In memory of my mother, Dottie Monkman.
My stepmother, Marjorie Monkman, violently beat me for the last time when I was 19 years old and home on a break from college.
I start out this essay with that yield sign as I know there are loved ones of hers who may be reading who do not know of what we endured at her hand. If you don’t want to know, I suggest you stop reading now. I’m sorry to put this out there publicly at the expense of completely innocent family members who had absolutely no knowledge or role in this abuse whatsoever. But it’s the truth of our lives, all of us. And it ties other things together. And frankly, I protected her in life and in death for too many years. So I’m talking about it now.
I imagine some of you are thinking “what next?”. No kidding. Yes we lived through the death of our mother to breast cancer, the homicide of my sister, my brother’s mental illness but we also survived a childhood of extreme physical and mental abuse at the hands of our stepmother. Some of that built an unstable foundation for what was to come later, so it may fill in pieces of the puzzle. I once had a therapist tell me that of all I’d endured in this life, the physical abuse had the greatest impact on me in terms of trauma. I will write more about that later as I do have a lot to say about recovery from anxiety/PTSD. Believe it or not, that all happened before Cindy was killed.
My father met Marjorie McQueen a few years after our mother died. They met at work. He was working at a Center for the Mentally Retarded and she was a researcher at a neighboring Research Center for institutionalized children I believe. As I understand it, they dated for a period of months, my father broke things off, then reignited the relationship a year later and asked her to marry him. I remember how odd it was being in early grade school with my father going on dates. Cindy and I would sometimes peer out our bedroom window at the doorstep to see if he was kissing anyone outside equally fascinated and grossed out. Our Grandma was still living with us at the time.
I clearly remember the day Cindy pulled me aside in our bedroom and saying this “Daddy said he’s going to get married again and wants to know if we like Ethel Dreschler or Marjorie McQueen better”. We, age 9 and 10 I think, discussed it and decided on Marjorie because a. Ethel had this son Philip who we thought was a spoiled brat because he, as an only child, got to have three boxes of cereal open at once (we got to have three but for three of us) and b. Marjorie had these fun nieces from Texas who would be fun to have as cousins! That’s the criteria as 8 and 9 year olds. Who comes with the best kids.
But how odd that it seemed my father made a decision to marry before he decided who to marry. Maybe that was our first step in to the world of confusion about relationships.
Our Grandmother never liked Marjorie, plain and simple, she just didn’t like her. She left and moved back to NYC before the wedding. It was extremely traumatic for us kids. Marj used to justify this lifelong feud blaming it on my Grandma saying “she would never accept your father with anyone“. In reality, my Grandma adored my mother. I found a trunk of letters she’d saved of her correspondence with my mother where clearly she thought of her as a daughter. She was just very intuitive and had a foreboding on Marjorie that I now can say was 100% right on.
We were attendants in the wedding, acting all happy and cheerful and on the inside we were dying. I remember very little about that day beyond Marjorie’s sister Carolyn being very sweet and motherly to me. Wondering why we couldn’t have gotten someone like her in our family. I remember the gold velour dresses we wore with these huge velour bows on our heads. I remember Marjorie looking very business like in a tailored suit.
I’m going to say up front that she wasn’t a horrible person or an evil person or anything like that. She clearly had some issues but she wasn’t all bad by any means. Nor were we perfect or angelic children either. I think had my father never married her and remained a friend, perhaps she would have been a cool person to have around. She was very very smart having a PhD in Social Work and very book learned. But she had absolutely no idea whatsoever how to be a mother. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person with less maternal instincts. Including many men, my father being one.
The first year she married my father she spent writing a textbook. Wow I just googled it and it’s on Barnes and Noble all these years later.
A Mileu Therapy Program for Behaviorally Disturbed Children
by Marjorie McQueen Monkman
By the time her book was published, she had already legally adopted us. I remember having virtually no say in this decision but awkwardly going to a Judge’s office and completing some questioning of some sort. I have absolutely no happy memory around this. She later claimed this was my father’s decision as if anything happened to him, he didn’t want us being raised by either of our Grandmothers. I look at that with high suspicion now. It was a rushed thing and one she took great pride in. She’d never been married, was raised in the deep south and had no children. Now she fit in. She had her own children. In writing.
