Episode 9: My Mother Would've Been Murdered - Even in Victorian England
Equate stillness to a night without wind.
Equate darkness to water without a current.
I’ll bring you into this night boat.
Sit here by its stern.
This boat, we may share it, though dangerous…
- from the poem “all this space between you & me” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
In the days, weeks, months, after the revelation about my mother’s devastating abuse, I spend a lot of time thinking about my grandmother. I try to reconcile the woman I knew as a child, the strong woman I loved and felt safe with, with the woman who was my mother’s complicit oppressor. A co-captor.
Even my darkest memories can’t bridge this gap.
Like the time she sent me and my cousin into the yard to find our own switches, so she would whip us in the living room floor while we were braced ourselves on our hands and knees, for what offense I don’t recall—
This is as good an argument as any to the idea that just because someone isn’t cruel to you, doesn’t mean they aren’t breaking someone else apart behind closed doors.
And this is not an isolated event. According to the CDC, one out of every thirteen boys, and one out of every four girls is sexually abused before they reach the age of 18. Think on that, the next time you walk your child, grandchild, nephew or niece, into their classroom. Look out over this sea of twenty-five heads and ask yourself which four children are being raped.
Anytime I make these considerations myself, I immediately begin my search for the why. The how.
As in: why didn’t Nana leave her pedophile of a husband? Why didn’t she just take the children and go? Get the hell out of there….
As in: how could she? How could she stand by and let her daughter be hurt like that?
And in this deep dive of research, it doesn’t take long for me to find possibilities. Or rather a confluence of obstacles that would’ve kept my grandmother firmly in her place.
Just like it was important to contextualize my mother in order to understand her poor mental health, I suspected it was important to contextualize my grandmother in order to clarify her complicity.
Nana was born in 1935. That means when my mother was born in 1963, my grandmother was only 28 years old and now married to her second husband. She would’ve been just about my age when her husband began raping her child.
So it’s easy for me to say “She should’ve left him.” “She should’ve packed up the kids and gotten the hell out of there.”
But quickly I must ask how could she have done it? By what means?
Though the 60s and 70s were full of cultural change for women, there were still significant setbacks.
Women were still largely expected to be wives and homemakers above all. This subservience was compounded, undoubtedly by my grandmother’s Christian faith, which emphasizes wives as subordinates to their husband’s will.
Knowing what I know about her economic background and class, Nana likely didn’t have friends or family that would support her and three children until she got on her feet. Most of her friends would’ve had families of their own with husbands who probably didn’t want three more kids underfoot.
And her family was religious as she was. They would’ve sent her back home to “work it out” with her husband.
So what did that leave her with? A shelter?
Homeless shelters in the 70s didn’t prioritize the needs of abused women and children. For example. Homeless shelters around LA in 1973, the year my mother’s abuse likely began, reserved about 1000 beds for men and thirty for women. There was no mention of what a woman was to do if she had children in tow.
There’s always the option to go it alone, you might think. She should just get out there, get a job, and pay her own way.
This is what I thought at first. Yet this is nearly impossible today for a woman making minimum wage and working full time to support herself let alone three kids and it was even more impossible in 1973.
First of all, there was the issue of earning a wage large enough to feed four mouths.
The equal pay for equal work act, an attempt to close the significant pay gap between men and women wasn’t even passed until 1963, and even after, it went largely unenforced until its expansion in the 70s. This meant that the jobs that women could get were still low paying jobs.
And even if somehow she did cobble together an income for the four of them, how was she to manage her money? Women couldn’t even open their own bank accounts.
How was she supposed to secure housing?
Apartments require deposits and furnishings.
Home require loans.
And she certainly couldn’t get temporary help from a bank to set any of this up.
Well into the 70s a single, widowed, or divorced woman had to bring a man along when they filed for credit lines or loans and married women had to bring their husbands and couldn’t make any financial decisions without their co-approval?
So her first step would have been to secure a divorce, and if she was lucky, a bit of alimony or child support.
But that’s always a gamble?
And what if my grandfather threatened her? If he could put a gun to my mother’s head and force her to perform oral sex, it’s not hard to imagine him putting a gun to my grandmother’s head?
