The Time I Discussed Domestic Violence with a 5 Year Old

Bedtime routine: pajamas, brush teeth, floss (the dentist says floss), read books (usually 3), get in bed, snuggle with Lion (it’s a stuffed lion), and then he asks me to tell him stories from the “olden” days when I was a boy.

“Well, my mom and I lived in a red brick house, and there was a raspberry patch in the backyard, and I had a room in the attic,” and then on to what kind of toys I played with and what I watched on TV and who my friends were, and about how we had to go to the video store if we wanted to watch a movie, and what things were like until we moved . . .

“Why did you move?”

I usually don’t answer this, but tonight I say: “Because we moved in with a mean man.”

That would be my stepfather. They married when I was 5. They did it in San Francisco — Sausalito actually. I was there. I was given a Mickey Mouse watch at the wedding. I remember that much. I don’t remember the trip there and back.

“How was he mean to you?”

I’m not sure when the drugs and drinking started. The earliest memory of abuse was when I heard a crash in the kitchen one night. My stepfather, so loaded he could barely stand, had tried to make hard boiled eggs. He was so drunk or stoned (or both) that he forgot to put water in the pot. The eggs had exploded and were all over the kitchen walls and ceiling. I came in, asked what happened, and was punched in the head so hard it knocked me into a cabinet.

“He knocked me down.”

That’s the short version for the benefit of my son. But that’s also what I comprehended at the time: he knocked me down. The fact that I was in pain and in danger didn’t register at the time. It was just a fact: he knocked me down.

And then my mom scooped me up ran to the basement and locked the door. He was trying to break down the door. We spent a lot of time hiding in the basement. Eventually we started living there. I wasn’t allowed to go upstairs when he was home.

“Why did he knock you down dad?”

I find that most of my job as dad is to provide answers. How does a rocket work? Why are there mountains in Colorado? Why do bears eat salmon? Answering “I don’t know” isn’t acceptable.

So why did he knock me down? I have no fucking clue. I’m still trying to process that one. Maybe he was just a bad drunk? Maybe that’s how he was raised? Maybe he hated me? Can you hate a 5 year old boy? Is that possible? Does my son understand the concept of evil? (Do I understand the concept of evil?)

I can’t imagine punching my 5 year old — or anyone else’s 5 year old for that matter. Spanking? Maybe. Punching? Why? Or more importantly, how? How do you bring yourself to punch a 5 year old? Even in my own battle with alcoholism I never once became violent — to my family or anyone else.

“He was mean.” (Best thing I could come up with.)

“Why was he mean?”

“I don’t know why he knocked me down buddy.”

“Did he break your toys?”

“No. He broke other things.”

I seem to remember a lot of mug and glasses flying around. And screaming. Lots of screaming.

“Did he break the windows?”

“No. Just glasses and mugs.” Once he threw a lamp at my mom’s head. He missed. My son doesn’t need to know that.

Now we’re deep in uncomfortable territory so I try to change the subject: “We had a lot of snow at that house. More snow than we get at our house. We spent a lot of time shoveling snow.”

“Was he mean to you in the snow?”

“No, he was at work when I was in the snow.” I’m not sure if he came home loaded, or waited until he got home. It was probably coke all day at work then booze and pills and weed when he got home (anyone who thinks that weed is a palliative for violence never met my stepdad). I can’t remember if it happened every night or only some nights. I only remember the bad nights. There are probably a lot of bad things I don’t remember.

“What did he do at work dad?”

“He worked for the governor.”

There’s a lot of shame in domestic abuse. Mom never talked about it and I never asked. We just buried it. Dark family secret. I never really thought about it until I had kids of my own, and that question arose: how can someone beat a 5 year old?

This was 1981/82 in a conservative western state. We didn’t live in a trailer park. This happened in an expensive home in an expensive neighborhood. My stepfather was the governor’s chief of staff. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the reason the police never got involved, but most likely it was my mother’s shame that kept us suffering in silence.

She was pregnant with his child, had a 5 year old (me), and no means of support. Her parents (my grandparents) lived a few blocks away. Why didn’t she take me and stay with them? Get a restraining order? Go to the cops? It was shame. My grandparents could have rescued us but they never knew. She never told them.

Eventually we did get out. I’m not sure of the exact circumstances, but we moved back to the red brick house (she didn’t sell it when she married him). My brother was born soon after we got out. He didn’t bother to attend the birth.

