Too Much Survival Can Kill You

Around the age of twelve, I wrote what would now be called ‘fan fiction’ based on C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In my imagination I was living in the world of those books, and I made up a story based on some of the characters. I tore up the paper I had written it on, and spread the pieces over the front lawn. I think I was trying to cast some kind of magic spell.

My mother found the pieces and gathered them up. She telephoned the school.

The teacher called me into an empty classroom. “Your mother called, and she is very upset.” I was completely puzzled. The teacher looked at me sideways. “Are you sure you don’t know what it’s about?” I must have been lying about something.

When I got home, my mother was distraught. What was this story about fairies living on the mountain, and me going to join them? Why would I make up something so insane? Was I going to run away with somebody? What was wrong with my head?

I was frightened. I made up a story about how someone else had written it.

The same teacher read aloud, in front of the whole class, what I thought was a funny story I had written. She said: did you think this was funny? Does anyone else think it is funny? Because it isn’t funny.

Later, I had schizophrenic marks on my report cards—A in English, failing everything else—and another teacher asked if I could write something about why I was such a delinquent.

When two of my poems were published in a national student magazine, my parents asked why I had to write things that nobody understood. This was not going to be good for my future. I should do my homework, and not write other things.

My writing would get me into a lot of trouble. I started to doubt my own gifts, and thought I had to borrow from others. I borrowed parts of a story out of one in my textbooks, and received a high mark for it. My older brother saw it. It was proof that I was a liar and a fraud. He looked for other things I had written, so that he could keep reminding me of my shame.

I would have been about ten years old when he dressed me in my mother’s underwear. I thought it was fun and exciting. He flattered me and gave me attention.

He stroked the inside of my naked thighs. I felt his penis on my thigh. Something spilled on me, or bumped me. I got out of the bed and stood there shivering.

What’s wrong? Don’t you want to play that game? Don’t you want to play that game again? Why don’t you want to play that game? I didn’t want to play that game any more. I looked for places to hide. He would come looking for me.

I had to be near him all the time. When we went on trips, I would be sleeping a few feet away from him. Chewing his nails, grinning, watching for my confusion, while I became more and more self-conscious and withdrawn.

He would stand outside the bathroom door and say: I hope you’re having an exciting time in there. He said it so that I would know he could tell I was masturbating in the bathroom, and that I was dirty and disgusting. He reminded me that my parents knew I was lazy, dirty, bad, and a liar.

I was cooking myself some eggs. He stood there saying: yum, those eggs look tasty. I hope you enjoy those eggs. Why do you think you can cook yourself some eggs when you don’t work like I do? Chewing his nails. Have you been to Manpower yet? Time to get manhandled.

My mother told me he was extremely angry that I had been allowed to go away to university.

Over the years, I would get phone calls. No one would speak on the other end. Even after call display became a feature on my phone, I couldn’t see a number. But I could hear breathing, and sometimes what sounded like a radio, or the noise of an auto body repair shop. I could feel that it was him.

Later, my friend met my older brother for the first time. She said to me: “Talking with him, I was aware of his paranoia, of his pain, and of the fact that he wasn’t listening to a single word I said.”

In one of the emails he sent me: You are the same as when you were 4, when you were 8, and so on. He was the one who had started abusing me back then, but I was the one who was guilty.

I had to forgive him, because he was only four years older than me, and he suffered too.

I was plagued with extreme anxiety. I couldn’t relax. My body separated into parts, and the parts did not communicate with each other. My jaw froze, and my neck was so stiff it hurt to turn my head. I began to have days-long bouts of insomnia, which has dogged me all my life.

Breathing became a problem. I thought if I didn’t have conscious control over every breath, I would forget how to breathe.

I retreated into a fantasy world, one that was far more vivid and satisfying than real life. I spent most of my time there. There I could write, be an artist, a singer, anything. It didn’t matter where my body was. I did not see my surroundings, but only what was in my mind’s eye.

Eyes were dangerous. I had great difficulty with eye contact, and it was almost impossible to look at myself in the mirror. Eyes are the windows to the soul, and my soul was constantly under attack. As an adult, I had to train myself to look at people.

I had no friends at school. There were a few others who treated me kindly, but even the nicest ones either couldn’t or didn’t want to get too close. I looked down at the ground and disappeared into my inner world.

They would shove me, spit at me, stomp on my feet. They invented names for me. Sea-Dog. You stink. Have pity, you’re so ugly it hurts. Go back to Polluto where you came from. Boys with cherubic faces would tell me how I was going to get fucked and killed.

They wondered why I didn’t react, other than to try and shrink myself into as small a mass as possible.

