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Seeking Out Stars
written by: Keith Hoerner
In grade school, we kids were instructed to seek out stars in the windows of houses for a safe haven upon the threat of stranger danger. Already traumatized, I remember ducking behind trees at the sound of each and every car on my scamper home, scanning for stars, the security of stars. I saw a few and fantasized about rushing up to the peaceful assurances they offered: a welcome home, an inquiry of my day, a tussle of the hair as we cajoled over a snack. Though, with head hung, I knew I would have to make the trek to my real house, where the windows had no stars and where a stranger waited for me: called Mom.
This tiny, ironic anecdote is the baseline for the story of our lives, if you are a survivor of childhood physical, sexual, or mental abuse.
Today, at whatever age, the survivalist in us secures our refuge on a daily basis, even while that safe haven stands (door wide open) held by the likes of spouses and other loving and understanding family/friends. They are our stars, waving to us to rush forward as the boy/girl moves the man/woman to hurry in. Such is our reality, our shared truth. Because, despite their best efforts, we find ourselves traversing insidious landscapes in the shadows of each hour, both real and imagined, as a byproduct of years of suffering at the misaligned willfulness of another. Our aggressor(s) either did not fully understand – or, frankly, give a damn – that we would carry the imprint of his or her hate, his or her hands on our physical selves, as well as embedded on our crippled hearts and psyches our entire lives. Recent studies have even shown that abuse such as this changes the very makeup of our DNA!
What has not changed is the fact that to get a true picture of the number of children abused in America, you must only imagine hearing your phone ring every 15 seconds. That’s right. Ring. Ring. RING. RING. RING! It would be frequent, unending, and unnerving to a point that the masses might finally sit up and take action.
If you are not one of us, this writing is as much a plea for those who suspect child abuse to take tangible steps and make the ringing stop. Too many people subscribe to social psychology’s Bystander Effect and its somebody-else-will-do-
As a child, I would often wonder why no one helped. The fact is that supposed someone else rarely acts, and we stand – or in my case, kneel – before our abusers alone, in incomprehensible states of horror. It is a theory of inaction, and inaction breeds complacency. And complacency breeds irreparable harm and death...
I shout this and will not "dial it down" for fear there will be no answer: because, actually, suspected child abuse is reported, not every 15, but every 9.3 seconds.* This is why I write.
As I walked those few miles from school, I came to know a family along the way who had kids a grade or two ahead of me, and worth noting: a star in their window. They would invite me to play, but again – head hung (my general posture) I had to tell them I couldn't for the longest time. They did not know the reason why, but one day, under one guise or another, I would be blessed to find the time to get to briefly know them and the environment in which they lived… a stable environment.
Today, teaching college students composition, I realize that even as a child, I keenly exercised the rhetorical strategy of compare and contrast. I immediately sorted the similarities (if any) and differences (many) between our lives and circumstances. I was struck by the uplifting goings-on in their home; there were crafts and activities to be done!
“Come in, Keith, if only for a few minutes, and create a plaque with us,” their mother called out cheerfully.
I was introduced to the French art of decoupage, lacquering pieces of colored paper to a scrap of wood, while at the same time, forever adhering the warm spirit of their home like a healing balm to my scarred self.
It has just come to me recently, how my resilience to live inadvertently sought out these houses, these “star people” as I call them, who would give me the footing to survive my formative years.
These four children and their parents freely and with abandon extended an open door to me to explore, create without care of error, take a pony ride even, until I would ask the time and startled, hurriedly unsaddle while they begged me to stay. They were like angels trumpeting the joys of heaven on earth, while I – unaccustomed to such music – ran home: too precocious, too young to reenact the passions of Christ.
Nearly 3 MILLION children are reported abused and neglected each year.* This is why I write.
I was struck the other day by a news story which explained how one should not attach the name of pets to a retribution: as the animals would associate, emotionally, their sheer being with the harshness of one’s tone. This, it was purported, would damage the animals forever.
