I *know, 4,000+ words? You must be out of your mind. Yet, this is a piece of pure conviction. I don’t expect all that many readers to make it through this. But I do ask, give it a chance. If I am lucky, the message here could help someone see a situation in which they find themselves in a new light. Above all, take this message as it is intended, please. I intend nothing but the best by it. Here goes!*
I find it sad that many people remain in loveless, often psychologically, even physically abusive marriages. Most often the reason given is that it they do so for the children. I most respectfully call bullshit! Before I go any further, allow me to offer this caveat: I am in no way judging anyone here. I’m simply making an argument based upon my own experiences. Actually, this is more than an argument; it is a statement of principle.
I was having dinner last night with my Mom and second step-dad, the closest thing that I’ve ever had to a father. I told a story of one night when she poked the shit out of me with a fork at the dinner table. Seems that I had been at my “real” Father’s house—real insofar as his tumescent equipment happened to have been in fine working order approximately 9 months prior to September 10, 1970. I thank him for that and little else, not that I could anyway at this point, unless his specter is reading over my shoulder. No fears, he will be lost soon enough. She did not recall that incident, although my sister certainly did. Hand in lap, that was the way “proper”—what a fucking laugh—ate. She broke the skin, oh yes. She certainly broke the skin. She remarked facetiously, I’ll also break a plate over your head. This is from a notorious event that occurred one Thanksgiving when I was being just a bit too hyper. She was in line behind me and simply cracked a plate over my hard-ass head. As I was preparing to leave, she said to me: “You guys never tell any good stories about your childhood. There have to be some.” I wracked my brain. “Mom, I’m sorry. I simply don’t have any, which is not to say that there weren’t some. Let’s face it; things were fucked up in this house. This was especially the case when Bill, my first step-father, by whom we were all terrorized for the majority of my years in the house had her so fucking scared that she would have sworn to having had a penis, if he had demanded.
My father was a bullshit artist, plain and simple. He was filled with self-hate, which manifested itself in his visceral hatred of “niggers.” Indeed, I did not speak to him for years for the simple fact that he refused to refrain from employing that term in my presence. It had taken me a long time to deprogram myself of this habit. One sure way to receive a classic Rusty tongue lashing is to employ that term in my presence. Indeed, years ago teaching in the Deep South, a student made a similarly derogatory remark in the classroom. In order to avoid a riot, I jerked his ass out of his seat, took him into the hallway, and made it manifestly clear to him that were he ever to make such a remark in my class again, or if I heard of it happening in another, I would bring him up on disciplinary charges and give him the opportunity to find another way to spend his time. I then told him that I would collect his books and to get the fuck out of my sight. The result was a syllogism I employed in class to make a point, which, ultimately, I had to defend to my Department Head. It goes like this. “Black people (fill in for whatever race) rape, pillage, murder, and do all sorts of other despicable things. Therefore, all black people are niggers. Oh shit, I just had a thought. White people, rape pillage, murder, and do all sorts of despicable things. Ergo, white people are niggers. Thus, if this is a valid term of condemnation, we are all niggers, plain and simple.” To fail to follow the argument through to this logical conclusion is to commit the fallacy of the excluded middle. But, I digress: SURPRISE.
