“Tell me about yourself.” I would usually start by saying how many siblings I have, which in itself is complicated. At the beginning of a testimony, I might have started by saying that I was raised in a home with two Christian parents and had a good childhood. But now, I’m not sure where to start. Things have happened in my life causing me to question who I thought I was. So today, I think I will try a new introduction. Hi, my name is Emily. I have three half-brothers, four foster sisters, one adopted sister, and a chihuahua named Tinkerbell (who is currently sitting next to me).
I have a large family on both sides, and over the years people have lived with us, making the family even larger. I love my parents and they gave me so many good gifts. They tried to do their best for me but there are ways that they failed that are having a lasting impact on my life. Right now, I am sifting through trauma and pain that I didn’t know was there. I am dealing with mental illness; labels like anxious, depressed, anorexic, and suicidal terrify and overwhelm me. And despite it all (or rather because of it all) I am a child of God.
When I was little, on the night before my birthday, I would slide into my parents’ bed between my mom and dad. With my face pressed against the cool underside of my mom’s pillow, I whispered, “Tell me about the day I was born.” My dad started to speak, and I whipped around towards him, rapt with attention.
“We tried to have you at home, but after almost twenty-four hours you still wouldn’t come. The doctor had me drive Mama to the hospital in Chicago and we took the bumpy way. He thought maybe it would help you come faster,” my dad chuckled.
“When you finally came, you were already sucking your thumb and your elbow was sticking out like this,” my mom pantomimed sucking her thumb with her elbow sticking far out.
“That’s why you wouldn’t come. But once you were there, none of it mattered anymore. You were beautiful and the nurse said you had rosebud lips. The hospital room looked out over Lake Michigan and I had my girl and it was perfect.
“We got out of the hospital pretty quickly after that. We drove you home to the yellow house we used to rent called Old Yeller. When we got there, Uncle John had decorated the whole thing with pink streamers and a big sign. And Grandma Berg had picked up your brothers from their mom’s house.”
“They all fought over who got to hold you first until David declared that he was the oldest, and he should get to go first. Then Stephen held you. When it was finally Nate’s turn, they showed him how to support your head and put a pillow under his arm. He was only five.”
This is a story I was told about myself over and over, every year. And every time I can remember it being told, it contained this epilogue:
“You are the glue that holds our family together. Before you were born, I was a step-mom with three step-sons. But after you were born, we were just a family.”
I loved this story and savored hearing it every time. It made me feel important— indispensable even.
But the other stories I was being told about myself seemed to override this one. From the small comments my dad made about overweight women we walked past in the grocery store to screaming fits when he would berate my mom for some small offense, I was being told that women were not valuable. Their lot in life was to be abused and used for whatever someone else chose. “Feminine” and “femmy” became dirty words. My dad mocked my mom and I when we said we “had a taste for” something for dinner, it was feminine and frivolous. He didn’t have tastes for things, he ate what he was given.
Some nights he felt that my mom and I had disrespected him. It was always the worst when we were in the car because there was no escape. Hearing the silent tension build, I started to tremble. I was so afraid. There was no running to my hiding spot under the clothes in my closet. The seatbelt bit into my neck, securing me in place while he screamed and cursed at my mother. Then me. After he was done, he would leave, sometimes for hours, sometimes for an evening. I never really knew if he was coming back, but I assumed he would, based on past behavior.
After years of abuse and fear, I chose that I was going to fight back. I would protect my mom from the tyrant I saw before me. When he yelled at me, I yelled back. My tiny frame shook with injustice as I tried to stand my ground. But I was blown down. Nothing could match his explosive anger. After that, I decided that I would stop reacting to him. If I just ignored the feelings, he could never hurt me again. I became indifferent to all of it and insulated myself behind an unfeeling wall. There he couldn’t touch me.
One day, after one of his fits, my mom and I sat in our car in the driveway. He had raged and ran, and we were left alone.
“I never want to get married,” I sobbed into the uncomfortable silence.
“I hope it’s not because of us; me and daddy,” she replied.
I stared ahead, not wanting to tell her the truth. I could not make myself understand why a woman would willingly put herself in a position to be abused like this.
My mom told me that he always apologized to her afterward. But it kept happening. I can remember only one time that my dad apologized to me. He had yelled and run off and I lay on my white iron-scrolled bed on my Barbie comforter crying. He came into my room and kneeled by my bedside.
“I’m so sorry, Louly. I don’t know why I keep doing this,” he pleaded through tear-filled, wild eyes.
The sight of my father crying is one I have never seen again. It unnerved me and I sniffled back my own tears, whispering, “It’s okay.”