One Saturday afternoon I was channel surfing and I came across a program on A&E, “Hoarders.” It was about a woman who had literally filled up her house with trash to the point where it took a crew of 10 people and 4 huge dumpsters to get rid of it all.
And then it hit me.
My stepfather was a hoarder. I lived through that when I was a child. I found myself nodding my head when the children of the hoarders expressed their various emotions over their parent’s hoarding: anger, sadness, guilt, fear, frustration – I felt it all. Watching that show was like a punch in the gut; images of 4 foot deep piles of papers and trash brought back all these terrible memories.
I was 8 years old. My mother had divorced my father and she, my brother and I lived with her mother in southern Illinois for 2 years. Then one day, my mother piled us and our belongings into her big black Oldsmobile. We drove all the way across the country from Illinois, and eventually arrived in Ojai, a tiny little town in Southern California. I was in for the shock of my young life, because we pulled up in front of this really weird-looking little house which sat in the middle of a strange little world of old cars, rusting junk, tumble-down little sheds, rolls of fencing, untidy piles of ratty lumber and two goat pens. Goats, too. Welcome to the Third World.
Inside this weird little house were piles. Piles and piles and piles of paper; newspapers, magazines, rubber bands, string, used envelopes – I don’t know what all those piles were. All I remember is that they were literally chest-high on me, and that there were actually narrow crooked little paths between the piles, snaking off to the other rooms in this weird little house. One room was entirely filled up with the whatever-it-was from floor to ceiling; a solid wall of it. There were also walls with exposed studs and black tarpaper showing, and stained plywood on the ceilings. Our first meal in that house was sickly sweet frozen lemonade and stale Vanilla Wafers, served on a “table” made out of a piece of plywood balanced on a stool. There were fleas. I was covered with flea bites. I learned how to kill them – you couldn’t just smash them. No, I had to use my fingernails and literally tear their little heads off, or they’d hop away and come back to bite me again.
And then, there was my new stepfather, a ropy, skinny brown man with gray hair and a beard. His name was Herb. I didn’t like him, and it turned out that I had good reason not to like him. My soul and my body took lots of beatings in that house. Herb had a fondness for corporal punishment, which he indulged on my brother and me. He would beat us with whatever happened to be handy; a belt, a piece of bamboo – once he beat me with a piece of wood. He also yelled and screamed a lot. I don’t remember where my mother went during these times, but there were quite few of them.
With my brother it went one way. He rebelled against the new regime by becoming a juvenile delinquent. He found himself a new set of badass juvenile delinquent friends who encouraged him to sniff glue, smoke pot and break into newspaper machines. He was in and out of juvenile hall constantly, and my stepfather used to chain him to his bed by the ankles to teach him a lesson.
With me it went the other way. I was the dutiful “good” child – in the parlance of alcoholic families, I was the Hero Child. I got all A’s in school, I never made trouble. I learned to be invisible. I stayed in my room or on my bed with a load of books from our local library and spent every spare minute in the company my friends, the citizens of the Imagine Nation. I learned to be very, very quiet.
In my world, up was down, black was white and love was …non-existent. My life was ruled by fear. My mother thought of me as a burden, a pain in the ass who constantly outgrew clothing, needed glasses, food and shoes. I cost her money. I made trouble.
I’m lucky I survived. Literally.
When I was around 11 years old, in junior high school, I got a stomachache. It was bad. It hurt. I was made to go to school anyway, every day that week. On Friday, my P.E. teacher made me suit up for gym, because I didn’t have a note from my mom excusing me. I still had my stomachache; in fact, it was much worse. Finally, on Saturday morning, my mother grudgingly took me to the local emergency room. The doctor stuck my finger with a needle and took away some blood. The next thing I remember was being put on a gurney and watching the hall lights flash crazily past my eyes as the doctors and nurses ran – literally ran – down the hall to the operating room.
I was in the hospital for a week. I never found out exactly what had happened, but looking back, I realize that I probably had a burst appendix and was in the process of dying from septicemia. I have a huge scar – about 5 inches long on the lower right side of my abdomen that is mute testimony to how I was “loved” as a child.
She didn’t care where I was. If I had vanished and never came home, she wouldn’t have given a damn – or ever even reported me missing.
There’s a lot more than that; but you get the point. And now, I’ll get to my point.
We’ve all heard about the Casey Anthony trial. A lot of people were shocked, horrified and even enraged by the jury’s verdict. I listened to the prosecution’s hard straight line about how Casey Anthony killed her daughter because she was a heartless party girl, etc. I also heard the defense’s version of how Caylee Anthony died; the version about how that poor little kid accidentally drowned in the family pool, how Casey found her and was so traumatized and frightened that she hid her body and acted like nothing happened. I heard the defense attorney ask Casey if her father had molested her. I froze. Suddenly, it all made a bizarre kind of sense to me.
People who have never been abused can never, ever understand what it does to a child. The everyday reality that your parents don’t love you and that they hurt you over and over again soaks into your soul. It turns you into someone crippled on the inside. It teaches you that nobody is to be trusted – ever. You learn that you must be invisible at all costs – because visibility means that you will be hurt. Badly.
Does it sound extreme that a mother would be so traumatized that it would make sense to her to hide the dead body of her child after she had accidentally drowned in a swimming pool…? Yes. It does. But from where I’m sitting, oh yeah, it does make sense. It makes a lot of sense.
You see, my stepfather molested me every chance he had – which were many, because my mother was the one who went to work every day at my house. When I got home from school, there were always those two hours to be gotten through before my mother’s car would pull into the driveway. (I’m not going to go into detail; it was very traumatic, and I was in my mid-twenties before the story came spilling out in chokes, sobs and gasps to my very understanding therapist.) Even worse than being molested was the fact that my mother knew about it – and refused to do anything at all to stop it. In fact, she told me point blank that if I ever told anyone, she’d never speak to me again.
So do I believe that a young woman could be so traumatized and brutalized that she would deal with an event as huge and awful as the accidental drowning of her 2 year old daughter in what seems to be a completely irrational way? Yes. I do believe it.
Because it happened to me. I hid a very big secret for almost 15 years, and I never told a soul.