Outing the Dead

In the past few days my Facebook feed has gone wild with opinion pieces about Woody Allen and whether or not he abused his daughter Dylan. Is he guilty? Is she but a pawn in the manipulative games of Mia Farrow who is just punishing Allen for marrying his stepdaughter? It is hard for me to imagine that he is not guilty because it is incredibly farfetched for me to imagine that a young woman would continue to tell the facts of her childhood in the context of a world famous father when most of the public could not fathom how someone so talented could be so brutal?  Clearly the stakes are incredibly high and the idea that one’s renowned father might in fact be publicly forgiven because of his artistry would serve as a significant reason to refrain and hold onto the secret once more. Yet, in many ways Dylan’s story belies the atrocities of men in powerful places—if you challenge them, the public will undoubtedly question your sanity and your values. Wait—this is Woody Allen we are talking about! The famed director and masterpiece maker who is one of the greats! He’s a musician to wit! Haven’t you seen Blue Jasmine?!  Allen is the man who had an affair, married and adopted children with his 19 year old step daughter. And yet it is Mia Farrow that the public calls the villain, the crazy woman who adopted so many children that something must be wrong with her. Her sons claim that this abuse could not have happened and they vehemently deny it claiming that their sister was a product of manipulation not by her father, but by her scheming mother. But the question remains—how could they possibly know? Abuse can be quiet and shameful. It can take away a person’s confidence to speak up for herself and by herself.  The moniker of an abused child is certainly not one that most people wish to earn and, yet, speaking truth is a liberatory practice and a courageous act. Especially when you know the consequences that await you. Yet still, she speaks.

And so today I speak. I wish that I could speak out like Dylan and put a name and face to my story, but alas, I am not there yet. Baby steps.

I was one of those children whose abuse rendered it nearly impossible to stand up for herself. As a child, I lived with an abusive and mentally unstable woman. A woman who seemed to mother in two dramatically opposed styles depending on which child was in the room.  My brother was the first-born Korean son, born in 1967 in New York to very young immigrant parents who arrived in the state of Missouri at the age of 19 and later moved to Manhattan to pursue that American dream. My brother was the brightest star and the apple of my mother’s eye while it seems that I was the worm that spoiled its taste. He was raised with such a doting and loving mother. My earliest memories of this love for my brother are confirmed in the many photo books showing him dressed as an adorable sailor, wearing little home sewn overalls and matching caps, in his Korean clothing to celebrate his first birthday. The fewer photos (common for many a second child) that I have found of my own young childhood with my parents show me shiny and red with tears next to my dear brother on a cushioned chair; they show pictures of me slightly chubby with bad haircuts. One such haircut never made it into the photo albums because that was the hack job that my mother gave me after she discovered that I tried to use her curling iron in the fifth grade to make myself pretty. After discovering me trying to curl my straight black Korean hair, she flew into a rage and grabbed a pair of scissors and hacked my hair from shoulder length to a hideous uneven crooked short bob to my ears. I still remember the shame of having to go to her hairdresser and listening to her lie about doing it myself. I still remember the pain and shame of having to get on the school bus to my elementary school with yet even more fuel to add to the teasing. Chinky eyes and now bad hair.

But the pictures aren’t all sad. Other pictures show me as a smiling little two-year-old with a pixie cut and cute little a-line jumper dress cut so short in those days that you could see the frilly little lace bottom attached to the tights. I looked so happy. I also looked motherless. I was motherless at the time and perhaps that is why I could smile so. Apparently my mother and father decided to send me to Korea to live with my mother’s father and stepmother for a year while my parents moved into a new house in Long Island. Why I was there is still a bit of a mystery to me especially since my older brother got to stay with my parents. Apparently, my mother was sick and I was a handful. While I don’t remember her raising me in Korea, I do remember the photos of a young smiling girl looking up at her grandmother while waiting for a piece of candy that she upwrapped from her purse. Then there is the picture of me with her at the zoo in Seoul as my grandfather carries me in his arm and I have a huge grin on my face as a I hold my newest treat—a balloon. I was loved, protected and enjoyed. It showed in the looseness of my smile and the way I molded into their loving arms.

