That Time (13)
I Dissemble That Insinuation!
I'm sure he loved me but I never felt the kind of fatherly love a boy is supposed to know. He wasn’t capable of expressing it. By the time he tried, I was in my forties. I grew fond of him in his later years but as a child I was terrified of him.
I have only a single memory of affection between us when I was young. I’m not saying it’s the only positive memory of him. He took me fishing, hiking, mountain climbing. He would sometimes give me a ride on his motorcycle handlebars. I remember him being a decent father. At times. But I only have this one brief moment of comfort with him.
The family is in the den watching TV. My father is sitting on the couch with one ankle resting on the opposite knee. I’m in pajamas and I walk to him. I stoop down and then stand up into the opening of his leg. I wiggle my arms in and pull myself up onto his lap. I climb over his shoulder onto the back of the couch, work my way behind his neck and back down into his lap from the other side. I crawl down through the hole again and resume whatever I was doing before. I can still feel his scratchy beard stubble and I can still smell his musk. I don’t remember any other physical contact, except as noted below.
FWJ. Frank Woodcock Jennings. He admitted it was pretty tough having that middle name as a child but he embraced it. He always had a proud signature of his initials, FWJ, with the W being the most prominent.
Nobody ever called him Woodcock but I do now, when writing about him, in the same way I stick with Ethel instead of Marie. It’s not out of spite or with intent to disrespect. It’s because they remain enigmas to me, even mythical. I never knew them as people. That was largely due to the culture at the time but probably also because they didn’t know themselves.
Corporal punishment— a hateful phrase —was widespread. It takes a special kind of moral bankruptcy to claim that hitting children was appropriate as long as you only target one body part. Spanking. To do it properly requires pulling a child’s pants down, exposing what is inarguably the most sensitive and vulnerable part of the body. That alone would be horrible enough but let’s make it worse by bending them over a piece of furniture, or holding them prone across a lap. Where’s the line between a hand, a belt, a wooden slat, or a hair brush?
Our parents, meaning my generation's parents, did things to their children, with impunity, that if another adult did at that time, or did today, would result in a criminal charge and possible jail sentence.
Woodcock didn’t hit me often but when he did it was fierce, sometimes with enough force to send me flying across a room. Oddly, what was more traumatic was seeing him hit my older brothers. Most of the times he hit me, I was blindsided so there wasn’t any anticipatory fear, just a sudden, jarring, star-inducing, shock of pain followed by a stunned disorientation. The time from onset to finish was so short I almost didn’t know what happened.
What was more traumatic was witnessing his rage when it wasn’t directed at me. It felt more threatening to see his rage than to be the object of it. We never knew when it would come, and rarely what triggered it. He might be working on something in the cellar. A slip of a tool. A skinned knuckle. A stripped screw. An interruption.
Ethel was raised a strict Roman Catholic. Woodcock was an atheist. Both carried severe emotional wounds from their childhood abuse. I grew up knowing nothing about their lives or their relationship before marriage. What I know was told to me by them as an adult.
While dating, Ethel was the alpha, Woodcock the puppy. Her Catholicism came with a lot of very strict rules, particularly around dating, relationships and marriage. Ethel was shy, reserved, and she followed the rules. Woodcock was playful and horny. There was a tension between them around the question of sex but they managed it well. They had some casual intimacy but Ethel always drew a firm line. Woodcock respected that. Their relationship was generally healthy and congenial. Then came marriage.
Upon their wedding the priest gave Woodock a pamphlet, a Catholic Guide to Marriage, which was basically a list of sexual Dos and Donts. One of the Dos for Ethel was to passively submit to her husband’s worldly needs. This was not what he was expecting.
She knew exactly what it meant and she complied. On their wedding night, she just lay on the bed and gave him permission to do… what he needed. He was crestfallen. The woman he dated was assertive and sure of herself. She had demonstrated a kind of bodily maturity by declaring boundaries and honoring them completely. Her submission upon marriage was not what he expected nor what he wanted. For whatever reasons, they never worked it out and there remained an unresolved sexual tension between them for the duration of their marriage.
He would constantly say, "I married a Catholic. We have six kids. We had sex six times." [Laugh Track]
It's hard to describe how this tension affected my siblings and me. He was like a frustrated pubescent boy, constantly making barbed sexual jokes and innuendo. She did everything in her power to keep sexuality unacknowledged or shameful and hidden. This tension manifested in both of them as a constant anger, usually directed at their children.
One night, when I was thirteen or fourteen, Gregg and I were walking the streets with our neighborhood friends. This was a year or two after we moved to Falmouth so we were still getting to know these kids, a mix of boys and girls. I found myself lagging behind the group, for no particular reason. The group ahead of me started speaking softly to each other and laughing. I could tell they were talking about me. I. don't know how I knew but I knew. I also knew what they were talking about. It was my greatest fear come to fruition. It was something I had been anticipating for a long time. Not like this, though. I didn't expect it to come this way.