I shut myself inside the toilet in the girl’s changing room, and stayed there for a few moments before enduring the absolute horror of Physical Education. One of my more enthusiastic tormentors stood on a bench and looked over the door of the toilet. After she had done it once and saw me standing there motionless, she did it all the time.

“You never go! I look at you every time, and you never go! You just stand there!”

For “team sports,” two students would be chosen to pick the members of each side. I was left by myself at the end of the picking, because nobody wanted me on their team. They considered it a great injustice when the teacher forced one of the leaders to take me. When “our” team lost, they would cry, yell at me, and hit me: “It’s your fault!

I fell down into the mud before getting on the school bus. A group of them had arranged to stand up and shout a salute with the latest name they had for me: “Hail, Von Roski!” when they noticed I was covered in mud, and the whole bus burst into laughter. The bus driver said, “What is this? Stop it!” They ignored him.

Why didn’t you fight back? Why were you so passive? You must have asked for it. You were the real bully.

I could not avoid bad people. I did not know what to do about them. Plenty of people I came across later in life sensed my confusion and my low self-worth, and used me as target practice for their managerial aspirations or dominance fantasies, or simply as their garbage can.

I had no idea what ‘red flags’ were. I thought if I just ‘worked on myself,’ the real goodness in other people would come out. I confessed my inmost pain and confusion to people who would lick their chops, eat me for lunch, and spit out my bones. The faces and names would change, but it was always the same characters. I didn’t understand how these situations manifested, or how to prevent them from happening again.

I should have been able to use my energy to develop my talents and move forward in my life. Instead I struggled to somehow get through the next week, and the one after that. It seemed like I was always under seige. And in spite of all the counsellors I went to over the the years, I couldn’t ‘get over it.’

We would go on trips to California.

My mother would stay up all night before we went. She prepared a big roast of pork coated in paprika, to put in the trunk of the car and eat with rye bread. She would wash and dry multiple loads of laundry, pack suitcases, stay up all night and become more and more anxious, so that by morning she was beside herself.

She threw the open suitcase down the stairs, scattering its contents, yelling that we should all go and leave her at home. My younger brother stood at the bottom of the stairs. By then he would have been convinced that women were crazy.

My parents argued as my father drove rapidly down the highway. My mother became more and more distraught, and tried to open the door on her side to throw herself out.

I think I was 17 when my father gave me a small sort of yellow-beige car. Was it a Toyota? I drove around aimlessly in it. I didn’t know how to take care of it.

My older brother said: the car’s just like her.

My younger brother said: I can’t stand it when women swear while they’re driving.

When I left for university and didn’t want to take the car, he shouted angrily at me: you’re gonna be sorry you didn’t take the car. But I wouldn’t have been able to drive it safely through the mountains to Victoria. I wouldn’t have known how to take care of it when I got there.

My younger brother’s schoolmates were asking him if I was his crazy sister.

He was two and a half years younger than me, but he had the right to tell me how I was supposed to live. I didn’t dress right. I didn’t know how to talk. What’s wrong with her? It’s the fault of our mother. She didn’t teach you how to be female. The other girls get up an hour early. They put on makeup and fix their faces. Together with our father and our older brother, he would say: I don’t care about you. I care about the fact that you’re an embarrassment to me.

He was my ‘date’ for the high school graduation prom. I was 17 and he was 15. Why did that happen? He was criticizing me the whole time. I didn’t look happy. I didn’t know how to dance. I was an embarrassment and he was there because nobody else wanted to be with me.

Was it really like this? I find it hard to believe this really happened.

My mother’s eldest son, our half-brother, died in 1996 under undignified circumstances. I do not remember ever again hearing my younger brother mention him. He was another embarrassment.

I watched a video of Tony Robbins, one of the self-help gurus my younger brother followed. It was made at one of his mass meetings, and a woman in the audience had raised some objection to his doctrine. Robbins, a horse-faced giant, was aggressively poking her in the chest while telling her to ‘stop being a victim,’ in a rough grating voice that sounded like he was shouting down into a basement.

“They’re just things people say. They’re jokes.” Only the jokes were never jokes.

Little girls are trouble. That one’s gonna be trouble. They look so ugly when they’re eating. Girls shouldn’t eat. They like to be abused. It’s the ones who talk like you who want it the most. When they get to be that old, they take what they can get.

Women are devious. They cause all the evil in the world. Give them an inch, and they’ll cut the whole thing off.

Women’s suffering isn’t a part of history. I’m not saying it wasn’t horrible. Those things that happened to you—they were horrible. But somewhere, on some level, deep down inside, subconsciously, you wanted it. Women are in control of the world. So you must have wanted it. Look at how our mother abuses you. Women hate their own daughters.

