A memoir published but now archived from 2002. It is about domestic violence, abuse and the loss of a child.
My story began in the Midwest, in the state of Ohio on August 11, 1962. Ohio is a beautiful state, I remember it being very clean, very pretty, lots of flowers, artisans, rich in history and filled with family. Beginning at the age of 4 ½, my family included my stepfather who immigrated to America from Hungary with his friends in 1956; during the Hungarian revolution. My life became one of tradition and ritual: Hungarian customs and songs, food and spices, lifestyle and practice.While I was aware of the Ohioans who were around me and their way of living life, it was very different from what I was becoming accustomed to. I was raised as a Hungarian child, not an American. I looked at life somewhat differently than others and I saw life in our home as different from other children. Each child can tell you a version of what life was like for them growing up. Each child in my family will tell you an interpretation that won’t sound like mine. Growing up rich in Hungarian culture gave me a sense of life outside of Ohio. However, the mindset in the Midwest can be one of isolation and naivete. Other than Hungary, Ohio seemed to be the only place on the planet. What I am saying is that I wasn’t that well-rounded or well-traveled. Other than the one trip to Hungary when my parents first married, we never crossed state lines except for church camp and Nana and Dobbie’s.
Nana and Dobbie were nicknames given to the two people whose church sponsored refugees and who took my stepfather in, along with his two buddies. Neither of them spoke Hungarian nor did they know anything about the culture. My stepfather lived here for several years until he married his first wife. Nana was a schoolteacher who began her career in a one room schoolhouse. She was used to bullies from the farms coming into classes and picking on the younger kids. She was a tough woman with a petite frame, and rose to any challenge education could bring her. My stepfather was taught English from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. Dobbie helped the three boys learn a trade. One went into masonry, one was a baker and my stepfather became a carpenter. Nana and Dobbie became loving grandparents for my siblings and I growing up.
My mother was raised in Columbus, Ohio as far as I could see; by two very strong people. I never really knew my grandfather, because he died with Parkinson’s Disease when I was very young. His presence seemed to be very important in his household, and while my grandmother seemed to lay down the law, it was clear to me that he had a say in what would actually happen. On the other hand, I did know my grandmother very much, about as much as she would allow you to know. She was interested in her children and grandchildren becoming good strong ladies and gentleman. She wanted success and even recognition for their endeavors. My mother was raised in a very tough household, everyone learned a foreign language, took piano lessons, behaved and dressed properly and didn’t talk back. Children should mind their parents and do as they were told. It was hard being at my grandma’s house as a child. The maternal side of my family always felt very tightly wound up to me — very rigid and strict. Not a passive aggressive type where they will bust at the seams any minute. On the contrary, this is the type that will hold it in so that nothing can get in though, unfortunately, plenty can come out. The body can only take so much before disease or tumors or blood pressures or something will eventually clog up the arteries, the veins, and then the lifeline. As I was growing up it seemed like people were sick a lot, with talks of prescriptions and doctors. It was as if the doctor’s knew their body better than they did.
Interestingly enough, my grandmother was a woman I always looked up to. She seemed to know all the answers about how you were supposed to be in the world. And if you didn’t behave that way, people would look down on you and you would be shunned by society. It has always been important to me, even after her death, that I am accepted by society. That I have success and recognition for the things that I have accomplished. Not all the women that my grandmother raised, or even the men, became successful and gained recognition. That doesn’t matter to me, what matters is that I learned something about life from my grandmother, about being strong and behaving in a certain way, a way in which a woman could survive. I could take my grandmother’s knowledge and learn from her strength, and get through anything in life.
My parents are my mother and stepfather; I only knew my biological father and his family for a short time. My parents were raised in completely different ways. While I only met my stepfather’s family one time at the age of 5, I knew growing up that he was the youngest of about 6. I believe either some of the 6 died or there were a few others who died at birth, I am not clear. I always heard stories about the Russians and what dirty people they were and how they destroyed countries. My stepfather said they brought lice into villages and I later heard they raped and murdered people. He had to survive political oppression and he chose to come to America, as did many thousands of others seeking freedom and independence. I can see similarities between this and when I came to California many years later. While my father was leaving communism because he found it unbearable, I felt that I was leaving an overly restrictive and oppressive family situation.
