Back and Forth by David Winter by David Winter - Read Online

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Back and Forth - David Winter

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Any biography can start by designating the first year of life with the number zero.  No human being attains the age of one year until they have survived the first twelve months of life within the enclosed opening of the number zero.  As symbol, the number zero suggests infinity by drawing a line and enclosing it, becoming emblematic of the space from which we all emerge, the enclosed possibilities of what we might become, and the finite space to which we physically return.  The number zero is the linear symbol that comes to form the circle that releases and shapes us, liberates and establishes limits, while being the age that someone never is. Yet in terms of time it is the numerical signifier of our first year of life.

Time has a way of elucidating everything, in equal measure to the way it obscures it. In  time I managed to earn a graduate degree from an urban university in the western hemisphere, and in many years of work, life, and study I have modestly succeeded in business and researched in the behavioral sciences and literature, and I am doing post-graduate study in contemporary psychotherapeutic theories of healthy human development across the lifespan.  I live apart from my wife yet we love each other; I am middle aged and my parents are deceased; my siblings and I are estranged from each other as my interest in human behavior and the stories that we tell are fundamentally based on the domestic disruptions, physical and emotional, of my early life, what their causes were and how any human being finds the way to articulate their experience of them.  Knowing this, my siblings do not engage me.  This may be so because we share the belief that human beings might recall their past lives through story the way Freud postulated we recall dreams: marred by displacement in the process of their telling.  But we have them, we tell them, we share them with others, doing so in the belief that we will be relieved of their burden.  A load shared is a load lessened, so we assign it value with our best judgment and speak. 

When I was zero, in the first year of life, I had no language, I did not speak.  In my current studies I have learned that the word infant is derived from the Latin in fans meaning non-speaker; the word baby has its root in the Middle English word meaning babble. I have no memory of my time of infancy, but in a kind of dream interpretation I recall the bare limbs of the winter tree outside my bedroom window, the noise of other voices coming from distant rooms, the smell of my own life as I lay and breathed in the world.  In the zero age I had nothing, so from middle age I can fill the distance with all I have now and assert that for every age of this narrative there will be a new chapter, a new memory of an age revived, and each age will speak as clearly through me of its own details and truth and I will surrender them and leave them here. 

This is a document of memoir undertaken to announce the start of the new by being relieved of the emotions of the old; it is an encounter with past detail that, unilluminated by language in an infantile paralysis which endear infants to us, becomes so unappealing and often reviled when in adulthood the language of painful experience remains stuck in mind and body, cowering as it always did in the physical and emotional disruptions of a child’s body under siege.  The infant signals growing into the child by acquiring language and using it; the abused child signals his readiness for the demands of the adult world through regression out of language and does not speak of his experience ever, especially once an adult. This is a Structuralist memoir in episodic narrative principally based on Freud’s theories of human development, suggesting that how these challenges are met is the optimum means to define a child’s growth, as in their absence the abuse is traumatizing, redounding throughout the child’s life. It uses the Structuralist theories of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose ideas on semiology/semiotics foreground the person speaking as the dominant member of any system, as the value assigned through the naming of any object is arbitrarily determined by the speaker, suggesting that all persons within a system, even at its margins, can also claim power through speech. 1.

This document is political, announcing such abused bodies as polity, as a topos, a psychic and physical place where human beings are born and arise and need humane treatment as in its absence and in the presence of adult hostility that life stops, dreaming dies, the body and spirit recoil in desperate slumber until one day through the pain of dis-ease the demand for human decency springs.  It assays how the dominant paradigm of Patriarchy infiltrates all parts of human life with impunity, expressing the most toxic aspects of Patriarchal abuse secretively within its last microcosmic redoubt of the family.

