Episode 8: Family Secrets
Updated: Jan 11
It’s impossible not to
open one’s throat to song,
bursting, crying out,
look what I’ve discovered, look
at what was here, all along.
- from the poem “Robins at Dawn” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
How well do you know your mother? Truly? If you were adopted, orphaned, or otherwise separated from your mother, you’re excused from this interrogation. But for the rest of us, how well do you know her? Think about it.
Rarely do we ask our mothers about their lives before us.Rarely do we glean more than the details shared in passing. Usually little to nothing from their childhoods. We’re too busy living our own.
In my case, this is the version of my mother’s life that I’d known:
I’d known that she’d grown up in Nashville, Tennessee with my grandparents. That she was one of four kids in the house, though she was the firstborn to my grandfather and grandmother. Hank Jr. had been my grandfather’s first child from his first marriage. My aunt Renee had been my grandmother’s child from her first marriage. My mom and Joe were two children they’d had together, Joe being the youngest by five years.
I’d known that at twelve my mother had tried to kill herself. That around the same time she’d developed seizures. That she’d never finished eighth grade.
That she’d run away at sixteen with David #1.
That by eighteen, she’d left David #1 and had begun traveling around the church circuits with my grandmother.
My grandmother preached. My mother sang.
It was in a church not far from St. Louis, MO that she met my father., two months before she turned nineteen. That within three months, she’d married him and had stayed with him until he was convicted of rape in 1988.
I’d also known that Hank, the older half-brother, had molested her. That sometimes at night, he’d climbed into her bed, touched her. But the few times this had been mentioned, I’d been under the impression that this hadn’t happened often.
I’d never put it together that the suicide had been the result of sexual assault. That her addiction problems were caused by PTSD and chronic, severe, unresolved trauma.
But what Shay tells me next, what comes after “Your grandfather was the worst.” And “I don’t if you need to hear that, hon,” pulls my mother’s entire life into focus.
It’s like putting glasses on for the first time, and realizing just how out of focus the picture had been all along.
“Tell me,” I insist. “I’m just going to keep asking until you do.”
Because I can be dogged when I want. It’s not easy for me to let go of something once I’ve set my heart on it, and now, I’ve set my heart on the truth.
All I have left of my mother is the memories. Her stories.
And I want them all.
“Your grandfather put a gun to her head and forced her to blow him. Later he raped her.”
The world tilts. The precarious ground I’d balanced on all my life tips, pitches me forward.
“It went on for years,” she said.
“When did it start?”
“She was ten or eleven when it started. It’s why she tried to kill herself with his gun when she was twelve. And she would’ve managed it if he hadn’t caught her with it and taken it away.”
“I didn’t know she’d tried with a gun. I thought it had been pills.”
The metaphorical floor may be gone beneath me, but in its place is a crystalline image.
Of why my mother had tried to kill herself so young.
Why her mental illness had developed so early.
Why she’d failed out of middle school and had never returned. I thought it had been because her father had her selling pills at school, that she’d been caught and suspended for it. That might have been part of it, but we also know that sexually abused girls grades deteriorate quickly.
It even makes sense why she developed seizures.
A 1979 article from the National Library of Medicine called hysterical seizures “the sequel to incestuous rape.”
And I know from my own destructive romantic patterns why her two failed marriages had followed. When someone doesn’t love you like they should, when your worth and esteem are so demolished that nothing but self-loathing can grow in its place, you find other people to mistreat you.
Others who will make you feel used. Unwanted. Unloved.
Because the demons you know, are the better than the ones you don’t.
“But Nana—” I begin, my hearting pounding in my ears.
“She didn’t do shit. She knew what was happening and looked the other way.”
No wonder my mother had felt so unheard, unseen. When I was a child, and my mother was being dramatic or attention-seeking, I’d callously dismissed this middle-child syndrome. Now this behavior had a far more sinister origin story. And I’m ashamed.
Not only does this information bring focus to my mother’s life, but it also clarifies a few of my experiences that I hadn’t really understood before hearing it.
Once I had woken in the night to the sound of drumming. Three-or-four year old me got up and saw little figures marching across my pillow. Terrified I’d crawled out my bed, crying and went out into the living room, where I found my mother watching television alone.
“What’s wrong?” she’d asked me.
And I’d tried in articulate in that small-child way that I’d had a bad dream, that there were in fact tiny shadow people marching around in my bedding and I couldn’t possibly go back to sleep.
“Go lay down with your dad,” she’d said.
But I’d refused. I hadn’t wanted to go into another dark room. I wanted to stay in the light with her.
“You don’t want to lay down with your dad?” she asked.
She’d had such a grave look on her face and pat the sofa beside her.
