Category Archives: Brother

Abuse and Memory – Finding Our Truth

My sister and I have a shared memory that one of us remembers absolutely wrong.

Bev is five years older than me, but we would still do things together growing up.  One of the things we loved to do was put a record on the console hi-fi, (ask your parents) play a song and sing into hairbrushes, because hairbrushes are microphones, naturally.  This would be to a song by The Beatles, or Journey, something we both liked.

I have a vivid memory of singing along to AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds,” a fairly graphic song released in 1976 about a killer for hire.  Our mom came in disgusted that they were glorifying murder like that.  Bev looked at her and said, “Three words, mom.  Mac. The. Knife.”  This is a fairly graphic song released in 1959 about a killer for hire. Realizing she had no comeback to this, she turned and left the room.

I told that story to a group of friends recently, Bev among them.  We all laughed because the opportunity to zing a parent like that is very rare and very funny.

But Bev frowned, “No, that’s not what happened.”

“We were in the car singing along to The Beatles, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” on the radio.  Everything else is the same, mom said that, I said Mac the Knife, all that, but we were in the car, and it wasn’t Dirty Deeds.”

I was flummoxed.  “It absolutely was Dirty Deeds.  We were in the living room like we always were.”

Then Bev made a very excellent point.

“I hate AC/DC, that’s your thing.  I would never have sung along with them.”

I do a lot of research for my articles.  Sometimes it’s scholarly texts, sometimes it’s Facebook Messenger.

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She is 100% correct, she does hate AC/DC, (on that point anyway, she is grievously wrong) so it is very unlikely my recall of this is accurate.  But the thing that bothers me is, even after she described what likely happened, even after the completely reasonable argument of why it could not have happened my way, I still see it how I always have – living room, hairbrushes, AC/DC.  One of us is simply wrong.

But neither of us is lying.

I am 100% certain that my version is right.  I can see it, I can hear the song, our painful adolescent attempts to copy Bonn Scott’s un-copy-able voice, I can see the hairbrush in front of my mouth reflected in the living room window.  I can see my mother pound into the room and angrily interrupt, and I can see Bev’s raised eyebrows and grin as she delivered the verbal body-blow that ended the argument.

I remember it exactly like that.

Except I am more than likely, 100% wrong.

It seems like a contradiction, but it’s really not.  I’m not lying when I say I see that scene play out exactly as I describe.

In preparing this article, I spent some time talking to my psychiatrist about the implications of memory fluidity. I had to come to peace with my own issues around this before I could try to offer any comfort to you.  But she has, as always, helped me work through it.

Because that’s really the thing, isn’t it?  That’s the easiest way to dismiss an accusation, to devalue an experience, especially if it happened long ago, in childhood, teenage years, is to simply say, memory is fluid, you have a vivid imagination, you saw a TV show and made it real in your head, etc. until no one believes it, and eventually, maybe you don’t even believe it.

Memory is fluid, eyewitness testimony is one of the least reliable, that is a fact.  But what does that mean for survivors?

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I used the example with my sister because it’s funny, and I wanted to work into this a little gently.  But it is also apt.  I remember it exactly as I always have. I don’t remember being in a car.  I don’t remember Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.  I remember the living room, hairbrushes, and AC/DC.  I am likely completely wrong.

But, and this is important, I am wrong about the details, the where, when, what song, but I am right about the important part of the story.  A taboo song, a mother trying to shut it down, Bev winning the argument before it even started. We are in complete agreement about these details.

The actual, important event, is correctly remembered.

This is important to me because memory has played such a critical role in my “story” and even my identity.

I was abused by various people, including a brother, throughout my childhood.  I have no memory of not being angry, of not feeling rage and fear and blinding, white-hot hatred, for him.  I remember specific events.

I have identified as a survivor since my 20s.  When the book “The Courage to Heal” came out, it was a revelation.  I was validated, seen, and I was not alone.  I remember going to an all-day event and watching women much older than me walking from lecture to lecture carrying stuffed comfort animals.  I remember wishing I’d thought of it, and realized that I would not have had the courage to carry it in public if I had.  Allowing myself the self-care I needed was nearly two decades away.  But here I had a community, a large group of kindred spirits who had been victimized to one degree or another, all equally valid, all worthy of love and care.

I remember sitting alone at the lunch break and falling to pieces.  All of these women are here for each other.  All of these women are here for each other, because all of these women have been brutalized and broken, to some degree or another.  I felt hurt, wounded, exposed, and heartsick.

In the coming years I came to terms with my alcoholism, my depression, and finally landed the correct diagnosis of bipolar II, which became bipolar I a few years later.

