Recovering From the Wounds
of an Abusive Childhood
Marlene was one of Light Morning’s four co-founders. She died in 2018, shortly before her 78th birthday. Sixteen years ago, for the earlier incarnation of this website, Marlene wrote a searing account of how sustained abuse, both physical and psychological, can traumatize the psyche of a young child. Part One is a hard story to read. But as Parts Two and Three will show, even though the aftereffects of the abuse continued long after she left home, Marlene was also guided by her dreams along a path toward forgiveness and healing.
Is it any wonder that, at 61 years of age, there are still times when I feel like a walking, ticking time-bomb, ready to explode? The home that my younger sister and brother and I grew up in, a small Wisconsin dairy farm, was seldom a nurturing one. As children, we experienced frequent physical beatings and verbal whippings, freely administered by an insecure, out-of-control mother.
The wounds to my body have long since healed; hardly a scar remains. Yet the emotional damage, while crippling, has remained mostly hidden. For unlike physical scars, self-concept disfigurement is visible only to a public of one: me.
Is it possible to heal the broken heart and splintered soul that came out of such an abusive environment? While there are no quick or easy answers to this question, the story I choose to share is one of both tragedy and hope.
The torture, unfortunately, didn’t always end with the beatings, nor was it confined to our bodies. As more punishment, we were sometimes put in the closet of the downstairs bedroom–the same bedroom in which I had been born.
When I heard the closet door being locked, absolute horror set in. Not only was it pitch black in there, but this is where the bogeyman lived, among all the winter clothes stored in moth balls. I knew that if I moved, one of those big coat sleeves would come alive, wrap itself around me, and strangle me. To this day, the sight or smell of moth balls will instantly take me back to that closet.
I called my sister the other night to wish her a happy 56th birthday. She, too, remembers the closet with the bogeyman. Both of us spoke of how horrified we were when Mom would tell us to go down cellar and bring back some canned fruit for dessert. We knew that if the bogeyman didn’t reach through the open steps on the way down, he’d sure grab your ankle on the way back up.
We talked about the bedroom we had shared growing up; how the tree shadows on the wall moved during a windy, full-moon night. Surely the bogeyman was on the prowl again! Even in the morning daylight, going to the closet to pick out our dresses for school that day was terrifying. Why? Because the shadows weren’t on the wall anymore. Which meant that the bogeyman must now be hiding behind our hanging clothes, just waiting to grab us.
So upstairs was definitely not a safe place to be. Yet we all slept there, for 18 years. I have no memory of any nice dreams during my childhood; only gruesome nightmares, night after night. But downstairs was not much better. It mattered not which room. Bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining room, living room, front or back porch–all became torture chambers at one time or another.
There never seemed to be a “right” way of being or doing to please my mother, Leona. Whatever we put on our plates, for example, we were expected to eat. If our eyes were sometimes bigger than our stomachs, we could never throw any left-over food in the garbage pail.
“Just think about all the starving children in the world,” was the mantra.
If you didn’t eat everything on your plate, you were sent to bed now. Any food that remained would become your next meal. Guaranteed. No questions asked. And if you still couldn’t gag it down, it showed up for the next meal. And the next. Until it was eaten.
My mother’s rage was easily triggered. My sister and brother and I could be playing a great game of Monopoly or Sorry or Parcheesi, or old maid, dominoes, pickup sticks, or jacks. Somehow we’d get to quarreling. If Mom couldn’t scream us into minding, out came the stick. And if we were really bad, the game would end up in the furnace.
Yet we knew, through experience, that a new game would be under the next Christmas tree. Somewhere, way down deep, she had a soft spot.
I did finally win one small battle. Even though I grew up on a dairy farm, I couldn’t stand drinking a glass of plain white milk. Like the food on our plate, however, we were expected to drink all of it. Somehow. Well, one time I just couldn’t keep it down. No matter how hard I tried to swallow, that milk had a mind to come back up. And come back up it did–all over the kitchen table, all over the food, all over the floor. Never again was I asked to drink my milk!
Many times the three of us would fight over who got to stand on the heat register in the bathroom, or the one by the dining room wall. There were only two heat registers, and there were three of us. Outside it was thirty-five degrees below zero, the north wind was howling like a tornado, and we just wanted to get warm.
