Writing About Family Trauma Feels Like Betrayal
When you grow up in a household that throbs some days with joy and others with inexplicable violence, in a household bound up in addiction and anger — you learn very early to keep secrets.
But as you get older, you come to know what is happening at home isn’t normal. So maybe you try to reach for help, but the help doesn’t come in the form you had hoped for in your early teen imaginings. What you want the help to do is to stop your dad from drinking so much and hitting your mom and screaming and threatening and terrorizing the whole family. Instead, the help comes from good, caring people who don’t really know what to do either but to talk to your mom and offer some general “here if you need us” kind of assistance which is really all anyone can do in an untenable situation like a monster in the house.
As anyone who has lived through domestic violence knows, there are so many barriers to the changes that need to happen, that no easy solutions really present themselves. But “telling on” your folks like that does prompt a little scolding and an embarrassing reminder that what happens in your home ought to be kept between those walls even if sometimes it spills over for, at least, the neighbors to see.
And so what you learn is to hide it, to keep it tucked away in some kind of dysfunctional dark cedar chest like an ugly family heirloom. You and your siblings know what’s inside and your parents, but they aren’t willing to talk about it on one hand and admit to it on the other.
You grow up with the dark, throbbing box of secrets between and among you and your siblings and sometimes when it’s just the four or five of you, you talk about what happened. One of your siblings wasn’t there to witness a lot of it so it’s mostly the four of you. And, later, your mom sometimes listens along and doesn’t say much except that she’s sorry she didn’t get all of you out the whole mess a lot sooner. You all agree to forgive her for that, but what none of you can do is forget and a lot of the time your brain fires in weird ways, memories are triggered or you repeat patterns and you try to catch yourself before it’s a problem, but you aren’t always as good at it as you hoped you’d be.
And still, grown like you are now, you don’t talk too much about it, you tried for a while in college, to tell friends, give them a glimpse into the craziness that surrounded you before you arrived in the placid good time that college can be. They’d listen to your stories and nod, “wow, that’s nuts,” or “yeah, my dad drank, too,” and it all seemed a little awkward. No one really knew what to do with your confessions which weren’t your sins to be absolved of, nor were your college friends the ones to absolve you. But you did feel somewhat complicit for not stopping the trauma or not running away or whatever so maybe that was why you told your stories. Or maybe it was to let them know that if you didn’t seem like them, it was because you weren’t.
And sometimes the people you told the stories to said, “you should write a book”. And you thought about it, you tried, you wanted to even, but something about putting the trauma to paper and sending it out into the world in a form that theoretically anyone could have access to with or without your knowing it, made it impossible. You’d become so accustomed to keeping the secret or telling it only in a context that you could control, that you just couldn’t put it down on the permanence that was paper — or in some ways — more permanent — the web. It just felt like a betrayal of all your family had survived and so you just couldn’t.
And then your mom died. The one who loved you and who you could never really adequately protect and you realize it was her you didn’t want to betray, it was her you didn’t want to hurt by uncovering the family dysfunction. You kept your pen quiet for her.
And now you want to write it, but still you’re a little afraid, after all your dad is still alive and no longer the monster he once was. He is so different, in fact, as to not even be the same person who perpetrated all that damage, so you feel a little awkward about that, but you also really feel the need to clear the air, for the sake of truth and honesty and because not saying how bad it was seems like a lie you’re not willing to take to your grave.
And so, you’re starting here with this small piece, a piece about that fear and the rationalization of holding secrets for more than 30 years. This first piece is vague and eludes to the trauma, more than illustrating it, but you’re telling this story both for yourself and for the girl or the boy like you who is navigating a similar chaotic upbringing and is more raw in their pain, that girl or boy who wants to realize they aren’t the only one, and they, too, can survive. And, slowly, you’ll let it all out, all that you remember, so the true healing can actually begin.