Why, I often wonder, are there so fewer child-abuse alerts? The same stands true for children in regard to harsh words.
“Keith, you should have been a GIRL,” for example… Why could Mom not have dropped my name and left it at the collective you? Without my name attached, I could have more easily rolled her infinite, disparaging remarks over to the universe at large, rather than let them etch their way into my mind, while her tongue recoiled: catching the drool of her acidic saliva.
I watch people become rightfully enraged upon commercials for the American Association for the Care and Protection of Animals (AACPA), yet sit silent at the mere mention of child abuse.
I have been known to turn to my wife Anne and ask, frustrated, “Why is it, people get immediately heated at the mistreatment of an animal, and turn a cold, blind eye to the abuse of a child?”
I think they see animals as helpless, unable to take care of themselves, would be the kind of answer I might receive.
Don’t get me wrong. I love animals, and we have two dogs. But allow me to level the playing field. Children are helpless, too. CHILDREN cannot take care of themselves, either.
At this moment, there are also animals being given sweets (my mother’s, perhaps yours) while a child is having his or her name (me, you, someone close) attached to a vile string of words slicing through the air undercut by a vicious blow.
Yes, my Mom treated the family dog better than me. So what can it be that turns adults against children and relegates them to less than beasts of the field?
Six out of ten mothers abuse their children.* This is why I write.
In researching, Maternal Narcissism keeps threading the needle, stitching together the patchwork of causations culminating in my mom's abusive behavior. Firstly, her apparent lack of empathy kept her focused solely on her personal wants (not needs) to a fatal, psychopathic fault. Other blocks within this loosely seamed tapestry of excuses center around “a desire to control, as the abuser feels a lack of it in most other places of h/er want life,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services. “Perpetrators perceive their lives as spinning into chaos. It is typically an anger response, and anger is often a response to fear, an extension of the flight or fight response, or a misfiring of it. Anything may be perceived as a threat. An error made by another drive. An interruption in a conversation. A dropped bowl of cereal or spilled glass of milk. An argument between siblings. An action without prior permission. A pulled shirt. A question. Whatever the spark, it is wrong and must be righted.”
Substance abuse and being on the low end of the socio-economic ladder are ever-burning embers, too, stoking the fire of this maltreatment.
In the U.S. alone, a reported 4+ children die each day due to child abuse. Also, nearly 60% of ALL child deaths are due to abuse but not reported as such.* This is why I write.
Having not entered kindergarten, because my mother had the legal option to negate it or not (she keeping me home to be of use to get this or to do that), I entered fearfully into 1st grade. I so wanted to do well, but I was already programmed to fear. I simply did not do anything right, according to Mom. So, I was sure to fail.
There was a kind of audio machine near my desk where mentally challenged kids came from a neighboring classroom and put on the headphones to conduct some sort of learning exercise. I did not know this then; I just knew that their sometimes differing appearance, movements, and vocal qualities scared me.
What scared me, really, I now understand. I feared I would slip in my lessons and be made to utilize the machine and return with these other children to their “special” classroom.
I entered school with a predetermined lack of self-worth; I was absolutely unable to muster any degree of self-confidence.
Slowly, I rooted myself, but it was difficult. Though, as mentioned, a writing teacher at the college level today, I recall sitting at home for Mom’s derogatory sessions before flash cards as I simply could not learn my alphabet. It tortured me. Kenny (my "untouched" twin) had it down, but I would not cultivate learning for future use. I lived in the present tense for survival’s sake. My Star People had not yet intervened to teach me future tense and the necessity for learning, for which memory is key.
Enter my first Star Person, my slightly older sister Kathleen, who gently interceded and succeeded in helping me. For this and seemingly everything, she – too – was picked out and picked on by Mom. I did not like the feeling that a bridge was being built which one day her brutal figure would cross, like the Ogre of children’s fables, to gobble me up just to spit my limbs to the ground for fun and frolic. It was this adult awareness from sufferings I witnessed Mom targeted Kathleen for, which made me grow-up sooooo quickly. It was the air I breathed, the stale bread I ate.