I look back at these photos in my mind’s eye and imagine that as a young child surely I must have been lovable. I must have been adored—especially by my grandmother who did not have any children of her own. Maybe I was a sort of consolation prize as women who didn’t have children were often considered less than. And yet while I brought so much joy to my grandmother, I also know that I brought so much grief and rage to my mother who could not square having a daughter like me.

There is much to mourn about a childhood filled with rage, fear, abuse, lack of emotional care, and unkindness. I grew up in Long Island in the 1970s and recall the fear I would have when my father left on his monthly trips to Asia or throughout the US for work. Our immigrant culture condoned his travels; he was one of the first to do business with China in 1976, was the first Asian American hired in one of the big accounting firms. As a model minority CFO of a major firm, my dad’s work took him all over the world. How hard it must have been for my mother to raise two children on her own for those long weeks. How hard it was for me to be raised by my mother for those long weeks. Those were the days when I was often kicked out of my house from as early as five-years-old left to wander the neighborhood and the playground of my elementary school. I remember walking all over the neighborhood by myself and returning home to ask my mother at the front door if I could enter. No, I could not. I remember being kicked out of the house in a floral nightgown just as the garbage men where collecting the trash. I remember them laughing at me because I was in my nightgown and my hair was wet. I remember wishing that they could rescue me because I had just had my head dunked into the toilet and my lip was bleeding from hitting the rim because my mother had flown into a rage after I picked up her beautiful perfume bottle to smell it, but dropped it my mistake into the toilet. I didn’t tell the garbage collectors, I didn’t tell my father, I didn’t tell the neighbors because there is great consequence in telling. Besides, my mother had already done a fine job telling people that I was a pathological liar so who would believe me anyway if I told them my mother locked me in a closet and once tied me down in the basement in the dark until my aunt came over and my mother casually went downstairs untied me and let me back up. She knew then that I wouldn’t tell because no one would believe me and I couldn’t speak up or cry for help.

My childhood memories revolve quite a bit around issues of food and body image. I remember as a young girl of about four-years-old, I would stand at the little step that led down into the den where my mother would sit watching television with my brother. Maybe it was Gilligan’s Island or I Love Lucy. I was never allowed to enter that room with them and enjoy the laughter and love. Instead I stood out on that step on the precipice waiting to be invited to step over that threshold and become an integral part of the family. I remember standing there as my mother insulted my looks, telling me that my nose was too flat, that I had an ugly profile due to its flat nose and big lips. Later on these taunts would be absorbed by me as truth and reiterated by my brother who learned that it was okay to call me fat, make up songs about my chubbiness, and have his friends join in.

I was too weak to speak out and I also knew that if I told on my brother, my laments would fall upon deaf ears. My mother never stood up for me so I simply learned that it must be so. I must in fact be irredeemably ugly and fat. Isn’t that what my brother’s song said?… “(My name) is fat… I know that. (My name) is fat… I know that.” The taunting tune plays over in my ears sometimes when I recall those years.  I remember the taunts I received from him when I wore those tormenting Billy The Kid brand corduroy pants so popular then for boys because my brother would turn the sewn on BTK brand insignia from Billy the Kid to Beluga Ton Kid. So yes I grew up thinking that I was fat because… well “everyone knows that.” I came to think that he was just telling the truth because nobody told me otherwise.

I am the 40 something Korean American mother of two biracial preteen girls now. I am often struck with gratitude how they seem to have a general sense of wellbeing and confidence about their strong bodies. The younger girl is a dancer with beautiful strong legs; the older has the legs of her father—long runner legs that hold up the rest of her stunning self.  I look at them and marvel that I haven’t yet completely messed them up.  That I don’t make them feel bad about their bodies. That I don’t repeat the sins of my mother.  I remind them everyday that I love them no matter what and that they are the loves of my life.  Whenever I hear anything negative they might say about themselves, I offer immediate antidotal words of truth that speak back to those misperceptions. “My thighs are big” my younger one says to me one day as she sits in the car in shorts.  I have to suppress the fear that she might end up thinking negative thoughts like me and remind myself that I have raised her differently.  Instead, I say as I gaze into her eyes, “your legs are dancer legs and they are beautiful strong and muscular like all good dancers.” I continue, “they are beautiful legs and you are so lucky to have them so they can propel you up in the air.”  I offer the antidotal commentary as a way of nipping the other negativity in the bud. I still worry that she will carry this negative misperception in her head, but she turns to me, says, “alright mom,” grins, hops out of the car with her backpack on her back, and skips away all the while my own heart skipping a beat in the hopes that my response was enough. 