This document is personal, informed by research in literature and the behavioral sciences, revealing how trauma visited on children by their parents is characterized by psychoanalyst Donald Kaschel as a transgenerational diabolical spirit, giving rise to what Bessel van der Kolk has defined as the condition of Complex PTSD with effects impacting its victims across the lifespan. It reflects the work of Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse which posits that in families defined by abuse of substances or behavior there are four roles unconsciously adopted by the children, including hero, lost child, mascot, and scapegoat, revealing what each of my three siblings became with my being relegated the role of scapegoat.2. It uses the models of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and that of Elie Wiesel’s Night as chronicles of surviving the brutality of Patriarchal abuse. Its style most reflects that of Night in how Wiesel simply recounts what happened as the army of Nazi Germany tore him and his family from their home and forced them through harrowing passages to their final destinations of the death camps, which Wiesel barely survived.

Similarly, this text takes the form of a liberatory narrative describing the traumatic lives of children isolated by abusive parents and kept from speaking of the events affecting them throughout their childhood into adulthood.  In response to this, it suggests that a critical context needs to be established for adult survivors of child abuse so that for this generation a clear articulation of these horrific events can be documented so their lessons are learned and future generations of children and parents will not have the secure base of their domestic spaces destroyed by the pathogen of violent adult behavior.  When a critical context for this kind of text is established it will allow survivors of domestic abuse to release the private hell of their secreted emotions into a normative public forum, whether through creative narrative or through criticism of depictions of child characters in English literature. 

As is true with women drawn to the Feminist discourse, people of color drawn to the Postcolonial discourse, and gays and lesbians drawn to the Queer theory discourse, so it should be true of adult survivors of child abuse: the pain of private experience is made public and shared through its articulation in the forum of critical contextualization, where their narratives are engaged in university discursive practices with the same level of respect as those of individual members who emerge with narratives of alterity from these other groups. 

In this way the narratives of adults who are survivors of childhood abuse would not be dissimilar to the Classic Slave Narratives of the 19th-century.  Arguably, it will not be until such narratives are accepted within a critical context that domestic child abuse will remain as painful a cultural epidemic as the American slave trade of the 19th-century had been.  As was true with the slave trade and the narratives it inspired, the domestic abuse of children will not stop until the narratives of those who have suffered from its effects have been fully articulated and given a critical context within the culture of public discourse outside of the abusive family.  If such an effort worked to educate and lessen the punishing effects of sexism, racism, and homophobia, then it will also work to lessen the punishing effects in the lives of abused children and the damaged adults they become. According to Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, adults seeking medical help who knew adverse childhood experiences in their families of origin have a far higher rate of physical health maladies than those who did not, which, with the rocketing rates of healthcare costs, is at least one practical reason to encounter the issue of child abuse and neglect head on. 3.

Most importantly, with the behavior of White Anglo-Saxon Patriarchs being at the heart of Critical Theories’ complaints, it is time to look past the assumption that Patriarchal aggression is solely founded on the capital system in which these men compete, and where it is felt that they project onto others all negative aspects of their characters when they fail to win.  Indeed, rather than privileging their competitive skills, capitalism rewards the majority of men for their social skills of collaboration. As the early work of psychoanalyst W.R.D. Fairbairn makes clear, human beings are not born with aggression as a phylogenetic inheritance, or as the Christian taint of Original Sin; instead, all human aggression is learned through the shaping behavior of parents or primary caregivers. 

Accordingly, this document chronicles the traumas of my own childhood abuse and how I have lived with its effects, garnering strength from what I’ve endured and sharing what I’ve learned to help other adult survivors of child abuse rise into their futures with a sense of hope. Its practical function is two-fold: to serve as a narrative model for other survivors of child abuse to claim their story through language, and to militate a theory-based rhetoric suggesting that such narratives be given acceptance in university discursive practices, whether expressed in creative or in critical writing.

If the number zero represents nothing then one would think such an infant year would be clean and quiet, as yet unsullied by time and events. Of course I know that it was, my time, once unmarred by cruel behavior; but I have lived through that violence and its effects, have managed to work, strive, achieve, and grow, yet still know that the personal past always informs the personal present, feeds up from an ocean simultaneously familial and distinctly my own. So I fill my number zero with what amounts to a lens of what I have become, to acknowledge how I now assign meaning to events that happened in spare detail, from my first year to this hard-won view in the summer of my fifty-seventh year.


