Retrospective 14: 1976 — Half Wit

Continued from here:

Half wit.

I told you she was stupid.

That girl’s crazy.

These days I find myself wondering if he really said those things about me. I can’t imagine it. I don’t know why those memories are so strong. They infuse my past, and sometimes I hear them again, echoing down the years, when I’ve made a mistake, when I haven’t been quick enough in picking up the joke at the party, when I’ve forgotten something at work. I push them aside, tell myself I’m imagining them, but that’s worse than listening and acknowledging them. It makes a lie out of my past.

I don’t remember. I don’t know why I hear them. He doesn’t say those things any more. The closest he’s come is the inevitable dig at English majors: “The soft option. Anyone can do it.” Or the way he ignores me when I ask a question sometimes. He’s hard of hearing; it’s easy to imagine that he simply didn’t hear me, until my sister asks him something quietly, and he answers.

In the end, whether he used those exact words or not, I know that in some ways he treated me differently. My friends saw.

“He’s your own flesh and blood,” my friend Sara said one day. “How can he treat you that way?”

But that was later, after I knew. When I was 10 and 11, I didn’t know anything at all other than that he was my father and the father of the four of us. We had come from Switzerland to Ireland. We lived in the country, in a big house on four acres, a long way from school. We rarely had friends over, but when we did, they always commented on how he treated me. “Why is your father so mean to you?” they asked. I didn’t know what they meant. It was the way he had always been towards me. “Why doesn’t your father like you?” they asked. I didn’t know how to answer. I was inarticulate in those days. I couldn’t speak right. I was teased because I lisped and stuttered and couldn’t say my “R’s” right. That year I ended up in the Irish equivalent of speech therapy — elocution class.

Is that why he thought I was stupid? Because I couldn’t speak right? I had to memorize long poems and speak them clearly. The elocution teacher coached me through them. She was also the drama teacher, and she loved to gossip with her students. I remember sitting in the small, gray-carpeted drama room upstairs in the art building. We used lighters to shrink crisp (potato chip) bags. The heat from the lighter flame did something to the plastic. We would end up with tiny bags, an inch or so square, the colors heightened, the picture and the brand name, Tayto, tiny replicas of what they had been. She let us bitch about the head mistress, and she asked us questions about boys (strange, foreign creatures that they were to us, in our all-girls’ school). But that was later. When I first knew her, I took lessons alone, and recited poetry that I have willfully forgotten, and learned to speak in a way that could be understood.

Still, he thought I was stupid. And crazy too. A half wit. Did he say it? Perhaps I am crazy to think he did. Perhaps he was right and I am deficient in some way. Perhaps I made it up. But a memory stirs. I wrote about this once, a long time ago, triggered by something he wrote to me. I go looking on my computer. I find it, an essay called “Recreating Reality.” Maybe I will post it some day. I was 29, and I wrote it 14 years ago.

8 responses to “Retrospective 14: 1976 — Half Wit

  1. Pingback: Retrospective 13: 1975 — Pineapple upside down cake and bread board spankings « Tarakuanyin

  2. Hope you can find “Recreating Reality.”

    I learn much about my family of origin when you write so eloquently about yours. The “spanking ritual” was part of my childhood, too. My mother did the spanking. One of my sisters told me some years ago that our mother, feeling remorse for having hit us, told her ruefully that she had hit us so hard at times that there were bruises.

    Hearing your story, I suspect that my mother, when she was a child, was hit even harder than she hit me and my sisters. My other sister remembers only one time that our mother hit her, and I was horrified when she said, “but I deserved it.” The damage goes deep.

    “Time heals, after all — although the clock that marks that kind of time has no hands.”
    (Suze Rotolo, from A FREEWHEELIN’ TIME: A MEMOIR OF GREENWICH VILLAGE IN THE SIXTIES, p. 299)

  3. am: I swore I’d never hit Zeke, but I did, a couple of times. She was so challenging, and nothing else worked. But the spanking didn’t work either. She said, the next time she got in trouble: “Why don’t you just spank me? That way it’ll be over.” But I know my mother spanked us often, while I can count the number of times I spanked Zeke on one hand and have fingers left over.

    Mum’s spankings were so calm, almost cold, that I believed for years we deserved them too, like your sister. I’m sure we deserved something! But I do think it would have been better if she had found a different way. Like your mother, though, I know Mum was hit much harder, much more erratically, with much less logic, than we were hit.

    My hope is that if Zeke has a child, she will find a way to discipline without having to touch that child in violence, no matter how controlled — ever. If that happens, it will have taken three generations to shed the violence. (Who knows what my grandmother endured as a child that drove her to alcoholism and extreme violence.)

    It’s all so complicated. 😦

  4. TK, I had to go back and reread the breadboard spankings piece, and then read this one several times. My heart just cracks in two both for the little girl you and the grown woman (whose father is indeed still demeaning her).

    I’m so sorry he treats you that way, making the english major comment. I’m sure it is not the only one. You have not, are NOT imagining – that comment speaks exactly to what you are saying you feel, in my view. It is not better than being called a half-wit, it is the same. That he ignores your questions is intentionally mean and demeaning. (Are you ever able to call him on it in the moment it happens – either calmly or with approriate anger? In my case, I tend, maddeningly, to still become rather mute.)