My parents raised their children the way they were raised, their interpretation of it. In that time period, corporal punishment wasn’t unusual. Emotional and physical abuse were unnamed and I dare say no one would have understood it. Now as an adult, when we discuss this subject, I am the freak in the house, the one “who tells stories about things that never happened.” When in fact, I am the scapegoat, the one who gets the burdens of the family blamed on them. There is a joke that goes “Denial is not a river in Egypt.” It may not be in Egypt, but it certainly is in the middle of our house whenever I arrive. Believers, that is me, on one side, and non-believers, the rest of the family and family friends on the other. It is a huge burden being the one who carries all the pain or the truth, and nothing but the truth. Sure it is my truth, but then I was the oldest, the one who would be hurt the most and the one who would do her best to fight back emotionally and come out on top. Well, without sounding egotistical, the one who would do her best to heal and try to bring knowledge to those who would not or feel they cannot on their own.
Besides our family life, there were things I learned growing up from other people in our community. Growing up we went to a Hungarian Calvinist Church. Calvinism is not really understood by many. Calvinism can breed abuse in families because it is where the phrase “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is practiced. I can remember the first minister I had while going to this church would take his children, grab them by the ears and bang their heads together. Can you imagine what sort of field day a physiological psychologist could have with that one? Yes, there has since been research on what type of damage can come from the things people do to their children’s heads. My parents tried that one a few times on my siblings and I. It was important to behave like those you respected, especially a minister. You most certainly wouldn’t want people to think you weren’t raising your kids properly. And looking back, the minister’s kids were some of the most well behaved and very intelligent young ladies and gentlemen. (Added note: They all have graduate degrees as of today).
Not all Hungarians are responsible for the abuse that occurs in the world today; certainly every culture has their own rituals and practices of raising children, good and bad. While you read my story please know I am only telling you about the world I knew; I had no clue what was happening in other people’s homes. It did seem though like I was being treated much more strictly and more severely then my friends, both Hungarian and American. I don’t believe it has anything to do with the culture necessarily, but by the way a person is raised, their beliefs about how children should be raised and how they go about putting these thoughts into practice. I mention the Hungarian part because this was my life and it is pivotal in how I was shaped as a human being. I was told that this was how Hungarians raised their children and while I saw different practices in other Hungarian homes; I didn’t have much of a choice.
When I describe the abuse that occurred in my home, I have also said that corporal punishment was not unusual while I was growing up. While I do currently work for the Department of Social Services, I don’t know exactly what their laws were in Ohio in the 60’s and 70’s. A co-worker who was in Ohio as a social worker during the 70’s told me the main focus was on dirty houses. This meant extremely neglectful situations with filth and a lack of food, clothing and decent shelter. I wasn’t raised like this. I am sure the abuse laws also meant extremely abusive environments. It is true, my parents didn’t tie me up and put kerosene over me and light a match. They didn’t lock me in closets or trunks and keep food away from me for days. However, we now realize that emotional and physical abuse doesn’t have to be extreme in order for it to severely effect a child’s life.
Other occasions where we could be punished in our household depended on the event and whatever struck the mood of my stepfather. My mother did hit us on occasion, but the most extreme of her punishments was on the face and for some reason my nose would always bleed. With my stepfather, he was more strict, more angry, and could be pushed to his limits. Running around the kitchen table or even out of the house didn’t work, it just pissed him off more and usually caused a much more abusive punishment. Why we did it, I don’t know but I think it actually made us feel that we were making an attempt to survive, a behavioral mechanism that must have worked at least once for us to continue trying every single time. There was a time when I had to kneel on dry ears of corn. There was a conversation about it at the dinner table, a technique they used in Hungary. There were the times mentioned before where they tried the minister’s technique of banging heads. There was a story I heard once, when we had company over for dinner. A Hungarian book, on the bookshelf had been broken and someone asked how it got that way. My parents boldly stated that my stepfather had hit me over the head with it when I was about 5 years old.
