Crime and Punishment
In 1962, the summer I was six, my mother invited a woman friend from our church over for lunch. This would have been fine with me, except Mrs. Cunningham brought along her son Webster, a red-haired boy slightly younger than me who was infamous for leaving a wide swath of destruction in his wake. My mother warned me ahead of time, “If Webster harms anything in this house, I’m holding you personally responsible, and your father will blister your bottom.”
This was no idle threat. The first time my father spanked me with a store-bought paddle, he hit me so hard the paddle snapped in half. After that, he made a thick oak paddle with which to spank the daylights out of my younger brother Danny and me. He would strike our often bare bottoms about a dozen times with nearly all of his strength. These sessions hurt like hell and felt life-threatening.
Needless to say, when Webster arrived, I watched him with a keen eye. He wore a white cowboy hat with red piping, and he carried a large metal toy six-shooter. He ran through our Arlington house, his gun nearly gouging divots in a dozen walls and pieces of furniture. With heroic efforts, I protected our house and furnishings—until I had to use the bathroom. I peed as fast as I could, but when I returned to the living room, Webster had set his pistol on my dad’s prized stereo, the one inside the gorgeous mahogany cabinet he polished daily. Just then, my mother and Mrs. Cunningham entered the room and saw Webster, me, and his metal gun on my dad’s stereo. My mother’s eyes filled with fury.
“I was going to the bathroom when it happened,” I told her. I gently lifted the six-shooter off the well-polished cabinet. “Look, there’s no scratches.”
My mother’s expression didn’t change.
As soon as our company left, I desperately pleaded my case again, but my mother was livid. “Wait until your father gets home,” she said. “He’s going to blister your bottom.”
I was in a panic for the rest of the day. When it was time for my father to arrive home from work, I put on my pajamas and hid at the very back of my closet, hoping that if they saw me in my PJs, they’d put me to bed early instead of beating me. Fat chance. I’d employed this nightclothes strategy numerous times before, but it had never worked.
I heard my father come through the front door. Then I heard my mother talking to him briefly. Then he burst into my room with a roar. When I wasn’t in plain sight, he knew I was hiding in my closet. He reached into the closet and jerked me out by the arm, which I was afraid would come out of its socket. Then the second part of the punishment ritual began. My father grabbed me by the back of the head and ground my forehead into his while he stared into my eyes with utter hatred and growled. This might have broken some kids’ wills—Danny had a particularly hard time with the head grind—but I knew my father was insane with anger and hatred at that moment, and I returned his gaze with hatred of my own. As my father dragged me to the bathroom, my mother said, “Take off his pajamas so it will hurt more.”
My father complied, then bent me over his knee and spanked the bejesus out of me. The blows were unbelievably painful, and I was afraid he’d break my arm or fingers if I tried to shield my bottom.
Finally, the spanking was over, and my father shoved me into my room and shut the door. Despite my pain and tears, I was so angry I stuck my tongue out at the closed door. My father whipped open the door, saw my tongue out, and dragged me into the bathroom for a second spanking just as brutal as the first. My father was always the punisher, but my mother was his willing accomplice. She never once protected us; she was his sinister cheerleader.
Here are a few twists on the punishment routine. Sometimes after Danny and I were beaten, our parents took us to McDonald’s as if nothing had transpired. Once we weren’t spanked—instead, our mother took us to our barber and ordered him to cut off all of our hair to humiliate us. And sometimes we were thrashed before parties “just to calm us down.” The message was that if we misbehaved at the party, we’d get the living tar beaten out of us when we returned home. Finally, we were often punished when Danny and I had not misbehaved, and our parents knew it.
By now, you may be picturing my father as a towering giant. Nothing could be further from the truth; he is a skinny shrimp, maybe 5’5″ tops. A handsome young man, he smelled like Old Spice and the Vitalis that kept his flyaway brown hair in place. My mother was pretty with a resemblance to the actress Kate Winslet. To this day, her face remains warm and pleasant.
I was born on September 7, 1956, which makes me 57. Because of my September birthday, I entered first grade at Nottingham Elementary School at the age of six when most of my classmates were six-and-a-half or seven. I had not yet reached the “age of reason” that most seven-year-olds achieve, so school was very difficult for me, and I stayed home a lot with stomach aches.
My doctor prescribed a medication intended for adult ulcer patients that turned my urine red. I enjoyed peeing in the toilets at school and not flushing them so my classmates thought I was pissing blood. Here’s what I wonder about that medication, though. Was it a sedative, and, if so, was I taking it because school was difficult or because my home environment felt life-threatening?
Less Than Human
When we were children, our parents often treated us as if we were less than human. For one thing, they frequently failed to believe us when we told them the truth. For example, we had an evil teenage baby sitter named Ryanne who would lock us in the basement as soon as my parents left the house. Then she would raid the refrigerator and gab on the phone for hours with her girlfriends. She would let us out just before our parents returned home. Every time Danny and I reported these events to our parents, they would shake their heads and say, “Wow, that’s quite a story. I’m sure Ryanne would never do anything like that.”
One time when Ryanne locked us in the basement, Danny and I pretended like Danny had fallen down the basement stairs and was seriously injured. When Ryanne opened the door to check on us, we charged her and pushed past, but not before she kneed Danny and drove his head into the metal strike plate in the doorframe. Danny’s head bled so profusely Ryanne had to put his head under the bathtub faucet to wash away the blood. When my parents came home, Ryanne told them we’d badly misbehaved.
Our parents glared at us with unbridled ferocity. As soon as Ryanne left, we told them what had happened and showed them the bloody knot on Danny’s head. They dismissed this as some kind of cheap trick, and my father beat the daylights out of us. Ironically, our parents fired Ryanne a few visits later because she failed to close and lock the front door while they were gone, something they observed with their own eyes.
