My experience as a child victim and an adult writer
Wednesday June 20, 2007
Dear Dr. Miller –
I am the adult offspring of two mental health professionals – a psychologist mother who was a school director at a school for autistic children, and a psychiatrist father who was a professor at a prominent medical school. They were also abusers. I was the identified patient of the family – the offspring who endured the most violent abuse, the one blamed for the family unhappiness, and also, the one who escaped twenty years ago. Last year, my youngest sister died of undiagnosed metastatic colon cancer. she was the most like me of the siblings, but she remained very enmeshed with the family; and when I left the family nexus, she became the surrogate. Now she is dead.
I began writing about the family first as a therapeutic excercise (I have had a great deal of therapy in the past) and then, at the suggestion of an editor I was working with, for publication; but most of the material has proven way too disturbing for the editorial community in New York – in other words, it is fine with them to publish material about genocide, or having become a boy soldier in Sierra Leone – my material is too close to home – I suppose the closest analogous work I can think of is The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison – hers has the (marketable) advantage that it is about a sexual liason in which she colluded, whereas I write about escaping my parents’ Third Reich.
I wrote this included material for the editor who encouraged me. She works at a nationally distributed, wide circulation women’s publication. they bought and paid for it, then held on to it for over a year- then the rights reverted to me. from what I understand, the Editor In Chief never could really handle the material even though I agreed to use a pseudonym.
I began reading your books more than twenty years ago – it was with your written help I was able to confront a childhood psychiatrist (now deceased) about the fact he didn’t ‘know’ what was going on in my parents’ house.
Please do with this material what you will —
Best, Erica Rex
The Bad Daughter
(c) 2006 by Erica Rex
All rights reserved under US, EU, and Pan American copyrights
I have been a bad person all my life. In my case, being bad has
nothing to do with ethics, or morals, or shoplifting. I have never
stolen anything. I am educated. Most of the time, I earn my own
living. I try to live up to my own impossibly high standards. My
badness has to do with perception – a view of myself bestowed on me
from the time I was born.
I was the bad daughter, and nothing I did could redeem me. I was
born second in a family of four children, two sisters, and a younger
brother. We were close in age, all born in the five years between
1954 and 1959. I was the one who did not fit in.
As a child, I had nightmares and insomnia. I was afraid of the dark.
Sometimes, on nights when I was feeling especially fearful, I padded
down the hall to my parents’ room. If all was well in their universe,
they would let me get in bed with them, and lead me back to my room
and tuck me in when I was ready to go back to sleep. Just as often,
they would become enraged.
One particularly bad night, I awaken and get up multiple times.
Something is chasing me: a huge carnivorous snake with a maw as wide
as my father’s VW pursues me down our street and I can’t outrun it.
My entire nursery school class is in front of me, and I am woefully
slower than they – they outrun it, but try as I might, I cannot.
I pad down the hall quietly, and enter my parents’ room. Tearfully,
at their bedside, I try to explain the nightmare to my parents.
My father awakens first.
“Who is it?”
My mother’s eyes float open.
“Rica?” She throws back her covers and leaps from their bed. The
smell of adults in the nighttime is both pungent and malodorous –
familiar, yet infused with the sour smell of something unknowable. My
father leaps to his feet too, and strides around the end of the bed,
over to her side. He hoists me to his shoulder. Barefooted, he
descends the stairs to his in-home office. I gaze upside down at the
backs of his bare heels as he hurries into the office. My father
always wears jockeys to bed. My mother, wearing a thin nightgown – I
can see her breasts through the diaphanous cloth – follows, then
closes the doors, two solid wood doors, built back to back, the way
all psychiatrists’ doors were built back then to attenuate sound. My
father deposits me and I tumble with as much resistance as a sack of
flour onto the black-and-white wool-covered couch. He switches on the
buzzing fluorescent light over the room desk. To this day, I cringe
whenever I see lights like those, relics from the era of the nuclear
family: brown oblong metal things emitting a chemical smell along
with their unnatural bluish headache-inducing light.
