Silence is an old friend to me.
I first met silence when I was one week old. I don’t remember it of course, but my parents told this story to me so many times, I’ve memorized it. As a sanguine baby, I was alone in my crib, crying for someone to hang out with me, but my parents decided I’d recently had a bottle, had my diaper changed and was without a fever, so they decided to spank me to teach me not to be spoiled.
A few years ago, a young family in our church invited me over to their house when their newborn baby girl was only one week old. They asked if I would like to hold her. As I admired her delicate fingers, elfin ears, and tiny mouth, I couldn’t imagine spanking her for crying. My parents thought they’d met my needs, but they’d ignored my emotional needs to meet their own for the sound of silence.
And it wasn’t the last time. The belting, the yelling, and psychological gaslighting have always been offset by the sound of silence throughout my childhood. When I disobeyed, when beatings were not enough, the silence took over to set my place in this relationship. Silence happened to the extent I wasn’t allowed to go to high school. When I cried for lack of socialization and education, I was yelled at, belted then shunned with the sound of silence.
Throughout all of this, I was continually dancing on hot coals to meet my parents’ needs, trying to make them happy, hoping they would be proud of me so that we could have a relationship based on mutual love and respect. No matter what they did to me, I apologized and complied to their wishes because my own will was beaten out of me. Even as an adult, I didn’t speak of this childhood abuse to anyone — not even my husband. When my brother spoke out in our early twenties, he was shunned as the family scapegoat. I am ashamed to say; I too took up the oath of silence.
Once while I lived in Louisiana, far from my native Pacific Northwest. I had sacrificed and loaned my father money to fix a car. When one of my sisters called to tell me, he had used the money for something else; I called to confront him. He refused to discuss it with me and asked to speak to my husband instead. I left the speakerphone on so I could hear what he was saying. He told my husband I was a liar and that I made up stuff about my childhood and they’d been trying to figure out a way to let him know this in the seven years since he’d married me. Then he said, “She’ll wonder what we’re talking about, so let’s tell her it’s about the game.”
I interrupted him to say, “You don’t have to do that, Daddy, you’re on the speakerphone.” He hung up and there it was again, the sound of silence. It was from his side, not mine. I wailed at the top of my lungs in devastation to realize my Daddy, the one I loved, would betray me in such a manner. And no, I hadn’t told my husband about all the belting and moving and not going to high school. I’d been taught by my parents to keep the family secrets, and so I had lived in silence — sometimes to protect them and sometimes to protect my mind because it was just too painful to remember. And then there was the shame of having a father who didn’t provide or allow me to go to school who beat me with a belt and who told me to be perfect before Jesus came or I would die in a lake of fire. All this was too much, and so I had submitted to the silence.
When my father lied and hung up that day, I realized my silence was making me complicit in my parents’ abuse and lies. That unless I told my story, the truth would be lost forever. I started by telling my husband all the things I was told never to repeat. Silence had almost stolen my voice.
A year later, I moved closer to my family. One day my father yelled at me and raised his hand to me in my own home. My husband jumped up to protect me, but he didn’t need to. I was finally coming into my voice and finding my boundaries, and I shouted, “Don’t you ever raise your hand or voice to me again and get the fuck out of my house.”
My father went to the car while my mother yelled, “Jesus is coming!”
I replied, “Who cares if Jesus is coming if we can’t treat each other with respect.”
My father honked from the driveway, and I remembered we were having a birthday party for my brother that evening, so I ran out and knelt in the gravel, begging my father to stay for my brother’s birthday. He ignored me as if he was deaf. He stared straight out the windshield until my mom got in the car and he drove away. This time the silence lasted for four months.
I broke the silence. We were driving one Saturday afternoon, and I saw something my father would like, and so I stopped at a phone booth — you know one of those where you can talk for four minutes if you put in four quarters. My dad answered and said he was thinking about calling me. He apologized for every time he ever raised his voice or hit me. I accepted that apology and to this day don’t hold any of this — even the silence against him. I love my dad no matter what, but it’s still complicated.
It’s complicated because when one of my siblings went through a divorce, the entire family wrote to the judge to say my former in-law was a lousy parent. I disagreed and refused to vote the family party line. I chose to write a letter affirming this parent instead. Once again, my telling the truth brought the sound of silence.
For ten years now, I’ve been met with silence over and over from my aging parents, from my siblings, and even from some of the next generation — kids who have never received anything but love and presents from me. They have no real clue what happened. Despite my attempts to reach out or send birthday gifts, the sound of silence prevails. Despite all the love I’ve poured into my family for decades, most of my family members would talk about me before they speak to me. Silence is the curse of narcissism after triangulation, gossip and lies destroy relationships.
One sibling told me a few years ago they don’t love our parents, but only feel sorry for them. Well, I love my parents. I accept they aren’t perfect — who is? But I must live authentically. Silence is only one of the curses of having a narcissistic parent. They like to conquer by dividing — always pitting their children against each other to manipulate them into saying and doing what they want. Narcissistic parents can’t allow their children to connect or even find their voices because it threatens their ego. And so the silence grows, causing whoever is the designated scapegoat to walk alone. I am taking my turn, but I am not the only one who has been scapegoated. And thus the sound of silence is a curse that keeps perpetuating itself.
Silence, like a cancer, grows and not even death can change this silence. It’s the silence of narcissism. I’ve always been struggling to keep my boundaries and have a relationship with my parents. Tired of groveling, I finally went to counseling. Once I discovered the traits of narcissism, I began to see the big picture, and I realized my parents hadn’t changed much since I was born. Unless I meet my parents’ needs, unless I agree with them, unless I silence my voice and ignore my story, then I will be met by the sound of silence from the people who brought me into this world. But their silence can no longer force my silence. I have found my voice, and I refuse to be silent ever again.
My new memoir Chasing Eden was published last week and is available here on Amazon.