“Why is the red fish being bad?” my two year-old daughter asked me.
This is a personal story of my childhood and the changes in me from Dr. Seuss and a two-year old’s question.
My father was a cook in the Army and when I was about twelve, he quit working on the weekends. To most kids, this would be a good thing, but my father was the kind of person who caused his kids to get to the dinner table early so they could grab the chair furthest from him. He was an alcoholic, verbally and physically abusive. So, to us, his weekend day off was soon named “Saturday at the Fights.”
Growing up in an abusive household, we learned coping techniques. One of which was the truth was fairly elastic. A simple, “what did you do today” put our young brains into overdrive, trying to think of the answer least likely to arouse his anger, and his threshold was extremely low.
After a couple of months of Saturdays with him at home. . .whippings does not quite explain it, but I think you get the point. . .we kids held a council to determine an order of accepting blame for the ridiculous allegations he would make (“Which one of you put my socks in my shoes?” was the classic.) In cases like this, he was going to beat someone and we had to decide whom it was. So, we agreed to a rotation of admission, leaving out the youngest because she was simply too young. This worked fairly well for a time, limiting the initial beating to one kid. In the end though, we all usually got it by the end of the day for something we did, whether real or imagined.
The most profound effect of this upbringing was the goal of each and every one of us was to get out of high school and get out of the house as quickly as possible. Needless to say, the relationships between us kids are, even now, some thirty-plus years later, difficult and sporadic. I am told this is normal for survivors.
The single most amazing thing is outside of one of my brothers being arrested in Minnetonka for selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door one summer, none of us were ever in serious trouble with the law. (And he was out the next morning, so that wasn’t what you would call serious.) None are alcoholics. To these amazing facts, I can only credit the people in the church we attended. Many consider that church a cult, and while I am not longer associated with it, it truly was what enabled us to grow up to be fairly good people.
Talking with my father when I was twenty- eight or so, he said he must have done something right raising us because we all turned out pretty good. At the time, this infuriated me; the very idea of him taking credit for our successes was unbelievable. Later, however, I decided there was some shred of truth to the statement. Someone once told me that all parents mess up their kids, they just do it differently and it is because of our dysfunctional raisings that we are successful. Yeah, probably true.
I do expert witness work from time to time. Direct examination is fun; cross-examination, not so much, but challenging. You have to be able to hear the exact question and then try to see where the attorney is going almost instantly. And trust me, neither one is an easy matter. So what happens when I hear a question isthis: all the possible question meanings and possible answers scroll through my head instantly. This, I attribute to the interrogations from my father, where I had to determine the answer least likely to result in a beating. In this regard, the upbringing was good. However, I really do not like being able to do this. By the way, I always tell the truth. It is the right thing to do and by telling the truth, I don’t have to remember what I said.
Also, surviving the upbringing shows me I can survive almost anything, so I don’t worry so much.
Now, back to Dr. Seuss. The book is One Fish, Two Fish. A couple of pages in are the lines: Some are red. And some are blue. Some are old. And some are new. Some are sad.
And some are glad. And some are very, very bad.
It was at this point my daughter asked the question I started this piece with. There on the page is a picture of a big red fish backhanding a little blue fish. As a kid, it was the blue fish being bad and appropriately punished by the red fish. Now, I never beat my kids. This in itself is amazing, given my childhood.
When my daughter asked the question, my mind locked up and I sat in the chair for hours, thinking, watching my understanding of the world change. It was not the blue fish being bad! It was the red fish!
Now, this may seem obvious to most of you, but to me it was a revelation and signaled the end of the old me and the beginning of the new me. It freed me from a lot of demons. And I always remember this so I can remind myself that the first thing in my head when something comes up may be the result of my screwed-up childhood.
I will never fully recover from the raising. No one ever does. That kind of stuff stays with you all your life. But I have a totem now to help me. Given to me by my then-two year old little girl. It is a children’s book, nothing more. I keep telling myself that.