Death and Other Distractions 2: The Bad Touch

The stories in this series involve me being unusually frank and graphic about some fucked-up stuff, and therefore have the following blanket content warnings:

  • Child abuse
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Violence
  • Drug abuse
  • Mental illness
  • Sexual assault and rape
  • A shit-ton of swears

Two: The Bad Touch

Let me know if this is a generational thing for other kids from the mid 80s, that pocket Millennial sub-generation that had Ataris but not cell phones — were you also required to be emotionally self-sufficient from birth? It was very important that I not burden my elders with my issues, it seemed. They were busy, and as long as my physical needs were provided for (“Be glad we don’t make you pay rent”, “We fed and bathed you every day of your life!”) that about covered their responsibilities. All kids have a slight “us-vs-them” mentality about grown-ups, fair enough, but the kids I knew in the early 90s lived in constant fear that their parents would overhear an unfeigned laugh or unrehearsed comment. It wasn’t gendered either, that I can recall. The boys felt the same pressure as the girls to perform, to look like the kids on TV in the presence of anyone past puberty.

I remember small kindnesses, whispers and stories under blankets and behind tree-trunks, like flashes of sky through the bars. I remember taking charge of smaller kids when their parents and teachers ignored them. I bandaged wounds with scarves and carried the limping home; unawoken baby dyke that I was, I needed no excuse at all to rescue a damsel. In 5th grade I “adopted” a boy named Sean who sat next to me. Infuriated by his inability to read, I thoroughly cowed him with my scorn at recess and then taught him reading from our history book under my breath during class. He wasn’t the last person I taught that way, sitting on the carpet, muttering with one eye on the door. Most of my early life seems to have been spent in academic spaces with no academic oversight, now that I think of it. It was always kids in classrooms during lunch, hiding from the bullies outside. Kids playing Number Munchers on the teacher’s computer between periods. Kids eating Corn Nuts out of their pockets in the library. Kids pulling all the books out and lying one above the other in the cleared shelves, talking softly. Kids watching the light from the window die and wondering without much urgency if their parents have forgotten them for good this time.

Zero tolerance

So we turned inward, numbly reinforcing each other’s sense of being watched all the time. Zero tolerance. D.A.R.E. The death of the Fairness Doctrine brought a wave of fearmongering vitriol. Y2k. Killer bees. Race, censorship, and OMG here comes the internet. I watched girls practice their “face” in the mirror between periods, even the ones who didn’t wear makeup — Resting Bitch Face was our armor. Here comes the squire with the satchel full of Clear Eyes, Chapstick and hair ties. Suit up. To my defensive gear I added a Discman and fat, ear-swallowing headphones. I adopted what my mother referred to as “the teen look,” and what I thought of as “the facade.” There’s a particular facial twitch I used to do that settled my features into the facade. I still know how to do it, but after so many years struggling to leave it behind… I try not to.

My parents didn’t like the “teen look” much, and made sure I knew it, but its virtue was that it could be maintained regardless of how I was feeling. A fixed, dead expression upon which they could project anything, it saved me from interrogation of my smallest eyelash flicker and hid the things I truly cared about. I still carry this nasty little thing in my brain — a flea, in the parlance of the NPD survivor community — that makes me want to squash and undercut genuine, over-the-top enthusiasm when I see it. When my friends rave about something, I feel this urge to mock it, find its flaws and absurdities, as my family did every time I discovered a new passion. My selections — of books, of music, of clothes, of pastimes — were never better than laughable, of course, but even things they recommended to me became shameful if I liked them too much, continued to play any one album past the ineffable moment when it ceased to be cool. Hiding the things I loved became far more important than hiding my mistakes and failures. I was always in trouble anyway.

The one person it’s totally cool to hit is your own child

It’s hard to punish a shy, indoorsy kid who loves to read, I get that. Confining me to my room didn’t change my habits in the least. They tried corporal punishment for a while, but my mother had some strange fleas of her own around that, and ended up conveying a mixed message more than anything. Mom told me, her voice trembling with emotion, that she would never let my stepfather lay a hand on me, that if there was physical punishment to be done, she would do it. For the most part, she kept that promise — the few times my stepfather struck or shoved me, she wasn’t home — except for open-handed blows to the face, which apparently were standard-issue parenting equipment for adults of any gender to apply to mouthy children. My friends got slapped too. It took me years to question the basic assumption that the one person it’s totally cool to hit is your own child.

When I was about seven years old, we were living in Kansas where my parents were working and going to school. Cost of daycare being what it was, I often ended up reading books and hanging around the stadiums and studios of the school while they studied. Frankly, I liked that better most of the time. My stepdad taught me to throw pots on the wheel when he wasn’t too busy. My mom taught me DOS and took me to labyrinthine libraries. I read “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” and “The Cay,” and Nancy Drew. I loved survival stories, indomitable young women and children with knives between their teeth. When I finished my book, I wandered the halls and climbed the stadium steps to pick the cicada skins off the walls. One day, I got absorbed in poking at a cork noticeboard in the hallway outside the classroom my mom was cleaning. I stabbed it a bit, then scratched my name into the cork with a tack. Then I got bored and went to look for something else to fiddle with.

“You don’t seem to hear me after the pain wears off.”

The next day, I awoke to Mom’s thundering voice and was out of bed before my eyes were all the way open. She’d gotten in trouble for the corkboard I’d damaged — signed with my name, of course. This seemed particularly to enrage her. It wasn’t just that I had wrecked school property, it’s that I’d been so goddamned stupid about it that it could be traced back to her. She informed me that “spanking just wasn’t doing the job anymore,” and she had come up with a new way to “make me hear her.” This new strategy featured a wooden spoon applied to my bare buttocks until it broke off, whereupon she settled for a hairbrush.

The wooden spoon wasn’t a new implement to seven-year-old me; I’d gotten it before, not often. The hairbrush was worse, and became her go-to tool for the next few years until I grew too big to put across a knee. Spanking me hurt her hand, you see. It was the implementation she was innovating on that Saturday; having brought my ass and the wooden spoon into a confrontation that neither survived, she said to my mottled back, “You don’t seem to hear me after the pain wears off, so I’m going to come back in here every two hours all day and do this again, and maybe that will help you remember.” This promise, too, she kept — every two hours she brought the hairbrush back, until I was screaming and thrashing so hard to get away from her that she concluded the message had sunk in.

In her fear that I might be molested as she was, everything else seemed to shrink in importance — she asked me with worrying intensity and frequency if anyone had “touched me inappropriately” or “made me uncomfortable.” But no, no one ever did that. No one ever made me uncomfortable. Some people made me terrified on the regular, yes… but not uncomfortable, precisely. Is “sadistically beating a child every two hours to maximize lasting pain” a kind of inappropriate touching?

So I didn’t tell her when I was eight and a friend decided he liked hanging with the teenage boys instead of me, then joined them in throwing rocks at me all the way home from school. Instead, I hid in the library until they got bored and went away. I didn’t tell her when I was 13 and an old man groped me on the bus. Instead, I grabbed his hand and bent his finger back until I heard it crack. I learned my lesson well. Don’t let them touch you. Don’t ask for help. Don’t cry. Violence is acceptable, even from the people who love you. Intimacy is not. Funnily enough, I got raped eventually anyway. I wish I’d cried when it happened. I wish I’d asked for help.

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