My first step-father was nothing less than a monster. One could never know what to expect. I recall the hesitation I always felt as I placed my hand on the door knob to my house, dreading what I would find. He would go weeks without speaking to anyone. Then he would explode over some little bullshit. I’m not very good at keeping my head down. I would eventually grow tired of his stomping around yelling about some insignificant bullshit. I’d step out of my sanctuary of books and internal fantasies to face the reality of a 6’5, 270 lb man. The results were inevitable. I got my ass kicked. Big fucking deal, I preferred that to his psychological torture any day of the week. (Incidentally, recent psychological literature shows that psychological abuse has a far more profound effect upon children than any sort of physical abuse save sexual.) I never feared either he or his beatings. But, his ranting invaded my one effective means of escape: my room and my concentration upon my books and juvenile writings. Of course, when I was older, working out, and could clearly return the favor, he demurred. I did not challenge him simply to do so. He was at it again. At last, he would have to fight a man, someone who could clearly kick his ass to kingdom come. I dared not initiate the fight. The results were all too clear, and he was not worth going to jail over. Frankly, I can think of nothing that would have stopped me from doing everything I could to permanently injure him in the most heinous way. I had grown up fantasizing as to ways to kill this man. I called this shell of a human being every name in the book. I insulted him in ways that, in my day, would have led to an immediate beat down. Yet, all I got was a look of true fear. In the face of what he had to have known would have been a devastating ass-kicking, I saw yet another, pitiful example of what it is to be a “man.” He was scared. At that point, he was also gone, for what good it did me, as I was in graduate school 250 miles away. Nonetheless, my mother was freed from his tyranny and freed to marry a real man, the man who I consider to be my father. I should note that his son for the most stupid and arbitrary reasons, and me, because I dared challenge his suzerainty were the only ones he ever physically abused. Had he ever touched my mother or sister, I would have done whatever it took to kill that man. At the time I hated him to the point that I have absolutely no doubt that I would have done so without blinking an eye.
Thus, I promised myself long ago that I would never remain in an unhappy marriage. It is well known that people either act as they were acted upon, or they do the reverse. By some stroke of good fortune, I am an example of the latter. I learned is how NOT to be a man and a father. I would not hit my son, if someone put a gun to my head with every intention of killing me were I to fail to do so. Moreover, I never have and never will yell at my son. If I am mad enough to yell, I will give myself time to calm down so that I can have what I hope to be a constructive conversation as to what the problem is and how it can be remedied. This is not to say that I have never yelled at anyone. Just get the fuck out of the way, if you ever see it. Yet, I’ve learned that it is far more effective to lower my voice a few octaves and say what I have to say in a situation that allows for no time out. The only time I ever saw my grandfather truly angry, thankfully not at me, that was his tact. Although I was not the target, it sent a chill up my spine, which yelling and screaming never did.
My mother and I have since become the best of friends. I love her dearly and understand that she was doing the best that she knew how, at the time. We were poor, very poor in many instances. I recall a car through which I had to enter the passenger seat through the window, brilliantly Dukes of Hazzard style, because the window would not go up, and food had to come before windows. She married Bill, step-father I, for largely economic reasons. He appeared to have and be able to keep a good job, unlike my father. Alas, appearance and reality, as we all know have a way of reversing themselves on you as quickly as a good NY Strip will be infested with maggots within hours of being subjected to 90 degree heat. Bill’s working situation was as bad, if not worse than was my fathers: so much for good intentions. I also understand that she allowed him to act as he did out of fear. I have already given an account of his size. My mom is 5’ even and has never weighed over 110, often far less. Eventually, she found escape in a bottle. Thankfully, she freed herself from that ball and chain, as well. I hold nothing whatsoever against my mother, whom I have always loved and admired. She worked her ass off, achieving things that very few women of her age with no higher education, having made the youthful mistake of dropping out of nursing school to marry the man with the effective tool, ever will. I am very proud of her. She doesn’t recall many of the altercations between Bill and I. That is completely understandable. It has taken her years to forgive herself, and she has not been totally successful, in spite of my adamant declarations that she has nothing to be forgiven for, from my point of view.
Ultimately, those who suffer from sour marriages, whether they were quite as melodramatic as those just recounted or not, are the children. I would give anything in the world to have been able to see my son grow up by my side, knowing my love and guidance at all times. Alas, that was not to be. As the result of an affair with a man who was putatively one of my best friends, I vacated our house for good before my son was 7 months old. Our pregnancy was inopportune, to say the least. Ethan was born in December. I had my Ph.D. orals in June. It would be a lie to say that I carried my load as I should have in those months. She came to resent me fantastically. It did not occur to me to put my orals off, which, in hind sight would have been the thing to do. Anyone who has gone through this ordeal knows that there are very few things one will face in one’s professional career than these godforsaken oral exams. Ultimately, of course, they were far less of a nightmare in practice than they were in my mind. I saw graduate school as a job. It was my job and the foundation of our future together. Taking a full load of graduate seminars and studying for oral exams is an 18-20 hour a day job. I could never sleep for more than a couple of hours without some damn perceived gap in my philosophical knowledge creeping into my dreams, compelling me to retire, odd verb in this situation, to my study for yet another perusal of Leibniz’s Monadology, Bacon’s Novum Organum, Hegel or Kant’s nearly impenetrable works.
