My mother didn’t just beat me when I was a little guy, she assaulted me. Habitually.
Fortunately, the bond between mother and child is a resilient one and we reconnected emotionally as I sat beside her 30 years later in her hospice room in Tacoma, Wash., in 2004.
Mom sought the forgiveness of the little boy I had once been – “the male chauvinist piglet” she relentlessly bullied, choked, and beat from ages 7 to 13 – from the 39-year-old feminist man she helped form. And I granted her that solace.
“I’m sorry,” my 61-year-old mother murmured weakly, her once vibrant body drained of energy by cancer. “I was a terrible mom.”
It was true.
Especially when she was overwhelmed by her outrage with the institutional sexism in American society at the height of the Equal Rights Movement in the 1970s. I was a helpless surrogate for the violence which bubbled to the surface when her temper boiled over, as the only male in the household. Too small to defend myself, too devoted to her to think of running away, and too embarrassed to talk about what was happening inside my family with anyone outside of it.
It’s hard to explain to someone who has never had an abusive parent, but I thought I was doing something to precipitate these attacks right up until the very end. I had no frame of reference and thought I was at fault for the beatings, rather than the only mother I had ever had.
Mom behaved just like a mean drunk, except she didn’t have a drinking problem. Her elixir of choice was hate, and the one thing she hated above all others in the 70s was men.
“You remember the time I knocked you out with a wooden hangar,” she asked, looking up at me from her hospital bed with her big, round, hazel eyes.
“No,” I said. “I have no memory of that.”
“You don’t?” she said, her look of disbelief quickly morphing into concern. “You were under the bed, trying to get away. Remember?”
Searching my memory, I drew a blank.
“Nah,” I said. “I got nothing ma.”
“No?” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “Well, I’m sorry anyway. I shouldn’t have done that.”
I was reminded of my mother and her tortured feminist soul today as I read a misandrous article in The Daily Beast seeking to justify group bias toward men. It called on Facebook to carve an exception for online hate speech for militant feminists who say things like “all men are scum” and “all men are rapists” and direct terms like “mansplaining” and “the patriarchy” toward those who express ideas other than their own.
The flawed rationale of this new misandry is that men are not “a protected group” and are therefore second-class citizens by default, who may be vilified with impunity. Much as I was once vilified by an abusive mother for having the audacity to be brought into this world with external genitalia.
This brand of hate-filled feminism is becoming more common in Trump’s America, as our nation’s first fascist president and his credulous supporters pollute the public forum with fear mongering, group bias, and name calling. Some feminists want to repay them in their own coin by embracing the primitive tribalism of overt sexism.
It’s not reverse sexism. It’s sexism. Another form of the primitive tribalism of group bias which precludes individuals from defining themselves by their own actions and choices.
I know from hard-won personal experience that this kind of supremacism is not the right direction for those of us on the left. It is quite literally the way to madness. A toxic path which threatens to unhinge and consume those who travel along it. No matter how noble their intentions.
This version of identity politics has the potential to alienate progressive men like me who consider ourselves feminists. Thereby clearing the way for the regressive backlash some political opportunists have sought to provoke among the poor and faltering middle class.
I always thought we were battling to dismantle the American caste system and create a world where each of us should be judged by the content of our character. Instead of the group traits we were born into.
Not to replace the group bias, political corruption, and entitled tyranny of the members of the country club set with external genitalia with the group bias, political corruption and entitled tyranny of those with internal plumbing.
But what do I know?
After all, I’m attempting to speak-while-male to a group which includes women hellbent on revenge.
Sadly, I already know exactly what it feels like to displease the travelers on this particular road less taken. From firsthand experience.
“Remember the time I choked you?” Mom asked.
“Which time,” I said as she nervously fingered the self-medicate button hanging from her bed.
I could see the feral mask of her twisted face in my mind’s eye and feel the heat of her unhinged breath on my cheek. The mad strength of her fingers around my neck.
“The time when we lived in the public housing complex in Tacoma,” she said.
“Yeah, I remember,” I said, trying to appear impassive. “That was a long, long time ago mom.”
Deathbeds are the final opportunity for self recrimination in this world and my mother was determined to finally cleanse her soul before she passed on. After decades of denial.
“Yeah, well, I’m sorry,” she said, tearing up again as she pressed the self medicate button.
In a few seconds she was sound asleep. Eyebrows still furrowed in pain.
What was my crime?
I was a little boy in a militant feminist household run by a woman whose passion for change and social justice was so overwhelming that they pushed her into the abyss of mental illness. She was my hero, despite her excesses, and still is in many ways. She was also my villain.
I adored Carol’s quixotic approach to an unjust world and the way she tried and failed so many times to make it better. If Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter had existed in her time she would have been part of those laudable movements for social justice. Just as she would have been in Standing Rock, N.D., in the winter of 2016-2017 to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Beating me the whole goddamn way.
