How Many Generations Does It Take to Escape Abuse?

“A man could, feasibly, sacrifice his coffee break raping a woman.
That woman would then spend her entire life dealing with it.
So would her daughters.
So would theirs.
This distribution of power is not acceptable.”

— Inga Muscio, Cunt: A Declaration of Independence

I think about my mother’s mother. First married at 18 to a man that deserted her when she had six children and was pregnant with a seventh. Shortly after she married a man with eight children of his own, who sexually abused at least one of them. My mother. Then there was a third husband, who outlived my grandmother.

There was always a husband.

My mother grew up as one of 15 children. In that family, she went on long camping trips, operated a convenience store, survived childhood sexual abuse. I know vaguely of the tensions between her and her mother. My mom: wondering why she had been left alone with that man. Getting kicked out at 15 for having birth control pills. Eating leftovers snuck over by her brother on family holidays.

Later, there was a man she hid in a closet from while she called her mom. There was my dad, from whom she endured over a decade of abuse. There was her boyfriend after the divorce, who left her with bruises, who she had to pull a knife on, who she had to call the cops on, just to get him to stop.

Early in my mom’s marriage, her mother visited from out of province. My dad was off drinking and my mom, embarrassed, tried every number she could think of to try to track him down. Her mother said, “you’re looking for a punch in the mouth. He’s a good-time Charlie.” My mom tells me how betrayed she felt in that moment, knowing this is what her mother thought of her husband and yet encouraged her to marry him. 

I have this photo of my mom from her wedding day back in ‘87. She’s all done up, in the car, traveling to the ceremony. Her eyes are shifted to the side and downcast, her mouth in a neutral expression. I remember being told when my dad proposed she said “I’ll think about it.” She was pregnant. His parents really wanted them to get married. Her mother said it would give her security. In this photo, it looks like she was still “thinking about it.”

We lived in a small, rural community. My mom had no money of her own. She helped run my dad’s plumbing business for 13 years. She found out in a church pew that what she was experiencing was abuse. When pregnant with her fourth child, her sister had asked “what are you going to do?”

So, eventually, she left. We left. Us two older kids helped pack a few bags and snuck them in the trunk while dad was at work. We told the two younger ones we were driving into town for McDonalds. We passed my dad’s worksite on the way. We went to a women’s shelter in the city I learned about in a school presentation.

She goes back and forth between reflecting on the good things in her life and telling me her life has been a shit show. Telling me “don’t be like me, don’t believe in fairytales, don’t follow the dream.”

So then here I am. I grew up surrounded by abuse. I experienced it, I witnessed it, I inherited it. My siblings and I barely speak; I think it is too painful, too fraught. My relationship with my mother is probably the most painful. We have been at odds since I can remember. After all, I am a Scorpio like her mother — not to be trusted. I think abuse became part of her coping mechanism for surviving abuse.

I’ve had a few coercive experiences, experienced an assault or two, had my front door kicked in by an ex-boyfriend. My boyfriend now asks to move in together, but I keep saying no. I am afraid. I don’t want to live in fear, in isolation. Honestly, I don’t want to get killed. Together we watched “True Story” and I said, “see?”

I remember being eight years old floating in my grandmother’s pool, thinking about what a risk it was to get married, how dangerous.

Sometimes it seems that the reasonable thing to do, the responsible thing to do, is stop this lineage of abuse with me, the easy way. Don’t have kids, don’t make the same mistakes, don’t pass on the trauma. After all, I suspect abuse is part of my coping mechanism for surviving abuse, too.

Other times I think there is another way to get free. My grandmother told my mother “you will have security.” My mother tells me “don’t believe in fairytales.” I wonder what my grandmother’s mother told her. I wonder what I will tell my daughter. How many generations does it take to escape abuse? How long until we outlive it? Will the men get better, or do we just have to get smarter, craftier, queerer?

In a lot of ways, my mother took the first step. She left. And she kept leaving. And she survived. And because of that, we survived. It’s messy, and flawed, and continually disappointing, but her whole life is an experiment in how to survive; a badly-drawn, thrown-together blueprint of how to get out alive. And because of that, maybe I’ll be a little bit better. Compared to my mother, I had a head-start on feminism, and on healing. Maybe that means I’ll avoid bad partners better, check my language and its impact better, listen better, trust better. Maybe that means I’ll be able to tell my daughter something more nuanced, more hopeful than “don’t be like me, don’t believe in fairytales, don’t chase the dream.”

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