One of the reasons I liked this tale was that it exemplified the notion that a child could recognize what all of the adults around him could not or would not see. I identified with this child because it seemed to me that nobody but me could see what my mother was really like, that I, like that child in the fairy tale, was the lone voice of truth in a world steeped in self-serving lies. The other reason I liked the tale was that in it, the townspeople listened to the child and believed him: he told the truth and he was heard, supported, and validated. This was something that I had not experienced but dearly wished for.
This story validated me and my perceptions…it demonstrated for me that the truth could win, that adults would listen to a child and believe. I just had to find that adult, I believed, and not get caught by my mother in the process. I believed that rescue was just a matter of time, that eventually I would find that adult who listened to me, believed me, and would save me.
I tried a lot of people and the responses were universally dismal. My Sunday School teachers wanted to know what I had done to provoke my mother; at the end of every summer my grandparents listened to me sob through my last night with them, let me beg and bargain with them to stay, and every summer they sent me back. Even those adults who believed my tales of woe and abuse declined to do anything. And eventually, I stopped telling people because even those who listened and believed did nothing. Even when they, too, knew that the emperor had no clothes, none of them were willing to speak up and publicly admit it.
In junior high, in the girls’ gym, I was undressing in preparation for putting on my gym suit when one of the gym teachers looked out the office window and spotted the welts on my legs and butt, put there by my mother with The Strap, a thin leather dog leash with the metal clip removed, which bit into bare flesh like a whip. The teacher called me into the office and there she noted the black and blue marks and small wound on my face, just above the right side of my lip, a bruise and cut left from my mother backhanding me while wearing a sizeable diamond ring. She asked me where I got the marks and I told the truth…and she listened. She more than listened, she believed me and she took action.
Before I knew it, a policewoman had arrived and took me into custody. From there I was taken to the Children’s Shelter where my injuries were photographed and documented, after which I was sent on to where I was assigned a bed and given some clean clothes. I was delighted to be in a place where the rules were clear and if you followed them, you wouldn’t get in trouble…and if you did get in trouble, that trouble didn’t involve beatings or brow beatings, just a dispassionate dispensation of a consistent and pre-determined penalties. I felt secure, like the world had finally gained its bearings and had stopped slipping and sliding beneath my feet.
My relief was short-lived, however. Naïve as to the workings of the court and relying on the information I got from the other girls in the Shelter with me, I expected I would stay for several weeks and, if I was well-behaved enough, I would end up in a foster home. All of this was fine with me, as I expected a foster home to be less fraught than living with my mother…at least they weren’t allowed to hit me.
The girls in my room were excited when, on only my second day, I was called to pack up. They all speculated that I was going to a foster home and I was going quickly because I had never been “in the system” before and was therefore easy to place. I was given my own clothes and shoes back and a stuffed animal to take with me and I confidently left my room and marched down the stairs to meet my new foster family.
Instead, I met my mother. I nearly wet my pants with fear when I saw her standing there, a sheaf of papers in her hands, a terrifying scowl on her face. She had what was called a “writ of habeas corpus” which allowed her to spring me from the Shelter and before I knew what had happened, I was in the car, headed back to her house. She harangued me the whole way home, shouting and yelling and generally intimidating me and, when we finally arrived home, she beat the stuffing out of me. She was going to have to pay for my night in the Shelter, she informed me, and pay a lawyer for her court appearance to get the writ, and pay for a lawyer for court, and if I cost her another cent, I was going to rue the day I was born. The next day I was back in school, fresh welts on the back of my legs and butt, but this time nobody did anything…they had tried and their efforts had borne no fruit, and nobody was motivated to help me any further.
I am not sure if it is a blessing or a curse that I was able to see my mother’s casual, selfish cruelty. Certainly in the short run, it was a curse since I had to live with the frustration of being the only person who could see the truth and the danger of trying to get the truth out to someone who would actually do something about it. But perhaps it was also a blessing since, because I was so acutely aware of how different my mother was from the mothers of my friends, I never bought into the idea that she loved me and was doing all these terrible things for my own good. I did not have to overcome denial where she was concerned, nor did I ever have to struggle with guilt when I cut contact with her: I knew she was abusive, I knew I did not deserve to be abused, and I knew that my only hope was to get away from her control and stay away.
