I do not speak about my childhood very much in public places. In most settings it feels like it would be impolite or jarring.
About a year ago a student made her way to my office and asked to interview me.
This shrewd student told me she thought people became feminists for specific reasons, perhaps due to their childhood or upbringing, and she wanted to know if I agreed and if so, what I experienced as a child. I may have flinched; I can’t recall. I know that I gently sent her to others throughout the college who might be better interviewees.
Children always recognize injustice, a parent friend told me the other day, and I found myself remembering the 1980s again. The blare of the TV news always on, the dark wooden panels of the living room, someone locking a bedroom door, hearing my mother crying when she showered at night, the constant smell of cigarette smoke, my second and third grade teachers and a school counselor confronting me and asking me if “I’m okay.” I was most definitely not, but I was too young, ashamed, and unpracticed at this conversation to explain myself.
I cannot point to one moment or behavior that stands out as the most telling, but it was the combination of a lack of words, utter silences that stretched on for years, and physical abuse – being pushed up against a wall or suddenly struck for no apparent reason – that led to a culture of fear in my home on a daily basis.
We were not allowed to touch the wallpaper. Diet coke cans, once opened, had to be drained. The soup cans on our shelves could not be shifted from their alphabetical order. Rooms had to be spotless, corners of towels folded into perfect right angles. Spilled milk was worth crying over, and cars were monuments, shrines to be scrubbed and maintained. I never knew if I would be called upon – whistled for – to complete a demeaning task like retrieve and carry my dad’s apple core to the trash can, or if I would have to ice my face so there would be no evidence of a red imprint of a hand the next morning in school. I have a memory that never leaves me of my dad hitting me and me trying to escape and my mind can never put together if I got away or not. He was strong; I probably didn’t. Or did I?
I am here now, and in this crime scene, whose chalky outline remains on the cracked pavement: his or mine?
I remember a time when my brother was two and I was seven, my dad was trying to exert his iron fist and my brother stood in the living room in a onesie and screamed at the top of his lungs. His face grew red and tiny veins popped out on his forehead, his fists clenched. My father raged right back, screaming even louder for him to shut up but never touching him.
My mother and I could not perform feelings of profound anger to this man, but my brother already knew at age two that he could, and he was unafraid and untouched.
So my friend was right; children always recognize injustice. And it was the women who forced me into this consciousness; they made me recognize injustice.
One of my favorite authors, Audre Lorde, asked and told: to whom do I owe the woman I have become?
Rose, my adoring grandmother who rolled out her own dough in her pink, black, and white kitchen with me, transforming flour and water into delicacies savory and sweet. Pie crust. Kamish bread. Apple cake. She quietly helped fund every good thing that ever happened to me: having a roof over my head, a summer day camp to escape to, a series of winter coats throughout my life. She also had plenty of nerve – she brought up condoms with me in my twenties and her constant inquiries taught me that I mattered. Was the child cold? Did she need blankets? Perhaps she should sleep over? Yes. Perhaps she should, because sleeping in the tiny room adjacent to the black, white and pink kitchen in the house we would later come to find was contaminated with asbestos would still be preferable to going home. Rose died seven years ago, but I still thank her in my mind all the time.
And I remember Shira, her cat eyes gleaming with liner, her freckles. She would captivate me in a corner of her room as she spread both the suburban gossip and the suburban legends that still haunt me decades later. The one about the mother of five who killed herself, the teenage girl who drowned. These stories were always about women and girls dying, and I don’t know why we started telling them to one another or what made us finally stop, but I do know that we were determined not to become one of these stories ourselves.
And Katie. She secretly showed some of my essays to her immigration lawyer father. He read them and talked with me about them in their kitchen where her mother made homemade granola. At that moment I was stunned into silence that a grown man spoke to me with dignity, but I still think of this every father’s day.
My father made my Jewish mother stop lighting the Shabbat candles. Once she made us eat the Easter cake one day early just to spite him.
She still taught us the Hebrew prayers, baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam, words that I recite from memory to my children thirty years later.
My childhood seems like a lifetime away, but sometimes it still haunts me. At age 28 in an endodontist’s office for a root canal, the doctor turned to me, suddenly confessional: “I cannot do this in good confidence,” he said. “This tooth will shatter. Maybe not today, but it will shatter. May I ask you? Did you experience childhood trauma?” Shocked at this forced intimacy, I firmly said, “no,” not specifying which question I was answering.
I do not always know what to say when my children bring home family tree assignments for school or bring me questions about my own upbringing. I swallow my thoughts when acquaintances mention their fathers in a way that assumes that everyone loves their fathers or that parents provide unconditional love or even when friends bring up heartwarming reflections about their childhood, which they have every right to do. I do not speak about my childhood very much in public places. In most settings it feels like it would be impolite or jarring.
As a Gender and Women’s Studies professor today, I bathe in statistics and stories of violence.
This is my wheelhouse. I can spout off numbers reported from RAINN; I get asked to speak about violence multiple times a year on my campus. It is a topic that I have personal and professional experience with, and this does not make it any easier to talk about with administrators or students. Instead I transform my face into a mask of authoritative adulthood when I discuss the prevalence of abuse and prevention, distancing myself from the child that I was. Even today I find much it easier to write about recollections than to bring them up in conversation or with friends.
As a parent I have broken the cycle in the sense that I do not and will not ever strike another human being or animal, or even kill a spider.
But, I am not free of burden because the constant practice of parenting makes me look back with a more profound despair.
I see my face in their own small trusting faces, my brown waves and questioning eyes and goofy smiles. When they kiss me goodnight, I sometimes feel that I am kissing myself.
I know I need to separate myself from them one day as they gain more autonomy and independence, but my closeness to them also creates a world in which they have absolute agency. In fact, I am writing this in a home office while in the background my husband asks my children to dress themselves, and I’m laughing as my seven year old declares that getting dressed for bed is the “worst thing in the world.” I am struck both with pleasure that her childhood is not my childhood and also a sliver of envy of her declaration, of her never needing to learn to edit her thoughts as to not offend a volatile parent. But pleasure triumphs over envy in the end. Let us keep our bedtime routine as her worst thing, I say to myself. Let us tuck them in and kiss their foreheads and pull the covers up to their chins and assure them that there are no monsters under their beds or in their heads.
Jamie Wagman is an Assistant Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and History at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. Her work has also appeared in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, The Adirondack Review, Newfound, and most recently in 2017 anthology Nasty Women and Bad Hombres.