Last weekend I found a copy of my brother’s birth certificate. My jaw dropped as I saw Marjorie’s name on that certificate and her age, 32, as if she had given birth to my brother. I don’t know how that came about or if it’s even legal but my stomach turns right now just thinking about it. How could she trump our mother on our own birth certificate?
After the adoption,we were immediately forbidden to call our mother “our mother”. The terminology was the first thing to change. We were required to refer to our mother, the woman who birthed and nurtured us, as “our first mother” and Marjorie as “our real mother”. I remember the time she slapped me in the face in my bedroom repeatedly until I called her “mother” in “an appropriate tone”.
When I went off to college, out of curiosity, I found her textbook in the library of my University. I had never really looked at this book she received so much praise for. It was dedicated “To my children Cindy, Kathy and Johnny”. How strange as it was a book about behaviorally disturbed children. Which is exactly how she related to us.
I sat down in the stacks thumbing through this book, angry tears streaming down my face, reading what looked to me like a version of “This is Your Life”.
It was filled with one Behavior Modification Plan after another carefully lined out chapter by chapter, plans I was very familiar with. Plans I was raised with. Things like requiring us to make a chart every week detailing three considerate things we had done for another family member each day. We had to turn in this assignment every Friday to earn weekend privileges. While my friends were just asking their parents if they could go to the ice skating rink on Friday night, I was having to earn it on paper. Like having to dig myself out of some invisible hole I’d dug myself in to while living my life as a popular, cheerleading, smart Junior High student. It was humiliating.
We had to frequently write assignments and plans for our time, not as punishment mind you but as a matter of course in our daily routines. She also instituted budgeting for our yearly wardrobe. We had to present a budget with items and amounts, then take the bus to go shopping for our clothes, return with receipts and get reimbursement. As 7th and 8th graders we were doing this like it was somehow normal.
But that really wasn’t the most horrible part. What I often have said about Marjorie is that when her Behavior Modification Programs weren’t working, on children who didn’t need them, she escalated to violence. She was either in complete control or completely out of control.
She used a variety of weapons from hair brushes (often) to wire hangers to all kinds of kitchen utensils. She once threw a ceramic coffee cup back at us as we were driving down the road in the camper as it was the only thing near her grasp.
I remember Cindy pulling me in to her closet once and teaching me how to cover up the bristle stipling marks on my thighs left from the brush beatings. Since this was an era where we could only wear dresses or skirts to school, she showed me how to choose the most opaque tights to wear under my dress so the bruising didn’t show. I was still in grade school then so I guess she started beating us very quickly after she came in to the family.
One of the most humiliating episodes involved me sweeping sand up at the cottage in Maine as we were leaving the next day. Take a kid in from the beach on the last day of their vacation and make them sweep and see how much fun they’re having. She apparently didn’t like the way I was sweeping or my attitude so she picked up the box of sand and dirt next to me and dumped it right over my head. In front of other kids who were shocked in to silence.
I could go on and on but you get the drift.
I just have to say, what kind of a person goes in to a family and starts beating another woman’s children?
The last incident of physical violence as I mentioned happened when I came home on a weekend from college. I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table with my brother who said something mocking someone as Marjorie stood at the stove cooking. Apparently she personalized this random remark thinking he was making fun of her, grabbed the nearest utensil (metal spatula, wooden spoon, something like that) and within seconds was beating John over the head with it. I stood up in a rare move of protection of my brother, got in the middle and started screaming at her “leave him alone..he wasn’t even talking about you!!!”.
Then she turned her fury on me and began chasing me, beating me over the head and upper back with her weapon. I ran up those wide stairs of our old house with raging Marjorie and her rapid fire blows close behind and something in me snapped. I flipped around, grabbed both banisters and kicked her square in the gut all the way down the stairs. She fell back about 3 steps in to the foyer of our home, still grasping that kitchen utensil looking up at me in a pure state of shock. I’d never hit her back before. At least like that.
I stood on those steps looking down at her punching my finger in to the air “that is the last time you will hit me. That is the last time you will ever lay a hand on me” and ran crying bolting myself in my bedroom certain she would twist this as she was famous for in to some story which would mean I’d never be allowed to come home ever again. And I didn’t even care, I was prepared to be on my own now if that’s what it took to get away from this crazy bitch.
As it turned out, she never told my father. I waited all evening for some kind of talk with him, where a decision had been made that I was banished from the home but he never said a word. No one ever said a word. I went back to college the next day and it was never discussed again.