“Okay. Sit with me then.”
There had been a hyper vigilance and sometimes overreactive responses to moments that could have suggested sexual abuse when I was a child. When my kindergarten teacher had taken me into the bathroom, had pulled down my pants and spanked me because I wouldn’t stop talking in class, my mother had lost it.
She’d gone to the school. She’d thrown the woman against the wall, telling her that if she ever pulled my pants down again, she was going to kill her with her bare hands.
Then there was the time I’d gotten what I’m pretty sure was a bladder infection, and my aunt Lana had secreted me away to the doctor.
It wasn’t until we were in the little room, and she’d begun to explain her suspicions, that I realized what she’d thought was happening. And in its terrible way, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, all this fear that I might be sexually abused by someone, actually led to real trauma.
When the doctors held me down.
When they forced my legs open and scraped around inside me for evidence that wasn’t there.
I’d screamed. I’d begged. I remember being sore for days after.
I was only six or seven years old when this happened.
I have no memory of being sexually abused or touched in anyway, but I sure remember that day in the doctor’s office. And I bare the marks of my medical terror to this day.
My doctor has never been able to get a blood pressure reading under 140 when I’m in her office. For visits when I have to get a pap smear, it can easily top 160. She was so concerned, she asked me to get a cuff and test myself at home. When I reported that it had been only 108 over 69, she’d told me about white coat syndrome.
“Some people just get nervous in the doctor’s office.”
“Yes,” I’d said. “That must be it.”
And my wife hadn’t understood why, when I’d needed an MRI to diagnose my migraines, I’d nearly hyperventilated when they forced me to lay back on the table, to be very still, while they injected me with the solution that would light up my brain.
Why, when lying in the tube, I’d been paralyzed with fear, my voice trapped in my throat as terror rolling through me in palpable waves. Why I’d shook for fifteen minutes after.
I don’t know if this what PTSD is like.
But if it is, no wonder my mother tried to end her life. If she’d had to ride this razor edge of helplessness and terror every night she laid down in her bed, waiting for him to come into her room.
To hurt her again. And again
No one helped her. No one stopped it.
Not even her own mother.
No wonder she’d lost her mind.
I probably don’t need to tell you that I grew up without knowing my grandfather was a rapist. This was something no one—and I mean no one—had ever talked about.
This is the man I remembered:
Blonde haired, brown eyed. With gaunt, severe cheeks. He shaved daily but always had stubble. He reeked of old spice. He liked to slick his hair back using these combs he’d kept in a strange blue solution on the bathroom sink. He smoked like it was going out of style. He liked bomber jackets and aviator sunglasses.
When he was shirtless, you could see the military tattoo on his bicep. I can’t remember it clearly now, but I think there was an eagle involved.
Because he worked as a mechanic, the underside of his nails were always dark with grease.
He had a candy tin beside his white leather recliner, filled with only two things: those sugared orange slices and black licorice jelly beans.
He always lit up when he saw me. Called me “Pawpaw’s sweet baby.”
Kissed me feverishly on my cheeks.
When he had to go to the gas station, he’d let me ride shotgun in his black el camino and always bought me a sundae from the dispenser there. Vanilla with rainbow sprinkles and sometimes a dollop of whip cream.
Apart from the one time he’d lost his temper and accused me of breaking his garage window, he’d never hit me. Never yelled.
There was nothing to give me the impression that he was anything but a hard working man who provided for his family, making sure every had what they needed.
But when I got older, I heard a few more stories.
One was about the whorehouse.
I use the word whorehouse not as a way to demean sex workers, but because this is literally what my grandmother called it.
When used in a sentence: “Back when your grandfather ran his whorehouse.”
In one version, there were three women who lived there, and my grandfather would send men that he met in his garage over to the house. Rough up anyone who’d gotten out of line. Take his pay cut. Sometimes he visited the women himself.
My grandmother, with a disturbing amount of affection in her voice, once told me that she’d called this “whorehouse” and one of the girls had assured her, “oh honey, don’t you worry. He still loves you. He’ll be home soon.”
And that she’d been become good friends with this woman.
I’d even been told that my grandfather had sent my mother over there to collect money from the women.
At the time, I’d been scandalized. Why in God’s name would he do that? Didn’t he think that was a dangerous place to send a little girl?
Now his complete disregard for her safety makes sense.
David #3 insisted that these women weren’t women at all, that most of those passing through the whorehouse had been underaged girls.
Then Shay tells me that my mother’s first lesbian experienced had happened here, that my mother had slept with one of the women working.
I don’t know what else happened in this house, but I shudder to think what else might have gone on.
