I will always remember my mother’s words.
“You’ll never forget your first love,” she said as I cried into her arms.
For some months, I had been keeping a terrible secret. My girlfriend, my first girlfriend, had been raped. They didn’t just rape her; they broke her nose. A knife was used. She was cut. There were two of them.
Picture Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club—well, that was Louise. Her soft Irish accent, long black hair, and scruffy oversized jumpers made me love her with all my heart.
We were both 17 years old and still at school.
Louise had met my mother just once, but things hadn’t gone well at all. My mother had ignored her and when she had left, she pronounced caustically that Louise looked like she had “come off a council estate*,” and that I was never to bring her to the house again.
I never understood my mother’s snobbery. So much of my mother’s behaviour left me terribly confused. In any case, her prejudice was unfounded—Louise was actually from a wealthy Irish family who lived in the expensive part of town. They were also puritanically Catholic. If anything, I had assumed that my mother would approve.
I had a part-time job at the time pushing trolleys around a local supermarket car park, and it provided me with just enough money to run a rusty old Datsun. At weekends I used to heap body filler into the gaping holes around the bodywork and slap on some industrial paint in the hope that it would stop it rusting to death. In the evenings, I would drive it around to Louise’s place and we’d cruise around and find a quiet spot to park up.
There, we’d kiss, engage in foreplay, and lie in each other’s arms while we talked.
It was during these moments that she told me about what happened to her only a few months before we had met, and she swore me to secrecy. The fact that I betrayed her to my own mother has haunted me most of my adult life (it is only relatively recently that I have come to a realistic reconciliation with the past).
“You’ll never forget your first love,” is what my mother said when I told her.
“What do you mean?” I replied, confused. “It’s not over.”
At that point, my mother stepped back from me, her face turning cold. Then after a moment or two she spat, “Get lost!” before turning her back and walking from the room. Those words were a typical retort my mother used, but nevertheless I was left standing there, shocked, confused, hurting desperately, and so utterly lost.
Over the coming months my mother conducted, what I now consider to be, an “emotional war” in order to get her way. Drunk on gin, she would accuse me bitterly of “killing her,” and threatened suicide unless I would agree never to see Louise again.
“You’re destroying me,” she would complain. “Can’t you see what this is doing to me!”
I would not agree to give up Louise, but I had already confessed to her that I had told my mother, and Louise had become distant from me as a result. Later, she would refuse to see me altogether.
My father, having been brought up in loving home, was a reasonable and rational man. He was so utterly ill-equipped to understand what was happening.
“Your mother’s right,” he would say, trying to rationalise her behaviour. “She must know something about that girl.”
I loved my dad, but his understanding of the situation was so utterly awry and I was so utterly confused that neither of us could relate to each other during that time. I realise now that my mother put my father under tremendous strain, in effect pressurising him to pressurise me.
My school study petered out and I spent the days on long walks around the suburbs. I had few friends, and any attempt to express myself to outsiders ended in failure and misunderstanding. So I remained distant, said nothing, and slowly became detached from everything and everyone.
I ate little and my weight fell dramatically.
I spent my long walks lost in my own thoughts, trying desperately to make sense of things. During one of these walks, I was distracted by an advertisement billboard.
“So strange,” I remember thinking, having been brought out of my reverie by the imagery of a chimpanzee drinking a can of soda when, out of nowhere, came a sickening blow.
I almost blacked out and, half-blinded, thinking that I had been punched, looked around desperately to see where the attack had come from. But there was no one, and as I stared down at the blood pooling in my hands, I realised that I had simply walked full speed into the concrete lamppost while looking the other way. I dreaded going home, for I already knew what my parents would think.
“She’s had you beaten up!” I was told when I got home.
While I initially tried to explain, I sensed how unlikely my lamppost story sounded and was resigned to that fact that any protestation was pointless. My dad took the keys to the rusty old car from me and declared that I would no longer be allowed to “drive that girl around.”
The sad irony was of course that, by then, I no longer had any contact with Louise—not that either of them would have believed me if I had told them.
The last time I ever saw Louise was when, on a Saturday afternoon, she walked across the car park where I was pushing trolleys at the supermarket. She never looked at me, and as she disappeared from sight, I began to feel that I was bleeding internally. I never finished the shift but simply walked away from the job.
I heard later that her parents had sent her to Ireland. “She needs a priest,” I was told dismissively by an old woman who worked on the tills at the supermarket.
I never saw Louise again.
It wasn’t long after that things came to a head when my mother burst into my bedroom one evening swinging a heavy piece of wood in a drunken rage. It was a baluster, a piece of wood roughly the same shape and weight as a baseball bat, which my dad kept around in case of burglars.
