This will be one of the most personal posts I will ever write and I would bet 90 percent of the people who know me know nothing about what I am about to write. Part of me feels guilty for writing this because I don’t want to hurt anyone and my family will read it and is this not flattering to them. Another part of me is concerned that the people who have never heard these stories will look at me differently and that is never a fun idea.
Warning the following post contains violence, adult language and situations. This is meant for mature audiences and reader discretion is advised.
I am absolutely furious about what has been happening at Penn State. FURIOUS. What Jerry Sandusky did was unconscionable. What Mike McQueary did was unthinkable. What Joe Paterno did was no better. And those college students who are protesting to keep him need to seriously RE-EVALUATE YOUR PRIORITIES. If you really think football is more important that keeping children safe, there is something wrong with your moral compass and you are old enough to know better. And I LOVE football. LOVE IT. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the contributions he made to your program and for the sport. Not a rat’s fucking ass. Most of you are going to have children one day. I hope when you do you look back at your behavior during this period and look at your kids and think how you would feel if someone did this to them. I hope you feel deep shame and guilt. Shame on you.
When I first thought about writing this, I was going to limit this to comparing the situation there to the murder of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death in a parking lot approximately 100 feet from her home in Queens, NY. You might think that she was all alone and that is why no one could help her. Maybe no one could hear her cries for help. You would be wrong.. Reports of how many people heard her cries for help, they vary from 12 to 38. No one did anything. This response is called “Genovese Syndrome” or “the diffusion of responsibility.” Basically there is an inverse relationship between the likelihood that people will help someone in distress to the number of people who are around. The more people are around, the less likely they are to help because everyone assumes that someone else will step in.
That may have been sufficient but I don’t really think so.
There is something that happens to children when a person they trust and who is supposed to take care of you hurts you in a way that Sandusky hurt those children. The people who know about it and do little or nothing like Paterno and McQueary did just inflict that hurt a second time. It completely destroys your ability to trust people. It destroys the sense of safety and security that should be mandatory for all children. It can do permanent damage to your sense of self and steals your esteem. It leaves you feeling like a house with a flawed foundation.
I know these things because I went through something similar.
(No, there was no sexual abuse — just wanted to make that clear from the get-go.)
My father is a sociopath. That is not just my opinion. That is what trained professionals have determined from his behavior. That might sound like hyperbole. You might think this realization was upsetting to me but it was actually freeing because it ended decades of guilt that I felt. I always thought if I did something different in this situation or that, things would have been different, things would have been better. I know better now.
My parents divorced when I was about three (I think). We we had just moved from San Francisco, where I was born, to Stony Brook, NY. (As a side note, you can read my father’s version of my childhood here.) Initially, my mother had custody but that didn’t last very long.
The first time my father scared me started as a fun experience. He was tickling me and he was a little more rough than usual and he hurt me. When I cried out a strange look came over his face. That look wasn’t concern, it was a mixture of excitement and joy. It was as if he had just opened a great present.
The mood of he house changed dramatically when he moved in. When my mother was there we danced around the house, we ate midnight snacks, we had fun. When my father moved in a whole new set of rules were introduced. The rules changed a lot and looking back on it, I don’t think the rules were really rules. I think he lashed out at me because he needed to feel he had control over something. He would fly off the handle at the strangest times. One day, I cut a rose from a rose bush. That was THE rose he wanted to give his mother.
The first time he hit me, I don’t remember what I did that set this off. I remember him telling me that I was selfish and never thought about anyone but myself. He told me he would kill me if I told anyone.
My personality changed dramatically. Where I had been a really happy child, I became angry. But I wasn’t allowed to express anger around my father. That just made him angrier. “You can’t be angry with me, I am the one who stayed. Your mother didn’t stay,” he’d tell me. He didn’t add that my mother left because he went to a judge and got the custody agreement changed.
The normal response to being hurt is to become angry at the person who hurt you but as I was not allowed to show it towards my father, I had to vent it somewhere so I took it out on my mother and grandmother. I fought with them all the time. Throughout the years, I have wondered how they didn’t notice that change and the only thing I can attribute that to is that they just didn’t want to know.
