bits from an essay on mother wounds, a formative childhood experience that shaped my early relationship with motherhood, & why I’ve been using paintings to hide from writing the last five years
note: friends, this first half is an excerpt from an essay I’ve been re-working on for months. the second half are thoughts I’m just writing out for the time because I’m not sure where they fit in my memoir or what form they should eventually take in this project-paintings? photos? a separate essay? hard to say. writing and working my way through both parts has been difficult, so I need you to know that reading them may be tough as well. I do talk (briefly) about traumatic experiences involving neglect, abandonment, and emotional abuse. I also briefly mention experiencing physical violence. so…at the very least, you will experience some discomfort reading this. if you need to skip this one for now, please do. I’ll be back next Friday with something a bit lighter.
I was kidnapped by my father and taken from my mother when I was nearly three years old.
I realize that sounds like a plot to a Lifetime movie or a Dateline special, but that very real event so greatly altered the course of my life I’m still trying to outpace the impact of it 35 years later. At the time it happened, my parents were legally separated, but their divorce was still working its way toward being finalized. My father was still stationed in San Antonio, where he’d met my mother and where I had been born in 1982. She, however, had been discharged from the military and moved back home to Philadelphia with me.
It was 1984.
According to my mother, my father drove us to the airport and walked us onto the plane to our seats. As I type this, I’m realizing for the first time that this is also exactly what happened when I was just a month away from my 17th birthday; it’s almost as if what had happened in 1984 was a foreshadowing of what would happen 14 years later in November 1999. My father drove me to that same airport in silence then and I wasn’t about to risk losing the only real chance I had at finally getting away from him by breaking it.
Besides, I’d already said enough by that point. Social workers, my 11th-grade guidance counselor, friends at school, the officers at the juvenile detention center who’d arrested me for running away, psychologists at the outpatient program I’d been forced to go to for 10 days…I’d told them everything I could, finally breaking all the silences that were stacked on top of each other inside of me like cassette tapes. Hours, days, months, years of abuses were recorded and locked away like the material in Prince’s infamous vault; I released all I could in the hopes doing so would lead to some authority greater than my father finally, legally forcing him to release me. I was the daughter he hadn’t actually wanted to take care of in the first place, but maintaining physical custody of me was the perfect leverage for revenge and a cover to escape accountability.
So what exactly was there to say besides “goodbye”? Not a goddamn thing. Even if he had spoken as we sped down the highway toward the airport, it’s not like I would have believed anything he said. I’d spent my final two weeks in San Antonio listening to him lie to those same social workers, police officers, and psychologists I’d finally shared some of my truths with. No, he hadn’t been the one to hit me, he told them. He had no idea where the bruising around my throat had come from, maybe it was caused by the boy he’d “caught” me walking home from school with? I remember he had turned to look at me as he offered this last suggestion, his voice calm, measured, and warm, with the corners of his mouth fighting a smile once he saw in my eyes that I knew exactly what he was doing. His eyes were locked onto mine as he said each word and his eyes were cold—the exact opposite of the tone in his voice. I was 16, standing across from my father in our living room, watching him be fully revealed as the magician he’d always been.
For me, bearing witness to this was more jarring than being told by others that the violence and neglect I’d been living with wasn’t normal. I’d assumed that if I finally told the truth and there was physical evidence of it, he’d be forced to confess. Instead, I was watching him not just choose himself, but declare open season on my life. His objective at that moment was to undermine more than my credibility or cover his ass; the coldness in his eyes revealed to me just how skilled he was at creating duality and then manipulating it to serve his purposes. His cruelty and selfishness was exactly the point.
That very cruelty and selfishness being wielded against me at 16 are what had driven him, years earlier, to show up unannounced on the doorstep of my mother’s childhood home in North Philadelphia when I was a toddler. My mother, newly separated from the military, had moved back home and was trying to make that precarious transition back into civilian life. It was my first winter in a colder climate and she realized I didn’t have a coat. She also realized that she hadn’t heard from my father since he’d put us on the plane. She made attempts to reach him that went unanswered, even going so far as to contact his first sergeant.
