By Neil Blacklock
From the Globe and Mail, "FACTS AND ARGUMENTS," August 18, 1997.
This is not a story of child abuse, at least not as it was understood 35 years ago. It is, maybe, an illustration of how the socially acceptable practice of a strict upbringing in one generation can detrimentally affect an individual for the rest of his life.
I was born in England shortly after the end of the Second World War to working-class parents, a father who was the youngest member of a large family raised in the 1920s' depression in rural Scotland and a mother who was an only child, orphaned in her early teens and raised by elderly relatives. Adulthood has taught me that these circumstances did not provide my parents with opportunities to develop parenting skills.
My father was never without a job. As a police officer, he probably had a more secure livelihood than most. My mother never worked outside the home and, thus, as a child, I was never subjected to day care or a babysitter. I was lucky, right? Well, maybe.
Notwithstanding my father's shift work, my parents were a constant at home and never was I a latch-key child. Compared to the average nineties child, I had the best of all worlds, right? Well, maybe.
Parenting in the postwar baby-boom years was a different proposition than it is today. The adage "children should be seen and not heard" was in its glory. I remember my father once explaining to someone that there had to be an element of fear in the child-parent relationship.
And therein lies the rub. Throughout my childhood and into my youth, I was afraid of my father! Not just afraid of what he might think but in constant fear of what he would do or say to me. Anything not done to his satisfaction was met with an ill-tempered, raised voice and as often as not a "thick ear." His idea of parental guidance was aggressively telling me the way it would be and threatening a "good hiding" if it was not done right. I never saw this as child abuse. Well, I wouldn't, would I, since this was apparently accepted practice?
Its effect was not to disfigure me physically, but to powerfully influence the rest of my life. I lived with the constant maternal threat of "Wait 'til your father gets home!" and very quickly realized that it was less of a threat to do and say nothing than to risk raising the ire of my parents.
As a supposedly privileged child of the booming fifties, I was expected to excel at school, dispel the desires and dreams of childhood and adopt the mature behaviour and understanding of an adult. I was to demand and expect nothing and be thankful for who I was and what I had. Many's the friend of mine who, when engaging in childhood mischief, was brought into our home, forcefully shown my father's police uniform and warned as to his behaviour. One must assume that the intent was to instill fear in all children, thus developing a disciplined society. Retaining friends was always one of my biggest challenges.
I recall the many school terms when my report card placed me in the middle of the pack and not at the top of the heap. Because I knew that this mediocrity was unacceptable and a poor reflection upon my family, I was in fear of going home with the report card and deferred the inevitable as long as possible. Of course, it could not be too long, since there was punishment for being late home. I can think of no greater shame in a so-called civilized society than for a child to be scared to go home, whatever the reason.
An equally serious aspect of this fear was that it was not limited to my father. As I moved through the school system, I was exposed to a growing number of male teachers, many of whom adopted a program of corporal punishment for unsatisfactory work or merely for talking in class. My relationships with female teachers had been generally good, except when there was the threat of physical punishment which was an acceptable part of English school life. This was reflected in the quality of school work. At a time when apparently there was such a thing as a stupid question and a leather strap across the hand for the wrong answer, school work suffered as I withdrew from active class participation.
Being embarrassed in front of one's peers is bad enough but combined with psychological fragility, it becomes tragic. At home and school, the male figure represented violence and no matter how quiet and unassuming I might be, I could not escape. I became mortally afraid of making a mistake and, as we all know, the only person who does not make a mistake is the person who does not do anything.
As high school turned into employment, fear of the male figure became more ingrained. My superiors saw me as essentially bright with potential, but underachieving and lacking initiative.
As Cyril Connolly writes in The Unquiet Grave, "Hate is the consequence of fear, we fear something before we hate it. A child who fears becomes an adult who hates." I saw male superiors as the enemy if there was a hint of criticism, deserved or otherwise. To this day, I do not take criticism well, always personally, not seeing it as a constructive learning tool. This has had a negative impact on my working life.
My fear, hatred and distrust of the male figure has dissipated somewhat but has not disappeared. I find myself intolerant and embarrassed at my own failure and intensely critical of my own mistakes. This is often demonstrated in a short and verbally violent temper which disturbs those around me. I am a classic underachiever although positive reinforcement from those who care for me helps overcome this.
Perhaps a more serious effect is seen in my own parenting. My role model was ill-tempered and violent and my parenting skills are tarnished by that experience. I hope the damage to my children has been minimal although they did suffer the trauma of a broken home. While distance separates us, there is still a relationship of sorts.
The enduring patience of those around me now is a constant comfort but the dormant monster within remains. Why did I write this? Perhaps it can be a contribution to the growing field of knowledge about what ails our society. Perhaps it can be an aid for those around me, and for myself, to understand who and what I am. Perhaps it is an attempt to enlighten my father, a challenge that I could not meet when he was still alive.