Nonfiction

Never Again, photo by Merry Song

The Turtleneck

I have always been amazed at the difference between violence depicted in the media, in programs and films, and what real violence feels like. My experience is limited, but significant enough in my life to appreciate the terror engendered by its reality.

 

Many years ago, when my therapist and I were discussing my troubled relationship with my father, I broached the subject with my mother in a phone conversation. I said, “My therapist thinks I experienced some level of sexual abuse as a child.”

My mother’s immediate response was intense anger: “Your father would never have done such a thing.” I had my answer.

I hadn’t mentioned my father; she didn’t know if I was referring to an uncle, a cousin, a teacher. 

At some point, she did admit that my father had hit her about the face and chest. I have no recollection of her being physically hit. But my father did have two psychotic breaks and was once hospitalized at Columbia Presbyterian in New York. His ward was locked. I vividly remember going to see him and that he was in his hospital gown.

My father and mother had both come from dysfunctional families, but they did their best to raise us. I knew they loved me, although, as a child, I faced the brunt of my father’s anger. It was pure projection. He had been bullied by an older brother, and I was older than my sister, whom he favored. With this family history, it wasn’t surprising that I was attracted to men and women who were damaged. Some were alcoholics; others were on medication. It didn’t seem to matter how bright they were. One man I dated when he was in his twenties had gotten 800s on his exams for medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. It turned out that he couldn’t commit—and he once held me by the throat as we were making love.

I made myself into quite the object and slept with many different people, after the pill and before AIDs. I was a child of the ‘70s and had no blueprint for a happy family. I wanted to write and I wanted adventure—and I had it. When I look back on some memories, I’m amazed that I escaped relatively unscathed.

Traveling in Paris, I met a British sportswriter who had a wife and a mistress and told his therapist about me. We had a “dirty weekend” in Brighton, after I went to meet him in London. Later we met in Palm Beach, when he was covering a sports event.

I lost my virginity when I was just under 18 to a friend’s father in a Washington, D.C.,  hotel. We had another bit of time together when he collected me from a friend’s apartment in New York and drove me to his house in Bucks County. My attraction to him was intense, and we can all speculate as to its motivation. 

My worst choice was a man I met when I lived in Philadelphia. Richard had made a lot of money when he lived in Texas, after which he’d moved back to where he grew up. He took me to Switzerland. Richard had managed to send a banker friend there a hundred thousand dollars to hold for him, after he’d lost his horse farm and his business, publishing multiple magazines. Bankrupt, he was also a sex addict and had slept with some of his horse farm employees right under the nose of his now ex-wife. I was horrified when he told me once about sleeping with call girls in Brazil. But, as one might imagine in that realm, Richard knew what he was doing, and I was smitten, bonded to him in desire. He moved into my tiny house in Philadelphia soon after we met. His childhood history was marred by his relationship with his mother, whom I met. She was a terror.

The first time he ever became violent with me I was standing at the door outside a house we had rented for a vacation in Maine. He slapped my hand away from the doorknob and grabbed my wrist. Once, back in Philadelphia, he bit my thigh while we were in bed. The worst time was when Richard dragged me downstairs by my hair, banged my head against the floor, and ripped off my brown turtleneck. It was in pieces. My therapist asked me what I was doing with him, and said “Are you going to wait until he puts out your eye?”

I can remember standing on the bottom stair and reading on his face the decision to slap me. It was like a surging in of another being, not the man who thought I was gorgeous and professed his love all the time. The chemistry was palpable, but the relationship, which lasted ten months, was a nightmare. It ended soon after Christmas at my mother’s house in Maine. He had given me a ten-thousand-dollar engagement ring, but we had some kind of fight in my mother’s kitchen. He pulled me to the floor, choking me. “I can’t breathe,” I said, and his response was, “I don’t care.” 

Looking back on this history, having been happily married to a good man for the last twenty years, it’s as if that woman in her late thirties was someone else. I was seduced; I was bonded to Richard, and the only way I could let go was by making an analytical, intellectual decision. I still loved him, but I had to separate myself from him. He kept a pair of .45s in a wooden box under the desk he used in my living room. 

I fell in love and lived with a woman who was then an alcoholic. She and I got into a physical tussle in the hallway of my small house in South Philadelphia after I learned that she’d slept with one of her women colleagues from work when I was out of town. We broke up soon after. 

My husband and I have had verbal fights, but we’ve never had any physical contact when we’ve been angry. We have never crossed that line.

I think, before we were married, I was reliving a kind of blueprint of physical violence inherited from my father’s family. My father once told me he’d seen my grandfather pull a gun on his beautiful wife, who had eloped with him from her boarding school when she was sixteen. They had five children, divorced, and both remarried. 

Psychological patterns have to be studied, and one has to work on oneself, I believe, to change those patterns. I was in therapy a long time. Now I read people’s energy and I can recognize what I need to avoid, in friendships, for example, or in strangers riding the same train or subway. 

I understand why I was drawn to the potential for violence, and why I stayed. The most dangerous people are those who alternate kindness with anger, who go from one emotional extreme to another. I understand why women stay with brutal men, but I also know that inside that violence, one is in a kind of hallucinogenic cloud, like when I was held down on my mother’s kitchen floor and it felt like the whole room was spinning. Everything slowed down, and there was a sense of distortion. 

That terror is completely different from the violence exploding in popular movies, where the characters are able to get up and walk away. The closest I’ve ever come to “believing” that brutality was depicted in a way that came close to reality was in Schindlers List, when Amon Goeth, the character played by Ralph Fiennes, beats up the Jewish maid, to whom he is so attracted, in the basement where she stays. The trope of that basement is apt. I’m glad I live in a cabin with no basement at all. I look out and see mountains in the distance, or a pair of goldfinches, their yellows a soft lemon, a symbol in themselves. 

And turtlenecks no longer appeal to me.

 

 

In the Christian States of America, where religion rules, one woman discovers the only rules are about survival. Although she’s legally an adult, eighteen-year-old Meryn Flint must live at home until her stepfather, Ray, finds her a husband. That’s the law. But when Ray kills her mother and Meryn must flee for her own safety, she quickly discovers there’s no safe place for a woman on the run. Unless she’s willing to marry her former boyfriend—a man who’s already demonstrated his capacity for violence—she’ll be forced to live on the street. And that’s a dangerous option for a woman alone. As time runs out, Meryn is offered a third path: build herself a tiny house, a safe place to call home. Even though it’s a violation of her Family Duty as well as every moral law on the books, Meryn seizes the chance. But even a tiny tin house might not be enough to save her . . .
"A dystopian science fiction novel that is a believable extrapolation of current social, cultural, and religious attempts to restrict and roll back the rights and freedoms of women, Tiny Tin House is a masterfully crafted and riveting novel populated throughout by memorable characters.” ~ Midwest Book Review
L Maristatter has published poetry in the web journal Defunct and fiction in The Saturday Evening Post online. She is on Facebook and Twitter (regularly), and Instagram and TikTok (when she's feeling brave).
Support independent booksellers by finding Tiny Tin House on Bookshop.org or in your local bookstore. It’s also available on Amazon.

Bios

Tina Barr’s third book, Green Target (2018), won the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, judged by Patricia Spears Jones, and was selected by Michael Waters as winner of the Brockman-Campbell Award. Her first book, The Gathering Eye, won the Tupelo Press Editor's Award. Kaleidoscope was published in 2015, by Iris Press.

Merry Song was captured by photography early in life and continues to feel the passion of imaging. She resides in Eugene, Oregon, where she leads spiritual writing workshops.  She is about to release a video series demonstrating her writing method.

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