I will always remember my mother’s words.
“You’ll never forget your first love,” she said as I cried into her arms.
For some months, I had been keeping a terrible secret. My girlfriend, my first girlfriend, had been raped. They didn’t just rape her; they broke her nose. A knife was used. She was cut. There were two of them.
Picture Alley Sheedy in The Breakfast Club — well, that was Louise. Her soft Irish accent, long black hair and scruffy oversized jumpers made me love her with all my heart.
We were both seventeen years old and still at school.
Louise had met my mother just once, but things hadn’t gone well at all. My mother had ignored her and when she had left, she pronounced caustically that Louise looked like she had “come off a council estate*,” and that I was never to bring her to the house again.
I never understood my mother’s snobbery. So much of my mother’s behaviour left me terribly confused. In any case, her prejudice was unfounded — Louise was actually from a wealthy Irish family who lived in the expensive part of town. They were also puritanically Catholic. If anything, I had assumed that my mother would approve.
I had a part-time job at the time pushing trolleys around a local supermarket car park, and it provided me with just enough money to run a rusty old Datsun. At weekends I used to heap body filler into the gaping holes around the bodywork, and slap on some industrial paint in the hope that it would stop it rusting to death. In the evenings, I would drive it around to Louise’s place and we’d cruise around and find a quiet spot to park up.
There, we’d kiss, engage in foreplay and lie in each other’s arms while we talked.
It was during these moments that she told me about what happened to her only a few months before we had met, and she swore me to secrecy. The fact that I betrayed her to my own mother has haunted me most of my adult life (it is only relatively recently that I have come to a realistic reconciliation with the past).
“You’ll never forget your first love,” is what my mother said when I told her.
“What do you mean?” I replied, confused. “It’s not over.”
At that point, my mother stepped back from me, her face turning cold. Then after a moment or two she spat, “Get lost!” before turning her back and walking from the room. Those words were a typical retort my mother used, but nevertheless I was left standing there, shocked, confused, hurting desperately and so utterly lost.
Over the coming months my mother conducted what I now consider to be an “emotional war” in order to get her way. Drunk on gin, she would accuse me bitterly of “killing her,” and threatened suicide unless I would agree never to see Louise again.
“You’re destroying me,” she would complain. “Can’t you see what this is doing to me!”
I would not agree to give up Louise, but I had already confessed to her that I had told my mother, and Louise had become distant from me as a result. Later, she would refuse to see me altogether.
My father, having been brought up in loving home, was a reasonable and rational man. He was so utterly ill-equipped to understand what was happening.
“Your mother’s right,” he would say trying to rationalise her behaviour. “She must know something about that girl.”
I loved my dad, but his understanding of the situation was so utterly awry and I was so utterly confused, that neither of us could relate to each other during that time. I realise now that my mother put my father under tremendous strain, in effect pressuring him to pressure me.
My school study petered out and I spent the days on long walks around the suburbs. I had few friends, and any attempt to express myself to outsiders ended in failure and misunderstanding. So I remained distant, said nothing, and slowly became detached from everything and everyone.
I ate little and my weight fell dramatically.
I spent my long walks lost in my own thoughts, trying desperately to make sense of things. During one of these walks, I was distracted by an advertisement billboard.
“So strange,” I remember thinking, having been brought out of my reverie by the imagery of a chimpanzee drinking a can of soda when, out of nowhere, came a sickening blow.
I almost blacked out and half-blinded, thinking that I had been punched, looked around desperately to see where the attack had come from. But there was no one, and as I stared down at the blood pooling in my hands, I realised that I had simply walked full speed into the concrete lamppost while looking the other way. I dreaded going home, for I already knew what my parents would think.
“She’s had you beaten up!” I was told when I got home.
While I initially tried to explain, I sensed how unlikely my lamppost story sounded and was resigned to that fact that any protestation was pointless. My dad took the keys to the rusty old car from me and declared that I would no longer be allowed to “drive that girl around.”
The sad irony was of course that, by then, I no longer had any contact with Louise — not that either of them would have believed me if I had told them.
