“Psychological Suspense That No Child Is Equipped To Manage”

A reader shares a harrowing series of stories and insights on corporal punishment, which at times borders on torture:

This email is too long, Andrew. But I don’t know another way to do it. Those last sentences in your post on “The Racial Divide On Spanking Kids” are packed with the stuff I’ve been struggling with all week. I’m sending this because I took so much time to write it. I’ve been close to tears often this week, and I suppose it’s a way of defending that tenderness.

“Discipline”: It was a belt or a switch in my house, except for the handful of times I was slapped. I hail from a poor, white, fundamentalist family in Texas. Sometimes we managed to get a hold of the bottom rung instead – lower-middle class, or is it upper-lower class? – but it wasn’t ever a very firm grip. I think that matters, our economic and social status – how it operated on my parents, their sense of self, their sense of control and agency, their standing, that fuzzy line between “poor” and “trash,” the dependable hierarchy at home of respect and obedience. But I can’t unpack all of that, and I don’t know what it would mean for anyone else if I did.

Whenever I got caught swearing – or if someone told my mother I’d been swearing – I had my mouth washed out with soap. In practice, even this is a stupid and violent thing to do. Really, the logistics of the sink and the soap and the faucet, the mouth and the hands, the gagging and spitting and crying – it’s jammed with aggression. I was six the first time.

Mind you, I never once swore at my parents. Not once. I swore at other kids or my siblings, and as I was the youngest by a decade – this was all mimicry. In truth, I was a freakishly good kid, but only because I wanted, more than anything, to keep out of the way and get through the day unnoticed. As all the evidence shows, this stuff doesn’t work: I’m a committed swearer to this day – but, well, there’s a time and a place. You learn that sort of thing over time, not over a sink.

Before I was tall enough to choose my own switch, my mother would get it herself. And the period of time that marked her absence, waiting for her to return with one, was filled with terror. It is a kind of psychological suspense that no child is equipped to manage. I certainly wasn’t. I remember that waiting period much more vividly than I remember the pain of being struck, repeatedly. (Does anyone “spank” a kid once a session? Isn’t it always part of a series?) I can hear myself crying and screaming, I can see myself touching the welts later, the stippled blood, but it has none of the embodied force of that terrible, terrible waiting.

When I was finally made to get my own switch, it was a kind of relief. Maybe because I felt I had some control? Alone and outside, it was nice to get lost in the concentration required to choose the right switch, the one that might hurt the least. (I’m choking up now, typing this. All week it’s been like that, following the national reactions.)

Anybody who thinks that hitting a kid with a switch is remotely related to “spanking” or “swatting” or “discipline” is full of shit. It’s a violent, strange, lacerating affair. Where the length of the switch lands can’t be controlled; anyone who’s used one – or been hit with one – knows this. Adults don’t get to shrug and claim they didn’t mean to lash a child’s scrotum or face or breasts. A child will automatically jerk and twist and try to shield herself when someone is striking her with a switch. (Whipping posts were useful because they prevented this very dance. One could aim better, land the strike with precision. Become a marksman.)

A child is also typically being grabbed and yanked with the parent’s free hand. It’s chaotic. Shit is going to go wrong. You don’t know where the next blow is going to land. That’s what makes it so terrifying for a kid. And a switch is like a whip – it is a whip: each lash has stages; it curls and snakes and bites. The sound of it, both a rip and whistle – awful.

As a kid, I was not only hit with a switch; I was “paddled” with a board (in school), hit with the belt, and slapped. But nothing had the psychological impact of the switch. Every blow was new and surprising and fresh. A switch is unpredictable. That is its nature. That is its power. Any offending adult who claims not to know that is a liar.