But the abuse, that was first.  That was in the late ‘80s with the release of that one book, the first time I heard the term “survivor.”  And I am forever grateful to Ellen Bass for that.

When my father confronted my brother after I’d spent a horrible afternoon telling my parents what had happened, dad asked him why he did it.  Dad told me later that he hung his head and said, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know.”  These are not the words of an innocent person.  The words of an innocent person are, “What are you talking about?  How dare you!  How dare you accuse me of something so horrific! So vile! How dare you!”

With that tacit confession, I should have no longer doubted what I recalled.

“I hate AC/DC.  It was in the car, not the living room.”

It’s not only a single detail being confused here.  It is the entire scenario.  Except for the “punch line,” every single thing I recall is wrong.

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How would you describe this in 20 years?  Are there stairs leading to a doorway?  Chipped paint on the ceiling?  What color was it, what color was the sky?  But it took your breath away, that you won’t forget.

I have my memories, and more importantly, I have an admission of guilt and diaries and poems that go back to nine-years-old.  I have “source material,” if you will.

And even still, I had doubts sometimes.

What of the women who don’t have anything but their memories?  What of the women for whom this is a “he said/she said” situation?

What of the women who completely and utterly disassociated while it was happening, to the point that it’s a black nothing in their memory?  Don’t think that’s possible?  Here’s another story.

When I was 16, I bought my first vehicle, a yellow Toyota truck with a camper shell.  I took it out for a spin with several of my friends, laughing and having fun in the back of what was basically a playhouse for teenagers.

I was on a four-lane street with a large grassy median.

Here’s what I remember next.  A car swerved in front of me within inches of my fender.  I remember seeing the jackass in the back seat turn around laughing as I tried to keep control.  Next, I was on the median, the entire left side of my truck on the curb, my rims had bent and ripped my tires to shreds.  My friends were trying to open my door and get me out.  When I came to, when I started to get my higher functions back, my hands were so tightly gripped on the wheel that I could barely remove them, and I was aware very slowly of the shooting pain up my arms as I had apparently used them as shock absorbers during the crash.  My friends finally coaxed me to unlock the door.  I got out, lost control of my legs, fell to the ground, and just…shook.

My friends said I was amazing, I kept control of the truck, I had no choice but to crash the way I did, but I skidded along on my rims and came to a safe, controlled stop.

To this day, I have zero memory of any of that.

My brain simply went on some sort of autopilot, I guess literally this time.  It was so horrible that my memory said “Well, I’m out.  I’ll be back here with Smell until this is all done.”

This happened during a car accident.  Imagine what our brains can do when we’re being raped, abused, beaten, molested, imagine how far away we can leave our brains and hide, or even rewrite, something life-shatteringly horrible.

Memory can get muddled, that’s a fact.  Those of us who are survivors become extremely good at disassociation.  I have been a pro since I was a child; it’s an escape, it’s a world you control, you are essentially a god.  It can also make for a rich creative life.

But these things can be, and are, used against us.  How do we know what is real?  How do we know what really happened, was is AC/DC or The Beatles?  Is it a total blackout from mental self-defense, did it spring from a vivid imagination?

I can’t answer these questions for you but I can tell you this.

My memories are real.  Maybe not minute details, maybe not the room, the surroundings, the time of day.  But the events – what actually happened – are drilled into my head.  The more traumatic the event, the more likely we remember.  Or sometimes it simply never writes to memory.  Like my accident, that 3 or 4 minutes is not there.

I have the details surrounding the event wrong.  It was The Beatles, it was in the car, this could not be more different from my memory.  But the core of it, the actual, meaningful event, was correct.

Friends, men and women alike, if you have a memory of abuse, if that memory causes your heart to hurt, I suggest that it is probably correct.  At the very least it should be examined, try to find a therapist to help you work through it.  I’m including some resources you can use as well.

Please, do not let anyone tell you it’s not true, you are misremembering, or worse, that you are lying.  If it hurts to think about, look at it.

Memory is foggy and imprecise.  But it is not to be ignored because the curtains were blue and not yellow.

Please take care of yourselves.  Be gentle with yourselves.

Carry a stuffed comfort animal if you need to.

 

National Helpline

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

Free, confidential, 24/7 support.

https://www.rainn.org/

 National Suicide Prevention Hotline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

1-800-273-8255

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Past, Present, and a Future without You

So I think we can all agree that I am the worst blogger of all time.  If there were a trophy for this, like a guy throwing a bowling ball or doing that one arm forward, one back holding a football about to toss it to the outfield (I don’t know sports) my trophy would be an empty pedestal because I disappeared for months and forgot about it.