There are two sides to every story. Emotions were running high. Stop festering. Be a good strong woman.

Good strong women did not protect bad weak women. Good strong women generally didn’t defend other women at all.

I was back in the town in which I had grown up, and I was going to help in in the office at our father’s auto body shop. My older brother now had control of it.

My mother helped me get a new computer. My older brother had planned to set one up for me at home, so that he could ‘remote in’ whenever he felt like it, which meant that he could spy on anything and everything I wrote, listened to or looked at, any time of the day or night. As it was, he had to settle for attacking me in every other possible way.

What did you expect? You knew what you were getting into. You gave up your right to an independent life. You have to work with your abusive older brother.

He had been waiting for this opportunity for decades. He was the star of his own reality TV show, acting out a fantasy of total control and domination over his whole family. When he heard the first sound out of my mouth, he would say DJASAYSUMN DYASAYSUMN DJASAYSUMN DJASAYSUMN until I stopped trying to say anything. He sneered at me: “Intellectual.” He repeated degrading phrases our parents had said to me long ago, especially those my mother used to say.

In the bathroom he used downstairs, I was scrubbing off the dried orange piss crusted all over the walls around the toilet. There was a big piece of dried shit inside the plunger. He had diabetes and kidney stones. He was saving the family business. I was a failure and a slave.

His new girlfriend enjoyed playing boss with him, and they indulged in all the sadistic, degrading managerial garbage they could get their hands on. The art of seduction. The art of war. The art of being a malignant abuser of your own sister.

LOOKAMI LOOKAMI LOOKAMI LOOKAMI. I was shaking like a leaf. I had told him about my work with autistic children, and how important it was to say “Look at me,” to help them learn to make eye contact.

How stupid of me to have ever told him anything; to have ever shared any information with him, ever, at any time in my life. How stupid of me to have ended up there. What did I expect?

I had been living at my father’s house for a year.

That day I did my best to keep calm and occupied, to drive the fear out of my mind. I cleaned the bathroom I shared with my mother.

My older and younger brothers planned a degrading ‘birthday party’ for me. My older brother brought along his two boys, two of my nephews. The last time they had come to dinner, he had not allowed them to talk to me.

They made a show of seating me at one end of the table, acting as though this was the most wonderful party and I should be thrilled with the attention they were giving me.

I was eating rapidly. I wanted it to be over as soon as possible. My mother brought out the cake she had baked, and my father said, we have to sing Happy Birthday. I said I didn’t want any singing. My younger brother said, Okay! No singin’! as if he was talking to a child who was about to throw a tantrum. They were making a mockery, not only of me, but also of our confused father and our frightened mother.

That was when I threw the wine glass on the table, and it shattered. The sight of the two little boys crying made me hysterical. I stood up suddenly and the chair I had been sitting on fell backwards. Leave me alone! Leave me alone!

My older brother was holding one of his sons, saying, are you okay? Did she hurt you?

They had been waiting for this. I pointed at my older brother. You sexually abused me as a child! He grinned and did a ‘come on and fight me’ gesture, saying: hit me, hit me.

My mother stood between him and me. He picked her up by the shoulders and tossed her aside. Then he was hitting me the way my father used to do, so that I had the familiar bruises up and down my arms the next day.

My younger brother was bitch-slapping me. Makacs! Szemtelen! (Stubborn! Shameless!) Things I had not heard in decades. Things he had heard my mother say when she beat me.

He dared me to touch him. I thought: this can’t be happening. I touched his arm. He said: you think I’m bluffing. He phoned the police.

He said: You’ve really done it this time. You planned it. And oh, how you enjoyed it. Diabolical. Cold and calculating. You’re not depressed! If you were depressed, you wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning! You’re like the Jews and the Communists, you don’t forgive! Some faith!

To our parents: Do you think she cares about you? She hates both of you! I know why our mother had a separate phone line put in. So she can call Dad because she’s afraid of you. When my wife and kids were here, I had to keep getting up at night to make sure my sons were okay, because you were going to attack them during the night. You were screaming and stomping around. You were slamming doors. This is a house of terror!

I’m going to have you committed.

And as if it was the final nail in my coffin: Fifty-three years old! Happy Birthday!

It was like the days when they would throw a woman in the water; if she drowned, she was innocent. If she floated or could swim, however badly, it was proof that she was a witch. Since I had successfully been made to believe so much crap about myself for so many years, why not make me believe that I was not only insane, but also dangerous and needed to be put away? More important: everyone else was going to believe it, so that I could be completely isolated. This is what you do with crazy women who have failed at life and don’t want to know their place.