Even today as a grown woman, mother of two, educator, runner, writer, and secret yoga enthusiast, I sometimes come to the dinner table reluctant to eat the foods served to me when my partner makes dinner. I ought to be thankful that someone else does the cooking and makes delicious meals.  And yet I come sometimes with a heavy heart and have to consciously tell myself to stop the negativity and partake in this meal as a way of healing myself and showing a good example to my daughters. And so I partake, and I swallow my anxiety over being fed, and then allow myself the joy of eating delicious foods. I eat with relish and hope that my children see this part of me, and not the anxiousness that sometimes reawakens during moments of stress.

The anxiety I have over being fed and not controlling my own meals comes from years of being force fed occasionally to the point of throwing up. Recently I read about a couple in Tennessee whose five-year-old daughter Alexa Linboom died after they forced her to drink down two liters of grape soda in punishment for merely taking a sip or two of her stepmother’s drink.  A five-year-old girl killed by her parents because she drank a few sips. She was forced to drink so much liquid that her poor body shut down and her brain swelled. She was force fed to the point of death like a foie gras goose for doing nothing more than taking a few sips. My husband mentioned this story to me and I was completely overwhelmed with outrage and grief over the injustice and the depravity of these two people who should not even be considered human beings. That the two could collaborate in the death of their child brought me to tears. But there was something more to my tears. It was memory.  Hearing this story brought me right back to the times when as a child I was forced to sit at the dining table eating whatever my mother forced me to eat.  Huge glasses of milk, big plates of food with white rice, bolgogi (Korean beef) and whatever other thing I was given. Once I was forced to eat so much that I vomited all over the kitchen table and I remember in my five-year old-mind that it looked just like the devil dogs I had eaten. Alexa Linbom was the same age when she died from being force fed.

At the time in my life, I was powerless to fight back and so I lived in fear and silence and over time developed an inability to measure how full I was when I ate. The dining room table and meal time became a source of anxiety and stress. I remember the stress of being forced to finish everything that was on my plate (which was a lot, so much so that my cousins would remark upon how big my appetite was) and to live with the deception my mother weaved around me and my eating habits. Sometimes I was given so much food to eat that I would be at the dinner table long after my brother was done because I could not finish it. I remember once almost falling asleep in my high chair when my father came home at night and my mother would simply said, “Oh, she just finished eating.” Once my dad came home, I was allowed to leave the table as if nothing had happened. And as I grew up with these experiences, I tried to forget that they happened. The problem is that I repressed the cause but suffered the symptoms and after effects.

Hearing Alexa’s story brought me back to the countless times my mother would put extra salt and butter in my food with the hopes that I would get fatter while she got thinner. I remember watching her at the stove her back turned to us as she surreptitiously opened the cabinet where the salt was and poured it into her hand and then dumped it into my bowl.  I watched her do this and became complicit in her deception because I was afraid to do otherwise. The fear was not unfounded. Her rage was swift, severe, and easy to hide.  My Korean immigrant mother with the beautiful eyes and lovely figure deprived herself of food, took laxatives everyday, and spent hours in the bathroom throughout my childhood. I recall her weighing herself each year and hearing her note that the numbers on the scale were moving down with each step on the scale. This was the year she died at the age of 54.  She simply stopped eating.  She also developed kidney disease and eventually died from it. Some of the causes of her death were related to her laxative abuse and her abuse of diuretics. Sometimes I wonder why a certain number on the scale seems so high for my 5 foot 3.5 inched self and another random number seems seems just right. 

