Growing up in a violent home leaves deep scars


Herald Writer

Two years ago, Mike put Daddy’s picture on his desk as a reminder that the world is divided into winners and losers.

Daddy was a winner – he got his way.

Losers, like Mama – losers cry.

When his parents divorced in 1998, after almost 50 years of marriage, Mike found the photograph of his father, stored 15 years in a cardboard box.

Up went the snapshot on Mike’s desk at work, the smiling face of a 55-year-old man, whose outstretched arms and open palms suggest someone easy to befriend in one afternoon over a cold glass of beer.

But the man in the picture frame is the man Mike fights every day not to be.

Mike, 43, a Boeing computer support specialist, never wants to be the man whose skin reeked of 75-cent wine every morning; never wants to be the muttering, ranting man who beat his mother, dragged her by the hair and taunted her.

“Black this and nigger that,” he said, recalling the names.

He never wants to be the man who once turned a rifle on his oldest son and pulled the trigger. The bullet missed the boy, but lodged in a doorjamb. Mike, a scared 13-year-old, dialed police, who came and blocked off the street in a quiet Seattle neighborhood.

Mama said afterwards, Mike please don’t do it again, don’t call the police, even if Daddy is beating me. It’s so embarrassing.

Mike’s identity has been changed to protect those involved. He’s impeccably dressed, from his light green polo shirt to a pair of burgundy loafers he slips on before heading to the office. He recently finished work on the new kitchen and bathroom in the home where his 72-year-old mother lives.

Mama is silent, does not want her voice recorded because she still fears her ex-husband. But the house is peaceful. She pulls up a chair and sits quietly at the kitchen table, like a woman at her embroidery. Mike, seated on an overstuffed couch, balances a teacup on his knee.

Mike was an exchange student to Japan as a senior in high school; he attended the University of Washington and left home when he was 20, convinced he had put his past behind him. More than 23 years later, he still battles the influence of having grown up with a father who drank, who beat his mother.

In his 20s, the first signs of his past showed up on the job and in his personal life. He went through one relationship after another. At the job, supervisors praised his work, but noted his difficulty getting along with co-workers. It would be several years before Mike changed his tactics and stopped bullying, stopped belittling.

Mike hasn’t spoken to his father in two years, but that hasn’t stopped a peculiar kind of fear from snaring him at odd moments: “I’m 43, the same age as when my father was at his worst, screaming, drinking, hitting.”

Why didn’t she leave him? Divorce wasn’t Mama’s way. Some day her husband would quit drinking. Until then, she took his blows, so that her seven children would never feel the hand that tore her hair, choked her and punched her in the abdomen so as to leave no bruises.

“Abusers don’t see the danger they do,” Mike said. “They only see the world from their own heads.”

Daddy never hit his four sons, but according to court documents, one of Mike’s sisters recalls having to slink to school with a black eye, and having watched her father push her “very pregnant mother down the stairs.”

Growing up, the children never talked among themselves about what Daddy did. They never brought friends home for fear he might be drunk.

When their parents began divorce proceedings three years ago, the six surviving children wrote letters to the judge, detailing their father’s abuse. In the documents, his father acknowledged the problems early in the marriage. When Mike was 11, his younger sister died in a house fire. His oldest sister died this summer.

The surviving children, by anyone’s standards, are a success: University degrees. Good jobs. A brother who is head of admissions at one of the state’s community colleges. Another brother with a master’s degree in architecture; he helped design Safeco Field. And Mike, 22 years at Boeing. No one drinks; no one beats.

A man wants to be proud of his father. Stand up and say my Daddy is a policeman, fireman, CEO. What do I do? Stand up and say my dad is an alcoholic?

“People underestimate the power of the man in the family,” Mike said. “All the other males look toward him as an example. Most guys underestimate their role.”

On the other hand, Mama was weak. Mama ruined things.

“Mama was the spoiler,” Mike explained.

She didn’t want the kids to go camping weekends with their dad, something Mike looked forward to. Mama didn’t want the kids sitting around the campfire watching their father drink all night, didn’t want him driving everyone home afterward; Mike learned that later.

In junior high, Mike smart-alecked the women teachers. After all, what could they tell him? They belonged, like Mama, in the losers column.

Daddy knew how to win. When sober, his words were his artillery.

“Every time I open my mouth, it’s Daddy’s voice,” Mike said: articulate, possessed of an academic vocabulary, perfect enunciation, perfect delivery.