Another time, I went home from school to play at a classmate’s house. Her name was Chloe, and I’d played in her nearby neighborhood, but I’d never been inside her house.
“We have alligators in the basement,” she said. “Wanna see?”
“Sure,” I said.
As we descended the stairs, I sensed motion in the dim light.
“Run and jump on the bottom of the bunk bed when you get down,” said Paul, Chloe’s older brother, who was reading comics on the top bunk. As soon as our feet touched the floor, we ran for the bunk. Once we were safely ensconced and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I was thrilled to see the floor swarming with baby alligators about two feet long.
When I returned home, I told my mother, “Mom, Chloe has alligators in her basement. We had to jump onto a bed so they wouldn’t get us!”
“Wow, that’s quite a story,” she said. “Now tell me the truth.”
I began to panic because if Danny or I told our parents something surprising, they always assumed we were lying. And lying meant receiving a beating. As I was begging my mother to believe me, the phone rang.
“Hi, this is Ruth,” I heard Chloe’s mom tell my mother. “I’m calling to make sure Allen isn’t upset. My husband’s a zoologist, and our basement is full of baby caimans, which look like alligators. Allen and Chloe went downstairs to see them—they were safe the whole time—but I wanted to make sure Allen didn’t come home frightened.”
“No, he was thrilled. Thanks for letting me know.” My mother hung up the phone and looked at me thoughtfully. We both knew I’d narrowly escaped a severe beating. Did my mom realize how easy it was for Danny and me to be targeted for an undeserved thrashing? Her eyes revealed nothing.
And here’s a theory about the undeserved spankings: I don’t think our parents cared whether we were guilty; they just wanted to release their rage.
Danny and I recently discussed whether any of our beatings were based on actual misbehavior. We agreed we’d gotten into several fights with each other as kids that led to severe spankings. Beyond that, Danny couldn’t think of any other thrashings that were based on a valid transgression on our part. I can remember only a few beatings that were based on a hint of misbehavior, but none of these spankings were justified. Many of these spankings occurred when I was about six.
On our block lived an older kid named Chuck who was a tall overweight bully with unsettling green eyes, and he always looked like he was plotting something evil or perverted. Chuck once seduced me into pulling down my pants so he could bite my bare bottom; then he persuaded me to do the same to him. Unfortunately, a neighbor witnessed this incident and reported it to my mother, who told my father when he got home. My father jerked me out of my room toward the bathroom and paddle with such ferocity that I was afraid he’d pull my arm out of its socket (a frequent fear). My parents beat me because I’d been victimized by a bully. Who was the true bully in this scenario, one might reasonably ask.
Another day, Chuck lured several of us younger boys into the bushes in front of my house. He produced a cigarette and lighter and demonstrated how to smoke. When the cigarette came around to me, I didn’t have any idea what to do with it. I blew into the filter, trying to produce a big plume of smoke. I didn’t understand I was supposed to inhale, and if I’d known that, I would have refused to do so to protect my lungs. My father smoked, and the blue haze caused me to hack violently.
A few moments after I handed the cigarette to the next boy, my mother opened the front door, immediately figured out what was going on, and jerked me into the house. That night, my father exploded into my room and grabbed me by the wrist so hard I thought he was going to break it. He dragged me to the bathroom and pulled my pants down with such force I thought they would rip.
I still don’t feel like I did anything wrong. I went into the bushes out of a combination of innocence, intimidation, and curiosity. When I saw the cigarette, I didn’t think it was a particularly bad object—I just knew it belonged to the realm of adults. My parents didn’t give me the slightest benefit of the doubt—they were itching to release their rage. Interestingly, my father gave up smoking after that so he wouldn’t be a poor role model for Danny and me. My childhood was filled with these dichotomies; one moment Danny and I were thrashed for no reason, and then our parents would make a surprising move targeted at our long-term benefit.
Also, when I was six—1962 was a miserable year for me—I went out into our front yard to play with a new squirt gun. Danny was confined indoors because he was ill. At one point, I heard him knocking on the picture window in my bedroom; he wanted me to know he was watching. Inspired, I squirted water at the glass directly in front of his face, and he laughed. My mother heard him laughing and investigated the cause.
When she saw what I’d done, she hauled me inside and had my father “blister my bottom” when he got home. I had no idea my mother had washed that window earlier in the day, and I didn’t know water could leave a mark on glass. This is a typical example of my parents beating us first and then asking questions or providing explanations later. In fact, they mainly just beat us and then pretended nothing had happened.
See You Later, Alligator
Perhaps it would be productive to examine the mental health of my parents. My mom has anxious depression she inherited from her mother and, in turn, passed on to Danny and me and one of Danny’s two sons. One implication is that when Danny and I were waiting for our father to come home and beat us, we experienced hospital-worthy panic attacks. My psychologist Rita Collins once told me, “If you hadn’t been abused as a child, you might have been just slightly more nervous than the average person, but the severe spankings caused your anxious depression to fully manifest.”
To this day, I frequently have nightmares in which I’m living in the only free house left in a small town invaded by Nazis, the Mafia, monsters, or hostile aliens. I’m terrified because I know I’m seconds away from being captured and tortured/killed. Clearly, these bad dreams reflect the intensity of the anxiety I felt as a child when I was waiting for my father to come home and beat me.
Back to my mother’s anxious depression–how does this state of mind relate to her desire for Danny and me to be severely punished? I don’t think it relates at all. Instead, I think my mother had a pent-up fury from her childhood she took out on Danny and me. My mother was very close to her mother, who was an award-winning portrait photographer and photographic studio owner in Bluefield, West Virginia. I also believe she was close to her father, who frequently took her to Bluefield Blue Jays baseball games—the Bluefield Blue Jays are a farm team for the Toronto team of the same name.
