Part 1: God is on the side of the frightened child

My father subjected all of us to his domestic violence. He gaslit my mother constantly. Once I grew into womanhood after their divorce, while I attended Thomas Aquinas and then, Christendom College, he tried to make me doubt my sanity too. That was his mistake.

I had seen his playbook for too many years and had caught him in too many lies for that to possibly work. He was a chronic liar. The sort of liar that doesn’t even think twice about lying. The sort of liar who tells so many lies he would forget and lose track of the lies. Nothing would make him so angry as somebody catching him or tripping him up when his lies contradicted themselves — then he just threw tantrums. Public tantrums were even better for humiliating his wife and children, so he could teach his children that his outburst was all Mom’s fault. That didn’t work on me either, so I don’t why why it worked on our extended family.

When I say “extended family,” I mean his side of the family, because I almost never got to see my maternal grandmother. She stayed away because every time she visited, my father would make a point of hitting, debasing and screaming at her daughter in front of her. My mother’s mom would cry and beg my mother to leave him. “Catholics don’t divorce,” my mother would parrot. So it became easier for everyone if she stayed away. That had, of course, been my father’s intent. By robbing me and my ten younger siblings of one half of our family, he could send the message to her and to us, that wives had no identity other than as belonging to their husbands.

Yes, I have ten younger siblings. My father was a spousal rapist. He would deny it, because if she never “had the right to say no” and didn’t scream and laid still as a corpse, then it wasn’t rape. No matter how she openly loathed him or begged him to leave her alone, to wait before risking another pregnancy with her poor health.

Learning that detail, when I read my parents statements when they divorced when I was eighteen, fueled violent nightmares. I really should have known it though, once I had an idea of what sex was. Yet I was kept ignorant of sex by my mother for as long as possible, because she wanted to spare me the horror of it. What she felt was her duty to impress upon me was that sex was primarily for male pleasure and it was a humiliation women had to endure in order to experience the joys of motherhood.

The prospect of the joys of motherhood may have seemed more enticing to me if a mother didn’t have to witness the father beating his sons, or worrying that one day he would accidentally or intentionally kill them.

My father rarely physically assaulted me as a child because I was obedient and he only began financially abusing me once I was an adult trying to survive college. The verbal abuse began with adulthood too. The emotional and spiritual abuse was a constant. I managed to avoid his physical abuse by avoiding getting too close to him, but I wasn’t confident that I would succeed in that forever.

A story of domestic violence that needs to be told.

Recently, my toddler found these old photos of me and I’ve decided to share them because they portray a story of domestic violence that needs to be told.

That is me in 1986. Somebody should have acted to save that baby. I can say this while forgiving all who failed to protect her.

That poor little girl had such an affectionate nature. She was so eager to please and had such a passionate joy. She was too young to witness her father tearing nurslings out of her screaming mother’s arms so he could slap her and drive off with them. That little girl worried that he wouldn’t come back and she’d never see the baby again. As she grew older and saw him do that again and again, she stopped worrying that he wouldn’t come back and just worried about the baby not being in the car seat.

Domestic violence destroys families. It teaches boys the lie that men are violent, irrational, unpredictable, exert dominance by destroying innocence and scoffing at feminine dignity. It teaches girls that being mistreated by lovers and family members and authority figures is normal. I have five younger brothers who have grown into young men; all sent out into the world. And God help me, I have five, beautiful younger sisters grown into women.

I was fourteen years old in this photo. I didn’t smile for the photo, partially to hide my braces. I wanted to be a nun and my mother encouraged this. She did not want me to get married and be unhappy as she was. My father assured me a bit nervously that I would change my mind. “You’re too beautiful to be a nun,” he said, “Someday you’ll get married. I don’t want you to have a negative view of marriage just because I’m unhappy in mine. You’ll be happier because you’ll be a better wife than your mother. You see that I don’t hit you like I do her. Because you obey me. So just be submissive to your husband in all things-as God commands you-and you’ll be fine.”

You’ll be happier because you’ll be a better wife than your mother. You see that I don’t hit you like I do her.

I already knew, as I had known sobbing into my pillow for so many nights all throughout my childhood, begging God to just let me die and to take me to heaven then, that whatever other lies or errors that I was fed; God was with me. He is on the side of the Truth. He is on the side of the frightened child.

My high school graduation portrait. I was seventeen; I still had braces. I felt guilty for leaving my mother and my ten younger brothers and sisters with my father, without me there to placate him. But I was so desperate to get out of there, to escape to Thomas Aquinas College. I felt guilty for wanting to escape the chaos — but when my parents split up the Christmas of my freshman year, I felt even more guilty.

I am showing you all of these, one after the other to show you just how long 19 years is.

So many times the story could have changed. Years ago I wondered, how would my health and development been affected if at any point in my childhood, one of my father’s sisters and their husbands had stepped up. If they had said,

“Paul. You absolutely cannot keep doing this to your family. You are harming them. We are taking your wife and children under our protection. You are not going to have access to them while you lie, lash out and abuse. We are their family too. You don’t get to treat them like that. You made vows to love, to honor and to cherish. Do you want your sons to grow up thinking that this is how men treat women? Do you want your daughters treated like this? They are clearly affected by this. This is how child bed wetting, child on child bullying, teen drug abuse, unhealthy relationships, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, leaving the Church or even suicide happen.”

That would have been great, if my Uncle Tim had ever said that, if he had ever realized it, if the thought had ever even occurred to him. Evidently, it didn’t. Because the president of Christendom College, Dr. Timothy O’ Donnell, Advisor for the Pontifical Council of the Family, did not protect me or aid me, that little girl. Instead he enabled that hellish situation for nineteen years.

But even then, even then that didn’t have to be the end of the story. After my parents divorced, under his watchful eye, at Christendom College, he still had the chance to mitigate damage, to correct his mistake. This last photo is me, on the day of graduation from Christendom College, flanked by my uncle, Dr. Timothy O’Donnell and his brother-in-law, my abusive father. I did not want to be standing there, so close to my mother’s rapist. I certainly did not want to be photographed like that beside him. And I never, never wanted to see a photo like that published in the College newsletter. But I did, because Uncle Tim said so. So it was done.

What happened to me under my uncle’s administration and how he responded is a sad, true story for another day.