To my followers though, look at it this way, you know I won’t spam you!

I never actually forgot about the blog, I’ve just gotten sidetracked by other projects and shiny things.  I’m working on another book, which is going to be much bigger in scope than Life Songs and much more difficult to write.  Life Songs lived in my poetry, my head, my heart, it was written from inside.  The new one is going to be complicated and if I can pull it off, important to others like me.  That’s my goal.

The working title right now, by the way, is Nightmares and Laughter.

I want to take you with me on this one.  Life Songs was very personal, very intimate and there really wasn’t anything to discuss.  But this new one, heretofore called N&L (I’m fancy like that) is so involved that I want to bring you along in the process.  This is not entirely altruistic; writing things out, sharing them with someone else, can help keep me inspired.  And it will be a good way for me to keep up N&L the blog, while I work on N&L the book.

I’m certain that while I go through this process, “talking” with you will help me sort things out.

I will be honest with you, it’s Tuesday morning, I’m in my jammies drinking coffee, and I’m watching the pouring rain outside my window, thinking about my book.  You do not have my full attention, and I may start to ramble.  If you’ve been reading this blog, you know this is not super unusual.

Lost in Thoughts and Daydreams

Since N&L starts with my old diaries, I’ve been living firmly in the past for a few months.   This is not entirely good, given the things I’m reading and reliving.  I had 10 physical diaries covering ages 9 to 33 to read page by page, capture notes, analyze…and remember.

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Why can’t I just write children’s books?

This journey thus far has not been pleasant.

Here’s what I do to stop a downward spiral, and it works a lot of the time.

I have many photos and drawings of long-dead relatives, some going back to the mid-1800s.  I can see my face in a smirk, or a side-eye, or pursed lip annoyance, I can see these long-dead relatives in my siblings, my parents.  Except for my sister, all of these people are gone.

Bear with me, I’ll get to the comforting bit.

See, most especially with the very old photos and drawings, these people have been gone a long time.  They had trials, pains, headaches, menstrual cramping before Ibuprofen, (girlfriend, respect!) They lived through the Civil War, WWI, the Depression, WWII, and a million problems I can’t even imagine.  But those human events, all of them, are over.  Whatever one believes about an afterlife, those pains, as well as the joy, are done.

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L to R – Grandpa (on the far right) with his sisters.  Grandpa and Grandma in their vibrant youth.  Grandma during the Depression.  The same beautiful couple late in life, laughing and enjoying the snow.  Good times, bad times, laughter, and hunger.  Lives lived and long gone.

I try to hang on to this, look at these pictures and see my family, imagine what they went through. Did they keep diaries?  To my knowledge, there are no actual diaries for any of them.  How is that possible?  I can’t believe that in a family as artistically inclined as mine there is not one journal.

Maybe you have figured out where I’m going.

I will die someday

I’m not afraid of death, I don’t believe in an afterlife of any kind, so I’ve no fear of that.  But I do fear dying.  Any pain, regret, and worrying about what will happen to my journals, my writing, my photos, those beautiful family photos I take comfort in.

Neither my siblings nor I had children.  I have no close blood relations who might care about this random woman in San Francisco.  Will my diaries, at the moment I have kept 21, be in a landfill?  Deleted? In an antique store?  All my thoughts and fears and joy and pain will be gone.

But then I look at photos.

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Three generations greet me every day.

All of those people are dead, there are no diaries, no way to “hear” their voices. They are pictures in a frame. I can do a family tree, I can trace exactly how they are related to me, (the lady in the picture on the cover of Life Songs is my great x3 aunt Alice) but they are strangers.

At the end of our lives, we are stories.  We are not the photos, we are not the antiques, we are the stories.  Once we are gone, we have no control over our legacies.  Regardless of what you believe or not, we are gone.  I can’t imagine an afterlife that involves worrying about human concerns.

Grief is for the living

My brother died in June, my first sibling to die. Of course, I miss him, but there was something else.

He, my sister, and I formed a whole lifetime of memories.  No one has all of them, we filled in the blanks for each other.  Now with him gone, 1/3 of our memories are gone.

This made me very sad first, but then I realized we have the photos, the memories, the stories.  There are a great many stories where he is concerned. Kenneth was quite unique.

And that’s my point.  He lives in stories, our lives, our memories.

My close blood relatives are dwindling, but I have many friends who are my family.  They have children who are my nieces and nephews; I love them dearly.