However, at one point my grandmother became an alcoholic. I don’t know if her depression drove her to drink or if the cause was my grandfather, who could be a lazy showoff. When they ran the photography studio together, he often took credit for my grandmother’s accomplishments, and he would also run errands for the studio that took unnecessary hours because he stopped to talk to virtually every person he met on the street, Bluefield being a small town where almost everybody knew one another.
At some point, my grandfather divorced my grandmother because of her drinking, and my grandfather moved to Florida, where he remarried. Once, when his house was partially destroyed by a hurricane, the first phone call he made was to the local newspaper instead of his insurance company. He wanted to be the first resident to get his picture in the paper. My mom related this story to me with disgust. Bottom line: My mom went from loving her father to hating him for divorcing her mother and being such a self-promoter. When my father beat Danny and me, I think my mom was in a state of fury and somehow thought she was getting back at her father.
Once on a trip to Florida, my parents committed an act of extreme neglect when Danny and I were elementary school age. We were visiting my grandfather and his wife in DeLand, Florida, where they owned a house on a lake. The lake was full of wildlife, including a fully grown alligator that sometimes sunned himself in my grandparents’ back yard.
While the adults visited, Danny and I were encouraged to go outside and play. We begged permission to fish and swim. Our parents told us these activities were fine, so Danny and I set up our fishing gear on an old warped pier and cast our lures out into the murky water. After a couple of hours without any bites, I decided to swim. Danny refused to budge, his eyes scanning the russet surface for the alligator.
I stepped into the lake, thick mud oozing between my toes and spiky plants pinpricking my soles. I waded into the pleasantly cool but swampy-smelling water until it was up to my waist. Then I carefully surveyed the lake before me. Part of me felt safe because our parents knew I was swimming, but I was also afraid I’d get snapped up into the jaws of the alligator at any moment.
Although I kept my eyes peeled for any creatures near me, a turtle suddenly popped its head out of the water a foot away, scaring the bejesus out of me. This is when I knew the alligator could sneak up on me at any time. Danny and I gave up fishing and swimming for the rest of the trip. It wasn’t until many years later that Danny and I fully realized we’d been victims of neglect.
I am the father of four grown children, three boys and a girl. Looking back, I realize there’s no way I would have let them swim unsupervised at that age, and I certainly wouldn’t have let them swim in a lake harboring an alligator. What were my parents thinking? I don’t know exactly, but I’m pretty sure they both felt a rage toward us stemming from their childhoods that manifested itself in abuse and neglect.
Hurts and Demons
Let’s examine my father’s mindset. For one thing, my mother to this day says my father is an almost intolerable spoiled brat. He was an only child for nine years, and he still demands to have his way at all times. When my parents were first married, my father treated my mother so poorly she told him she’d leave him if his behavior didn’t improve. This frightened my father, and he treated her much better after that.
Here’s a classic example of my father’s “only child” behavior. Once my parents, Danny and his family, and my family all vacationed at Bethany Beach, Delaware. After dinner one night, everyone but my father watched a comedy video in the large living room of our rented beach house. My father, who had been reading in a remote part of the house, walked into the kitchen and demanded, “I want a glass of ice water!”
He clearly expected my mother to make it for him. However, she had no intention of doing so. “There’s water in the tap, glasses in the cupboard, and ice in the freezer. I’m sure you can manage,” she said.
My father meekly made the glass of ice water. This shows my mother has power over my father when she chooses to wield it. How come she didn’t use it to protect Danny and me?
Here’s another example. Once my parents visited me when my family and I lived in Tucson. At one point, my father accompanied me to the grocery store, where I bought two heavy bags of provisions. When we returned to my house, I opened the trunk of my Renault Alliance (terrible car) and lifted out a bag of groceries. I thought my father might volunteer to carry the other bag, but he headed toward the main door we used that opened into our kitchen.
Good, he’s going to hold the door for me, I thought, hoisting the second bag of groceries. By the time I reached the door, my father had it open. As I stepped to enter the kitchen, my father slammed the door in my face. He had completely forgotten I was behind him with groceries because he was only thinking about himself.
My father was also abused and neglected by his mother when he was a child. Come sun, rain, or snow, his mother used to shove him out the front door of their home in Bluefield, West Virginia, after breakfast and tell him not to come home until dinner time; she locked the door behind him. I’m pretty sure my grandmother also spanked my father harshly, because once when she babysat me, she bragged she’d spanked me for an hour because I’d misbehaved, although I have no memory of this spanking.
My father says his mother was a woman ahead of her time. This may be true. She was bitterly disappointed her father refused to send her to college, especially since he sent one of her brothers to college and would have done the same for her other brother, but he declined to go. Also, my grandmother wanted to work for herself. At one point, she divorced my grandfather and moved to Florida and entered the real estate business in which she thrived until she retired. My father was in college at the time of the divorce.
Once when we visited her in Fort Lauderdale, my grandmother told us a story about some neighbors she hated that indicated she was mentally unbalanced. Apparently, the two children who lived next door sometimes stepped through a gap in her hedge as a short cut home. This infuriated her. One night, she told us, she snuck out of her house and cut down a cherished tree in her neighbors’ front yard and broke eggs all over the family car. The next day, the couple stood in the front yard surveying the damage. “Who in their right mind could have done something so terrible?” they asked each other. The two children pointed at my grandmother’s house and said, “She did it.”
My grandmother told us this tale of revenge with utter glee. Years later, when my grandmother was a little old lady, a gentleman tried to help her cross a busy street, and my grandmother bit him.
As my children liked to say when any of their friends behaved in an odd way similar to their parents, “The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Here’s an odd side note regarding my father’s relationship with his mother. When she was alive, my parents openly talked about what a nasty person she was. But when she died, my father said she’d been a wonderful mother, and he became very religious, as if he wanted to make sure his mother had gone to heaven. Before that, I’m pretty sure my father went to church mainly to please my religious mother.