He said: You got three days to make that appointment with a psychiatrist. And to give us all the details.

I had worked in psychiatric units. They couldn’t care less what I knew or what I had done.

The police officer who came said it might be a good idea to get some family counselling.

I lay awake all night shaking, with my arms around my mother. The back of my head was gripped in a vise. It was like that for seven years, even after both of my parents had died and I had left the house.

I tried to call my older brother’s wife (the mother of his kids) to apologize for what had happened. My older brother told my mother that if I didn’t stop trying to talk to his wife, he would, among other things, rip every hair out of my head.

He said: my two boys are terrified of you. But later that year, when he had his sons with him for a couple of days, he brought them to the burnt-out ruin of the auto body shop, where I was doing the grape pressing with my dad. The boys ran around playing and paid no attention to me. I went and sat in my father’s van, where I phoned my mother and waited for her to come and pick me up.

I was bombarded with abusive emails. I kept all of them. Lengthy screeds from my older brother, detailing my evil qualities, mimicking things I had written and said, urging me to admit my guilt and give myself up along with those who were ‘bolstering’ me. Ones from my younger brother, ordering me to remove myself from his presence when he came to my father’s house, warning me about divine retribution, and saying that he would nonetheless ‘remember me in his prayers.’

I went to see a psychiatrist, all right. I was able to receive two years of therapy, to help me cope with the ongoing horror of my situation. I took my brothers’ emails with me.

The leftover Ativan from my mother’s last prescription helped me to get through her funeral.

One of her former neighbours played the piano at the church, and just happened to be there at the time. She was stunned when she saw the memorial table, with photographs of my mother around the box containing her ashes. Because this neighbour happened to be there, we had music to accompany the hymns. I was not going to perform in front of my abusive brothers.

I sat apart from my them. My older brother’s girlfriend had her head on a swivel and turned it to look at me as if I was an animal in a zoo.

My Dad had trodden down the backs of his shoes so he could wear them as if they were slippers, because that was how they were comfortable. He had stiff white stubble on his face, because I couldn’t shave it all off with the electric razor. In his next abusive email, my older brother accused me of neglecting him. Later, my older brother’s wife phoned me and demanded that I apologize for my entire crazy family. She had not been told about my mother’s death, or about her funeral.

At the reception afterwards, my younger brother gave me a pained look. It was too bad I was going to hell for being so evil. Do some soul-searching, he had written in an email after they beat me up. You reap what you sow. God would punish me for my refusal to walk myself into the loony bin.

The morning after the horrific ‘birthday party,’ I had apologized to them for frightening the two little boys. They told me I was not going to be forgiven. You don’t want to be managed. Well, you’re going to be managed. Your life is gonna change. The gravy train is over.

About one year earlier, I had been attempting to write a play about unemployed women on the edge of homelessness, an effort which taught me that I was not a playwright. I had made the mistake of sending my older brother a draft of the play.

He and his girlfriend had had fun making a mockery of it. After my two brothers had told me I was not going to be forgiven, etc., she came walking up the stairs from the basement as if she was walking out of the wings, complete with theatrical throat-clearing. She was showing me what a real stage entrance looked like.

I could say more about her, and about him, and about my younger brother. But frankly, it’s beneath me.

Why did you let these things happen to you? What did you expect? You chose the whole thing, right from when you first decided to be a victim.

Other people had worse things happen to them. You had shoes on your feet and a roof over your head. You just wanted to be a victim.

You didn’t want to get over it, because it was an excuse to be lazy.

Maybe you really are what they said you are.

Maybe you should kill yourself.

One day in my mid-thirties, I became conscious of myself as human. I understood that I was not a fraud and not an imposter, even if most of the time I felt that way. My worst feelings about myself could not destroy who I was. It was the beginning of a long process of healing, a journey that involved a lot of two-steps-forward and one-step-back.

I would have a recurring dream in which I had killed someone. There were times when I went through an entire day with the nagging feeling that I had forgotten who it was I had killed, and when and where it had happened. I was like a ghost haunting my own karma, tortured by the memory of those long stretches of time when I was a complete stranger to myself.

Sometimes I’ve said things to myself like: “Okay, you were found guilty, and you have been executed for your crimes. Now you can start life over again.”

I peeled away layers like an onion. I was always there, but so far inside I couldn’t access myself. In those moments when I was aware of my own dignity, it was like the memory of a genuine, expansive, real existence I had forgotten about. It was my future self visiting me. Or it was the self I had forgotten before memory began.

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