I always felt that my mother would take me somewhere and leave me.
She got pregnant out of wedlock in the 1960s, in a Southern Baptist state. Once her parents found out, she was exiled to a city three hours out, where she stayed until she had me, married my father, and enough time passed that people stopped asking questions.
My parents’ marriage was completely loveless. My mother blamed my father and me for robbing her of her dreams—she had wanted to become a German translator and travel the world. My father drank two or three beers after work and took her berating until he couldn’t anymore, at which point he’d smash her face against the wall. And I spent the rest of the week being her therapist—a role I kept well into my forties.
It seems to me now, in retrospect, that I sensed very early on that I was not loved or wanted. I can remember, so vividly, being afraid that nobody would come forward for me or believe me. I can remember just knowing that I would have to take care of myself if I wanted to survive. Of course, I was right, even if I didn’t have a clue yet what the future held.
My parents led a very comfortable, middle-class life. I grew up in a three-bedroom house, but I was not allowed to have my own room: One room was my parents’; the other—for my half-brother, whenever he visited; and the last room I shared with my mother. She didn’t like to sleep alone, you see, so whenever my father worked overnight (which was quite often), she slipped into bed with me. Over time, she managed to convince my father that the house was unsafe without a man in it, so he took me out back, put a .357 magnum in my hand, and taught me “how to protect [my] mother.” One night—I must have been about eight years old—the alarm went off. She shook me awake and I stayed up until the morning, terrorized and with a gun pointed at the bedroom door, while she slept.
Around that same time, I was molested by my mother’s half brother. He was fifteen years old. He took me to his room while we visited—it must have been no more than 20 feet away from my parents and my mom’s dad and stepmother—and he began to touch me. It was very confusing: I loved this person, and what he was doing was scary, but I didn’t want to make him mad at me. I had seen what happened when you made someone mad at you. When I left the room, I must have looked a scared mess, but nobody said anything. At 24 years old, right around the time that he was sent to federal prison for five to eight years for possession of child pornography and soliciting underage girls, I told my mother what happened to me that day. She said, “Well, what do you want me to do about it now?”
Had I told anyone in my life about what was happening, nobody would have believed me. David and Jackie were pillars of the community—they had everyone fooled. But these were not people who should have been raising a child. My childhood was filled with undertones of the macabre that made me feel constantly unsafe, disconnected, floating. For example, my parents had a subscription to True Detective magazine, a crime magazine filled with photos of real crime scenes and gruesome details of murders and rapes. I grew up looking at this stuff and I asked my mother one day if it was real. She said, “Sure, sweetheart. People get killed, chopped up, and put in freezers every day.”
These things—memories—they’ve stayed with me my whole life. After my first marriage ended in early divorce, I never remarried and never had children. My parents—they stuck it out and finally got divorced eight years ago. Of course, they still maintain a completely unhealthy and codependent relationship. They never outgrew their issues, their small-town life.
Me—I remember being in a department store with my mother and telling her I was going to look for a pair of shoes that I needed for school. I said, “I’m going to be right back. You’ll stay here, right? You’ll be here when I get back?” And I made sure to ask her twice because something in me told me—screamed at me—that she would leave me there.
They found me crying in the shoe section, lost. They found her, two hours later, a few stores down. And that’s when I knew that I was on my own.
After a lot of counseling, I’ve stopped seeing my parents as my parents. I see them as two people who are part of this story, and who deserve to be forgiven. What they gave me was the best they had to offer. I don’t want to reject that part of myself; I want to embrace that little girl and tell her that I believe her.