The Toxic Mother: "Shut Up. You Little Bitch!"
This is a story I would prefer not to write. Unfortunately, it is reality. So here goes...
Along with my joyous discovery of a long-lost family (see earlier posts), has emerged a dark side: of dysfunction, alcoholism, grinding poverty, child abandonment, and – worst of all – savage beatings of children. One aunt abused her seven children so terribly they were all taken away from her by the Mass. Dept of Social Services (DSS). Raised in foster care, they carried on the family tradition as dysfunctional adults.
Whether I like it or not, this is my family heritage. My own mother, I'm sorry to say, was a toxic parent. Or, more accurately, she was a toxic non-parent, an absence that, in retrospect, may have been her greatest gift to me. The photo is of my mother and me as a boy, one of the few times I saw her while I was growing up.
My mother had five kids and, after our father died young (27), she handed us over to DSS. At 6, I was the oldest. My brother Reggie, the youngest, was a baby, just three months. In between in age were my sisters Marion and Ruby and my brother Vic.
After unloading five living burdens, our mother never looked back. My brother Vic said, "She just tossed us in the trash and went on with her life." She remarried. She went to nursing school, paid for by her new husband, and became a registered nurse. She was no dummy. She went on to live a long, good life of travel, shopping, and good restaurants.
I've come to think that toxic mothers are more common than we think. Just the other day, a friend who teaches tennis to many youngsters in Worcester, happened upon the handiwork of one toxic mother. Noticing that a boy did not seem to be himself, he asked him what was wrong. The boy replied, “How would you feel if your mother had just punched you in the face?”
And that's all the boy said. My friend, and now you reading this, is left to imagine the hell that this boy is going through at home. His mother, the one person on this earth who can be expected to love and protect him, punches him in the face. He can't speak of it because it is unspeakable. That's fine with most of us. We would just as soon look the other way.
The result is that extreme parental abuse has been largely hidden, unspoken of, and denied. Ironically, the current hit movie, “Precious,” about a mother's breathtaking cruelty to her daughter, is up for an academy award. Which is not to say that, although “Precious” is based on a true story, that we are ready to believe that it is anything more than an aberration.
Well, tell that to my newly-met cousin who grew up as a real-life “Precious,” suffering horrific abuse at the hands of her mother. She has the soulful eyes and life weariness of one who has seen too much and hurt too much. Yet these are not victim's eyes, passive and incomprehending; they bespeak a fierce, knowing intelligence.
Lately, she has been finding the strength to talk about it and also write about it. Sometimes she stays up all night pouring her heart out onto paper. When I hear her talk about what she went through, when I read what she has written, I cry. I cry.
Here, in her own words, is what I mean:
“The beatings I got from my mother were brutal. She would lose control and not stop until she couldn't lift her arms anymore. I'd get slapped, punched, kicked and beaten with the belt. She'd literally tear my hair out. She'd beat me so brutally with the belt that I'd have welts all over my body. More times than not, I'd end up peeing myself. She didn't care if the belt caught me in the face. The whole time telling me how much she hated me and wished I'd never been born. She told me once that when she found out she was pregnant with me, she took hot baths and actually threw herself down a flight of stairs trying to get rid of me and that I was a 'stubborn bitch and held on.' Makes you feel wanted, huh?
“I learned at a very young age to read her moods and adjust accordingly. I never knew when a slap or a punch would come my way. I avoided her as much as possible. Just having to walk into the same room with her raised my anxiety level. I never knew how to act. If I looked at her, she'd slap me and say I was giving her dirty looks, when I wasn't! If I didn't look at her, I'd get a slap for 'thinking I'm better than everyone else.' I couldn't win - no matter what I did - I was getting it.
“This particular day, I have no idea what I did to set her off. It was late afternoon and I remember getting a beating and her closing my bedroom door when she left. I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, it was morning. I went to open my door and it would only open a crack. She had taken a rope and tied it from my doorknob to the doorknob of the empty bedroom next to mine. I couldn't get out. I also hadn't eaten dinner the night before and was hungry.
“I kept calling to her to let me out and was told to just shut up. I asked my brothers to untie the door but they wouldn't - actually they couldn't - they knew what would happen to them if they did. I spent the whole morning and most of the afternoon in there - almost 24 hours - without food and without a bathroom. I eventually 'went' in the closet, I couldn't hold it anymore. I just sat and cried. I hated my life, I hated myself and most of all - I hated her.”
According to my my cousin, her mother's favorite expression was, “Shut up, you little bitch.”
As foster kids living in different and changing homes, I and my four younger siblings longed for our mother all during our childhoods. She never came for us and we could never understand why. Other kids had a mother; why didn't we? Every few years, she showed up for a quick visit, then vanished.
I asked my brother Reggie about his feelings about our mother when he was growing up. "Not a hell of a lot there," he said. "I didn't see her but a couple of times. I don't remember much about her." Reggie is shown below with our mother, in the only photo I know of the two of them together.
