For a long time I hated Nina Simone. For me her voice was a portent of sadness. If upon coming home from school I heard her music as I walked up the stairs to our house I knew what kind of day it had been. My mother would either be locked in her bedroom or defiantly sitting in the living room smoking a cigarette amid the aftermath. Broken glass, flowerpots, and whatever else was unfortunate enough to have been in the way of another argument. I have seen my mother bruised and bloody. I have seen her shaken, slapped, and punched by my father’s hand.
I also remember the belt rack. It sat beside my mother’s side of the bed. It held an assortment of twenty or so belts. There were nylon ones, metal ones, thin and thick. There was also an old weightlifter’s belt. That rack was the symbol of my abuse, though the beatings from my mother were not limited to belts. I remember wooden hangers and yard sticks along with open hands and closed fists. Most vivid was getting beat out of my sleep because I forgot to go to the bodega and buy my mother a pack of cigarettes. For years, if my wife woke me from my sleep I would snap upright with a closed fist.
It would be easy to paint my parents as horrible people and to rundown the horrors of my childhood. Much the same way I could write about how the discipline made me a better man and that without the belt I wouldn’t enjoy the life I have today because clearly those are the only two options.
My parents love me and they love each other. They were just really bad at it. They have battled demons their entire lives, namely with alcoholism. There are plenty of instances where they weren’t kind to each other or to me. Trickle down violence is a real thing; and while I was at the bottom of it all I was still loved and encouraged to be the best me possible, even despite them.
Like many folks, the news of Adrian Peterson taking a switch to his four year old son wasn’t terribly surprising. Neither was the immediate reaction on Twitter, most notably the “My parents whooped me and I’m fine” argument. Like most things in this world “normal” is relative to personal experience. Much the same way anecdotal evidence does not prove an argument. Simply put, just because you were screwed doesn’t mean screwed is acceptable and just because you survived it doesn’t mean that others do.
Violence in my family is generational. I didn’t know it then but as a child I was being handed a legacy filled with switches and belts and in the extremes a hot iron and other incredibly damaging means of “discipline.” It’s a legacy I don’t relish or one I plan to pass along. I am not better for having been abused. I am who I am despite of what I endured. Issues with anger, self-confidence, and lack of follow through have been huge hurdles in my life. They are ones I battle in one form or another to this day, but the fact that I’m happily married with a beautiful son in a Brooklyn home that I love doesn’t make me the rule. It makes me the exception.
The stats on child abuse are very simple:
- More than four children die every day as a result of child abuse.
- Approximately 70 percent of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4.
- About 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse.
- In at least one study, about 80 percent of 21 year olds that were abused as children met criteria for at least one psychological disorder.
- 14 percent of all men in prison and 36 percent of women in prison in the USA were abused as children, about twice the frequency seen in the general population.
- Children who experience child abuse and neglect are about 9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity.
Child abuse is learned. In some cases it’s cultural. What it has never been is right. It doesn’t make stronger men and women. It creates generations of broken individuals who, to varying degrees, learn how to function with dysfunction. I, like other abused children, am the man I am today because of the abuse I have seen and endured. Instead of praising what we are because of abuse maybe we should be asking how much more we might have been without it.