Another less gut wrenching story that illustrates my grandfather’s appetites, is about the possibility of a half-korean illegitimate son.
I was older when my mother told me that Pawpaw had fathered some kid when he was stationed in Korea.
The stories around this unnamed Korean woman were ambiguous. In one version, my grandfather had raped her. In another, she was a prostitute. In a third, that the relationship had been consensual until he was deployed to somewhere else.
Your guess is as good as mine as to which is true.
My mother had later joked, “imagine my surprise when this asian guy showed up at the garage and said he was my brother!”
When I pressed her for more information, she’d only been able to tell me a few details. “He’d seemed like a nice guy. Friendly. Polite. He was studying to be a doctor I think. He just wanted to meet daddy and see what he was about.”
Now that I know who my grandfather really was, what really happened, I finally understand why the move back to Nashville after my father’s arrest and imprisonment had been so bad for my mother.
Her drinking hadn’t really been serious until we moved back. It was 1988 and she’d just turned 25.
And this would’ve been her third failed attempt to escape her father, e his power over her, if we count both marriages and the suicide. Only to find herself financially dependent on him again.
This cycle must’ve reinforced all her old feelings of helplessness, of being trapped.
That no matter what she did, where she went, she couldn’t get away.
And I’ve no doubt this had been a financial decision.
With no education, she had few options.
And it wasn’t like she hadn’t tried other things.
David #3 tells me she tried prostitution. She tried getting involved with other men who could provide a roof over her head, a place for me to sleep.
But that life hadn’t been sustainable.
So she’d been forced to come home. Back to the house where she’d been a prisoner for so long.
Forced to move her now five-year-old daughter into the very bedroom where she’d lost everything. Where she’d been torn apart.
And what must she have felt, when she saw me, her only baby, climb onto her rapist’s lap, heard me laughing? What had she felt when he’d bounced me on his knee, tickled me or stroked my hair.
When he fed me candy from the tin by his chair, when he took me for ice cream? Took me anywhere, out of her sight.
How a ticking clock must’ve resounded through her mind, every minute, of every day.
Had it been me — drinking would’ve been the least of it.
With a more complete picture of my mother’s history, I become deeply interested in trauma research. I drill my psychologist friend what she knows about its origin and causes. I read every book I can get my hands on. “It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle” by Mark Wolynn. “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel Van Der Kolk. Brene Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability” which talks about the long lasting impacts of shame.
And it’s the friend with the ph.d. in psychology that turns me on to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, also known as ACEs. She sent me the CDC’s interactive page that allows you to see how each rough childhood experience compounds your risk of longterm problems.
Types of ACES include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Physical and emotional neglect. And situational household problems, such as a caregiver with mental illness, a mother treated violently, divorce, substance abuse, or having an incarcerated relative.
People who score high on the ACEs test are more likely to smoke, become alcoholics or drug addicts, miss work, or engage in low physical activity. They’re also prone to obesity, diabetes, COPD, stroke, cancer, heart disease, and are even more to break a bone. Along with symptoms you’re more likely expect such as suicide attempts and depression.
The limitations of the test seem to be the lack of data on how positive experiences might increase childhood resilience, or how other traumas such as living in poverty or discrimination affected these outcomes.
I took the quiz and received an ACE score of 7.
I can only imagine that my mother’s score would be at least as high. To give you context, any score of 4 or more is considered serious. And the highest score you can get is 10.
In Wolynn’s book, “It didn’t start with you,” there is much talk about how trauma runs in family. That narratives are passed down along with your genes for at least three generations.
In one study, mice were exposed to the scent of cherry blossoms, and given an electrical shock. In the next generation, when the offspring of these shocked mice were exposed to the scent of cherry blossoms, they displayed all the same physiological panic their parents had, even though they’d never been shocked themselves.
It was like the fear of a certain trigger had been passed along.
I don’t know how far back my own family’s history goes and so I can’t give a full account of our trauma record.
I know that my grandfather, born in 1927, had run away at age 10, stowing away on a train that he’d probably hoped would carry him away to greater prospects.
I can’t imagine happy children stowing away in train cars, so we can assume what things might have been like at home.
And I was told that my grandmother’s mother died when she was a baby. She’d been beaten to death by her husband, my grandmother’s father.
Someone had found my grandmother at her mother’s breast, her dead mother still reflexively holding her baby to her chest. It was unclear if my grandmother was nursing or just being held close by the corpse’s rigid arms.
In the book, “The Body Keeps the Score” there are compelling passages about how trauma literally rewires your brain. Causes you feel and experience things that “normal” people don’t. A hyperawareness to threat and uncertainty.
I can attest to this firsthand.