But then he did recall one incident. One day, he said, our mother drove up unannounced to his foster home. By now a boy of about ten, Reggie, came out of the house."I'm your mother," she said.
"No you're not," he said. "My mother is in the house." The foster mother inside was the only mother Reggie had ever known, though there was no love there; taking in foster kids for money was how she and her non-working husband paid the bills. Our mother promptly drove away.
And she stayed away. The five of us ended up spending our entire childhoods in foster care. All of us went on with our lives, finding our way in the world without the mother who gave birth to us. Today we have each other, our own families, homes, and successful lives – PLUS newly discovered aunts, uncles, and cousins.
For some unknown reason, perhaps a miracle or an act of God, the five of us seem to have broken with family tradition and achieved reasonably normal lives – though I know that my four younger siblings whisper that I have some way to go. And what you are reading may well prove their point.
Now we are old enough, secure enough, and happy enough to reflect upon this mother of ours, not in anger, not for retribution, but for the sake of the truth. The true story of our toxic mother can speak for itself, if only for the monumental question it poses: How could a mother give birth to five normal, healthy children and then abandon them for their entire childhoods and beyond?
When I was in my third year of college, my mother called out of the blue and said that she wanted to come up and see me play hockey. I was at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. The call was a huge surprise and I had no idea what to make of it.
Since she gave me up at age six, I had seen her only two or three times. Now she was telling me that she wanted to start over as mother and son. This was incredibly appealing for a 22-year-old who had yearned for a mother all his life. I had a flash of a mother hugging and kissing me and telling me how proud she was of all I had achieved on my own.
She arrived at the game with her longtime companion, Lois. After the game, the three of us – my mother, Lois, and I – talked in my rented room off campus. We didn't talk for long before I, as politely as I could, cut it short. Every word out of her mouth was self-referenced.
She didn't ask a single question about me. She had no curiosity whatsoever about how I had survived all these years, how I managed to be in college on scholarship, what my life was like, or my plans for the future. It was so obvious to me that her self-love knew no bounds.
She didn't want to be my mother. She wanted me to be her son. She was not bringing me love. She was there looking for it. The only thing we had in common, it was clear to me, was that that we were in the same hospital room in Boston when I was born.
She was a walking and talking psychology textbook definition of the morbid narcissist: so full of herself, her life, and her needs, that there is no room for others – not even her own child. She lacked all empathy, the capacity to feel how another human being feels.
I needed no textbook to tell me this. I felt it.
At 22 --I had served two years on active duty in the Army -- I had learned how to take care of myself. Had to, from the age of 10 or 11. I could sense danger a mile away. This selfish stranger wanting to be my mother set my warning bells clanging like crazy. I smelled toxic fumes.
In the beginning, I had no choice in who my mother was. But now, owing her nothing, I did. I called her the next day and told her as kindly as I could that too much time had passed, that we now had separate lives, and that maybe we should just let things stay the way they were.
It was a short conversation. She didn't try to dissuade me. She hung up and disappeared, again. As the years rolled by, I rarely thought about her. Off and on, however, I did question my decision to cut the ties to my birth mother. I always concluded that I was better off without her in my life.
My brother Vic had much the same reaction to her that I did-- and came to the same conclusion. When I told him that I was writing about our mother and asked him for his thoughts, he sent me this:
George: Per our phone call, I offer the following regarding our mother:
My first encounter with our mother was when we went to a boarding school to visit her and our half brother Peter. I was but 12 or 13 yrs old. What struck me was her absolute coldness. She did not speak to me or even acknowledge my presence. The visit was very brief and very disappointing. I decided right there that she held no real feelings for me and I none for her. This meeting shaped my opinion of her from that day on.
My next encounter with her was when I joined the USMC. I received a letter from the Commandant of the Marine Corps. My mother had found out that when I joined the service, I claimed my foster parents (the Foleys) as my legal parents. She wrote a letter to the Commandant accusing me of lying on my enlistment contract because I did not claim her as my parent. She further demanded that my records be corrected and that she be provided a portion of my service pay for support.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps refused her request for record correction and support. When I became aware of her action, I was furious and decided right there that she had no interest in me but simply viewed me as a meal ticket. I had dealt with this idea (meal ticket) for years with my foster parents who saw me as the same ticket. I came to live with this idea with my foster parents, but my REAL mother now viewed me as no more than her meal ticket.
I met our mother two other times during my life, once at my Sister Marion's (another cold meeting), and once at her apartment (another cold meeting). I have always understood the attitude of my foster parents and readily accepted that I was not a family member but a family asset. But, for my own mother to be so cold, uncaring, self-centered, and greedy I will never understand.
I am now most thankful that it was my foster parents that helped raise me and not my mother. My mother was a non-mother who I feel would not have given me any direction or help in preparing for this world. My foster parents at least sent me to a good school and kept me fed while my brother Reggie was the most instrumental in teaching me togetherness and real survival skills.
It pains me to say that I had no mother because of her selfishness, and no Father because of early death, but in the end maybe that was for the best!!!!