My father never hit me. I don’t know why. He beat the shit out of my brother and sisters. My mother didn’t intervene.  And then one day he stopped. Cold turkey. Later, perhaps motivated by guilt (her other children were his stepchildren), my mother would scream at him to punish me, but he wouldn’t. I can still see him shaking as she screamed, pushing the belt into his hands. I don’t know how I knew it – I was too young – but I did know: he was trying to control himself. He was shaking from the effort required to resist. And I remember perfectly those minutes of fear and confusion: Why does he look afraid? Why does she want him to hurt me? Is he going to? Why does she hate me?

Almost ritualistically, it ended with her grabbing the belt, crying and yelling both, and “spanking” me with all she had. My father always, always, left the room. I feel certain they would tell you, or anyone taking a survey, that they spanked us and disciplined us. Yes. That is was their responsibility, and their right.

I graduated high school in Texas in 1986. Students were still “paddled” in the principal’s office then. It was a long board with three holes drilled into it. It had a handle. We would bend over, knees straight, and put both hands on a chair. For the girls, a secretary was called in to observe. I worked half days my senior year and so was ineligible for detention. After three tardy slips and without the option of detention, I was paddled. I can faithfully report that it didn’t help me get to class on time. I was already a tired kid, overwhelmed and depressed, living in a chaotic house. I couldn’t always get it together or keep it together between work and school and home. Corporal punishment didn’t change that.

I will say that the boys in my high school got hit a lot harder. A lot. I remember leaving class with a bathroom pass once and seeing a boy I didn’t like – he frequently taunted me in front of other students about my small breasts – alone in the hallway, returning to class after a “paddling.” His walk was slow and stiff. He was in real and visible pain. He looked humiliated, and like he’d been crying. And I remember feeling confused because I had the urge to comfort him – him of all people.

Mostly I’ve been wrestling a lot with how all these terms have been conflated in the media and between people lately: “spanking” and “discipline” and “punishment” and, let’s be straight about it, flogging. The bravado and the gallows humor: classic (mal)adaptive coping strategies for all manner of survivors and people living or working in violent, fearful, unpredictable environments – soldiers, the hazed, the bullied, the ostracized or marginalized, ER nurses, cops. I sense it sometimes, how tough I can feel – or toughened. I took it. I made it through. Man, can I take things. There’s something haughty in the feeling. Triumphant. A badge-of-honor quality to it. But I know it’s an overcompensation. I know it’s a coded admission of my vulnerability and my anxiety about feeling helpless, of how my early dependence and vulnerability was exploited.

Maybe it’s transference, but I swear I could see the very same brew on Hannity’s face during this piece. He repeatedly invokes his father and the ways he was punished by his father. He sounds almost like a battered spouse (or, say, an abused child), claiming he deserved what he got, making excuses for his father. There’s even a pleading tone in his voice – do not take away this guy’s career, don’t put him in jail. But who is Hannity really talking about? Who should be spared and protected? Because for almost the entire clip he’s been talking about his father, and himself as his father’s child.

There’s something poignant and terrible about that merry reenactment with his belt. Slapping it against the desk. Even the certified guests seem to be dazed by the simultaneous demonstration and disavowal. But wait, now he’s snapping the belt. And snapping a belt like that at a child is nothing but a calculated form of emotional torture. I remember it well. I remember it physically, everything in my little body starting to rev and jack-knife. Snap. Snap. Snap. It’s nothing to do with discipline; it’s everything to do with domination, control, intimidation. (There’s this, too: Some people just like this shit. Same way some people like making and seeing their dog cower.) Either way, it’s pretty much condoned in our culture.

If you’re the sort of person who needs to idolize your parents your whole adult life; if you can’t navigate the necessary distance from which to admit their inevitable mistakes and weaknesses; if you can’t simultaneously love them and admit your own honest anger or pain, the dark ways you’ve been formed, too; if you need a rationalization for how you also “discipline” your children – well, then, I guess you talk a lot about how fine you are, or how you deserved it, or how harmless and necessary it is and the rights we have to it – all this “spanking” and “discipline” – maybe you brag about it a little, and you take off your belt on live TV and snap it for all the world to see, because, hey, everybody’s all right. The kids are all right. Right?