In class, I did want to be picked for one particular honor, though. Sister Martina had a special book of artwork. She encouraged us during art periods to do our very best as she would sometimes pick one lucky artist to have his or her work grace the pages of this leather-bound, thick-spined tome. This is perhaps a first recollection of my competitive nature, which was another of the lifelines carrying me through my abusive childhood… for competitiveness is based in a positive sense of self. Thus, it could only have existed, at the time, apart but part me, by the grace of God: I knew in my heart I had what it took to make it in that book.
One day late in the year, we were called to take out our Crayolas and create a picture of our choice. I loved the color called Blue Green, a soothing aqua that transported me somewhere else – though I knew of no other places but the tight spaces at home and these rooms at school, where I could stare at other children and notice their new shoes and pants without patches. I especially coveted their colorful lunch boxes emblazoned with the likes of Batman, Scooby-Doo, or “cooler” yet, bands like The Monkees! My brown bag would have to do.
I would get one, decades later – though – from Anne as a cheerful affirmation.
Anyway, that day my artwork was complete. I looked at it closely, making finishing touches, and I was thrilled. I felt proud of it. It was on the simple side: galactic circles of different colors orbiting each other in a collection of spheres, where upon I took the eraser from my pencil and working from the center outward, blended the colors to create rainbow rays of light or energy. It felt, even to a boy of eight years old, to be palpable and alive.
Sister Martina collected them and did the usual, gratuitous review.
“Mary Ellen, excellent job with shading.”
“Bobbie, you sure do like your G.I. Joe; don’t you.”
“Betty, flowers like I’ve never seen…”
“Keith… Well Keith, if this isn’t one of the most interesting uses of coloring I have ever seen!”
I swallowed hard, immediately associating the choice of the word “interesting” as a chide.
“Class, gather around; you must see the way…
And her commentary carried on, resulting in the announcement that this picture would be added to her collection (if I would allow) and the request to create a duplicate picture while the others watched, so they might learn my technique and try to make one on their own.
I ran home beaming, copy in hand. I had been picked! I had made it into Sister Martina’s art book!
I rushed in to show Mom, which meant Kathleen first and then Mom.
“Why so excited about a bunch of circles?” Mom asked, dropping my picture to the floor with a kind of smirk on her lips and a hint of perverse glee in her eyes.
“I don’t know much about artwork, per se. Now, work… I know about, and I have some for you. First, get out of that school shirt.”
I turned and went to my room deflated. I was picked in class for a good, a positive reason. But that was in the world out there. A world I visited, only briefly. In the world I lived in, was to always live in until I extricated myself at the age of eighteen, I knew somehow, someway, I was being picked in a different way, for a different reason. I was a coaster to a glass of booze. An ashtray to a lit cigarette. A baseball to a bat. It would all prove true.
This unfathomable phenomenon of picking or targeting specific children (only Kathleen, then me... OUT OF 11 CHILDREN) for abuse is mystifying still today. To revisit our statistic that 6 out of 10 mothers abuse their children, it is also proven that women are more likely to participate in child abuse even more than men (which is difficult for society to embrace due to the simple notion that mothers are believed to be inherently drawn to nurture and support). Admittedly, this fact goes against our societal belief system. As for the long list of reasons a parent may attach the focus of abuse toward one or a few children, I assert the following applied to my situation specifically:
- Absolute inability to bond with a given child
- Dislike of given personality traits (being perceived as too effeminate by her), and therefore, seen as flawed
- Passivity (obedience reaching subservience)
- Abnormal sleep patterns (sleepwalking)
- My being seen as an adversary of a kind, the one with similar traits who might live the life she cherished, reinforcing a sense of dread, jealousy
- Unaddressed health and mental issues (my mom's Alcoholism and suspected Maternal Narcissism)
A parent who targets specific children for abuse has a hazy sense as to who the child is and represents, taking out his or her frustrations misguidedly. The circumstances of his or her very being, esoteric as it may seem, sets target children up for continual thrusts of unjustifiable, malicious torture.