I also gleaned another piece of critical information from this text:
Every single one of my mother’s symptoms—from her low sense of self, to her inexplicable bouts of rage, her mental disorders and PTSD—all of it falls right in line with the majority of women who share her background.
Even the pattern that sexually abused mothers tend to be dependent mothers who reverse the roles of mother and child, as demonstrated in all the times my mother was unable to anticipate or meet my needs, and instead, required that I fulfill hers.
Then there was the PTSD itself.
If you’re unfamiliar with PTSD, it can cause sudden and fully immersive flashbacks. These flashbacks can come on suddenly, without warning, at the slightest of triggers.
When they do, your body reacts in such a complete and visceral way, that brain scans will show the same psychological and physiological responses that your body experienced when the trauma first occurred.
These painful, intrusive experiences are so real, even on the biological level, that the trauma might as well be happening to you again.
We tend to think of soldiers when we hear the word PTSD, but this book argues sexually abused children also have it, leading them to self-medicate with pills and alcohol.
All of this was compounded by the element of shame.
Shame is the erroneous belief that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
And unfortunately, sexual abuse victims have a lot of shame.
They might think things like “He’s hurting me because I deserve it.” Or “It doesn’t matter that he’s hurting me. There’s nothing I can do about it anyway.”
Sexual abuse victims can even become confused about whether or not they consented to the acts.
Because the body betrays.
It responds to sexual contact whether that contact is abuse or not.
A raped child’s body begin producing sex-hormones. A rape turns on the reproductive factory, even if the factor should remained shuttered for years more.
And the abusers exploit this, twist this back on the child in a second, psychological abuse.
And what child doesn’t want to make her parents happy?
To connect with the one person, without whom, they wouldn’t receive the care they needed to survive?
All of this together—the family stories and the literature on trauma—help to illustrate the landscape of my family. Illuminate the dark soil from which I was born.
How and why my grandfather’s chronic abuse had completely and irreparably fractured my mother’s mind, her spirit. Why she jumped from one abusive relationship to another. Why, no matter what I did, I couldn’t liberate her from her learned helplessness.
And this shame is often compounded by the lack of action and protection from the adults around her.
From a mother, for example, who didn’t put an end to it.
Learning all this was a mixed blessing. On one hand, it makes me deeply sad on my mother’s half. How much she’d tried to endure. How much she survived, only to have her life ended by another uncaring man.
But it also causes a surprising relief within me.
Something cracks open,
There’s a reason, I realize. For all of it. None of the ways my mother had hurt me were personal. She hadn’t set out to ruin my childhood or break my heart.
She’d simply been at the center of a devastating detonation.
And I’d simply been there to absorb all the shock waves that had followed that detonation.
When I tell people about my mother’s past, about my past, their responses are strikingly similar:
How are you so normal?
“Am I normal?” I ask. “‘Cause I spent four hours researching how to dissolve a body in a bathtub today. And if you could survive being nail-gunned in the head. You can, by the way. If you take the nail in just the right spot.”
As with most questions like this I always lead with jokes.
But my more serious answer is this:
I may be normal now. But I wasn’t always.
Me at twenty years old wasn’t so different than my mother at twenty. In fact, I’d argue that we were on exactly the same path.
By twenty-four, I was depressed, suicidal, and bulimic.
I was in hell.
So what happened? Why was I able to pull myself out a of tailspin and my mother couldn’t?
This is a question that haunts me. One that I ask myself over and over again, as if I expect to wake and find that all my happiness has been a dream.
In light of these discoveries, we now know why my mother’s trauma affected her deeply, and affected me. But what about Joe?
Joe would’ve been five years old when his father began raping his sister. He would’ve been eleven when she ran away with the first husband. Those six years are formative years. And it’s a small house. The bedrooms are close together.
We can assume that he would’ve seen something, heard something.
He wouldn’t have escaped all of that, unscathed.
And this says nothing of the trauma he might have experienced directly. The hardship of being raised by a man like my grandfather, of seeing his mother and sisters mistreated. And hadn’t he also been sent to school with pills in his pockets? Hadn’t he also taken more than a few knocks across the head?
Might he, like my mother, have developed a disorder of his own?
Antisocial personality disorder, sometimes called sociopathy, is defined by Mayo Clinic as “a mental disorder in which a person… shows symptoms including aggression toward people, destruction of property, deceitfulness, theft and other criminal behavior.
I am not qualified to diagnose a psychological disorder, but these symptoms align with my uncle’s history and behavior pretty well.
Could it be that a fractured family like mine produces not only victims, but can also turn an innocent five-year-old boy into a sociopathic man?
Did his unresolved trauma convince Joe that his sister was unlovable? Dispensable? Simply another means to an end…