There was one time when our ponies got out that is the most vivid and one of the worst cases of abuse I will ever remember. My stepfather always took the ponies and cows out of the fence, because they had eaten all the grass inside of it. He would tie the ponies legs in a way so that they couldn’t run away. Cows are basically dumb and won’t go anywhere. My sister and I, who were the only ones old enough to watch them graze, would take turns keeping an eye on them. One time, we were inside watching television, and the ponies and cows were outside near the house. It is true; we were being lazy, because we hated this job anyway. We were kids and wanted to play like our friends. Unfortunately, it was our job and when my stepfather came home, he saw that not only had we been neglectful of our duties, but that the ponies had gotten stuck around his newly planted trees and were ruining them.
He came into the house in a rage, more damaging then we had ever seen before. He was furious, not only because we were being lazy, but was telling us how much damage we had cost him. Suddenly, he grabbed the horses whip, I don’t remember where it was, because the next thing I knew I was being beaten by it. I had shorts on at the time because it was summer. This made my legs fresh and ripe for planting marks anywhere you could imagine. I remember grabbing every inch of my skin, with all my might, trying to protect myself from the blows. His arms were very strong and he didn’t hold back when he was angry. It hurt so badly and no matter how hard you cried or pleaded with him to stop it only made him angrier and made the beating worse. He would call you a “cry baby” or say “stop snibbling” in his broken foreign accent. He would warn us that the damage he was doing was nothing compared to what we had cost him with those trees. And he would tell us we were being punished because we were so lazy and good for nothing kids. What made this whole event even worse is that we had a little girl spending the night. She was as old as one of my little brothers. She and my little brothers were watching television, trying not to look. I imagine they were scared that they might be next. I was humiliated that he was doing this in front of little children. Someone who wasn’t from our family and didn’t know our little secrets. I was in pain and didn’t understand. I don’t remember how old I was when this happened, time froze at that moment. Both my brother’s were there and were probably about 4 and 2 or 3. So I could do the math and know that I was about 11 or 12.
As I became a teenager, the abuse didn’t really stop, but it wasn’t quite as much as when we were younger. It became a different kind of abuse, that of emotional harassment and manipulation. This is where my mother came in, in full force with her fears of my growing up and moving out of the house. My father became stricter on how I would live my life, but the physical abuse was less frequent. This was when my ex-husband came onto the scene, at the age of 15 ½. At this point in my life, I began chanting to myself at nighttime, “I will never do this to my children. I will never hate my children this much.” It is too bad that I didn’t see it also had to do with whom my mother married. Somehow that part escaped me. It did not connect in my head that who you chose as a partner had something to do with the way your children were disciplined. But this was how I protected myself, with the knowledge that I would do much better to my kids, a self-soothing technique that helped me feel as if I had hope, that I would be a better person.
Instead I went on to meet someone who seemed to give me the recognition I needed. In a strange way, he lifted me out of my depression and made me feel special. This was short lived and part of his strategy for pulling me into his lair. He was outgoing like my stepfather and seemed to have this attitude like he was in control of everything around him. It made me feel like he would protect me, help control my world as well. He stood up to my father’s demands and this impressed me. Scared because he never really got away with it, but somewhat impressed. I was a teenager after all, albeit rebellious but very gullible and naïve. He was more manipulative and controlling of me prior to our marriage than abusive. Although I do remember him grabbing me by the hair and dragging me up the stairs one time. I can’t remember what the reason was, but it didn’t really matter because it wasn’t about how I was behaving as a child that was causing me to be punished. It now mattered how I was behaving as his girlfriend. My teenage years were somewhat clouded by all that was happening and how fast the world seemed to be going. I was 17 when I got pregnant, and while it was after we were engaged, we still weren’t married. My mother increased her abusive language toward me adding words like “slut,” and “shacking up,” and “he will never marry you now.” I had heard these type of words before, as they were spoken about other women of ill repute. Now it was targeted at me. I was the bad girl.
My stepfather told me I didn’t have to get married to him. I could stay there with them and raise the child. My stepfather was beginning to see more than anyone else that I was in a bad situation. He knew my soon to be husband would be like him and perhaps he actually wanted someone better for me. When my now fiancé became unemployed, they didn’t give him a check at social services, instead they talked him into the military and off he went. It was good and it was bad. He became more independent and more controlling of his world around him. He wrote me dirty letters telling me what he wanted me to do while he was in boot camp. My mother read them and I was humiliated. She knew we had had sex, this is usually how you become pregnant, but my mother had to dig in deeper and show me how she still was the one who controlled me. My fiancé didn’t really send me any money to make sure that I had maternity clothes. I had to write to him and tell him that this was necessary. My parents paid for a few things.