Telling her that if she left he would kill her? Kill their children.
And if she did manage to escape into the night, what if he fought her in court?
What if he had tried to take the children away, calling her a liar—that she was a shrill woman who couldn’t be pleased—who’d left one husband and simply wanted to run away from another. What if he went to court arguing that he was the better financial option for the children—and he was? By then he has his mechanics business off the ground, not to mention his lecherous side hustle.
And should the judge have granted him protection rather than her and the children, something that still happens to this day—well, now he would have license to rape his daughter without with meddlesome wife in the way, wouldn’t he?
This says nothing of the conservative community to which she belonged. How would her church have treated her, if they found out about her husband’s habits? How would they have treated the children, my mother?
As tainted goods? Somehow poisoned? Women were still blamed for their marital failings then and we can assume that as a second-time divorcee, it would’ve been no different for her.
But she could’ve simply pleaded her case that she was unsafe? That her children were unsafe, right?
A 1970s ad for a Michigan bowling alley said “Have some fun. Beat Your Wife Tonight” offering a good sample of how cavalier the attitude toward spousal abuse was at the time. Recognizing that women needed protection from their husbands or children from their fathers didn’t yet exist.
Women were expected to suffer silently in their homes well into the 90s when marital rape finally became a nationwide crime.
There were some protections emerging in the 70s around the time my grandmother would’ve discovered the abuse, but it doesn’t mean she fully understood her rights.
She was born in the thirties, in a completely different time, with her own history of learned helpless, conditioning, and trauma behind her.
She would’ve come of age in the fifties and been one of those long suffering housewives we now only see on TV. She would’ve been told to have dinner on the table by 5pm, wear those heels while cooking and cleaning, look her best, and a doctrine that dictated anything happening in the home such as a wayward husband or disobedient children was her own fault. She wasn’t to cause a fuss, and never shame or humiliate him, and if she was beat for speaking up or taking a stand, well, that was her own fault, too.
Whatever happened in the home, stayed in the home.
Everyone was to look the other way whether it be the police or the community.
And I think this social stigma, along with the financial hardships compounded my grandmother’s situation.
All of that said, I think my grandmother did try to leave him.
It’s noted in the property records that my grandmother divorced my grandfather only to later remarry him. I don’t have dates for this, so I can’t say if she divorced him because of the abuse or for another reason, of which I’m sure she had many.
The bottom line is we don’t know what my grandmother did or didn’t do. I don’t know, if feeling her husband rise up in bed, knowing his intentions, if she ever reached out in the dark, pulled him back, offered herself as sacrifice, forgoing her own wishes to spare the little girl in the next room.
I don’t know if she saw dark looks in his eye and sent my mother outside to play.
Or, when writing her out of the will, she was thinking of her future, knowing that an inheritance of that size might disqualify her from the disability she needed in the future.
She isn’t here to ask. So it’s unfair to assume.
Regardless, I suspect the reasoning was the same.
She did whatever she did, for love, or for the financial security.
If financial protection, this is a choice that millions of women are still forced to make today—deciding which is the lesser of two evils.
Abuse or starvation.
Your child, or your life.
Predicaments like my grandmother’s and mother’s are neither unique or new. I am reminded of this as I read The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, a exploration of the lives of five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper.
The book offers rich descriptions of Victorian life, stripped of the romanticized tales of corsets and bustled dresses, balls and gloved hands. Romantic rides on the train and walks through gas lamp lit streets–before the electricity was turned on.
Stripped of romanticism because it shows the uglier side of this world too, reminding me that in every country, in every age, there are at least two worlds.
The world of the privileged and the world of the poor.
And no matter how far we’ve come, we still love to punish the poor.
The words “Victorian England” no doubt conjures the image of carriage rides and taffeta gowns, but this isn’t the world that the Ripper’s victims occupied.
Three of the women Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, and Elisabeth Stride remind me of my mother so much, though 132 years separates their deaths. I turn page after page thinking, this could’ve been her. She was just like them.
So who were these women? My mother’s predecessors?