After the physical violence ended, the mental abuse ramped up in the form of letters or “the documents” as Cindy called them. Her hairbrush morphed in to a pen. Dissertations were sent after every family gathering detailing our various levels of dysfunction and basic screwedupness , often 10-15 pages long, written on yellow legal paper, both sides, and copied then sent out in manilla envelopes to Cindy and I. John does not remember receiving these documents but he remembers Cindy getting them and “just throwing them away in the trash”.
These were the ways Marjorie, the researcher, organized her feelings. She would write and write about our weaknesses in to the margins and add comments arrowed in to sentences as if she’d obsessively gone over and over her thoughts. A typical page might look like a rambling assessment of one of our histories of failures “remember when you forgot your lines when you tried out for cheerleader and you couldn’t get out of bed for two days? You never wanted to take responsibility for how you failed in that just like you’re not taking responsibility for our problems”. Crazy stuff like that. She’d often climb back in to the family tree telling us of other blood relatives of ours she’d never met but had gathered research on who’d also had emotional difficulties in some effort to explain why we were in such massive conflict at every family gathering. She always managed to leave her role out of these “novels” as Cindy also called them. Once she sent it in a cassette tape she’d lectured in to. Sometimes we laughed at them, sometimes we got mad about them, we finally resorted to not even reading them.
I remember as children, Cindy early on having her number, telling me “don’t tell her any of your problems, she will use them against you some day”. Cataloguing our failures for later documentation was a pattern, one that Cindy as a child had a grasp on. I on the other hand would fall for her attempts at counseling and needing to talk with someone, I would confide in her. I would share with her my personal insecurities with, as Cindy had predicted, only to get them levied at me years later. “Remember you’ve always been insecure about…” from some list she’d been stockpiling.
Marjorie heard two common refrains from all three of us all the way in to adulthood “Why do you never own up to anything? Never apologize for anything?” and “Why are you always needing to remind me how screwed up I am?”. Cindy once held her feet to the fire on the owning up issue and she admitted “well I’ve made mistakes too”. Cindy said “yeah? like what?” to which she replied “letting you children get to me“. Even her mistakes were our fault.
She severed ties with me two years before she died because I refused to read her last lengthy diatribe. I sent it back return to sender, as I’d promised her and my therapist, after begging her to stop. I told her that if she had issues with me, she needed to talk to me face to face or pick up a phone. She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t. It wasn’t about a conversation for this professor of Social Work. It was about something else. Something she needed. The therapist in me feels sad about this just writing it.
To give Marj some credit, I do think she believed she was helping us in some way. But as my father later agreed, she had to keep creating situations where we needed help, where we were broken or weak, to somehow justify her role in the family. The family therapist.
The final “document” Cindy received was in the last months of her life. It might have been spurred by our last family trip in Maine. Cindy told me she’d finally had enough. That she’d taken the stack of papers all written up in the margins to a Kinko’s and made a copy of it, used a highlighter pen to bring out the most abusive remarks levied at us and planned to send it to our Dad at his office so she couldn’t shanghai it. She wanted him to know she wasn’t going to be subjected to this anymore and why. I don’t know if she ever did this but that’s how I opened my conversation with my father the day I decided to pop the cork on this whole issue. I simply asked him if he’d ever received that package over twenty years prior. He denied ever getting the documents so I don’t know if Cindy chickened out or what. I just know she’d planned on finally championing for us in this way and to put an end to the current style of abuse that had gone on for about a decade at that point.
Cindy was killed with this hanging in the ether between she and Marj and my relationship with her later severed over her insistence at sending me just one last document after my clear boundary that I would no longer read them. I told her, to her face, that she was vomiting in to an envelope and feeling better herself but expecting someone else to clean it up.
The last time I ever saw her, she was sitting in the same room in our Maine cottage, drafting an outline to a letter she would write me. I could just feel it was coming so peeked at her legal pad when she went up to the restroom.
I: The Family History
A: The Grandmothers
– blah blah blah Kathy blah blah blah
I’m not even kidding. I was sitting in the same room eating cereal alone at the table and she was writing me a document. Just months after we’d discussed that these letters had to stop. When I received that letter all the way back in AZ a week later, it was postmarked the day I left.