Daddy, the college graduate, gave his children books, almanacs, dictionaries and encyclopedias. Mike took advantage of what his father taught him. As a 13-year-old he used the word “penury” in a sentence, and then shamed a woman teacher for not knowing its meaning.

“Look it up,” he ordered her. She sent him to the principal.

That was Daddy’s gift all right: the black kid, his son, in trouble for being smart.

“My father got my respect,” Mike said. “I identified with him as a man. Bullying, browbeating, that’s what I perceived as a strength.”

When I came across loving close families I’d think – oh, what a bunch of saps. Who’s in charge here?

Sometimes Mike laughs when he talks about the past. But his big laugh, which seems to want to burst through his skin, is a coverup, like a throw rug arranged to hide a burn in the carpet. Laughter makes it so you can talk to normal folks about horrific things.

He heard her screaming. They were upstairs in the attic. Mike heard a thump. His father was dragging his mother by the hair. When he ran upstairs, she was holding onto the back of her head. Why aren’t you fighting back?

When he was 9, Mike began recording his parents’ arguments. He believed if he played the tapes back to his father, he would hear himself arguing and stop. But his father was deaf to the message.

In church, he would press his hands together and ask God to please make Daddy stop drinking.

But be careful what you pray for.

When Mike was a junior in high school, his father quit drinking. At first, the whole family was excited. Daddy stopped beating up Mama. For the first time, there were whole evenings of stillness, but then a new kind of fear began stalking the house.

“AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) did such a wonderful job. I wish they hadn’t. It’s so selfish; they kept him dry without concern for the family,” said Mike, punching the air angrily, like a boxer whose coup de grace has been cut short by the bell.

Sobriety introduced a new fear among family members – don’t aggravate Daddy. So, Mike became his father’s keeper.

He could start drinking again. Tell Mama to shut up when he’s angry. Tell everyone to shut up. Please don’t give him a reason to drink.

Children and adult children from homes where domestic abuse occurs often have difficulty forming good personal relationships because the healthy models are missing, experts say.

This is how you get things done. Scream, yell, bully and be belligerent. Why don’t you tell people just shut up and do as I say?

In his 20s, Mike suffered from one failed personal relationship after another.

Only at work was his behavior called to his attention.

There, he called people every name under the sun. After supervisors confronted him, Mike would plead:

“Why can’t people just accept me the way I am?”

Today he scoffs at his former arrogance.

“I used to be a tyrant, until one day at work, a lady pointed a finger in my face and said, ‘One of these days someone is going to blow your brains out.’ “

The comment made Mike ponder the direction that his life was going – right down Daddy’s way.

The way he had learned to deal with the world – bullying – wasn’t getting him anywhere. He didn’t want to become the man in the picture frame.

“You’ve got to make a conscious decision to change,” he said. “Everybody, especially men in their late 20s, come to that point.”

He began by taking a closer look at Mama, the woman in the neatly pressed blouse, who never went to church without a hat, who suffered all those beatings, all the years Mike was growing up.

Mama worked as a keypunch operator at a bank. She had to buy food. Cook. Take care of seven children, her husband.

“I’ve come to see Mama in a different way,” he said quietly, “her strengths.”

Mike made a list of what he needed to do to get along with people: say good morning; smile, even when you don’t feel like it. Listen to people. Shut up.

If you’ve crossed the line already, there’s still time, he said, before your children no longer want to have anything to do with you, before fear crosses your wife’s face every time she looks at you.

“You should never see fear in anyone’s face,” Mike said.

These are the lessons he has learned. But the part of him that hasn’t profited from his hard-won insight is the guilt he still harbors.

I could have done more. I could have stopped him. I could have done any number of things.

“On the day my baby sister died in a fire, I was trying to put it out with a pitcher of water. And I went to wake up my father, and he wouldn’t wake up. And for 20 years, I blamed myself for my youngest sister’s death because I didn’t do enough. I was 11.”

For two hours Mike’ mother has sat quietly in the kitchen, listening to her middle child talk about all those years.

In a moment she breaks, and a cry issues from her throat, like the sound a baby bird makes when it falls from the nest.

“I should have done better,” she said.

Mike fights back his tears, but every muscle in his face cries.

“No Mama, you did the best you could.”

From the dead sober layer buried beneath eloquent Mike, funny Mike, smooth Mike, he looks at the stranger taking notes and says:

“No more funny now. No more laughs now.”

You don’t wake up magically one morning a different person. You’ve got to rewrite the story.

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