Elizabeth W.: “I am a survivor”

“My mother informed me that from now on we were all going to be “homeschooled” so that no more nosy teachers would be interfering in “our” (her) lives. One of my youngest stepsiblings had made some mention to a teacher of the rampant domestic violence that routinely rampaged through our home. . . . Homeschooling was the first step my mom took to make sure no one could get involved through children’s loose tongues ever again.”

My name is Elizabeth and I am a survivor. I am the oldest of seven children, two of whom are still trapped in the isolated, abusive world created by our mother. My mother began “homeschooling” in the fall of 1993, immediately after three of her four children were returned to her by the state of New York. I had been placed with my biological father for the previous nine months, while my siblings were in a foster home as both their biological father and our mother were in jail. Our mother had been charged with child endangerment and was mandated to attend counseling. I am unsure whether she did or not. Regardless, her abusive and violent behavior continued only to escalate after this time. I had been miserable being placed with a father who was virtually a stranger to me, over a thousand miles away from my brothers and sisters.  In October of 1993, I finally convinced my dad that I wanted to be with Mom and my siblings, so he took me back to her—a decision I would live to regret in many ways, but, looking back, would not have chosen differently at the time.

My mother informed me that from now on we were all going to be “homeschooled” so that no more nosy teachers would be interfering in “our” (her) lives. One of my youngest stepsiblings had made some mention to a teacher of the rampant domestic violence that routinely rampaged through our home. (Thus the subsequent investigation and arrest of both our parents.) Homeschooling was the first step my mom took to make sure no one could get involved through children’s loose tongues ever again.

While mom had always been explosively violent with me I didn’t remember quite so many constant beatings and verbal abuse before this all happened.  After my return from my dad’s house, Mom began to turn on me with sudden and unpredictable rage.  She slapped me across the face multiple times, knocked me down and dragged me around by my hair, repeatedly slamming my head off the floor or walls, all the while screaming that I was lazy, stupid, ungrateful, “just like your father”, “you’re a traitor, you’ve betrayed me”. Often the attacks seemed to be triggered by her simply looking at me and not liking my facial expressions. She would look at me and say that I was looking “rebellious” if I happened to be unhappy and withdrawn that day. I often heard that I looked just like my father, which also seemed to set her off. We stayed in the new apartment for another month or two before mom and my stepdad got back together and moved into a new place in Buffalo, New York, in December 1993.

Mom continued to “homeschool” us, which consisted of buying a few textbooks (sometimes grade appropriate, sometimes not) and telling us to go to our desks and “do school” for a few hours a day.  Many days I was interrupted by mom telling me I needed to “watch” the newest baby for several hours while she talked on the phone or went and did errands. I spent so much time caring for my newborn sisters that two of them actually called me “ma”, until Mom heard.  This was one of many things that set off her punching, kicking, pulling me by the hair and screaming obscenities at me until she was hoarse. I can honestly say that was the extent of my “schooling” for the next six years until I left. Mom did the New York State required “quarterly reports” on our progress, usually late and always false. We also took the mandatory annual CAT tests and usually scored fine on some subjects and poorly on others. Mom officially enrolled us in the Clonlara Homeschool Association that year, which meant she bought “curriculums” from them (which we never used) and we went to their annual conferences a few times.

When I was eleven, my mother arranged for me to work a large paper route that covered 12 city blocks on our street. I worked that route for the next four years, eventually adding another 12 blocks. My mother took all of the money I earned except for what I needed to buy dog food for my dog. She also pushed me to take other jobs. I mowed people’s yards, did landscaping, house cleaning and babysitting. I was never allowed to keep any of the money—this was how she was supplementing the family budget, as she never worked.

Soon after we moved to Buffalo, Mom joined a local homeschooling chapter of born again Christian homeschoolers—LEAH (Living Education At Home). Aside from the one or two weeks a year I was allowed to go to a local YMCA camp, and the occasional summer soccer games with the kids on our street, LEAH was the first regular social interaction I’d been allowed since I left public school in 1993. None of us kids were thrilled with the group, because it was very religious and preachy and we were not (yet). However, it was a few hours a week that we got to leave the house and be out from under mom’s constant supervision and iron rule, so we made the best of it.

