BY ELIZABETH THOMSON
"We accept the love we think we deserve."
The first two posts about domestic abuse focused on Candace and Sam, two teenage girls who are still alive. The reader can witness their experiences as they happen. This final post focuses on Charlie’s late Aunt Helen, whose domestic abuse continued into adulthood.
Aunt Helen and her history of abusive relationships play possibly the largest roles in the novel. Arguably, when the reader reaches the epilogue, Aunt Helen's history of abuse is the loudest silent impetus for Charlie's actions. She gives Charlie insight into the role that abuse plays in abusers' lives. For example, when Charlie's father returns from Ponytail Derek's house, Charlie mentions the possibility that Ponytail Derek himself had been hit:
The one thing I did ask my dad was about the boy’s problems at home. Whether or not he thought the parents hit their son. He told me to mind my own business. Because he didn’t know and would never ask and didn’t think it mattered. "Not everyone has a sob story, Charlie, and even if they do, it’s no excuse."
He also points this out to a boy who bullies him:
I keep quiet most of the time, and only one kid named Sean really seemed to notice me. He waited for me after gym class and said really immature things like how he was going to give me a "swirlie," which is where someone sticks your head in the toilet and flushes to make your hair swirl around. He seemed pretty unhappy as well, and I told him so.
Ultimately, this insight helps him heal while he is hospitalized. The reader discovers that Charlie was abused by Aunt Helen. This is an example of how most abusers were abused. The beginning of Aunt Helen's history of abuse dates back to her father. Charlie's grandfather worked in a mill, became an alcoholic, and decided to literally beat it into Aunt Helen and Charlie's mother that they must do well in school because no one in the family would be subjected to working in a mill. He makes this drunken confession to Charlie during the holidays:
"I know how your mom feels about me. I know Helen, too. There was one time . . . I went to the mill . . . no work . . . none . . . I came home at two in the morning . . . pissed and pissed . . . your grandmother showed me their report cards . . . C-plus average . . . and these were smart girls. So, I went into their room and I beat some sense into them . . . and when it was done and they were crying, I just held up their report cards and said . . . 'This will never happen again.' She still talks about it . . . your mother . . . but you know something . . . it never did happen again . . . they went to college . . . both of them. I just wish I could have sent them . . . I always wanted to send them . . . I wish Helen could have understood that. I think your mother did . . . deep down . . . she’s a good woman . . . you should be proud of her." When I told my mom about this, she just looked very sad because he could never say those things to her. Not ever. Not even when he walked her down the aisle.
Their father was missing in their lives. He was physically present. He expressed his love for them in a different way -- by working to provide for them economically -- but was not present to them as they needed him to be. His inability to express his pride in his daughters demonstrates his own incapacitation to love people on their level rather than his own. While Charlie's mother did not choose an abusive husband, the abuse she endured did influence her choice of spouse because, as mentioned above, Charlie's father was also beaten. Not all women enter the cycle of violence. However, Aunt Helen did:
I will not say who. I will not say when. I will just say that my aunt Helen was molested. I hate that word. It was done by someone who was very close to her. It was not her dad. She finally told her dad. He didn’t believe her because of who it was. A friend of the family. That just made it worse. My grandma never said anything either. And the man kept coming over for visits. My aunt Helen drank a lot. My aunt Helen took drugs a lot. My aunt Helen had many problems with men and boys. She was a very unhappy person most of her life. She went to hospitals all the time. All kinds of hospitals. Finally, she went to a hospital that helped her figure things out enough to try and make things normal, so she moved in with my family. She started taking classes to get a good job. She told her last bad man to leave her alone. She started losing weight without going on a diet.
Knowing this helped Charlie to forgive his aunt during his own hospital stay:
It’s like if I blamed my aunt Helen, I would have to blame her dad for hitting her and the friend of the family that fooled around with her when she was little. And the person that fooled around with him . . . But it’s like when my doctor told me the story of these two brothers whose dad was a bad alcoholic. One brother grew up to be a successful carpenter who never drank. The other brother ended up being a drinker as bad as his dad was. When they asked the first brother why he didn’t drink, he said that after he saw what it did to his father, he could never bring himself to even try it. When they asked the other brother, he said that he guessed he learned how to drink on his father’s knee.
Just as the first brother learned a lesson about alcoholism, so Charlie's father learned about treating women. His father's sister, Aunt Rebecca, was deeply affected by their stepfather's abuse and entered the cycle of abuse herself:
Finally, after a few years, my grandma was feeling very sad because she had these two little kids, and she was tired from waitressing all the time. So, one day, she was working at this diner where she worked, and this truck driver asked her on a date . . . And finally they got married. He turned out to be a terrible person. He hit my dad all the time. And he hit my aunt Rebecca all the time. And he really hit my grandma. All the time. And my grandma really couldn’t do anything about it, I guess, because it went on for seven years. It ended finally when my great uncle Phil saw bruises on my aunt Rebecca and finally got the truth out of my grandma. Then, he got a few of his friends together from the factory. And they found my grandma’s second husband in a bar. And they beat him up really bad . . . The guy died four days later in the hospital . . . It’s just too bad that it went on for seven years because my aunt Rebecca went through the same kind of husbands.
It is not worth staying in abusive relationships, no matter how comfortable they sometimes feel. That said, for those of us who have been spared the pain of such relationships must remember that it is far more difficult to break the cycle than it appears. It often takes something -- or someone -- very dramatic to force someone to seek help and establish a new lifestyle. It takes time, strength, courage, and a lot of pain to escape. Nonetheless, it is worth leaving. If you or someone you know experiences any of the above -- or other clues to enduring abusive relationships -- please have compassion and reach out for help. Feeling trapped in these situations does not denote weakness, but rather the human desire for unquenchable love that will never be fulfilled in a human relationship. We accept the love we think we deserve. That love should never include abuse.