On A Precipice

Have you ever seen the movie Amelie?

If not, you should.

There is a scene where she is trying to work up the courage to talk to her crush and when he walks away she turns liquid and crashes to the floor.

Instant tears when I saw this the first time. Even now, when I watch that little 8 second clip, I get watery.

I told Randy the following story a few days ago. He is rarely noticeably moved. He was this time and said it was a great story. I was honestly surprised he didn’t already know the story. After being together for nearly 19 years. I thought he knew all my stories.

When I told him about my childhood act of thievery, this scene from Amelie came to mind.

From my research into the unsettling world of parental narcissism, I’ve learned there are two kinds. The ones that smother and the ones that neglect. I don’t know about smothering. But I am very familiar with neglect.

My mother worked two jobs for much of my childhood. My father? If he didn’t need us for attention or to unload his frustrations then we didn’t exist. I spent a lot of my time alone and unsupervised.

We lived in a shitty neighborhood. It was common to step over passed out drunks that had not quite made it home from a corner bar. A lot of the corners had bars.

Many of the children in the neighborhood were feral. There was one family in particular, the Whalen’s who even scared some of the adults in our neighborhood. I remember one woman who stood on the sidewalk in front of the house and shouted for my dad until he came out and could walk her home. This happened regularly and he loved that shit. Nothing was better than being in a situation where he could strut and show the world his impressive badassery.

For me it was a matter of never leaving the fenced in, postage stamp size backyard or becoming part of the group that revolved around the Whalen siblings. I didn’t want to stay in back yard.

I didn’t like them. They frightened me, but being scared was preferable to being stuck at home.

There was a tiny convenience store a block from my house called the bait shop. It probably had a different name, but we called it the bait shop. It was the back end of a shotgun house. The front of the house faced the street and the backdoor was the store entrance. The bait shop entrance was in the alleyway just on the other side of the cemetery entrance. It was a tiny shop, maybe two racks of convenience items, a cooler for bait and a big red cooler with bottles of soda inside.

One day during the Summer of my 10th year, Timmy Whalen decided we were going to go in and take whatever we wanted.

The owner were an aged couple. They stood behind the counter and looked at us with fear and anger. The fear was justified. The Whalens picked up what they wanted without even pretending to hide the fact that they were stealing. One of the Whalen twins, either Tina or Tammy, looked at me and told me to take a soda.

I didn’t want to take a soda.

The interaction between us got the attention of the other 4 or 5 kids in the group and I was handed an edict. Take a soda or get my ass beat.

I looked up at the old couple and wanted to scream at them “Make them stop”.

They just looked at me with their eyes swimming behind their old people glasses and I instantly knew how very big and scary the world was. I looked into the world and saw a gaping black hole where there was no one to take care of me. No vague authority figure was going to step in and make my decision for me. I was terrified.

I was furious.

I think this is where the scene from Amelie comes in. I wanted to turn to liquid and crash to the floor. I was a child and I stood before adults who were frightened of me. How was I supposed to handle that? How was I supposed to process that and get to my next tomorrow?

There was no way I was taking an ass beating. I took a soda from the freezer with one hand, looked at the old couple and flipped them off with the other hand, much to the delight of the other kids.

Then I lived with the guilt of that moment for decades.

I don’t feel guilty anymore. That was 40 years ago and I’m sure that old couple have been dead for many years. I refuse to hold my child self responsible for making poor decisions. Those decisions weren’t mine to make. My parents should have known where I was and what I was doing. My parents shouldn’t have left me in the hands of a group of hood rats.

I still have a long way to go in dealing with wounds from my childhood. It also occurs to me that I have great reason to be proud of the person I turned out to be in spite of my childhood.

I can’t be alone in this, were you ever in a situation where you felt you were forced to behave in a way that scared you or made you feel guilty? 

photo by Karen Apricot

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  1. Gwen says:

    Wow, Karen. Your dad was even worse than mine. And mine once locked my mom, brother, sister and I OUT of the house, and my mom had to cut her hand/wrist cutting through the screen door to get in. That was definitely a low point in the family. Not his DUI: at least he got his license taken away for a while so the drinking at bars after work stopped; it was his first step in the road to recovery. But I digress.