I have a happy thought, imagining myself on my first birthday in December 1953.  I have no memory of that year; my dream of it remains the bare limbs of the deciduous tree outside the panes of glass of the New England window.  I also have the dream of my mother, the warmth of her body, its smell, the assurances of it through her soft song.  In time I came to know the wider prospect of the house I then shared with my parents and two older siblings; yet even though these impressions were later formed, still I know some part of me knew then, at age one, that they were all there, coming to see me, breathing through the bars of my crib and playing and laughing and the good feelings rising through the house we then made our home.  The age of one, as I recall it now, was a very happy time.


So was the age of two also a happy time.  Mother was a lot with me, carrying me out to the rooms upstairs and then downstairs to the living room, to the kitchen, to the backyard in summer.  I can remember the blue sky outside, the light and sky of summer, the laughter of my mother’s aunts and mother, the swell of caring females, the great uncomplicated generosity of this time.  By its end I can now remember walking, and somewhere in this year I had my first fall down the unprotected stairs, garnering my mother’s grievous attention and initiating the installation of an accordion gate at the top of the stairs.  I remember my scuffed baby shoes, the sweet soured smell of food and mother, the mess of being small and alive.  I remember the intense feelings of safety and adult protection; the shared, regenerative heat of familial love.  My parents made these things and gave them to me, and some part of me then deeply knew it, and through the lens of what I have become in time I still love it.


I remember walking and falling; sore knees and soiled clothes.  I remember the warmth of sunlight in dirt and sand I used to play in, my mother nearby in her chaise lounge as my older sister and I were too young for school and my mother stayed at home to watch and help us grow.  I remember my mother being around but I do not remember much of what we did with her or her with us.  I remember a photograph of myself and my older sister on tricycles in winter clothes, in late fall or early spring, the New England light slanted low and lean, my sister and I smiling at the camera that my mother must have held.  She fed us breakfast and lunch and was there for us in every way I can recall as being important; within the camera’s frame I felt both warm and contained, and as I recall them now the smiles my sister and I displayed mirrored the depth of secure feeling we shared and reflected on each other as children who were loved.

Our house was a kind of New England farmhouse, with a small barn across the yard that had been remodeled to accommodate cars.  In that photograph my older sister and I smiled from our tricycles that we had stopped in the driveway in between, and we were happy.  Behind us in the photograph was a small outbuilding, a shed, that was near the backdoor and kitchen.  To avoid our mother’s rages my sister and I used to go to the bathroom behind it during these early years, and despite the obvious residue this practice created neither my father nor mother ever commented on this usage; neither did one compel the other to question its origin or to help the behavior to stop.  That year I had an accident in the bathroom and in her sudden fury my mother yelled at and beat me. That is the first time I recall being ashamed of myself, at the age of three.


When I was four I watched TV with my older brother and sister in our family’s living room.  By then my brother was nine and my sister six.  By then my parents had had the only formal birthday party they were to ever have for one of their children, for my brother their firstborn child, with many of my parents’ extended family members, parents and aunts, brothers and sisters, present in the only photograph that contains both sides of their extended family seated at a single gathering.  There was tension around the smiles and eyes of those two families’ members as they sat opposite each other in the formality of the small dining room; my parents being the firstborn of their respective families, I suppose, engendering the forced obeisance that brought these discomforted people together.  I am not in that photograph and imagine that instead I was in the neighboring living room in front of the new technology of television, watching the cowboys and Indians shoot at each other in a movie on the small screen.

At the age of four I spent more time outside, often alone, swinging violently at the air as I imagined myself a righteous warrior, a cowboy, being victorious over the depraved and unruly Indians.  I also began to play games like hide and seek, and kick-the-can, with my older brother and sister and some of the other kids in the area, and I made my first, same-aged friend, Jackie, who lived several houses down our fairly well-traveled rural road. I was only brought to play at Jackie’s house on one occasion that I remember, and then Jackie never came into my life again either through play or school.  For all I know he was someone I invented.

