Maybe you don’t know this about me, but I was beat as a child. Not too bad. I don’t like to talk about my childhood abuse because I was lucky—and so many others aren’t. So many other kids suffer worse.
It was my biological mother’s boyfriend—this is the primary reason I refer to her as my biological mother. His name was Al Tevlin and he drove a semi-truck, maybe, and put shoes on horses for a living.
After Christmas one year, they moved the tree out to the curb, & I was punished for walking through the kitchen and tracking dry, brittle pine needles onto the carpet of the living room. I must have been six years old.
He beat my biological mother, too. More than us. One time, he beat her & her face to a bloody pulp and told her he was going to kill her while “Independence Day” by Martina McBride played in the background. You can’t make up irony like that. The truth about my childhood is that I had forgotten this, pushed this memory to the back of my brain until a few weeks ago, when my sister Scarlet texted me to tell me the song was playing. It flooded back. I’ve heard before that it always does.
He drove a truck with a canopy on it, and though I’ve since forgotten the make & model, I know it when I see it, and the bottom still sometimes sinks out of my stomach. Even now. When Jana would get restraining orders against him, as inevitably happened after a particularly bad beating, I would stand on the couch, facing the window out front, looking for his truck to pass by. Most times, it would.
By accident, I ripped a page in a library book, once—a scratch & sniff book, of all things—and was so afraid of what might happen that I hid the book. Of course, the jig was up when the book was past due & found in my room.
As an eight year old child, I drew a picture of Al and taped it to the wall in my bedroom, below the mattress so only I could see it. Each time Al beat one of us, I ripped off a tiny piece of the drawing, and told myself I’d kill him when his whole face had been torn off.
I didn’t, of course. What got him—years after Scarlet & I moved to western Washington to live with our father after a malicious custody battle—was a heart attack. It took me a few more years after that to reckon with the fact that this man had a heart. A heart that beat. Hands that beat & a heart that beat, too. A heart that stopped beating. I told you, you can’t make up irony like this.
In sixth grade, after moving away from that house at 11723 East Empire Street, I did a school report on domestic violence. Part of the project was to create a scene related to our reports, using life-sized paper dolls we made in class together. I made two small children, and posed them hiding under a table, praying. It took me years to realize that my childlike prayers un-founded on any religious leanings had, in fact, been answered. The truth about child abuse and about my childhood is that it still sometimes doesn’t feel like they were.
I think that this truth is a commonality amongst survivors of abuse & trauma, but I am not sure. Trauma theory is en vogue in some humanities departments across the country, but it hits too close to home to appeal to me fully. It’s like I would be studying myself, and I see my experiences reflected all too often in the media, anyway.
Do you want to know why Janay Rice stood by her abuser, and married him? I can tell you. She stayed because she suffers from the ugly thing called battered women’s syndrome. She stayed because she is sick. She stayed because she is part of a system. Do you want to know why Ray Rice knocked out his wife in an elevator? I can tell you, definitively. It’s because somewhere along the way, Ray Rice internalized a system of violence. It’s because, as Adrian Peterson admitted in his statement released yesterday, abusers learn to attribute their successes and integrity to the abuses they suffered themselves, which then get passed on to their children. It’s also because these men are encouraged to rehearse anger and violence every day in their careers, but that is another story for another day. It’s because they see their own father figures beating their mothers, and because domestic violence is taboo, and because nobody wants to be accused of “telling people how to parent,” no one tells them they are wrong. No one tells them there are other ways of thinking & being in this world.
There is a difference between child abuse and child abusers, a difference that Adrian Peterson touched on—intentionally or not—in his response to the recent allegations of child abuse brought against him. Every single parent who raises a finger against their child in the name of “discipline,” every single parent who uses physical force as a means to mete out punishment or to discourage certain behaviors is committing child abuse. As someone who was “disciplined” as a child, there is no distinction between a spanking, a whooping, or the more violent and aggressive acts of abuse carried out on children every single day. I say this without hesitation, fiercely, and with a willingness to argue this point of corporal punishment until I am blue in the face. I’ve been blue in many places before; I feel this way with my whole soul:
If you lay a hand on a child, you are abusing that child.
Al Tevlin called it discipline. Al Tevlin liked belts, too. Sometimes, when he beat us, he would say the line that parents like to say to justify their abuse: this hurts me more than it hurts you.
If you lay a hand on a child—or another human that you are intimately involved with—you are teaching that human to fear you. To connect violence and physical pain with the bonds of love & family. To privilege force over compassion. To misunderstand what it means to act with love and humanity.
It has taken me a long time to come to this conclusion, but my abuser was not a monster, and vilifying him does nothing to dismantle the culture of violence that taught him how to live. Al Tevlin learned his behavior, just as Ray Rice did, just as Adrian Peterson did. Just as Janay Rice did, too. The real travesty is that no one—until their actions were made undeniably, forcibly public—told them that this behavior is unacceptable. I mean this on an individual level and on a communal, societal level. No one is starting the conversation, the conversation that admits that every act of violence is an act of abuse. The conversation that acknowledges domestic and child abuse, and refuses to ignore black eyes and bruises.
Perhaps Adrian Peterson is right, and he is not a child abuser. But he did abuse his children. It is our actions that define us, of course. More than our intentions. We know this. Al Tevlin was a child abuser & a wife beater inasmuch as his acts of abuse continued until his heart stopped beating. Al is dead. But individuals like Ray Rice & Adrian Peterson have agency that a dead man doesn’t: they can reject the very systems they were thrust into unwittingly as children and young boys. So can the 90% or more of parents who continue to “discipline” their children using physical violence every day in America.
I saw a photograph of my biological mother for the first time in maybe 15 years yesterday, when I began writing this piece. I looked her up on Facebook, found the kind of un-used page a 50-something person might have, with two photographs only. One was of two small & smiling boys I didn’t recognize—the children of my younger half-sister we had to leave behind to bear witness to further abuse, maybe. Who knows what horror those boys have seen, what behaviors they are learning. My hope is that somewhere along the way, they know they have a choice.
The other was of my biological mother on the beach with her mother—who was beat by her own husband in front of my biological mother and her young siblings, decades ago. In fifteen years, many things can change. She looked different. I didn’t recognize her. I see no part of me in her.