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A Teenager's JourneyOvercoming a Childhood of Abuse
By Richard B. Pelzer
WARNER WELLNESSCopyright © 2006 Richard B. Pelzer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGOODBYE, CALIFORNIA
I had been part of what can only have been one of the worst instances of child abuse in America of the 1970s. But the preteen that once held me captive was gone-I was a teenager, and I was different now. I was determined to either stand up for myself or give up. Unfortunately I chose to give up. I wanted, needed, to take my own life.
Morning came, and I leapt out of bed and got dressed before anyone was up. For the first time in years, I was happy. The rest of the household were going to be away for two weeks. I was finally going to be alone.
A few nights before, I had been in the basement, reflecting on my life-on the child I had been and the events that had shaped who I had become. The basement had always been a place I wished I could forget. Its concrete walls held all the emotions, fears, and tears of the little boys-me and my brother David-captured and forced down there and abused. Those concrete walls held the secrets that only a few knew about. It was as if the emotions that had been absorbed in the concrete were what held the foundations together.
The memories of the things that had happened in the basement terrified me. They were telling me something, and Icouldn't make sense of what I thought I remembered. I recalled myself as a little boy hiding in the basement from Mom, like an animal. Months before, the hamster that lived in my room had escaped and found his way down to the basement. I found him hiding and shaking with fear under the steps. The same hiding place I knew so well. The memory of Mom laughing as she left me cowering under the metal shelves that had fallen on top of me once she'd shoved me into them-the debris crushing me and her laughter as she walked away hurt me more deeply than I can put words to.
That's what most of my late childhood and young teenage life was like. I struggled to find words that described how I felt. I had outgrown my stuttering. I was older now. Instead of words getting tangled in my throat I found it hard to find words that expressed the hurt, the anger, and the shame.
When I recalled that same little boy slumped on the bottom step, staring at a pool of my own blood after Mom had thrown me to the concrete floor, smashing my head, I saw my face reflected: meeker than meek and utterly humiliated. I was so ashamed of what I was as a child. The ghost of my past, the memories of the child who had been so abused, haunted me. Often those apparitions would reappear in my dreams, but that one night, a few nights before, the ghosts were telling me to accept the fact that I was no longer that scared little boy.
As I got older, and felt I understood something about what had been happening to me, to an extent I was able to let go of it. But those experiences had not disappeared. Much like many apparitions will do, they reappeared when I least expected it.
Now I was a teenager, and one thing I did know: I'd seen more misery than any child should have to, and I wanted it all to end. I wanted the shame to go away, the fear to evaporate, and mostly, I wanted the ghosts of my past to just leave me alone. I wanted, needed, to end my life.
After Dad's death, Mom and Scott, my older brother, had decided to sell the house in Daly City, California, and move to Salt Lake City, Utah. The house was worth twenty-five times what Mom and Dad had paid for it years before.
When she left me in Daly City that morning, while she and "her family" went on their two-week vacation to look for a new house in Salt Lake, Mom made it a point that I "might not" be moving there with them. On the one hand I was relieved to be left alone. On the other I had no idea how or where I would live if they did leave me behind. I desperately wanted to leave that house and all the memories that lived there. I also knew that being fifteen and homeless in San Francisco was a frightening notion.
I guess what eased the fear was the belief that even if I was homeless, I would be better off. Meanwhile, I was determined to make the most of my temporary respite, no matter how short-lived it was.
Two weeks later, they were back. Mom and I were in the kitchen and she was doing her best, as usual, to degrade me. Only this time, she was ranting worse than normal. For hours I'd been listening to her drunken lies and delusions. She was pushing me further and further; her constant bombardment of insults was building up inside of me.
While they'd been away, I'd spent some of the money she'd left for me on new clothes. I'd been wearing the same shirt and pants for a year. It had felt so awesome going to JC Penney and buying myself new clothes. I knew she'd be mad if she found out, so I'd stuffed all the packaging into the garbage cans before they got back from Salt Lake that night. What I failed to anticipate was that she would go through the cans and find everything I'd put there. Not only the clothing packaging, but soda cans, and even the take- out container from lunch the day before. She was furious with me.
Suddenly, out of pure anger at what she was saying and doing to me, I made my hand into a fist and was about to square up to her. That rage helped me forgive myself for having been so timid up till then. I welcomed it, and yet I was afraid of it: that pure wrath, that building anger. I was terrified of the volcano nearing eruption from deep inside me. I knew that if I ever allowed that volcano to erupt, if I ever let go, it would be bad: really bad.
