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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holidays and Family

In some sense we are all the proverbial "alien who just arrived from Mars."

I am, for example, totally allergic to football. If I were dragged to a football game, I would have no idea what was going on.

Scrolling through my Facebook friends' posts about the holidays with families, I am the alien just arrived from Mars.

Parents express affection for children, grandparents express affection for grandchildren, aunts and uncles express affection for nieces and nephews, nieces and nephews express affection for aunts and uncles: all utterly alien.

Child abuse isn't something you are supposed to talk about. Mention of it makes luckier people uncomfortable. They don't want to be exposed to your suffering.

The primary abuser was my mother. I was beaten, insulted, malnourished, not well groomed, sexually assaulted, and gossiped about. She occasionally threatened to kill me, and if we lived in a society where parents could kill their children, I think she would have.

Though I am Catholic and am personally horrified by abortion, I am pro-choice. If I could turn back the hands of time, yes. Yes. YES I would have given my mother that choice.

You, dear reader, are not superior to my mother. Getting a warm sense of your own superiority is not the payoff you or anyone else receives from reading my story.

One of the challenges I have faced since I was old enough to think is this: people can do unspeakable things and be fundamentally no better and no worse than anyone else.

My mother was brilliant. She was an incredibly talented, natural writer. I have never met anyone who worked harder than she did. When I was a child, she often had two, fulltime jobs. A Slovak immigrant, she was shafted by the American Dream and she had had to leave school to support her own brothers and sisters when she was only a young teen; her father had emphysema from the coal mines.

She did manual labor: cleaning houses, working in a candle factory. Denied birth control by her church and the peasant custom she was born into, she was pregnant nine times; at least two of those pregnancies were medically dangerous. She had to have surgery when she was five months pregnant with me, and the doctor told her that either she or I would die.

Around the time I was born, my father was alleged to be overindulging in alcohol and rubbing shoulders with organized criminals. I say "alleged" because I never saw any of this; my father found AA and never touched alcohol by the time I was conscious, and the Mafia's threats on my and my siblings' lives were hearsay.

Add, subtract, divide and multiply these facts until you realize what I did, the complicated mathematics that made me realize that Jesus had it right: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

I was an abused kid. I'm not talking about my mother when I say that. I'm talking about me, my own life. More about my life: I thought that my mother was the abuser, and when she died, I thought that the abuse was over.

Not. So. Fast.

It takes a village to destroy a child, and that village included my family.

My pale skin used to blossom with dramatic bruises. The children at St. Francis School would line up to view my bruises. The nuns, not exactly models of tenderness (they beat me, too) asked about these bruises. I made up a self-incriminating story to protect my mother: "I fall down a lot, sister."

My hair was unkempt. I can see this in old photos. I wore clothing that was obviously hand-me-downs and ill fitting.

My mother had many siblings, as did my father. We saw them often.

No one ever said a word.

When my grandfather died, there was no dress for me to wear to his funeral. My older sister found a brown polyester jumper, a repulsively ugly garment, a size too large. She and I walked into the funeral home where my grandfather's body was laid out. My mother yanked me aside. "You look so ugly. So fat and ugly. Don't you realize what a disgrace you are? You are shaming me in front of my family."

Nobody saw that – though it occurred in a room full of relatives. Nobody heard it, though it occurred in a silent funeral parlor. Nobody intervened. Ever.

That was training. Every person in that room was being trained: Diane is garbage. We see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil when her mother beats or humiliates or gossips about Diane. Because Diane is garbage.

Complicit. I think they passed that complicity down through the generations.

My senior year of college I was beaten and sexual assaulted in a way that I found unendurable, so I ran out of the house with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, and I wasn't even wearing socks. I write more about that here. My brother, Michael Goska, got married that year. I was not invited to the wedding. In fact none of my siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles has ever invited me to his or her wedding. 

My brother Mike fathered two children, Donald and Lydia, and then he died. Before he died he was quite ill and his family was in need of funds. I sent his wife ten percent of my entire bank account, a few hundred dollars, which was a lot of money for me at that time.

I "met" Donald when he was a baby. I have never met Lydia. I have written to both of them, and I receive no reply. I sent Lydia a Facebook friend request. No reply. I wonder if this isn't generational hate: "We've always ignored Diane, like on that day she showed up for her grandfather's funeral in the ugly, brown, polyester jumper and her mother screamed at her and we all ignored it; there is no reason to break precedent now." I don't know.

Right before I left for graduate school my sister threw a party for my mother's birthday. I was nervous; I am afraid of the people I am related to. I never know what they will do. But I wanted so very badly to go. I love my family.

My parents spoke Polish and Slovak. The sounds of those languages are delicious to me. I love the music. I loved it when, at family gatherings, Aunt Tetka and Uncle Strecko would start singing a folksong with one hundred verses. I love the taste of poppy seed cake. I love the stories. My family are all spectacularly good looking, movie star quality. Tall, slim and muscular. Athletes, cops, soldiers, workers, and criminals. Clear, pale skin. Beautiful, shiny hair. Brilliant eyes of mermaid blues and glacier greens.

I have such fond memories of playing with my cousins. Séances, walks in the woods after Thanksgiving dinner, swimming down the shore, inviting supernatural encounters in the haunted house that belonged to my aunt's father-in-law, driving past a mountain that glowed in the coalmining Pennsylvania town where they landed after arrival in America.

