guest post by Maria V.*
CW: childhood trauma and abuse
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
I grew up in an abusive home with an interesting power dynamic. My family immigrated to the U.S. from Southeast Asia. My mother fought to become well-educated, and in a short period of time eclipsed my father’s status as the breadwinner of the family. Furthermore, because of my father’s poor grasp of the English language and lack of control over his temper, he had a hard time staying employed. This shift in financial power left my father feeling de-masculinized, and he took out his anger on the rest of his family in a feeble attempt to regain control. In addition to ethnic patriarchal structures already in place, there were also cultural and religious aspects that fed into the notion of my father needing to be in power and in control – and in my father’s mind this was to be done by any means necessary. My siblings and I endured physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at the hands of my father while simultaneously being taught at church that male authority figures are to be venerated and trusted. We were also taught that women are primarily responsible for taking care of children and being homemakers. I remember over-hearing one of my primary teachers at church whisper to another teacher, voice thick with disdain, that my mother was never available because she was working to support the family since my father wasn’t willing to. I remember feeling torn because I still felt loyal to my father despite hating the abuse – my family and I had immigrated together and we only had each other. I clung to familiarity over safety.
Apparently, my mother clung to familiarity over safety even more. I respected my mother for working so hard to keep a roof over our head and food on the table, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that she also contributed to the abuse. Out of self-preservation, my mother would often direct my father’s anger towards the children so she wouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the abuse. My siblings and I – we were the buffer between our mother and father butting heads. I hated her for doing this, but looking back I realize how over-worked and stretched thin (literally) she was with the stress of providing for the family and social-religious expectations to be the prototypical mother figure. There were moments when we quietly pled with her to leave our father, but the thought of breaking up our family terrified her, and in truth, it terrified us as well. I should add that despite my father being home more often, he refused to do housework because of unwavering cultural and religious beliefs regarding gender roles – he delegated the cooking, cleaning, and general household duties to my sister and me. If we didn’t get those chores done, or done well enough, we were punished. There was one instance where my sister played with our baby brother all day – we were in charge of taking care of him, but we didn’t know that playing with our baby brother all day without naps would make him cranky and fussy late at night. In the wee early hours of the morning, my father yanked my sister out of bed, cursed and hit her, and then told her to take care of our screaming baby brother. My sister soothed and rocked our baby brother until he quieted down, just in time for her to catch a few hours of sleep before catching the bus to school.
After moving around multiple times, my family and I ended up settling in a suburb in a more run-down part of town. Seeing police cars visit our neighborhood was a weekly occurrence, and our home was no exception to having law enforcement parked out front. All male members of my family have had the police called on them – my father’s violent temper perpetuated through my brothers’ sad efforts to model the only masculine behavior they knew. Interestingly, my father remains the most outwardly religious person in my family of origin – touting the virtues of living traditional family values, singing loudly and shaking hands firmly whenever he attends church, verbalizing his despair that some of his children aren’t as religious any more. (Never mind the nearly two decades of abuse associated with him being a religious zealot.) My father’s façade blew over just recently when my mother, at close to 60 years old, ran away from home. At that point, there were no children at home to act as a buffer, and the bishop at our church finally discovered the amount of abuse that went on between my parents. My sister, settled in a state far away with a family of her own, encouraged our mother to stay safe, even if that meant permanently separating from our father once and for all. I kept informed about these events at the time but chose not to completely participate – I was working on building a life of my own, physically, mentally, and emotionally far away from my parents. I ignored text messages and voice-mails from my father – detailing how my mother left him heartbroken and physically ill from stress, and from my mother – asking for financial help because she and my father had misused their credit cards. My brothers didn’t want anything to do with them, understandably. Eventually, and despite discouragement from several people, my mother decided to return home to my father after several weeks. Around that time, I dreamt that my siblings and I were children again – we were at our parents’ home, and we were faced with a never-ending mass of feces in the middle of the living room. In my dream, I felt that my parents were responsible for the feces, and my siblings and I were attempting to shovel it outside as they sat on the couch and watched. Somehow, my subconscious mind knew that even as adult children we were burdened with the responsibility of cleaning up after our parents’ shit, literally and figuratively.
Looking back, it’s a wonder that my siblings and I survived. The amount of religion we had shoved down our throats had an adverse effect on most of us – at some point we all blamed God for our hardships. Strangely enough, though, some of us secretly relied on God to get us through. For years, I quietly suffered from scrupulosity – guilt that I wasn’t doing enough to be loved by God, that I was being punished for not being good enough like my parents warned me about, and that God had abandoned me as a result. I remember spending hours pleading in prayer on calloused knees. When I served as a missionary for the Church, that scrupulosity reached a boiling point until one of my mission companions pointed out that it wasn’t normal. For some reason, it was while I was serving a mission that I started to accept some realizations that I kept in the back of my mind while growing up – that people at church, even general authorities, are just people. We’re all flawed. God can still love me even if I’m flawed. Abuse is never justified or okay. My father was most likely not worthy of the priesthood, even if he told us that he was using his authority for the good of the family. Prescribed gender roles can be harmful. LDS church culture, and some aspects of doctrine I don’t fully understand, can be painful. Afterwards, as I finished up my undergraduate degree at BYU, I realized that while I still believed in God, aspects of my faith had personally become unorthodox, and I was willing to accept that fact. I was also finally able to get past the stigma of seeking out mental health counseling, and it was then that I discovered how deep anxiety and depression ran in my family amongst other mental illnesses.
I don’t completely know what gave me, and my siblings, the resilience to keep pressing forward. It was hard enough coming from an immigrant family and facing the pressures of assimilation into American culture, not knowing how to navigate things like the school system, or, on a larger scale – discrimination, or cultural expectations from religious society (particularly as converts to the LDS faith.) We hid the abuse for a long time because we were too busy trying to figure out life and how to take care of ourselves. We didn’t even notice that we had begun to normalize the abuse until we were able to remove ourselves from the toxic environment, detox, and evaluate what really went on. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that despite having some bad experiences with some members of my religious community (including my parents), there have also been some positive role-models that I’m thankful for – strong women who have also survived abusive childhoods, church members who are immigrants and people of color who can empathize and understand the layers of complexity I’m coming from, fellow women of color who have wordlessly hugged me and cried with me with no need for explanation, and other people who don’t judge but seek to serve and uplift. I have seen examples that have made deep impressions on me from people who actually practice what they preach. This has been one of my sources of solace and strength. Opportunities for education have also nurtured me and helped me to become more resilient. I learned, and continue to learn about domestic violence, gender roles, race and culture, intersectional feminism, generational issues, and mental health. Knowledge, both secular and religious, has helped me and my siblings make informed decisions about our lives. Sometimes we experience cognitive dissonance, and sometimes we re-experience trauma from childhood triggered by various causes. But we keep trying. We work, we live, we take care of ourselves, and we try to take care of each other and those around us. One day at a time.
*Maria V. writes under a pseudonym to protect her family’s privacy. She finished a bachelor’s degree in psychology and women’s studies and is currently pursuing a master’s in mental health counseling.