I finally shared all of this with my Dad, all of it, while on vacation with him about three years ago, long after Marjorie had passed on. Ironically, I was sweeping in the same cottage and consumed with this voice in my head “I suck at sweeping” and realized where that came from. I put down my broom in the kitchen and stepped outside in to a three hour truth telling conversation with my father overlooking the ocean.
It’s scary to tell a terrible secret you’ve been harboring your whole life. It’s terrifying to think you won’t be believed.
This is exactly what drives people to keep sweeping…under any rug, piece of furniture, corner, anything to hide it.
I’m happy to say my father never acted for one second like he disbelieved a word I was saying. He knew I was telling the truth. Story after story came tumbling out of me right up to her death really. I’d been estranged from her for two years at that point but not my brother. Yet she still managed to justify cutting us both out of her Will leaving a couple hundred thousand dollars to her nieces and nephews. She enjoyed the image all her life from the age of 40 on as a “mother” who’d rescued these orphaned children who’d lost their “first mother” to cancer. In reality she was far more a tormentor to us than anything we’d ever experienced and slapped us in the face on her way in to the grave. I know her side of the family never knew that or any of this. Cindy would frequently say “she will always come out smelling like a rose, it’s not worth it” when we talked about exposing her horrific behavior.
Years after I’d left home, one day Marjorie and I sat in a coffee shop sort of processing the status of our difficult relationship. I told her of an incident where something just died inside me toward her, a game changer, that turned the entire trajectory of our relationship in to one of distrust. We were having a preteen/new parent argument in the living room one day and the words “well you’re not my real mother” came flying from my hurt and angry mouth directed right at her (who didn’t see that one coming, right?). Her response though is forever etched in my brain. Her eyes and lips narrowed as she steeled herself and delivered this line slowly and with intention:
“I happen to know your mother was no angel”
It was like a direct hit right in to my soul. I was 12 years old and for the last 6 years had known nothing beyond my mother actually being a real angel. That’s what kids who lose their mother are told. “Your mother is an angel now looking down after you”. I hung on to that reality for dear life. And she deliberately tried to steal it from me.
I instantly started screaming and crying. No words, just screams. My father happened to be walking in the back door from work right at that time. I ran and grabbed him, screaming, hysterical, pulling him in to the living room yelling “you tell him what you just said…you tell him NOW“.
Marjorie, calm as a cucumber in her slow Southern drawl replied “Ah have no ideah what you are talking about”. Then proceeded to deny saying it and I was sent to my room, punished. Yes, something sure did die in me that day.
When I related this story to her at the coffee shop, she denied remembering it but delivered something back like “well you must have needed to hear that. No one is an angel“.
See what I mean? She had an opportunity to apologize, to make something right, but she just couldn’t do it.
I got from my father that day on the porch the best an abuse survivor can ever hope for.
He told me he felt like he’d been a terrible father not seeing this going on. He admitted his primary coping mechanism is denial and avoidance. He seemed both shocked and sadly resigned at the same time of all of the physical abuse that had gone on. But that he truly didn’t see it. I believed him, I believe him now. It was a perfect storm of his checking out from all of it and her craftiness in doing most of it out of view of any other adult.
We both acknowledged that her Behavior Modification programs were unnecessary but he explained he allowed them because he felt like it was her way of fitting in to the family. My Dad was naturally most concerned about how all of this had impacted my brother’s mental health, who at that time was in a state of missing.
It wasn’t Marjorie I was concerned about as I never really cared enough about her to make much of a difference and she was long gone by then. It was that my father had allowed this to go on that had a deep and lasting impact on my radar around and ability to trust men. And that part feels much more resolved now in my heart and mind. He really didn’t see it. And he felt horrible about it. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. He was not a terrible father. She was a terrible and sophisticated abuser.
A year and a half from that oceanfront conversation, John had been found then lost and found a second time. Right before he moved out to Arizona while in a completely psychotic state , he broke down on the phone with me saying over and over “you left me there with her Kathy for three years. I had to deal with her by myself for three years“. He was clearly the most vulnerable and the most affected. That admission was his own breakthrough and the beginning of his healing as on this well I’m hoping. At least we’re talking about it finally.
We’re both free now. I will write later about some truly miraculous moments of rescue both John and I got in dealing with her. I tend to find meaning that way, seeking the miracle and the silver lining but sometimes the ugly truth just needs to be told.
Marjorie Monkman never earned the title “mother” with me. She was never my mother.
My mother was Dorothy June Schlosser Monkman, always was, always will be.