Jessica Berger Gross | Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home | Scribner | July 2017 | 13 minutes (3,194 words)
For a good 20 years now, I’ve been working on various versions of a memoir. Some of what’s been taking me so long is that I’m conflicted about sharing certain parts of my family’s story, and my own.
Last year I managed to write and perform a fairly vague monologue about my home life in my teen years, during six of which my mother was married to her second husband, an angry, miserable human being. In the monologue, I rattled off some behavior of his that would easily be categorized as domestic violence, but which we, in our suburban middle class Jewish home, filed under under the more tidy, less shameful euphemism, “He has a temper.”
That’s what we called it when he threw a glass serving bowl filled with spaghetti at his son’s head, leaving him with a concussion; when he threw a wine glass at my mother and it shattered on the floor after bouncing off the side of her face. That’s what we called it when he dragged my thirteen-year-old sister down the stairs by her hair, when he gripped his hands around her throat and violently shook her, leaving marks. That’s what we called it when we sought refuge at my mother’s friend’s house; when my mother went back, begging his forgiveness for having left; when someone — probably my mother’s friend — anonymously called Child Protective Services, and a social worker showed up at our house.
“He has a temper.” That’s what we called it when he threw my ceramic piggy bank at me one evening while I was sitting on my bed, doing my homework. He burst into my room waving a legal pad with numbers scratched in pencil, fuming that I wasn’t willing to call my father and ask him to pay more in child support. I ducked just in time. The piggy bank hit the wall, smashing to pieces.
I told the story aloud at a Domestic Violence Awareness Month event, in the context of a 2014 TMI Project writing workshop I had co-led for women living in a domestic violence shelter in Poughkeepsie. Hearing the women share their stories struck a nerve in me. It unearthed truths and shame I’d forgotten I’d long ago buried — my shame, my mother’s, my family’s. It was almost unbearable, and I nearly quit the workshop. Somehow, though, I found the fortitude to not only stick with it, but to also tell my story to the participants. And not just the story about my step-father, but also the one about the occasionally violent boyfriend I once had a bad habit of going back to, again and again.
Letting them know that I had witnessed and experienced some degree of what they had was an instant ground-leveler. I stopped being the nice, middle-class-writing-instructor-lady with no problems coming to help them, and became one of them. They comforted me as I had been comforting them, and I was reminded of why it’s so important to overcome shame and tell the hard truth — how telling the hard truth is an important antidote to our own shame, and more broadly to the stigma associated with the things we attach shame to. It occurred to me that it’s unfair to tuck these kinds of secrets behind facades of exceptionalism and superiority, and that maybe we have an obligation to others to be more forthcoming. It starts with the painful task of being honest with ourselves, when no one around us really wants us to be.
In certain communities, we’re raised to believe we’re immune to particular experiences and behaviors, that we’re above them. That domestic violence, for instance, is low-class. That it’s just not something us middle class suburban Jews on Long Island engage in. That he’s not an abuser — he has a temper.
But it’s not true, and author Jessica Berger Gross is here to back me up on that. In her moving, fearless memoir, Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home, she tells the story of growing up in a middle class suburban Jewish home on Long Island just about a 10-minute drive from my own — one where her father was violent, and her mother was his silent enabler. And she tells the story of bravely deciding, at 28, to preserve her wellbeing and sanity by cutting her parents and her brothers out of her life.
I so admire her courage in revealing all the ugly truth of her upbringing, while being fair, and not casting her parents as monsters. And I appreciate her standing up and dispelling the insidious myth that domestic violence doesn’t occur in the nice houses in the nice neighborhoods.
What follows is an excerpt. — Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor
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My father said I was the one who started things. That what happened, that what he did to me, was my fault. He and my mother said I was fresh, a back-talker. I was too loud, too opinionated, and too smart for my own good. I was too messy. My brothers nicknamed me Messy Jessie. I was messy, just like I was argumentative and full of opinions. So some days I tried to go against my nature. I tried to be quiet. I tried to be a good girl. If only I could say or do the exact right thing, if only I could make myself ever so slightly disappear.
But I couldn’t control my father’s moods, and I never knew when a good day would take a dangerous turn. The best I could do was look for clues to his emotional state, warning signs that signaled trouble. I learned to fear his white V-neck undershirt and oldest paint-splattered jeans, the open can of Budweiser, the smells of turpentine and grease as he worked around the house or under one of the family cars, and the heavy-duty cream he kept by the sink to get the dirt off his hands and out from under his fingernails. Bills spread on the kitchen table. Frustrations at work. An argument with my mother.
And on the worst days, the salt and pepper shakers or shoe or phone thrown at me from across the room, the fists and terrible words. I was a selfish bitch. I was spoiled rotten. I was asking for it.
