Friday, February 20, 2009

Confronting Reality Isn't Easy

Charles Manson and Other Monsters

In the spring of 1976 I was twenty years old and busy chasing around after an eighteen-month old son while five months pregnant with my second child. I lived in a post WWII bungalow in East Los Angeles with my husband Jack. My mother and sister lived in Northern Canada. It was all I could do not to pick up the phone to call them everyday in a futile effort to put my loneliness at bay. Long distance charges were expensive, so I could only call home twice a month. Our house was located on a traffic ridden main artery, which ran from downtown all the way out to the suburbs and was frequented by various automobiles, loud buses, and semi-trucks, twenty-four hours a day. I had to play our portable television at full volume just to hear the dialogue on my favorite shows over the rumbling uproar outside the vibrating windows.

We did enjoy our decent-sized backyard. In the southern foremost corner stood a ten-foot tall poinsettia tree. I was shocked to find that poinsettias could grow to be so huge. Even though the deafening semi trucks shook the nearby fence as they passed by, and we were directly under the flight pattern for the jets flying in and out of LAX, I spent many happy hours gardening, as my little son Jackie played in his sandbox or followed and mimicked me as I went about my business.

I began to suffer horrific panic attacks after watching Helter Skelter—a TV movie about the Manson family committing the Tate-La Bianca murders. I became afraid to even venture outside.

On the far side of my son’s room stood a large picture window. Despite the cheerful Mickey Mouse curtains covering the glass, I felt that he was in certain danger. How easy it would be for some menacing stranger to break into my little guy’s hypothetically safe haven to inflict harm. Maybe hormones fed my paranoia, but I was well aware that we didn’t live in the best of neighborhoods to begin with. I grew more and more agitated and concerned for my family. In my mind, we were in imminent peril, absolute jeopardy.

The shocking violence and random tactics that the Manson family employed to seek out their victims gave me insight into just how vulnerable my child was. How vulnerable I was. This helpless state of mind sent me into a state of dread. Alone in the house one day, I called my father for help. I had come to California after graduating from high school in Northern Canada because he had always promised to put me through college. But when I stepped off the plane, suitcase in hand, I came face to face with his new family. He had shacked up with a Tennessee woman seventeen years his junior, and her three small children. There was a love seat for me to sleep on, out in the living room. I kept my clothes on the bottom shelf of a linen closet. And, how did I figure to escape the scorn of this future stepmother? I married Jack to get out of her house. That woman made it perfectly clear, I was not welcome. That afternoon I regaled my tale of alarm to my father, I poured my heart out over the phone, did my best to explain the foreboding thoughts that I was having. Dad thought I was being hysterical, offered no solutions or help of any kind.

We had to move—I knew that. I orchestrated it.

Our new home in Simi Valley provided a pastoral setting where I was able to suspend my doubts and fears, where I could raise my two young sons surrounded by giant boulders, blue skies, and peace and quiet.

Slowly, our life together began to change. A menacing presence infiltrated our small family. Jack’s disturbing childhood, the cruelty and neglect he’d experienced began to surface in the form of unbridled anger. Periodically, he’d lose his temper for the most trivial reasons, and his peculiar behavior slowly but surely began to spiral out of control. Still—due to my extreme empathy—I didn’t tell anyone about his sporadic outbursts. I felt protective of him. And I reasoned, he never actually hit us. I could handle a few verbal attacks.

One day in a fit of temper he heaved a table saw through the air, and sent it flying across the garage. There it was, sticking straight out of the wall, a strangely surreal sight. Minutes after these displays of rage Jack would calm down, and a bizarre euphoria would set in. He’d be in the best mood! I would be angry and dismayed with his behavior—unable to process the quick turnaround in his demeanor. I’d be disgusted with how high he seemed.

By the end of the day he had repaired the wall, the table saw was operational, and in Jack’s mind, all was right with the world. But…as I watched him shovel down a giant chocolate sundae, (he’d customarily turn to chocolate for solace), I feared the next outburst.