I backed down. I had to. I knew she was over the edge. It was three fifteen in the morning. Obediently, I picked up the trash she'd emptied out onto the dining-room table, cleaned up the floor, and went to bed.
The next morning, I dressed, went quietly into the dining room, and found the sugar bowl in the china cabinet. There I had placed most of my earnings from my paper routes. I took out all the cash. It amounted to just over fifty dollars.
I was disappointed that there was only fifty left, and I knew that the money I had hidden in the bottom of my dresser drawer was long gone. I had been spending more and more on whatever drugs I could find.
At first I'd taken on one paper route as a means of not only getting out of the house, but as a way of putting a few bucks in my pocket. Once I learned how expensive my new fondness for pot and cocaine had become, I had to take on a second, then a third paper route. The more I earned, the more I was spending. I was always broke, and yet wanting, needing, more cocaine. It was a vicious circle, and there was only one way to break it-I took on several more paper routes. In the weeks before we left Daly City Mom's threat to leave me behind had come to nothing. I was delivering three free papers to over thirty streets in my neighborhood. I also was responsible for several other routes delivering different papers that covered the same area. Each week nearly three thousand newspapers, all told, were being dropped in my driveway in bundles of fifty.
Not a single paper ever made it to any of the houses on my routes. At first I would dump them in the open sewer drain at the end of Crestline Avenue near the bottom of Westmore Hill. That disposal site worked well enough until I realized that it was backing up after heavy rains. The next site I found was a little more convenient, but more risky.
I placed the bundles behind the front steps of the house of a neighbor who recycled papers to raise funds for the local scouts. Thanks to the recycling center and to this neighbor who, like the rest, willingly turned a blind eye to the fact that so many papers were turning up for recycling, this went on for some time. Eventually, though, it became too risky. He asked me to no longer drop them off at his house, as he was having to explain how he came by prebundled newspapers, papers that looked like they had never been unbundled, let alone read by anyone.
The next disposal site was the best. It was convenient and well hidden. Soon after the truck left my driveway each Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 2 A.M., I would take the bundles to the trees behind the apartments where I hung out during the day. The papers provided warmth when burned, as well as seats to place neatly around the makeshift campfire my friends and I had built deep in the woods.
Many nights I spent sitting with a few friends, from well after midnight to dawn, smoking joints and drinking bourbon at that simple homemade campsite. As I took on more and more paper routes I spent more and more time in the woods behind the apartment complex near the end of Crestline Avenue. At first it was almost every night. I was saddened when fewer and fewer friends were able to spend the entire night out. Before we left Daly City I was spending most nights in the woods at "Camp Paper," and that's when I realized that my preference was for drinking alone. More times than not I was alone in the woods. Just me and Jim Beam, my new best friend, and my small campfire; although he didn't share anything of any value with me, my new best friend gave me more comfort than even Josh used to do. (Josh lived across the street, and had been my best friend since elementary school.)
Sad as it is to admit, being alone in the woods with a small fire to keep me warm, plus whatever it was that Jim Beam put in those dark square bottles, kept me together, mentally and emotionally. By now I was making nearly three hundred dollars a week not delivering newspapers. Almost all of it went up in smoke, up my nose, or down my throat.
Whenever Mom drove me and my brother Scott down to the Crocker National Bank near Serramonte shopping center I'd shake my head in disbelief. My brother would cash one or two checks while I would be cashing over a dozen. Mom never said a word-she never asked nor did she even care. She had no idea I was not delivering on all those routes. She assumed I was slow at delivering the one or two she knew of. And most of the time she never cared, either, that I was out of the house nearly all night most of the school week.
The only time she would have a word to say about it was when I was still asleep when the truck honked after dropping off another load in the driveway; then she would yell for me to get out of bed and deliver those papers.
As I reached into the sugar bowl I knew there wouldn't be much left. I had been using the money on booze and drugs almost as fast as I wasn't earning it.
Finding just slightly more than I needed for the gun was a relief.
As I stuffed the bills in my pocket, I looked down the hallway to Mom's room and smiled.
I'm going to beat you at your own game, I told her silently.
I turned around and walked out the front door. The normal walk to my old elementary school took about forty-five minutes. This time I wasn't going there, but to a friend's house just past the school yard. I didn't have many friends- I only knew a couple of boys about my age who didn't make fun of me or treat me poorly. They simply accepted me.
Jonathan was just such a friend. In the classroom, where other kids would tease me about the way I looked or smelled or about the clothes I had on, Jonathan would somehow make me feel better. He was smaller than I was and was picked on for different reasons. Together we sort of kept each other's spirits up.
