Whips and Chains

By Louise Ure

I spoke at a book club gathering in San Francisco a few days ago. It was a small affair – only three attendees plus the hostess – but it was an evening I will never forget.

It was Monday, the first day back at work after the Thanksgiving holiday. Who could possibly remember that they'd scheduled an author visit to discuss The Fault Tree? Surely that's the reason the other people who were expected that evening did not show up. I probably wouldn't have either if I hadn't been the speaker.

So there were five of us in the room. Three black women and two white. All of us between forty-five and sixty. Two of us childless, three who were mothers with adult children.

As usual, I was stunned by the notion that these women discussed the characters from my book as if they were alive. As if they'd just left a conversation with them.

"She's got to get more of a backbone. She can't go around feeling so guilty
all the time. It'll wear her out."

"I'd like to go out with him. He knows how to treat a woman."

Then somebody mentioned the punishment I had conjured up for the protagonist in her youth: her mother would send her to put her face against the Fault Tree, a giant eucalyptus in the backyard, and stand there until she was ready to say she was sorry.

"You know her mother beat her when she was a kid," one woman said. Two others nodded knowingly.

They were reading into the character more than I had intended. I'd never seen the mother as physically abusive, but as someone who scarred with her language, her scorn, and her neglect. That's certainly bad enough, but I hadn't imagined a physically as well as emotionally-battered child in the story.

Then the real conversation started.

Each of the women in the room, except for me, said that she had been beaten as a child. And two of them said they beat their own children.

There was no apology. No pity. It was a statement of fact and how things had to be done. There was even laughter as the shared stories struck home.

"My mother would say, 'Go get a switch and it better not be a small one.'"

"My mother would wait until I'd forgotten all about my transgression,
until I was in the bath and naked and wet, because it would hurt more then."

"My mother would plait the switches together."

"My mother had a leather strip she cut from a conveyor belt.
She called it Mr. Do Right. When we grew up, she cut each of us kids
a piece of it to keep as a souvenir."

I remember how horrified I was at the punishment concocted for the young girl in Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees." She was forced to kneel barelegged for hours on a hard floor that had been strewn with grains of rice. Imagine the pain. The impossibility of finding a moment of release. (UPDATE: Sara J graciously added a comment to correct me: "Not rice on the floor in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES – grits.")

But this – this casual discussion of the disgrace of child abuse, treated almost with an "I can top that" storytelling technique? And the greater sin … that two of them felt perfectly justified in beating their own children?

"I only hit him on his butt and the back of his legs,
where it won't be seen."

One black woman described it as protection.

"Whatever I do to my son is nothing compared to what
The Man would do if they caught him and thought he was a criminal.
I've got to scare him straight before they get to him."

I don't mean this to suggest that child abuse is a black issue versus a white one. Nor that mothers are the beaters and fathers are not. These are just the stories I heard that night.

In a subsequent conversation with another friend this week, I learned of a white family back East where the father would start counting in a loud voice as he sat in his easy chair. Whatever number he reached by the time the children heard him and got to his side was the number of strokes they would receive. Prior bad behavior on their part was not even required.

Then we hear about the 17-year old boy who finally escaped his captors in Tracy, California this week, just forty miles from my home, with the chain and padlock still attached to his ankle.

Or the father who imprisoned his daughter for twenty-four years and fathered seven children with her.

Could we even make up anything as evil, unstable and vicious as the real stories out there?

It makes my Fault Tree horror seem angelic.

I'm not sure what response I'm asking of you today, 'Rati. I'm still shaken by the proximity and common face of such pain. It's everywhere. It's passed down from generation to generation. And sometimes it's even taken as the status quo.

We should be ashamed.


40 thoughts on “Whips and Chains

  1. caite

    First of all, as to being stunned about how personal they take your characters and how ‘real’ they are to them…well, that is a sign of your skill as a writer. In what I consider a good novel, the characters should be like real people to me for the duration of the book…and actually sometimes longer.

    As to the violence..well, I think we all have the urge to lash out, physically, sometimes. But we control it. If, however, we have been the victim of it ourselves, as these women were, it is just so much easier, I think, to act the same way. For good or bad, we often become what we see and what we ourselves have experienced. Hard to break the cycle…

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    This is a subject very near to my own heart, Louise.

    I too have heard the theory expressed by an African American mother that “you have to beat black boys to make them tough enough to survive as black men.” The sheer multi-generational tragedy of that statement, delivered as it was in a calm, reasonable, matter of fact voice, is hard to overstate.

