Stories We Tell, Part 2

Being told by your mom that you’re a child of violence is unsettling. Then, learning that it happened when you were still a baby on a blanket, which is to say having just learned to sit, though not walk, talk, or crawl, is distressing. For me, it was even more so because my two sons are the exact number of months apart as I was from my older sister.

In a rage of sibling rivalry, my sister threw me through a pane of glass, and out the window to presumably the fauna and flora of my mother and father’s rented home in Santa Barbara. My mom said she didn’t know what to do. So she picked me up and dusted me off, noting that I was perfectly physically fine. When my father came home from his dental office and she related the events of the day, including this, he was livid.

My father explained that when he was a boy, his two brothers put him in their father’s only-for-emergencies dental chair in the basement and tried to shock him. They did, and came close to electrocuting him fully dead. He lived.

I didn’t know this story until I was 38 years old in Metuchen, New Jersey, having pried it out of my mother after she kept telling me not to leave the 23-month-old with the infant, even to take three strides down the hall to the kitchen. “You must have the baby with you at all times,” she implored.

My mother had been experiencing short-term memory loss. She did not have Alzheimer’s or any other specific disease. Later we would know she had TIAs (transient ischemic attacks) — or mini-episodes that are strokes but can’t be stopped. These didn’t happen, though, for a full 4 years later or more.

As one very clever friend put it, it’s not that I have trust issues (I do trust), but I certainly have loyalty ones. In my head, I often give people a so-many-strikes-you’re-out situation. If it’s a white man, telling me I’m “full of shit” (when it’s my field and my expertise and they are ignorant of the field or the education), it can take one or three — depending upon who they are. Did they have a terrible mother? Do they have a great, long-suffering wife that I can cling to so I can shimmy away from them when they inevitably lose their temper and intimidate women and children (especially one of my sons)?

Sometimes I tell myself, Hey, you survived and perhaps learned to try to turn back before you get chucked, and so it’s less likely to happen — and hopefully in the nick of time. Or, hey, you have so much with your family, your friends, and your career, you can certainly lose the disloyal ones without your social calendar or that of your families sustaining a dent.

Intergenerational violence is a known thing, especially among storytellers and in family folklore, especially for those families that are extended and notable and close to the land (read farmers, oil, and natural gas).

My mother stayed with me and my family for a bit more than a good two months, arriving before my second son was born. She came for an extensive stay when my first son was born, and I loved having her around to help. We had fun strolling with the carriage, going for a coffee, and watching my son and then sons start the longest epistemological journey of their life. In the first year of life, she had always told me, a person learns so much. It’s vital.

So when my youngest was born, and came within minutes of dying of a viral infection, we were so lucky she was there. I tried convincing her that my two sons’ experience could be different from mine. My oldest was a joyous boy. We had arguments of logic all the time. One of his favorites was when I would balloon my full skirt during my second pregnancy and say, “Here’s your brother,” and he would get that mischievous gleam in his eye and challenge me: “No, Mom: kitty.”

I have more than one photo of my oldest meeting his younger brother, and you can see how fast he ran to jump up to the bed and start testing him out. Rolly polly.

My youngest was happy when strapped into a bouncing chair or tucked in a bassinet. His older brother, being so joyous about the arrival of a “baaaby,” as he called him, would dash up the stairs after nursery school and literally dance around his brother, whose eyes twinkled as he constantly observed him.

The nursery-school teachers told me that, though barely out of diapers himself at 23 months, my son took to hanging out at their diaper-changing station for fun.

To reassure my mother, I tried really hard not to leave them for a moment. I’m sure I did run to the kitchen to answer a phone. But I never came back to the little one crying and the big one looking recalcitrant or having disappeared under a bed or sofa somewhere.

Worse, I did not know that my mother’s own anxiety from violence came from events in her family. Not her brother, or a sister, or mother, but a father who committed something heinous in Weedpatch, CA, and would be rewarded greatly for it — by Kern County as well as the state and the nation-state.

It’s taken me decades to understand my own intergenerational violence and what trajectory it would take upon me and my family — hence this serial exploring 385 years of history of the women in my family, going back to Penelope, the first one to arrive and be traumatized in 1641, standing loyally by her “man,” her husband who was scalped and left for dead. She was scalped and impaled and left for dead, but didn’t die. It was the Mohawk who did the initially scalping and the Lenape who healed her slowly and traded or shipped her back to the Dutch across Sandy Hook to Gravesend, where she got to be one of the first 400 New Netherlanders (New Yorkers) before fleeing back to Sandy Hook with her burgeoning family. She married not one but two Englishmen.#

RPM Mug Sep 2011
“SECURITY ALERT: Description: · White Male · 57 y/o, DOB 11/18/53 · 5’10” · 170 lbs. · Brown Hair · Blue Eyes · May be wearing glasses. ~ If University of Delaware Professor Rudolph  P. Matthee attempts to enter the Graduate Center, he should be  stopped and asked where he is going.  The lobby desk officer will confirm the event or appointment and then notify me. FYI, Mathee may try to enter by showing University of Delaware ID, a Delaware drivers license or a New Jersey drivers license.  FYI, there is no threat of violence and this should be handled with tact and professionalism.  Please inform all officers under your supervision.  Thanks.  ~ Director of Security & Public Safety 365 Fifth Avenue”
This entry was posted in Stories We Tell by Professor Ruth O'Brien. Bookmark the permalink.

About Professor Ruth O'Brien

Professor Ruth O'Brien, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY) & Honorary Unaffiliated Academic Book Series Editor for The Public Square, Princeton University Press & Heretical Thought, Oxford University Press, USA Last book: Out of Many, One: Obama & the Third American Political Tradition (U of Chicago 2013). Nickname: Professorette by Rush Limbaugh (see

1 thought on “Stories We Tell, Part 2

  1. Pingback: New York Running Insult Tally | Professor Ruth O'Brien

Comments are closed.