“If you ever see that girl again, I’ll kill you!” she raged.
I swear to you now that if she had struck me, I had no intention of even lifting my arms to shield my face. At that moment, I cared for nothing and said simply, “Go ahead.”
She didn’t strike me but instead started to smash up the room. I simply stood back and did nothing while she went berserk. It was my dad who, on hearing the commotion, came in and stopped her. I will always remember his words to me after she had left the room. I can quote them verbatim, and here they are …
“This is not your mother, this. Whatever it is that you are doing to her, it’s time to pack it in.”
He was wrong—that was exactly my mother. But at the time, I had no alternative perspective and with no way to understand such things, I had come to accept that, somehow, in some way, he was right.
I sat my exams, having done little revision, and as soon as they were over, I left home with a rucksack and some foolish notions about living “on the road”. I camped on a mountain side in the English Lake District for a few weeks, before finding a job and boardings in a remote pub called the Kirkstone Inn.
In the years that followed, I slid gradually into self-imposed isolation, characterised by drinking and self-harm. I ached so much to be with Louise, and I cursed myself for failing her. My mother had got her way in the end, and I lived for years with a confused sense of guilt and repressed anger that I had no way of reconciling.
On my first day at school at the age of six, my mother had told me that there was no point in me going there because I was only going to be a road sweeper when I grew up. I can remember crying and insisting that I wouldn’t, while she explained to me, rather matter-of-factly, that I was stupid and that she was telling me for my own good. That is my first memory of her calling me “stupid”, but not my last. In the years that followed, she never missed an opportunity.
Despite the events of my last year in school, I actually passed my exams, but only just. Half an hour into one exam, I was lying in bed not caring when a teacher turned up at my house in his car to collect me. Nevertheless, having initially thrown away my place at university when I had left home with the intention of tramping the roads, I eventually went to university and got a degree in Physics—proving in my own mind that my mother was wrong about me.
In reality, however, I was a very troubled young man, and throughout it all, what I so desperately looked for was a meaningful answer to the question, “What was so wrong with me?” Having no useful framework with which to understand either myself or the past, I was groping around in the dark with questions I could not even begin to formulate.
“So how does that make you feel?” I was asked, at various times through the years, whenever I tried counselling.
And I would stare at the floor, wringing my hands, as I replied, “Well, I don’t know really.”
It was always the same—meaningful answers were always held just out of reach by those who knew them.
It wasn’t until my mid-30s that things began to change when one day I had a profound revelation while walking home from work. It so shook me that I stopped at the next telephone box I saw and made an international call to my sister.
“Our mother was an emotional bully, wasn’t she?” I asked tentatively the moment she answered the call, not even waiting to say hello.
There was a short pause, and when she replied her words were the very first chink of light to penetrate darkness that was my confused inner world.
“Yes,” she replied. “She was.”
The first time I tried to speak to others about what I was discovering, I was told rather angrily, “That’s a terrible way to talk about your mother!”
Those words shamed me back into silence for a while, but it would not last. I had begun to challenge the invisible cultural taboo that had prevented any rational scrutiny of my mother’s behaviour. In fact, I was now on the way to realising a meaningful answer to my question, “What was it that was wrong with me?”
What was wrong was simply that I had been the subject of childhood emotional abuse in the form of my mother’s sustained criticism, ridicule, interrogation, and bullying as far back as I can remember. There was, in fact, a far bigger picture to be uncovered here than just the one depicting the fallout over Louise.
The astoundingly simple answer was that there had never been anything “wrong with me”. I had never been “defective”—I had just been a normal child like any other. This, for me, was a life-changing realisation.
Throughout childhood, my mother had taunted me, telling me that I was stupid and that everyone was “laughing at me.” As a result, the message I internalised at a very young age was one of shame and inadequacy. I don’t have a single memory of my mother ever cuddling me, playing with me, or reading to me. It was my dad who did all these things, and it is not lost on me now how fortunate I am to have had that from him.
Now, here’s the thing …
The things my mother said and did were normalised in my family. My father had grown up in a loving environment in which motherhood was sacrosanct, and this was the framework with which he made sense of the world. In my mother, he only saw what he wanted to see, and rationalised what didn’t fit. Through him, she had a license to speak and do as she pleased.
She was beyond all reproach.
My mother continued to drink and died a slow and lingering death, her brain corroded by the ammonia in her blood that her liver was no longer able to remove. Toward the end, she regressed into a child-like state, and my dad spent his last days spoon-feeding her and taking her to the toilet.
One of the saddest memories I have is of him sitting with his arm around my mother, who was no longer fully aware, and trying to comfort her.
“I don’t know how we will do it,” he said, “but somehow we’ll get through this.”