    There’s a depressingly large number of people who seem to have some vital component of their humanity missing. They’re missing the part that tells them that your infant or adolescent daughter or niece is not a potential sex partner. The part that says it’s not okay to leave an infant in the car in 40 degree weather with only a light jumper on while you go in the house and chat with friends for an hour. The part that says it’s not okay to put your thirteen year old’s head through the drywall, however difficult she may be. The part that says it’s not a good thing to let your kids roll around in the toxic sludge your meth lab has churned out.

    Some of these parents are drug-addled; some of them are simply batshit crazy. But so many of them seem terrifyingly normal. The courts can order them to parenting classes, anger management, substance abuse treatment…but I can’t help but wonder if it’s really possible to teach someone something that should be so fundamental. Sometimes the magic works, though, and I do see families put back together again.

    ‘Rati, If you really want to try to do something about it, you may want to check and see if your local court system has a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program. The GAL represents the interests of the child in abuse and neglect cases that are bought to court. Sometimes Child Protective Services has its own agenda, or the social worker has too heavy a caseload, or whatever, and they don’t always do what’s best for the child. That’s where the GAL steps in and goes “Whoa.” You see some really heartbreaking stories, but you also see some amazing comebacks. You do what you can and hope for the best.

  3. Catherine

    My father in some ways used to make light of the fact that his father beat him and his brothers with a belt. My Uncles and Dad still tell of the time after their father had died when they were painting the farm house and found all the gutters blocked with belts. They realised then just how many times each of them had stolen a belt to avoid a hiding. Maybe in their laughter is the root of my own dark humour…

    I vaguely remember being about 6 over hearing them talking, and asked Dad what I would have to do to ever have him do that. Mum had to tell me that that would never happen as Dad was too upset to reassure me at the time. So it’s not a given that the next generation suffers the same abuse. I had definite limits and punishment if I overstepped, but I never had a belt picked up as a threat let alone used in my presence.

    Yes Louise, abuse of any kind,is abhorrent. Perhaps ingrained, and unquestioned is especially so.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    The more I hear of incidents like the ones you recount, Louise, the more convinced I am that we, as a species, are doomed.

    And I second Caite’s opinion about the power of your writing making your characters sound and feel like real people.

    Yet another bravura post!

  5. Louise Ure

    Caite and Zoë, thank you for the lovely comments on my work, if not for otherwise lightening my spirits. I don’t know how we become a more enlightened species.

    JD. you have a singularly insightful and helpful viewpoint. I know you’ve mentioned GALs before. Today I will act upon it and find out if such a thing exists in San Francisco.

    Catherine, funny that such a sad story brings your uncles and father together in laughter. I can’t help it. The image of the blocked drain pipes really is funny.

    And sad, too, as Fiona writes. Sometimes there’s a fine line of distinction between the two.

  6. pari

    One day, I was happily walking in a less familiar part of ABQ. Suddenly, for no obvious reason, I freaked out — became really upset. I backtracked and found a salt cedar tree and remembered . . .

    I was hit with a switch from that kind of tree as a child, a belt too.

    When I had my own children I swore I would never, ever hit them. And I haven’t.

    Cycles can be broken but it sure takes a lot to do it.

    Louise, I’m so sorry to say that none of those comments would’ve surprised me.

  7. Kaye Barley

    Louise, you never EVER fail to move me.

    Sometimes you move me to throw back my head and laugh, and of course – sometimes to tears.

    I remember getting what I still think of as spankings from my mother as I was growing up. Often. They were one quick pop on my bottom to get my attention. Usually, surprising me enough to look up to see her standing with her hands on her hips ready to give me a good talking to. I know that sort of behavior from a mom is unacceptable today and my mother and I have discussed it – she with the question “did I scar you in some way by doing that?” My response was absolutely not. Those snapping eyes on the other hand could send me running for the hills. I don’t believe my dad ever once spanked me, but a shake of his head while he looked downward let me know I had done something that had not pleased him, and that could hurt me to my very soul.

    But the beatings you say these women laughingly brought to the conversation bring up a side of life that I myself did not have to survive. Are these women doing what they can out of love to save their own children from what some of them see as their ultimate destiny because of the color of their skin in this culture, in this time? That to me is just as damned scary as the punishments inflicted.

    On a lighter note – I have a question, please. Louise brought up “THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES.” Loved it Loved it! Have not seen the movie – should I???

  8. Louise Ure

    Pari, it sounds like your memories are — if not buried, then at least tamped down. I can’t imagine you hitting your own children. You’re proof that things can change.