The summer of my fourth year I wandered out of my family’s front yard and followed the rustic two-lane route along its sandy shoulder toward what must have been my sense of life and action.  In later years I came to know that the state authorities were then putting in a major freeway to the tip of Cape Cod that extended all the way down from Boston.  Our town was then very remote and rural, forty miles south of Boston, and now I only recall the story being told and so over time I have come to ascribe certain values to it; but for some reason I walked away from my mother hanging clothes out in the bright summer sun, she had my older brother and sister and one-year-old baby sister also to care for, and I walked up the small rise of our front yard and onto the sandy gravel of the busy two-way route and steadily walked a half-mile to where a large number of construction workers were putting in the new, post-World War II interstate highway. 

The story goes that I got to the highway, a construction worker found me and he very patiently took me by the hand and asked me from which direction I had come, then he proceeded to walk me toward home.  I like to think that I can distinctly remember his asking me as we passed each house in turn, Is this the house you live in?…how about this one?…or this?… and that is how I remember it.  Finally we got to our house, I remembered it, and I remember how my mother later told the story of how she was running in the driveway frantically calling my name and was greatly relieved and thankful that a kind stranger had looked out for me in trying to take me home.


My birthday being late in the year, my parents nonetheless wanted another high-achieving son so they entered me at age four into kindergarten with my turning five in December.  Ours was a small town then, the fall of 1957, and everyone seemed comfortable and kind.  Yet I remember my mother standing at the backdoor of our farmhouse exhorting me to hurry, hurry, as I anxiously ran past her and up the grade of the yard to the flexing door of the school bus that solemnly sat waiting for me.  I made my first friends on that bus and at school and came to like them all beneath the warmth and benevolence of our teacher, Mrs. Browning.  School became a good, safe place, and I liked it.


The year I turned six my brother turned eleven, and that spring and summer he followed the superheroes he then found on TV and made his own costumes and became like Buck Rogers and Green Lantern, charging across our father’s yard and backwoods and leading several of the neighboring kids in imaginary swash-buckling play.  I could almost keep up with him but he was always too fast.  In time I played with kids who were closer to my age, the older kids of my brother’s crowd proved too big and strong for me so I played with their younger brothers.

In the fall I entered first grade and the sunny classroom of Mrs. Crane.  There were always arts and science, paints and plants, alive and growing there and I felt so happy to be in that room.  Mrs. Crane never raised her voice or bristled, nor betrayed a sense of anger or annoyance of any kind; the only time she gave me concerned attention was when I got an unprovoked bloody nose in class.  She did all she could to stop it with the full focus of her gentleness and concern.  Finally a phone call to my father at home, who had dealt with my bloody noses before, gave her the instructions to stop the bleeding. 

Sometime in the school year we all made drawings of our favorite animals and with the help of Mrs. Crane we put them up on the wall for the much anticipated parent-teacher night.  I remember how much I wanted my father to notice how well I had worked, and I put up the simple drawing of my duck with much joy in anticipation that my mother, and especially my father, would see and appreciate my first self-conscious creation. 

That night while my parents were out talking with Mrs. Crane, I anxiously waited for their return. By then I knew that my father was an engineer, which to my very young mind meant that he went away every morning to authoritatively drive locomotives to and from Boston, which, I found out later, he did not do; in fact, he was an electrical engineer.  But I had seen him carrying in his breast pocket a red marking pencil that was similar to the pencil Mrs. Crane used to mark our primary school papers.  When I rushed into our first grade classroom the next morning I ran up to the large bulletin board which had fastened to it all of the artwork that Mrs. Crane’s students had each put on display for the appreciative parents the night before.  When I got to my artistic rendering of the duck, I saw that someone had come in the night and had used a red marking pencil to put on top of the page a beautiful red star. 

I remember I had a profound sense of something that I can recall now as being close to ecstasy: the sight of that red star told me that my father had come to my classroom and touched something I had created and had shown his appreciation and approval of it by taking his red marking pencil and with benevolence and care, had marked it with his singular star.

I remember standing transfixed before the bulletin board peering at the star, when some of my first grade classmates began coming into the room and they too went up to their artistic creations and they too stared transfixed at them.  At first I could not understand what the others were seeing that made them so in awe when looking at their creations.  Then I stepped back and looked at what was on their artwork and as was the case with mine, each of them had a red star marked at the top of the page that showed some benevolent force’s approval.  At the time, once I realized that the other kids also had a red star placed on their artwork, I simply thought that my father had spread his beneficence around and had gone from page to page transcribing a red star on top of it.  I don’t know how long it was before I realized that it had been Mrs. Crane who had marked each paper with the red star and that in fact my father, although he had been present to it, in no way had recognized anything I created.