On her good days, Carol was a great mom. On her bad days, she was a monster. A beast. A twisted caricature of immoderate feminism who reveled in her ability to inflict pain on the men in her life, without regard for size, age, or personal accountability.
I was an active kid and it was easy to conceal the bruises and scratches she inflicted among those from basketball, football, wrestling and baseball. I was terrified of displeasing her.
Back then I used to sleep walk like crazy, searching for the Carol who loved me.
Carol was a brainiac who worked for Boeing and The Rand Corp. think tank in the early 60s, at a time when most women were still housewives. She was the grand-daughter of August Palm – co-founder of the Swedish Socialist Party – and had been infused with a familial abhorrence for tyranny and injustice.
Mom gave up her nascent career as a professional woman to start a family in 1963. However, she bristled at the resulting loss of independence.
She was painfully aware of the systemic inequalities in male-female relations and an enthusiastic supporter of the Civil Rights and Indian Rights movements, and Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She mourned John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. until the final day of her life.
The 70s was a period of great change in American society. As our nation came more and more unglued, she did too. Especially as the ERA failed to secure the state legislative support required for ratification by the initial 1979 deadline.
I would eat my Captain Crunch cereal each morning in our New Jersey home in my footed pajamas while flipping between TV cartoons, news reports about Vietnamese body counts, and footage of police savagely beating protesters. When we traveled into New York City the highway medians were filled with the makeshift camps of hippies and antiwar protesters.
The chaotic pace of change, distrust for government institutions, and sense that the nation was tearing itself apart was eerily reminiscent of today. I lived those historic and relatively lawless times beside my mom. Both for better, and for worse.
Carol campaigned for liberal presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1972; worked as a teacher in Newark, N.J., under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act in 1974; and taught on the Puyallup Indian Reservation in Washington State in 1975-76.
Our homes in Palisades Park, N.J. and Tacoma, Wash., were always a mecca for local feminists. However, the flavor became more militant with the passage of time. Just like my mom.
Mom surprised me by stealing an expensive Polaroid camera from a local pharmacy in Palisades Park in 1973. Grabbing the display model as the old pharmacist – who was her friend – puttered around in the back.
How do I know?
I was right there beside her at age 8. Trying to understand why stealing was wrong for me, but not for her.
Carol didn’t steal the camera because we couldn’t afford it. It was more like she was trying out her new anti-establishment persona.
Her liberal bent meant that I was simultaneously exposed to both traditional social programming, progressive ideas, and members of traditional victim groups at an early age.
The first black people I met were a family she took into our home in 1973 at a time when Palisades Park was overwhelmingly white and Catholic. They were from nearby Newark, which was still recovering from the race riots that claimed 26 lives there in 1967.
I padded down to the basement one morning to play and was surprised to find four complete strangers sleeping peacefully, surrounded by my toys.
I climbed into mom’s bed afterward and slid my little body under the warm covers beside her. Carol’s hazel eyes fluttered open after a few seconds, just long enough to take in both me and the clock on the bedside table.
“Mom,” I said, shaking her awake. “Mom.”
“What?” she said irritably. “What can you possibly want at seven in the morning on a Sunday?”
“There’s people downstairs.”
“So?” she said, closing her eyes again.
“There’s black people downstairs,” I continued.
“I know,” she said. “I put them there. That’s one of my students and her family. They’re going to be staying with us for a few days. You’re going to like them and you’re going to be nice to them.”
“They’re not going to play with my toys are they?” I asked seriously.
“They might,” she said. “And I expect you to share. You’ve got plenty of toys.”
That was back when Carol was just starting to get rough with me, and going from spankings to outright beatings. When I still loved her so much that I would tag along to the meetings of her Brownie Troop just to be near her.
Somewhere along the way Mom’s feminism morphed into outright hatred for men. She burned her bra and kicked dad out in 1972, even though he was a good man and a fellow liberal, and began crusading for change.
Once dad was gone, I became the focus of her anger with the world.
Mom’s feminist fury congealed into physical abuse more and more afterward, as she struggled to make her way in a man’s world.
It was a tough path and her impulse control seemed to dissipate as she grew increasingly bitter.
Carol moved home to Tacoma in 1976 with her 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter in tow.
When dad flew out to Washington State from New York City for his first scheduled visitation I met him at the door of our rental home. Mom appeared at the top of the stairs a few seconds later with a .38-caliber snub nosed revolver in her hand.
If I hadn’t stepped in front of him, she would have used it. No doubt in my mind.
I can still hear her shrill voice, screaming “get out of the way” over and over. Afterward, dad and I walked down the sidewalk in the dark to his car. The World War II combat veteran was crying softly, having just flown across the country to see his kids for a few days after many months apart.