The next thing I knew, I graduated from high school, a week or two later we were married, I stepped out of Ohio and moved to Illinois with my husband and then a few months after that my son was born. One minute I was a child in my parents home and the next I was an adult and a wife in my husband’s home. I had no idea about how I should live my life, I only tried to do the things I remembered my mother doing. She had taught me how to cook and clean, but I was used to her telling me what to do. Now I had to figure it all out for myself and make the plans for all these daily activities. My husband decided that he needed to go the grocery store with me and tell me what we were going to buy and what I was going to make. He told me what we were going to do every day and when we were going to do it. He told me where we were going to live, what type of house it would be and what our future would look like. Meanwhile, we would visit Ohio on the weekends; staying at his family’s house. I was allowed to visit my family but not for too long. One time my son and I were left there for the entire night. He had initially said that he would pick us up for midnight bowling. I later found a letter in his wallet which told me he had been with an ex-girlfriend. On this night however, my stepfather began to see evidence of what type of man I had married. They knew that I was not in a good situation, but what could they do. And then to make matters worse, we were stationed in San Diego, California. I was moved thousands of miles away from my family, my friends, and the support system that I knew of. I had know idea that my former life was about to end in so many ways.
Moving to San Diego was culture shock for me. At that time there were no Horton Plaza’s or the Gaslamp Quarter in Downtown. Instead I saw strip joints, porno stores, tattoo parlors, drugs openly used on the streets, drug dealers, prostitutes. The first place my husband took me to was Ocean Beach. He drove over to the pier where some transient came up to the car and sold him pot. We stayed in a cheap motel and he left me there with my son; every day without any money to eat on. I would have a little spare change and would buy food out of the vending machines. The hotel was situated in an area where you couldn’t really get around without a car anyway. I tried walking but there were freeways all over and I didn’t know where to go.
We moved into an apartment without any furniture and lived here for a short time. I raised my son, and my husband went to work. I wasn’t very resourceful at the time, so I was quite isolated in my environment. I was a dutiful wife. We soon moved to another location and acquired furniture at a local store, which catered to enlisted military men “E1 and up,” was their slogan. All this time, he was beginning to take ownership of me and lay down the law. As I have stated, he told me how to live my life. He never gave me any money to buy things with, except groceries under his direction. All of his spare money went to drugs and alcohol. I wanted things for my son and myself. I didn’t know how to do anything, so I went to work in a place where young teens and adults turn to, a hamburger stand. Here I got a little bit of money, although it never seemed to get me anything. However, I did find a social support group (through my co-workers) and the assistant manager of the store ending up saving my life.
When my husband went on a West-Pac, a U.S. Navy tour that would last 6 months; I was left to fend for myself. He never gave me enough money to live on, so I had to make do with what I was making at the hamburger stand. My son always ate, and I would have soup and grilled cheese, something that wasn’t too expensive. I learned from another poor neighbor how to eat cheaply. I began to get very close to my friends at the hamburger stand and spend lots of time with the assistant manager; a young woman who was very independent. It was at her house that I “slipped” one day and began to mention what life was like in my home. She looked at me like I was an idiot and asked me how I could put up with something like that. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had begun to look up to her and didn’t want to disappoint her.
Since I had met my husband, I had heard things about his behavior from friends. My best friend in Ohio, whom he didn’t want me talking to, had talked to me about him before I left. My grandmother had known his mother from a bowling league. She knew about her abuse and a coma that she had been in; at the hands of his father. I didn’t know about this stuff, I wasn’t a therapist or a social worker. I was just a dumb kid from Ohio, raised in a way where I believed whatever my parents told me and I knew nothing except abuse. But when I had been left alone for 6 months, I was all by myself, just me and my son. While I didn’t have much money, I had friends, I had my son, and I had been having a nice time. When my boss looked at me that way, that night at her house, and told me I shouldn’t let a man do this to me it clicked finally. I didn’t want to live my life like this anymore.
Part II will be relayed later this week. Leaving an abusive husband; with a child, wasn’t as easy as one would think. Especially not in California with all your family in Ohio.