    What an awful thing for you to have to experience, and congrats for rising above instead of sinking in the quagmire!

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  2. Kareña says:

    No, you are most certainly not alone in this. Though the type of situations I found myself in were of a very different nature, I experienced this many times as a child, as a teenager and even more recently as an adult.
    I still find it painfully hard to accept, that the only person in the world who cares enough to take care of me, or rescue me from harm, is me.
    I am alone in this ‘big and scary world’ and I was also forced to recognise that at a very young age.
    I never expected a white knight but I sure has hell didn’t get one

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  3. I am glad you no longer feel guilty and that you recognize that your child self wasn’t responsible. Right after my mother married my stepfather we lived in a similar neighborhood with similar kids and I was five years old…and I was allowed to run off to these kids’ houses. I’ll never forget the one time when I was at one place in particular where they fed me Rice Krispies with hot water. It was later that I was forced into behavior that, when I think back on it now, makes me cringe…but I also have compassion for that girl.
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  4. Kel says:

    Yup. My brother molested me over a span of two years. (He was 7yrs older.) My sister (almost 9yrs older) caught us once. He told her it had never happened before, it never would again, but that it was my fault because I had initiated it. At 6yrs old, *I* had initiated it.

    My sister yelled at me to go down to my room. I slunk away, feeling horrible about myself, like maybe it WAS my fault, despite the fact that he forced me. She came down later and yelled at me, told me that I needed to go to confession because what I’d done was beyond wrong.

    I have never -ever- forgotten that day. But no, I do not feel guilty. I know it wasn’t my fault.
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    • Michelle says:

      I’m so sorry. That’s beyond horrible. I’m glad you don’t feel guilty. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back in time and just kick the shit out of both of them?

      Reply
  5. Jana says:

    ** I refuse to hold my child self responsible for making poor decisions**

    This is incredibly powerful — there are so many things about my childhood that still mortify me and I think somewhere, down deep inside, I do hold that child responsible. I think I need to work on being more forgiving and understanding to that kid — because those situations were a direct result of the way I was raised (or not raised, as was so often the case).
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    • Michelle says:

      And it’s very nearly true!

      It actually is in this case. I don’t feel guilty about it anymore…but I did for a long long time. I would think about those people and feel so horrible and then I’d feel angry again. One thing I’ve learned about me is it’s very confusing to be me. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Doug in Oakland says:

    I learned how to swim when I was 7. It was 1968, and my brother was 17. And 6’5″. We lived on some acreage with a small lake just down a hill from the house, maybe 50 feet away. My brother’s bedroom was originally a workshop off of the garage, and my father made it into a very nice bedroom for him with the added bonus of an entrance that didn’t require one to be inside the house to access it. More freedom and privacy.
    My brother had his own record player in there, and after he caught me sneaking his Beatle records out to play on my parents’ inferior one, I was forbidden from entering his room when he wasn’t around. In retrospect, he also had drugs in there, and didn’t want his pain-in-the-ass little brother ratting around in his stuff.
    So of course I went in there, usually when I got home from grade school and no-one was around but my sister because the high school was in Eureka a few miles to the north and he rarely came straight home. One day he did, though, and caught me in his room. He didn’t say a word, just grabbed me by my belt and collar, picked me up, hauled me out the garage door, around the house, and down the hill to the lake, where he just tossed me in. I came up sputtering and terrified, looking desperately for him to haul me out, but saw him already trudging back up the hill. I went down a second time. I remember having been told that you drown when you go down for the third time, knew that no help was coming, so when I surfaced again I tried to remember what people did when I had seen them swim so I could do that. It worked. I only needed to make it a few feet to the shore, and I did. I managed to get my clothes dry before either of my parents got home, and came out of it with newfound leverage against my brother, because if my father had found out, there would be hell to pay.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      That’s horrible!! Are you close with him now? I’m glad you didn’t die.

      Reply
      • Doug in Oakland says:

        My brother fell ill and died in 2005, and since he was still living in Eureka while I had moved to Oakland in ’84, I didn’t even know about it until my sister told me.
        But yes, we were fairly close for a number of years, mostly starting about the time I started getting high and the power struggle shifted to being between us and my father.
        I do feel like I should clarify something: I had a wonderful childhood.