Well all of these women’s lives followed a similar pattern. They had difficult, uncertain beginnings then brief stable periods that were eventually shattered by their addictions. Once their lives fell apart, their options for recovery were very limited, often humiliating, and far more difficult than maintaining the life of drunk.
For Elisabeth Stride, like my mother, psychosis played a part in her fortune. In the last two years of her life, her behavior changed. She was charged with drunken disorderly on several occasions, which could either be connected to her alcoholism or because of syphilis she’d contracted twenty years before. She’d begun having seizures and dementia-like symptoms. Sound like anyone we know?
Through Elisabeth Stride’s story, I’m also reminded of how my mother is one thing to me And another to the police investigating her death. To me she was my mother, a loving if very troubled woman who struggled with addiction and psychosis. To the police, she’s just another dead junkie.
Another victim, Polly Nichols, had been born in August, like my mom. To a blacksmith father who no doubt also came home with stained hands. Just like my mechanic grandfather.
Later when Polly married, it wasn’t a great match.
He left her, and she was also forced to float from man to man in order to restore a bit of financial security to her days when women’s education was far from promised and occupations depended largely on what opportunities your family had to offer you.
My mother had also been required to bounce from partnership to partnership until 2012 – when her last boyfriend Tom had died suddenly and unexpectedly. He’d gone to the hospital one day with stomach pain, and never came out again.
At that point, my mother had been with Tom for several years, living in Murfreesboro in a small house that I’d visited once, meeting Tom’s daughter and grandson. They’d been kind enough and the environment seemed stabilizing, though she did drink a bit while I was there, she didn’t get drunk.
She’d seemed content, if not happy. Not even minding the fact they often had to go scrapping in order to make ends meet. If you’ve never heard of it, scrapping is the practice of finding and delivering scrap metals to the scrap yard in exchange for money. And when Tom died, she’d called me crying. She hated that she had no choice but to return back to Nashville to her mother’s house for the last time.
My mother had a house to return to, albeit a dangerous one.
Polly Nichols wasn’t so lucky.
When she lost a man, and didn’t have the schillings for the boardinghouse (because even rat-infested rooms cost coin), her only remaining options were the workhouse or the street.
If you haven’t heard of the infamous Victorian “workhouse” let me tell you about this horrible, squalid place which was used to humiliate the poor and punish them with grueling working requirements.
Forced child labor, long hours, malnutrition, beatings and neglect, mixed in with strict rules and punishments. So you can see why a woman might rather cat nap on a stoop rather than subject herself to this.
Of course, this worked in Jack the Ripper’s favor, because it’s very easy to walk up on a sleeping, possibly drunk woman, left exposed under the veil of night, and slit her throat before she screams.
And because these women had drinking problems, they often drank way what little money they did have, removing the safer if still unattractive boarding room option from the table.
But on the streets these women were vulnerable. Predators like Jack the Ripper profit from such failings in the system. Eying the edge of the pack like a hyena, for those left unprotected on the fringes of society.
My mother could have easily ended up on the street. In her life, she’d often faced similar choices. Leave her family, and her violent brother behind—but go where?
Certainly not into a home or financial security of her own when she didn’t have the mental capacity to get an education or hold down a job?
So where then? Into jails that compounded her mental illness?
Or into an asylum that would reinforce her low self-worth and belief that she’s problem? That something is wrong with her and she’ll never get better?
Into rehabs or half-way houses that forced on her symptom of addiction instead of the core affliction of her unresolved trauma. Into loveless relationships that offered a roof over her head in exchange for sexual expectations?
Or to return to her childhood home, the malignant source of all her grief. Her ground zero.
These were her options.
And the choice repeatedly had to make this decision between her physical well being—having a roof over her head—and her the freedom to not have someone put their hands on you.
The only difference between my mother and those on the street are her decision to endure the violence in exchange for a bed, a room of her own. That’s it.
Just another hard choice between surviving and dying.
Why had my mother accepted her difficult circumstances? Why had my grandmother shared a bed with a monster? Was it a matter of few options, or an inability to accept the hand offered?
And I think we expect too much of people. We don’t acknowledge that it’s unresolved trauma that leads to self-medicating techniques like alcoholism or pill abuse. Not only do we not focus on healing unresolved trauma, on supporting people well enough to rewrite their histories, their stories.