I was not entirely remiss in my duties. I loved my son. Alas, he was a colicky baby. For the first six months of his life we arranged a sleeping/watching schedule. She would go to bed around 8:30 or 9:00 and sleep until around 12:00. Then it was my turn to lie in bed and catch whatever sleep I could prior to jumping up and heading to the study. At 4:00, I would officially take over until 8:00, so as to shower and take off to teach at 9:00. Nonetheless, to be honest, I could have done more. Her resentment was not entirely unwarranted; although, I would have liked for her to have understood my plight with a bit more compassion. I was, after all, attempting to secure a future for us. Alas, born with a silver spoon in her ass, and having a trust fund such that she has never in her life worked a full-time job, she had no conception of what I was doing. Thus, I suppose that my term “securing our future” is a bit hyperbole. Yet, I had worked my fingers to the bone to get to where I was. I was going to pass those exams with an “exceptional,” come hell or high water. Again, this was my job.
Our lives together became more and more difficult. It did not help that three days after Ethan was born, I was falsely diagnosed with yet another, far more dangerous brain tumor. There were two surgeons in the entire US who had any qualifications for this sort of surgery, which included separating the two hemispheres of the brain. I recall sitting in my car for hours after the diagnosis, seriously considering hiding the fact from Ashley. When ultimately, I arrived home and told her, she flipped out. I’m certain that post-partum hormones did not help, and she did suffer from post-partum depression eventually. Perhaps I made my fatal mistake in my reaction to her reaction. I had never been more scared in my life. The thought of someone delivering the most severe trauma imaginable to my most trusted internal ally, was unimaginable to me. In an attempt to protect her, I largely withdrew into my private hell of unmitigated fear. I tried to put on a tough face. Surgery at the Columbia University Hospital was scheduled for February 22, 2 months and 2 days following the birth of Ethan and less than 4 months from my Oral Exams. On the day our divorce was final, as I was unlocking my bike from a parking meter, she sought me out crying. She asked me why I had to be such a tough ass about that situation. I tried to tell her, although I’m sure she did not understand.
I’m not a jealous person. She and Wayne were friends, also. They began to spend more and more time together, as I escaped into my books and private hell. Anyone with half a brain could see what was coming. I spoke with them both, to no avail. Orals now behind me, having achieved my desired results, I happened to be living with Wayne, as Ashley and I attempted to work through our marital issues with counseling. On June 18, the day Ethan was to turn 6 months old, Ashley had asked me to spend the afternoon with them. Of course, I would. Moreover, it was not as if we were not spending time together, even “quality” time, if you know what I mean. The normal routine was for Wayne, Ashley, & Ethan to take off at around 8:00 and return at noon. Both loved to shop, which is something I abhor. They also did other things like go to the river, and whatever else. As it happened, on June 18, as noon became 3:30, I absolutely knew that they were doing a “whatever else,” the one thing that I had assured her before we were married would end our lives together forever. I say I knew, because I always have. I have a sixth sense about these things and have never been wrong. When they finally appeared, I was preparing a lecture for a medical ethics class I was teaching that summer. Ashley asked me, if I was ready to come home with her and Ethan. “No, Ashley. We were to have begun our afternoon at noon. You can believe that nothing pleasant would result from my coming to the house today.”
When Wayne went upstairs to the flat we were then sharing, I asked him flat out, “Did you fuck my wife today?” He gave me this speech about projecting my failures, blah, blah, blah. Then, coincidences of all coincidences, on the way to therapy on Monday, Ashley gave me the same speech word for word. “Wow, you and Wayne must have ESP. Ashley, you didn’t have to memorize what he said to me. You just hung yourself, and I will have definitive proof. For some reason, we were sharing an e-mail account at the time. A couple of weeks after that June 18, I arrived at the house to spend time with my wife and child. Ethan was napping, and Ashley wanted a nap. So, I went upstairs to my study in order to check my e-mail, which I had not done in some time. What appears on the screen but a message from Wayne. I will spare you the explicit details, but suffice it to say, I had definitive proof of the affair. Ethan awoke, and I put him in the stroller for a nice brisk walk. I had to calm down. We returned home, I was feeding him plum baby food as Ashley descended the stairs. I arose and threw a copy of the e-mail at her. I began to yell, until I hear Ethan began to squall, at which time I simply stalked out of the house to which I would return only once: in order to move my stuff into my new apartment.