The selection of children to abuse does not discriminate; it crosses genders, as well as all socio-economic and racial lines.* This is why I write.
I had my first drink in seventh grade having just moved to the neighborhood after our one and only move. I was with a group of kids, socially uncomfortable and wanting to make friends, something Kenny had already done. These were them; I was just along as an allowance to Kenny. He… hip. Me… NOT. Still, I was bolstered by his presence as usual. He always took a protective air about me.
I remember finding ourselves along a set of railroad tracks by the high school. Beer made its appearance. I was encouraged to drink. I don’t remember seeing Kenny drink, but I generally waited for his cue to do everything. I did not like the beer. It tasted bad. Still, as I sipped on it over an hour (afraid to be ridiculed or to embarrass Kenny), I began to feel my first buzz. I may have not liked the taste, but the false courage and lack of caring it gave me, presented an escape I longed for every waking moment. Mom and everything about her just vaporized out of my mind. I was in the now for the first time (or so I thought). I would, soon enough, find myself seeking this escape in an ever-escalating manner, though I did not identify it at the time. I was just a kid.
And escalate it did. A couple years later, I would find myself standing outside liquor stores asking older strangers to grab me a six-pack (of the beer I use to hate) or a cheap bottle of liquor like Mad Dog 20/20, paving a path to me skimming the liquor cabinets of classmates’ parents. It didn’t take but a few more years for me to tap the source directly by way of my first job as a stock boy at, you guessed it, the corner liquor store. My search for that feeling of “normalcy” which eluded me was now to be found in my new and truest "friend."
He stood watch, his dark and shifty shadow beside me as I dropped my stash in with the trash and took it out… only to retrieve it after work. Head first in a dumpster, legs flailing in search of my reprieve. I knew it was wrong; I knew no other way.
At the age of 44, I would find that other way but not before collecting multiple DUIs and proving myself a threat to myself and the community, sure to also prove deadly without intervention (which I received in 2006 and have remained sober since). In doing so, I would identify my perceived best friend as a foe.
About two-thirds of those in substance abuse programs have experienced some kind of child abuse.* This is why I write.
The concussions football players receive and the long-term health effects of these injuries is, presently, a hot topic of debate. Though hardly a player of sports, I live not only with the same physical manifestations of having had my brain beat loose, but the additional compounding of emotional concussions ad infinitum (without the benefit of outlandish pay). This ingrained, walking-on-eggshells scrimmage through life, led to an insatiable will to survive given my unconscious brushes with star people and my childish but fervent faith in God. This is, perhaps, the one thing I can thank my parents for: sending me to a parochial school. Like a bird to air, I was later able to escape the darkness to a newfound spiritual relationship with my Higher Power that always lit the way, re-establishing a platform for redirecting my descent downward.
Trending, too, is that child-free-by-choice lifestyles are acceptable, whereby when my mom and dad got married, it was a cultural stigma. Still, I think my mom (more so than dad) should have heeded her inner desires or been born to marry in more current times. Not to justify her abusive actions, she did not have the fortitude to parent. Her attempt was nothing more than a constant acting out against a system she felt trapped and imprisoned in. Her lashings out may have been her own cries for help, a fighting or pushing back of her inner child (singled out for some of her own picking on by a gang of social dictates on the playground of the ’50s).
The irony is psychologists have shown little scientific data to prove the existence of any maternal instinct to want to have children or to support that women are natural caregivers. However, the instinct to nurture is considered to be based in genetics. This makes me wish I had the resources to have known the deepest wishes/genetic dispositions regarding motherhood in my parents’ lineage, but – alas – I do not.
