My grandmother was a bully, and my father was the oldest of her three sons, the golden child. They lived in China in the 1910s, and while my grandfather was away working on an archeological dig, Dorothy liked to dress up like a nurse and minister to the locals. She filled her diaries with photos of herself in a hand-sewn uniform and stories of her sacrifice and hard work. She wrote that others called her a “difficult woman” because she demanded perfection in everything, a mantle she wore with pride.
Dorothy did not allow her sons to go to the local school or interact with their Chinese servants, because she believed that they were trying to poison the children. She also would not let the boys play with one another to prevent them from bonding with anyone other than her.
When I was five years old, I heard a story about my uncle, Ian, from when he was about the same age. He had found a clutch of duck eggs by a river, and when they hatched they imprinted on him. One of the ducklings survived, and followed Ian everywhere he went. The two secretly slept together at night. Upon discovering her son’s new friend, Dorothy killed and cooked the duckling, and forced Ian to eat it in front of the rest of the family. I don’t know if this story is true, but I believed it at the time. Never for a moment did I doubt my grandmother’s capacity for such a harsh lesson; I only wondered which was worse, to have had a friend, like Ian did, and been forced to eat it, or never to have had one at all, like my father.
My father grew into a very troubled man, and I was the youngest of his three daughters, the black sheep. He tried desperately to give Dorothy a male heir, but it was not to be. After two failed attempts to conceive a son, my mother was content to leave well enough alone, but Grandmother and my father insisted they try one last time. My arrival was barely acknowledged, and my grandmother never called me by name. When I needed my birth certificate to get a driver’s license at 16, it was nowhere to be found. My mother remembered that she had hidden it in a shoebox along with the few photographs and mementos that existed of me as a newborn, but years later she couldn’t recall where she had put it.
My sisters and cousins spent their childhoods locked in a complicated dance with our grandmother. She would invite them to stay in her large home filled with priceless chinoiserie and old ancestral charts. If the children were good, they could admire the treasures she kept in the globe wernicke and choose something to receive in her will. The jade goldfish and the ivory dragon were two of the most coveted objects, and each was promised and re-promised to whichever grandchild was then held in the highest favor. All, I assumed, hoped Dorothy would die at the precise moment when they held that role, and not at a time when they had been demoted for speaking up or acting out. Since I could never gain her favor, I always looked forward to my grandmother dying. I anticipated a time when my father would be able to finally earn a little peace of mind and maybe get to know me a little too, but that was not to be either.
If anything, life got harder after Dorothy’s death. The house I was born in was on a cul-de-sac surrounded by other liberal faculty families from the small college where my father taught. Unfortunately, it was not large enough to hold my grandmother’s things, so my father found us a farmhouse miles away from this community, big enough to hold the grand piano, paintings and countless boxes of paperwork he had inherited. Our new home was surrounded by blue collar folks who wanted nothing to do with my strange, elitist family. Neighborhood kids set fire to the yard and often beat me up after school. Even some of the teachers bullied me.
“Just be nice,” was the only advice my mother could offer me when I came home from battle. I’m sure she meant this small entreaty to spur enough success and popularity in me to launch myself out of that godforsaken place, but it just made me withdraw further.
My father spent most of his time deep in his study writing and researching books on religious history, while my mother did what she could to make do. Dad had always been unpredictable, but after Dorothy’s death his moods were even more volatile. Sometimes he came out of his cave to lavish praise on one of us for some accomplishment or trait we did not possess, but more often, he’d emerge to spit abuse, which always seemed perfectly aimed at the heart. We tried to forecast his emotional weather by watching his behavior closely, but none of us ever got it right. I know we each felt relief when someone else got hit by one of his random cloudbursts.
“You have no idea how hard it is to be married to that man,” my mother would always say whenever any of us sought comfort from her afterward. I probably heard this phrase the most, because I inspired the majority of my father’s anger. After my sisters left for school, my mother tried to make an ally of me against him, which resulted in even more abuse, triggering an endless circle of cause and effect, with no real safety to be found.
I did, eventually, launch myself out of that place, but it was not because I was popular or nice. I read a lot, and that helped me get scholarships, and I chose schools far, far away. I then chose jobs and relationships as different from my upbringing as I could find, one after another.