I am paralyzed with fear. My mother’s blows descend on me – randomly,
haphazardly, now on my back, now on my bottom, now on the back of my
neck, on my forearm, which I have managed to twist around behind me in
an attempt to protect the bare small of my back. My pajama top is
rutched up around my chest, and my skin is exposed. Her closed fist
thuds against it. My father pushes her aside. My father is not one
of those men who limits his outward expressions of anger to shaking
his fist at the sky and railing like Job about his victimization by
the universe – although he does that too. When he hits, when he
yells, he means to inflict pain. Because he is stronger, his blows
are harder and they hurt more. My mother’s blows and chastisements
are haphazard. Often when my mother hit me, I felt she didn’t knew
whom she was really mad at. Hands that ought to stand for comfort –
mother’s hands – that have held and rocked four children by then, are
able to extinguish trust in the time it takes to draw a breath. Then,
suddenly, I break. As though outside of myself, I hear myself
screaming, “I hate you, I hate you!” at the top of my lungs. I scream
the words in the midst of otherwise incoherent sobbing. In them, I am
lucid. Otherwise, I have ceased occupying anything I could identify
as an integrated body. I am borderless, elsewhere.
Everything halts. My mother’s voice stills. Her hand pauses,
mid-swing. For a moment, I have stopped life – I have interfered with
the parental dynamics as I know them.
My mother sits down on a chair.
“Do you really hate me?”
I do not answer. I stare hiccupping at the woven wool strands of the sofa back.
“Answer your mother,” says my father. He waits, a WWII first
lieutenant, standing in readiness against the enemy.
“Answer your mother,” says my father.
“You don’t really hate us, do you?” asks my mother.
“Turn around and look at your mother.”
I don’t move.
“Turn around and look at your mother or I’ll patsch your bottom.”
I turn, hiccupping. Tears streak my mother’s cheeks. She pulls a
tissue out of her nightgown sleeve – she always stuff tissues into
sleeves – and dabs her eyes. I try not to look at her.
My parents have a phrase with which they ridicule me whenever I cry.
“Crocodile tears” they say, “you’re crying crocodile tears.”
I am silent.
“Answer your mother.”
“I want to go to bed,” I say.
“Tell your mother you love her, and you can go to bed.”
Silence. A few remaining tears, spasmodic hiccups on my part.
“Did you hear me? Tell your mother you love her and you can go to
bed, or else I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I make my first survival bargain with the devil. I decide the only
way to get away from them is to lie.
“I love you,” I mumble.
“What was that? Say it so your mother can hear you.”
“I love you,” I say. I know I am lying. Eventually, they let me out
of the office. I decline my mother’s offer of being tucked in. That
night, I learned my first lesson about lying to save myself.
These days, when I think about my emotional state rationally – as
rationally as I can – I hear a voice saying: “A person in her 40s
ought to be able to get over these things, to be able to say ‘it’s all
in the past.'” Most of the time I think I have gotten over it. Then
something happens – I have a disagreement with a friend or a romantic
relationship goes badly – and I am unstuck in space and time. I am
like a person trying to balance herself on a wire stretched between
universes. The present falls away, the wire dangles loose, and I am
falling alone through space.
The past caught up with me at work recently, shortly after my younger
sister died of cancer. She was the one family member with whom I was
close, and I was devastated. A few weeks later, I had an unpleasant
letter exchange with my brother, after not speaking in more than a
decade. He told me not to come to the funeral.
The after-effects of the letter were immediate. I myself, as a
sentient being, as a person going about her life in the real world,
evaporated. Language itself ceased to function; words would not hold
themselves to known patterns. I could not stop crying. I was afraid
to leave my apartment. I could not make eye contact with anyone. I
mumbled when I spoke. I stopped answering the phone.
I could barely muster up the confidence I needed to carry on a
conference call with a high-flown client. I made excuses for not
being able to focus on the project. I asked the same question three
times because I couldn’t process the answer. My supervisor phoned me
afterwards and demanded to know what I had been thinking. “I don’t
know,” I said, in a voice like a mouse. “What do you want me to say?”
When that earlier universe invades the present and threatens my very
survival – when even my ability to earn my living becomes precarious –
I cease to believe in the possibility of my own psychic emancipation.
I am floating alone, lost in an amorphous universe of family, a family
wherein I didn’t merely do wrong, I was wrong. I didn’t make
mistakes; I was the mistake.
A few days after that long-ago incident in my father’s office, I
found myself in the office of a child psychiatrist. For the next few
years, I spent an hour a week there. As an adult in my early thirties,
I sought out the same psychiatrist. I told him my parents – in the
field of the mind themselves, my father a psychiatrist, and my mother
a psychologist, both self-proclaimed experts in child development –
had beaten me regularly me. That abundant rivers of crocodile tears
flowed in our household during my childhood. I reminded him that I
had on one at least one occasion told him about the violence, and
rather than protect me, he had revealed my remarks to my mother, even
though I asked him not to. My mother, when confronted, denied any
wrongdoing. He instituted a rule about no hitting. That day on the
way home from the psychiatrist’s office as she steered the family’s
blue Chevy station wagon through rain-slick streets, puffing
ferociously on cigarette after cigarette, my mother told me that I
would live to regret having betrayed her. I had exposed her secret,
and, I discovered, I would pay for it.