When my father was in his thirties, his mother gave him “the moose sweater,” a black, gray, and mustard brown cardigan with silver moose head buttons. My father has worn this sweater almost every day since he received this gift, and he’s made my mother promise to bury him in it. It’s not a particularly attractive piece of attire, and the silver moose head buttons are long gone, replaced by a long succession of more mundane substitutes. Still, my father is strongly attached to his mother’s gift; it’s clearly a security blanket. I suspect a skilled psychologist could have a field day exploring my father’s emotions regarding the moose sweater. My guess is that my father subconsciously feels he didn’t receive enough love from his mother, and the sweater provides some compensation.
Another aspect of my father’s personality is that he’s always disliked children. Once he told me, “I find children completely uninteresting. I don’t like talking to them until they’re college age and can carry on a decent conversation.” I think “a decent conversation” meant my father could talk about himself. Once, when my family and I visited my parents in Arlington, he fumed while my sons harmlessly played in my parents’ back yard. My father’s kind stepmother said to him, “I can tell you’re not happy about your grandchildren playing in the back yard. You’ve never liked children have you?”
I was standing next to him. My father looked at both of us and said, “No, I never have.”
My father once revealed his dislike of children by doing something really malicious to Danny. They were in my father’s basement workshop. My father honed an axe until it was razor-sharp; then he handed it to Danny and said, “Test this blade for me.”
Trusting Danny took the axe and tapped the blade against his palm; blood blossomed from a long cut. Danny can’t remember what happened after that, this being one of many memories he’s blocked out. Did my father gloat when he saw the blood or feel regret? I bet he rejoiced, the bastard.
Here’s another example of my father’s cruelty toward children. With a child’s delight, he would dress up for Halloween in elaborate costumes and hand out candy at our front door. I remember him as the devil, Frankenstein’s monster, and a witch. The year he was a witch, he dared children to take his poisoned candy, and at least several kids ran crying and screaming home.
My parents grew up about a block apart in Bluefield and met when my father was nine and my mother was seven. They played together throughout childhood, my father once directing his own production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and casting my mother as Uncle Tom, a source of family humor.
By the time they married, they were intimately familiar with each other’s hurts and demons. My mother says she married my father over a field of other suitors because she understood him and felt she needed to take care of him. My psychologist Rita Collins says the real reason my parents married is they recognized the rage each held. She has also said, “It’s a good thing you ended up as a well-adjusted adult. You could have become a drug addict or criminal if your parents convinced you that you were bad and they were good. Also, you and your brother could have killed your parents out of rage.”
So why did my father beat Danny and me with such zeal? Because he was enraged at his mother on many levels and he hated children. When he severely spanked us, I’m certain he was seeking revenge upon his mother. Also, maybe he resented us because he wanted to be the only child in the house receiving my mother’s attention.
My father either beat us or ignored us. I have pleasant memories of my father helping me build a Pinewood Derby model racing car out of balsa wood for Cub Scouts and him assisting me with constructing and painting a model of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The sad thing is, I overheard my mother insisting my father participate in these activities because he had no interest in them and wanted to play his piano instead.
A few times, my father flew kites with Danny and me or led us on neighborhood walks or attacked us as a sea monster at our community swimming pool. But these events were few and far between.
One late afternoon, I was playing in the living room when my father came home from work.
“Hello, Allen,” he said.
I heard him, but I made no reply. This was not an act of conscious defiance. Subconsciously, I’d decided that since my father didn’t care about me, I didn’t need to care about him. My mother told me later that I’d greatly hurt my father’s feelings, so I always said hello to him after that out of duty.
Although our parents clearly beat Danny and me out of the rage I’ve identified, I think they also did so because they were under tremendous social pressure to keep up appearances. According to a sociologist friend of mine, after the Allies won World War II in 1945, America was a victorious and prosperous nation. We had defeated evil, we had the atomic bomb, we believed we could smoke and drink all we wanted without negative consequences, and we believed we were setting an example for the rest of the world. Our factories were running at full capacity, unions were strong, and virtually all working people in America were prosperous. We were invincible. And television reflected the impossible utopia of the 1950s with shows like Leave It to Beaver (1957 – 1963) and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952 – 1966).
But the perfect world of the 1950s couldn’t last. For one thing, people who had lived through the Great Depression in the 1930s knew our economy wasn’t invulnerable to downturns. And many events transpired that showed all was not well with America. The Rosenbergs sold nuclear secrets to Russia that allowed it to develop the atomic bomb, the Cold War ensued, the domino theory of communism ran rampant, the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, the African-American civil rights movement began, John F. Kennedy was assassinated—you get the picture.
But people wanted utopia to last. There was intense pressure for people to conform and not let the dream of the 1950s fall apart. Part of this pressure dictated that parents take strong measures to make sure their children didn’t exhibit wild or inappropriate behavior that might signal our utopia was unraveling. Plenty of children were spanked, and I suspect this is the main reason Danny and I were beaten before we went to parties when our parents clearly knew we hadn’t done anything wrong.
When I was about twenty-seven and living with my first wife Linda in Castro Valley, California, and working as a technical writer for Sprint, I developed a stomach ulcer. My doctor successfully treated the ulcer, but hypothesized I was holding in some strong negative feelings that needed to be released. He referred me to a psychologist named Clark Daniels, who asked me in our first meeting to describe my family of origin.
For an hour, I spoke animatedly about my mother and brother. Afterward, he said, “That was great information. Next week, I’d like to hear about your father.” I had completely forgotten to say anything about my father; my subconscious mind had somehow erased him from memory. I realized talking about him would be very painful; I felt a stab of panic.
The next week, when I tried to speak to Clark about my father, I found myself choking because my throat had contracted, trying to prevent me from talking and ripping open old scarred wounds. I had to take two Librax (anti-anxiety medication prescribed by my doctor) and let them kick in before I was able to speak. I saw Clark weekly for a year and talked exclusively about my traumatic childhood. At some point, I was able to speak without taking Librax.