I couldn’t control my father’s moods, and I never knew when a good day would take a dangerous turn. The best I could do was look for clues to his emotional state, warning signs that signaled trouble.
My first memory. I must have been three or four. I remember my father chasing after me. His flat palm made contact with my small pale back. I can still picture myself running from him, pulling up my nightgown, and turning my head over one shoulder, straining to see myself in the hallway mirror. A moment later he was gone, fled down the stairs, but the pink mark of his hand remained.
My parents believed in corporal punishment. My father rolled up a newspaper to threaten the dog for peeing inside the house, and sometimes followed through with a whack. When I was very young, I was given the occasional spanking. My father would sit on a kitchen chair and put me over his lap, pulling down my ruffled underwear to reveal the peach moons of my buttocks. And then came the measured number of hand slaps to what my mother, who was watching, called my tushie.
This was different. When my father turned mean, he lost control. His face changed color. Red angry screams. I ran and hid in my mother’s closet. I curled up into a ball. I peered out through the rows of my mother’s silky dresses and scratchy slacks, checking to see whether it was safe to come out.
I hated having him mad at me. I hated being bad. I remember one of those days when, as a sort of psychology experiment, I decided to do everything, be everything, he could possibly want; to be perfect. I’d finish all the chores he asked me to do and then some. I’d bring him salted peanuts and shut up already on the couch. I pretended we were in the army and he was my drill sergeant and I was a new recruit in basic training. I practically called him sir.
He exploded anyway. I knew what was coming.
His rage was a runaway train. I had to decide whether to let him have me right away, or try to escape and chance angering him further. I decided to risk it and run. But he chased me to the stairs and trapped me so that my back was against the stairwell wall. My breath caught. I covered my face with my arms.
Please don’t hurt me.
There was nobody I could ask for help. So I asked him, the most powerful person I knew.
Please, no, I said. Please. No!
He raised his right arm. I didn’t know how hard the impact would be or how much it would hurt this time. But I knew his hands. They were dry and rough and meaty. I was afraid I would break and shatter when he put them on me.
I braced for what came next. My body hardened, my muscles tensed and tightened, even as my mind shut down.
Then it was over. He was spent, and there’d be no more yelling or hitting. Afterward it was still and quiet. Like a heavy blanket of snow falling in the predawn while the neighborhood sleeps. Because afterward, when he was ashamed, he would never bother me.
My father would sit on a kitchen chair and put me over his lap, pulling down my ruffled underwear to reveal the peach moons of my buttocks. And then came the measured number of hand slaps.
Occasionally I went and found my mother propped up on pillows in their bedroom, grading a stack of papers. She wore a satiny bathrobe and had tortoiseshell combs pushing back the feathery wings of her brown hair, and slept under a sunflower-gold comforter. There was no need to explain. She couldn’t change him, but scratching my back with her long oval nails, she’d read to me. Other times she was nowhere to be found. And so I’d take refuge in my room. I’d shut the door and wrap my arms around my body, hugging my knees to my chest and comforting myself in bed with my books and stuffed animals.
My father’s words hurt even worse than the hitting, because words lasted long after the marks faded. They lasted forever.
Bitch. Which meant I was a bad girl, the worst girl. JAP. Which meant I was a spoiled brat. Cunt. I didn’t know what that one meant, only that it was the C-word and had to do with my vagina and made me feel dirty. I was a stupid piece of shit, he told me. I was rude, inconsiderate, selfish, self-centered. I was a liar.
On those very worst days, my mother had her share of cruel words for me, too. I was a naughty girl. I always thought I was right. I never listened. She said I’d been cruising for a bruising. She said I was too much trouble. More trouble than I was worth. Good for nothing. My mother didn’t hit me, but she didn’t know how to protect me, either. Instead, she warned me. You have it coming.
Or she wouldn’t say anything, and that was supposed to be sympathy, but it was nothing close to enough.
The summer before I was to start second grade, we moved. Rockville Centre was the kind of place some people never left, and never wanted to. We were a town of volunteer firefighters, Ash Wednesday observers, Little League teams, and shared bedrooms. In the center of town was the Long Island Rail Road station—thirty-eight or forty-two minutes to Manhattan, depending on the train. The Golden Reef Diner and St. Agnes Cathedral. Not to mention the Fantasy movie theater and Hunan Wok with $4.95 lunch specials and a Woolworth’s that sold nail polish and greeting cards. Close to town were a small housing project and some low-rise apartment buildings. From there, neighborhoods of houses ringed out from the town center. Residents of the inner core were solidly middle and working class—policemen and teachers and insurance agents and nurses. In the larger, more expensive homes on the wealthier side of town, fathers were small-business owners and lawyers and the occasional doctor or dentist. Rich parents were in banking. Our neighborhood was right in the middle. Nice houses but close together. The restricted country club with a golf course that didn’t let in African-American or Jewish families (other than a rumored one or two) was down the street from my house.