There was no reconciliation to be had. This was my only “rule.” As her husband, as a person, I deserved at least the respect of her telling me in advance, so that I could get out beforehand. This was part of the deal. “If you want to sleep with another person, I cannot stop you. But at least show me the courtesy to let me know ahead of time, so that I can leave.” Things had already been bad enough for a trail separation. I refused to put my son though what I had been through. He would still be my son. But, he would be spared the stupidity of adults, and what would certainly have been a series of events between Ashley and me, which, even at that age children pick up on. Before we divorced, I asked for one final favor and made her my last promise, not for me, but for our son. I had grown up listening to my divorced mother and father elaborate each and every fault of the other. It takes a great toll on a child. I asked that we make a deal: never will either of us speak ill of the other in front of Ethan. It puts a child in an impossible situation for years, until he or she can stand up and say, “Look, if you want to badly to say something to X, here’s the phone number. Call, and leave me the fuck out of it. You better believe that I’m done with this childish bullshit. Stop it or I will make other arrangements for myself.”
Although I was 6 before my Mom and Dad divorced, I have not a single memory of their being together. I have far too many of the years with my first step-father, which began when he moved in; I was 8. Indeed, eventually Mom told me that she and Bill wanted to get married and sought my blessing. I told her that I could not give it. Thus it is that I received a call on New Year’s Day at my grandparent’s house. It was my mom telling me that she and Bill had gotten married. Perhaps I could have been a bit more charitable, but I told her that she had made a terrible mistake.
I was right, and my Cassandra like insight didn’t take a month to begin to manifest itself. Yet, mom felt trapped, not to mention scared as hell of the man she had married. For the next 9 years of my life, until I went away to college, life in our house—there is a distinct difference between a house and a home—we all suffered from this mistake. Yet, the ones who suffered the most, the weakest ones in the house in need of the most attention and love, were we children. Those years were literally a living hell. My mother, afraid of my step-father, was transformed into a little more than a yes-woman. This proud woman who I had so deeply loved, became a complete stranger to me. I paid her back in full. I learned to set my own course. I locked myself up in my room with my books, pens, and notebooks. I reluctantly came out to eat and immediately returned. Even then, everyone had sense enough not to encroach upon my privacy. You made your choice, this is the demand I make in return; leave me the fuck alone. By the time I could drive, I was a wild man. What were they going to do to me, beat me? I was often on restriction, which meant locked in my room. Mom recounts an event that still clearly bothers her. She and Bill had some fucked up economic arrangement. He bought the groceries. We were forbidden to just come home after school and have a snack. I got around that one by eating raw potatoes, which I loved anyway, because I knew that they would not be missed. One evening, treat of all treats, Bill was feeling generous and offered everyone ice cream. There was a condition placed upon my receiving that treat, however. I had to join the “family” watching TV. I refused and got no ice cream. I have no recollection of this event. But, mom has mentioned it as an example that she now admires, but has trouble forgiving herself for allowing. Undoubtedly, this event has come to stand as an example of all the ways in which she perceives herself to have failed as a mother.
Again, I blame my mother for nothing. While I cannot say that I forgave Bill, I can say that I see him as a miserable old man, if he still lives, who undoubtedly died or will die devoid of any sort of love and affection. I do not wish this upon him. Yet, it must be the truth. He clearly hated himself. If he is still alive, for thankfully I have not seen him since that evening when I tried so hard to get him to fight me, I am certain that he continues to hate himself.
