True Story, Issue #19

"Cruel & Inhuman Treatment" by Carolyn Edgar

True Story, Issue #19

“Don’t marry a man like your father,” Carolyn Edgar’s mother warned her. But the impact of a family history of domestic violence proves almost as profound as the head-shaped dent in a wall of the author’s childhood home.

From "Cruel & Inhuman Treatment" by Carolyn Edgar

There is a dent in a wall of my parents’ house that is the exact size and shape of Mama’s head.

I rarely say, “My father beat Mama.” I say, “My parents fought,” because that is how Mama described it. They fought. Her word became my word. Her way of describing her experience became mine. 

My father beat Mama implies helplessness, victimization. Fighting suggests a battle between foes of equal strength.

The fight that caused the dent happened when I was about seven years old. I don’t know what started it. A child of seven can never make sense of why her parents are yelling and screaming at each other. 

My three older brothers hustled us three younger girls outside while my parents fought. I’m sure the neighbors heard the yelling and the sounds of bodies bumping furniture, of head hitting wall. Such fighting was not uncommon among the working-class, blue-collar families who lived on our northwest Detroit street in the 1970s. The men who, like my father, worked in the auto factories would come home at the end of a long workweek—usually drunk—and silence smart-mouthed wives with closed fists. The neighbors who peeked between their blinds that day, peering through the branches of the twin maple trees that kept our house cool in summer, would have seen us children standing outside on our porch, unharmed. Some of them would have walked away from the window then, though some of the wives might have kept covertly watching our house for a time. They knew that, some other night, it would be their turn to get hit and that Mama would be peeking through the corner of her window shade when their anguished cries crackled like lightning in the middle of the night, followed a second or two later by the thunderous roar of an angry husband and the solid thud of a fist connecting with flesh and bone. 

Because my older brothers hustled us outside, I didn’t actually see the dent being made. Sometimes, I imagine how it happened. I envision my father, who, at six-foot-two, was a whole foot taller than Mama, grabbing Mama around the shoulders and driving her head into the wall, like a battering ram. Or perhaps he punched her, sending her stumbling backward and flying into the wall. The dent was the grave marker of that fight, the last physical fight my parents would ever have. There was no blood.

Mama would want you to know, if she were still alive and reading this, that her metal dust mop handle was also bent in this fight. This bend, while not quite the exact size and shape of my father’s head, resulted from her slamming the mop handle down on my father’s skull. I remember Mama showing us her bent mop handle, holding it up like a safari kill. Mama always claimed that when she fought with my father, she gave as good as she got. Because Mama refused to see herself as a victim, it was hard to argue otherwise. Yes, probably she would have conceded that my father used more force to dent a solid wall than she used to bend her dust mop, but while she suffered the greater pain, her triumph was that she made him suffer, too.

Mama often boasted that she was never afraid of my father. In her view, a woman could remain married to an abusive man without relinquishing her power. It wasn’t staying that made a woman weak—it was fear. Mama spoke openly of that fight, that dent in the wall, only once that I can remember. She said she told my father that if he ever laid hands on her again, she would kill him. She believed the only way to make a man stop hitting you was to show him that if he was willing to go hard, you were willing to go harder. Even if it meant one of you wound up dead.

If I had ever felt comfortable talking openly with Mama about the dent in the wall and the bend in the mop handle, I might have reminded Mama that the mop eventually made its way out to the curb along with the rest of the trash, but the dent in the wall stayed there for the rest of my father’s life, and then the rest of Mama’s life, and it is still there now. 

I might have told her that the damage she and her children suffered was as permanent as the dent.