Scraps and fights ensued. Suddenly Mom would have enough of our bickering and out would come the stick or the switch on all of us. Closet, here we come. But at least we would have each other to hang onto during our frightful sobs. Three together felt much safer than being all alone with the bogeyman.
Perhaps it was during my long hours in the closet that I learned to stuff my feelings. I discovered that my body, through some miracle of healing, would eventually cause all the raised, tender welts to disappear. But I didn’t have a clue, back then, about how to heal the deeper wounds, or deal with all those awful feelings. So in order to survive emotionally, I started to compartmentalize. I became a master “stuffer.”
Much later in life, when some of these buried feelings would start to come up, I would hear people say, “Oh, grow up.” Or, “Why don’t you get over it?” But this well-meaning advice only added another layer to the already thick layers of stuffed feelings–anger, resentment, rage, hate, fear, guilt, shame, crushing powerlessness. And a feeling of unworthiness for which the dictionary has no adequate words.
There was never a time, growing up, when I was allowed to express my feelings. The rule was, “Just shut up!” And shut up I did.
I can also remember sitting in that dark closet, alone and terrified, trying to explain to God why I did what I did. I was as afraid of God as I was of Mom, especially with Him writing down all my bad stuff in His big book. That really scared me!
I made more darn promises in that closet. I promised that I would do better next time. Whatever Leona wanted, whenever she wanted it, however she wanted it, I’d do it. No questions asked. Like some programmed robot, I bought into all her beliefs and agendas and made them my own.
“One way or another,” I vowed, “I’ll prove my worthiness. With the help of God, I’ll try harder; I’ll work harder; I’ll work longer. Then she’ll love me.”
It wasn’t until years later, long after I’d become an adult, that I started to understand why I always ended up playing the all-too-familiar role of a workaholic people pleaser.
A Rainbow of Pain
Always tell the truth, we were told. Honesty is the best policy. Don’t even think of telling a fib, or a little white lie, because that little lie will require you to tell a bigger lie to cover the first, and on and on and on, until–Wham! You find yourself flying across the room again. Then the 3/4″ stick is pounding against your flesh, creating the most unbelievable swollen welts of black, blue, purple, yellow, and red. A walking rainbow of pain.
For years I listened to my mother’s thunderous roars of wrath about how God gave her the three worst kids in the world. “And since you’re the oldest,” Leona would add threateningly, “you should know better.”
If I tried to explain something, or raised a question, or made a comment, look out! Because that big strong hand of hers would slap so hard against your mouth that it would send your body hurtling across the room. Then, through my tears, I would hear her warning. “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!”
On one occasion, my mother had Dad’s belt in her hand. The flying belt buckle put a rainbow all around my right eye. Finally, with band-aids in place, I was taken off to a cousin’s birthday party. I was eleven at the time, and half the kids in my grade school were there. Believe me, Mom made sure that I told all the kids why I looked the way I did. I had to tell the “truth,” no matter how embarrassing, how humiliating it was.
And if my story didn’t satisfy her version of the truth, then when we got home, the willow switch might come out. That sucker stung worse than bees and left lots of tiny rainbows all over–on my face, neck, arms, back, and legs. Their precise location on my body depended on whether I resisted and tried to get away, or just stood in one spot and took it. Eventually, the beating would end.
One time (and one time only) my mother’s fanatical obsession with “telling the truth” was stepped up a notch. Because of some supposed lie, I got my mouth washed out with home-made lye soap. My God, the fire jumped out of the wood cook-stove and started roaring and burning and eating my lips and tongue and gums and throat. Then it stuck between my teeth and became still more fuel for the fire.
But even then I somehow believed that Mom must be right. I had done something wrong. Therefore I was bad. Therefore I deserved what I got. After all, wasn’t I one of the three worst kids in the world?!
After this ordeal with the lye soap, I knew that God was once again writing down one of my wrongs in His big book in the sky. I had to start telling the truth. I had to stop telling these lies. If I didn’t, God would have all the proof He needed and I would burn in hell for eternity, or be assigned to shovel coal to keep the hell-fire furnace going.
Eternity was unfathomable. How many years was eternity? How large was the furnace that I’d be stoking for that eternity? I knew how large the furnace in our cellar was — it took five to ten huge chunks of wood at each filling to keep that big old farm house warm. I couldn’t imagine how big the furnace of hell must be.
In Part Two (here), Marlene leaves home, gets married,
co-founds a community, and processes the death of her mother.