  9. Tammy Cravit

    First of all, Louise, I agree that the fact that these readers so identified with your characters is a sign that you were successful in the way you portrayed them. We don’t usually feel that kind of emotional connection to cardboard cutouts, after all.

    As regards the stories of those women, I wish I could say I was surprised. But I’ve been a rape crisis advocate for going on seven years and a foster parent for almost three, and in both of those arenas one comes face-to-face with the everyday ugliness that underlies our “civilized” society. I think that’s part of why I like to write crime fiction — it’s my way to sort of create a catharsis on behalf of society, to try to make sense of how ordinary people could commit acts that are extraordinary — acts of cruelty and acts of redemption. And it’s why I’ve recently begun laying the groundwork for going back to school, because I’d like to become an attorney and advocate on behalf of the children who have nobody to give voice to their stories. (I’m at the beginning of a long, uphill climb on that journey, but I’m determined, and I know that counts for a lot.)

    The good news, though, is what Pari said — every generation has a chance to make different choices. We’re trapped by the patterns of our past only if we let ourselves be.

  10. Tammy Cravit

    Oh, one more thing: Louise, if you don’t have any luck searching in SF for “Guardian ad Litem”, try looking for “Court appointed special advocate” (CASA). In my county, at least, the court-appointed attorneys for the foster kids usually serve in the GAL role, whereas volunteer CASAs do the job JD described.

  11. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Ure, as always, you bring up interesting questions to digest.

    I guess I’m the only one here who believes my parents’ spanking as a form of discipline was effective. I never got a belt or a switch, but I knew if I went past a certain line I was going to wait in my room until my step-father got home, heard what I’d done, got angry, got over being angry, and then came up to see me.

    My parents made it very clear that they would never strike me in anger, even though a spanking (to me) was never being struck. It was a consequence for a poor decision. I grew up learning to weigh my choices (is this worth a spanking?), until they felt I was old enough to accept society’s (surprisingly lax and pathetic, in many cases, by comparison) approved discipline instead. Still, I was never spanked or popped in anger.

    I’m sure that horrifies some of you, and disappoints others. Be that as it may, I refuse to apologize for the fact that I firmly believe in and agree with it. If that somehow makes me a child-abuser, then I guess some of you guys would consider it good that I don’t have kids.

    I am, however, glad it never happened in public. I think it would have scarred me much worse if, say I got popped in public when I was 4 or so, and some grocery store clerk called the police or social services, and I wound up feeling responsible for my mother or father going to jail or to court or something.

    Hope this doesn’t make me a pariah, ’cause I really like it here. But I see what I’ve described as completely different from what you’re relating to us from those women, Ms. Ure. But I bet there are a lot of people reading this who think it’s truly sad that I see them as such. Different strokes, I suppose.

  12. pari

    Louise,They were “tamped down.” When that incident happened, I realized I had to face them. That was about 20 years ago. It’s probably part of the reason I waited as long as I did to have kids of my own.

    I wanted to understand enough of my own upbringing to not perpetuate the harm to another’s heart/soul.

  13. Kaye Barley

    Jake – I think this is so well written, and so well said and I wish I had written it. I think you and I may very well be in the minority in today’s society by not finding a spanking (NOT to be confused with a beating) to be a evil thing. I’m going to hush right here by saying ditto ditto ditto on every single word you wrote. every one.

  14. J.T. Ellison

    Jake, I had the same experience, and it’s left me with the same response. I got spanked, timed-out, sent to my room, all of that, and if I ever have a child, I’m sure I’ll do the same.

    I think there’s a HUGE, HUGE difference between loving discipline and actual abuse. I adore my parents. I talk to them at least once a day, many times more. Yet many would consider what they did abuse, which horrifies me. I don’t feel I was abused in any way. I was cherished, and when I did something stupid, I was taught a lesson. Thinking back, every time I was spanked I deserved the hell out of it. Remember the Pinocchio parable I told last week? Yeah.

    But that lesson never included a beating the way these women are talking. That it is culturally accepted that beating will make a man out of a child is ridiculous.

  15. Louise Ure

    Kaye, I think our childhood households were very similar. Remember I said that I alone in that discussion group had not been beaten as a child? Well, I was certainly spanked, or threatened with it.

    And the worst punishment I ever got was hearing my mother say, “I can never trust you again.” God, it just killed me.

    As to the Bee movie, I haven’t seen it either. But just like our previous blog discussions about loving the book then seeing the movie, I don’t think I will.

  16. Louise Ure

    Tammy, I adore you. You and J.D. are out there making things happen. And I’ll definitely try the CASA route. Although I can’t imagine they’d be interested in a childless mystery writer who loves red wine as a Children’s Advocate!