During this year, when Father’s Day approached, I bought my father a card. I was just going to write, “Happy Father’s Day! Love, Allen and Linda.” But I found myself suddenly engulfed in rage, and I wrote a long letter to my father telling him how much I hated him for physically abusing Danny and me as children. I also said my mother was equally guilty because she had failed to protect us. I mailed the letter.
Danny lived near my parents, and he reported they had received an upsetting letter from me, and my mother had gone to bed and stayed there for a week. Then I received a letter from my parents denying that we’d ever been physically abused. Danny told me recently that after he grew up, he told my parents he hated them for physically abusing us, and they denied it ever happened.
Years went by. I made annual visits to my parents. They were always warm and loving. I eventually decided they were good at heart, especially my mom, and had been in the grip of mental illness when they abused us. Over time, I forgave them but never told them. Danny went through a similar process.
Once I visited my parents in their eighties–yes, they are still together, and no, my father has not stopped acting like a spoiled brat. While my mother prepared dinner, my father drank heavily and told me about several regrets that plagued him at night, giving him nightmares and insomnia.
Once, when he was a young newspaper reporter for The Atlanta Journal, he drove from one rural town to another under a deadline. He stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in the late afternoon to fill up and buy a cool drink. While he sipped his orange pop, he noticed a young boy and girl standing on the sidewalk next to the gas station. The girl was a pretty blonde with crooked front teeth around five, and the boy had light brown hair, a smudge of dirt on his face and was about three. No adults were in sight.
“Is your mom or dad here?” my father asked, concerned.
“Nope,” the girl said. “Daddy dropped us off here and told us to wait for him to come back.”
“When was that?” my father asked.
“A long time ago.”
Worried the children weren’t safe, my father stood with them until nightfall. I don’t know why my father didn’t enlist the aid of the gas station employees or their telephone (assuming they had one), but he needed to move on to stay on deadline, and he felt he had only two choices: abandon the children and hope for the best, or drive them in his car to his motel and call the police from there. Afraid he’d be mistaken for a kidnapper, my father left the children where he’d found them and continued on his journey.
In my parents’ living room, my father looked at me with teary eyes, and his voice cracked as he said, “I’ve thought about those children every day since I left them there, and I wonder if they are alive or dead, and whether I did the right thing. I frequently wake up seeing their faces. My heart pounds like it’s going to explode, and I can’t go back to sleep.”
My father was full of regrets that evening. Once when he was sharing an apartment in New York with a childhood friend, Don, his former playmate came into the living room where my father was sitting on the couch and slumped next to him with his head in his hands. “I have a problem, and I don’t know what to do about it,” Don said. “Sometimes I feel like killing myself.” He looked at my father with mute appeal for comfort or advice, but my father just looked at him without saying anything until Don left the room.
“I should have put my arm around him and said something kind and encouraging,” my father told me tearfully. “I’m haunted even today about how I failed to support my friend.”
There were other regrets, but none of them related to my father beating Danny and me. It was obvious my father at least sometimes had a good heart and conscience, but he hardly ever applied these positive qualities toward his sons.
My father likes to describe how embarrassed he felt while making the thick oak paddle in our back yard using our picnic table as a workbench. Two sets of neighbors, both friends of my parents who thought we were sweet boys, asked my father what he was making. Honesty forced him to say, “A paddle I can use to spank the boys when needed.” He’s told Danny and me of this great shame many times, but he’s never offered even a hint of an apology for beating us. Also, it’s odd he acknowledges he made the paddle but denies he ever brutally spanked us with it.
There have only been a few times in my life I knew for sure my father loved me. Here’s an example. When I was in my thirties, I went through a nasty divorce. At one point, I took a business trip from my home near San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in early December and stayed with my parents in Arlington. I called my children in California to say hello and reassure them I’d be home by Christmas Eve, but my ex-wife Linda came onto the phone and ranted and raved about how she was going to force me to lose the house (I wanted the house and was in the process of buying her out) and otherwise ruin me financially.
In a nutshell, I’d divorced her because she was mentally ill (probably bipolar) and screamed at my children and me daily. She refused to see a psychiatrist, and she’d fallen in love with another man. I’d had 100% custody of the children, but I’d recently granted her 50% custody. Despite all this, I was paying her a fortune in spousal and child support ($55,000 annually), and I knew she was insanely vindictive and really would ruin me if she had half a chance. I hung up, shaken.
When I walked into the living room, my mom looked at me with such great sympathy that I began to cry. She wrapped her arms around me. Looking over her shoulder, I was surprised to see my father crying as well.
Although our parents often were cruel to us, they also wanted good things for our future—college, for example. I like to believe this was out of love and concern for our future, but it also could have been about keeping up appearances.
Our parents were college-educated, and it was only natural they’d want us to go to college as well. My mother had a teaching degree, and my father had a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s in journalism. Mom stayed home with us, and my father worked as a science writer/editor and later as an assistant director of public relations for a transportation company.
At one point, my father believed he wouldn’t be able to afford to send us to college. A very talented photographer, my father decided to photograph and publish a beautiful coffee table-sized book on Virginia that would pay for our college educations. Our father didn’t make any effort to line up a publisher or research the market for such an endeavor. Nevertheless, we spent years driving to every imaginable spot in Virginia where my father took reams of photographs. These trips were for the most part miserable. My father would drive from dawn to dusk. If he or my mother needed to use a bathroom, my father would pull into a gas station, and we would all use the facilities. However, if only Danny or I needed a bathroom, my father just kept driving.
“Tie a knot in it,” my mother frequently told us.
However, our parents provided us with an empty peanut butter jar. When we couldn’t hold out any longer, Danny and I peed in this jar, which required good kneeling balance and concentration. The process was quite embarrassing. The message was clear: we didn’t count. This point was reinforced when we arrived at many of our destinations. My father would make the three of us wait in the Buick while he was gone for an hour or two shooting photographs.