The last time I ever saw Louise was when, on a Saturday afternoon, she walked across the car park where I was pushing trolleys at the supermarket. She never looked at me, and as she disappeared from sight, I began to feel that I was bleeding internally. I never finished the shift, but simply walked away from the job.
I heard later that her parents had sent her to Ireland. “She needs a priest,” I was told by a caustic old woman who worked on the tills at the supermarket.
I never saw Louise again.
It wasn’t long after that things came to a head when my mother burst into my bedroom one evening swinging a heavy piece of wood in a drunken rage. It was a baluster, a piece of wood roughly the same shape and weight as a baseball bat, which my dad kept around in case of burglars.
“If you ever see that girl again, I’ll kill you!” she raged.
I swear to you now that if she had struck me, I had no intention of even lifting my arms to shield my face. At that moment, I cared for nothing and said simply, “Go ahead.”
She didn’t strike me, but instead started to smash up the room. I simply stood back and did nothing while she went berserk. It was my dad who, on hearing the commotion, came in and stopped her. I will always remember his words to me after she had left the room. I can quote them verbatim, and here they are…
“This is not your mother, this. Whatever it is that you are doing to her, it’s time to pack it in.”
He was wrong — that was exactly my mother. But at the time, I had no alternative perspective and with no way to understand such things, I had come to accept that, somehow, in some way, he was right.
I sat my exams, having done little revision, and as soon as they were over, I left home with a rucksack and some foolish notions about living “on the road”. I camped on a mountain side in the English Lake District for a few weeks, before finding a job and boarding in a remote pub called the Kirkstone Inn.
In the years that followed, I slid gradually into self-imposed isolation, characterised by drinking and self-harm. I ached so much to be with Louise, and I cursed myself for failing her. My mother had got her way in the end, and I lived for years with a confused sense of guilt and repressed anger that I had no way of reconciling.
On my first day at school at the age of six, my mother had told me that there was no point in me going there because I was only going to be a road sweeper when I grew up. I can remember crying and insisting that I wouldn’t, while she explained to me, rather matter of factly, that I was stupid and that she was telling me for my own good. That is my first memory of her calling me “stupid”, but not my last. In the years that followed, she never missed an opportunity.
Despite the events of my last year in school, I actually passed my exams, but only just. Half an hour into one exam, I was lying in bed not caring when a teacher turned up at my house in his car to collect me. Nevertheless, having initially thrown away my place at university when I had left home with the intention of tramping the roads, I eventually went to University and got a degree in Physics — proving in my own mind that my mother was wrong about me.
In reality, however, I was a very troubled young man and throughout it all, what I so desperately looked for was a meaningful answer to the question, “What was so wrong with me?” Having no useful framework with which to understand either myself or the past, I was groping around in the dark with questions I could not even begin to formulate.
“So how does that make you feel?” I was asked, at various times through the years, whenever I tried counselling.
And I would stare at the floor, wringing my hands, as I replied, “Well, I don’t know really.”
It was always the same — meaningful answers were always held just out of reach by those who knew them.
It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that things began to change when one day I had a profound revelation while walking home from work. It so shook me so that I stopped at the next telephone box I saw and made an international call to my sister.
“Our mother was an emotional bully, wasn’t she?” I asked tentatively the moment she answered the call, not even waiting to say hello.
There was a short pause, and when she replied her words were the very first chink of light to penetrate darkness that was my confused inner world.
“Yes,” she replied. “She was.”
The first time I tried to speak to others about what I was discovering, I was told rather angrily, “That’s a terrible way to talk about your mother!”
Those words shamed me back into silence for a while, but it would not last. I had begun to challenge the invisible cultural taboo that had prevented any rational scrutiny of my mother’s behaviour. In fact, I was now on the way to realising a meaningful answer to my question, “What was it that was wrong with me?”
What was wrong was simply that I had been the subject of childhood emotional abuse in the form of my mother’s sustained criticism, ridicule, interrogation and bullying as far back as I can remember. There was, in fact, a far bigger picture to be uncovered here than just the one depicting the fallout over Louise.
The astoundingly simple answer was that there had never been anything “wrong with me”. I had never been “defective” — I had just been a normal child like any other. This, for me, was a life changing realisation.
