Read an Excerpt
The blade must have been a foot long. Grasping the thick wooden handle, my mother wielded the knife with a threatening swoosh as she hovered over our bunk beds. My sister, Donna, and I had awakened wide-eyed when she stumbled into our bedroom. The sickening, stale odor of alcohol lingered in the air.
“You were a mistake,” she declared in a menacing tone. The darkness hid her face from me. “A very costly mistake. You’ve cost me way too much money. And for what? You’re worthless, you know that? You came from hell. You’ll never go anywhere. You’ll never amount to anythingjust like your worthless father.”
“Mommy, what’s wrong?” I asked, trembling.
“I’m tired of living,” she mumbled, looking over my shoulder as if she were talking to the wall. She paused. I stared at the knife, each second a heart-pounding test of my will to survive. At nine years old, I had already experienced enough physical abuse and emotional trauma to last a lifetime. Would this night be the end of my tortured life?
“I’ll kill you both,” she sneered after staring into space for what seemed like an eternity. “Then I’ll kill myself.”
“No, Mommy, no!” I pleaded. “Stop! Please! Don’t do it! Please, Mommy! Don’t hurt us!”
A flood of tears poured from my eyes. My cries soon escalated into hysterical sobs and screams, which sent Donna into spasms. I couldn’t understand her indecipherable babbling, but I remember Donna’s shoulders heaving as she shook her head back and forth. The sight of us wailing and begging for mercy must have snapped Mom out of her liquor-stained haze. She sank slowly onto the edge of the bed and began to cry. The knife slid from her grasp.
“It’s all right,” Mom choked. “I’m not going to kill you. I was just a little upset.”
My heart pounding, I lay in my bed for hours, unable to sleep. As I stared at the dark ceiling, I wondered why my mother was so angry. She had been born in South Carolina to hard-working, church-going parents. She told me they never drank, smoked, or cussed. A straight-A student through the eighth grade, my mother took her first drink at a party when she was fifteen. That one drink apparently touched off her love affair with booze.
Her alcoholism drove her to wander chaotically from place to place. Living first near the East Coast, she wandered to California where she met and married her second husband (my father), who was serving in the navy. Then she drifted back east and on into the Midwest. I was born in Virginia; two years later my sister arrived while we were living in Kansas City, Missouri. During my childhood we roamed through North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas, Illinois, Arkansas, Washington, Michigan, Texas, and several other states. Our longest stay in one place was in the Saint Louis area. Even there we bounced around like pinballs, moving from suburb to suburb.
I never understood why my mother grew to hate my father with such a passion. They met when he was in the navy. Both of them were heavy drinkers, which marred their hopes of a long and happy marriage. Deep wounds inflicted by her miscarriage of twins a year before my birth were salved with more alcohol. But booze didn’t cure my mother’s pain; it only numbed her for a few hours.
I was only four when my parents divorced. Though my father initially secured visitation rights, Mom pumped us so full of her venom toward Dad that we complained and asked embarrassing questions whenever we visited him. Finally he put his foot down, telling my mother, “Either you take full custody of them, or I’ll take full custody. I’m tired of dragging these kids back and forth between the two of us.” We never went back to Dad’s house.
The Abuse Begins
The end of our visits to Dad didn’t bring Mom much satisfaction. Though she occasionally smiled and even laughed, these brief moments of normalcy didn’t make up for her frequent dark moods. I was barely five years old when the abuse began, intensifying as we grew older. She regularly cursed at us and frequently beat us or banished us to our bedroom. Her fearsome eruptions were capped off by screaming commands. Donna and I never knew what to expect from Mom. We might come home after a pleasant day at school, only to be greeted by flying fists, a dinner plate sailing through the air, or a stream of profanity that punctured our spirits like a dagger.
But Mom’s physical and verbal attacks were not our only problems. A recurring pattern of neglect left us frightened and confused. She would vanish for several days at a time, wedging toothpicks in the front door and warning that any broken pieces would alert her that we had left without her permission. It never dawned on us that, with her thinking clouded by liquor, she would forget leaving them there.
A steady stream of parties passed through whatever place we called home for the moment. Even in the rare times when nobody drifted by for a snort, Mom’s fingers would be curled around a shot glass filled with amber-colored liquid. After emptying it, she would take a swig from a glass of water, which sat next to an ashtray that held burning cigarettes around the clock. Her eyes were continually bloodshot.
