You can find Parts I, II and III here.
And so we drove away from the house. I was headed back to college after winter break, and didn’t know that I would never sleep in my old room again. Something big had happened, yes, but I had no solid reason to believe I wasn’t coming back, that I was leaving for good. It wasn’t the first time that things seemed like they had to change, and never did. Why should this time be any different?
Let’s go back to two nights before.
In our house, we said grace before every meal, and before the prayer my brother and I couldn’t stop laughing about something. Of course, it only got worse during the prayer. When one of us got it under control, the other one would lose it. (If you’ve ever tried to stop laughing in the middle of a prayer or church, you know it’s damn near impossible.)
My stepmother, Sue,* cut her prayer short, and in one motion jumped up from the table, grabbed my brother by the upper arm and by his hair and pulled him up out of his chair. She dug her fingers deep into his arm and yanked back his head. She spat words that I can’t remember now.
But I remember what I said and what I did.
Across the table from them, I stood up. My whole body shook with the pulse of adrenalin, but I didn’t yell. I hissed.
“Stop it. Let him go. That is not how you should handle things.”
Not eloquent. But those sentences held the force of all the years, of all the pain. It was a moment that took every bit of sixteen years to construct (the number of years my father had been married to her). And the truth is, others have done far braver and harder things to face an abuser. But it was the first time I had ever stood up to her. And by then, I had begun to measure the abyss between what happened in our house and how the rest of the world might see it, the distance between what I had always known and what could be.
She twisted toward me with my brother still in her grip, her eyes narrowed in fury. In hate. But then, with a shove, she let him go.
For the next two days, she ignored me except to snipe “bitch” when I passed by a room where she was. And you know what? I was proud to hear it. Something between us had shifted. The result was seismic, and it changed everything.
When it was time to return to school, she drove me away from that house, to Kansas City where I would meet up with the (lovely, kind) people I lived with at school to ride with them the rest of the way back to Nebraska.
The three hour drive to Kansas City was quiet, except for necessary words, few and flat. Sue didn’t look at me.
The next time I spoke with her, on the phone, she told me I was no longer welcome at home. I was shaken but not exactly heartbroken.
In the next few months, the marriage finally broke apart, in part because of what happened when I was home. The next year at winter break, my sister and I testified in court to help my father get custody of my brother, who was almost 17 by then. Without meaning to, I had left him behind, with a row of fresh bruises and broken skin on his arm where her fingers left their mark. My father was awarded custody, but my brother spent only a few months with him before deciding he wanted to move back home, his decision aided by Sue’s threats to disown him if he did not.
Every time I get within two miles of the house where I grew up, a knot forms in my stomach. I expect that will always be so.
Like a tornado, the past has a way of picking up a person and setting her down in a completely different place. A couple of days ago, Sue’s name appeared on Facebook on my list of People You May Loathe Know. It was a shock. One of Sue’s nieces made the connection with her on the site. My first instinct was to block Sue from being able to see my name or profile, but then my sister said, “I’m not hiding from her.” And I knew I felt the same way.
Writing here about these things has allowed me to release the last of the their power to hurt me. I can’t separate myself from what happened, not entirely, but I have learned to unclench my fists and to let the seeds of anger (I held on for so long) drift away on the wind, to somewhere far from me. Some things, I believe, cannot be forgiven, so this is what I do.
I doubt anything will come of this new development, courtesy of social media. But if it does? Well, let her look around. Let her read here.
Sue never had to feel the force of the justice she deserved, and in any of these stories, I haven’t even told the worst of what she did. It’s not my story to tell. But let her find this indictment.
Let her know that she is judged.