Dear Lily June,
This is a letter I don’t want you to read until you’re older, not because it’s an example of a “bad secret,” but because I’m going to tell you some upsetting truths about my past. I want to always be as honest with you as I can because I believe open and honest communication is very important for a relationship, be that between partners or parents and children or other family members or friends. There’s nothing I would withhold from you if you ask me and I feel you’re old enough to truly understand the significance of the answer. As the line in Interview with a Vampire goes,
“Knowledge…will pass through [me] as through a pane of glass.”
But my mother, your Grandma Raelyn, also used to tell me that
“Honesty can be a license for cruelty.”
What I don’t want is for my truths to become your pains. My memories and my childhood experiences were my own, and the people involved in these scenarios have different relationships with you than they did–and do–with me. Everyone, whether they want to or not, as they age will learn and grow and change. (For what it’s worth, your Grandma Raelyn remarried, and your Grandpa Edward is in recovery.)
I want you to love every member of your family and treat them with the respect they earn by treating you right and justly. It will be up to you to decide how you respond to and interact with them on that account, and while I will teach you manners, I won’t tell you how to feel about family members. Follow your heart, respect your mind, look into yourself, and choose. No family member who truly loves you will ever ask you to choose them over another. So take all of my words about my past as just that–words about a past. You do what you feel is right for your present and your future.
When I was a girl, I had a stutter. A free speech therapist at my school told my mother that this was a result of my brain thinking faster than my tongue could work to pronounce words. I don’t understand the science of quite why the two couldn’t work together; I only know I had a lot on my little mind.
You see, when I’d come home from school, I would come home to the sounds of fights. They often took place behind closed doors, which added to the horror, because what I couldn’t see, I was forced instead to imagine. I could hear yelling–sometimes like hysterical screeching; other times like low-pitched bellowing. I could hear the sound of slaps and slamming body parts, as if someone was being rammed up against their door. I could hear crying, but only if I strained against the wood, and this was the most frightening sound of them all. Most often, the yelling one was my father; the crier was my mother.
The fights varied in topic, but never tone. And like a tornado, a cyclone of tension would build for weeks, with emotional debris scattered to the winds inside our home, and then there would be an eerie calm. The eye of the storm meant coming home to a silence stretched so thin, it stuck in my throat like the sliver of a fish’s bone. And then, something big would happen: an explosion.
My mother would take all of the attention at her thirty-somethingth birthday, and my father would threaten to grab the cake my sister baked her (her first baking endeavor) and smash my mother’s face in. Our VCR would once ruin a video tape we rented from the store as my mother stayed home to nurse me when I had the flu, and my father would punish her with a punch that threw her into a blackout and put her jaw out of alignment.
And always, afterwards, there were sweet apologies and mumbled, whispered words. And it would quiet for awhile until the winds picked up again, somewhere in the distance, waiting to blow back into our door and bang the shutters against the windows we kept, always and forever, closed behind the curtains.
None of this is original to my life, Lily; I’ve learned in therapy and through college courses just how cliche the cycle of violence can be in a home run and ruled by an alcoholic. There were quotations I loved to hate because they were so true for me, like playwright Moss Hart’s line,
“A family is a dictatorship ruled over by its sickest member.”
There is nothing I wish for more than that you never learn to live like that–constantly on edge, walking on figurative broken glass made almost real by the stash of alcohol bottles that permeated every hiding hole: in garage boxes, furniture, or worse–just out in the open with no fear that we all would know what was ruling his temper that weekend.
What I still don’t understand about this situation is why I never told someone. I did well in school, had teachers I loved, and would often go to friends’ houses to escape my life at home. My best and closest friends weren’t aware of how things worked in my house; my teachers may have suspected but never acted; as far as I know, I guarded my father’s secret so well, I practically gave him permission to put my mother in danger.
I don’t know why I didn’t report his behavior. Maybe I was afraid he would stop hitting my mother and come after my sister or I (which, in the ten years they stayed married when I was a kid and seventeen for my sister, I don’t remember that he ever did). Maybe I was ashamed, thinking I was somehow complicit in the scene that unfolded so frequently. I know, based on our weekend cleans and failed inspections, that sometimes I did indeed feel some sense of responsibility.
Though I’m old enough now to know that it wasn’t my fault–not the drinking or what happened as a result; not the violence against my mother or the ire of my father; not even my stuttering because I thought so much about it but didn’t know how to, or if I should, do the telling–it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad secret to keep. If I’d let someone know, I might’ve been taken to a safer place. If I’d let someone know, my mother might have escaped sooner. If I’d let someone know, I might not be afraid of how you’ll think of your grandparents someday. Or of me.
There are good secrets, too, Lily. If your best friend whispers to you about a boy or girl he/she likes in school, you should keep that information in your heart under lock and key. If someone you love asks if you find them or what they’re wearing ugly, you can withhold your true opinion to focus on something more positive–telling them, even if you hate their shirt, for instance, how much you love their earrings. If you have a locker combination at school, or we, as a family, come up with a secret word for who can and should pick you up from afterschool activities, these are things you can (and maybe should) keep to yourself.
In none of these instances does holding onto the truth threaten someone’s physical safety. In none of these cases is anyone asking you not to talk about things you’ve done with–or things that have been done to–your body.
But Lily, there are bad secrets to keep, too. If someone is hurting you or someone you love, I hope you’ll feel safe telling your daddy or mommy. Even if someone threatens to hurt us–or you–if you tell, that’s a lie they’re using to make you feel like you’re not free to share with your parents whatever you feel you need to. You can tell them you’ll keep the secret, but then it’s not a bad thing to come and tell us anyway. As your parents, we love each other and you, and we will do everything in our power to protect you. You never have to be afraid that we won’t believe you.
And here’s the hardest truth, Lily: Sometimes the ones who do the hurting can be those closest to you. Sometimes a family member or friend or teacher or coach or neighbor or babysitter whose job it is to care for and protect you will instead put you in harm’s way or directly hurt you. If mommy ever says or does something that hurts you, you should tell me. If you don’t feel safe telling me, you should tell your dad. And the reverse is true, too.
We want to keep a secret-free policy in our house as much as possible. If you develop a stutter, we’ll work with you on pronunciation and speech, but it shouldn’t be something you’re ashamed of, and it shouldn’t be because of something about which you’re ashamed to speak. Your brain may move faster than your mouth can keep up, and that’s okay, too, Lily. I just want to try, as much as possible, to ensure that what you’re trying to say is about how your day went, or how much you enjoyed playing, or about something you would like, with all of your heart, to do.
I don’t know when to talk to you about all this, so forgive your mother if it takes me some practice to say it all the right way. You can’t imagine, my darling dear, how very much I love you. My brain has more words than my fingers can type about all of this, and my tongue has more phrases than it knows how to say. I hope you’re able to understand, anyway.
- “Mouth illustration-Otis Archives” by Duncan Kenneth Winter – originally posted to Flickr as 65-5390-1 by Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine. See Wired article for more information.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mouth_illustration-Otis_Archives.jpg#/media/File:Mouth_illustration-Otis_Archives.jpg
- “Chimp Brain in a jar” by Gaetan Lee . Tilt corrected by Kaldari. – originally posted to Flickr as Chimp Brain in a jar. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chimp_Brain_in_a_jar.jpg#/media/File:Chimp_Brain_in_a_jar.jpg
- “Flaming cocktails” by Nik Frey (niksan) – stock.xchng: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=207042 [dead link]. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flaming_cocktails.jpg#/media/File:Flaming_cocktails.jpg