In the years that followed, I did. My mother could control me with
threat of revelation of my ugly secret. I was bad. Part of the
punishment involved the weekly visits to the psychiatrist to fix my
defective self. I was the only child among either siblings or peers
who had to do such a thing. She reminded me at every opportunity of my
differentness, when, like all children, all I wanted was to be
accepted as part of the group. I believed her. And I knew if she did
not love me, no one ever would. I would be alone forever.
When I confronted my former psychiatrist with these facts, he told me
the version of the truth he had been told. He told me my parents
represented me as a violent child who had to be physically restrained
from beating up my brother.
I listened in horror to his portrayal of me – a monster of sorts,
different and apart from my siblings and my peers. Out of kilter.
There have been times in my life when I’ve felt entirely all right.
When I was eighteen I went to Norway on an educational exchange and
fell in love. My boyfriend took me to visit a special aunt, his
father’s sister, who lived in a town not far away. When we arrived,
she was in the kitchen, cutting her daughter’s hair. She asked me if
I would like my own hair cut too – and because it did need cutting I
accepted. I sat down on a stool beside a table covered in green
checked oilcloth. My boyfriend idled around the room, perusing a
men’s magazine, inspecting a screened window that needed fixing. From
the next room, the monotone muffled roar of Norwegian television – the
Saturday afternoon soccer match.
I looked out the open window to an afternoon lit palely by the
unsetting sun of late summer. Fields of rambling clover-covered hills
bordered by spruce forest. Nearby, a stone wall, raspberry brambles
ringing a garden of lilac bushes, black currant bushes, red currant
bushes, gooseberries. A bowl of fruit on the table to be cooked later
into jam. His aunt asked me how short I wanted my hair. I was still
self-conscious about my hair, but here was Tor’s aunt, stroking my
accursedly wavy strands as though they were something worthy of
stroking – and then, for no reason I can identify, nothing said, or
done – nothing but the sweet smell of newly-mown timothy from the
neighboring farm, the soft pull of the comb, Tor waiting, the harsh
smell of coffee boiling away on the stove, his aunt’s sure scissors
clicking away on the curls at the back of my neck, I felt – for lack
of a better word – real. Everything in those moments betokened in
themselves a tenderness I had never known before. My boyfriend loved
me, his aunt welcomed me into her home and cut my hair.
They loved me simply for being. Love connected me to the moment, a
moment with other human beings. Nothing was wrong with me. I was
loved. The universe itself allowed me residence.
These interludes, these moments of rightness haven’t been numerous,
but over the past twenty years or so, as the span of years separating
me and my present life from the life and self and universe of my
childhood lengthens and the past recedes, they seem to occur more
frequently. Not reliably, not predictably, but a little more often.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized my childhood psychiatrist’s
depiction of me wasn’t so vastly different from the way I learned to
view myself. But after years of therapy, I’ve realized the way I see
myself does not match what other people see once they get to know me.
My own image of myself confuses people – co-workers, bosses, sometimes
even friends and lovers, especially when an event out of the ordinary
causes a fragment of the past to land in the present and explode, as
it did when my younger sister died. At these times, a familiar fiend
clamps its talons onto my shoulder and whispers in my ear. You’re
vile, it says, you’re, a joke of nature. No one will ever love you.
As it speaks, I become less sure of myself. I often remain
emotionally adrift for days, even weeks. The me who carries out her
professional life with authority, lives unprepossessingly, quietly,
amid neighbors and friends, walks her dog, talks, laughs, sometimes
even looks pretty, ceases to be. I become reclusive. I make excuses
when friends call for fear they will notice my inadequacies. I avoid
seeing anybody because I fear rejection so acutely. I apologize
constantly. The litany of things I am not reverberates unstoppably in
my mind. Others can feel my doubt; but they can’t see the thing with
the crusted, oily, flightless wings, the rusted beak, gripping my
shoulder. They see me finding myself wanting, and begin to wonder why.
I have learned over the years to keep the story of my childhood close
to my chest because it is hard for others to believe. I have had
friends I thought I trusted tell me I was hallucinating when I told
them about my childhood.
“Your parents are pillars of the community,” one former friend years
ago told me. “I can’t believe all that really happened. Maybe you
just imagined it.”
Now, after a ten-year marriage and amicable divorce, I am living on my
own for the first time in years. I negotiated my own lease. The
electric and gas accounts are in my name.
