I read a memoir about a woman’s tough childhood, with violence, danger, and an abusive older brother. I recommended it to Facebook friends online. A friend said she didn’t like it because she didn’t think the book rang true.
“The Mormon part or the survivalist part?” I asked her.
“Neither.” She didn’t think anyone would stick around with that kind of violence.
Excuse me, the girl was a minor. Where was she supposed to go? She didn’t go to school so she had no one to tell.
Then I told the Facebook friend about my best friend from childhood, how she had had three brothers and a dad who beat her.
Yes, beat her. A good Catholic family on my block.
I walked home from junior high school with her one day, and she asked me to stop by to see something in her bedroom. I didn’t have my own room, had to share with two sisters. I envied her pink canopy bed and all the frilly stuff a girl could have back in those days. After I saw the jewelry box or whatever it was, we wandered into the kitchen. That’s when one of her older brothers (the good-looking one) came home from high school.
“Make me a steak!” he demanded.
My girlfriend said no.
“Make me a STEAK!” he said again.
This time he went over to her and punched her in the arm with one fist and the other arm with the other fist.
“No!” she said, crying. “I have company.”
I cowered in the corner by the door to their garage. I was ready to bolt, but I was frozen.
Her brother pounded on her until she finally relented.
“Okay!” she said. “Okay!”
She pulled out a frying pan, oiled it up, and put in the meat, crying the whole time.
Never in my life had I witnessed physical abuse. Yes, my dad had spanked me once or twice, but this was different. This was cruel. This was the life she had that I had never seen until that day.
When my friend put the steak on a plate and set it down on the table, her brother, who had descended to the basement, was now coming up the stairs. She motioned for me to go back to her bedroom while he demanded steak sauce from the fridge. I was happy to get out of there.
“He hit you!” I said when she joined me in her bedroom.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I’m used to it.”
“But . . .”
“Don’t tell anybody, Susie,” she said. “It will just make it worse.”
I walked home the three doors to my house and went inside. I had a new appreciation for my home life. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was way better than what my girlfriend had to deal with.
I never told a soul.
Fast forward fifty years. The childhood friend lost her mom to colon cancer, has inherited her dad’s house and has outlived that good-looking and cruel brother. She is a tough cookie and will probably outlive them all.
As for the “didn’t ring true” friend on Facebook, I hope I gave her something to think about. Just because we can’t imagine it, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It did, and we are grateful that it surprises us in a memoir about an unfamiliar life.
The book is called Educated, by Tara Westover.