The Air I Breathed | Part 2 of 3

by Elouise

For years I knew Daddy’s beatings and rules didn’t give the full story about how I was groomed to be a victim.  Yet I’ve never spoken publicly about the full story.  I didn’t have a clue how to talk about it safely.  Besides, who would believe my report?  Especially if they knew my father.

But that was all in the past, wasn’t it?  Done.  Finished.  I’m a grown-up.  I breathe different air now.  It’s years later and thousands of miles away.  I could have left out this part of my story and stuck to the beatings and rules.  They’re bad enough, aren’t they?

When I begin writing about my relationship with my father, it all floods back and spills over the pages like rotten garbage.   I can’t leave it out because now I get it.

Truth:  the air I breathed had a greater impact on me as an adult woman than the beatings and rules.  They were just the beginning.  An orientation and introduction to a home curriculum that became increasingly difficult/impossible to stomach as I became sexually aware of myself.

Three Things I Wish I Could Change
What I describe in Part 1 didn’t happen in a vacuum.  If I could have been Queen for a Day, I would have changed three things.

First, Daddy’s presence
From the time we arrive at our new home in Savannah, there’s no escape.  Daddy is there almost every day.  From my perspective this favors Daddy, not me.

  • No more communal home owned by the mission organization means
  • No more families with children living with us, and
  • No more other children to play with or other adults to help take care of me.
  • Just Daddy, almost every day, 24/7.
  • Even going to church offers little relief. Daddy is often the preacher and I have to sit there listening to his sermons. Sometimes they sound just like the sermons I hear at home–directed at me.
  • No escape.

Second, Mother’s situation and role
For Mother, there’s no escape from polio recovery or the daily needs of 3 and then 4 daughters. That’s one big reason I’m dealing mainly with Daddy. Mother is often busy or resting. She leaves the discipline to him.  Sort of.

Sometimes I hear Daddy asking her how things went today with the girls. She gives her report; sometimes she’s crying.  Daddy believes her report; then he follows through with punishment based on her report. He’s definitely there for her.

Sometimes I think this is unfair, especially when she’s extra tired or distressed and teary. That’s when I think he favors her version and I sometimes pay the price. Punishment may be administered hours after the supposed offense, based on Mother’s report.  I’m not saying I’m a perfectly behaved daughter; I’m saying this method has serious drawbacks for me.

Third, Deep South patriarchal culture
I’m now supposed to become a proper Southern girl/young lady.  ‘Proper’ seems to be defined and enforced by both men and women–mainly by way of innuendo and a velvet glove that may hide an iron fist.

Again, don’t get me wrong.  I never witness anything over the top.  Not in public anyway.  Just a lot of smiles and ‘honey-you-need-to-do-it-this-way’ and steady insistence on the best of Southern lady-like manners.  It seems this kind of training is everybody’s business.

From my observation, the best of Southern lady-like manners seems to include

  • Unspoken freedoms and permissions for boys and men—given with a wink, a nod, a chuckle, a ‘boys will be boys’ from the women, or an understanding look between men
  • Quick punishment and/or long-term shunning of women who speak their minds, question adult authority, dress inappropriately for the occasion, or speak impolitely which means forgetting to say ‘Yes Ma’am’ or No Ma’am’ or ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘No Sir’
  • Subtle nonstop competition and manipulation of men by women and girls who seem to learn early how to survive or get what they want by being Daddy’s little girl or little woman

It’s a toxic brew—like the rotten egg/sulfur smell from the Union Bag paper plant that seeps its way through the humid air and the walls of our house. An invisible, unavoidable, sickening stench.

Initial Observations about Part 1
I’m horrified when I review what I wrote in Part 1. I don’t like what I see.

  • ‘Normalized’ self-blame, guilt, shame, humiliation, self-contempt
  • Silence; no voice–even less voice than I had before age 8 or 9
  • No fighting back. Passive; trapped like a caged bird. Paralyzed.
  • No telling anyone what’s going on; swallowing it all in one lump sum—as often as needed
  • Strategic maneuvers designed to survive; no external moves at all on my own behalf; trying to get through with as little harm to myself as possible
  • No allies; left to my own devices
  • External calm on the outside; internal madness and mayhem on the inside; screaming at Daddy inside, not outside
  • Self-destructive behaviors, such as pretending not to notice what’s happening right now to me personally or right before my very eyes
  • Silently bearing my shame, guilt, humiliation; ‘taking it like a woman’ and ‘standing by my man’ who right now happens to be Daddy
  • Loyal to a fault; actively keeping secrets; saying nothing to members of my family—not even to Mother
  • Attempting to satisfy Daddy’s requirements of me no matter what it costs
  • Daddy objectifying my body (I didn’t know this word or concept back then); treating me as an object to be shaped, manipulated, looked at, appraised or studied, rather than treating me as a person; my attempts to comply with what he wanted me to look like
  • Intrusion after intrusion without so much as one objection from my mouth; no voice and seemingly no choice
  • Non-person status; no fight left in me
  • Setting myself over against all those “other” women who seem to merit Daddy’s contempt or inordinate interest; hoping I can gain Daddy’s acceptance by being different (more virtuous) than they are
  • Managing my body language as though I could control or minimize damage or get Daddy to change
  • Developing a high-anxiety survival mode and coping strategies that are all too familiar to me as an adult
  • Obeying a life-rule I don’t remember making: Blame yourself; don’t blame Daddy. 

To be continued. . . .

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 May 2014