I guess he briefly sobered up and got some help, because they briefly reconciled and conceived my sister. (Mom explained that he had “a nervous breakdown but he’s better now”.) Of course things went sour again. I don’t remember any more physical abuse (just verbal) and then he was out of our lives. My sister was born just before I turned 7. He didn’t bother showing up for her birth either. He had moved to the East Coast by then.

I had a few brief encounters with him after that. He’d drop by to visit his kids once in awhile when he was in town. He’d bring them toys, but I got nothing. It’s funny how I grew up thinking that it’s perfectly normal that the guy who used to beat my mom and I was just another guy who’d stop by the house from time to time to bring my siblings toys. But of course I was terrified — I’d hide in the basement whenever he’d come by. And my brother and sister, who only had limited contact with him while growing up, were never exposed to the violence. Anger, but never violence.

My mother went back to school and became a lawyer (kind of amazing considering she was a single mom with 3 kids). After graduation she did pro bono work with Legal Aid as an advocate for abused women. Did she share her personal experience with those women? I have no idea, but I tend to think that she kept it to herself. My mother had pride.

I didn’t discuss it with my mom until she was in hospice. The cancer had metastasized to her brain, her liver was shutting down, and she was on some heavy painkillers. Most of what she said made no sense but there were fleeing moments of lucidity.

A few days before Christmas I was sitting by her bedside. Her eyes opened, and she turned to me, so I asked her why she didn’t leave him and why she went back.

She said, “Oh honey, I made so many mistakes with you. So many mistakes . . .” And then she went back to sleep. She died on New Year’s Day.

When I was informed that he was coming to the funeral I proclaimed (out loud and with conviction) that I was going to kick his fucking teeth out. The led to recriminations from my family until they made me promise that I wouldn’t violate the sanctity of my mother’s funeral by kicking anyone’s (fucking) teeth out.

After the burial I was standing by her grave with my then 2 year old son.

He walked up and said, “Hi Max, is that your boy?”

The sound of his voice triggered the fight or flight reaction in me. You know that feeling when you almost got creamed by that bus? Yeah — that’s the feeling. I was shaking with adrenaline but I didn’t fight or flee. I wish I would have said something to the effect of touch my kid and I’ll fucking kill you and I’m serious because now that I have children of my own I realize what a monster you are and how could you hit a child and why? . . . but all I could manage was a cold “Yeah, that’s my boy.”

And that’s all I said. I’m not sure I was angry over the past, or angry at the injustice that she was in the ground and he was still walking around. Maybe he was trying for some kind of reconciliation? Maybe he was ashamed too and couldn’t bring himself to say he was sorry? Do abusers have shame too?

It’s quite likely that he doesn’t remember most (or any) of it. On the bad nights he was so fucked up he could barely stand — or throw a lamp straight, or break down a door, or crack the skull of a 5 year old boy. (His level of inebriation is probably what saved our lives.)

After the death of my mother there are only two witnesses left: me and him. If he doesn’t remember then the only witness is me — and that’s a lonely thought.

He said nothing, and I said nothing. He walked away and that’s the last time I saw him.

“He was the governor in the capital?”

“No, he was a helper for the governor.”

“Where’s the mean man now dad?”

I know where he is. After moving to the East Coast and serving on the boards of some (very) large corporations, he retired in Brazil. He lost most of his money in a restaurant venture and has since moved back to the city I grew up in where he works as a business consultant. He’s married to a Brazilian surgeon who he verbally abuses on a daily basis (or so says my sister).

I say “I don’t know where he is buddy,” and I want to leave it there and move on and get my son to sleep because he has no comprehension of violence or abuse or fear or for that matter want and discussing this matter further will do him no good and maybe even confuse and harm him in some way — at least not until he’s older and has some comprehension of adult matters and evil and injustice. Of course if I have my way he’ll never know anything of evil or injustice or violence and he’ll never see his mom knocked to the ground with a drunken monster standing over her. That’s the duty of every parent: to save their children from the bad and provide the good, the shelter, the stability, the love.

But I can’t leave it there. So selfishly, and purely for my own benefit, I add: “But if I see him again I’m going to beat him up.”

“Why are you going to beat him up?”

“Because he deserves it.”

And that’s how you discuss domestic violence with a 5 year old.