I’ve seen countless self-help books on coping with the death of a mother, but none of how to carry on when you lose her to her husband.
I was haunted by a sense of doom when Carl came in the picture. My six-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend my intuition.
Carl was a stranger. We knew nothing of his background beyond what he told us. Mom met and married him in four months, only to be welcomed back from their honeymoon with his mail fraud charges.
We uprooted to Tennessee, two hundred miles away my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
The joyous glow that encompassed me as a bubbly little girl faded. I became bitter, rebellious, and self-destructive. I mastered the art of using my words like daggers. As Mom put it, I became, “incredibly hard to love.”
I can list a lengthy, vivid timeline of incidents that illustrate Carl’s character. I can detail his drinking habits, multiple times he nearly got my little brother and me killed, and his lack of remorse for his actions. I can repeat his inappropriate critiques of my body and his degrading remarks about my mother. I can continuously cycle through the times his buddies hit on me and the times he partook in my own teenage debauchery with my friends. I can analyze the perverted red flags of him taking my friend and me to a remote lake island for a weekend that ended up with him drinking alone while watching two ten-year-olds skinny dip, or that time he tried to sway my friend and I make out at sixteen years old.
As Carl said the last time we spoke, I remember things I’m not supposed to remember.
I remember things I’m not supposed to remember.
My mind harbors a novel of chilling threats, bullying, borderline perversions, and psychological games. My memories are loaded with vitamin force-feedings and locking me outside in the freezing January night, barefoot with nothing but a T-shirt on.
Verbalizing experiences can’t convey what Carl’s hold is truly like. Carl doesn’t do you the favor of punching you in the face and sending you to school with a black eye so that you have a fighting chance of being rescued. Carl doesn’t hit, scream, or molest, allowing you to know you’re being mistreated.
Carl is too brilliant of a tormentor for obvious outbursts. He seeks to control. He digs into your psyche and jabs at open wounds in a form disguised as innocence. He prods your heart in a manner that makes your self-defense appear like the attack. He convinces you that you are deranged and delusional. He reads every scrap of my writing. He spends years dissecting my brain and memorizing them the way the best warriors memorize their enemies.
Carl abuses in a way that you can’t see when you’re in it. He makes you cave inward. He strips you of your confidence as if you can’t survive if he proclaims it. Carl can unleash snarls that will freeze your blood and soft-eyed cries that will thaw it right back. He will annihilate your trust in love.
The most heartbreaking aspect of Carl is that not every moment is hell with him. There were more good times than bad. Abusive relationships exist because they provide enough rations of warmth, laughter, and affection to clutch onto in the heap of degradation. The good times are the initial euphoria that keeps addicts draining their wallets for toxic substances. Scraps of love are food for an abusive relationship.
Scraps of love are food for an abusive relationship.
Even I was seduced by the façade of our improved quality of life. Carl dodged his mail fraud charges. He made tons of money. He spent even more. He bought a large house in the suburbs and filled it with puppies, big screen TVs, and entertainment systems. He’d blast "Money for Nothing" for every new guest so they could feel the ground shake, walls tremble, and eardrums explode. He’d host morale parties for his employees stocked with open bars and bacon wrapped filet mignon.
There was something tragic about Carl. He knew how to go shake hands, make eye contact, carry a conversation, say “please” and “thank you,” and go through all the basic motions of socialization. But his eyes only showed life when he was mocking, ridiculing, or drunkenly performing as the life of a party. He decorated his life with the most lavish material possessions he could obtain — all charms on his bracelet to jingle and dazzle distractions from his truth.
Mom was hypnotized by his promises of security. The large house, the boats, the new cars, the ever-expanding home additions, consecutive surprise diamond rings and gold accessories were his go-to ammunition against any accusations of his negligent spending, sexist remarks, or drunken debauchery. They painted a perfect picture of my privileged, white, suburban childhood.
“Aren’t you glad I married Carl?” Mom once said while we were sunbathing at the helm of Carl’s yacht.
"Aren't you glad I married Carl?" Mom once said.
