The Only Way out Is Through, but Sometimes It Isn’t: Part Two.
He’s a great dad to his children, everyone says. But we are not his children. It must be hard for him, having us instead of his kids, she explains.
In public, he claimed me. At the rugby after-party in front of his friends, at my wedding — “My daughter” — but behind closed doors…
“You’re a cheeky little bitch, and you’ll never be as beautiful as your mother, so you shouldn’t try.” Why are you sexualizing me? I’m 19. I think, but don’t say it out loud. I don’t understand his contempt.
But everything is okay and fine and not that bad and her choice, and I learn that not only are my feelings not real and misplaced, but that I make things up. “That’s your version of the truth, it’s not how I remember it at all. I don’t think therapy really works for you because you manipulate the therapists and tell them things that didn’t happen.” Where did I get them from?
“That imagination of yours. It wasn’t like that. That’s only how you remember it.” Are those her words or his coming out of her mouth? I’ve been paying for therapy since my first abusive boyfriend at 17. Was I acting?
Over the years, he’d apologize. Once, the big one, when he’d come to stay in my home. Eaten from my snack platters, after he’d drunk my wine, and explained that it wasn’t me, it was him. I believed him every time he said it would be different now. The moments of clarity. He knew. Instant forgiveness. But it wasn’t. Eventually, I stopped trusting him altogether.
After my divorce, I’d returned home. Like an abused dog, with my tail between my legs. Swapped out a broken heart for the abuse I was more familiar with.
“I hope you’ve learned to stick to your own kind now. No more Greeks and Jews,” he leers. “Jew boys,” “Blacks,” “Women drivers,” “Bloody Caroline” — our maid. It was rare, a sentence that didn’t contain an anti-Semitic, sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic slur. Like living with Donald Trump. Without the success.
“Hmph, let’s just give it a few months and see what happens. No one actually knows what she does all day,” he commented in cahoots to my collaborator at the re-launch of my third company. Then, when it went international, “Huh, must be nice to work for your company, living the high life, eh? Can I also work for you and just be a lady of leisure?”
His son sunk a million from the business he’d given him, but I’m “living on easy-street,” in my self-created success. I write a book. He doesn’t read it. I move between countries. No comment. Just the duty-bound annual birthday message. That call on repeat “I’m trying to get hold of you,” because good guys call on birthdays. “You may as well go back to your husband. No man will want you anyway.”
He’d sit silently in the center of the couch, watching TV all day. Sometimes he sighed, stormed off, slammed the door to his bedroom when he went off to sleep. Finally, I could watch a show. Until he barged in and turned the TV off. No noise unless he’s making it.
Mom had an antenna TV the size of a basketball. She’d watch it in the tiny back room — the maid’s quarters from apartheid days, with the prison-slit windows. Between sewing sessions, after teaching at school. She’d use the telephone in there to call us after she’d watched her show. He’d be in the house. She loved it in her room, she said.
“I know you think I’m shallow and stupid and don’t deal with my feelings, but I’m fine. It’s my choice. I actually like my little lot in life.” He squeezed her out the house. He squeezed my sister and I out of the country.
“Can’t really chat now,” Mom whispered on the phone, “he’s here.” Like the tea parties, interrupted, when the door unlocked. Quickly, packed away, to prepare for evening drinks. We didn’t want to upset him. What’s more frustrating and annoying than having a mother and daughter having tea in the lounge? What about him? Why were we so exclusive?
My mother’s attention. He still needed all of it on him. Within a month of my return, I’d packed up and moved out — found a new boyfriend to take me in. Moved hours away. Being home again was unbearable. My mother almost left him that time. I felt sure she would. Finally. But she didn’t. She loved him. He gave me money for rent, to get my own place, for one month. Didn’t want me or my dog in his home with her.
My dog, my angel savior, was repugnant to him. My tiny, soft, furry baby girl, who slept on my bed every night. My best little friend, who sat on my lap all day while I wrote, was my daily companion while I ran my store. My constant source of comfort, while I cried my way through my titanic divorce. “Dog-child,” my mom would call her. My sister referred to her as her niece.
With every conversation, I sprinkled the latest antidotes of what treasured thing she’d done that day. “She’s obsessed with having a baby! You should see how she is with that dog,” said my ex to our third therapist. “No,” she’d countered, “the dog isn’t her longing for a baby. Her dog is her longing for herself.” Unconditional love and acceptance, wrapped up in the hug of a pug.
When I left for a TV show, she wasn’t a welcome house-guest in my step father’s house. I re-homed her. The guilt of leaving her consumed me. I missed her every day until the day she died. But, he didn’t want a dog, Mom said. A few months later, they got a dog of their own.
Home was still the fear-cage I dreamed of escaping from. Nothing had changed. His volatility, rarely explosive, loomed with impending doom. My presence annoyed him. I was too present, loud, too in his space. Home was his dragon’s lair, and I was in his way. I couldn’t make myself smaller, and it infuriated him. The unspoken words reverberated off every wall.
There’s been no healing. It’s been 25 years and it feels like bringing up bile, trying to remember. The million little put-downs, seemingly insignificant to write about. How do you capture tone, the glare in his small pig-eyes, the contempt of his flared nostrils? The man of a million faces and moods and jokes and attacks. The things that weren’t said, but felt. Internal cuts, bleeding from the inside out.
“He’s just drunk. Don’t take him so seriously, so personally. Just remember that he doesn’t mean it,” Mom said. All the things he never meant, yet continued to say. “He just likes pushing your buttons. Just don’t react, don’t get upset.” And finally this year, “He knows not what he says.” Or what he does. And yet she stays. She made her choice.
With all his abuse toward her, I’m still the one he protects her from. Me, with my father, whom we do not mention, in me.
So, I kept moving, further and further away, until I’m as far away as can be, and this is where I’ve made my home now. I’ve released her to him. He’s what she’s always wanted. One day, I’ll invite her to visit me here, and maybe one day she will.
I’ve lived a childhood of choices I didn’t make. And then traumatized choices I thought I did, in reaction. But the distance has given me perspective, and I’m different now.
I visit the 10-year-old me, small and scared in her bed, and whisper, You did run away, you ran far, far away, and you created your life in your own image. You did it. And you’re safe now. And when you get back up on that stage, it won’t just be your town, the whole world is going to watch you. It’ll stop hurting when you’re healing.
Her happily ever after wasn’t mine, and it never had to be.
My mother’s second husband was a choice I didn’t make.
And so I grew up and chose not to. Instead, I chose myself.
This is a two-part series by Deborah Katz.
Check out the first chapter in ‘The Only Way out Is Through, but Sometimes It Isn’t: Part One’.