For the record, our mother also wrote to Reggie's commanding office when he was in the U.S. Marine Corp trying to get a monthly family allotment. Ditto when I was on active duty in the U.S. Army. I couldn't believe it. When I asked the officer if he was sure, he showed me her letter. When I told the officer the story of our mother, he was appalled and threw her letter in the trash.
When my sister Ruby heard about our mother's attempt to get money while we were away in the service, she was furious and confronted her. She blasted her, saying "If you dropped dead now, I would walk on you."
We all let her go.
Decades later, Ruby's daughter Linda, a niece I love dearly and for whom family is everything, decided that she wanted to meet her "Grammy." After no little investigation, Linda learned that she was living alone in Boston, her companion Lois having died years before. Linda got in touch with her and went to see her.
She was now in her 80's, ailing, overweight, and all alone. Of that first meeting, Linda said, "She had no friends or family, absolutely no one. She said that she had given up, had nobody or no reason to live, and was getting ready to die."What she did have were closets full of clothes and dozens of pairs of shoes. Lois had left her well-off and so she could afford to go on regular shopping sprees. Her apartment was packed with stuff she had bought on TV shopping networks.
When Linda asked if she would like to see the five of us, she readily agreed. Linda then persuaded the five of us to meet with her. Although decades before, we had all decided that it was best to stay away from this toxic mother, we could not be unkind to a lonely old lady in poor health and with not a living soul who cared for her.
And so the five of us trooped to her apartment to meet her. I had toyed with the thought that she might apologize and ask our forgiveness or perhaps express some sorrow for all that we had suffered because of her. It was a foolish thought. What we heard was how hard her life had been, about her proud purchases, and small talk.
Mostly, we felt sorry for her for ending up with such an empty life. My sister Ruby and Linda were especially thoughtful of her. They encouraged her to move to Westborough, Mass. where she could be closer to them. After she moved, we began inviting her to family functions. Ruby and Linda pretty much accepted her into their lives.
Marion,Vic, Reggie, and I kept a wary distance. We were polite when we saw her, but our guards were up. It was not for no reason that we had survived all these years without a mother or family of any kind.
As a person, she was still the same – totally self-centered. Even Linda, who had warm thoughts of having a new Grammy, says that she was "demanding." Linda said, "I would call her and the first thing she would say is, 'You haven't called in a week.'"
When I did not send her a card for Mother's Day, I received an angry letter telling me that I was “cruel.” Across the top in large letters, she had scrawled, “the slaughter of mother.” I still have that letter.
Yet, as she lay dying in the hospital, I went there, along with Marion, Ruby, and Linda. When she took her last breath, Marion, Linda, and I were holding her hand. She did not die alone. She died with family at her bedside.
At her death, the trust left to her by Lois and on which our mother lived and shopped and ate in good restaurants, reverted to charity.
When I asked Marion what she would like to say about our mother, she said, "Just one thing. The bottom line is that when our mother died, you and I were there holding her hand and the two of us were crying like babies."
At her wake, organized by a women's group helping the familyless elderly, the large hall was pactically empty of mourners. I have never seen such an empty wake. The five of us were there plus a few women from the women's group and a couple of others.
One was a young man who had taken pity on her. He had looked in on her and did little chores and errands for her. She had told him, we learned, that her children had abandoned her. For the record, we let him know who had abandoned whom.
Upon reflection, I suppose that I probably did abandon my mother. But I did so because my survival instincts told me that she was toxic and would only cause me harm. I couldn't afford a toxic mother and neither could my four younger siblings.
In my novel, “State Kid: Hero of Literacy” my mother was the model for the chapter entitled, “The Mother From Hell.”
Finally, after giving up the five of us, our mother remarried and gave birth to another child, Peter --- our half-brother. We found out about him when he was a teenager. He spent the first couple of years with our mother and his father before they were divorced. After that, he lived off and on with our mother and her longtime companion, Lois Simon, and an uncle.
Peter spent more time with our mother than any of us. What kind of mother was she to him? Only he would know. He is now a grey-bearded grandfather living in Maine and running his own taxi business in Boston. I had only met him once or twice over the years and we had no ongoing relationship.
Nevertheless, I called him and asked him what he had to say about our mother. Quickly getting over the shock of my call and the brassy question, he said, "Nothing good." And then he went on to tell me of skin-crawling horrors inflicted upon him by our mother.
"I'm lucky to be alive," he said.
Next time, Peter's story.
So long and keep moving.
Comments welcome. Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org. For info on my background and books, click here.
Jane is abandoned as a baby and raised in multiple horrific foster homes. After her latest abuse, a sexual advance from her latest foster parent, she screams "NO!" and runs out the door Twelve years old, on the street, alone, no family, nobody, no money, how can she possibly survive? She can't -- except that Jane is no ordinary foster kid. She doesn't understand "can't." Read excerpts.
"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his real-life experiences growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison; "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which lays out what to do (and not do) to live the title every single day.