By the Grace of God, I survived child abuse. I was regularly beaten, mocked and ridiculed as I grew up. While many emotional scars remain, I have been able to learn from some of the terrible experiences I endured. What follows is the story of one of those experiences and the lesson learned.
As a young boy, I liked stewed tomatoes. (I had strange culinary preferences for a 6 year-old). My fondness wasn’t only based on taste. In my little boy mind there was something special about juicy warm tomatoes that were sort of like soup but not really. They felt good going down my throat and were soothing to me, a type of yummy comfort. They were a family favorite, served as a side dish with beef. The liquid nature of the dish made it impractical to simply add it to the dish; stewed tomatoes required a bowl of their own, a holder worthy of their specialness. My mom would scoop the tomatoes into little bowls for us and set them beside each of our plates. I can still picture them in my mind.
As much as I loved them, the glorious era of stewed tomatoes was short. Their reign as a dinner time staple came crashing down one evening, on a night when a bowl of stewed tomatoes was at the center of one of my earliest painful memories. It was because of stewed tomatoes that I experienced my first concussion.
We gathered for dinner that as we always did in the dining area between the kitchen and the living room. The apartment was not particularly large; the table was situated close to the wall. I sat on the wall side of the table next to my twin Bret, who sat to my right. To my left was my step-father, across from my older brother Rick and younger brother Jimmy. My mother at the end of the table opposite my step-dad.
As was our habit, the kids had all already taken our baths and put on our pajamas. (Kids went to bed early in those days!) We had taken our places at the table and had all been served our food, which included a bowl of delicious stewed tomatoes. The bowls were at the top of our place settings, next to our glasses of milk. I wanted my bowl on my plate, so I asked my mom if I could put it there. My mother, who didn’t care much for my opinions and desires back then, told me to leave the tomatoes where they were. Disappointed, I went about eating my meal.
I do not remember what made her change her mind about the location of my tomato bowl, but she did. It might have been because I was making a mess each time I maneuvered my tomato laden spoon from the far side of my plate to my mouth, or it may have been because I gave her a particularly mournful look that caused her to understand the importance of stewed tomato geography in my developing mind. Regardless of her motivation, she told me I could put my bowl on my plate after all. Once my stewed tomatoes arrived in their rightful place, I was happy.
My happiness was brief. I had barely ingested one spoonful when the blow from my step-father came. He had not been paying attention to the latter part of our tomato dialogue, as he had briefly turned away from the table. When he turned back to his meal, he saw the bowl of stewed tomatoes on my plate. As he had not heard my mother give me permission to move the bowl he deduced that I had defied his wife’s commands, and being the violent man he was, he reflexively struck.
With his right hand he delivered a back-handed slap to my forehead, fully intending to cause severe pain. I did not see it coming and did not have a chance to protect myself. With full force the backs of his knuckles impacted my 6 year-old forehead, driving my head back. My whole body was carried backwards by the blow, with the back of my head slamming into the wall behind me. My head exploded in pain, my face exploded in tears. I have only vague memories of the moments that followed, the concussion clouded my mind for several minutes.
I remember crying, I remember vomiting, and I remember losing my appetite. I remember the dent in the dining room wall from where my head made contact, and I remember the dull, throbbing ache that followed. I remember a terrible argument which resulted in my step-father leaving the house for several hours. I remember my mother holding a cold towel to my forehead, as he stormed out through the front door.
When I think back on the events of that night, I remember the one word echoing in my mind as my head throbbed- “Why?” Why did he hit me? Why did he hate me? Why did he hit me so hard? Why?
The answers to those questions are complicated, far beyond the comprehension of a 6 year-old boy. Even now, as a 52 year-old physician, the answers are not totally clear. I do know that he hit me not because I had done anything wrong, but because he was a brutal, violent and alcoholic man. I don’t think he hated me, but I do think he was incapable of love. He was angry not at what I had done, but at what he thought I did. Although I had been obedient, he interpreted events in a way that led him to believe I was defying my mother’s instructions. In his perception, I deserved to be punished.
His erroneous perception of what happened, his incomplete understanding of events, caused him to respond in anger.
It took me many years to recognize the lesson I could learn from the abusive response of my step-father that night. I am not a violent man and would never strike a child in such a way, but I am a man who at times reacts without completely understanding a situation.
This tendency to react without complete understanding is not unique to my step-father and me. It is one that has plagued mankind from the beginning of time. Foolish actions, unwise promises and broken relationships can often be traced back to this same root cause- jumping to a conclusion. We can get so worked up over so little, and be so quick to judge. I have learned to take the words of the New Testament writer James to heart- “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
I am a much better husband, father, physician, boss and friend when I suppress my initial negative responses and take the time to stop and gather more information. The more I do this, the less hurt I cause. I wonder if we all can't learn from my step-father in this way.