He was one of the few people I had confided in other than my best friend Josh. He knew about Mom, how she beat me and how she constantly made me feel less than human. Jonathan couldn't truly know how bad it was, yet he understood. Our conversations were short and usually started with him asking what had been happening to me, especially if I looked more tired than usual.
He had offered to sell me a gun if I ever wanted to stop Mom. At the time I thought about it, but I'd never had the guts to seriously consider actually killing anyone-until now.
As I walked the same streets that led me both to school and toward Jonathan's house, I thought about why I was so comfortable with the idea of suicide. Ever since that night in the basement when I'd thought so much about my life and even seemed to have made some sense of it, I had been determined to end it one way or another. All I had to do was find a way. I knew my friend was serious about the gun. As I made my way along the path through the trees by Westmore Hill, I realized that I wasn't scared; I was comfortable.
Before long I made it to Jonathan's house. I rang the doorbell, knowing in my heart that everything would be all right. His father answered the door, and I asked if his son was able to speak to me. He invited me into the house, and Jonathan came into the hallway and motioned for me to follow him downstairs.
In the corner of the basement was a small cabinet with a few pistols and rifles.
"If your dad finds out, there'll be serious trouble," I said.
"I've done it before," he replied smugly.
He had little concern about selling one of his father's guns without his knowledge. I knew that someday his father would discover it missing, but I wasn't going to be around to learn of the outcome.
He took out what looked like a chrome-plated thirty caliber automatic handgun. Without hesitating, I handed him the agreed forty dollars. My friend unloaded the magazine from the handle and showed me the several rounds, then reloaded the magazine. I thought to myself: All I needed was one bullet, but it doesn't matter.
I stuffed the pistol in my pocket and we left the basement via the garage door. I said good-bye and walked down the street. I could feel the weight of the gun in my pocket. It gave me satisfaction.
The walk back to the house I called "home" was almost spiritual. I took notice of the tree paths and the streets leading up to Westmore Hill. I will never see them again, I thought. At the steps to the high school I sat down, feeling the cold stone. I thought back to the house, and the basement. I was happy inside. For the first time in years I really felt happy.
I found my favorite place among the trees where I would often go and talk with God. I'd been talking to God for a while now, but it was always a one-sided conversation. I felt this would probably be my last talk with him. As I pondered taking my own life, the feeling came over me that if I did I would in some way be offending him. I wasn't sure why, but it seemed as if I would be giving up, and in an odd sort of way, giving in.
So, if I do this what will happen to me? I asked God.
As I lay on my back talking to him, I realized that the decision to take my life was all my own. God would have nothing to do with a teenager committing suicide.
I know I've been a disappointment to you and I know that you're angry with me. I just can't do this anymore, I respectfully and sincerely said. If you're going to help me then help me now!
As the last words softly left my lips I waited anxiously for a response. The minutes passed and the anxiety became anger as I realized that I wasn't getting any answers. Eventually I gave up and found comfort in the thought that I was once again on my own. I started to think about how and where I would do it. The thought of the gun firing and the impact of a bullet to the head made me wonder just how fast death would come.
What if it isn't as quick as I think it will be?
What if I can feel the bullet rush through my skull tearing the bone apart, scattering it everywhere?
As I pondered my fear of the unknown, I realized that there was just no way of knowing what to expect.
It's not like I can ask someone who's done it, I thought.
I sat and pondered some more, this time about when I learned that my neighbor down the street had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. She worked for the local phone company. When I was eight or nine years old, I used to secretly spend time talking to her when Mom was too busy with other things. As I thought about that day, I recalled the emotions that her mother shared with me: The sheer sense of emptiness and wonderment was overpowering. I kept wondering what could have caused her to actually go through with it. She was a pretty girl who seemed to have friends. I didn't know what was on her mind or what was lacking in her life, but I knew that she felt strongly about it. She must have had a good reason. I recalled the few ink portraits I made. She had introduced me to a whole new form of speech by teaching me how to take ink to canvas and how to use pictures and not words to express myself. I wondered where they were now.
I knew that I would never know the reason why she did it, and I felt empty inside. The only people I would want to understand, when I was truly ready to do the same, were my two brothers Ross and Keith. They were the only ones that would even care, the only ones that would miss me.
Excerpted from A Teenager's Journey by Richard B. Pelzer Copyright © 2006 by Richard B. Pelzer. Excerpted by permission.
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