This meant Danny and I were cramped in the car for up to twelve hours with just a few bathroom breaks and no real chance to get any exercise or blow off energy. To give my parents some credit, they bought us car games and candy bars to help us pass the time, and they let us throw a ball around for a few minutes at some of the rest stops. They may even have bought us a few comic books, but we weren’t allowed to read them in the car for fear of car sickness. Still, we were sardined in the Buick for unbearable hours.
Every night, when we reached our motel, we’d all eat in the restaurant and then Danny and I would get shuffled off to bed. Danny and I hardly had a minute to ourselves. Because of these factors, I became constipated on each trip. If we were gone for two weeks, my bowels didn’t move for two weeks. Nobody noticed this but me. Like I said, we were treated like we were less than human.
My father eventually finished photographing his book, and it was gorgeous. Luckily, he found a highly interested publisher. However, the publisher refused to take the book as is because he wanted the photographs on one side of the book and informational paragraphs on the opposing pages. If my father had made this improvement, his book would have been published, but he refused to write the copy, and the book never came to fruition, which means those years of miserable trips were an utter waste of time.
However, I’ll have to say I remember a few high points. Once we stopped in Big Stone Gap and enjoyed watching the dress rehearsal of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and we attended a fun apple festival in Winchester. We also visited Abington, where our parents had friends with children, and we had fun playing with them. We were allowed to get out of the car at Harper’s Ferry and Natural Bridge. I have forgotten all of the many destinations where we were stuck in the Buick.
If my father had to a take a detour in the middle of nowhere, or if we became lost, I would have panic attacks because I feared our unbearably long trip was going to become even longer. Danny felt the same dread. And my cruel father didn’t help matters by pretending we were lost when we weren’t just to see us freak out. Today, I still feel a spike of panic if I get lost while driving. I can quickly talk myself down from it, but my panic in present day is a testament to the horror of those long car trips.
After my father’s book deal fell through, he began interviewing for public relations jobs at universities and colleges so Danny and I would have an institution of higher learning we could attend gratis. I remember a family trip during which my father applied at the College of William and Mary, and we were given a tour of the campus—I was excited the school had a nice swimming pool. No jobs materialized, though, but it turned out this didn’t matter. I was a super high achiever in school, hoping my good grades would protect me from beatings—they didn’t. However, I earned a journalism scholarship at Virginia Tech, and I worked half-time as a reporter for The Roanoke Times. Virtually all of my college expenses were covered by these two sources of income. And Danny chose not to attend college but to instead go to heating and air conditioning school.
Danny’s survival strategy was much different from mine. Instead of applying himself in a nearly insane manner toward his school work like me, he built a large network of friends around him as a support group. So his grades weren’t top-notch, and he had a particularly hard time with high school math, even though he’s extremely talented with any form of mechanics.
As a kid, Danny built car and monster models so quickly without reading the instructions that we joked he just punched a hole in the box, poured in some glue, shook the cardboard container, and opened it to reveal the completed model. Also, my father once gave Danny an expensive camera that he had worn out. He thought Danny might enjoy taking apart the broken instrument to see how it worked. Danny disassembled the camera and then reassembled it in perfect working order, and my father, surprisingly, kept his word and let Danny continue to own the beloved camera.
Danny was also very talented in art. In high school, he developed a series of cartoon characters that he drew and sculpted in clay. Our parents tried to convince him to apply to art school, but he declined. He decided to focus on his mechanical talent and get the hell out of the house. These days, Danny is in charge of heating/air conditioning installations and repairs for a company owned by one of his classmates from heating and air conditioning school.
One last thought about college. Although I lived within striking distance of many first-rate universities, such as Georgetown University and the University of Virginia, my father told me, “You’re going to attend Virginia Tech because it’s a cheap state school. Don’t even think about going anywhere else.” I received an excellent education at Virginia Tech and I have no complaints, but I find it odd my father was so driven to send Danny and me to college, but he also blocked me from attending a top-tier school. Didn’t he have any faith I could earn a scholarship and/or work part-time to pay for school? Didn’t he want me to obtain the best education I could? Also, why were our parents so set on us going to college when they treated us so poorly as children?
The Last Spanking
I was twelve years old the last time I was spanked. My family was visiting my Aunt Connie and Uncle Will and our three cousins in Richmond. Danny and I played with our cousins, whom we really liked. In fact, Danny and I sometimes wished we lived with Aunt Connie, Uncle Will and our cousins Brendan, Mary, and Ray. We’d insisted our parents name our aunt and uncle as our guardians in their will.
At one point, I walked past the living room where the adults were visiting. My mother was telling a story about me, but she was exaggerating certain details to make me look particularly stupid and foolish.
“Very funny, Mom,” I said.
My father shot out of his seat in a flash. He grabbed me, dragged me down a short flight of stairs, and shoved me into the bathroom. He’d hidden the paddle there. He made me bend over, and he gave me one of the worst spankings of my life while I cried out. Outside the door, my cousins laughed nervously—they couldn’t believe my father was spanking me, let alone for such a minor offense. My Uncle Will was a big bear of a man who was strict but fair and had a kind heart. He never spanked my cousins—he just spoke to them firmly, and they knew he meant business if they disobeyed.
This was the only time Danny or I were spanked when there were witnesses present. I know my cries carried up to the living room. I’ve often wondered whether my Uncle Will took my father aside afterward and told him spanking me so violently was totally out of line.
Mr. Nice Guy
One time when I was in high school, I arranged for my friend Scott to meet me at my house after I got off work from Pizza Hut. Scott arrived before I did. When I got home, Scott said, “Your dad’s such a great guy.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, surprised.
“Well, I’ve been having troubles with Janet,” he said. Janet was Scott’s gorgeous girlfriend who was a year younger. “Things are really messed up between us. I talked to your dad about it, and he was a really great listener and he had some good ideas about what I should do. I wish my dad were like that.”