    Jake, you’re no pariah here. I understand your point of view perfectly. And the notion of a young Jake asking himself “Is this worth a spanking?” is priceless. I can think of a couple of early indiscretions of mine that I would have absolutely answered “Yes!”.

  17. Louise Ure

    JT, you’re right. There’s a difference between discipline and abuse. In an ideal world, even the discipline would be done without corporeal punishment. As I mentioned in a response to Kaye, the discipline I remember most was the loss of my mother’s trust. And it was hard to earn it back.

  18. Jake Nantz

    Interesting enough, the spanking was never, ever the worst part. It was the waiting. See, my step-father is an attorney. Let’s say I did something wrong at around 4:00. I got to wait in my room til he got home at anywhere from 8-9:30 or so, then he heard what i did (and got pissed), then he calmed down, then they came in and explained why what I did was wrong, and what the punishment would be, and then I’d get my requisite number of spankings.

    By the time that door opened and they walked in, I was pretty sure I was about to experience a nuclear explosion on my ass. The spanking itself (and now that I think about it, I did get the switch once…when I stepped WAAAYY over the line), never lingered like what I’d created in my own mind.

  19. Louise Ure

    Jake, it’s that writer’s imagination coming back to haunt you, no? That’s part of why I never get really graphic about either sexual or violent scenes in my work. The reader’s imagination does so much better a job of it.

  20. J.D. Rhoades

    Louise: “Although I can’t imagine they’d be interested in a childless mystery writer who loves red wine as a Children’s Advocate!”

    Trust me, they’ll love you. The only qualifications required are caring and commitment, and you’ve got those in abundance.

    JT: “I think there’s a HUGE, HUGE difference between loving discipline and actual abuse.”


    Jake: “then he heard what i did (and got pissed), then he calmed down…”

    And that’s one thing that makes the difference.

  21. joylene

    I’m doing a reading at the end of January by myself. I kind of wish others had been invited. Less time focused on me, I guess. To know they showed up to meet you and to talk about your book must be so rewarding. I keep thinking about that when I get nervous thinking about it. Whoever shows up, ventured out of their cozy warm homes to hear what I have to say. That’s pretty special.

  22. Louise Ure

    JD, thanks for the vote of support. Tammy wrote me separately that she’d found a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program in San Francisco (http://www.sfcasa.org/aboutus.html). Hurray!

    And Joylene, take a deep breath and enjoy that solo reading! As the wonderful writer Kirk Russell told me on the night of my very first solo reading/signing, “Remember, there’s no one here who doesn’t want to be here. You’ll never find another time like that in your life.” And he was right. But then there was that early job I had at Dairy Queen. Seems to me like everybody was happy to see me there, too!

  23. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Rhoades,I agree to a point, but it seems that these women (and I wasn’t there, so I can only go by my impression from what Ms. Ure wrote), they felt that beating their child was still loving discipline. And I’m betting the father who counted up from one to determine how many licks each child would get based on when they got to his side wasn’t angry.

    Like you said, some people don’t do it out of anger, they do it because they’re just crazy as a shithouse rat.

  24. J.D. Rhoades

    Jake: ” I’m betting the father who counted up from one to determine how many licks each child would get based on when they got to his side wasn’t angry.”

    Au contraire. I’m betting he was ALWAYS angry.

    But as for the rest of the post, you’re right. They really thought they were doing the right thing, and never knew how much damage they were doing. the only glimmer of hope is that they were laughing at the memory of things like the strap cut from the conveyor belt and hopefully not duplicating them.

  25. Catherine

    Louise yes the blocked gutters were funny…and they were howling laughing when they all went hey, that’s probably why the gutters overflowed so much when it rained.

    Shared laughter has got to be healing on some level regardless of the cause. Maybe even more so because of it.

    It’s funny I can only remember one spanking in my childhood. My parents asked me to make sure my little sister did not move when they went up for communion. She is to this day obstinate,loud and hard to get on with. So trying to keep her in one place seem a herculean task. So I pinned her to the pew…seemed the thing to do at the time.

  26. Louise Ure

    Thanks for the corrected link, J.D. And the insight. It sounds like you’ve been fighting this good fight for a long time.

    Catherine, I think you did the RIGHT thing by pinning her down! Funny, that triggers a memory for me about The Crying Room at St. Peter & Paul Church in Tucson. Any child — crying, rambunctious, fidgety or loud — got moved to The Crying Room. It was my favorite part of the church.