It never crossed his mind to call the police.
We spent about five minutes together. Afterward, there were fewer visits and they all entailed my flying out to see him.
“You remember that time I left you with Virginia Cameron?” Carol asked, bringing me back to the present. She was awake again.
“Yeah,” I said.
Carol and I had locked eyes in her car’s rear-view mirror as she drove off. Leaving me behind with a complete stranger with neither a word of explanation nor warning.
I had nothing but the clothes on my back that first day.
I don’t know whether Carol left me with Virginia in 1976 because she couldn’t stop beating me or because she couldn’t take care of me anymore.
Virginia was an elderly woman who ran a kind of boarding house for the children of oil field workers while their parents were away in Alaska. She fed us, washed our clothes, made sure we did our homework, and gave us a bed to sleep in. She even sent us off to school with a bag lunch every day. Something my mother had stopped doing years earlier.
I wound up staying with Virginia for a couple months, while mom lived across town with my sister. It was the first time I’d eaten regularly in nearly five years.
“She was a nice lady,” Mom said of Virginia.
“Yeah,” I agreed companionably. “Real nice. She had a wonderful dog, too. You remember that Collie she had?”
I have fleeting childhood memories of being treated differently than my older sister; of being relentlessly scapegoated and bullied by my mother for the sins of all men; and of my best friend’s parents discreetly feeding me up each time I visited their home.
Carol was running with a younger crowd and she made a point of humiliating me in front of them during a trip to the New Jersey shore in 1975, when I was just 10. It was the first time she behaved like that toward me in public.
Back then, it was considered rude to tell another parent how to raise their kids. Much less report them to the authorities. I don’t know if anyone ever said anything, but they never did so in front of me until the very end.
Decades later, Carol’s best friend Lorraine Gerson called me in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – where I was working as a newspaper reporter – to apologize for not doing more to protect me. I was so amazed and confused by the flood of memories the conversation elicited that I couldn’t even process what she was saying.
My troubled childhood wasn’t all bad.
For every time Mom choked me there was a 3 a.m. chess game when we talked like best friends about everything from feminist theory to politics to race relations.
For every time she hit me with a wooden hangar or a package of clothesline, there was a trip to the library to work on a book report together. She showed me how to do basic research and organize my thoughts.
I still have a beaded necklace that I put together at an arts and craft class on the Puyallup Indian Reservation while Carol taught night school there. Before she lost the job in a political dustup that would have a devastating impact on her mental health. I never did get to finish it.
Mom launched a one-person crusade to end prostitution on the reservation in 1975, without understanding her students needed the money they made hooking to feed their kids. It was a tough way to live but it was a living all the same.
We came home one day to find that our rental home had been broken into and ransacked. There were threatening messages written in lipstick on the bathroom mirrors, telling Carol to back off.
Mom left teaching afterward and fell into a deep state of depression. She rarely left home and the beatings became more frequent and more severe afterward. She was mad at the world and it seemed like she was also furious with me all the time.
Our household roles were upside down after that. Even though mom was unemployed, my sister and I did all of the cleaning and put together most of our own meals. Carol would give us a list of chores each weekend and then come though with a white glove afterward to inspect.
It always seemed to pick up something. When it did, I’d get beaten again.
I still despise white gloves to this very day. They’re not pretty to me. They’re evil.
I was a sweet kid. So much so that I can recall crying at age 11 as I fought an older boy who simply would not stop bullying me. I beat the hell out him, crying the whole time. It never crossed my mind that I could do the same thing to my abusive mother until I turned 13 in 1978.
That’s when the private whippings began to give way to more public attacks. The negative reactions of those who witnessed them liberated me of the idea that I was responsible for them.
“You remember that time you thought I was trying to run you over with the car?” Carol said, breaking into my reverie.
“Yeah,” I replied, recalling her fat fingers gripping the steering wheel with manic intensity as the big car roared past me. Missing by inches.
“That one I remember,” I added.
“Well, I wasn’t trying to hit you,” she said. “I was just trying to scare you.”
There was a long pause as I stifled myself, recalling the events of that distant day at a campground in rural Washington State. It began with Carol sneaking up behind me and trying to take my head off with a pipe-like package of clothesline as we stayed with another family at a shared campsite.
I was sitting on a log beside three other boys, who all recoiled in shock.
Mom and I were almost the same height by then and my hands balled into fists afterward as I stared back at her defiantly. It was the first time I ever considered defending myself.
I ran away instead and she chased me down by car and tried to run me over. Repeatedly.
I escaped into the woods afterward.
One of the boys from camp brought me some sandwiches and promised to keep the location of my new hideout near the campground secret. Ten minutes later he was back with his mom, who said the local police had been searching for me all day. There was an APB, or All Points Bulletin, out on me.
She said it was up to me whether I wanted to return to camp, but she thought it was best.
