I'd forgotten what some of it felt like, until I read the story below: Teetering between hiding in my childhood bedroom for that last possible second, and running out to the kitchen before my parents' yells could scorch the air.
Today's letter comes from someone who wishes to remain anonymous. He wrote this for us in response to my plea: that people need to know it's not just about the girls. Despite the recent press, truth is our brothers live in the same families, too.
My deepest thanks, brother, on behalf of all who will read this.
* * *
It's very hard for me to find the words for my experience. I remember having a happy childhood and my times since I went to college have been great. By my own account, I am a happy, well adjusted individual. I don’t have many dark thoughts (anymore). But there was a time where it seemed I had nothing but dark thoughts. I write this piece not looking for any sympathy, nor do I feel that my situation was particularly special in anyway. I write it in part for the 12 year old that I was and for anyone else who happens to feel like I did. It's been almost two decades since this time in my life and I feel very much that I’ve “turned the corner.” Though I still sometimes hear the voice of my Tiger Father in my head when I mess up, I am what my 12-18 year old self could hardly hope for. I am happy. I just took things one day at a time and held out hope that things would eventually get better.
To say that I got yelled at a lot would be a bit of an understatement. These 120-decibel lectures, as I’ve come to think of them, happened on a regular basis. My father’s anger was always on a hair trigger, and topics that would set him off ran the gamut: I'm too short, I'm a wimp, I talk too much, I talk too little, I don’t work hard enough, I try too hard to impress people, I try too little in school. But mostly it centered on grades and how I stacked up to others. Middle school was the first time I was graded on an A-F scale. I fell short of expectations, to put it mildly. I brought home a B or two, a few Cs and a D. So here is a representation of how just about every day felt, from when I was 12 till I was about 17.
It's 5 pm; I have another hour. Still, my heart beats faster, my palms are sweaty, my heart drops, bringing with it that familiar feeling of dread. I try to tell myself that it's okay, he won't be home for another hour or so. Hopefully traffic will be bad today and he'll be late.
The garage door groans, opening ever so slowly. I hear the sound and my mouth tastes like fear. I peek through the blinds, careful not to cause the slightest hint of movement. Through the narrow slit, I catch a glimpse of my father as he drives his car into the garage. I wonder if he's mad. I can't tell; jaw set, mouth thin, not a hint of a smile, his face is as it usually is, as if carved from granite. I hurry downstairs; it is better to be seen right away. I don't want him to come looking for me.
We sit down to eat dinner. I try to act normal but not draw attention to myself. I try to get through this dinner without incurring his wrath. There are of plenty chances for that later in the night. My sister and I already have our math homework out on his desk, ready for him to check. He is a math genius. The only things that hang on our mantle are the photo of my deceased grandfather and an old, yellowed newspaper article which, I'm told, says that my father is in fact a math genius. The photo accompanying the article shows that this honor was bestowed upon him when he was 5 years old. At age 12 I already know, I am a math failure.
I try to occupy my time in my room as my father checks my work. I think prisoners must feel like this before sentencing. Why did the teacher have to assign so many even problems today? The even problems don't have solutions in the back of the book. There is no way for me to know if the answers are right. I do not understand math, but I am good at feigning that I do -- as long as I can check the answers in the back. I literally jump as I hear him call my name from downstairs. I know from the tone of his voice that I did not do well.
It starts with how many problems I missed on my assignment. It snowballs into why my writing is so messy. Anything looks messy next to my younger sister's homework. Though her work is in pencil, it looks like she typed it. Every letter perfect, each problem perfectly spaced across the page. Each problem is correctly answered. Unlike mine. He asks me to pull up a chair. I cringe. This is going to be a long one. He sits next to me, going over each problem, making me tell him where my mistake was. Doesn't he know that I would having fucking done the problem right if I had known how? Does he honestly think that I'm fucking up on my homework just because I like to have him yell at me?
At first I am defiant. I try to hold it together. As his rage intensifies, his voice becomes so loud that I can hear each syllable echo off the walls. My ears ring after a few minutes, but this will go on for hours. I just want this to be over. Spittle flies out of his mouth now as he covers the thousands of ways I am a failure. He tells me how he cannot bear to face his friends because of me. He tells me how unfathomable it is to them that a math genius like himself can have such an idiot for a son. He tells me how much he loses face when he sees his friends, whom he beat in every class, on every test. He tells me that he cannot imagine that I am his son. He tells me that I cannot be his son. He tells me that he doesn't want me as his son. Tears roll down my face. This just enrages him more. He tells me that I am definitely not his son, because men don't cry. I know they don't, because I have never seen him cry.
He is now in the guilt-trip phase. My back aches, but I don't dare move a millimeter. He looks exhausted. He asks me how I can do this to him. He works so hard for us. I give him gray hairs. If that is true, I must be the worst son possible. Though he is in his late 30s, his hair is almost all gray. He looks away like he is ashamed to have me in his presence. He sighs. It is a mournful sound, so heavy with disappointment that I almost start crying again. I bite my lip; we're on hour three so I know this is almost over.
It is almost midnight when he finally sends me to my room. I lie in bed and wonder why I am such a failure. Why can't I get all As like he did? Like his friends' sons all do? Why do I get Bs and Cs? It's impossible to sleep as I am already dreading the next morning. We make an hour-long commute across the city to go to a better school. He shares the same first and last name as his brother. He uses my uncle's name and address to enroll us in these schools across town, in a better district. He says I need all the help I can manage, to get into college.
Like every night after these episodes, I want to die. I've already gone over all the ways I can kill myself many nights before. Hanging myself, cutting my wrists, pills are all out. I don't want my mom and my sister to find my body. I need to go somewhere. I read about all the suicide jumpers that use the Golden Gate Bridge every year. I feel that this is the best option for me. I don't know how I can get there. I am 12 and desperately wish I were old enough to drive. The irony is not lost on me that I wish for four more years of life so I can die. San Francisco seems so far away and I curse myself for being so useless that I don't know how to take the bus. It seems like a very long way to go. I think a gun would also work. No one I know owns a gun and I do not know where to get one. I pray that by some miracle, I will die in my sleep.
My alarm wakes me with a start. I am exhausted. I slept no more than an hour last night. I go down for breakfast and find my father is still mad. As we pile into the car, my sister and I jockey for the back seat. Neither of us wants to sit next to him. My eyes plead with her though I don't dare say anything. She reads my mind and takes the front seat. This does not deter my father’s rage. I look at the spittle that accumulates on his jacket as he yells at me over his right shoulder. We pass a Home Depot with day laborers in front of it. He swerves angrily into the parking lot. The laborers jockey for position next to his window. He does not notice them, he is too busy telling me that I am a failure, and this is what will become of my life: begging for work from people because I am too dumb to make it on my own. The laborers are confused at this sight. My father pulled into the parking lot just to yell at his kids? They move away and my father speeds off.
At school that day, I replay these events in my head. I remember little from my day at school. The only class I try to pay attention to is math class. Still, I do not understand the lesson. I hope that the teacher assigns more odd problems today. I pray that by some miracle I can learn my lessons before my father gets home.