  27. Katherine C.

    “I think there’s a HUGE, HUGE difference between loving discipline and actual abuse. I adore my parents. I talk to them at least once a day, many times more. Yet many would consider what they did abuse, which horrifies me. I don’t feel I was abused in any way. I was cherished, and when I did something stupid, I was taught a lesson. Thinking back, every time I was spanked I deserved the hell out of it.”

    Exacatly. I agree with Jake, Kaye and JT. I got spanked (and if what I had done was deemed bad enough, the spanking came from a belt not a hand), but there is a whole world of difference between spanking your children and beating/abusing them. Like Jake and co., I see nothing wrong with it if you’re not beating the tar out of them in a fit of anger, and likely will use the same sort of discipline when I have kids of my own. If that makes me a “bad” person so be it. It always irritates the crap out of me when people get all self-righteous (and I’m not talking about people here, but other conversations I’ve had) and act like they’re better people/parents because they don’t believe in spanking. The implication my parents were somehow less because they spanked me pisses me off. I always have to bite my tongue to keep from saying “maybe if you did once in a while your kid wouldn’t be such a brat” Mostly because that’s not true, not to mention rude, and it’s not my place to tell them how to parent their kids just because it’s not how I would do it — there’s more than one way to be a good parent.

  28. Louise Ure

    I hear you, Katherine, and perhaps that’s the way that the women in that book discussion group felt about it too. But I know how strong and unpredictable my anger is. That’s part of the reason I’m not a parent.

  29. Alexandra Sokoloff

    When I was teaching I realized the bottom line: There should be birth control in the water. If you ever want to have children, you should have to earn the antidote to the birth control by going to school for two years minimum to learn how to take care of kids. No one should have to pay for that education, but they have to do the entire time.

    And child molesters should be beheaded – period.

  30. Jake Nantz

    Alex,I think beheading is far too quick, and supposedly painless, for child molesters. I’m sure between all the imaginations here (ghosts and criminals and serial killers, OH MY), we could have some fun debating what they deserve.

    As far as ‘earning’ the right to be a parent, I have taught long enough to second, third, and fourth that. We license people to drive and own guns, two things that can end lives quickly if improperly used. Yet we don’t have any restrictions on being a parent, something that can destroy and prolong the suffering caused by one ruined life for generations and generations.

    Now understand, I am profoundly against any kind of socialism disguised as ‘oversight’, so I certainly don’t suggest that there be some person to determine who gets a ‘license’ to have kids, but there’s got to be something. I wish I knew what.

    I wish your idea could be it, but I know someone who is a school ADMINISTRATOR in a different county, who DESPERATELY wanted children. When this person finally got the first child, they treated that child like dogshit because that child wasn’t perfect. Now they spoil the hell out of the second because they believe that second child IS perfect. Forget school, this is a person who would have crawled through acid to have a child, and they have completely destroyed both of the ones they finally got, in totally different ways.

  31. Fiona


    If people wanting to conceive a child had to go through half as much prep and screening as my DH and I had to go through to adopt our children (background checks, financial checks, letters of reference, parenting classes and a LONG wait) there would NEVER be an over population problem.

    Heck, even it they went through as much preparation as we did to get our dogs through a rescue group it would be a plus.

    The latest statistic I read was that HALF of all pregnancies in the US are UNPLANNED. That stuns me.

    *stepping off soap bosk*

  32. Fiona

    Alex and Jake,Perhaps there should be mandatory parenting classes and anger/stress management classes in late middle school and early HS.

    We can’t “license” parents, but we could sure get most of the population clued in to the responsibilities and stresses of parenting.

  33. Fran

    I don’t know if you’re emotinoally ready to follow this link and read about what happened to this young man at his parents’ hands, but it too is heartbreaking.


    Granted, they are casually cruel, not ever once thinking what they were doing was based in love.

    But these people are out there, raising kids. And, before you avoid the link at all costs, know that the boy in the post is healing and doing well now that he’s with loving people. The point of it is how easily that loving family can be placed in jeopardy and the boy shoved back into harm’s way.

    Excellent post, Louise. I suspect we’ll see the fruits of this encounter in a future book, and I bet it’ll rip our hearts out. But it’ll make us better people, I have no doubt.

  34. Louise Ure

    Wow, interesting discussion of earning/learning parenthood blossoming here in the evening hours. Thank you, Alex, Jake and Fiona.

    Fran, that link is the saddest story I’ve ever read. But thank God he found a loving home … and with his brother, no less!

    Sara, how could I have forgotten that? In that setting, in that world, of course it was grits!


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