"Don't let Daddy in the house." That's what my mother said to my eight-year-old sister one Saturday afternoon. Then she went to take a nap. She may have warned me as well, but I was barely five at the time and can't remember.
Years later, as adults, when my sister and I began exploring our childhood in the way siblings do, comparing scars and recollections, piling up wrongs and shining up our funny stories, my sister mentioned this as though I knew about it. "Remember when I let our father in the house and he tried to kill Mom?" She swore I was there (where else would I be at that age?) but I didn't remember any of it. As the years went by, and my sister fed me more details, the scene took root in my mind and became my memory also. I heard my father sweet-talking his way in and the echoes of my mother's screams.
Maybe this is why I ended up working with violent men for many years, men ordered by the courts to the Boston-based Batterer Intervention Program where I ran groups. Maybe this is why I wrote The Murderer's Daughters, a story of sisters who witness their father murder their mother.
My clients represented the whole continuum of ferocity toward women. They bullied, hit, smacked, punched, and broke bones; some had murdered. When asked where their children were during these incidents, almost all answered the same way: they were sleeping.
Children do not sleep through these traumatic moments. Some freeze. Some bury the horror so deep it can't be accessed. Some get stuck re-creating the incidents in their own lives (like so many of my clients had.)
Many become strong at the broken places and as adults are teachers, nurses, law enforcement; the helping professions are full of them.
When talking with batterers and speaking with their victims, I thought of my own parents. I couldn't ask my father what happened; he'd died when I was nine. My mother wouldn't discuss the past under any circumstances and hated to hear my sister and I examine it from every angle, rolling her eyes when we did made old troubles into humorous anecdotes. We didn't dare ask about the time our father threatened to murder her.
However, I kept asking myself, what if? What if my sister hadn't been brave enough to get the neighbors? What if the neighbors hadn't raced upstairs? What if the police hadn't come in time?
What if my mother had died?
Writing is like that for me, a chain of "what if" after "what if." When my sister and I were young, after being forced to turn out the lights, we'd pretend to take imaginary books off imaginary bookshelves and ask each other: what are you dreaming tonight? Somehow, my waking dreams were always part nightmare, giving the truth that macabre twist we all fear. I suppose The Murderer's Daughters is a story from that childhood shelf.