I began to see that for me (and for me, alone) that trying was inconsequential—that only success mattered. That is a lot of drive for a boy to take on. I did not handle it well. If I doubted success, then I weighed the punishment for failure against the work of putting together any attempt and sometimes choosing to accept that punishment as it was immanent anyway and so chose not to even try.
If I did not know that my homework was correct, I simply did not turn it in. If I could not understand the homework, while that was rare, I simply did not go any further. So, the encyclopedias were my main source of satisfaction for my intellectual fulfillment. I could read all I wanted to read, and never be tested over it. I loved learning, I hated testing. I was also treasuring books at the library, having to check them out several times to finish them before being taught how to compensate for the dyslexia.
Likewise, I was once called into the den with my brother, and my mom and dad seated, stern-faced and silent for a long time before they spoke. My father began, “You are going to tell us who did it.” A long time passed before he spoke again, and he stared at me the whole time. My mother looked down, glanced at my brother, and then rested her eyes on me.
Eventually, my father offered a hint, and was visibly angry that he had to do so, so certain was he that I knew exactly what he was talking about, “The matches.” I was clueless. I looked at my brother to see if he was any more in-the-know than I was, and he shook his head and shrugged, but he was not about to say anything and draw my father's anger away from me and risk it being turned on him.
“The matches,” I repeated, and waited for him to make that a sentence.
“You know damn well what I am talking about! Come here!” I stood up and moved toward him expecting to be turned over his knee and beaten. He stood, instead, and walked to the landing of the stair case. “Come here!” I followed him, now thinking I was to be marched to my room to receive my punishment. I had never seen my father this angry, and I was racking my brain to come up with some sin which I had committed (although it was good training for a priest), but it I impossible to make a good confession of the sin unknown to you.
My father grabbed my head and forced me to look down at the carpet of the triangular landing of teh staircase. Where he violently forced my head to face was three or four burnt matches on the carpet. I was so scared, and could not understand what was happening and the force my father used to twist my head was hurting my neck. My brother came over, and said, “Maybe he doesn’t know—I don’t think he knows.”
For a moment, my brother got the wrath, “Are you saying you did this?!”
“I don’t know anything about it, and I don’t think Crews does either,” he said.
“Both of you sit down!”
We did, and my Mom spoke, , “We don’t believe you.” She was looking at me, not my brother. You brother was at football practice until I got home. You were the only one alone in the house.”
“But I didn’t do it,” I said, “I was outside almost the whole time.”
My Dad answered with ignoring my claim of innocence as if I had not spoken, “The picture of you standing at the top of the stairs lighting matches and throwing them down the steps—I can’t imagine what you were thinking. Do you realize that we could have lost everything I have worked so hard to provide to you and your mother? Did you even think about the dogs?”
“I don’t know why you think I did anything like that.”
“So what? my mother asked, “Were you smoking my cigarettes and just putting them out on the carpet?”
“I don’t know anything at all about it. I can’t believe you are so angry and so certain that I did something like that.”
That was pretty much it. I was thrown over my father’s knee and spanked so long and so hard, that I ceased to struggle. I was seething, I was outraged, and I was humiliated because I was crying.
I had pretended not to notice that my parents had thought I was stupid for so long, (“He’s never going to be more than a shade-tree mechanic” I once heard my mother say to a friend of hers about me) but there was no pretending my righteous indignation on this point. When my father let me go, I stood, walked to the steps, wiped my face and with rage well beyond what I had seen in my father’s face, that little boy that I was yelled, “If it had to be one of us, it had to be M___. Better yet, Mom is the only with matches in this house, why don’t you beat her, you asshole?”
“You want more trouble?” My father threatened.
“No, but it doesn’t matter, does it? Because you are going to punish me whether I did anything or not! You want to do it again? I WILL burn this God Damn house down… Big Man!” I snarled the last two words.
My mother yelled, “Both of you just stop!”
I guess I made my point. I think they saw in my rage the real ability to do something so drastic, a threat I was willing to carry out. I could never have done it, but it was a useful threat because they obviously believed that not only could I, but that I had already tried and failed.
I knew, at that moment, that my parents had no idea who I was, what went on inside me, or what standards I set for my own conscience. I never forgave them, nor did I forget. It was neither the false accusation nor the punishment-- It was accrual of their false claims about me, their readiness to expect the worst and the least of me and it was the “perfect brother” they told me they wished I could be like. It was a dozen years of all these sort of experiences that became clear.
I retreated from my family—distanced myself, and am not sure anyone noticed. I was in my room building models, outside playing football and tossing Frisbees, learning tennis, exploring the world on my bike and beginning to realize that girls are kind of nice to be around.
Oh, as a sort of post-script-- The next week, my mother's maid saw the melted patch of carpet on the stairs and came to mother apologizing for them. Her sister had joined her and sat on the staircase, smoking, while my mother's maid worked. Apologies to me did come from my parents, but I saw no contrition. That is, like most post-moderns, they were sorry that got caught being wrong, but they were not sorry for presuming my guilt.