WARNING: ADULTS ONLY. Readers are strongly cautioned. “Broken” portrays sensitive subject matters including animal abuse, torture, and graphic sexual violence. There is strong language, drug reference and is not suitable for some audiences. Please proceed with caution.
I don’t believe my father is a bad man. On the contrary. I think he is a very good man who had no idea how to parent children. I think he did his best. I think he did love us with all his heart.
Do not misunderstand me. If he was to ask me today if I know he loves me, I would say, ‘yes.’ But a part of me will never believe it. Growing up, I had never seen it. I still don’t see it. I think he loves me today because I am a parent and I believe all parents love their children. Okay, not all. Some parents are that horrible, but I think my father simply didn’t know how to parent. I think he was clueless, confused, and, at times, completely unaware of the problem. He did his best. He still had no idea what I am. I don’t think he ever will.
I remember one movie we watched that made my father tear up.
“I do not know how to love. Please teach me,” the actor said.
I watched my father choke up.
“I feel that way,” he said.
My father is not good with words. I think it meant a lot for him to finally hear those words. I imagine he had needed to hear them for a long time. I’ll say it again, I think my father did his best. I think my father tried. I think my father didn’t have a fucking clue back then.
As a mother, I understand and appreciate that conflict, to not know how to love the way a parent should, to be flying blind and have no idea if what you are saying to your children every day is crippling them. As a child, all I saw were the monsters.
In my early life, I had one friend, one solace that wasn’t the forest. I had my black short-haired cat with white patches on her feet. Patches. She was old and sweet and would run off into the Wood for days at a time.
Before the situation in the house turned too abysmal, Charles and I would wander into the forest. He had his stick as all little boys must. As we walked he hacked the flowers. I hated that. If it was beautiful, Charles destroyed it. That should have been the first clue that there was a problem.
“Don’t do that,” I’d say.
“Why?” He’d hack at a patch with his stick. “They’re just flowers.”
“They’re beautiful and we’re in their home. Stop killing them.”
“They’re just flowers.” He’d hack down another patch.
We arrived at the tree house we had started that summer and never finished. The ladder was gray and had begun to crack under the hot of summer and cold of winter. The floorboards no longer sustained our weight. We hadn’t been to the tree house in months.
“See this,” Charles said, tapping a pile of stones beside the tree. “Know what this is?”
“A marker.” I said. There were a lot of them around there like you see in here, in Ireland. This one was small. Very small.
“No,” he said. “You don’t know what this is.”
He had a tone that jeered my ignorance. Not friendly or informative at all. Simply boastful. ‘I know something you don’t know,’ he passively said with his smile.
“So what!” I said and he hacked at another flower. “I don’t care.”
“You will.” He hacked at another flower.
“I know what it is!” I said, though I didn’t. I didn’t care. I was too annoyed at his smugness.
“No, you don’t know,” he said. He hacked at another flower.
“I don’t care!” I stomped off.
“You will!” He hacked at another flower.
“Shut up! I don’t care!”
“It’s Patches’ grave.”
I turned and he stood there smiling at me, proud of his power trip.
“You’re lying,” I said.
“Nope. She’s dead.” He hacked at another flower.
“You’re lying!” I screamed and stomped off blinded by tears.
“What’s wrong now, Elizabeth?” my mother screamed through the kitchen window.
“Charles says Patches is dead!” I cried.
I looked up at my mother’s cold face in the window.
The annoyance on her face added to the pain of being excluded on top of the pain of losing my friend.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“We didn’t want to upset you,” she said as if she was telling me my clothes were in the dryer. She was gone, back to her dishes without so much as a hug or encouraging word.
Sobbing, I slumped to the front of the house and dropped into the porch swing. There, I cried and let the hurt wash through me. I cried for an hour, loud and long. And no one ever came.
* * *
After Patches’ death, my brother developed a new hobby. He collected critters. While I ran to the Wood to escape the screaming, and embrace and nurture my isolation, Charles diverted his attention to the wildlife.
He gathered up frogs and snakes and stones. One by one, he would throw them into the kiddie pool out back and, one at a time, would pull them out, set them on the back porch, and stone them to death.
My sister and I would scream and cry. “Let them go!”