My parents’ divorce was something my grandmother initially opposed; going as far as to say that if mt mother left my father, she would never talk to my mother again. I loved and continue to love my grandmother but she let me down in pretty significant ways. The first time was when she told the court she could not help take care of me when she promised my mother she would and that is what led them to give me to my father.
But she wasn’t alone, my mother did not get a whole lot of support from other members of her family. After my father hit me and I was at my grandmother’s house (more proof that they looked the other way), my aunt and uncle were visiting and they sent me back to him.
This brings me to another facet of this; it forced me to become an adult really fast. In fact I was more of adult at five than I am now. On one occasion, I was at dinner at my grandmother’s house. An aunt and uncle, my mother and grandmother were fighting over who was going to take care of me. I listened to this for a while and then I spoke up and said, “If there’s a problem finding someone to take care of me, why don’t I just do it?” They stopped for a moment and looked at me and then went back to fighting. The irony was that is that is exactly what happened. I have often felt that the abstract idea of me was more important than I was. That was the first time I felt like that. I was no more than four or five.
A few years later, when I was in first grade, my father was very upset, though not with me. I know you will find this hard to believe but it is true. We had a double pained window in his study. He could not figure out why there was water inside, it was in the early morning, a time of day that he did not often experience. He asked me what it was and I said, “It’s probably condensation from when the air got colder overnight, it will evaporate as it gets warmer.” (Side note: this is from the six year old who was put in the remedial reading class a year later and where she stayed until she was caught reading Stephen King’s The Shining in the fifth grade and moved to the second to highest level, thus changing the trajectory of her life because she was introduced to creative writing.)
My father treated me almost like he would a spouse (again, no sexual abuse ever occurred). If we had vegetables in the house, it was because I made sure we got them. He was taking a lot of tranquilizers and sleeping pills so he wasn’t all that smart. Often people assume those drugs make everyone mellow but when you take the often enough and for long enough, they can just make you angry. They dull your brain. My favorite two examples are the time I convinced him that because he didn’t give one dollar for my lunch, he really owed me two; one for the money I had spent and one for the money I would have saved. Later when he would disconnect the cable at night (this was much later when I could stay at home without a babysitter) so I could not watch TV when he was off teaching night school, I would reconnect as soon as he left and disconnect right before he got home. I would sit in my room and laugh at him muttering and cursing when he couldn’t get it reconnected.
A typical tantrum went like this. A frequent cause of his ire was my bedroom. I don’t remember being a particularly messy child but he would think I was. He would fly into a rage about it, scream horrible things at me. Then he would hit me, sometimes he threw me against the wall and I would fall onto the cabinets in my bedroom. One time he threw me to the ground and nearly strangled me. He kneeled over me with his knees on my upper arms. I am surprised I survived him — another time, I fell asleep at a political fundraiser and woke up submerged in the bathtub, I am not sure what I did that time, if anything.
The next step would be to tear up my room and put it in a heap and make me clean it up right then. I Couldn’t go to sleep until I did. And these tantrums didn’t always happen early. Some didn’t start until I was asleep. I sucked my thumb as a kid and it made him furious — he didn’t want to pay for braces. Wanna know the real reason I am afraid of the dentist? It’s not because I woke up during my wisdom tooth extraction, although that happened and didn’t help. It’s because any time I needed a filling he went crazy. (Side note: my childhood dentist went to jail for insurance fraud.)
I mention the timing because there were many times that I was up all night cleaning the mess he made. I would finish maybe an hour or two before I had to get up and go to school. If you saw my sixth grade class photo, you might wonder why I was wearing what I was when everyone else was dressed nicely. I had just experienced such a night and had forgotten about the photo.
The worst part of his tantrum is what happened after he left. This is where his cruelty was epic. He would leave in a huff. A bit later he would come back and would be nice. This would lull me into the sense that he was no longer mad at me and then the next time he came in he would scream at me again. You see, he wanted me to let my guard down.
One of the pivotal events of my life was my trip to Iceland when I was five. My mother had been traveling and living there to work on her dissertation for her PhD in Anthropology. One day she came to me and asked if I wanted to go with her. You won’t believe me but my thought was I would really like to go to that field trip to Sand Street Beach but I have been there before and this might be a good opportunity to see something different. Yes, that is exactly what I said and I went.