In the fall when I was six I entered the second grade classroom of Mrs. Peck. I had only seen gray-haired older women through my experience of my maternal and paternal grandmothers, but because I had regular contact with both I was not overly surprised to see such a gray-haired older woman running a classroom.  In what could only now be a caricature of New England propriety for a female of her time, Mrs. Peck could be described as being asexual and so perhaps an appropriately irritated person who tended to take out her repression on very young, impressionable children.  But even as a six-year-old I remember being terrified of her as she seemed perpetually annoyed and aggravated and, it seemed to me even then, that she directed a lot of her hostile energy toward me and this came to make me suspicious of her.

In the course of that year there were many episodes where I felt that she was being overly severe not only to myself but to many of my fellow students; there were many episodes where she seemed to go out of her way to make fun of the way her students could not add or read, and as I recall it was at her suggestion that I was referred to a group of slower students who were segregated from the rest of the class and taken off to a special classroom where we were taught developmental reading.  These early experiences in education were the first episodes where I became self-conscious of being less intelligent than the other students; Mrs. Peck had very little patience with me in her perception that I could not keep up with the other children. As a result, for two hours every day I was sent to a special classroom where I was made to sit with students from a variety of levels, some of whom were clearly developmentally challenged and were looked upon by the other kids as being retarded.  This is when I began to feel as though I was falling away from the new daily society of school and its normative mean from which I was being separated.

Of course, as a young child I did not see any correlation between these more social, public offenses and the deeply personal and private offenses that were happening at home. In December of that second year of school I turned seven; three years before my mother had returned home with a brand-new baby sister, the youngest child of our family. In the late spring of that year my parents decided to sell our small farmhouse that was located on a fairly busy road and situated in a very visible, highly accessible lot, and moved us to a house up a long dirt driveway that was surrounded by pine trees and three acres of densely wooded land.

I can remember for the few years preceding this, with my brother being five years older than me, that our father would suddenly appear in our bedroom on Saturday mornings, having burst through our bedroom door, and he would just be standing there tensing with his hands clenched, and he would hoarsely whisper at us to keep the goddamned noise down.  In that first bedroom I can remember that I had gone through the measles, the chicken pox, the mumps; and I can remember having looked in the small bedroom mirror that my parents must have placed on the wall and seeing my face as it went through the various markings of these conditions.  I can remember the intense fevers I had while being sick with each of these diseases and I can remember that my bed was tucked up against a wall on one side of the room and my brother’s bed was tucked up against the wall of the other. 

I can also remember that my parents tied my hands to ropes and attached these over the edge to the bed frame, as I was expected to stay still and sleep that way till morning every night.  I remember that previously my mother used to also apply a salve she had made of hot spices and some kind of gelatin, and she would put this onto my thumbs to keep me from nervously sucking them.  I do not remember being allowed any kind of transitional object or early childhood toy left over from infancy, and I can see now that I must have tried to assuage the normative anxiety at being separated from my mother’s body through the excessive sucking of my thumbs.  I recall my mother being disgusted by this insecure habit of mine, and I remember her ridiculing me – and my older sister for her finger-sucking –  for having it, warning us both to stop acting like babies and initiating a theme she repeated throughout our childhood: to grow up as quickly as we could.  I remember as a young child being tied to that bed, being told I would always be made fun of at school for sucking my thumb; so my hands were tied at the wrists with my hands pulled down at my side and I was left all night in the dark. This went on until the behavior stopped.  I have no other memories of being in that room other than the memory of awe and surprise in hearing my father’s heavy and sudden footfall as he stalked down the hall of the second floor of the house and abruptly pushing open our bedroom door on Saturday mornings and standing there in the middle of the room with his fists clenched while uttering through his jaw keep the goddamned noise down.

