The Air I Breathed | Part 1 of 3
It took more than beatings and Good Girl Rules to groom me to be a victim. It also took small, calculated and uncalculated, direct and indirect intrusions on my body, my spirit, my mind and my emotions. I call it the air I breathed.
Beatings have a distinct advantage over the air I breathe. Think about it. Beatings are horrible. Yet from my point of view they have a strange advantage. They’re never difficult to document.
Daddy always states a clear reason for each beating—whether I agree with it or not. I know when a beating begins and when it ends. They’re obvious, somewhat open, loud and clearly defined ‘events.’ There are always witnesses, whether in the room with me or in some other part of the house. It’s no secret that I’m in trouble.
Not so with the air I breathe. Now I’m dealing with invisible, yet to me perceptible currents in the air. I have absolutely no way of proving anything is happening ‘out there’ external to me. Anything, that is, that might be called an intrusion on me.
I don’t ask for the air. It’s just there—usually invisible, powerful and impossible not to inhale. Once inhaled, there’s no exhaling it. Like a slimy parasite it attaches itself to me. I can’t get rid of it. Sometimes it makes me feel sick to my stomach.
The air consists of seemingly small things that happen without announcement or warning. Things that create an atmosphere. Things I don’t want to see or hear or have to deal with. They’re like cheap add-ons to the beatings and rules. A dime a dozen. All shapes and sizes. Most of the time, no one is obviously laying a hand or a rod on me.
The Air I Breathe
Consider the following examples and my responses.
Daddy watches me a lot
- I know this because sometimes, no matter what I’m doing, he suddenly tells me to pull in my stomach and stand up straight. I wish he would stop bothering me about this. He says I’ll look better. Why is this so important to him?
- Every time he beats me he’s watching me—seeing me and my body in a way that humiliates me and makes me want to run away and hide.
- He tells me when I don’t have the right look on my face, and instructs me to wipe that look off my face right now. Usually this is when I’m being punished, or when I don’t like something he just said to me. I never figure out how to have the right look on my face.
- The older I get, the more uneasy I become. I don’t like his eyes watching me. What is he looking at anyway?
- I know he looks at other women because he makes harsh comments about them—what they’re wearing, how much makeup they’ve painted on their faces, the cigarettes sometimes hanging out of their mouths, the indecency of their clothing.
- But why is he looking at me so much? I don’t look like one of those women.
Sometimes Daddy asks me unwelcome questions
- Questions about my body—personal and private female matters.
- It seems he wants to talk about them with me, especially when I get to be 11 or 12.
- Sometimes we’re in the house. Sometimes I’m riding in the car with him.
- I can’t believe my ears. I don’t know what to do except clam up. Say nothing. Look the other way—literally. Hold my breath and hope he gets the point.
- I am NOT going to talk with him about these things. Ever.
- Why isn’t Mother talking to me about them?
Then there’s the touching thing
- Of course it’s pretty awful being beaten. That’s one kind of touch I fear and loathe. Then there are other times. Did that just happen? Surely it didn’t. I must be mistaken. Maybe it was my fault.
- Over time I get nervous about hugging him. I feel ashamed about this. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. Why can’t I even give him a ‘harmless’ hug without getting all anxious? Why do I pull back as quickly as I can without making a big deal of it?
- It’s especially hard after I’m in my teens. I love him. At least I think I do.
But I also fear him. Where do these fears come from? They must be coming from somewhere inside me. I must be the one making his behavior seem like something it couldn’t possibly be.
- I feel guilt and shame, but the feelings don’t go away.
Sometimes Daddy just walks into the bathroom
- Our family shares one toilet bathroom and a separate sink-and-bathtub bathroom. Neither has a lock on the door.
- By the time I’m 10 years old I don’t like Daddy just walking through either door with or without permission.
- I also don’t like that Daddy is usually in charge of bath time in the evening. Mother is busy with evening chores and with our new Sister #4 who was born when I was about 9 1/2.
- One evening Daddy walks into the sink-and-tub bathroom. I’m 10 years old. Yes, I’m taking a bath. He asks if I’ve washed all parts of my body, and then tells me in detail why that’s so important for women. It’s as though this were a classroom lecture in female hygiene. I can’t believe this is happening. I’m dying inside–of embarrassment and disgust.
- I go into high-anxiety survival mode: look away, clam up, breathe only as absolutely needed, stay alert, and pretend I’m somewhere else. All at the same time.
- Overall, I do NOT understand Daddy any better than he understands me.
Witnessing and Inhaling the Air Mother Breathes
Mother is in the kitchen at the beginning, middle or end of a long, busy day filled with things like cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, coping with post-polio pain or depression. She’s standing at the kitchen sink, washing another pile of dishes; I’m drying them and putting them away.
My father comes into the kitchen, walks up behind her and begins behaving as though they were alone in a private room with the door shut. They are not.
This happens regularly. My response? Look the other way; close my eyes; walk out of the room. Anything to get away from what feels like a movie I don’t want to watch.
Every now and then I hear Mother murmur to him, “Not now–the girls are watching.” I don’t remember ever seeing her resist or hearing her refuse him. Not once.
I long for her to scream at him the way I want to scream at him. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t seem to matter to my father which room they’re in with the door wide open, who happens to be in the same room with them or walking by in the hallway, or how Mother feels about any of this.
I didn’t know the word back then, but I feel like I’m being forced to be a voyeur. I also feel sad for Mother and disgusted with my father. I decide not to let any man ever treat me like his on-demand play-toy.
To be continued. . . .
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 April 2014