Some mothers worked, but some didn’t, and their kids got to go home for lunch during the school day. After staying home with my brothers and me, my mother had been working part-time as a reading specialist since I was two, but now she was teaching study skills as part of a high school English department, and she hoped to be assigned regular English classes down the line. She subscribed to Ms. and Working Mother. At the supermarket checkout counter, she’d grab Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal, too. (When I was old enough to decipher it, I’d pore over the LHJ “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” column, not knowing whether to pray for my parents to stay together or break up.) Some semesters she’d take an education course at a local college and be gone one or two evenings a week. At the start of a term, she collated reading packets on the dining room table. She had a closet full of teacher clothes—skirts with forgiving elastic waistbands and matching tops, culottes and wrap dresses, and the occasional pair of dungarees for Fridays. Lots of Liz Claiborne. Underneath she wore padded and pointy B-cup bras, and underpants that came almost as high as her belly button, covering the swell of her tummy. Twice a year she bought a new pocketbook. She collected “ethnic” jewelry.
My father’s words hurt even worse than the hitting, because words lasted long after the marks faded. They lasted forever.
As a full-time working mom, she didn’t usually have the time or energy for spaghetti and meatballs or taco night or breaded chicken cutlets or hot dogs or hamburgers with frozen french fries or frozen string beans or peas on the side, like she used to. It became easier to boil water for pasta shells and leave an open can of tomato sauce on the counter. (I hated meat, anyway.) She went to Weight Watchers meetings and ate turkey burgers without the bun and frozen yogurt for dessert. She hardly ever drank. She read contemporary fiction, favoring women writers, and had a paperback copy of Dianetics. She tried to remember to say sugar instead of shit. She wasn’t affectionate or touchy-feely, though she did like it when I gave her foot massages, and sometimes she’d scratch letters into my back and let me guess them. Her skin was smooth. Her nose was ruler-straight. She dyed her hair in the sink and hung her control-top panty hose over the towel rack. She was thirty-six.
Weekday mornings, while he listened to Don Imus on the radio, my father got out the cereal, Cap’n Crunch or Frosted Flakes or Raisin Bran, and if my mother didn’t have time for my braids or barrettes, he did my hair himself. Mark took the bus or rode his bike to middle school. Josh and I walked, or got a ride from our father when the weather was bad. We were on our own in the afternoons until our mother came home. When I was old enough, I’d wear a house key on a loop around my neck and let myself in. For now, my brothers were in charge. Josh, who was in fifth grade, walked me home from school, and afterward he and Mark, who was in seventh, took absentminded care of me, heating us up Ellio’s pizza in the toaster oven before running off with their friends to play catch or basketball in the driveway, or Ping-Pong in the basement, or, later on, poker in their bedroom.
In Ms. Doctor’s second-grade class at Wilson Elementary, I was the new kid, and I wasn’t sporty and preppy like the Waspy girls, or freckled and spunky like the Catholic girls, or doted on and indulged like some of the other Jewish children. I was growing out a Dorothy Hamill haircut, and my unruly hair would never fall straight past my shoulders. Plus, I’d become chubby. Pleasantly plump, my father said. A cute, mean boy named Mike called me “Bubble Burger” and got some of the other boys to call me that, too. Dave G. broke my pencil right in the middle of class, and my teacher said it was because he had a crush on me, but even though he had red hair and glasses, I knew that couldn’t be true. A boy named Val wouldn’t stop calling me names.
I told my parents, who told Josh to teach Val a lesson. It happened on the way home from school, right where kids and the crossing guard could see. Val started taunting me, and Josh told him to shut up. When he wouldn’t, my brother punched him. Val was tough, but only for a second-grader. Josh was older. Self-defense, my mother called it. My parents were certain we’d done the right thing, even though my mom could get in trouble because she taught in the same school district. You had to stick up for yourself. You couldn’t go like a lamb to the slaughter.
Josh was my hero, my mother said when my brother returned from school with blood on his shirt and a note from the principal. “Thank your brother!” she instructed me.
But at least my parents were home each night, packing lunches and making sure we had clean laundry and school supplies. My father chaperoned my class field trips (the only dad who did), and when I was younger, he gave me piggyback rides high up on his shoulders. If I needed something xeroxed for class, I left it on top of his briefcase. He sat on the couch with his sewing kit during 60 Minutes and stitched up the loose neck of my stuffed Sherlock Holmes dog, pretending he was a dog doctor. When I was sick, he moved a television into my room. In the summers, he put an air conditioner in my bedroom window and let me blast it, even though it was expensive to run.