We can’t even acknowledge the role of learned helplessness and the way it self-sabotages any attempt at salvation.
Learned helplessness wasn’t even discovered until 1965.
Researcher Martin Seligman, used dogs to understand what would happen if dogs experienced shocks in conjunction with the use of a bell.
Animal abuse aside, this is what he did. He placed a dog in a large, locked crate and shocked them.
They couldn’t escape.
Then he did this again, but with a crate that had a low fence, low enough that the dog could jump over to the other side if he wanted to and escape the shock.
But they didn’t. Every time the abused dogs heard the bell that signaled a shock was coming, they laid down. Instead of jumping across the low fence and freeing themselves from this torture, they settled in.
They accepted what was coming to them as if it what had always happened. What would always happen.
Through this experiments, the dogs learned helplessness.
They could not escape the cages even when the door was open right in front of their eyes.
They still laid down.
They had to be physically dragged to safety.
I have no doubt that women all through the ages, including my grandmother and mother, were conditioned to see themselves as helpless.
I know my mother in particular viewed herself only through the lens of victimhood, in the way she talked about herself, looked at herself in the mirror, treated herself.
In fact, she was made a victim long before that fateful night in July 2020. She was made to believe this conditioning first in the helplessness she experienced as a sexually abused child, and again with more would-be exploiters who no doubt sensed this narrative within her.
That is the cycle. Her unresolved trauma caused her psychosis. Her pill and alcohol abuse were her attempts to self-medicate because she wasn’t getting the held she needed to cope any other way, and when offers for escape did come, her learned helplessness kept her from being able to accept the hand offered.
My mother didn’t have a blade drawn across her throat by some shadow-clad man in a victorian alleyway, this is true. But I can’t help but believe the same failings of Victoria England have followed us here to America.
My mother had nowhere else to go.
And that made her the perfect victim.
You might be thinking it’s their own fault they were killed. If they hadn’t been alcoholics. If they could’ve found and held steady employment, then their lives wouldn’t have been so difficult as they were.
But again, this overlooks the tremendous detriment of unresolved trauma. My mother was an alcoholic for so long because she was sexually abused. Her sexual abuse caused her depression, her thoughts of suicide, and worthlessness.
And if you’re still thinking, “no, she should have more control of that. Pull herself up by the bootstraps like a good American.” Remember that the next time you tell yourself no more potato chips tonight. Just say no to that third cookie or a second soda.
Self-control and self-management isn’t so clear cut and I think you know that. And it’s nearly impossible, when what you’re up against is far more terrible than a few extra pounds. When what you’re stuffing down, or drinking, isn’t just a few calories, but an empty, insatiable darkness threatening to swallow you whole.
I don’t blame my mother for her problems with alcohol and drugs anymore. And I suspect that my grandmother, though far from blameless, likely did the best she could.
I honestly don’t know what either of them could’ve done differently in a system like this. Where addicts are arrested. Where women must choose between starvation and isolation or unthinkable abuse. Where unresolved trauma is something that’s supposed to magically go away as we grow up. Or that it only happens in another faraway time and place. Victorian England perhaps.
The system is the problem.
We need… a lot of things.
There’s so much to do. It’s easy to feel discouraged.
I close down my laptop and squeeze shut my bleeding eyes. I need a break from the compulsive reading, researching, hunting for answers and clarity.
My mother, my grandmother, my family have become so much smaller in my mind. Mere pieces in an enormous tapestry that spans hundreds if not thousands of years.
I lift my phone and see there are two missed texts.
One from Katie that says, I got a call from the funeral home. She’s ready. I’ll pick her up tomorrow.
Another from Shay, saying Joe called me.
I respond to Shay first: “What did he say?”
Centers for Disease Control. “Preventing Child Sexual Abuse.” 20 March 2020. Web. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/childsexualabuse.html
Jacquet, Catherine. “Domestic Violence in the 1970s.” Circulating Now: From the Historical Collections of the
National Library of Medicine. 15 October 2015. Web.
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Five. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.