When the council finally housed my mum, she got a place where every room had woodchip wallpaper. I was too young when we moved in to remember it now, but I’m not convinced the building was fit for residence. Scraping together the money and tools to redecorate took her years, but when I was seven Andy from church steamed the stuff off, only to find an inch of yellow mildew underneath, coating the walls like custard coloured phlegm. The two of them spent a weekend ridding the bathroom, living room and downstairs loo of it. Elsewhere, the woodchip stayed.
Mum did the house up anyway, painting over it when necessary. For an amateur armed only with half-empty paint tins from fellow churchgoers’ attics, she worked wonders. The living room became sunshine yellow, with crystals that covered it in rainbows on bright mornings. The toilet was tattooed with trompe l’œil ivy, and upstairs she sponged white paint onto blue to make our bathroom wall look like the sky. My sister’s room was styled after the Arabian Nights, wine coloured walls and wicker rocking chair, glow-in-the-dark stars on a dark ceiling. Then there was my room.
For one reason or another, no one ever photographed my bedroom. Woodchip or not, I wish I could convey how brilliant it was. Knowing full well that Aslan was Jesus, I’d powered through the Narnia series, and Mum covered the walls with scenery from their fictional world, painstakingly recreating the Pauline Baynes illustrations. Next to my bed were a broken stone table and Cair Paravel, and behind the headboard white cliffs sloped into a sea that circled the room, a tiny Dawntreader in the distance. Strangely, of all of it, my most vivid memory is of the texture of a shelf.
There wasn’t much space in that room—clothes went in drawers under the bed, board games into spare crevices in the bookcase, toys into a giant wicker toy chest of my sister’s. Once the walls were painted, Andy from church added a wall shelf a couple of feet above the bed, which Mum and I varnished with only enough oil for one side. Underneath, the wood stayed sandpapery: I still remember its roughness, running my fingers across it at night, and how it grazed my scalp when Mum lifted me off the bed throat first. I’m not going to kill myself. I’m going to kill you.
On my certificate of baptism, there’s an inscription from the Book of Common Prayer. Bless, we beseech Thee, the home of this child, and grant wisdom and understanding to all who have the care of him, that he may grow up in Thy constant fear and love. I’ve wondered if love was added to make constant fear less offputting, but loving someone you’re afraid of is much worse than just being scared of them. It’s taken me twenty-five years to call my mum an abuser, and she hasn’t been a part of my life for the last two. Initially I thought that would be temporary. I don’t now.
When I was a student, Mum said out of the blue that she was sorry she’d hit me. I’ve no idea what prompted it, except that later on, when forced to mention it, she added that she had apologised. I don’t think I offered any reply: it was as if she’d stopped a conversation I hadn’t started. The rest of it was never spoken of. I got an apology for having been hit, but not for the plate smashed over my head at Bible camp, the hardback book swung at my face in my mid teens that would have knocked me out—the times my sister’s toy chest failed to stop her getting through my bedroom door.
I’m only just learning to recognise that none of this was ordinary. I know how many parents tell their children that they’re going to kill them. I’m learning they don’t say it with their hands around the child’s neck. The hardest part is that of all of it, these are the things that now disturb me least. Had my mum only been violent, she might have been someone who knew no better than to resort to abuse at weak moments, but the truth is that our relationship always rested on unspeakable things, and silence hurt me more than violence ever did.
I grew up with stories of things my dad had done. Once, after she’d left him and taken me, he dialled the speaking clock and staged a call to social services, warning her they’d promised to take her child. Like her husband, Mum never left a mark, and she adopted this technique as well. Arguments throughout primary school ended with me on hands and knees next to the telephone, sobbing, cursing, begging not to be taken away by whoever I thought was on the other end. I wonder now whether being put into care would have been worse than living with Mum was. Honestly, I don’t know.
My dad was an abuser, but not—for the most part—mine. That realisation is a difficult one too. While distant, negligent and often irresponsible, he wasn’t cruel to me, and I’ve come to accept that, though a despicable man, the parent I considered the bad one wasn’t the one who made me cry. When a bad haircut left me bawling at the age of eight, Mum told me to be quiet because children in worse parts of the world had seen their genitals cut off. I still don’t know why an adult would react that way to an upset child, but I’ve only begun to wonder in the last few years.
By my mid teens I could stop items swung at me or grab Mum’s wrists mid slap. (This was, she told me, an assault.) Emotional abuse never got old. At fifteen I admitted not winning school awards bothered me. ‘You haven’t one a single prize,’ she said one argument later. I’d been bright once, she told me after I’d turned ten, but teachers now thought I was well below average, and if I failed to do as I was told, the whole school would learn I was a bedwetter. ‘Betrayed with a kiss,’ Mum said when I pressed my lips to her cheek in a failed peace offering. ‘Like Judas.’
Nothing Mum did hurt, or hurts, more than religion. In infant school I learnt I had atheist relatives in hell. In junior school I swore I hadn’t misbehaved. ‘You’re damned,’ Mum told me, ‘because you’re a liar.’ I spent Halloweens terrified, chanting on a loop that Jesus was lord. I had nightmares about Satan at four, slept in a penitent cold sweat after acting up, thought there were demons in our home and that my dad was one. At eight I thought Satan had spoken through me because Mum said so. At fifteen I overdosed hoping my church was wrong about suicides.
After I lost my faith, religion could only be discussed with kid gloves. As a result, most of these experiences are ones I never got the chance to raise. One day, while driving through the countryside, Mum said a church upbringing hadn’t done me any harm. I didn’t mean to be unkind, I said, but felt it had. A noise followed that a punctured dinghy could have produced, bringing the conversation to a halt. Neither of my siblings are atheists, but I think they had the same struggle with other uncomfortable subjects—fail to tread lightly, and down the shutters came.
I cut my mum off two Novembers back. Online, a friend mentioned how someone at their gym thought their bi pride tattoo meant they should be introduced to Jesus. It couldn’t have been a real Christian, Mum said, without asking if my friend was okay—real Christians loved queer people, as she did. Before congratulating herself on supporting us, I wrote, she should take back all the shitty things she’d said about us. (On another car ride, mentioning I didn’t prefer either gender received its own sigh-hiss.) ‘Grow up,’ Mum said, ‘and stop talking such utter crap.’
When I was a kid, my mum said men like me were ‘the easiest way to get AIDS’; that AIDS ‘came from the gay community’; that liking your own gender was worrying and disgusting, and that men she called poofs, queers and homosexuals molested boys. If we couldn’t talk about that, when could we talk about violence, emotional cruelty or religious abuse? When could we talk about the boy who molested me? The time I tried to die at fifteen? The time, hours before, when she threatened in writing to throw me out of the house, promising to save herself the expense of raising me?
While my mum was part of my adult life, our relationship required silence. I blogged about some of the things she’d done to me, confiding in friends and partners about the rest, waiting for the day she’d be ready to talk about it. By the time I ended contact, it was clear I’d be waiting all my life. I expected at the time to go through six months of misery, but by the time the twelfth month came, I was still processing my own relief. It’s taken me the best part of two years to write this post, a vow of silence gradually and painfully broken, but I’m not keeping mum any longer.