He’d laugh and I’d watch him smash its hind leg. It would try to hop away on a foot that wasn’t there. He’d laugh again and throw another rock. Its stomach would split and it tried to escape, but its skin and blood glued it to the porch hot from the summer sun. My brother laughed while we screamed for it. He’d smash all its limbs, it’s back, and it’s belly. And when it was done breathing, he would pick up the remains and throw them at us.
We’d scream and he’d take up a snake.
“What are you doing?” my mother shouted, annoyed by our sobbing.
“Charles is killing them!”
“So what!” she screamed. “Boys will be boys! Get away from him if it bothers you!”
Get away? And leave the poor victims to suffer their fate? Alone?
A stone smashed the snake’s tail. It slithered leaving behind a trail of blood while making its escape. It made it further than the frog before Charles stomped it, holding it in place with his foot. Another stone to its back. Blood and guts oozed and my sister and I cried.
“Let it go! Leave it alone!”
Charles laughed and threw another rock, smashing its body until it was dead. When he was done, he threw the mangled remains at us.
We couldn’t leave. We couldn’t leave them there alone to their demise. We wanted to help them. But he was too strong to stop. My mother stopped occasionally to tell us to leave Charles be.
“Boys will be boys! Leave him alone!”
One by one, we watched him mutilate the bodies. We watched the frogs suffer then die. He started to see how long he could keep them alive. He took up the snakes and spun them over his head then slammed their little bodies to the ground. He beat them and broke them and when it was done, he threw the pieces at us.
* * *
I glanced at William across the kitchen table. He massaged his temple with his thumb. When he saw I had paused, he furrowed his brow in question.
“Where was your father in all of this?” he said.
“My father felt this was normal for siblings. He often boasted his own battles with his younger brothers.”
“Yeah. Brothers. Not sisters.” William’s tone dripped with objection. “If I treated my sisters like I did my brother, my father would have whooped me.”
I smiled at William’s innocence.
“I think my father passed off Charles’ behavior as normal because if he didn’t, he would have to own up to his own behavior.
“Charles was obstinate. Determined and knew exactly what he wanted. He still does. And when there was something he didn’t want to do, Charles made sure he didn’t do it. Homework was a constant battle. Every night, Charles brought homework home. Every night my mother screamed at him to do it until my father stepped in.
“One night, my father stepped in and I watched him pin my brother to the floor. He took up the board he used to spank us and he beat my brother, Charles. Charles squirmed and it struck his back. Charles screamed and he raised a hand to us, “Mother, please!” he screamed. Mum, Marie, and I just watched while my father beat him. No one raised a hand. We just stood there and cried for him.”
I felt William’s eyes on me. Remembering revived an old hurt I had packed away and I crunched my brow in pain. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t. The hurt was too old, too stale. I sighed and went on.
“My father knew there were problems with the family. He did try to fix them, but I think he wasn’t sure how. He loved the idea of family vacations and made an effort to implement them. Every summer, we drove down to North Carolina and stayed at a cabin on a lake. The trips did work at first. For one week, we were able to put our lives on hold.”
I fell back into the memory.
* * *
Most of our trips were filled with day long trips to the sea. I do remember once my mother touched me. I was eight and got caught in a rip tide. The undercurrent in the wave knocked the feet out from under me, but I was small. I went right under the water. As I tried to stand, another undercurrent swept my butt out from under me. I needed air, but I couldn’t stand. I felt the ocean carry me. Each time I found the ground beneath me, another rip tide knocked it out from my hands.
I swallowed salt water and thrashed. I could not stand. My mother took my arm and hoisted me up. My head broke the surface and I gasped. I wouldn’t go back to the ocean again. Not until I was old enough to keep my own body above water.
That same trip was accompanied with the worst ride home imaginable. We were on the highway heading back to New York in the station wagon. We had been on the road for about three hours when I found a handful of clear spiders crawling up my shin.
I brushed them off and found more on my calf. I brushed those off and found nearly a dozen on my other leg. By the time I wiped them off, my arm was covered and they were making their way to my neck. I screamed and slapped them away, but they crawled too fast.
“What’s wrong, Elizabeth!” my mother shouted.