How did I know? Because I am intuitive. Everybody is? Not so much. What is intuition, anyway? Gut feeling? Sixth sense? Nah. I mean, sure, describe it like that. Everything needs a name. My gut feelings came the hard way. I didn't have a sixth sense. I had five senses that were hyper-alert. Always. Watching. Waiting. Because it's not safe. Ever. This is one of the symptoms of PTSD -- always being alert for danger.
Years later, a Psychology professor told me that she thought intuition, like deja vu, was probably nothing more than the brain processing information so quickly that understanding precedes recognition of what is being sensed. Where is the line between gut feeling and sixth sense? Between intuition and PTSD? Right about in the middle of my brain, near the amygdala.
So we're walking along, smoking cigarettes, pretending I'm not being humiliated, and Gregg drops back enough from the group ahead for me to whisper, "What are they saying?" He didn't have to answer because I knew and he knew I knew and they knew I knew and everybody in the world knows but he did and he said exactly what I knew he was going to say.
"They know what your penis looks like." [Laugh Track]
Have you ever rehearsed a conversation in anticipation? I do it all the time. I try not to but it's a lifelong habit. I started at a young age. I started when I discovered I was different from most boys. [Ominous Music]
I tried to think of a plausible explanation and I could only come up with a vague one. I would say, "I was in an accident." I rehearsed constantly. I tried to imagine how it would go. My first time. With a girl. Naked. At what point during the process, would it need to be said? At what point would the girl see me. My penis. My deformed penis. My penis that was ugly and different from everyone else's. My mortification.
"They know what your penis looks like." [Sudden Silence]
I was blindsided. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. In my rehearsing it was always just me and one faceless, as yet unknown, girlfriend. Not the fucking neighborhood. But it was my own fault. I had let my guard down. A few nights prior I had stopped by the side of the road to take a leak. No big deal. Done it a million times. But this time I failed to note where I had stopped. I had failed to note that it was right in front of a small clearing behind some trees where we, the neighborhood kids and I, would sometimes gather to smoke weed. Where, as I was now finding out, most of them were at the time. Front row seats as I casually whipped it out and gave them a show.
Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up and prepare to be shocked! It’s incredible! It’s unbelievable! You’ll be disgusted. You’ll be amused! Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! You aren't prepared for this Ugly Duckling! Don’t be shy now, don’t be bashful, step right up for a tantalizing, and horrifying, sight!
Have you guessed my secret? No, not you who've known me in that way. The rest of you. Have you figured it out? That I wasn't, that I am not, nor have I ever been, circumcised? This was my mortification. That I am whole. Uncut. In other words, perfectly normal.
No wonder he's always been so sensitive!
So fucked up. That my parents would do that to me. I mean NOT do that to me. I'm confused. I was confused. And ignorant, obviously. Here's the thing. All my older brothers were circumcised. I was not. This fact was never talked about. Never acknowledged. I was never given an explanation. I was just different. Without any understanding of how or why. I literally grew up believing my penis was deformed. I grew up dreading sex because I was a freak.
Neglect sounds benign but it's pernicious. Neglect and emotional abuse can be more impactful than physical abuse. Physical abuse is tangible and it is contextual, however corrupt. Even a child can rationalize a response, an excuse, a reason, an understanding, even if only of the harm done. Rage, violence, and even sexual abuse, are human behaviors that are based in relationship. Being betrayed might be easier to cope with than simply being ignored.
I haven't yet told you of the worst betrayal I suffered. When I do, it will be almost as an afterthought. Oh, by the way, in addition to being sexually abused, ha ha, you'll never guess what... wait, what? She did what? I thought you said your grandmother did that? I mean, I thought you said that she said that your grandmother... did what? To whom? Your father? You said she didn't... that you didn't remember...
As I watch my grandchildren grow, I am amazed by how much they learn through observing and mimicking. So much of what they experience is almost invisible to the adults. Their senses are heightened. They are always tuned in. Their sole purpose in being is to learn as much as possible.
I learned, by the age of ten, that I was fundamentally alone in a dangerous, violent world. I learned that I couldn't tell a soul what was done to me. I learned how to carry an unimaginable burden by myself.
Why do you think that was the case? Why couldn't I have told my parents? How could you hide something like that? How could they not know something happened to you? How could they not see that you were suffering? What just happened? Something shifted. Who are you? Who am I? Is there a difference between us? Who is us?
the urge to tell has been since the beginning,
to tell is not allowed,
the urge must be dealt with,
we must exist otherwise,
the urge is the flow,
the flow is bad,
the flow hurts to look at it,
the flow must be stopped,
the flow will not be stopped,
the flow is the flow,
we is me,
we is him,
we is us,
we is them,
the flow is the telling,
the flow is the end of the telling,
the flow is the end of it all,
the flow is the all,
if we allow the flow we stop,
if the flow stops,
this is the telling,
we is not me,
we is not you,
we is not him,
we is not not me,
we is just we,
Sometimes, all I have are these words are all I have are these words are all I have are...