapy.
But again, no.
And with each no, I heard No, your well-being doesn’t matter to us.
No, we couldn’t care less if you’re going through something difficult.
No, you will never be more important than our own identity as good people.
* * *
This went on for nine months. It took nine months of constant refusals for me to realize that my parents would never willingly have this conversation with me.
I had been patient. I had been reasonable. I had believed—mistakenly, I now saw—that if I offered compassion and a genuine willingness to hear their side of the story, they would reciprocate.
But my parents are abusers. And abusers can never care more about anyone than they care about keeping the secret of their abuse. If you are dangling from a cliff’s edge, they will let you fall before they let their mask slip. The closer you are to them, the more likely you are to be sacrificed. No relationship will ever matter more than the façade. Their primary goal at all times is to isolate and discredit anyone who may tell the truth.
I wanted a relationship with my parents. But complicity was the only relationship that would ever be possible.
I was only beginning to realize this.
And that realization sent a lightning bolt of rage through me. I’d been had. Duped. Used. I had been the dumpster for all their hurts and angers and fears and insecurities. And so they had treated me like the refuse they had piled onto me. And now, they expected me to be silent about it.
I had been betrayed.
My own parents had sold off my childhood. And now, they had every intention of doing the same to my adulthood.
I was to pay with my silence and my own stunted, thwarted life. I wanted healing, but they couldn’t allow me to go any further.
I was outraged. I was heartbroken. So I wrote.
I wrote and wrote and wrote for days.
I wrote in a white heat of sleeplessness.
I wrote because I wanted them to face what they had done. Even if they didn’t have the courage to look.
I would force them to see.
They would hear me, at long last. They would see everything they didn’t want to know.
The depression and suicidality that overshadowed my late teens and early twenties. My unhealthy attachments to older men that had left me susceptible to more abuse and harassment. My struggle with dissociation and my uncertainty that I was even human. My sense of unworthiness and my difficulty forming healthy, affectionate connections with anyone. The pervasive shame and self-doubt and social anxiety that limited me. The nightmares and the constant sense of doom.
I wrote it all.
And then I mailed it off, twenty pages to each parent.
This is what you did. This is what I live with. This is what I have to heal from.
Now you decide what happens next. You can support me through this healing process, or not. But if not, I don’t want to hear from either of you again. We are done. I have to heal, and I’m going to heal. One way or another. With or without you.
* * *
One week later, I sat beside the International Fountain at Seattle Center. I was the only person there, the other benches empty and slick from the morning rain. Mist drifted away from the fountain, its parabolas of water splattering onto the concrete. The sky was gray, and it was autumn already, that sweet cinnamon-musk of fallen leaves in the air along with the chlorine from the fountain. I was approaching 26, and I had moved from Lake City to downtown Seattle where I lived with Top. We now shared his room above the Thai restaurant. We had repainted, and we were laying down laminate flooring. It was beginning to look like a real home.
I sat on the bench holding my parents’ letters in my lap. They had handwritten their responses on stationery paper thin as tissue. I hadn’t known what to expect. No one in my family had ever tried to confront anyone about past abuses. The silence stretched back for generations.
I had anticipated the possibilities. What I had hoped for: We’re so sorry. We didn’t realize. I wish we could. If only we had. We’ll always. We love you.
What I expected: Well sure, we could’ve done better, but you weren’t exactly a cakewalk, either. You made things hard on us, too. What five-year-old gives their mother parenting advice?
What I feared: You’re a worthless person, and we knew it all along. Everything we gave you was a waste. You’re a terrible, horrible person, so good riddance. We hope you die.
They had each written a separate letter, taking up less than a page. I could see I had hurt them, which was part of what I’d wanted. Only part. But still. I was glad I’d hurt them. In my family, hurting someone was how you knew they were listening.
But that was all they’d heard. And their letters had one purpose. Short and pointed as a dagger. To hurt me back. Rain blotted the ink as I held their letters open on my lap, staring into the fountain. Water trickled down the steel. Their two sheets of stationery darkened as the rain began to fall.
You’ll never make it.
I can’t believe how dirty your mind is, that you would make all this up.
That never happened.
Good luck making it without your parents.
I knew my parents. I hadn’t expected gracious, generous replies. But amidst all the accusations and insults and threats, I had scanned for one thing. One assurance. One variation on the same theme.
You’ll always be our daughter.
We’ll always love you.
Except it wasn’t there.
I tried not to feel hurt because I knew that was what they wanted me to feel. I stood up and dropped their letters into the garbage bin and walked home through the rain.
For a long time after that, I felt nothing.
Nothing at all.