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.
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 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?
where it won't be seen."
One black woman described it as protection.
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.