Posted by: Hannah | 11/05/2012

the colour of memory

A few weeks ago several folks I know and respect suggested I read Behind the Woodpile: A Memoir by Emily Rosenbaum. She was making it available for free download from Amazon, and suddenly I was seeing tweets and status updates all telling me to read it.

I normally resist that kind of pressure, but I was looking for something to read, and I hate that feeling of being left out of something. (I know, I know. This is not a good reason to do anything, but it’s why I read the excreble 50 Shades trilogy, and I felt like balancing out my literary karma by picking up something described as “smart” and “unforgettable”.)

I downloaded the “Kindle for PC” free software – it’s genius, by the way, although if you get it do yourself and your wallet a favour and DO NOT activate the “one-click buying” option. When you can buy a book you’ve been waiting to by clicking one little button and bam! there it is on your computer just waiting to be read and you conducted the entire transaction in your pajamas… well. There is a reason why I shouldn’t ever buy an e-reader.

Anyway, I settled in with a cup of tea and resurfaced three hours later – way past my bedtime – with a headache, tear-stained face, and a strong desire to eat my feelings.

Behind the Woodpile is a no-holds-barred memoir of Emily Rosenbaum’s childhood; she was horribly abused by her stepmother and it continued for years until her older sister finally found the courage to tell someone was what going on. I won’t rehash any of the details here – if you want to read it, you can – but suffice it to say it was very bad. Woven throughout the memoir are her thoughts about how being an adult survivor of child abuse has coloured her experiences as a parent, and those were the sections I found hardest to read.

I do not consider myself as a survivor of child abuse… not exactly. There was a lot of yelling in my house, and especially when I was very young there was a lot of disruption. There was never enough money, which of course creates lots of stress for the parents, and that kind of emotional weather affects everyone in the house. Both of my parents grew up in violent and abusive homes, with alcoholism front and centre, so their own coping skills were shoddy at best.

Our house was really more of a shack; no plumbing at all until I was eight, and even then, no indoor toilet… the floor was just joists with aspenite nailed to them, and the whole thing rested on concrete sonitubes – no foundation, no insulation. In the winter, the windows were often covered in a thick layer of ice. When I was very small, it had three rooms – kitchen & two bedrooms. Mom and her then-husband slept on a single-width army cot in the kitchen.

As I grew up those days receded into memory; they built a lovely home when I was in my teens, and my youngest siblings don’t even have any memories of the hard years. And in between all the upsets there were also lots of good times; I never doubted that my parents loved me. But still – I see in myself every day how those early experiences changed me, and how the affect my parenting now.

“Sometimes he gets me so angry I want to smack him with the back of my hand or shake him till he can’t cry anymore.   He gets me so angry that I yell and say nasty things and harp on him long after the incident is over.”

When I read those sentences I had to put the book aside for a few moments to cry, because that was me. That was me as a new mother and that sometimes is still me as an experienced mother. I know better. I know better. But sometimes in the moment it feels impossible to do better, and those days are hard days for me.

When I do lose it, and ‘parenting’ is replaced by ‘shouting the children into submission because the end of my rope is six feet above my head’, I always talk to them afterwards. I reassure them that I love them. I give them hugs if they want them. I apologize for losing my temper while still explaining that their behaviour – whatever it was – was unacceptable. I promise to keep trying, and I know that I am doing better all the time… but I hope it’s not too late, I hope the cycle doesn’t repeat itself, I wish that in one generation the abuse and the rage could disappear, instead of just getting one degree better each time.

So. Would I recommend this book to anyone? I might not. It’s not an enjoyable read. Just because something is well-written – and it is, no question – doesn’t make it fun or pleasant. I wouldn’t read it a second time. It laid bare some things that have been a problem for me and let me know that I’m not alone, or even that unusual, but for anyone who didn’t see themselves on at least some of the pages I suspect this would feel like a sad, doleful tale.

***

Emily Rosenbaum’s book Behind the Woodpile: A Memoir, is available for download from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca. This post was not sponsored nor was I compensated in any way for writing it. 

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Responses

  1. I have a very, very hard time reading books such as these. Books like The Glass Castle devastate me. I have a very hard time reading about child abuse. Once I read a book about Munchausen Syndrome by proxy and I was just torn apart by it.

    I had young parents, and I was a handful for my mom – a drama queen. I just said to my husband last night that I was frequently very unhappy as a child, so I was always happy to go to school. I understand why my mother was what she was, and I also see that she is an excellent grandmother. That’s all I want to say about it, really, but I won’t read this book. I need escapism in my books, I guess. Not sure what that says about me.

    • I’m like you – I need escapism in my books. I don’t read much non-fiction as a rule, for that very reason.

      I had young parents, too – my mom was 18 and my bio-dad was 17 when they got married, and I came along two years later. I think of myself at 18… or 20… and I cringe.

  2. Is there a pair of kicky high heels, pretty handbags or make up on the cover? Does the plot revolve around a bloodless murder? If yes, I will read it. Otherwise no. The older I get, the more horrible things I witness, the more I crave escapism in my literary choices.

    • I hear you. And if I want it to be a little risque, a strand of pearls next to those kicky high heels is usually a pretty good indicator.

  3. Wow. I can’t imaging living through the winter in a house like that. We whinned and complained about the cold when we visited the family cottage for Thanksgiving. If only we’d known how spoiled we were.

    I don’t think I could read anything like that. I have a hard enough time watching people be arseholes obviously made-up stories (like Joffery in Game of Thrones – I can not wait for him to die!!!). To read a first hand account? No thanks. I know abuse happens. I know more then I’d like to know about the kinds of abuse that happen and the extent people will go to when abusing others. I’d like to retain a little faith in humanity, so I avoid gut wrenching books like this.

    Also, I’m not a parent, nor have I ever been abused (general occasional tempers and passive aggressiveness occurs, but no abuse), and I still have days when I really want to punch people. I used to babysit the younger siblings all the time and I know I lost my temper with them more then they deserved (especially considering their special needs). I do not have the patience for such things. The important thing is that you acknowledge the issue and do your best to make amends. A lot of kids don’t get apologies from their parents. Ever. No matter how minor the blow-up. My parents (both of them, even Ms. Perfect) own me many apologies. I’m glad your kids are getting them.

    • We were cold, I’m not going to lie. We had a wood stove and so the room with the stove in it was stupid hot, while the bedrooms – especially when a loft was added for my sister and I to sleep in – were freezing. To this day, I actually prefer sleeping in a cold bedroom with 20 pounds of blankets piled on me.

      My dad actually took me out to dinner when I was in university and apologized to me for his temper and his emotional distance when I was growing up, particularly during the teenage years, which were difficult. I still sometimes marvel at what an effort that must have taken, and it made a huge difference to our relationship.

  4. You’re one generation out, and you already understand what the problem is, and you’re actively working to NOT pass it on to your kids. You understand that YOU are the buffer between what went before and what is coming next, and that things won’t magically peter out or change on their own.

    All of that puts you light years ahead of a LOT of other people in your situation, my in-laws included. Mad props to you, my friend.

    • Thanks. Every generation it does improve, and my parents, while not perfect, were a vast improvement over their own parents. And they are getting better all the time – you couldn’t ask for kinder, more loving, more patient grandparents. So every day we all do a little better.

  5. Thank you for this beautiful post.


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