Not long after she made that call, she opened her front door one day and found him standing on the porch. He told her he wanted to see me and take me to go see his mother, who lived a short distance away. My mother had been there with me during a previous visit back home when I was around 15 months old; so while my father showing up without warning was strange, it didn’t set off any alarm bells. It was within reason that he’d want his own mother to see me. Now, this is where as a daughter who is now a mother, my multitudes clash against one another rather violently; the only way I can keep from dissociating due to the emotional impact of this early trauma is to compartmentalize (“Think don’t feel” à la Frozen, if you will) or as a therapist put it to me last summer, intellectualize it. When I intellectualize it, I can understand the position my mother was in at the time from a fairly rational, non judgemental perspective. I can even feel empathy. She was caught off guard by his unexpected appearance on her doorstep, he said he wanted to take me to go see his mother who she’d previously met, and she was young…age 20, 21 by that time. It was a surprise to see him for sure, but it wasn’t completely alarming. And well…as an adult woman in my late 30s, I can look back at my naïveté and mindset in my early 20s and empathize. I was a fool at that age. Very few of us are not during those years. I also ignored quite a lot of red flags and warning signs in my dealings with men during those years, which is why I can understand how any alarm bells that might’ve tried to get my mother’s attention that day—as my father lied in her face—were pushed aside.
But when I stop intellectualizing this experience and allow the feelings to break through the surface of my subconscious, the deep, unbridled, primal rage of my inner child supersedes any empathy my adult self can tap into. God, there is so much anger fueled by the mind-numbing pain of abandonment. That anger doesn’t want to hear any rationale about The Why she let him walk off the porch with me. She knew from being married to him that he was abusive, that he was negligent, that he didn’t know how to care for a child. She knew that he hadn’t wanted to be charged with raising me. When I allow myself to see things from my inner child’s perspective, it doesn’t matter that as an abuse survivor I know how difficult it is psychologically to refuse your abuser or to listen to the instincts that tell you not to trust what’s being said. I know and yet, this anger three-year-old A’Driane feels is not tempered by the fraught yet nuanced understanding I have as an adult of the position my mother was in at the time. Most of the anger is rooted in the pain of abandonment: why did she let me go? Why didn’t she protect me from him? As a mother myself, I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t do everything I could to protect my sons from harm.
There is anger, too. Anger at my grandmother who refused to tell my mother anything when she called asking where I was when he hadn’t shown back up at the time he stated he would. At my other two grandparents, my father’s stepmother and father, who also refused to intervene when she called. At my father’s superiors who told her there was nothing she could do, and would not give her any information about his whereabouts, stating that it was not within their jurisdiction to do anything. At my father for choosing to take me from my mother instead of simply sending her the money she requested to buy me a coat…all of this because she called his first sergeant when he did not respond to her request. There is confusion, sorrow, and a wish that my mother hadn’t opened the door that day.
Instead, she packed a brown paper bag with what he’d need for me for the day, handed me to him, and watched him walk me down the steps. She didn’t know that it would be years before she saw me again.
While he did indeed take me to see his mother, he never took me back to my mother’s childhood home on Taney Street. Instead, he took me back to San Antonio with him the very next day. The only phone call he made was days later. He put me on the phone to speak with my mother. With his grooming, my toddler’s brain told her I had a new mommy and didn't want to come back. Shortly after that conversation, he took me and his girlfriend—my “new mommy”—to his newly assigned duty station in Alaska. I don’t remember that phone call to my mother, but I do remember looking out the window on the plane. I was sitting on my father’s lap, my finger was pointed, touching the window. I was pointing at the white tops of mountains in the distance. “That’s snow,” I remember him saying, his voice deep in my ear. “That’s Alaska.”