My brother Dave protected me. Although he lived over two-and-a-half hours away, I knew Jack resisted the urge to let me have it during his out-of-control tantrums, because he knew that my brother would pull a Sonny Corleone if he laid a finger on me.

A few years rolled on by. Jack’s violence escalated and I began to lose my empathy for what he’d been through as a child. Surely, the abuse he’d suffered did not give him carte blanche to turn around and inflict abuse! My son’s were three and five by then. I could see that their father’s uncontrollable anger and criticism had taken its toll. His flawed parenting was ruining their lives, and I was becoming a skittish person that I no longer recognized. My oldest son would freak out and throw a mini version of his father’s temper tantrum, as the little one would shrink back and witness his brother’s fury with a blank expression.

Was I searching the horizon for a last straw? Don’t people like Jack inevitably force the issue? Don’t they always break the camel’s back? Push the envelope? Bring events to a boiling point?

My youngest son Mark used to wet the bed from time to time. One night I heard the poor little guy crying outside our bedroom door, and Jackie whispering, “Don’t wake Daddy, he’ll get mad.”

I joined them on the landing of the stairs. I took Mark in the bathroom and cleaned him up. I put on dry jammy bottoms and told him that it was okay. I changed the sheets. My husband came out and started yelling at him for having another accident. Mark shrunk back and apologized, saying, “I torry Daddy, I torry.”

“Stop it!” I told Jack. “Leave him alone!”

“Mama,” Mark asked, “Could I have a drink of water?”

“Go get him a drink,” I told Jack. Silently, he went downstairs to fetch the water.

Jack returned and began carrying on about what a moron I was because I was about to let my son have some water when he had just wet the damn bed. How stupid could I be?

I said, “Get a hold of yourself.”

That’s when he threw the heavy bottomed tumbler at me. It hit me square in the forehead and I fell backward. I regained my composure and said, “You are divorced. You crossed a line here.”

I took the two boys in hand, went back into our bedroom, and locked Jack out.

The next morning I found my temperamental husband in an excellent mood. I marveled at his-other-self, his sweet-tongued-devil-self. Fawning all over the boys as if nothing had happened. Offering to make coffee, suggesting a trip to an amusement park.

I never slept with him again. The divorce would get ugly and it took several years for the smoke to clear.

I feared strange predators, imagined that villanous Charles-Manson-type-monsters were lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce, but learned that I was living with the real brute all along. Jack did more damage and inflicted more wounds to the three of us than I care to remember. I focused on burying the past and marching forward to build a new life for my young sons. Recalling these old wounds has proved to be difficult, but has also shed light on how I repressed my true fears by focusing on the abstract. You can’t undo what’s been done, but you can learn from your past. I know I have.



All Rights Reserved. © 2009 by Elizabeth Bradley.

6 comments:

ckanderson said...

Hmm..

Lisa said...

wow- a wonderful post- thank you
for sharing
lisa xx

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I don't know what made me remember that period in my life. It was so long ago. I am such a different person now. That poor girl that I was...

PopArtDiva said...

Thank God you got out - so many women never do - they either stay or repeat the pattern with a new man. It's sad when women think they have to have a man to be happy - if they can get past that it's the first step out.

As for Manson, every time he's up for parole I shiver.

d.e.a.r....... said...

This is so odd. I too-still now even after discovering the Manson story after the profile on E true hollywood story yearrrrssss ago(emphasizing on Yeeeaaarsss). But i became oddly interested a few years ago-yet TERRIFIED. still til this damn day sometimes I think about it. I did research even-online-sickening to know there are still people who adore his family. Did you hear old Susan is dying of a brain tumor? GOOD RIDDENS!

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Oh, those Manson women, they are always trying to get out. Got themselves born again! To no avail. Let them rot behind bars.