I brushed my leg again and more replaced them.
“There are spiders on me!” I screamed.
“So smash it!” my mother screamed back. Always the one to scream and not console.
I swiped at my arm and more came.
“I can’t get them off!” I said. “Pull over!”
“Smash it!” my father said.
I screamed and rubbed them off my neck. I slapped them off my face. “There are hundreds!”
“Stop screaming!” my mother said.
“Pull over!” I screamed.
“We can’t pull over!” my mother said. “We’re on the highway!”
And so I sat, screaming and slapping the spiders away from my legs, my neck, my arms, my chest, and my face.
I won’t lie. I have no idea how long I was in the back of that car. If I were to guess, I would say an hour. I know that isn’t true. It felt like an hour. Felt like a day. It may have been ten…fifteen minutes. It may have been twenty. Regardless, I spent that time arguing with my parents to pull over who were annoyed that I had inconvenienced them at all.
They slowed down and stopped the car along the side of the road. I was still slapping baby spiders off my body. I could feel them everywhere. My parents huffed and sighed while they opened the back seat of the wagon and pulled a shaking eight year old out of the blankets. I couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t get them off. My mother complained under her breath while she shook the spider nest from the blankets.
Five minutes later, and with a mouthful of complaints about how I overdramatized the situation, my mother shoved me back in the car with the blankets. No hug. No reassurance. No comfort. No sympathy. Just an earful of how much I had troubled them. I climbed back into the wagon sobbing and shaking without a single word of solace.
* * *
“This is all in your eighth year?” William asked, looking up from his writing.
I nodded. “Yes. I was eight. Comfort, compassion, and love were foreign to me. And I didn’t question their lack of sympathy either. Already, I had come to expect nothing from them or anyone.”
William skimmed over his list.
“Locked in a car with spiders, your only friend dead, which you aren’t even told about, and then subjected to…how long did he torture the frogs and snakes?”
“That time?” I asked. “At least two hours.”
“He mutilated all animals he came across,” I said. “In the driveway, in the forest, in the yard. He had a turtle once. The poor thing. He took a rock and smashed its shell. He beat it into powder. It was so beautiful until my brother got ahold of it. He caught a baby rabbit once. Rabbits scream, did you know? He picked it up by the ears. That sound…that sound…”
I burst into tears.
To this day I can’t hear that sound in my head without sobbing. I threw my hands to my head and rocked, squeezing my head, willing the screams to stop. I could hear it all over again. The sharp staccato of shrieking. A frequency that ripped the fabric of sound like the violin score of Psycho. I hugged myself to stop the shaking.
When I looked up, I saw William staring at me in horror. Poor virgin boy. He had no idea what he was in for.
“I begged my mother to release it,” I said, still rocking. “Charles wanted its feet. He was talking about cutting off its feet. It was the only good thing my mother ever did. While we were at school, she released it. Charles was pissed.”
I looked at the window. The morning sun was high and now poured in through the south window, streaking the table and my empty cup.
“I don’t want to talk about it…I don’t…”
I stood from the table and took up my cup and his. A moment later I was rinsing the mugs and pouring ourselves two fresh cups.
“Tell me more about the dinners,” William said, in an effort to change the subject while I added the Irish cream. “You said his words play back like a record every time you eat?”
“Every time,” I said setting the cups back to the table and sitting myself back down. “I don’t eat. I hate food. I loathe it. It’s a constant reminder that my father hates me. I don’t eat breakfast. I don’t eat lunch. I have to wait until starvation cramps my stomach before I can try to eat. If I’m stressed at all or someone yells at me while I’m hungry, my appetite immediately vanishes no matter how hungry I am. If I force myself to eat, I get sick. The longest I’ve gone without food is one week.”
“One week without food,” William repeated. He looked my petite frame over, but asked no questions.
“I survive on coffee,” I said.
He returned to his notes. “Well you are a writer,” he sighed. “How did your siblings take to your father’s dinner lectures?”
“Marie was so young, I don’t think she even remembers. She quickly found a place in my father’s heart. She was sweet and kind. A genuine daddy’s girl. While I…wasn’t. I think I am a mama’s girl, but my mum didn’t hold me or touch me. I really don’t know what I am.