I spent the summer I turned six living on a sheep farm in rural Iceland. We picked blueberries. I played with the kittens in the large barn, though I could never get them to stay in our apartment. The people were kind. The sun sets at midnight there. The only violence I experienced was when a beam in a new building we were playing in fell down and hit me in the head knocked me unconscious and probably gave me a concussion, something I never told anyone until years later (I have had as many as Steve Young by now).
At the end of the summer, my grandmother wrote and asked my mother to send me back so I could start school. She asked me what I wanted to do. And I said I wanted to go home and when I got on the plane — by myself — I made the decision that would haunt me for decades. It is hard for me to think about it now. I desperately wanted to get off the plane. I told myself that I had made the decision and needed to stick with it and went back to the US. I am little surprised to find that this memory still makes me cry. I think it is the worst decision I have ever made but I can’t bear all the blame. I have forgiven my mother for what amounts to her abdicating her role as my protector but who lets a six year old make that decision?
What was a lovely summer for me was something different to my father, although he had been made aware of this trip, this was a kidnapping. He became a zealot. In his mind he was fighting to make parental kidnappings illegal. He wrote a book on it and went on a media tour, often with me in tow. My first television interview was on Good Morning America when I was six. Most of my childhood was documented by the New York media. Stories about me ran in the New York Times, Newsday, all the local television and I appeared on To Tell the Truth, where I picked out my real father. When I was in junior high school, the school got copies of all the coverage and asked me to watch it, it took the entire school day.
The most recent article was after I graduated college and moved to Washington, DC. The New York Times ran a story that said I had lived in Kenya as a child. I have never been to Kenya. That may seem like a small thing but reading falsehoods about your personal life in the paper of record really upset me. I moved to Washington to work in politics but when I did, I also changed my name. I moved to a new city and changed my name without telling my father to escape him and then I read that. I called the reporter — who was shocked and upset, she wanted to know how I got her phone number. I said, “It’s called 411, I would think a reporter would know that. I thought journalists did some research and editors cared about fact checking.” Her answer was that she had read that in other papers, which was not enough for me. The editors of the Times sent me a letter of apology and asked if I wanted a retraction but I just told them to be more careful.
My father always wanted me to be popular but the custody fight was still on and neither side of my family ever wanted to pay for basic things for me, like clothes. So, I had few. Kids can be cruel to those who are different. My parents were divorcing. My clothes looked crappy. They picked on me more than played with me. During the day I was picked on and at night I dealt with my dad. I felt very alone. I had friends but only after school and on weekends. They never wanted anyone else to know they played with me. My best friend — in a different grade so we never saw each other at school — was a girl down the street but she moved to Florida at I guess when I was seven, so my childhood was very lonely.
Life changed for me in junior high school. At some point, he stopped hitting me. Not out of compassion, I stopped crying when he hit me. I don’t know if I had gotten used to it but violence didn’t make me cry he was just cruel in other ways. I was also out of the house more.
This ushered in my delinquent period.
When I was 14, I moved in with a friend’s family — was there on and off for nearly six months. That year I discovered alcohol. I went to my first bar that year. My friend and one of her friends, who was over 21, dressed us up and made up out faces and we weren’t even carded. I ordered a wine spritzer. I also discovered pot — oh and boys, but that’s a story for another day. And that summer was one of the best of my life. That fall, when I was 15, I lost my virginity.
If there was any movie that could be described as being like my high school experience it would have to be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I never went to class. I would have my father sign blank pieces of paper and would write that I had a doctor’s appointment. These notes would not have one date but a list of dates. When he wanted me to write it, I did it in pencil. One time when I got in school suspension I wrote such a note. This fooled none of the students who wanted the school to call my doctor so I said I didn’t know we had to bring lunch and asked to call someone to bring me one. When I left to do that I called my doctor and made an appointment, just in case. It worked. I left at 10:30 am and never had to go back.
My coup de grace had to be the time I called the Assistant principal as my friend’s teacher claiming to be his mother. The call ended with “Mrs. X, I am just glad there are still parents in this district that care about their children as much as you.” I have never been as serious about anything in my life. His suspension was reduced from five days to two. If that isn’t proof that you need to go big or go home, well, that Assistant Principal had me in his office as much as his assistant. It also proves that truancy is serious business.