Yet for my body, the effort to be at that just right number means that I have to run that much more and eat that much less which I don’t want to do. My body likes to be at a different place and yet I aim for that elusive number. And now I know why. That number is one of the numbers I remember my mother noting out loud.  Anything above that is fat and, as the songs remind me when they play in my ear, “(My name) is Fat. I know that.” While I haven’t spoken about what really ailed my mother, I am doing so purposefully because I know that at another time I will be courageous enough to tackle her mental illness, the fact that my father was not around enough to intervene, and that like many other Korean cultural norms that dictate that we don’t betray our own, mental illness and abuse remain unspoken secrets.  Sometimes I find myself buying into these norms out of a desire to not bring shame to myself or to my family, but when they come to me later and express relief and gratitude that I do not abuse my own children, the injustice and grief well up in my throat as I refrain from rage. I worked to transform the anger that comes from knowing that they were aware of the abuse but felt powerless to name it and challenge it. 

Sometimes when I am invited out to lunch, to a sit down dinner, or even when my husband announces like he just did, “I am making spaghetti and meatballs,” I have a shift inside my body, an immediate discomfort that says, “But I don’t want that.” I fight the urge to change the plans to meet for coffee instead. I don’t wish to change plans because I reject the hand that feeds me. Instead, I get anxious over the idea that I might not be able to control what I want to eat and the internal struggles over food that I suffer when my life seems particularly stressful on the outside. But I do eat. I have learned the value of nourishment even if I can’t yet always moderate. I do try to be mindful about why I am the way I am and try to offer some soothing to that brutalized child inside myself who never learned how to have an appropriate self enhancing relationship to food. And I eat lovely delicious things that I enjoy baking—I make a mean brownie and flourless chocolate cake. I make beautiful raw kale salads mixed with pumpkin seeds, brown rice, tofu and spices. I make them and I eat them sometimes for breakfast because I can and because I want to. But sometimes I eat them with a heavy heart knowing deep down that I will regret what passes through my mouth because I fear that I will become that girl my brother sang about. I fear that I will become that little girl chased around the neighborhood by my brother and his friends singing that dreaded song.  I become gloomy when I think that I will continue to be that little girl forced to eat more than she could. I fear that I might become that little girl again who ate so much she threw up and had to endure her mother lying about it and telling people that I made myself throw up. I will become that little girl that had to endure hearing her mother lie to the pediatrician that I make myself throw up as a young girl out of defiance. I will become that little girl forced to endure lies and hold my tongue out of fear of violent retribution.

Recently my new therapist named my childhood as one of brutality and it is a word that is both hard to swallow and one that comes as a relief because it seems so extreme and yet it characterizes the experience so completely.  The ways that I often wall up emotionally and crawl back into my mental tortoise shell in the midst of stress, the way I have backed out of arguments verbally only to voice my outrage in my head. The ways that I present so well because I don’t know how to fall apart in public because I have worked so hard to keep myself together all these years. Some of my women acquaintances have often remarked how put together I am. One once told me that I didn’t really seem to have any problems which seemed to justify her non-stop talking about herself and her problems without taking pause to see if I might have something to say. Yes, I am a Ph.D. Yes, I married a doctor. Yes, I have two healthy beautiful smart and well adjusted girls. Yes, I have a great job that I appreciate most of the time. Yes I am a runner. I understand all that, but would encourage us never to assume that because we look so polished on the outside that our insides are so neat and tidy.  Over time I have come to realize that these women are not ones that I would call friends and that perhaps it is time to let down the guard just a little bit so that I can learn to live this life as it is and appreciate myself as I am, broken bits and all. Those women are not the friends who will ever know how hard it is for me to shut that voice of negativity off in my head or at least keep the volume down about looking fat, feeling bloated and wondering if people will notice that I put on a few extra pounds. There are only a precious few that are trusted with my truth, my struggles, my pain because these friends are the ones who let me breathe, that accept my stories as an integral part of me, and the ones who don’t let me be defined only by these stories. 

So, while reading the latest about Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen, I immediately thought about how hard it is to speak one’s truth in a self protecting way when the consequences are so painful. The private where we retreat is suddenly exposed. The atrocities laid bare. The brutality uncovered. But who will believe?  Who wants to out the living?  Who wants to out the dead?  I do.

Anonymous | Seattle, WA | U.S.A 

Share your story

Lisa Leesubmission