While somewhat stable during the week, on Fridays she would often disappear, leaving us with whatever bar buddy she could sweet talk into baby-sitting her little “brats.” Sometimes her flings would move in for a while, compensating themselves for their services by dipping into Mom’s stash of liquor. Most of these baby-sitters weren’t dependable, dashing out the door moments after Mom left us in their care. Our temporary guardians included ex-boyfriends or new lovers whom she lured to the task with the promise of sex or other favors. The latter led to one of the most humiliating incidents of our lives.
This traumatic event occurred the first night an ex-boyfriend stayed with us while Mom took off for three days of drinking and waiting on tavern customers. I remember crawling up the ladder into the top bunk, laughing, and making playful remarks to Donna before we drifted off to sleep. I awoke to terrible noises. Looking down, I saw our baby-sitter on top of Donna, but at seven years old, I had no idea what he was doing. Scared and unsure of what was happening, I pretended to be asleep. But after she screamed twice, I yelled at him. I had already learned how to cuss, so I used a few choice words.
Since he had finished raping Donna, he reached up and pulled down my pants. Though he didn’t rape me, I don’t remember much about the molestation; I think my mind has blocked out the trauma. But I do remember having to spend two more days with him until Mom returned.
When I finally told Mom what had happened, she went crazy. I’m not sure who she called, but the police showed up and asked me a string of questions. Later they returned and took me to the police station, where a cop hoisted me up so I could see through the lockup window. I pointed out the attacker, but he never looked up. Later I had to repeat the experience in a courtroom. Fortunately, the lawyers didn’t ask too many questions. I swore to tell the truth, pointed at the defendant, and said he was the one who had done those terrible things to my sister and me. We never saw him again.
Still traumatized from the molestation and angry at the wild whippings from my new stepfather, I tried to commit suicide two years later, when I was only nine. Before going to bed I managed to sneak a bottle of aspirin out of the kitchen and swallow all of its contents. I had seen someone do that in a movie and thought it would take care of my problems. Going to sleep and never waking up seemed much better than living. I’m not sure that I really wanted to die; I just wanted the pain to stop.
Living in Denial
Those who think booze is harmless seldom acknowledge the squalor, wasted lives, and broken homes left in alcohol’s bitter wake. And they do not like to hear the truth that countless parents haul their children into bars. As a boy I spent hundreds of hours in smoke-filled taverns. Donna and I would play shuffleboard and pool while my mother and her partner downed another drink.
Depictions of harmless, fun-loving, tipsy drunks have long been a staple of American cartoons, movies, and television shows. Such humorous characterizations reflect society’s ingrained philosophy that overindulging in alcohol is a carefree way to have a good time. But after witnessing my mother’s violent behavior whenever she was drunk, I know there is no such thing as “harmless drinking.”
Citizens in the United States live in constant denial of the seriousness of the damage caused by this harmful drug. Alcohol is the leading cause of domestic violence and highway deathsapproximately three hundred thousand between 1982 and 1995, more than five times the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. The estimated social costs of addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs exceed 240 billion dollars a year. A recent study projects that by the year 2010 the combined costs of depression and alcohol dependency will outrank cancer as the worst burdens on America’s health-care system.
Over the years I have heard too many stories of people whose descent into despair, further drug abuse, prison time, or unwanted pregnancies originated with their first drink. If more people would have spoken out against booze, maybe my mother wouldn’t have taken her first sip at age fifteen. That seemingly harmless act not only destroyed my childhood but ultimately led to her premature death at age fifty-two. That one sip also made those intervening thirty-seven years a time of misery for her and for those closest to her.
Fight to Survive
“Hey, mister. Can ya spare a quarter? Gotta make a couple of calls.”
The man had just stumbled out of one of the dozens of taverns that covered our suburban, blue-collar neighborhood. Every few blocks sat a pool hall, lounge, or beer gardenusually next to a convenience store that dispensed additional beverages. If barflies didn’t get enough inside, they could carry more home.
He looked over his shoulder and blinked a couple of times. Though I tried to look innocent, my faded jeans, grubby T-shirt, wiry frame, and hardened countenance labeled me a twelve-year-old hustler out to support my favorite habit. But my request was innocent enough this night: I hoped to gather enough spare change for a couple of burgers and cokes for Donna and myself.
“Uh, yeah,” he nodded slowly, fumbling in his pockets before fishing out a couple of dimes and a quarter. A beer-stained odor colored the air as he leaned over. “Here, kid. Enjoy yourself.”
“Thanks, mister,” I nodded, trying to project the cool manner that helped me survive on America’s streets in the sixties. “I ’preciate it.”
“Got enough, Ken?” Donna asked as the man hobbled down the street, muttering to himself.