Mom often boasted about the fruits of her matrimony, but she always seemed to be speaking more to herself than me. That was her personal “I didn’t ruin my life” pep talk. I just nodded, afraid of the consequences of disagreeing.
Mom performed happiness. Her eyes were bright, smile wide, and voice constantly an octave higher than its natural state. It was as if we were living in a beautiful house stocked with fluffy beds, pretty furniture, and delicious food, but were growing ill. We weren’t ill enough for an ambulance. We just adapted to an existence of fatigue and nausea, oblivious to the low dose of poison in our water.
Shortly after the move, Mom was diagnosed with depression. Psychiatrists wrote prescriptions. Carl wrote a check. One day without her meds made her feel like the world was ending. I grew up missing my mom while she was right in front of me.
My illness was more visible. The signs of disturbance evolved with age: Insomnia at seven, anorexia at eleven, and bulimia at fourteen. As a teenager, I indulged in every self-destructive pastime I could stumble upon, from routine shoplifting to methamphetamine smoking.
I went through phases of deeply loving Carl. Ironically, most of his abusive tactics were intertwined with bonding. He was my father, loose and warm with whiskey, rambling on about his sex life with my mother, complaints of her prudence, the development of my body, and various perspectives of an intoxicated misogynist.
I went through phases of deeply loving Carl.
Over the years of her marriage, my relationship with my mother developed into a forbidden affair. We’d have occasional girls' days of manicures, dinner, and movies. We’d bike by the Tennessee River. We’d escape to my grandmother’s house for a four-hour drive through the mountains. It always felt like a quick visit to our old happy days. She was different away from Carl. She spoke more freely and loved me more openly.
Although we’ve had countless arguments, Mom and I have never had a conflict unrelated to Carl.
Carl grew more turbulent. I moved in with my boyfriend shortly after my seventeenth birthday. Being underage, I couldn’t find work that to support my bills. Mom met me for secret lunches, slipped me twenty-dollar bills that Carl wouldn’t notice, and gave me jewelry for me to pawn. We carried our relationship in Carl’s blind spots.
She wanted me to move back home. Every time I considered it, fate would leave Carl and me alone. I would end up running out of the house crying and vowing to never return.
I learned early on that love was treacherous, leaving my heart like an open wound for others to infect.
Mom says that Carl is her soul mate. Her marriage is happier than ever. Mom boasts about the fruits of her matrimony, but she always seems to be speaking more to herself than me. That is her personal “I didn’t ruin my life” pep talk. I disagreed. She mourns me like I’m dead.
She mourns me like I’m dead.
I used to hate Carl. I used to view him as the monster who kidnapped my mother. I hated Mom for abandoning me. I called her a traitor. I called her a failure. I spit fire until my belly was ashen and empty.
I held onto my rage, let it sear my heart, and leave a scar for me to remember before letting it go. I used to see Carl as a burning building my mother refused to leave. I wrote hundreds of pages, plead dozens of cases, spouted a thousand arguments, and cried a million tears. And in my attempts to drag her out of that burning building with hysterical cries, my lungs were filling with smoke and body bruised and bloody from falling debris.
But Carl isn’t the burning building. He is planted in the center of that building and will not leave. Mom covers him, holds him, and will die right there with him, baffled by my refusal to burn with them as a family.
I will love them. I will miss them. I will cry for them. I will wear scars in my heart that will fade, but won’t go away. I will occasionally wake in the night with tears in my eyes from nightmares of them.
But I am done looking for love where it doesn’t exist. I am done coughing up dust in attempts to drink from dry wells.
I will drink water. I will breathe fresh air. I will be free. I will be happy.
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Maggie Young is a Navy veteran, Berkeley graduate, sex-positive feminist, and the author of her gritty memoir, Just Another Number. She describes her writing as "investigative reporting with emotional authenticity." With perpetual wanderlust, Maggie calls herself an emancipated southerner, world traveler, and current Seattle resident. She is 95% vegan and loves to play outside. You can find her at themaggieyoung.com and themaggieyoung.blogspot.com.