Throughout childhood, my mother had taunted me, telling me that I was stupid and that everyone was “laughing at me.” As a result, the message I internalized at a very young age was one of shame and inadequacy. I don’t have a single memory of my mother ever cuddling me, playing with or reading to me. It was my dad who did all these things, and it is not lost me now how fortunate I am to have had that from him.
Now, here’s the thing…
The things my mother said and did were normalised in my family. My father had grown up in a loving environment in which motherhood was sacrosanct, and this was the framework with which he made sense of the world. In my mother, he only saw what he wanted to see, and rationalised what didn’t fit. Through him, she had a license to speak and do as she pleased.
She was beyond all reproach.
My mother would rarely talk about her own childhood. She opened up only once when, in my early teens, I found her sitting on the kitchen floor, drunk and crying. This was the only time she told me that her own mother used to openly express how she wished that she had been killed instead of her teenage brother, who had died in a motorcycle accident shortly before I was born.
My mother continued to drink and died a slow and lingering death, her brain corroded by the ammonia in her blood that her liver was no longer able to remove. Toward the end, she regressed into a child-like state, and my dad spent his last days spoon-feeding her and taking her to the toilet.
One of the saddest memories I have is of him sitting with his arm around my mother, who was no longer fully aware, and trying to comfort her.
“I don’t know how we will do it,” he said, “but somehow we’ll get through this.”
I knew as I watched him that there would be no way “through this”, but only continued decline.
Within a year of that moment, both my mother and father were gone.
My dad had worked hard in a manual job from the age of fourteen, and spent the little retirement he had as a full-time carer for my mother. My parents were deeply in love with each other, and toward the end he often remarked how he would not have had things any other way.
After my mother’s death, my father lived just long enough to put all his affairs in order and then, one day while out walking, he sat down and just died. After all the years of trauma and distress thrown up by my mother, I find it most distressing how he had managed to arrange things so that his own passing would be of no trouble to anyone. It is only now that I can begin to appreciate how, in those last few months of his life, he must have grieved so.
I still find it difficult to tease out the good moments from bad, and properly reconcile the past. There were certainly good things about my mother, and some good times with her, and it would be wrong of me to paint an overly negative picture.
As a child, she had been cruelly bullied by her own mother, which, other than the astute observations of a relative, had been culturally invisible at the time. As an adult, she had been put on a pedestal and emotionally spoiled by my well-meaning father whose chivalrous notions about gender came from a bygone age. Never had my mother been expected to deal with the fallout from her own behaviour.
Recent UK legislation aims to make emotional abuse a criminal offence. While it’s undoubtedly a good thing that its seriousness is at last being recognised, its criminalization is utterly wrong-headed and will ultimately benefit no one except an army of lawyers and bureaucratic enforcers. The scope for institutionalised injustice here, I believe, far outweighs any benefit it could bring.
The solution lies, not in ever more punishment, condemnation and social exclusion, but in a sea change in our attitudes toward the generational nature of abuse. My mother didn’t know how to be a mother because she was never properly mothered herself. Had the right kind of therapeutic intervention been available decades ago — one that would not have implied criminalization and shame — the effect on my family could have been transformative. On the other hand, the involvement of the police and judiciary would have undoubtedly torn us apart and destroyed all our lives.
Abuse within the human family is not new — it has always been with us. Human beings are not inherently bad, rather the lives of our ancestors were characterised by subsistence level survival to which they were brutally adapted. Today, we still experience the echo of that in our relationships, on our streets, and in our prisons. If we could ever effectively dampen out this destructive echo from the past, we could transform human society within a few generations.
Whenever you encounter a damaged adult who is racked by deep insecurity, or who is emotionally destructive or physically or sexually violent, you are almost certainly looking at a battered or abused child who has simply grown up. Condemnation and contempt, without a willingness to investigate and to understand, ensures only continued ignorance and misunderstanding for new generations of children, and their children.
No, human beings are not intrinsically bad, but we are easily damaged in childhood, irrevocably so in extreme cases. Ultimately, however, it’s all about how we treat children, not about how many people we lock up.
* In the UK, a “council estate” is a social housing development.
Louise’s name was changed in this for anonymity reasons. Wherever she is today, I hope she is happy.