I drank more in high school than college. My friends and I drank all the time. I had a checking account and the liquor store would deliver to me (not kidding). The local Chinese restaurant served us alcohol. When we weren’t getting our own, we stole it from our parents. My contributions were often from my grandmother’s house — I would put gin into used salad dressing bottles and bring it to school. We’d keep it in my locker until we had a free period and then go to the fruit stand next door and buy juice — we didn’t mix it, we’d drink the gin and follow it with the juice “chaser.” Nothing brings out the taste of gin more than the flavor of zesty Italian and the time spent in a high school locker.
My behavior was all over the place. I took a ton of Sominex and was taken to the hospital. I didn’t really want to die, I think I just needed attention. My father told the hospital he didn’t know me, at least the first time they called. He didn’t speak to me for weeks. We were sent to therapy. I went with him and alone. When I went alone, we talked about current affairs and politics. The therapist told me she wanted me to go so she could get him in, he started to have a tantrum there — a MILD one — and she threatened to call the cops.
Again, I moved out of the house. Junior year, I spent most of the second semester at a friend’s house. We drank and dabbled in drugs. One time we dropped acid and got into a truck with some guys we met at 7/11 then drove out to Montauk. I am also surprised I survived high school.
Just before my graduation, I moved in with my grandmother following one of the worst attacks I had experienced. I was watching Saturday Night Live, well, I was sleeping through it. I had a fight with my father earlier in the day but he had gone out, I was very quiet hoping I would escape a fight and remember being nervous about turning off the TV. I was afraid he would hear the TV go off and know I was home. I should have listened to that fear.
I lay back in the bed and he was up the stairs to my room, panting. He threw me to the ground and jumped on me. His knees again on my upper arms, he wrapped his hands around my neck and squeezed tighter and tighter. I couldn’t breath and felt dizzy but he wanted me to answer his questions. I felt every part of my body want to live but I couldn’t do anything and thought I was going to die. Finally he let me go but screamed, “When I say jump, you say, how high?” After I heard him go downstairs to his room in the basement, I went to my grandmother’s house. The next morning she asked me not to call the police, she was afraid if I did that he wouldn’t pay for college.
He did that one more time — and threatened to do it again — and I moved in with my grandmother. I should have done that years earlier. I stopped drinking almost entirely. Not being miserable all the time made me less interested.
After a year, she sold her house to my father and he moved in with me. I went to Stony Brook University. My grandmother’s house was about a mile from my father’s house. You can see my father’s house from the chemistry building on campus but I still moved into a dorm. A few months into my first semester I brought my cat to the dorm because my father threatened to kill her.
When I graduated college, I moved back in with my father. After a night with my friends, we had a repeat of the near strangulation. This time it was in the driveway where he knocked me unconscious when my head hit the pavement. This attack was the only one for which I have documentation and a police report. I went to the hospital. They found bruises on my arms and neck and I had a concussion.
I returned to the house afterwards. I slipped into the house and tried to go to sleep. His room was on the top floor and now I was in the basement. After a bit, I heard some movement upstairs. I knew I didn’t have time to get out the door and away so I hid in my closet. I sat on a shoe rack. My closet didn’t have a door, just an almost sheer curtain.
The pounding sounds of him running grew louder and closer. He was panting when he got to my room and his anger felt palpable. I have never been so scared in my life. I sat as still as I could and barely breathed. The fear felt like cold schnapps flowing through my veins. He paced around for a few minutes and then went back upstairs.
I remain grateful that he never turned on the light, he would have seen me and I have no doubt that he would have killed me. I sat there for a long time and then I snuck back out. My first move was a few weeks later, although I spent a week with a family friend. I moved into an apartment in Coram. He was so upset by my answering machine message he took my car, he never put it in my name so it was his. The first joke on him was that I drove that car into the ground. It stalled at every single light. Every. Single. One.
The real joke on him was that he took it the day before I planned to move to Washington to start my new life with a new name. My mother had moved there so I could, too.