Sometime before my December birthday, as the colder fall weather enclosed New England and drove our childhood energies inside, one night after dinner the entire family broke away from the table and its verbal tensions and my brother and I began to engage in a game of tag, calling out you’re it!’ as we tagged the other then tried to twist and run away, avoiding the expected tag" response.  As the game continued the annoyance of our parents increased and my older brother responded to it as I ran away by tagging me with an aggressive push that sent me tripping over the kitchen threshold and flying headfirst into the living room where I landed hard on a coffee table’s corner, opening a gash beneath my left eye.  With it being a head wound there was a geyser of blood that flew from my face and my parents responded in alarm as they were avid to discern if I had lost my eye. My mother screamed at my father to retrieve the cotton fiber diapers that remained from my baby sister’s bassinette, and on his return they cleared away the blood and saw that my eye was intact but that there was a two inch cut deep beneath my eye. My father sat me upright to have the blood drain from my head and he applied pressure to the wound to staunch its bleeding.

We lived just a few miles north of the county hospital in a neighboring town where my parents could have brought me to receive the stitches and thorough treatment such an injury requires, but they avoided that choice as it would involve the prospect of my being the victim of domestic abuse, social workers might get involved to ask me privately what life was like with my parents and siblings; so instead my parents chose to take me to the local town doctor who they would rouse from his evening rest and enlist him to address this condition as he was our family doctor.

My parents bundled me up and sat me upright in the back seat of their car, telling me over their shoulders to use my hand to keep applying pressure to the wound with the diaper, which by then was saturated with blood.  When we arrived at the family doctor’s office the night was thick with dark and we were greeted by him at the door of his house as my parents had phoned in advance to alert him to the emergency. My father carried me in his arms with great annoyance through this doctor’s stately home and out to his adjoining office where he told my parents to lay me on the examination table. He then removed the saturated diaper and peered into my wound and leaned back and told my parents that he would have to stitch the wound up, as it was too large to be contained another way.  He then turned to retrieve the instruments he needed and came back to tell my parents that he was reluctant to do the job, the county hospital would be where they would have to take me. He said he had run out of his supply of anesthetic with which to numb my skin and through which he would have to pull needle and thread to sew the two opposing sides of the wound together to unite the torn sides of my cheek.

From on my back I could see the three huge adults above me discussing this and heard my parents insist that I would be all right, they wanted the procedure done here, and they assured the doctor that they would each hold me down on either side by my arms and legs and that the doctor should immediately proceed in sewing up this opening to my face.

Even then I felt there was an air of desperation in this choice, as the doctor did not agree with it but my parents were adamant, and they each bent heavily over me clasping an arm and leg and they frantically looked at the doctor and told him he should begin the stitching without the anesthetic immediately.  With resignation the doctor complied and turned to prepare for the procedure and returned with what was the technology for making stitches in human flesh at the time: a sanitized set of needle and thread. He then seemed to go into a kind of trance as he blocked out the screams I was making and the sounds of each of my parents as they shouted from either side of him that I needed to shut up, this would soon be over; and as I felt the long needle pierce and pull through my skin and the long line of the thread that followed, then on through the other side where that junction of the wound was coming together, the doctor continued expertly with his plan and made several stitches along the two inch-wide gap of my cheek. I writhed, kicked, and screamed with each battery of his intervention as my parents equally shouted at me and squeezed my small arms and legs hard down onto the table. Their three faces leered down into mine, each one of these adults having objectives that had little to do with me as a feeling being and far more with me as an object that my parents could later present to their relatives and neighbors as the result of a mere accident rather than a byproduct of domestic abuse: a familial mandate they strove to maintain in secrecy and silence, serving as a model for myself and my siblings for the rest of our lives.

By the spring of my seventh year my parents had found our new house up a long dirt lane that wound remotely into the surrounding woods.  It was roughly a mile away from our old house with nearby cranberry bogs and two fairly large ponds, several old farms and an occasional old house that had probably been put up some time in the previous century.  Although our living in that house for the next ten years proved to have many benefits as there were so many woods and fields, so many ponds and cranberry bogs, so many places for me and my friends to engage the sport of the season with