Years ago Charles Darwin mulled over a theory of evolution by natural selection – the
idea that species evolve or disappear in response to natural selection, so that only the fittest survive. I read these words in a book about Archaeology, one of my many interests. But as normally happens in my reading (I have the odd habit of reading between 15 and 20 books at a time) it started whirling around in my brain as I thought about survival. I remembered the first time I experienced fear, the night my father first raped me when I was 13 years of age. I remembered screaming and screaming for help until my mother, shrugging off the deep sleep she always fell into, came to place her arms around me and repeated over and over, “You had a nightmare; it was only a nightmare. Go back to sleep”. I remembered 5 years later when I worked up the courage to say to my parents, (who kept me like a prisoner, no friends allowed, no makeup, no dating, reading only the books they approved, working on weekends to clean neighbors houses while my parents pocketed the money, working at a job they chose for me and making me turn my paychecks over to them), “If you don’t stop treating me like this I will lose all the love and respect I have for you”. You were never allowed to speak back to your parents in our house. Ours was a patriarchal family, one where my mother’s primary rule in speaking of my father was, “Even when he was wrong he was right.”
My body taut, my nerves shaking, my courage only a fledgling thing, I waited to see what their response would be. My mother’s cold rage was painted on her face as she said in a tight voice,”Get the belt, Bernie, get the belt.”
“They don’t care what happens to us,” my younger sister said. For that she earned a sharp slap across the face from my mother. My father returned with the belt and began beating me. I held up my hands to protect my face as the blows kept coming each one harsher than the previous. Now I was on the ground and the lashings kept coming and coming. I heard my 19 year old brother as he rushed into the room, “Stop it Dad. You’re killing her.” He grabbed the belt from my father’s hands. My father slugged him, knocking him out cold. As my brother hit the wall and slipped to the floor my father turned back to me and continued beating. I passed out. A week later, while my parents were grocery shopping, I stuffed everything I could into a pillow sack and ran. Where did I get the courage?
I had built it up little by little; by constantly diving off the high board when I was terrified of heights; by climbing the tallest tree I could find, by stealing a book about Adam and Eve from the library at the Catholic School I attended after being warned no one was to touch that book or they would be punished, by going to the cemetery outside of town in the middle of the night at a full moon to hear ghost stories told by the leader of a club I belonged to, by refusing to return to California when I was staying after high school graduation with a dear friend in Nebraska as I helped her with her large brood of little ones. I had been told I could only stay the summer. It had now been 5 months. Finally, my mother had called and said my father was getting ready to get on a plane with handcuffs and was going to bring me back himself.
Only the fittest survive. Without ever hearing that phrase, without ever reading a book about evolution I somehow always gravitated to the choice that was the hardest. Each time I grew stronger. Years later I heard a friends say you can always tell who has strong character and who has weak character. Watch them make their choices in life. He who chooses the difficult path will have the strongest character.
Today I look back on my life. I think of the time my drunken husband chased me down
the street in the middle of the night, a shotgun in his hands, intent on killing me. Where did I get the courage? I thought of being a single mother of four with no child support and only my wits to support us. Where did I get the courage? I thought of day after day of telephone death threats by a husband who was going to get me back at any cost. I remembered police coming to my work every day, searching the grounds, then following me to my car and to my home only to do it all in reverse the next morning. I finally had him thrown in jail for non payment of child support. I thought of my second husband who wanted a divorce telling me that if I tried to get my half of a business we had built up together over many years he would hire someone to testify in court that I was a prostitute doing my business in front of my children. He knew that meant my children (from my first marriage) would be taken away from me. I knew he would do it. His Bible was a book he kept on his desk called “Winning Through Intimidation.” I signed everything over to him and started my life over. Today I would be a multi-millionaire but I would have lost my children. Where did I get the courage?
Webster says “fittest” means “adaptable to the environment so as to be capable of surviving”. We are all stronger than we think. We build on each act of courage. Today, I thank God that while married to my third abuser, suicidal, filled with despair and living part time in a women’s shelter I began a program of recovery. Every step I took, every hardship I endured, the flood of memories, going back in time to validate it all, working a Twelve Step program, writing a book about what had happened, and then towards the end going into that bedroom in Nebraska where my tormented life began in the middle of the night as I slept with a rosary under my pillow to face the demons, to empower myself.And then coming home, getting rid of my abuser, getting a restraining order against him and going through the grieving of a lost love. Where did I get the courage?
By going inside of me……for there lay a truth, my inner voices that said, only
the fittest survive.