    I hope it is okay to say what I’m saying, but I’m working hard these days on frank reality. I encourage you to not excuse or minimize the cruelty. (Granted, this is my own path at this time – I am learning that for me to have so long excused, minimized, and worked to be inappropriately compassionate has equaled depression and a slew of other issues. So, perhaps none of what I will say here would be applicable in your own case. If so, just ignore me!)

    And the descriptions of your mother…again my heart breaks for you. I hope this doesn’t feel insensitive to you (it is meant as supportive), but I do not see her “calm control” as she beats you as any better than someone raging out of control. Perhaps, it is more twisted (that is, ever more ill), to be so calculating, to be so calm and in control while beating one’s children. And while yes, there was societal support for the physical harm of small children, there were countless parents who never laid a harmful hand on their children. (Though I certainly failed, despite my intense determination – and spanked my own child. Twice. And for which I made my unqualified amends.)

    Oddly, I too could not say my R’s and had to do many exercises and much practicing. It was particularly R’s at the beginning of words. From my father also, I learned I was stupid. He too would ignore my attempts at verbal communication.
    Wishing you all the love you deserve,
    Stella

  5. Stella: Wow, what a lovely, long, thoughtful comment. I appreciate it, and I don’t mind you speaking frankly at all.

    I don’t confront my family much, because — well, you’ll see, I guess, as I continue with the retrospective. It’s all so complicated. It has to do with my role in the family, and how that role became ingrained. I am the scapegoat, to this day. When I tried to confront my sister about her rudeness to Nada, she denied it, and blamed me. That’s the way it goes in my family. Unfortunately I don’t tend to keep my cool. I pile up more and more evidence, and it only makes things worse. “If you hate us so much, why do you even bother with us?” she said when she asked me why I wasn’t planning to visit last weekend and I told her about how upset I was at her and Dad’s treatment of Nada. It was a ridiculous statement. I don’t hate her or Dad or anyone, but any confrontation or criticism is seen as hatred or hysteria. I’m trying very hard to find a balance between loving and wanting to be a part of the family, and maintaining my own mental health — which means maintaining a bit of a distance.

    One of the reasons I think I’m writing the retrospective is to attempt to put it all into some kind of context. To see the threads of my life woven in a way that makes them make sense to me.

    I do want to say thank you for seeing that his English major comment is as hurtful as him calling me a half wit….

    It’s so odd. I wrote a lot. Then I kept cutting it, and adding something else. In the end, I think I’ll let the retrospective absorb some of the things I want to think about. I’m trying to describe, without emotion, what it was like.

    And the funny thing is, sometimes it’s hard for me to write. I didn’t experience the kinds of awful things some people experience. I think about you a lot, about what you’ve been through, and I think I was lucky. I wasn’t physically abused (I know, I know, spanking is a kind of physical violence, but my mother really did think she was doing the best thing by us. It was part of the culture. Spare the rod and spoil the child. It was note intended in hate or anger. There were some events that were anger-triggered, and those were worse. There is one thing she did that is hard for me to forgive. It has haunted me for years. I understand it, but I wish things could have been different. For some reason, the spanking doesn’t bother me as much.) And I wasn’t sexually abused. The “emotional abuse,” if you want to call it that, wasn’t intentional. It was circumstantial, shaped by forces beyond my parents’ control.

    Oh! Here I go again. It’s so complicated. I think I’ll blog it! What I do want to say, though. Is thank you, so much, for understanding and sharing. 🙂

    The “R” thing. I couldn’t say R’s at all, or S’s. I got into trouble at school for saying I was in “fourth” year, when I was actually saying I was in first year. (First year is equivalent of sixth grade, and fourth is equivalent of 10th). The teacher called me a liar and sent me to the office for it. Sigh.

    Did you have elocution? Or speech therapy? Whatever they did worked for me, but I’m not sure there was much science behind it! I remember being afraid to say the name of my friend’s dog, Purdy. I just couldn’t say it in a way that made sense. Now when I speak weird, I just blame it on my accent! 🙂 It’s kind of a nice excuse.

  6. Tarakuanyin,
    I’m so glad my words felt okay. And you have written so much more now that is powerful. For now, I will just beg you not to compare your own history to others’. The 3-year-old TK, the 8, the 12 – they each and all had their own pain, whether it was fully experienced at the time or not. Maybe the results in adulthood differ in degree according to various types and levels and frequencies of abuse, (there are so many factors that affect the psychological outcome) but I think a child’s pain is a child’s pain. Betrayal is betrayal (of safety, trust, being treasured).
    And here I am going on too long again. I hope you’ll keep writing these pieces.
    Stella

  7. Oh, I forgot – the R bit. I guess it would have been called speech therapy. There were lots of exercises I had to do with Mom. And for me, it was only (or mostly) the R at the beginning of a word that I could not say. And yes, it worked. The only R word that still will remind me of the trouble is the name Roy. I can say it, but only if I do not think about it.

    How sad that you were punished when you were so innocent.
    Stella

  8. Hi Stella:
    I just realized I responded to a comment of Dale’s and did just what you asked me not to: I compared my childhood to others! It’s hard not to. It’s how I continue on, reminding myself of what I do have, of what I have to be lucky about. Not only in the present moment, but in the past too.

    Funny how “Roy” is hard for you to say, still. But I know what you mean about thinking about words making it harder. I still trip over my tongue, and the more I think about it the worse it gets. Agh!

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