My childhood sounds like the word “jesus,” repeated until it falls into noise, and you realize that it never meant anything to begin with.
My mother used to repeat it in the car, on road trips. She spent twelve hours of reminding us of this: jesus said that he had no mother, no brother, and that no one would get into heaven but by loving him more than anything or anyone else.
It was okay that she didn’t love me, she said. It meant that she was going to heaven.
She used to pray to die at night when my father wasn’t home, sometimes telling god that it was from the shame of having something like me.
I am aggressive, and score within the 96-98th percentile on intelligence tests. I also forget social norms, forget to sit with my knees together, forget to not ask questions or to play some of the games we are taught to play with one another. Social events overload my senses, and I retreat to a corner and read, giving me a bookish persona which my family despaired of ever marrying off, though my father tried to arrange a marriage.
He says it was a joke. I remember the boy’s face when my father sent him over, and telling him why he did not want me. The boy couldn’t look me in the eye afterward. My father was upset by this.
When I got married for the first time, my father grabbed my ass during the pictures, as if to reassure himself that I understood that I was being given away, not marrying under my own will. He joked about that, too, during the reception.
My father is an angry man, in his own way. An engineer, he believes in logic, which stems from his masculinity and his belief that god is also male. He believed that men were created first, and that women were the gate with which sin enters the world. My childhood was punctuated by his appearances— a work-a-holic, he believes that if he works hard enough, he can have everything. He believes that if only women and people of color would work hard enough, they could be almost as good as he is as a white man, and that discrimination is just a way to cheat your employer of your work. He believes that god set him at the head of his family, and that his job is to discipline us.
He beat us. My mother passed hers along.
They were Southern Baptist libertarians. I don’t know what they are now. Southern Baptists believe, canonically, that women are inferior and weak. They must be molded and made subservient, that domestic violence is a result of a woman refusing to take her place. And if she, or anyone else, steps out of their places, they should be encouraged to get back in them.
My father did not, because artists were in his opinion leeches and whores, as was anyone who was dependent on someone else, want to provide for us and did so grudgingly. Part of the threat was embedded in that grudging support, and was explicit in what my parents told me: we do not have to love or take care of you if we don’t feel that you work hard enough.
In my case, that threat was magnified by the school system. We lived in a small town in Texas for some time during my childhood. I went to school purple from kidneys to midthigh while I was in elementary; my teacher discovered it from the way I moved, but the school decided that it was a matter of religious freedom, and they would not intervene. I literally thought that no one cared. I was told that this was god’s will, and I believed this for many years.
I ran away from home just before my 16th birthday, stealing one of my parents’ cars as a home, because my family was trying to institutionalize me. I’d already been exorcized three times, at their churches. They would only consult Christian therapists, who told them that my depression and dissatisfaction meant that I was mentally ill. I got out, but leaving that way of life, that baseline assumption that women are worthless, was less easy. I sometimes rewatch the movies from the late 80s and early 90s, my childhood; that assumption was and sometimes is everywhere in popular culture, and it’s no wonder it took me a long time to start detangling the conditioning of my childhood.
I suppose that is typically the way these things go; my first and second husbands were unpleasant men, but I managed to divorce them. In the second husband’s case, that involved hiding from his family.
Along with my fight for survival, a seed of doubt kept blooming: why can someone call religion good, when it takes as a baseline experiences like mine? What kind of god would be satisfied with a situation like mine, like my mother’s?
Why? Why did my mother keep living with my father? Why did the people in the churches we went to always ask to be forgiven for the same damn things, and never seem to learn not to do them?
Why could my father believe that his actions were things which were good, right and necessary?
I read the bible repeatedly trying to answer those questions, but the real breaking point was in a bible-study, as these things tend to be. I was twenty and had come back to the church my parents went to, trying to understand the things about them which were so incomprehensible to me. I made one too many comments, and one of the (male) bible-study leaders turned to me and quoted that verse about women not speaking in church.
I have a quick temper, and asked him, since cock was so fucking important, to show me god’s cock right there or I would assume he was being an asshole. I couldn’t stand it any more, the silent waiting for permission to speak, to eat, to sleep, to piss. The bible-study leader was only convenient, not that I am sorry for what I said.
They asked me to leave. It was the first time I had been called ‘free-thinker,’ a deadly insult in that community. I’ve dabbled with religion since them, but I lack the ability to believe. Those questions keep nagging at me and I read too much history to take a gloss of belief.
Since then, I’ve several times tried to talk to my mother about faith. My father is, for obvious reasons, not someone I can talk to. He typically insults my intelligence, gender and orientation (queer), because my existence disturbs him. He believes anyone who is not heterosexual must be a pedophile and anyone aberrant of his expectations deserves any cruelty he is capable of without incurring the negative opinion of his peers; the barbarity of his words is all the more horrible because they are naked of pretense or self-reflection. There is no reason for him to learn anything more. This is the world he sees, the world he believes everyone else lives in.
I wanted to encourage my mother to leave my father, to go somewhere where she would be valued. She will not go, but she has since changed churches over my father’s objections, to a Presbyterian church.
One conversation we’ve had repeatedly is germane to our differences. We were talking about guilt. She feels incredibly guilty for my childhood, as does my father, in his way (what he says is that he feels bad for what I made them do).
I told her that guilt is supposed to be a transient emotion; we are meant, in my experience, to suffer guilt for an action, consider the action, learn from our mistakes and amend our behavior.
She looked at me sadly and said no. Guilt, she said, is a punishment from god that we cannot escape and must only live with. I wanted to scream when she said it; the guilt she lives with is crippling, awful.
My heart breaks for her, and also for my father. I realize they choose their burdens, but their environments as children are a strong influence on the situation they live with. I researched them, trying to understand that unanswerable question: why me? Why them?
The answer is that there’s no satisfying answer, but I have resolved the following after a long time of thinking and writing about it: they do not have to love me in a conventional sense, and we can never talk. I will never have holidays with them, cannot go to family reunions, cannot call my mother when something good or bad happens, though I sometimes try to talk to them anyway.
I want what I cannot have.
No matter what happened, no matter how angry I am at them (and I am enraged) and how much I sometimes wish I could forget they exist, I love them. I always have. It will not ever make a difference for them and it does not have to. It is love: complex and ugly and painful and terrible.
I do not need a god for that.