Scott’s father had a short temper, but he never became violent.
I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine having such a personal conversation with my father.
Here’s another example of my father showing his good side. Next door to us lived a widow from Barbados and her two sons. Her older son Jack was tall and handsome and attended high school when Danny and I were in elementary school. My dad decided Jack needed a father figure, so he took Jack under his wing and taught him to play chess and gave him fatherly advice. I remember my father saying, “Jack, you are tall and handsome. That means people are going to look to you as a leader, so you should do everything you can to prepare for that role.”
My father never took Danny and me under his wing like that. Maybe we weren’t tall and handsome enough. I remember sitting next to my father at the dinner table when I was in junior high and had a face full of pimples and blackheads. My father told me my face disgusted him, especially the blackheads. He would send me to the bathroom and demand that I get rid of all blackheads before dinner. This made me angry, and I felt even more loathing toward my blemished face.
I was on tetracycline and washed my face frequently with Phisohex, but my face refused to clear up. In those days (the 1970s), there were no miracle drugs for acne, and there were no consumer tools for blackhead removal. I don’t know if a dermatologist could have helped me, but that was never offered to me as an option. So I would scrub my face until it became even more raw and swollen, and I was never able to get the blackheads out. I would then return to the dinner table, where my father looked at me with even greater revulsion.
Wash Yourself Away
Ever since I became aware of alcohol, my parents were drinking it. When I was in junior high and high school, my parents drank two bourbons during happy hour, and then split a bottle of wine over dinner. My mother never showed any signs of intoxication, but my father got wasted. At dinner, he could barely keep his bleary eyes open, and he was often in real danger of mimicking the comedy routine where a diner falls asleep and his face lands in a plate of spaghetti.
Once, when I visited my parents in their eighties, my father chatted with me at happy hour while my mother read in another room. He drank two bourbons and five glasses of wine, despite an enlarged liver and his doctor’s orders not to have more than two drinks a day. That was the most drunk I’ve ever seen him. My mother never had more than two drinks at happy hour during my visit.
Why does my father drink so much? Alcoholism doesn’t run in his family as far as I know. I believe that deep down below his considerable hatred and rage is a very hurt and unhappy little boy he’s trying to soothe. In many ways, my father is a monster, but one to be pitied.
When it comes to women, my father’s emotions run from love to hate. The summer I was eighteen, I brought my first serious girlfriend home. My father stared at her with abject hatred.
“Wow,” Anne said. “Your father really hates women.”
Yet there are some women my father adores. One was his top boss at work, a very capable and warm African American woman. My father told me over happy hour drinks one evening that he saw her in a courtyard or hallway after not having seen her for several weeks. He was so happy to see her that he gave her a bear hug and a kiss. Realizing he had acted inappropriately, my father said, “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what came over me.” His kind boss said, “It’s okay, Allen. I know you were just happy to see me. I’m happy to see you, too.” My father never suffered any negative consequences for his actions. I’m sure his astute boss perceived the damaged little boy inside my father.
And my father loves my mother, although he doesn’t always treat her well.
I believe this range of emotion toward women all stems from my father’s love/hate relationship with his mother.
When my father retired as a public relations assistant director, he acted on two regrets that had plagued him since he was a young man. The first regret was that he never learned to swim. As a boy, he almost drowned in a creek in Bluefield. He avoided recreational immersion in water after that. In the Navy, during World War II, he was given a swimming test that was sloppily administered, and he passed. He felt guilty about this for many years. So when he retired at sixty-four, he taught himself to swim and has been swimming almost every weekday since. I think he feels he’s made an honest man out of himself, and he enjoys the exercise.
My father’s other regret was that his intense engineering course work at Virginia Tech didn’t allow him to study any other subjects. As soon as he retired, my father began to read with a passion; the type of books he devoured included psychology, biography, economics, history, and beyond. The only thing that didn’t interest him was fiction “because it’s not real.”
When my father reads a book, he reads all the books referred to in the footnotes and all the books referenced in those books, so he ends up reading, say, ten books on a certain subject and becoming an expert. He makes notes on each book, listing the main points and his thoughts about them. My father has read hundreds of books this way since his retirement, and he is an expert on a myriad of subjects.
“Dad’s the smartest man I’ve ever met,” Danny told me recently.
Right now, my parents are preparing to move into a retirement community, so they are downsizing. My father is faced with the painful task of weeding down his giant library, which includes almost as many of his reading notebooks as it does books.
I find it interesting that my father has been so honest and diligent in identifying and addressing these swimming and reading regrets, but he appears to have no regrets about beating, hating, and ignoring Danny and me when were children. My psychologist Rita Collins once told me that people in a state of rage sometimes disassociate from their actions, and their memories fail to accurately record what they’ve done. She thought this could be the case with my parents, just as she speculated this might have happened to O. J. Simpson. Maybe this is true, but I’m not sure. I’m on my second marriage, a very happy one. Each time I brought the new woman in my life home for the first time, my parents took her aside and said, “Allen might tell you some wild stories about us beating him when he was a child, but we want to assure you these stories are not true.” Sounds like a pair of very guilty consciences to me.
My father’s burgeoning intellect is not without its humorous moments. On one visit home, he told me he’d recently become good friends with Joe, whom he’d met at the Yorktown High School swimming pool.
“We just really hit it off,” my father said.
“How did you become such good friends?” I asked.
“Well, I think he finds me a really interesting man.”
“Well, we first met in the shower, and I was conducting an experiment.”
“What were you doing?”
“Well, I hooked a leg of my bathing suit around the shower nozzle, and I stuck my head into the waist of the suit and pulled the string tight around my throat. The shower was running the whole time. When I finished my experiment, Joe was under the shower across from me, and he asked me what I’d been doing.”
“What were you doing?” I asked.