The result of my mother’s finding the resolve to divorce that man caused us, the children, and particularly me, the one who was foolhardy enough to call his bullshit, untold harm. I would much preferred to have lived in a cramped apartment on our government cheese, milk, and eggs, receiving my free lunches at school, and getting my clothes at second hand shops than to have lived in that house with those people. I put up a wall that has taken many years and a fantastic amount of pain to dismantle. To say that I have been entirely successful would be a lie. Our whole fucking life was a lie. There was the time I “stepped on a garden rake and gave myself a black eye,” the time when, as a member of the SC Junior Olympic team, having broken my hand against a brick wall, because I had just had my ass kicked, an orthopeadist was ingenious enough to form me a special cast, so that I could take the baton as the final leg of the 4×100 relay, and countless other stories.
Again, I intend no judgment against anyone who may find themselves in a miserable, perhaps abusive, marriage “for the kids.” But I am saying that the kids are the ones being fucked up. As adults, we have the emotional and mental equipment to deal with setbacks, even those as devastating as the breakup of a marriage, and it is always devastating however horrible the relationship may be. After all, this is a failure of a dream, the dream to love and be loved, and the dream to have a family, in short, the dream of the majority of human beings on this planet in one shape or another. The point of this narrative was not to recount my own “tragic” childhood. After all, it is only by virtue of what I have lived through that I am the person I am, today. Scarred for certain, but a good man and a great father, lacking in the slightest need to take my personal misgivings out on innocent others, especially children. The point, as is generally the case with my writings, is to make people think. First of all, forgive yourself, if you have found yourself in a situation such as the one described above, particularly if you are a woman who feels economically dependent upon a man. If you cannot forgive yourself, the next step is infinitely more difficult. Secondly, it is never too late to recover a relationship, which may have been compromised by years of confusion and suffering. My mother and I are, now, the best of friends. She has blossomed with Drew, my father who is not. She found love and now gives it as freely as she has always wanted to do. Frankly, it did not take any time for us to establish our relationship on this new basis. Of course, I was 24, when she finally left Bill. It would, no doubt have been more difficult at 17. Nonetheless, with a bit of hard work, which is always worth it, a mother and her child, a father and his child, always have an ineffable bond, which will shine through. Finally, there is likely to be some point at which the child of such a situation will, sooner or later, suffer dramatic, nearly always self-destructive consequences from years of abuse. My own was a 7 year addiction. I caused my family untold pain. Nonetheless, they, and especially my mother and my grandfather, stood by me through all of the disappointment, mendacity on my part, and frustration at seeing me go through what amounted to a slow process of killing me. The key, however, is to be a rock once recovery has begun. Stopping the addiction was easy compared to reconstituting the self, which I had symbolically killed in the process of my addiction. That is the difficult and, frankly, the dangerous time. It’s not true that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” In reality, these are not “new trick” at all. They are one’s normal predisposition, which have been tyrannized into the depths of one’s subconscious mind.
There is nothing a child craves, however old he or she may be, than the security of loving parents. I am blessed by the relationship I now have with my mother. Most of you are aware of the tragic situation in which I find myself in relation to my son. It is the most painful experience of my life. Yet, I love my son more than life itself. I have to hope that our reconciliation, our ability to reconcile, will come sooner rather than later. As you have seen, I am not blameless in the situation in which I find myself. No dysfunctional relationship is one-sided. I understand and accept my role in the dissolution of my marriage. I have also come to forgive myself. I did what I knew how to do, at the time. I certainly learned my lesson. We can all do the same.
I will conclude in emphasizing the point of my title. Children are never a reason to remain in a bad marriage. To tell oneself that you are, frankly, is nothing more than a rationalization, which prevents oneself from having to make a very hard decision. Admittedly, children suffer the consequences of divorce, as well. Yet, as a generalization, one as far as I have read universally upheld by psychological literature, kids caught in the middle of a bad relationship; suffer far more than they do freed from such a situation. It’s never too late to make a very difficult decision in the present, which can very well turn into the greatest of blessings in the future.
Of course, I never simply conclude; there is always a finally, finally. I ask that my readers understand that I am not passing judgment. That is not my job, nor is it in anyway my intention. I am no wiser than anyone else. I am simply passing along lessons that I have learned in the living of my own life, lessons that I am certain could possibly help someone. That is my purpose, here. If this writing can have an effect upon a single person, then the very personal disclosures I have made, many of which would be more comfortably kept private, will all be validated.