In the years since, he has tried to get back in touch. He sent me letters to my first internship (in the White House Media Affairs Office). I guess he didn’t understand that the Secret Service could look him up. They suggested I get a Freedom of Information Act report on him.
When I was working for a Senate he walked in and gave me a jar of macadamia nuts and a cat calendar. I hit the panic button and the office was soon full of Capitol Police. The senator took me into her office and told me that I could go to her if I needed someone to talk to and gave me the rest of the day off.
When I was at RCA Victor in Manhattan, he called my office one day a mere minutes after I got there — on a Sunday. The police said they thought he was following me and I thought I was finally going to get help from law enforcement but the officer was only interested until I declined to go with him to dinner.
My father has also put passwords on my credit cards. He took other cards that had expired and had my old name and spent hundreds of dollars. He attempted to cancel or get information on other cards. He has had investigators call me and my mother — one called me and said he had been asked to kidnap me. He claimed I was in a cult.
Throughout all of that, part of me missed him. No one had ever known me as well as he did and I always felt guilty, until I figured out just how mentally ill he is. You cannot cure a sociopath. My mother and I always speculated that he was violent, in part at least, because of the drugs he took. Now I think they prevented him from becoming a serial killer. One of his girlfriends walked in on him after he had broken into her house and was going through her financial papers. His own accounts of my childhood have him hiding in the woods behind my grandmother’s house, breaking into it when no one was home. His illness made him violent and took away his empathy, the drugs made him stupid.
Now, my life — despite the therapists who cried when they heard it, or the others who thought mine was the saddest story they had ever heard, reasons I don’t do therapy, I can’t worry about someone feeling bad when I am trying to deal with my issues — has not been all doom and gloom.
My senior year was spent in Paris. Since moving to Washington, DC, I have worked for both the House and the Senate, the White House (the internship and then as Advance Staff – the latter sent me to many states and countries), four presidential cycles and many campaigns. I spent two years working at RCA Victor as a publicist and accidentally walked on stage while they were filming the Grammies. I spent another two years at the UN. My work has let me meet some extraordinary people and see amazing things. I have trekked to Everest Base Camp, climbed Kilimanjaro and camped in the Serengeti. Last year, I started a new hobby — stand-up comedy.
But the experiences of my youth remain part of me. Some of the traits these experiences gave me have been both good and bad. I have a real problem with authority figures. I have an intense allergy to bullies and like to think I do the right thing when I see others abusing their power. This often gets me into trouble and I think I may get so riled up because I could never stand up for myself as a kid. When I was mugged a few years I chased the guy and caught him. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what to do with him once I caught him. I bit someone in the first grade and hit someone once in a bar in college during Monday Night Football (I am a Niners fan and he called me a “Frisco dyke” — the dyke part didn’t bother me but I do not tolerate anyone calling the city I spent 1/3 of my teens in, “Frisco”). I am not a violent person. Angry, maybe. Violent, no.
My self-esteem comes and goes. I have huge trust issues and never want to get married. Date, yes. Marry, no. I don’t want anyone to control my life but me. And I am angry. It has faded but it’s still there, maybe it hasn’t even faded, just gone dormant, like a sleeping volcano.
I am on better terms with my mother but remnants of the walls I built to protect me from the hurt she caused are still visible. I remain a bit guarded around her and probably always will. This is going to make me sound cold but when we buried my grandmother she sobbed and someone else had to comfort her. I went totally numb. I didn’t cry for my grandmother or sooth my mother. I felt nothing.
They say time heals all wounds but when they are inflicted at such a young age and that are allowed to continue for such a lengthy time never really heal all the way. In both my case and the cases of these boys, the added injury inflicted when the adults around them refused to step in, only magnifies the problem. I saw Patrick McDonald from Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) on Hardball tonight. He said that child victims of abuse like this feel isolated and alone when the adults abdicate their responsibility. I know I felt that way and am sure these boys feel this way.
Penn State needs to fire anyone who knew about this. I cannot understand how any organization can tolerate people who knowingly look the other way when kids’ safety is at risk.
RAINN’s online hotline can be found here. More information about the organization can be found here.
Note: I wrote this because I think kids find it harder to go to someone because of the isolation they feel but also because they are embarrassed. I was. And once I was past it, I wanted to forget it but I never really can.