As a child growing up in a dysfunctional family, I found out very quickly that my parents’ inability to accept themselves and express their emotions in healthy ways meant that any little thing could be turned into a traumatic experience.
One memory that illustrates this was the bi-weekly clipping of nails. My father decided for whatever mysterious reason that his children had to have short nails. So once every two weeks, he’d call us for nail inspection. We would literally have to line up and show him our nails. Oh, how I scrubbed and scrubbed at my hands and nails before his inspections. I tried so hard to make my nails good enough to pass his inspection—and be spared the biting attention of his nail clippers.
No matter how clean I got them, they were never clean enough. Looking back on this experience, I can see how his tight grip that nearly cut off the circulation to my hand, and the painfully short clip he gave my nails were yet another nail in the coffin, so to speak, of the total control he was trying to exert over his family. I discovered quickly that if I cried when he clipped too close and drew blood that seemed to make him stronger. So I’d turn my head away and endure the procedure.
Unfortunately, though I obviously did survive the 432 nail clippings that he gave me in my childhood years, the consistent brutality of the experience left me with an intolerance bordering on panic when I’ve needed any procedure done as an adult.
I still keep my nails cut short, too, though I’m far gentler with myself than he was. I don’t know whether it was the constant clipping or my own body chemistry, but when I finally tried to grow my nails out as an adult, they never formed lovely oval shapes like many of my friends had. Instead, they grew warped and wobbly, making it more comfortable for me to keep them short.
Another way my father took the simple joys of childhood and turned them into things to endure was when he read us bedtime stories.
Though my mother was not a loving or nurturing person, when she read us stories, it was on long Saturday afternoons when there was nothing else to do. She chose the classics: White Fang, Call of the Wild, Bambi, The Jungle Book. She would describe the beauty of the writing and of the story before she began, and read with sincerity.
My father never did anything—not even the smallest of things—without making it into a way for him to gain more control. I’ve often wondered just how controlling his own father was. As a lawyer, he could be intimidating. I wonder if my father, as a boy, was offered what sounded like a lovely bedtime story by his father, only to have the experience turned into coercion and intimidation.
That’s what my father meant when he offered to read us a bedtime story.
At first, it seemed like a good idea. He’d use his soft, “I’m-such-a-good-daddy” voice, purring with warmth, to woo us children into relaxing and trusting him. Then he’d choose a story with a moral, and spend more time on the moral than on the story. My siblings and I soon learned that we did NOT want to have Daddy tell us bedtime stories because in the end he would make us feel like naughty, bad children.
He could read us a fairy tale: maybe Hansel and Gretel. Only in his mind, Hansel and Gretel were bad children who deserved to be thrown in the witch’s oven, cooked, and eaten. He could read a nature story, only to turn on us at the end and demand that we “admit” to any time we even thought about harming an animal.
As young children this was baffling and confusing, since there was not even the slightest hint in our minds that we would ever harm an animal. None of us were old enough to wonder where these ideas were coming from. The idea that we were somehow already guilty of things that we hadn’t even thought of yet was a rain cloud that hung over us, constantly dripping guilt and shame.
What was worse was when my father realized that none of us wanted him to tell us stories. Then it became more than coercion. It became a matter of control. He lectured us for hours about how he was the head of the house and how we didn’t even need to think. Once he realized we didn’t want him to read us bedtime stories, he made it mandatory. Three or four times a week he’d read to us, peppering us with questions and judging us on our responses.
Afterward, he’d insist on a good night kiss. Just as any pain expressed when he clipped our nails seemed to encourage him, any reluctance to have him kiss us good night was a challenge to his authority and his sense of control. Not only would he kiss us, but long and wet, then he’d rub his stubbly cheeks against our delicate skin—hard.
I tried not to let him know that I cried myself to sleep most nights.
It took me a long time to reclaim the nights. I still sleep by myself and quietly live by my own set of rules. Reclaiming my life has meant reclaiming each moment of the day. I still slip out of moments that cause me stress, but each time I’m able to look them in the face and declare myself in that moment, I take one more step away from my father’s control.