He took me to a dance store to buy ballet slippers, and we left with a pink pair that fit just right, and a wisp of a dance skirt in black, and two leotards. One time my father let my brothers and me come to his office on a school holiday, and I ran and slipped in my rain boots. Blood poured everywhere. Fuck, he said, racing me to the car and carrying me in his arms like a baby. The emergency room doctor said I needed a dozen stitches on my forehead, right below where my scalp met my hairline. My father held me down and whispered reassurances into my ear as the doctor sewed me up.
My mother never spoke of the violence in our house, which made me think I might be crazy. Though some days I found her sitting on the toilet in her bathroom upstairs, crying, with fistfuls of wadded-up toilet paper.
Of course, I never talked about it with my father. I’d never dare.
A day or two after hurting me, my father would approach me with a wordless apology. He’d bring home Chinese takeout for dinner. My mother got her favorite egg rolls. He’d ladle extra wontons into my soup. We’d eat our chow mein. And fried rice, too—a splurge, since white rice came free with the meal. He’d caress my cheek with the back of his hand.
You’re my favorite, he’d whisper.
I turned to him like a dying plant turns to sunshine.
You’re the apple of my eye. You’re my sheyne meydele.
And so afterward, when it was all over, we pretended nothing had happened. We went back to normal. I pushed down my fear. I acted like I was fine. I sat in synagogue wearing a drop-waist Gunne Sax dress. I worked on my poetry report. I studied the words on my spelling list and let my mother quiz me on them. My father made my mother a dinner salad with boiled eggs and baby potatoes and lots of oil and vinegar and garlic powder. On Sunday mornings he cooked up home fries and omelets or chocolate-chip pancakes. He told me I was smart and special.
My mother never spoke of the violence in our house, which made me think I might be crazy. Though some days, after she came home from her new job, I found her sitting on the toilet in her bathroom upstairs, crying, with fistfuls of wadded-up toilet paper. I didn’t ask why. Other times she was sick or had a crushing headache or felt faint and hypoglycemic and would call in for a sub and spend the day in bed, and we weren’t to disturb her. Maybe she hated herself for not being brave enough to leave him. Maybe she thought he would change. But for the most part she was stoic and stony and seemed resigned to her life.
Once, when I was five, our parents saved up and found cheap tickets and took my brothers and me on a dreamlike trip to Spain and Portugal. We visited castles and climbed up winding stone staircases through ancient turrets. During breakfasts on the patio at small family inns, my brothers and I ran and played on the grass while our parents drank their café con leche, and we ate dinners together at outdoor restaurants as the sun set, way past our bedtimes. At a bullfight, I made my family walk out because I couldn’t stand to watch the gore, to hear the crowd cheering as the matador pushed his sticks into the bull. One afternoon my mother lingered in a shop in Madrid and bought two embroidered silk shawls and delicate lace-trimmed fans, one for her and one for me. Even though my father got pissed off when he couldn’t find his way around the city, and screamed at my mother when we almost missed our ferry in Portugal, that shawl and fan became for me treasured totems, representing all my family could be.
Proof that I wasn’t crazy or making all the bad things up were the planets of black and blue up and down my arms and legs and across my back. My father marked my body. He stamped me. A few times he even made me bleed, but never enough that I needed to go to the doctor. He never gave me a black eye or a broken bone, nothing that would alarm my mother’s teacher friends and make them call child welfare services. The bright imprint of his slaps on my cheeks always burned off by the time I was ready to go to school the next day. It’s possible no adult ever noticed anything.
My parents said I bruised easily. They said I was clumsy. And it was true that I bumped into edges and angles of household furniture that others might maneuver with a thoughtless grace. I was anxious in that house. When I knocked into something, a reminder of the accident would almost instantly appear on my pale skin. Too sensitive, my parents said.
Small things worried me. My mother asked me how many times a day I changed my underpants. Once, I answered, having never thought about this question. She said I should be changing twice at a minimum, in the morning and at night. Sometimes she changed hers in the afternoon, too, she told me. She was only trying to teach me things, but I felt stupid and dirty. It was difficult for me to have a sense of proportion.
There were times when I was happy. Roller-skating to a good song at Hot Skates. Riding my bike. Pumping myself high on the swings at the elementary school playground. I made wishes. On the way home from school, I sang “Maybe” from Annie to myself. I jumped on certain crispy leaves and wouldn’t step on sidewalk cracks. I hoped things would change.
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Excerpted from Estranged: Leaving Family & Finding Home, by Jessica Berger Gross. Copyright © 2017 by Jessica Berger Gross. With permission of the publisher, Scribner. All rights reserved.