I knew as I watched him that there would be no way “through this” but only continued decline.
Within a year of that moment, both my mother and father were gone.
My dad had worked hard in a manual job from the age of 14 and spent the little retirement he had as a full-time carer for my mother. My parents were deeply in love with each other, and toward the end he often remarked how he would not have had things any other way.
After my mother’s death, my father lived just long enough to put all his affairs in order, and then, one day while out walking, he sat down and just died. After all the years of trauma and distress thrown up by my mother, I find it most distressing how he had managed to arrange things so that his own passing would be of no trouble to anyone. It is only now that I can begin to appreciate how, in those last few months of his life, he must have grieved so.
I still find it difficult to tease out the good moments from bad, and properly reconcile the past. There were certainly many good things about my mother, and it would be wrong of me to paint an overly negative picture.
But it is only now, over a year after losing my parents, that I can begin to see things for what they were. One moment, my mother would be reasonable and considerate, and the next, she would say things that were bizarre and cruel. Over these past few months it has dawned on me that she was almost certainly drunk during many of incidents. I knew, of course, my mother drank heavily in later life, but I never suspected that she was drinking far earlier than that. For me, this is an astounding revelation and I feel that I’ve had to cut through layers of cultural dogma that surrounds motherhood to get it.
My experience of trying to talk to others about my mother was always one of being made to feel like some immoral misfit for daring to raise the issue—as if I was just whining over not being bought a pony for your 10th birthday or something. In reality, an alcoholic parent is disorienting and destructive for any child, and what’s equally as bad is being denied the validation that any of it ever happened later.
My dad never understood, even when she was dying, he insisted that her drinking was “not that bad.”
When I was about 13, I found my mother sobbing on the kitchen floor, drunk. It was the only time she ever spoke to me about her own childhood. I had already known that she had had a brother who’d died on a motorcycle accident as a teenager. What she told me then, however, was that her own mother would openly express how she should have lost her daughter, not her son. In effect, she had wished her dead. She never spoke again about it.
After losing my parents, I tracked down an elderly relative who had known my mother as a child. Although in her 80s, she proved to be both lucid and talkative, and through listening to her, I was able to trace emotionally abusive behaviour as far back as my great-grandmother.
As I had hoped, I learned a great deal about my mother’s unhappy childhood—about how it was normal for my grandmother to openly voice her preference for her son over her daughter (my mother). I was told how my mother’s brother was spoiled with excess praise and adoration, while my mother was crushed by a bitter rebuke whenever she tried to join in a conversation.
I was left with the heartbreaking image of a little girl sitting alone on the stairs, pushed out, while her family socialised in the living room.
That little girl, my mother, had been cruelly bullied by her own mother, which, other than the astute observations of a relative, had been culturally invisible at the time. As an adult, she had been put on a pedestal and emotionally pandered to by my well-meaning father whose chivalrous notions about gender came from a bygone age.
In my own story, the years that followed Louise were ones of profound guilt for me. I was racked not only with the belief that I should have been able to “save her” but also with an overwhelming sense of shame over what had happened to her in the first place—as if, by some implication, I was responsible for the behaviour of her attackers. I saw myself as the one good man whose duty it was to atone, and at the age of 18, I recall writing into women’s magazines to express my shame at the behaviour of my gender.
In my 20s, I spent evenings drinking heavily and began cutting into my arm with a knife and stubbing cigarettes on my hand. Again, I saw this behaviour as shameful in itself. It seemed, no matter what I did, or which way I turned, I was only ever met with walls of shame. I had been raised by mother to feel that, always, I was to blame, and it wouldn’t generally occur to me when I wasn’t.
Today, I’m free of that.
What I’ve come to understand is that abuse is passed on from one generation to the next. Whenever you encounter a damaged adult who is racked by deep insecurity, or who is emotionally destructive or physically or sexually violent, you are almost certainly looking at a battered or abused child who has simply grown up.
My mother didn’t know how to be a mother because she had never been mothered herself. None of it is about gender, however. It’s all about how we treat children.
I also occasionally think about the two men who hurt Louise, and wonder as to what horrors are to be found in their childhoods. To understand is not the same thing to excuse, however.
The solution lies not in ever more punishment and social exclusion but in a sea change in our attitude toward generational nature of abuse. Condemnation and contempt, without a willingness to investigate and to understand, ensures only continued ignorance and misunderstanding for new generations of children, and their children.
Human beings are not intrinsically bad, but we are easily damaged in our early years when harmful experiences are so easily imprinted into our souls.
* * *
* In the UK, a “council estate” is a social housing development.
Louise’s name was changed in this for anonymity reasons.