Decades later, I’m still running from that place. I never found great success, never lived up to all my potential. There were years where it was all I could do to keep a job to pay the bills. I’m the child of bullies, you see. I balk at the slightest hint of bad management, and often find myself in power struggles with anyone unfit to rule me.
Over the years, I did find things to be thankful for. I have a partner who is good to me, loving friends, and great therapy, all of which have helped me understand my young, helpless self, and see my relatives through the lens of mental illness rather than inherent evil. But I still mistrust everything and everyone a little, and react to threat like an inbred Border Collie. When my current therapist first met me, she asked if I might consider myself a delicate and sensitive orchid growing in a field of more hearty and indifferent dandelions. I thought for a moment, and then told her I felt more like a dandelion growing in a field of Monsanto soybeans— I was as tough as anyone, but the soil had been poisoned against me.
The morning of November 9, 2016, I woke up in a cold sweat. I hadn’t felt such panic since I was four or five years old. My guts were full of icicles, cars all felt like they were hurtling toward me on the freeway, and even silence was excruciating. The realization that a bully was going to be our next president hit me like a physical blow—and not just any bully, either, but an emotional infant who’s as unpredictable, vindictive, and textbook Cluster B/Dark Tetrad as anyone I’ve ever encountered. My childhood nightmare now writ large: the world governed by this deep, deep danger I know too well.
As triggered as I am by having such a man in power, I must also remember that I have an advantage that others may not: I’ve got a jump start. I’ve had decades to learn how to decrease the harm and raise my resilience, whether the bully is my relative, boss, or elected leader. We abuse survivors are uniquely sensitive to authoritarian coercion, and know some of the most powerful countermeasures to combat it.
Here are some of the lessons I learned as a child that I believe will help me survive this administration:
- Deny tyranny my support—non serviam.
I need never uphold the actions of an authority that does not serve my needs. There will be times when I have no rebuttal or counter-action, but I will always have non-compliance, first and last.
- Be grateful if I am not held in favor.
The apple of the bully’s eye has the most to lose.
- Nowhere is safe.
Any security granted to me by the bully is temporary and illusory. The things I love will eventually be threatened whether I fight or not, so I may as well fight.
- Do not compete with my neighbors for scraps.
They are not the enemy— the asshole who pits us against each other is.
- Do not dissociate from my own pain.
There may be situations where I am forced to eat my closest friend. This will make me defensive, ashamed, and aggrieved in turn. But any pain I feel at their loss is better than the alternative.
- Do not anticipate a great liberation.
The death or outster of tyrants will not wipe the slate clean. Supporters and victims alike will be damaged for generations, but something, somewhere always emerges stronger and more beautiful from the struggle.
- Believe others’ pain.
Bullies feed on isolation. I need not validate every belief or theory that others have, but I must believe their pain. If we all make an ongoing effort to view other people’s experience with dignity, even those who are most alien and incomprehensible to us, the bully has no power.
There is nothing more revolutionary than this last action. I know, because years ago, someone believed me. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” she told me, as she opened up all the closets in my soul and looked inside. I am the person I am today, with some small measure of immunity, because of what this dear friend taught me. Lately I have found the challenge of applying her lesson nearly impossible, but I know I must view the people who support this administration with compassion, for my own sake and as well as theirs. I must remember that they are or will soon be victims too, and in the end, their losses will be greater than mine.
As much as it infuriates me, I have come to accept the fact that I shall be ruled by bullies yet again. After spending most of my life getting clear of them, I was hoping for a nice, easy middle age, free from the constant struggle to survive and remain sane. But that is not to be.
Over the last year I have marveled at the parade of spite, lies, and subterfuge. Each new day is filled with fresh trauma for myself and countless other souls, and the constant outrage is exhausting. We have been asked to harden ourselves, and it will be tempting to do so. But my plan is to do the opposite. When I am manipulated, coerced and lied to, I will not comply; I will stand, I will grieve, and I will validate and dignify others. I will honor what is fragile, vulnerable, and unique in myself and in everyone around me. I’ve already been a victim, so I know better; I know this terrain all too well and I know how to fight in it. My weakness is now my armor.
Image courtesty flickr.com/trixer/