“Well, trying to see what it felt like to be waterboarded, of course. And Joe found that fascinating. We’ve been great friends ever since.”
My Father in Dreams
When I was in my twenties, I frequently wished my father would die, and I had nightmares in which I screamed at him, telling him how much I hated him. As I aged and made progress in psychotherapy, these dreams became more violent. In addition to yelling at my father, I stabbed or strangled him to death. As I’ve mentioned, I eventually forgave my parents, and I stopped dreaming about my father.
However, in 2012, Jamie, one of Danny’s two sons, told me that he and his twin brother Rick hated going to our parents’ house alone on weekends when they were kids because invariably my father spanked them. I was outraged my father was still hitting children while in his sixties and my mother did nothing to protect them, just like before. Had they learned nothing over the decades?
With this outrage came a new series of nightmares. In the most vivid one, I’m screaming at my father in the living room of my childhood home. My father looks at me with eyes of utter evil and spreads his arms and shoulders in an odd and unnatural way that causes them to transform into a large pair of black wings. While I look on with horror, my father morphs into a giant vampire bat, and I wake up terrified.
The nightmares continued until I was once again vanquishing my father in each dream. Then they stopped, but I was deeply disturbed my senior citizen parents had not grown out of their rage and my father’s dislike of children.
Everyone I know thinks my mother is a saint, and I agree. She puts up with my father, who is an extremely challenging person with whom to live. She is kind, loving, generous, and patient. She constantly performs good deeds for others. And she has performed many acts of generosity for me. For example, there have been times I was without health insurance, or needed extensive dental work, or needed to go back to school to further my career. Every time I couldn’t fund or fully fund these ventures, my mother was quick to send me the money I required.
During childhood, Danny and I both thought Mom was the perfect mother, except for her failure to protect us from our father. She was always there for us, working hard to make our lives easy, and always willing to listen. I’ve been chatting with my mother as a friend pretty much since I could talk. These days, I visit with her by phone once or twice a week, and we conduct running email conversations. I can easily say she has always been one of my best friends.
When I told Danny I was going to praise our mother in this memoir, he said, “Yes, you need to do that. Mom is awesome!”
My mother’s exemplary behavior is what has allowed me to forgive my parents their transgressions. I know my mother failed to protect us from our father, but she was in the grip of some kind of mental illness she couldn’t control. Otherwise, though, she has been a nearly perfect mother. On the other hand, my father not only unleashed his demons on us, but he treated us poorly most of the rest of the time as well. My father’s main redeeming parental quality is that he has greatly enjoyed Danny’s and my company since we grew up.
Last Visit Home
Several months ago, I flew from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to visit my parents in Arlington. I was sad to see my father in poor health. He’s had about four mini-strokes, he has a rare form of dementia, and he’s nearly deaf. My father has always been a skilled raconteur, but now he speaks in a stream of meaningless vowels and consonants occasionally punctuated by a word when he tries to tell a story.
I can tell the tale is absolutely clear in his mind, but he can’t turn it into speech. Luckily, we know most of my father’s stories, and we can help him tell them. At one point, my father tried to tell a story to my mom, my nephew Rick, and me. Between the three of us, we supplied the words my father so desperately sought, and he beamed.
“This is a great conversation,” he said. “You’re helping me find my words.”
As you can see, my father can speak in simple sentences, but his storytelling days are over.
When my father graduated from high school, he was such a talented pianist that he had to decide whether to go to college or enter a music conservatory. He chose college, deciding his piano playing should remain a personal pleasure untainted by work.
My parents have a friend who is blind. My father once told me he would much rather go blind than deaf. His logic was that if he were blind, he could still play and hear his piano, talk with people, listen to audio books, and understand what was going on around him. However, old age is taking away my father’s hearing. And dementia causes musical notes to swim around on the page, although my father’s piano playing still sounds skilled and beautiful. I have always loved my father’s ability to produce music and wonderful, often humorous stories.
My father chooses not to wear his hearing aids a lot of the time. I asked my mother if this drives her crazy. She smiled. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Even when he had perfect hearing, he didn’t listen to me half the time. Nothing has changed.”
My father still reads extensively. I work as a certified nursing assistant, and I recently took a course on dementia in which I learned that singing and reading typically are the last abilities to leave a dementia patient, so my father remains a reading dynamo. However, it was heartbreaking to see him trying to thin out his beloved library for the retirement home move.
“I keep reaching for books I’ve given away, and it’s so hard,” my father said. “Wonderful books, books on spiders, books on birds, books on all kinds of fascinating subjects.” He was on the verge of tears.
My mother assured me she will buy new copies of books my father regrets giving away.
My father has become more childlike. He turns on faucets but forgets to turn them off. He no longer understands how the heating and air conditioning system works. One minute the AC is on full blast; the next the furnace roars. He has lost his ability to reason, and there are certain ideas my mother simply cannot communicate to him.
My father frequently hit himself in the head during my visit and said, “Allen, I’m losing my mind.”
As a young man, I would have gloated over my father’s decrepitude, thinking the monster was finally getting his own, but now I just feel sorrow. In my book, no one deserves to mentally deteriorate. I’ve forgiven my father his sins, and I know I’ve inherited his intellect, his ability to make music, and his storytelling skills. And I know he has cared about me in his own way. I saw proof of this as I stood with my father in the furnished basement.
He pointed to a photograph of me on his desk. The photo is a really good likeness taken by a professional photographer ten or fifteen years ago. My father’s eyes filled with joy, and he was too emotional to speak, but he kept pointing from the photograph to his smiling face, and I understood the photo brought him great pleasure, and I was reminded he loved me.
Allen Long’s memoirs have appeared in The Copperfield Review, Eunoia Review, Literary Brushstrokes, Milk Sugar, and Scholars & Rogues. Allen is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and he lives with his wife near San Francisco. Allen has recently completed a book-length memoir collection.