I wanted to go to this party.

I sought an appropriate dress, always a fraught experience for an eyesore like me. I begged a former student to give me a ride to my sister's house, off the beaten path of public transport or even easy hitchhiking.

We drove up to the driveway and noticed that there were no other cars.

My sister's husband walked out of the house and said, "Ha, ha, ha. The party was yesterday."

We left.

My sister would later insist that she had not purposely given me the wrong date.

I had been in my apartment the entire day before, cleaning before leaving for grad school. My phone never rang once. Everyone I am related to on my mother's side, aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, all my living siblings, was there for the family reunion to honor my mother's birthday, and it never occurred to a single person there to inquire as to why I was not there, or to phone me. I've asked. They told me. No, none of us phoned.

I went to grad school. I got a PhD. No one I am related to ever said "Congratulations." I eventually published my dissertation and it became a prize-winning book, which I dedicated to someone I am related to. This person never mentioned the dedication.

Recently I had a tough few years. I was evacuated from one hurricane during which the Passaic River entered my building. I stayed with a coworker. There was dramatic film footage on national news of the river's rampages in my city (example here). No one I am related to asked about me. I broke my arm and then received a cancer diagnosis. Coworkers, my boss, a couple of friends, and virtual strangers from Facebook drove me to and from medical appointments and brought me food. Someone I am related to said to me, "We talked about it, and we decided that you do not deserve our help."

I have a Facebook friend, Karla. She regularly reads my writing and comments on it. She holds my hand when I whine. She shares newspaper clippings and videos with me about subjects that interest me, from God and atheism to birds. Karla doesn't know this, but every time she is kind to me, patient with me, every time she encourages me or even pays attention to me, she shocks me and warms me. I am so grateful to Karla.

Which is one of the many reasons it always amazes me when I see cousins express affection for cousins on Facebook, or grandparents express affection for grandchildren on Facebook, or people say "I feel sad because my aunt / uncle / cousin / grandfather just died."

I am the proverbial alien who just arrived from Mars.

There's this guy, I call him Lestat, who has been in and out of my life, mostly out, for decades. He's the guy who, when I first met him, was brilliant, attentive, flattering, and charming. Everyone said, "Oh, this is so great; here's a man who can really love you; you are soulmates."

Then Lestat would do weird, ugly things and everyone said, "Oh, he's a victim of satanic possession; dump him. Forget him."

I don't think Lestat is a victim of satanic possession. I'm reading a book called Stop Walking on Eggshells about something called borderline personality disorder. I think Lestat may suffer from that. I'm not a shrink so I can't say.

I kept Lestat in my life much longer than people thought wholesome. Lestat was abused as a kid. He sees the world I see. When I talk to Lestat, I am no longer the proverbial alien who just arrived from Mars. I am among my own kind.

I wonder about my family. I used to think it was all because my mother's life had been so hard. But I met other immigrants, even concentration camp survivors, who didn't torment their own kids. My beloved Uncle John killed someone. (More about Uncle John here.) Is our coldness genetic?

I wonder how many families there are where indifference, if not abuse, is the order of the day. Grandparents who, like my grandparents, really could not care less about their grandchildren. Cousins who have no idea of their cousins' names. Children, like my brother Mike's grandchildren, who don't know that they have an aunt out there somewhere who wonders what they look like.

I guess I'll never know, because this is stuff you are not supposed to talk about.

In 24 hours, the holiday season will be over, and I can finally say "Happy Holidays." 


  1. Happy Holidays at last Danusha. I have been mulling over what to say about this post. I am so sorry you endured that treatment. You, it seems, were the family scapegoat. How cruel. You wondered about family indifference and I think it is more common than we will ever know. To a degree that was my family. I have nieces and nephews with children who are never in touch. They were tainted by a sister-in-law, their mother, who felt it her duty to demonize my brother's family. They're surely old enough to see through her but I guess it's easier to go along and get along. At this point my family is gone, brothers and parents have passed away and I suppose I am as indifferent to their wives and offspring as they are to me. The difference is I don't make up stories about their wickedness. Oh well.

    And as for that genetic coldness... that's a human family thing isn't it? We need that to survive and it waits just below the surface just in case..

    I enjoy your posts enormously.

    1. Gemma thank you and bless you.

      Writing posts like this rips my guts out. I do it because I am a writer and this is what writers do. I write about everything, from soup to nuts. These posts are the hardest.

      I feel that you *hear* me. That's very gratifying to me.

      Thank you. Bless you.

  2. Dear Danusha: It is sad not only that you were abused as a child, but that the whole family was complicit. I may not be qualified to give advice, but.... here it is.

    Whatever you may want of your family you must seek elsewhere. No matter how hard you try, how you seek to make contact, they will do their best to avoid realizing what they did to you.

    We have a Spanish saying. "No hay que pedir peras al olmo" Translation. "Don't go ask elms for pears"

    (There is similar Spanish lyric "A la mar fui por naranjas/cosa que la mar no tiene/me dejaron mojadita/las olas que van in vienen" "I went to the sea for oranges/ something that the sea does not have/ the waves that come and go/left me soaked.")

    You have friends, and your own litle community. Embrace them. Those are pear trees.

    As for Christmas, take a leaf from the Jews, and go with a friend to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate.

    You can forgive your family, but you should nt allow them to hurt you again, for many people translate "forgiveness" for "permission to do it again"