The winter I turned 14 our car was repossessed and mom began sending my little brother and I to do all the errands during “school” time. We walked miles through the Buffalo snow to get groceries and the mail (at the post office) every few days. I was also expected to do nearly all of the housecleaning, mopping every room, sweeping, dishes, folding laundry (for seven people), as well as most of the babysitting. There was very little time I could have done “school” even had I been brilliant enough to teach myself a sixth through tenth grade school education. As it was I spent my free hours immersing myself in books I borrowed from the library, ranging from fiction to history and anthropology, classic literature to feminist studies. I credit the natural inclination of my curious and inquiring mind combined with my access to a library with my ability to survive any and all later academic pursuits.

Before long the constant screaming of our mom and my stepdad echoing through our apartment drove our neighbors crazy and they asked the landlord to evict us. In the winter of 1996 we moved a mile down the road into a HUD (low income fixer upper) house, the first my parents had ever owned. Outwardly, things continued much the same, I had my myriad jobs and housecleaning and babysitting duties and mom sat at home and talked on the phone or did “bills” all day. We still attended the LEAH group, though not regularly, and often escaped for a week or two of summer camp. After the move we didn’t make new friends, and so spent even more time in the house and grew gradually ever more isolated. Mom slowly alienated her family, although her parents and sisters made a valiant attempt to stay in touch long distance. Mom had an unparalleled ability to say cruel and hurtful things and make people recoil and stay away. My stepdad’s family was not accepting of the biracial aspect of our family and, with the exception of one uncle, made no attempt to be part of our lives. Neither Mom nor my stepdad had a single friend that I knew of, and no one ever came to our house. We weren’t allowed to have friends over, talk on the phone, use the computer, listen to music, or even have uncensored mail. This quickly put a stop to any attempt on our parts to have even casual friends. Looking back, I can see that after we moved and no longer had immediate neighbors to hear the screaming when she beat me or my brother, she felt much less restrained and the violence increased in frequency and intensity.

If I was quiet and withdrawn (which was pretty much always) and Mom decided my quietness was “rebellious” or “disrespectful”, or if I forgot to say “ma’am” after addressing or answering her, she would begin screaming at me, calling me a disrespectful whore/slut/tramp/bitch, while simultaneously slapping me across the face hard enough to knock me down. She began to use bigger and better weapons than her hands and the bristle side of a hairbrush. I was beaten with length of copper pipe, pieces of two by four, a thick wooden yardstick (which broke on me eventually), thrown down stairs, had my wrists twisted until she forced me to my knees screaming in agony, was dragged around the house by my hair and my head bounced off any and all hard objects. I was often punched in the face, back and stomach, or thrown on the floor and kicked repeatedly until she tired. She tried to suffocate me several times, held me down and forced a pillow onto my face with all her weight, while screaming she was going to kill me and she wished I would die. My head and face were forced under a pouring tub faucet and held there until I thrashed my way out of her grasp.  These things happened at least several times a week, sometimes more than once a day, interspersed with the verbal abuse, and her refusal to address me by name, but rather as “bitch” or “slut”. I was regularly told I was “ugly”, “fat”, “disgusting”, “crazy”, and “stupid”.

For those who think I may have been a “difficult” teenager from 11 to 16 or so when this pattern really took off—I never raised my voice to my mother, never cursed at her, never had friends over or snuck out, never wore anything other than black, baggy clothes (which is hardly slutty), never disobeyed a direct order, never did an illegal drug, smoked or drank, and only ever argued by politely stating I didn’t want to do something, or I thought she was mistaken. The latter two always resulting in a beating or several, so rarely did I dare say no to anything. In public, my siblings and I were always perfectly behaved, rarely speaking, never making noise or stepping out of line. Mom only had to give us that angry glare that promised later retribution for us to think twice about doing anything at all. There was no one around who knew us (beyond the brief homeschooling afternoons with the LEAH group) who could have possibly known that anything was terribly wrong in our house. We were very isolated. There was no one I could have spoken to, even had I found the courage to do so. We’d been trained to fear the authorities and child protective services and had no friends or family to speak of.