“Nah, thanks anyway, but I think I’ll stay here,” I said.
Suddenly, it wasn’t my decision anymore.
The result was Mom’s proverbial Come-to-Jesus moment.
I don’t know exactly what the police said to her after meeting with me, but I believe they gave her a choice between jail and letting me fly back east to live with my dad in the Bronx.
The family camping with us took me to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport the next day, where dad had a plane ticket waiting for me. I boarded the plane with empty pockets and the clothes on my back again.
Didn’t need no luggage.
If the same thing had happened today, Mom would have been locked up for sure. However, times were different in 1978 and the cops were much slower to arrest people for drunk driving or beating their loved ones. Child abuse was perceived to be a guy thing.
I still recall what I overheard one cop telling her.
“You can’t keep treating your boy like this,” he said. “He’s getting too big and one day he’s going to realize he can hit you back.”
I had been living with my dad and stepmom in the Bronx for a year when Carol forced herself back into our lives in 1978.
She returned to our former home in Palisades Park without warning and barricaded herself inside with my 15-year-old sister. When the tenant returned with his wife and kids she fired a shot at him.
Mom claimed it was just a warning shot, but the local police were bullshit intolerant. They surrounded the house and brought in their SWAT team.
Dad rushed over there from work in Manhattan and had a massive heart attack on the front lawn as he tried to convince her to give up.
I distinctly recall seeing them together in a photo on the the front-page of The Bergen Record the next day as my stepmother and I entered the hospital to visit him. Dad was splayed out on the front lawn, with the paramedics working on him. Mom was standing at the front-door in the background with the .38 in her tiny hand, looking like Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.
The image seemed like an apt symbol for both their stormy romance and the chaotic state of our hopelessly confused society at the time.
The really weird thing is that the two of them never entirely stopped loving one another. It was like they were a pair of corks bobbing helplessly in the turbulent waters of a changing society. Sometimes those waters brought them together and sometimes they tore them apart.
Despite all her craziness, dad never bad-mouthed Carol. He’d always admired her courage and he seemed to understand where she was coming from somehow.
The standoff with police and subsequent jail time took some of the vinegar out of Carol and she settled down afterward. It helped that I grew six inches and packed on some adolescent muscle the first year I lived with dad.
I avoided Mom almost completely afterward, with the exception of weddings and the like. When we did get together, things were very tense. She wouldn’t come clean about the past and I refused to forgive her until she did.
I never touched her, with the exception of a single kick in the ass when she started messing with me at my sister’s wedding in 1990.
It felt damn good to finally give her a taste of her own medicine and show her that I had the power now, as I towered over her as a 25-year-old.
I understand where the new misandry comes from in that respect.
However, I also realized that I needed to focus on the kind of person I wanted to be, instead of the person Carol had been. I was no longer the helpless child, quaking at her feet. I was her equal. In fact, I was more than her equal.
And that is the single most useful advice I can share with my fellow feminists right now as they choose between evolution and vengeance.
I looked up a couple years ago and the chief executive officer of the huge Gannett news conglomerate employing me was a woman. Along with the regional publisher of The Des Moines Register where I worked, its executive editor, two of its three managing editors, and more than half its reporters.
Women were running the place, but they couldn’t see it.
The executive editor started yakking at me one afternoon about the “continuing problem” of bias against women in the news industry. She figured I would sympathize with her – known radical that I am – and was amazed when I didn’t.
“What nonsense, ” I said. “Last time I looked equality was 50-50. We’re way past that now.”
The painful truth is that America’s long suffering women are no longer second-class citizens. All this talk about pay gaps and the like is built on turning a blind eye to the inconvenient fact that many of the ruthless and ambitious managers underpaying women today are also women, and they’re going to keep doing it as long as they can get away with it.
Not because of their gender but because they’re managers. That means their job is to maximize profits and cap labor costs.
Which is a big part of he reason why Painful Truth No. 2 is “the answer to group bias is not more group bias.”
Principled liberalism is about judging people on the basis of their individual choices, rather than the groups they’re born into. It’s about making choices for yourself like being a good person, living a righteous life, and trying to make a better world.
It’s also about challenging injustice and tyranny. Not creating new victims by lumping poor and middle class men together with a bunch of rich old bulls who aren’t even going to be around much longer.
That kind of madness serves no one.
As women assume more and more leadership roles, they are being confronted with the same kind of choice I once faced: Whether to allow their past villains to define them, or to define themselves and lead us all by example.
Never stop asking yourself “how much is too much?”
It’s not something we do well in this country, and it should be.
If my mom had done it a little more often it would have saved us both a helluva lot of heartache.
Victor Epstein is a principled liberal, a feminist and a journalism lifer. He edits The Cynical Times, a nonpartisan news and satire website devoted to the faltering middle class.