My parents divorced when I was 12. In 1983 that was becoming an increasingly common experience, but that didn’t make it any less devastating for me. All order in my life was disrupted. Schedules changed. New people came in and out. Heroes became villains.
My mom left my dad for another woman. She had never been happy in her marriage with my father. They had only married because she was pregnant with me and she spent eleven long years trying to make a mistake work. Finally she’d had enough. Becky came into her life and offered her her something my father either didn’t or couldn’t.
The world in 1983 was very different than it is now. Birmingham was very different. Homosexuality was not culturally cool. It was dangerous. Being gay was dangerous in the eyes of mainstream society and as such it was dangerous to be openly gay.
My mother and Becky were very closed with their relationship. It seems ridiculous now. Ridiculous that they should have to hide themselves and ridiculous that they got away with it. On the surface, Mom and Becky were just friends. If Mom had not come to me and confessed her relationship with Becky it would have taken me years to figure it out. We were taught to introduce Becky as my mom’s “roommate.” And somehow that magically worked.
My dad became a marginalized figure. I had to keep secrets from him for the safety of my new family. My mom feared that if my dad knew she and Becky were in a relationship he would use that in court to take us away. We couldn’t tell him where we lived or what we did. I was never told to flat out lie, but I was coached on how to leave out details and fog the truth.
My mother and father fought bitterly in the year leading up to their divorce. My mother’s temper was vicious and spiteful. One horrible night, in the middle of one of those fights my father lost his and grabbed my mother by the throat. She slapped him, effectively defending herself but the scars were lasting.
My dad was labeled as an abuser and in that one instant the nature of our relationship changed forever. I was forced into a position where I had to choose between them. I chose her over him. I can’t imagine how hard that must have hurt.
I grew up only knowing my mom’s side of the story. My dad eventually accepted his defeat with stoicism. But like most men, he did not initially face his divorce as well as he could have. He tried to re-exert some kind of control over his life. He tried to win her back. Her rejection was complete and total. Over the years they learned to just avoid each other, engaging only when necessary, and during those few highly stressful events when they had to occupy the same room, usually at some event for my brother or me, they kept to opposite sides of the room.
As a father Dad let his actions speak. Which sometimes takes a long time to be understood. He continued to act as a provider. He always paid his child support. He made sure that my brother and I had our educational expenses met and, in later years, if ever I got into a financial jam I knew he’d bail me out.
Emotionally there was a rift. We were afraid of him. He hurt our mother. He couldn’t be trusted. He also did dumb shit. One weekend, instead of telling mom he couldn’t take us for his weekend visitation he left us with his girlfriend’s 13 year old brother while they spent the weekend in Atlanta. He got home less than an hour before my mom arrived to pick us up.
Both Mom and Becky had poor histories with men. They took solace in each other and the feminism of the 1980s. As such, they both viewed it as their mission to make sure my brother and I did not grow up to be “typical men.” Dinner table topics almost always included the sins of men. So much so, that as teenagers my brother and I kept as a regular refrain, “Glad I’m not a man.”
That worked until I became one.
Trauma has a way of blunting the way in which you engage in the world. It’s desensitizing. You have to function and if your feelings are too intense you can’t. The only thing you can do is dull your feelings.
It wasn’t until years later that I began to realize that my childhood and adolescence were traumatic. As far I knew, it was just my life. Only as a young adult, hanging out with friends, joking and telling stories did I begin to realize. It’s hard not to when you tell a story you think is funny and the whole room turns to you and says, “Dude, that’s fucked up.”
But everything has two sides. The problems of my youth gave rise to how I approach the world as an adult. Having been given a very clear picture of how not to be in the world I at least have a launching pad from which to explore how to be in the world. My moms did a very thorough job of detailing what was wrong with men. It was up to me to discover and emulate what was right. That’s been a 30 year journey now. I’m still working on it and probably always will. But I’ve learned a thing or two and I want to use this blog to begin hashing out those lessons and creating something to help others chart their own paths.