“Think so. Let’s check out the grill.”
Scoffers may joke about “greasy spoons,” but those modest diners were the highlight of our childhood. Donna and I wolfed down our burgers with as much joy as if Mrs. Cleaver had placed them gently onto our plates in a scene from Leave It to Beaver. Our mother rarely served a home-cooked meal: her idea of cooking dinner was plopping a box of carry-out food onto the kitchen table.
The house in Saint Louis where we were living the night we panhandled for our dinner was the closest we had ever come to a real home. The single-story frame dwelling was nothing fancy: the living room measured about twelve-by-ten feet and contained a nondescript couch, two chairs, and an old television set. The house also contained a pair of sparsely furnished bedrooms and a tiny strip of a kitchen with a small table. Donna and I slept in one of the bedrooms in sagging bunk bedsthat is, when we could sleep amid the drunken, profanity-laced revelry that continued late into the night.
We never knew when Mom would burst through the door in an unexplainable rage, grab a broom, and whack our legs with the handle. After we burst into tears, she wouldn’t let us go to bed until we stopped crying. We often slept by the front door so we could hear her drive up, and then we’d hide downstairs or in a neighbor’s backyard until she passed out.
Since we never knew when Mom would erupt in another tirade, Donna and I spent many hours in the basement. In this safe place away from Mom, we often tossed around a rubber ball, sometimes grabbing a mop handle and pretending we were playing stickball in the alley of our neighborhood. But we mainly liked staying out of Mom’s reach. She couldn’t maneuver the stairs very well and usually forgot we were there. Donna and I would play until Mom left for work, then we’d watch television or roam around the neighborhood.
We never had to worry about returning at a particular time since Mom usually stayed out past midnight. After our impromptu burger feast that evening, we wandered through the streets like a pair of juvenile hobos. Passing most of the time under the streetlights, we also loitered at the homes of a couple of friends whose parents lived similar lifestyles. Donna and I finally drifted home, hoping to avoid another beating.
“What’s that smell?”
Donna wrinkled her nose as we slipped through the front door after midnight. Mom had arrived home first. Crumpled on the floor and lying on her side, she was clad in dingy shorts and a worn blouse. She was sleeping soundly next to a pool of drying vomit and an empty whiskey bottle. In the shadows cast by the dim streetlight, we could see two strangers sprawled on the couch, snores bubbling up from their drunken bodies.
Suddenly a surge of hatred pulsed through my veins. I impulsively walked into the kitchen and grabbed the butcher knife lying on the counterthe same one she had held over my head three years before.
Thoughts of revenge filled my mind as I dangled the blade over my mother’s body. How I wanted to strike back at her for all the wounds she had inflicted on me! I slowly moved the knife up and down my mother’s lifeless frame, starting at her stomach and grazing it along her torso until I stopped at her neck. Finally I pointed it at her face and pictured myself slashing it across her throat.
To my youthful mind, it was a game. I could pretend to attack her and get even for all the insults and injuries, and she couldn’t do anything about it because she was asleep. Take that, Mom! How does it feel to be on the other end for once? Are you scared? Are you sorry for all the times you hurt us? What did we ever do to you to deserve this? Huh? C’mon. Speak up. I’ve got the knife right here in my hands. You’d better be scared. This could be your time.
Strangely, this vengeful daydream didn’t bring me any satisfaction. I was overcome by emotion and began to cry. Soon my whole body was trembling.
“Do it!” Donna urged from between her teeth, which she had clenched to stifle her sobs. “Go ahead! Do it!”
I paused for a moment, still holding the knife over my mother’s still body. I had the motive and enough hatred inside to finish the task. I was tough too. I had become so hardened by years of abuse that by now I could take Mom’s fist to my mouth without crying.
For protection, I had developed a shell that enabled me to hide as easily as the Invisible Man. But this night exposed raw feelings and years of pent-up emotion. To this day I don’t know what stopped me from using the butcher knife. Maybe my tears relieved the stress. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I stopped. Living with the guilt of murder would have created a lifetime prison, one that would have outlived temporary confinement behind bars. Despite what my mother had done, I realized that I didn’t have the right to take her life. No matter how badly she had hurt me, retaliation wouldn’t solve a thing. Even the temporary satisfaction of hurting the person who had hurt me so deeply couldn’t reclaim my lost childhood, wipe out bitter memories, or force my mother to become responsible.
When the tears stopped and my body quit twitching, I shook my head and slowly stood up. Walking into the kitchen, I flung the knife on the counter.
“C’mon,” I said to Donna. “Let’s go to bed.”