Will they care about my “stuff” when I’m gone?  I don’t know.  But they will have stories, oh I guarantee, they will have stories.  From my grown niece who calls me her Fairy Goth Mother, to my little nephew Mini Cooper who has resigned himself to the fact that I will always call him that, and everyone I hold dear, there will be stories about me until there are not.

And I will not care, because I will be dead.

This is comforting to me.

Legacies Long Gone

I got an old phonograph from my brother, with the hand crank, and a collection of old 78 rpm records.  I love to listen to long-dead artists living their dreams.  I know too many musicians to think that they did not sit around and argue and swear and fight artistic differences.  One of the records is the Andrews Sisters.  They straight up hated each other.

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But the music, ladies.  The music!

But they all made beautiful music, they all left beautiful music.  And these passionate musicians will all be forgotten in time.

Except for the Beatles.  That’s just science.

 

Dreams, Death, Second Chances

One finds the oddest things when going through old photos.

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I have no memory of this postcard. I assume it was my dad’s since he was the musical one. It’s just an ordinary photo of a long forgotten group, who lived their dreams for a little while.

It’s what’s on the back that made me stop what I was doing and get lost in a time warp.

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I think it’s the same person writing all those little quips, and I assume who drew that lovely lady and the rather odd…dolphin? Airplane? I think it’s a dolphin. Anyway, I have no idea which one of those young men did, and I never will except in the astronomically unlikely event that one of them sees this article, looks at the photo and says “Say, that’s me n’the boys!” I’m not holding my breath.

Besides the little sketches, there are the things one would expect, the name of the band and members, and of course the promotion.

“The One and Only Quartet – Good Nuts”

A quick (image search off) Google search turned up nothing, so it looks like these boys went the way of most bands and found themselves working at insurance companies or warehouses or, well, the photo isn’t dated, but I think it’s safe to say they could have left us in the war. It’s likely we’ll never know.

I started to read the little scribbles around the edges. Random thoughts and silliness written by someone probably around 80 years ago or so, things he thought were interesting or funny or little bits of truth disguised as mirth.

“Don’t ask me if I got married when school was out!! Imagine. Aah. I can’t.”
“I learned a new song, real cute.”
“On what grounds were her aspirations founded? Those are $10 words.”
“My man’s a garbage man.” (I assume this was meant to be said by the lady, but it still makes zero sense.)

But what stopped me, what made me catch my breath, sit down, and disappear, was this, “I have one chance, shall I take it?”

Assuming this photo is from the late ‘30s, early ‘40s, I think it’s safe to say these boys are no longer with us. So did he take the one chance while he had it?

Are you taking your “one chance” while it’s there? Am I?

Between the silly sketches of fur-coated ladies and dolphins with underbites, there is this one little snip of truth, this one doubt that we all share,

“I have one chance, shall I take it?”

The words of a young man, uncertain and maybe scared to take a leap, whatever it was. A new band? Writing songs? Putting himself out there somehow, at a crossroads in an old-timey car, the signs labeled “Safety” and “Risk” with a hitchhiking, bindle carrying hobo, for some reason?

This hit home for me because my life is at crossroads like that, has been for a while. I’m taking the chance in some ways, finishing my book and putting it out there, working on some future plans, even this blog is a chance of a sort.

But I’m not doing enough. I’ve let so many dreams die. So many years I can’t get back. But I have now. I have right this minute.

This is why the musings of a man who was living his dreams 80 odd years ago landed firmly on my heart.

I have been going through my photos and mementos to put together a display for my brother’s memorial service on Saturday. He died June 18 of prostate cancer. Family photos always take me away sometimes very far in the past. But this one, I have no memory of it. It won’t go in the display of course, but it did cause me to think.

Did this boy in a quartette called Good Nuts achieve what he was looking for? Did he at least take the leap and was happy for it?

Did my brother?

He died young, only 57. That’s too young, but cancer doesn’t give one half of a shit about our wishes. So ready or not, here it comes. Fuck cancer.

I will make you all a deal, ok? Let’s all hit at least one thing we’ve always wanted to do. Just one thing, even if it’s small. If you can, grab a dream and hold on, ride it out. I will do the same, and in a little while, I’ll report back. I would love it if you told me what you are doing.

You are alive. You’re filling your lungs with air, and your blood is pumping through your heart, and you feel hungry, and your arm itches and you get eye-boogers…you are alive.

Don’t let that slip away. Have your adventure, whatever it is.

“I have one chance, shall I take it?”

Yes. Whichever young man you are in this picture, I desperately hope you did.

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Reach for your dreams.  If you try and don’t make it to the top, you tried.  Rest easy when time has its way.