Unfortunately, not everything was so clear for me. I still wanted my mother’s love, attention and approval. I couldn’t un-know the truth about her but, unaware of narcissism and its permanent nature, I could hope for change. And so I began to seek out ways to elicit my mother’s love and approval: I tried to be pretty, smart, accomplished. I got a job and kept up a high grade point average. I took an aptitude test sponsored by the Air Force and scored in the 80th, 90th, and 95th percentile in three of four categories, meaning I could not only choose any specialty I wanted, I was eligible for the Airman Education Program, a scheme by which, if I put myself through one year of college, the Air Force would send me to college to complete my education and make me an officer upon graduation. I became tenor soloist in the school choir, I won a prize for sculpture at an all-city art show for high school students, I received academic awards…and not one of those accomplishment sparked more than a batted eyelash at my success.
Only I and a very tiny handful of other people, seemed to be able to see that my emperor had no clothes. The school nurse was clued in after several examples of neglect landed me at her doorstep and she had to threaten my mother with calling CPS in order to prompt her to take me to a dentist, an optometrist, a doctor. The mother of one of my friends, the parents of my boyfriend and, I suspect, my own grandparents, were aware that something was very wrong at my house…but only that one gym teacher stuck her neck out on my behalf and nothing came of it.
Today, 50+ years later, I have to wonder why so many people couldn’t see. It was so obvious to anyone who cared to look. Little girls had to wear dresses to school in those days…could they not see the marks and bruises, in varying states of healing, every time I climbed up the monkey bars and hung upside down by my knees, every time I bent over to pick up my hopscotch marker, every time my dress bounced up and down as I jumped rope? It was more than “I don’t want to get involved…” because at least that acknowledges that there is a victim and there is abuse. It was like they were so completely blinded, so totally absorbed in the illusion of sacred motherhood that they could not see what was right in front of them: an abused child desperately in need of rescue.
I can understand denial: I was in denial for years that my grandparents had no choice but to send me back to a mother they knew did not want me and who abused me; I was in denial for years that my daughter was not a narcissist who sought to supplant me in the family structure; I was in denial for years that my narcissist husband loved me. But these were people I cared for, people I wanted to believe cared for me…the denial served my hope of one day being demonstrably loved and cared for by these people. But what about the others? What vested interest did the Sunday school teacher, the neighbours, the parents of my little friends, was served by their denial? Why would they ask me what I had done to deserve my abuse, why would they ignore the marks on my legs, the stories of abuse acted out in doll play, the fingernails chewed to nubs, the nervousness and hyperalertness? Why could I, the little kid in the centre of the storm, see the naked ugliness that was my mother and they were stubbornly transfixed by the suit of imaginary clothes?
This, I think, is a question all scapegoats need to ask…not only of themselves, but of those adults in their lives who made no effort to help them as abused children. Why did their aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbours, teachers, and other adults refuse to acknowledge the truth that these children grew up in households full of dysfunction and abuse? And why, years later and these children have grown into hurting, questioning adults, do they still cling to the illusion that those women were good mothers to the children they abused?
It is too easy to simply accept that they “didn’t want to get involved.” What kind of family member turns a blind eye when a child is being abused? It was none of their business? Really? Abuse is always the business of the observer, especially inside a family. Because they were being afraid of being told to mind their own business? If they were afraid, can they not imagine, in the smallest part, how afraid that helpless child must be? At the very least, a family member can refuse to look away, or to convince themselves that the abuse is warranted in the name of discipline: even if the abuse doesn’t stop, the child will not forget who spoke up on their behalf and know that the world in not entirely populated by abusers and their enablers.
Who, besides you, knew that your emperor strode about naked in imaginary clothes woven of illusion and self-serving egotism? In my case, my father and step-mother were aware…and they made numerous attempts to gain my custody. But in the Fifties and early Sixties, “common wisdom” held that children were better off with their mothers and the myth of the sainthood of all mothers held the social consciousness in its grip. Children were not permitted to give their two cent’s worth in courts because we didn’t know what was good for us, and any negative accusations against a mother by her ex-husband were dismissed as sour grapes. The only people who could see and would acknowledge my reality were dismissed out of hand by the court and my input was never even allowed.
The real tragedy of all this is that I was not the only child condemned to this life, and time has not brought with it significant change. There are legions of emperors out there, people who have fashioned a socially acceptable exterior that they present to the world and which is accepted unquestioningly as reality by everyone except those few who can see through the ruse and know that emperor is, in reality, naked. The reality is, the vast majority simply don’t want to know…acknowledgment brings an obligation to act and, because the pain is not their own, they are motivated more to maintain the status quo than to step in and “meddle.”
Some things never change.