The violence that shaped us

A profound letter to the editor.

Editor’s note: The following letter arrived earlier this month. It’s in reference to a piece I wrote for the Editorial Board in February called “Why Marjorie Taylor Greene could look a Parkland massacre survivor in the eye and call him ‘a coward’.” The reader, who asked that I not use his full name, felt compelled to write after reading a series of tweets I posted that day. In them, I came “out of the closet,” as it were, as an adult who experienced childhood trauma in the form of physical violence. If you have experienced anything similar, please consider sharing your story with the Editorial Board. Write to johnastoehr at gmail dot com. JS


John,

Your column from the Feb. 1 had me doing my usual nodding in agreement. Then you followed up on Twitter with an “in the closet” tweet about being beaten as a child. 

I’m not sure why that was the crystallizing moment for me about my own experience with being “spanked” as a child and how it was an abusive act. I can tell you, however, that my blood ran cold and I started shaking in my seat. I saw your comment shortly afterward that you had gotten a lot of good feedback that day, but I needed a good month to think about it and process it a bit before being able to say anything to you.

In my case, the abuse came at the hands of my mother. My father is a Navy veteran who would spend months at sea, leaving her to handle parenting on her own. Of course, she came from a different time and different school of thought on discipline.

In our house, you were given warnings about misbehavior and failure to correct was met with a pants-down whipping with a belt. I remember vividly that it was always three strokes. I think the most disturbing part was watching my brother when it was his turn. It’s a crystal clear visual—her holding him by the wrist, and his whimpering, then writhing around after being hit trying to avoid the next one. As the oldest, I also did my fair share of taking blame for things to spare him his punishment. 

There are two things that are confusing to me. 

First, it’s not like these memories are something I’ve hidden from myself. I’ve been fully aware of them for a long time, and have even joked at times (long ago) about how I deserved it, or that it was just a different time. When the news came out about NFL running back Adrian Peterson abusing his children, I was one of the people shrugging and saying “Eh, that happened to me and I turned out OK.” I don’t know why it took reading your revelation to make me realize it truly was abuse. I also don’t know why I thought I turned out OK—I am certain that the whippings are directly responsible for the anger issues and general feelings of inadequacy I’ve struggled with over the years.

The second confusing thing is that even though I’m thinking about those moments and recognizing them as abuse, I don’t hold any anger toward my mom. She passed away after a prolonged illness about 12 years ago. I would do nearly anything to have another day with her. She was the single most important influence in my life. I am certain she felt she was doing what was necessary to make my brother and me turn out to be good men. Even with this knowledge, I think she was truly a good person, and I still love her with all my being. That is a messed-up thing to try to reconcile.

I’ll say one last thing and then I’ll leave you alone. 

I’ve been married to my wife for 23-plus years. We went to pre-marital counseling with a Lutheran pastor and the question of punishing children came up. He strongly urged us to avoid spanking. I considered that “stupid hippie crap.” I was 21 and I remember being really snarky with him over the idea that you could raise a good kid without occasionally resorting to physical punishment. My son was born seven years later, and for whatever reason, by that point, I couldn’t dream of touching him in anger. He’s 17 now and the most well-adjusted, talented kid you could imagine. There’s never been anything we couldn’t solve with love and compassion. I guess if nothing else, I should be grateful to my mother for teaching me what I didn’t want to be as a parent.  

This is a long-winded way of reminding you that your words matter. They matter. They matter to me every day when I read even the columns I don’t necessarily agree with fully. They especially matter on days when they feed my soul or give me hope. Please keep doing what you do. Oh, and I’ll go hit the tip jar now. You’ve certainly earned it. 

Sincerely,

K


Editor’s note: The following is the series of tweets that K was responding to. —JS