“My father dumped on Charles and I and only Charles shared my lot. He developed a similar problem to mine. He was as smart as I, but stronger. Bolder too at that time. I was still too shy and obedient. I hadn’t been broken yet. Charles took up his plate and ate alone in his room. Stirred up a whole lot of hell with my father, but…he escaped for a short time anyway, while I endured it. At one point, Charles stopped eating completely.”
“How long did this go on for?” William asked.
“I don’t know when it started. It’s something that, in my mind, was always there. I think it was there before I was eight, but I’m speculating. I truly don’t know. It ended when Charles stopped eating with us. He was seventeen. I was sixteen. And we stopped holding family dinners.” I nodded, remembering more details as I spoke. “Yes. It stopped when our family dinners stopped. Charles refused to eat with us and if he did eat, he ate alone. I hadn’t realized he had stopped eating completely until he was twenty and had collapsed in his room. Up to that point, he had accused me of being anorexic.”
I caressed the handle of my mug, but could not raise the cup to drink.
“In truth, I think he was. He purposely wore clothes two sizes too big. He had a huge, winter coat he wore all summer to hide his condition, and by convincing my father that I was anorexic, it took the attention off of him. I was enraged. My father insisted I was anorexic when I wasn’t all because my brother said I was. I ate, just not very much or often. And I never, never threw up my food. Nor did I ever think I was ugly or overweight.
“But when Charles fell…” I shook my head and stared at my full cup of coffee. “I was nineteen. By then, I had my own phone. Charles called me. I yelled at him for bothering me, but he cut me off to say he was paralyzed.
I went downstairs to find a ninety pound skeleton laying on the floor. I woke my father who followed me downstairs and he fed Charles orange juice through a straw. Three glasses and thirty minutes later, my father picked my brother up off the floor. Charles had no muscle. His body had literally eaten it for energy. That is when I realized…The mental nightmare he must have lived through…
My chest clamped and I burst. I cried right then for my brother in front of William.
“The whole time,” I sobbed. “He was hurting as much as I…the whole time. He was just as torn up and dying on the inside as I had been. No matter what he had done to me, seeing him like that, I understood just how much hell he had endured. I knew because I too had endured it. Granted, at his hand, but I understood. The hate, the hurt, the longing to be loved and never finding it. He had been as alone and as hurt as I all that time. And if we had just…if I had known, then maybe we could have shared our hell and maybe…just maybe…it wouldn’t have been as bad as it was.”
I cried, and William moved to stand from the table.
“Don’t touch me!” I screamed, and he froze.
“You must not touch me,” I said between sobs.
“I was going to get you a tissue,” he said.
“No.” I shook my head. “No pity. No comfort. No tissues.”
He stared at me. I knew the look he was giving me. I didn’t have to see. The look that reminds me how different I am. How broken I am. I had to explain. There would be more crying and he would have to know.
“Don’t you see?” I said. I rocked myself and sobbed. I was so cold, and I held myself to shut out the chill that wasn’t there. “I’ve never seen comfort. I don’t know what it is. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if…” The words caught in my throat. I had to explain. He had to know. “If you tried to soothe me, to comfort me, even so much as say, ‘I’m sorry,’ it would confuse me.”
The look on his face confirmed my suspicion. He didn’t understand. He couldn’t understand. But I had to try. He had to know.
“Your efforts to comfort me would only evoke more fear. I would panic and I would see you as danger. Don’t you get it?”
The shock in his eyes made me desperate.
“The only physical contact I’ve ever known is pain. For the first twenty years of my life, all human contact hurt me. There never was anything else! Approach me and I will run. And if I can’t…I will sleep with you. I would let you hug me. I would bury my face into your neck and slide my mouth over your skin. I would kiss you.”
I felt it. Already, I ached to have sex, to seduce, sate, sedate, and run. I was shaking with want to fuck him.
“I would grind you,” I said. “And when you react, I would ravage you. I would view your attempt to comfort me as a threat and I would respond as if at war. I would seduce you to protect me.”
William slowly sat back down.
“Do not approach me,” I said. “Do not come near me. I say again, you can not comfort me.”
Stunned, William watched as I held myself and rocked.