An Oral History of Myself #14: Judy

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In 2005 I began interviewing people I grew up with. Because I left home at thirteen and spent four years in group homes, my social network was significantly wider than most people of that age. What’s most interesting about these interviews turns out not so much to be the things we remember differently as the things we remember the same. Read the rest of the interviews here.

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Judy – Mother

My dad has a lot of money and he’s a lot older than my mom. She didn’t have any family and when she met him she thought she hit the jackpot. He was living with his mother, my grandmother, and devoid of social skills. I don’t think he had even been on a date and she was a really attractive young woman.

Things didn’t work out the way my mother wanted. My father refused to ever spend money. He was pathologically cheap. My mother was bitter with resentment, always drunk, passed out around the house naked after calling my father every name she could think of. Periodically he would snap and beat the shit out of her until she was bloody. Every so often she would leave but always came back. Sometimes she would take us with her, like when she took us to Florida for a couple of years. Sometimes she just left and we wouldn’t hear from her for months at a time. Some years there was Christmas, some years there wasn’t. It depended if they were separated or not. They got divorced at least twice.

We were living on Lake Shore Drive, which is a fancy address, and dressed in thrift store clothes with holes in our shoes because my father wouldn’t spend money from his trust fund and my mother didn’t make a lot working as a secretary. She would slap us and call us names. She would wake me in the middle of the night, turning over my drawers and making me fold clothes until dawn, slurring that I was a slob, a lying whore, etc., all while saying I better never sign a pre-nup. It was madness.

The violence escalated as I grew older and my father locked himself in his room and hardly came out when she was home. She would bang on his door and try to provoke fights. When that didn’t work she would start fights with me instead. She lived in the living room, passing out nightly on the couch where I would put a blanket over her.

I started talking back when I was fourteen and it became very violent very fast with both of them. My father once whipped me with a belt until I couldn’t move anymore and just lay on the floor motionless. My mother, the last time I ever lived with them, held a kitchen knife against my throat and threatened to kill me. My father, for the first time in his life, stood up for me. He came out of his room, threw her down, and gave me twenty dollars while wrestling with her and told me to run. It was two in the morning. There was a church nearby and I knew one of the youth ministers lived there. He let me in, let me cry, rubbed my back. It happened so fast. He was on top of me. I didn’t scream. I didn’t do anything. No one would have heard anyway.

The police arrested me as a runaway. I was placed with my ninety-year-old grandmother, who was told I was on drugs, even though I wasn’t, and instructed not to let me out of the house. Then I was sent to an aunt on the east coast. We were driving up the coast to visit her daughter at a boarding school in New York but it wasn’t a boarding school, it was a drug rehab. She left me there. I went nuts because I’d never taken drugs in my life. The director concurred and made my aunt come back and get me. My parents said they had washed their hands of me. My aunt didn’t have any money and after a few months took me to a children’s shelter. After thirty days were up I had to leave the shelter; my aunt helped me go to an adolescent psychiatric hospital because I was still on my father’s insurance. The head doctor found placement for me in JCB. People feel sorry for me for living in a group home, but it was a blessing.

You were the first person I met when I got there. I was fifteen and I came out of my room and the girls stared at me and you were there with Fat Mike. He didn’t look particularly friendly. You kind of smiled so I talked to you and asked where I could buy cigarettes. You offered to walk me to the gas station but I said, No thank you.

Your group home was run by the same agency as mine. You lived in the front room of the girl’s home, practically. You were like our puppy dog. You roamed around and tried to get affection from all the girls. You weren’t aggressive. You were actually pretty quiet. You always had a journal. I’d say, What are you writing? And you’d say you were just writing a poem about me. Then I’d give you a hug. You wanted affection real bad.

At the group home school you sat in the little lunchroom and read the same book every day, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. You wore tie-dyed t-shirts. You peeled potatoes before school at a hot dog place called Freedy’s and your fingers were cut. I knew you were different because I worked too, I had work study. A lot of the kids wouldn’t go to school or work. They’d sit and watch soaps.

Nobody in Price ever talked about about why we were there. There were twelve girls on two floors with four bedrooms. The girl who had seniority had the single room. At the end I got my own room.

I was one of the only girls that didn’t get into any fights, though a fight could break out at any moment. It took me a long time just to speak up or stand up for myself  Once, in a club, a girl attacked me when I was with a few girls from the home. They beat her so badly that her nose was broken and I had to beg them to stop.

Staff in Price was always coming and going. Every so often there would be a staff member who would be caring and maternal and when they left it hurt. And they always left. The kids too. They ran away or were moved to different placements. After I got hurt a couple of times I never got close to another staff member. I’m still like that. Other than my family relationships I can only get so close. I care about people but I keep them at arm’s distance.

There was a lot of sleeping around in the group homes. At Price there were baskets of condoms in the bathrooms. We were given birth control pills every morning. Boys from another home, yours or Spaulding House, were stealing our panties. We don’t know who it was. Some staff member called and said they had found our underwear.

While at Price I always had two lovers. My long time boyfriend, who was a bit older, and Ty from the Spaulding House. Ty was my backup boyfriend because I always needed to be with someone. Later, the roles switched. Ty became my primary lover and my ex became the backup when Ty wasn’t there. It was about trying to find a moment of feeling loved, wanted, held, cherished. Anything. Whatever I told myself it was at the time. No romance required, just someone that would play a certain role. Two lovers kept me from getting too attached and from ever being alone. One or the other was always in a state of frenzy or jealousy or rage. I always felt wanted in the fucked up dysfunctional triangle that I had created. That was my drug.

I saw you sporadically after the group home. I’d see you here or there. You’d call and have a thing and I’d be your date. You’d take me for a motorcycle ride. You always pop into my life. I read one of your books every few years.

The worst effect my past has as a parent/wife is the lack of confidence I have in my parenting due to my lack of role models. I sometimes realize that I compare myself to fictional mothers and wives like Carol Brady or Mrs. C in happy days. You know what I mean. I have a fantasy of what I am supposed to be like and my expectations are pretty unrealistic. I make my kids cucumber sushi for their lunches for Gods sake. I get beaten down by my guilt when I raise my voice on occasion or make mistakes and have to tell myself that I am trying the best I can. I just don’t know what normal is really supposed to look like. But I think the way mine looks now is a lot better than it did so I guess its okay. I just have to remind myself that. I’m just very grateful for a supportive husband and kids that give me wonderful feedback. It helps. My house is loud and full of kids most of the time. Some of my daughter’s friends playfully refer to me as mom when they come over, so I know they must be pretty comfortable and I know my past is not my present and isn’t going to be my kids future. When I was little, all I ever wanted was a real family. Now I have one.

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Stephen Elliott is the author of eight books, including The Adderall Diaries. Visit stephenelliott.com for more information. More from this author →