Mom “volunteered” me to go work at St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen once a week to win points with the local Catholic church she dragged us to once in a while. At first I was furious that she had volunteered me without even asking me, but after a while I realized it was a few hours a week out from under her thumb and grew to enjoy it. Mom also signed me up for confirmation classes at the local Catholic church, after she had begun attending workshops run by a fundamentalist Catholic homesteading family who also homeschooled their twelve children. Mom decided it was time for all of us to get more “spiritual”, and began three times a day “prayer circles” where we would all be forced to sit and read aloud from the Bible and sing hymns that the “Fahey’s” (the Catholic family she was imitating) sang. She instituted a clothing change, head-coverings for the girls (I refused), she began making ankle length dresses for herself and us (I also refused), and only long sleeved button down shirts for the boys. She threw out our shorts and t-shirts, started getting rid of her college feminist lit, and any and all of our books she found too “worldly”. Mom sold the computer my grandparents had bought for us, got rid of our tiny video and CD collection, and began instituting even stricter rules for us to follow. During these changes I attended confirmation classes at the local church, which I despised and between the forced Bible study there and the forced Bible study at home quickly grew to despise Christianity and the confining, narrow-minded tenets the Bible espouses. I never spoke my thoughts aloud, but my mother could tell from my face when I wasn’t agreeing or complaisant enough and my face invariably led to new beatings and verbal abuse.

Mom began to use the Bible as an additional weapon, quoting the “Thou shall honor thy father and mother” and telling me that God said I must be obedient and respectful to her. (Even though I was always obedient and never voiced any disrespect.) This just furthered my disgust for the Bible, although I now see that, like homeschooling, it was simply being used by my mother to her ends, not necessarily bad unto itself.

I was falling deeper and deeper into a depression that seemed like it was swallowing me whole. I started sleeping really late every day, shuffling through my duties with my head down and my mouth shut. I began snapping at my siblings when mom wasn’t looking, I had no patience for their demands for my attention or their quarrels. My brothers began fighting viciously with each other, first when mom was out, later even when she was home, resulting in beatings for them as well as me. I knew my mother hated me, I didn’t know why. I tried so hard, for so long, to be what she wanted me to be, obedient, respectful, responsible, but never seemed to find her approval or even a respite from her rage. I am, at my core, fundamentally an honest person, having no talent for acting, for pretending to be happy when I am not. This was my downfall. If I had only been a better actress, perhaps I could have fooled her into thinking I was, in fact, what she wanted me to be, rather than merely doing whatever I was told with my face betraying my misery and despair.

I tried to kill myself twice. Once, at summer camp, I stepped in front of an oncoming semi-truck with a feeling of exultant freedom and calm. A boy who liked me happened to be standing nearby and turned around and yanked me out of the road as the truck went by. The second time, my brother Alexander and I were coming home from the paper route and I decided the easiest way to end my misery would be to poison myself. I picked a handful of deadly nightshade berries and was about to throw them down my throat when my brother jumped up and slapped them out of my hands and started screaming and crying hysterically. I felt sad, resigned, and guilty for terrifying him so, and didn’t try to kill myself again.

In 1997, Mom decided my paper route was allowing me too much freedom and she wasn’t making enough money off of it/me to be worth the trouble, so she called my boss and “quit” for me. I was devastated by this as it was among my last outlets for momentary respite from the hell that was my home.

The following year I got my first real job, washing dishes at a local pizzeria for minimum wage. I was ecstatic at being able to get out of the house a few evenings a week and being allowed to save a little money to buy a puppy for my sixteenth birthday. After about six months, my mother called and told my employer that I could no longer work there because I was sleeping with a married 30-year-old man who was a coworker there. All this because I had spoken to him on the phone (about a dog) while she was listening in, and she said she could tell we were having sex by the tone of his voice. Really. There was no other evidence for her accusation, that was it. Mom convinced herself that this was true even though both he and I told her she was mistaken and crazy. She then beat me, off and on, for the next two days for this delusional belief until I could stand it no longer.

I packed my things and lived on the streets of Buffalo for next three weeks. I camped out in the basement of an abandoned apartment building, slept in a refrigerator box when I could, and mostly just tried to process what on earth to do next. Going home was not an option because if I stayed another minute I knew I would kill myself. I felt as if I was being slowly crushed by my life and there was only a spark of life and spirit left. After a few weeks I found a runaway shelter that helped me track down my biological father, who came and got me.

Elizabeth W. was homeschooled in the 1990s in New York State. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.

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