What I do know is Mom was not cut from the cloth meant to swaddle infants… and this cloth bound my wrists, causing me to struggle through even the simplest tasks of life until mid-life (and even still if gone unchecked). I rolled recklessly like a pin ball here and there, causing virtually everyone to put up their bumper barricades for fear of being hit by another of my poor aims at relationships; inconsistent, reckless behaviors fueled by an ever-increasing use of alcohol; and own, self-absorbed narcissistic behavior. After all, she was my teacher in this regard.
Today, I continue to work a daily balance toward life: putting God first, others second, and myself third. This principle is at the heart of AA practices, which are based on the teachings of The Bible. I encourage you to seek out the support groups/professional counseling you need. This is why I write.
How resilient are you? The hot button in psychology today, pertaining to abused children, has to do with this notion of resiliency. For me, I found myself to be more resilient than perhaps I knew. Yes, I had a way to scrape by, put forth more than a stiff upper lip, to live (not necessarily thrive) through years of abject torment. Still, why did I have the resiliency to not kill myself, when so many others take this route?
If you are reading this, you, too, have proved more resilient than you might have thought. As Hemingway puts forth in A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone. And afterward some are strong in the broken places.”
The key sign to this strength, studies in resiliency show, is the ability to “recruit” surrogate caregivers and adult mentors (my Star People)… often times a sibling (Kathleen, who raised me until leaving home), a coach or teacher (Sisters Martina and Barbara in the first and third grades, respectively), the family on the way to elementary school who did what they could to nurture me, other friends and their families (a high-school buddy and his parents), support groups like AA (Thank you – Lynnette), and – of course – Anne…
Resiliency for me was the ability to take their vicarious support and love, and cocoon myself, creating an impenetrable chrysalis through which Mom could not tear. Through this self-preservation, I could – as you could – sustain a suspended frame of mind and body, which God would (in His time) morph into full-flighted fruition: our clear, skeletal bodies now unweighted and brilliant.
Notice the necessity for God in this equation (at least, for me).
Spirituality proved the side stiles to the ladder of my recovery. And, it is sure to do so for you, if embraced. This spirituality was the willingness for me to open my mind to the unquestioning truth that there is a Higher Power, beyond myself, who has always been pointing the way toward my intended path.
The celebrated psychologist Carl Jung advocated the necessity of a spiritual component for anyone wishing to find relief from the causes and conditions of alcoholism. He deemed it out of the hands of mortals. Personally, I would also have to extend this theory to any illness.
This was a difficult reality I would have to work on: smashing my ego to realize that my will would have to be replaced by His will.
Still, with all my inner kicking and screaming, His will was being made known to me: even if unrecognizable most of the time. I heeded this message clearly one day at mass,
“ And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.” – Revelation 21 The Holy Bible (KJV)
My healing truly began when I realized that while my earthly parents failed me, my heavenly father claimed me as His son and waited to fill my emotional and psychological voids.
Resentments are events/feelings continually relived again, and again, and again. You can stop this through a personal relationship with your Higher Power. This is why I write.
For years, I tried to write about this but could not. Now, I can (having become stronger in the broken places). Writing and healing are undeniably linked. The University of Texas’ Dr. James Pennebaker writes in his book: Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. “Suppressed thoughts, emotions, and actions result in illness. More than purging, writing about trauma affects mental and immune functions… reducing anxiety and depression… with over 70% of those studied reporting that writing helped them to understand both the event(s) and themselves better.”
I found this to be true. And this truth did set me on the path to freedom. I recommend you give it a try. Take a defining moment in your life, and (at first) write about it in 150 words or less, like in the brief scenarios described herein.
Remember that writing:
- Brings out what is trapped within you, lessening its larger-than-life, debilitating nature (which is – by the process of writing – broken down into smaller bits that are more easily examined).
- Frees feelings… you will begin to close the book on your abuse with each “chapter.”
I encourage you to heal through writing as I do.
This is why I write.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Seeking Out Stars is an excerpt from my memoir Missing the Mark: A Target Child Speaks