I didn't hear my mother’s voice again until I was four, maybe even closer to five. There were weekly phone calls. A court case to arrange a new custody agreement between my parents. A transfer of guardianship. She didn’t see me again until I stepped off a plane in Philly, escorted by a Delta employee, my newly acquired, tiny pilot wings pinned to my shirt. I was six. My mother went from being my sole caretaker to not knowing where I was or if I was even alive, to fighting for her parental rights and to remain my custodial parent, to being forced to accept only seeing me for two months every summer.
When I turned 10, there was yet another nasty court battle for custody. I was living with my father in New Mexico along with another new stepmother and stepbrother. My father lied about the result, telling me my mother told the court she didn't want me. “It’s me and you,” I recall him saying. “Us against the world.” I didn't see or speak to my mother again until I was a month shy of my 17th birthday. Two weeks later, I was sitting in an aisle seat, watching my father walk off the plane and finally out of my life—physically at least—for good.
From ages three to 17, I had five stepmothers.
I’ve never met number six.
In May 2015, I wrote a piece on my blog titled “Mother’s Day” where I shared the bare bones of how I’d come to live with and be raised by my father when I was a toddler. In that piece, I excavated a part of my personal history to explain the origins of my complicated relationship with motherhood. At the time, I despised Mother’s Day, even though I was a mother myself. I used bits and pieces of my life as examples to explain why I hated the holiday so much. The post wasn’t difficult for me to write, but it was tough to share publicly because of the way we deify mothers. As anticipated, it made some readers—including my own mother and husband—uncomfortable. Others responded encouragingly or with commiserations about their own mother wounds. What I didn’t anticipate was the email I received months later from my father about it.
Since I boarded that plane to Philadelphia back in 1999, I’ve only had direct, verbal communication with my father once. It was a brief phone call a few days after I’d landed in Philly and was settling into living with my mother, stepfather, and half siblings. My father never called to see if I’d landed safely or if my mother had even picked me up. Both her and my stepfather were incredulous over this, which at the time I found humorous because I knew the truth: my father was never going to call because beyond keeping me alive so he wouldn’t wind up in jail, my safety was something he barely gave any thought to. After all, that’s why I had left San Antonio. It had been determined by clinicians that while he wouldn’t admit to physically abusing me, living with him was not safe for my mental or emotional well-being. It’s why I was standing in a kitchen in New Jersey instead of sitting in my bedroom back in San Antonio.
Looking back at that moment now, I realize how traumatic it was being told by adults who should’ve known better that I needed to let my abuser—the man who threatened to kill me daily and subjected me to physical violence for years—know that I was “safe.” That if my father wasn’t going to call me, I needed to call him. “So he will know” and “because it’s the right thing to do.” I realize too, that back then, even though I’d told them about some of what I’d suffered while living with my father, they were still misled and confused by his manipulation. This is how narcissists are able to get away with the abuse and harm they inflict on others. It was easier to believe his claims that the problem was me, the difficult teen, instead of recognizing they were talking to a serial abuser and narcissist. He told them that I was a teen who lied about normal teen behaviors—sneaking to talk on the phone to friends and boys for example—and they found that far more believable than what I’d told them about what I’d endured while living with my father, a narcissist skilled at projection and hiding his abusive behaviors. To believe me over him would’ve meant contending with a duality neither my mother nor stepfather were capable of.
“What parent doesn’t call to find out if their child made it okay? What parent doesn’t care? He has to care—that’s normal!” I remember my mother saying all of this to my stepfather. When they questioned me for insight into why my father hadn’t called, I remember expressing that a phone call was never going to happen because he in fact did not care. They refused to believe that, because in their minds, that wasn’t rational or a normal parental mindset, but again, to me it was to be expected. I’d been living under his abuse for years; I knew that he was done with me. My mother refused to accept that reasoning, so I had to make the call to him. As I’d suspected, he was angry that I’d called. In fact, he took that moment to blame me for something that was broken in the shed—I think it was the lawnmower. He said a few nasty, verbally abusive things in his usual cold but calm way that was always confusing, and told me not to call him again. My mother and stepfather were even more incredulous at his response and behavior than before.