Last fall I went to a wedding on a barge tethered to a harborside
garden on the Hudson close to where I live. Music, dancing, drinking,
a crowd of people from my neighborhood – the owner of a local art
gallery wearing yards of purple tweed, her current and past husbands,
local craftspeople, business owners, the local precinct captain,
community activists. The bride and groom with an assortment of
children, dogs, Italian and Greek relatives getting married, both for
the second, time in commodious disorganization.
I gaze over the water at the Statue of Liberty. A tugboat shoves a
container-laden barge through the channel that separates my Brooklyn
neighborhood from Governor’s Island. The groom, a man who would never
ordinarily be caught dead in anything but varnish-stained blue jeans
and a tee shirt, carpenter’s pencil wedged behind one ear, cigarette
behind the other, is decked in full-on wedding regalia: waistcoat,
tie-and-tails, silk scarf. He walks over to me and folds me in an
“I’m dying for a cigarette,” he says, “but I’m not supposed to smoke
out here. You look gorgeous.”
“Thank you,” I say. It is only recently that I’ve begun to accept
compliments without cringing or saying something to diminish myself.
I look around and for the bride. “Where is Beatrice?”
“I don’t know,” he says, looking outward towards the harbor, as though
scanning for a missing schooner. “She should be here by now.” He
glances at his watch. He is at that moment pounced on by a tow-headed
boy of not insignificant size, also clad in full formal wedding
regalia, the bride’s son from her first marriage.
“DAAADD!” shouts the boy, winding his arms around Brad’s neck. “I
have a new DAAADD!!” Brad blushes and looks the other way, then sets
about unpeeling his stepson from his torso, affectionately holding his
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Brad says, reluctant to admit he’s
happy. “I’m marrying the most difficult woman to ever walk the
earth.” Travis is beaming so broadly his face looks as though it has
widened. His patent leather shoes sparkle in the sunlight like carved
“We’re all difficult,” I say. “I bet you’re not always easy on the
“That may be, that may be,” says Brad. “Hell.” He reaches into his
pocket, pulls out a packet of cigarettes and is about to embark on a
disquisition on the nature of humanity – he’s known for them – when
suddenly the string quartet seated silently at one end of the barge
plays the first few notes from “Here comes the bride.”
“Well,” says Brad, tossing his cigarette into the water, “guess I
don’t have time for a smoke after all.” He hugs me again and Travis,
who is in an uncharacteristically huggy mood, hugs me too before
darting off toward the end of the pier where his mother is waiting
nervously. Her dark hair is coiffed in an elaborate up-do. She is
wearing white and carries white flowers.
For the first time in my life, I feel connected to where I am – both
in time and in space. My life, my work, my community. Where I live,
how I live. I realize I have changed. Nobody else defines me: not
my ex-husband, not my mother, not the people I work for. I will be
happy if I find love again, but if I do not, I will not feel less
human. I’m just another person with quirks, dreams, curly hair and
the wrong lunchbox jostling along on the over-crowded bus, sometimes
happy, sometimes sad, going about the daily business of living.
The older I get, the more my accumulated experiences become
counterweights to the events of my childhood. I have had good days
like that long-ago day in Norway. I carry the memory of it and days
like it close to me like talismans to be pulled out and considered
whenever I am feeling particularly vulnerable. Like all charms, they
perform inconsistently. They work in some situations. In others,
they fail. I carry them anyway, as tokens of hope, of possibility – a
secret, intangible currency from a better place. I know it exists
because I have been there. Eventually I may even be able to live in
that place for a time – maybe, if I’m lucky, forever.
AM: Thank you so much for your beautiful, strong and true letter. You write: “I am floating alone, lost in an amorphous universe of family, a family wherein I didn’t merely do wrong, I was wrong. I didn’t make mistakes; I was the mistake.”
No, you were NOT; you are a wonderful, very talented author and an honest person. But your family was a mistake, more than that, your family was CRIMINAL. I think that you must publish your story but I can imagine why people are so afraid of publishing it. It reminds them of their own stories they don’t dare to confront. I made similar experiences: Many of my books were bought and published in different countries but in some countries publishers bought the rights more than 10 years ago and never published the books, nor gave they back the rights so that nobody else can publish them. You can send your manuscript to Robert Weil, the publisher of Norton in New York. I think he will have the courage your book needs to be fully appreciated. And you need your own courage to come out of your parents’ office and to say: ‘I am not going to spare you my truth, I hated you for what you have done and I don’t owe you any lies about love. Never.’
I wish you all the best.