I just read Lucienne Diver’s blog post, How Books Saved My Life, and my eyes are a bit misty. Because books definitely played a role in my childhood. Not for the same reasons as Lucienne, but in the same way.
Yes, folks. It’s sharing time. Pull up a chair.
In the archaic sense, I’m a bastard. (There’s still some debate as to whether or not I was baptized as a kid, so I also had that going for me.)
My mother hated my father from the time I was born. I still don’t know why, but that’s all I’ve ever known. And while my father was an ex-soldier with and had a little money in his pocket, my mom was just out of high school and struggling. As a result, I moved around a lot for the first two years of my life. But somewhere between my mom marrying my stepdad and my father moving in with his mother, a custody battle happened. Or rather, a custody ambush. My mother couldn’t afford lawyers, which only helped the case my father built against her. And because he would have been able to provide a more stable environment, I was forced to go live with the stranger who sired me.
For the next six years, that stranger turned into my enemy. I remember getting a whooping when I first moved in with him because I wouldn’t speak to him. From then on, it only got worse. Like the time I got grounded because one of my older cousins molested me. Or the time I was almost forced to eat vomit because I couldn’t stand the taste and texture of raw tomatoes. (Still can’t. They’re gross.) For the longest time, I hated my father. Even a decade later. Maybe especially a decade later.
But back then, I had no idea it could worse. Not until my father married my stepmother.
My stepmother was a strong, independent and highly intelligent black woman. She was a teacher when she and my father got married, and she was going to school for a Master’s in Mathematics. And I honestly don’t remember when it started. I can only guess at what triggered it: I wanted to live with my mother. I guess my stepmother took it upon herself to break me of that.
It started with the insults. My lips were too big. My butt was too big. My nose was too wide. My head was too big. My feet were too weird, and my toes needed to be broken so that they could be set straight. Then came the lies. My mother didn’t want me. She chose my stepfather over me, because my stepfather didn’t want me. If I kept looking up to my mother, I would end up pregnant, in jail, or dead. I told my father about this more than once, what my stepmother was saying to me. At first he called me a liar. Then he said that my stepmother was telling the truth.
It wasn’t long before the physical abuse started. It usually happened once a week, and mostly over the smallest things. Then twice a week. Then my dad started taking over, or they’d switch like a tag team wrestling match. But it wasn’t just getting my butt whooped. While that was always a fallback, my father and stepmother were much more creative than that.
At some point my father decided that whooping me with pants on was a cheat. I had gotten older, and needed to feel more pain. So he’d have me strip from the waist down and lean over my bed. He called it ‘assuming the position’. He thought it was clever. Around the same time, my mother gave me a piece of advice before bringing me back to the Pink House of Hell: Never let them see you cry. At fifteen years old, I took that literally. So when it came time for me to assume the position, my father proceeded to beat me with his favorite brown belt — until he realized that I hadn’t made a sound or shed a tear. He took that as a challenge.
The next time (which was probably later that week), he realized that the brown leather belt wasn’t enough to make me cry. So he used a cheap extension cord. But I didn’t cry. The next time, he upgraded to one of those industrial grade extension cords — the orange ones that are fifty feet long that we used on construction sites. But I still didn’t cry. His last ditch effort was a piece of hardwood trim that was left over from the new flooring in his bedroom. I finally shed a tear just to get him to stop.
All the while, I was pretty much isolated from any and everyone. Everyone in my father’s family pretty much hated my stepmother and the way she treated him. If any of them knew how they both treated me, they never said. And I couldn’t say anything because, “What goes on in the house stays in the house.” I tried a few after-school activities: dance classes, fencing, volunteering at the public library, being a baton twirler in the Calvin Murphy Marching Band. But every time, those activities would get cut short because of some miscellaneous infraction on my part. I had no friends. I wasn’t allowed to play with any of the neighborhood kids. The only time I really went outside alone was to cut the front and back yard or walk to school. And in eight years, I only had one visitor that wasn’t related to anyone in the house. And only because we were required to work together on a school project.
Suffice it to say, I had a shitty childhood. But I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Because I was able to read and write.
I taught myself to read when I was two, a short time after going to live with my father. His mother, one of the many teachers in that family, had an old Hooked on Phonics set lying around. So I used it, and voila! That’s the thing that I’m most grateful for, because without it things would have been so much worse.
I spent a lot of time in my room, reading and writing. I did book reports that no one had asked for. I wrote in my journal (until my stepmother started reading it). I would make a game of picking a random volume of the encyclopedia to read and discover new things. Then the next day at school, I’d research them in the library.
When I was older I was allowed to go to the library. During the window where my stepmother was trying to make up for her actions, she’d drop me off at the library. I’d spend hours there, looking through books, using the slow computers for the internet, and generally finding anything to read. I mostly read fantasy novels, though The Secret Garden was one of my picks. The only complaint that I had was that I couldn’t take more books home each time.
In school, my teachers would let me spend half of the class in the library, because I finished my work early. I was a straight-A student. I read ahead in our textbooks for fun, or when I had nothing else to read. I did most of my homework in class, and was annoyed that I couldn’t just turn it in then.
To this day, I don’t remember most of the books that I read. But I read everything from the Kama Sutra (heehee) to books on Wicca and witchcraft (which didn’t go over well with my Catholic stepmother). And the more I read, the more questions I had. The more I wanted to escape into the stories that I read, and meet the characters that I read about. Simon from The Silver Kiss. Margaret and her gang from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. Matthias and Cornflower from Redwall. Sabriel and Mogget from The Old Kingdom. I wanted to be an Abhorsen, or a knight. I wanted to meet vampires and werewolves and become immortal and beautiful.
Mostly, I wanted the strength to escape that house. And reading and writing gave me that chance. Even if only for a little while. But also for the rest of my life.