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  7. Parents should take responsibility for their children but when you’re dealing with narcissistic parents, it’s a completely different matter entirely. They don’t and never will see the world with normal eyes. It’s all about them and their needs, manipulation, control and a thousand other things. And mark my words, I had a childhood full of it. I now have a policy of low contact on my own terms without hesitation.
    Saying all that, I did know many rights from wrong growing up, so anything I did at the time, I would say I was responsible for it.
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    • Michelle says:

      Oh, I fully believe that I knew right from wrong. I also knew I didn’t want to get my ass kicked by the meanest family in the neighborhood. 🙂

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  8. Jennifer Steck says:

    You did what you needed to survive, Michelle. You knew it was wrong and struggled with the choice. There are a lot of children and adults that believe they deserve everything and take what they want. I love your story and how you describe the impact it has has on you over your life. I’ve never seen Amelie. I’ll add it to my watch list.

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  9. Amelie does sound like a good movie, I should put it on my to-watch list.

    I have done things that were wrong in my younger years as well, even without the threat of getting beaten up. Changing the past is impossible, all we can do is learn from it and not make the same mistake in the present.
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    • Michelle says:

      Oh, yeah..I made the wrong choices without threat overhead as well..but you’re right..we learn from that. It would have been nice to have a little more parental intervention..but hey..who is to say that doing it on my own isn’t what made me the raging bundle of insecurities I am today! (I’m only kidding a little)

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  10. Chris says:

    What a crappy predicament, being stuck between two terrible choices. Childhood trauma is the worst – it shapes you, scars you, and stays with you forever. I’ve certainly had my fair share of it (I also had an absent father and an overworked mother) and until recently I’ve been too ashamed or indifferent to confront my demons. Baby steps though.

    It’s great that you can look back on these incidents and feel remorse but also pride that you were able to overcome your rough upbringing. Thanks for sharing this!

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      Thank you so much. You’re right, it is hard to confront these demons..but I’m actually finding it very helpful. I have my moments where it’s very difficult or painful or shameful, but I’m learning to work through that shit as well. 🙂

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  11. Angelle says:

    I was smothered as a kid. Sometimes it can be just as bad as being neglected. I guess being the firstborn didn’t help either, but what can you do? Being on the other side of the spectrum I almost stole a comic book once when I was about 10. Just to be rebellious. Then I realized that I would probably never be able to leave the house again if I got caught so I decided the Archie Double Digest wasn’t worth it.

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  12. Michelle, I know that you are still struggling with effects of your childhood, but I am so happy to hear you say that you have reason to be proud of how you turned out…you are absolutely right.

    I do have to say that my very favorite comment of yours is this: “I feel little parts of me more at peace.”

    It helps to share these stories…and you share them well.
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  13. Edie says:

    My parents split up when I was 8, and my siblings and I lived with our narcissistic mother after that. I was never a popular kid, so when a couple of the neighborhood feral kids started letting me hang out with them, I was thrilled. I thought they were cool, and I wanted to be cool, too. I let them peer-pressure me into all kinds of things I didn’t want to do, like attempting to climb a radio tower (they had security; we never made it past the fence), or swimming in a contaminated lake. The worst thing, though, is that they encouraged me to be really mean to my siblings, and I sometimes complied. This was especially crappy considering our mother’s idea of parenting was leaving us in front of the TV or letting us roam the neighborhood like wild dogs. I really should have stuck by my siblings when we were young; we might all have turned out differently.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      try to not be hard on yourself. You were a kid…and as far as how we turn out? Well..we are who we are..we can only change ourselves..the same goes for your siblings.

      Peace. 🙂

      Reply
  14. The Hook says:

    This was beautifully written and gripped my heartstrings from start to finish.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  15. Val says:

    Found my DVD of Amelie; however Son & I wound up watching “Flight” which was also an excellent movie w/good moral lesson (even though Z got fed up w/me moaning over poor Denzel 😉

    Reply
  16. This post makes me want to cry, I can really feel how scary and confusing that must have been for you as a child. Even now, such a tension (the fear and anger from the couple, the neglect…) must be so hard to reconcile. Thank you for sharing this with us.
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