After that phone call in 1999, there was radio silence until 2006, when a new message from a profile I didn’t recognize greeted me after I logged into my MySpace account. It was my father. He was very angry. I’d written something about what I was going through as a single pregnant woman, and my fears about becoming a parent due to my abusive childhood. Through MySpace, I’d reconnected with my first stepmother, and she commented on that post, saying how proud she was of me for overcoming all my father had put me through. She reassured me I’d be a great mother. Somehow my father had found my profile, read my post, read her comment, and then contacted us both, threatening to “expose” us. He said that if the content in question wasn’t removed, he would then begin to publish his side of things, which according to him would show the world we were liars, frauds, and terrible people. He even went so far as to do just that, devoting his page to telling his version of “the facts” surrounding his relationship with not just his ex-wife and me, but even my mother (who wasn’t even on MySpace!). His “facts” were full of projections, detailing all the ways in which we had destroyed his life. The posts were hateful and he started sending them to people on our friends’ lists. I was eight months pregnant with my oldest son. In one message, my father threatened to kidnap him once he was born—a threat he first issued when I was in ninth grade. I distinctly remember his words to me then: “You will be living your life—happy, possibly married, successful, and I will find you. You could be in the delivery room giving birth to your firstborn and I’ll be there to make sure you lose it so you know what pain feels like.”
I contacted MySpace to let them know I was being harassed and I deleted the post and comments. I deleted them not out of fear that he’d “expose” me, but that he’d make good on his threat to show up as I was delivering my firstborn son. After taking a few weeks to review his profile, the content he was posting, and the messages he was leaving myself and others connected to me, MySpace deleted his page and banned him from the platform.
Ten years later, in 2016, a message came through my website’s contact form to my inbox:
“Subject: Important Information
Message: Good Evening / Morning,
I sincerely hope that this message finds you and your family enveloped in the warmth of GOD’s love. Despite what you may think, since we last spoke well over 16 years ago, I’ve simply prayed HE keep you safe.
Many things have transpired in our lives, yet while so much has changed, many things remain the same. I’m sorry the roads you’ve traveled haven’t always been smooth, but for what it’s worth, you’ve done remarkably well despite the circumstances.
Over the years, I'd hoped things would one day turn around for us and we would perhaps at least be cordial towards each other. You’re married with 3 children of your own now. You even have twin brothers you haven’t met. Perhaps one day you will.
Today I was sent a URL to one of your blogs where I discovered the false-narrative you, [redacted] and [redacted] continue to propagate regarding your childhood / relationships. No intent to argue, just request these activities be discontinued immediately. I’d previously made a similar request in 2006 / 2007 via MySpace.com.
Regardless of how our relationship ultimately turns out, we must remain cognizant of others who may be impacted by whatever revelations of facts may be forthcoming if I am forced to defend my reputation. My sons will be 11 soon becoming more familiar with the internet with every passing day. Should they stumble upon this disparaging information, it could cause them significant emotional discomfort therefore I'm requesting it be deleted. Furthermore, please consider the important and wonderful work you’re involved in. Production of evidence to establish the true and accurate account of your upbringing as well as other untruths relating to my relationships with [redacted] & your mother would clearly undermine that work.
Please continue happily along your life's journey and I truly wish you nothing but “heaven”...
p.s. Reach out when you wish, I’m closer than you’d think”
The post he was referring to was “Mother’s Day”. His name and identity were not revealed in that post (nor have they ever been in my writing), just his actions. The “false-narrative” being the facts as I’d written them: he’d essentially taken me from my mother and kept me from her for years and he was abusive throughout my childhood, which helped to complicate my relationship to motherhood as I was becoming one myself.
