As far as I'm concerned, I wasn't born until shortly before I left home for college. The reason is that while I was under my mother's care I was taught virtually nothing about the real world and had no personality or willpower to speak of. In my junior year of high school I was a sixteen-year-old with the social and emotional skills of a shy seven-year-old. My mother didn't realize how spectacularly stupid I was. She assumed I'd learned all the things she'd never taught me and never exposed me to.
My mother would make pronouncements about the world without qualifying them. She would give me instructions and would not explain the logic behind them. If I disobeyed she screamed at me, so usually I blindly heeded her.
I was discouraged from asserting myself or standing up for myself. It was rude to ask for anything; you were to wait until it was offered to you. If you wanted something you had to just hope somebody would hand it to you. If a pursuit was something I could do by myself at home for little money, I was encouraged to follow it; otherwise the option was not presented to me.
As for fighting somebody who messed with me, forget about it. When I was a preschooler I hit other kids a couple of times when they took something I wanted. My mother put a stop to that. Hitting other kids was 'bad.' My mother was very big on 'good' and 'bad,' 'positive' and 'negative' and other meaningless pop-psychology buzzwords. I was absolutely not to hit other kids or get in fights. If I did, she said, I could expect to get hit with the wooden spoon. This was her ultimate weapon, flogging me on the behind with a chunk of wood when I fucked up, because spanking hurt her hand.
So what if somebody picked on me? 'Ignore them,' my mother said, rather irresponsibly. She was just guessing. Ignoring kids only makes them more determined to get your attention, as I quickly learned. The lesson was that I should avoid people and withdraw into myself. My only friends were other outcasts, the lowest of the low. I was an obvious victim. Kids would pretend to be my friend just so they could betray me... if anybody was really trying to be friendly I was too paranoid to accept it.
By middle school I became very good at running away and hiding. 'Tell the teacher,' was my mother's new suggestion. Depend upon authority figures to fight your every battle for you. Teachers and disciplinary officers regarded me with contempt when they bothered to intervene at all. They couldn't be depended upon anyway. One time a kid hit me in the mouth with a rock. I was crying and bleeding. I blindly flung one back at his foot, missed, and ended up in detention along with him for defending myself. The rule was that he had to hit me with two rocks before I could fight back.
Meanwhile the fear of being beaten up grew in my mind until I was terrified. In gym class one of the other kids somehow managed to get my sneaker off and threw it up onto the roof of the school. When the P.E. teacher came back he asked me what the fuck I was doing standing there on one foot with no shoe, and I told him. He made the other kid take off his shoes and let me fling them up onto the roof. One small victory. I took a different route home each day for a week after that. My mother was no help and after a while I didn't bother telling her when I was bullied. It was routine.
Anything my mother warned against became a new fear. Until the age of sixteen I was afraid to light matches. 'Matches are dangerous,' my mother said. 'You'll burn yourself.' I was convinced that if I tried to start a fire I would immolate myself. In chemistry class I would linger nervously until my lab partner lit the burner, because I was embarrassed to admit I was scared of it.
My mother also kept a lot of unpleasant truths from me. When my father was visiting, he would take a few minutes to call his wife, Janet. He did this in a closed, quiet room, so that Janet wouldn't know where he was. The explanation given to me was that Janet was 'jealous' of us, that she was an unreasonable ogre and was trying to interfere with a man seeing his family. I was not told that Janet had good reason to be jealous, that my father was cheating on her with my mother and had been doing so for years. But it wasn't so much the cheating. My mother didn't wish to admit to me that people had sex.
She did not have a talk with me about sex when I hit puberty. Parents and children weren't supposed to talk about sex. She left me to navigate it on my own. When I started squirting in my underwear at night, I was able to figure it out for myself. I had anatomy books and my grandmother's trashy novels. Irving Wallace writes a mean fuck scene.
She also didn't talk to me about drugs. The one time I saw her drunk, staggering and barely able to stand, shocked me deeply. My mother cutting loose wasn't something I could imagine. Thereafter I was convinced that if I touched a drop of liquor I'd become an instant alcoholic. I was dry at my high school graduation party. I pretended to be drunk. Everybody bought it, being genuinely drunk themselves.
Events in the outside world were not discussed. Watergate had happened not long before; the end of Vietnam was a few years past. But I wasn't aware of these things. I thought we were still at war with the Germans because they were always the bad guys in the movies on TV... when we talked about our families in second grade I was afraid to admit where my relatives were from. I thought everyone would call me a traitor.
It's hard to think of myself as having been abused. When I hear what other kids went through I feel foolish for even mentioning my childhood. It's not like I got beatings; my mother rarely struck me. She would scream at me for any infraction until I complied. After a while I just did what she said without thinking about it. She taught me not to want anything.
The summer between eleventh and twelfth grade, she suddenly reversed her tactics. Her new boyfriend Larry had impressed upon her that I was a vegetable, socially speaking, and that if she didn't want me living with her until my 40s she'd better teach me about the world, and quick. So she laid into me in the typical manner. 'You need to get a job!' she said. 'It's a good experience!' She did not explain about the job market and resumes and employment experience and the economy. I didn't see the point... I was mowing this guy's lawn and it kept me in plastic models and RPG magazines, so why bother? She said I needed a job because I should have one, period, and followed that with 'because I said so.'
I filled out a couple of applications but didn't hear back from anyone. I was glad. But to pacify my mother, I took a job with a sod lawn service an acquaintance of mine was with. It sounded simple, but in practice it was punishing. This was summer in Florida, absurdly hot and humid, and we were out on a patch of open dirt. I didn't think to bring any water with me. I was moving thousands of pounds of earth and grass, twenty pounds at a time, and I was girlish and weak. I'd never done physical labor before. The sod was infested with fire ants-- so I didn't seem like a pussy I was compelled to disregard them --and by noon my hands were swollen and covered with welts. At the end of the day I told the boss I couldn't hack another... my hands were numb from the poison and everything else ached like it was broken. The work crew was surprised I'd lasted as long as I did. When I got home and told my mother she screamed at me for being lazy.
My mother never actually said that if I didn't get scholarships I wouldn't go to college. I'd assumed people just went, like it was another set of public school grades after high school. But I was friends with the kids who later became valedictorian and salutitorian, and they were all over the scholarships, so I applied for tons of them. Consequently, the concept of my mother paying for college never entered my head. By the end of spring I'd blundered into full scholarships. I'd only started hanging with the smart kids after Lee ditched me; if he hadn't told me to fuck off I would probably still be living with my mother, watching bad sci-fi and praying that aliens would take me away.
When you're a little kid, nobody tells you that your parents are fucking you up. Your friends don't say anything because they're as clueless as you are. No grown-ups sit you down and explain it to you. If your home life is especially heinous and you show up at school with bruises, somebody might assign a social worker to you. But if your parents are screwing you up by being overprotective, distant, disapproving, overendulgent or any of a dozen inobvious ways, nobody will interfere. It's like an accident scene; only after years of introspection, of sifting through the debris after the fact will you start to realize that there was even a problem. And by then it's usually too late.