Just like in 2006, he wanted me to delete everything I’d written, even though there was nothing in the post directly linking him to me by name, face, or other identifiable details. Just the fact that I had typed the words “I was kidnapped by my father and taken from my mother when I was nearly three years old” on the Internet was enough for him to send me thinly veiled threats of blackmail and bodily harm. His “I’m closer than you think” referred to the fact that he knew where we were living at the time—San Jose, just a few hours away from where he was living with his family in Southern California. Discovering that he was within driving distance caused old memories and repressed fears to resurface. I remember my consciousness being flooded with his presence, my body physically in the present with my husband next to me but my mind back in Pleasanton, Texas, landing on a memory of my father’s face above me as I was regaining consciousness. I was 12, almost 13 years old, when he’d choked me that first time. I’d blacked out as his hands had closed in around my throat, the sound of his voice dark and heavy as he shouted about ending my life. I was in sixth grade, depressed following the departure of my second stepmother and stepbrother, and as a result had gotten my first C. I’d lied to him about it out of fear. I couldn’t admit why I’d gotten the C. There was no way I could safely admit to feeling depressed and struggling to keep up with the new workload, but lying had only made things worse. His anger didn’t catch me off guard that day but the escalation of violence did. We were in the living room, which was mostly bare save for a chair and the TV. I remember it being a sunny day. Light was shining through the front window. That detail sticks with me because as I regained consciousness, I saw a streak of light dancing on the ceiling above his head to the right. It was the first thing I saw before his face came into focus, just as I felt the pressure of his hands, then the sound of his voice matching the movement of his lips as they spit and curled with each word.
It was the memory of that moment—everything fading to black, feeling weightless in the nothingness of those seconds—that sent me and my words into hiding five years ago when I read his email. I didn’t respond to him directly, but the impact was the same on me at age 33 that it was when I was a teen: I stopped writing about the impact of what I’ve lived through. That email was a reminder of what it was like every time my father found any of my poems, journals, or notes to friends...and even what he would do to me if he discovered I’d spoken to anyone about what our life at home was like. My father suppressed self-expression of all kinds in his wives and me unless he could control it or use it to make himself look good. The clothes we wore, the way our hair was done, what we ate, what we watched, our interests, who we communicated with, or had as friends...he controlled it all. Anything—including any narrative—he could not control, he sought to destroy, and often did either through confiscation, trashing, or physical violence. He has always been determined to keep us silent, even as we are no longer physically under his control.
I didn’t respond to him at all, nor did I delete the post. Instead, I stopped writing my memoir. I stopped sharing a lot of my stories and experiences publicly. I shied away from and turned down most interviews with mainstream press about abuse and mental health. I sought shelter in what feels safer and actually beyond his reach: a visual language rooted in abstraction. Painting my stories instead of writing and speaking them enabled me to hide them in plain sight; but, hiding from the words these last five years only intensified my own fears and insecurities around exposure and visibility. I’ve spent the last two years recognizing how deeply entrenched those fears are and how they impact my day-to-day life and creative practice. Confronting them on the canvas and finally again on the page has been both painful and clarifying. Now, my stories tell me how they’d like to be released and expressed free from my father’s influence. This project—a fusion of words, still images, sound, movement, and paintings—is how I will illuminate and unleash the themes that have always been present in my work. So many of these themes have been restrained out of fear I will be met with the same invalidation and intimidation as I have in the past. I want all of my writing to be expressed on my terms, without fear of being silenced by my father—or even by my own fears.
It is my intention to use this Substack as a place to experiment and excavate my life experiences while also showing how abstraction is freeing me up to do so. This process isn’t just for my own catharsis. It is my hope that bearing witness to this journey encourages others to reclaim their freedom, too.
I commend your bravery to share your experiences after being threatened not to speak on them. I hope your transparency is encouraging to others who seek healing and emotional clarity. I pray that you gain more peace and strength on your road to healing.
I truly appreciate you sharing stories such as these. Majority of my childhood and teen years were me hiding behind my art because it helped to soothe the pain and ,as you said, allowed me to hide my feelings in plain sight. Art saved me. You inspired me to paint again to process the pain last year, allowing any memories of my abuser, my narcissistic aunt, to be left in the canvas. Sending you love. You are helping so many of us to honor our truths and to share, too.