My middle brother is a big giver. Any birthday or special occasion where a present is customary he can’t be satisfied with the meager offering appropriate for a single buyer such as small material objects or memberships to a wine or cheese club. He needs to make a gesture. Something meaningful, loving, sentimental and maybe a little grandiose. I’m not sure if he’s more concerned with bringing all four siblings together to feel more connected to our disconnected family or if he simply can’t justify spending all that money himself. Either way every year about a month before Christmas I receive the inevitable email proposing a new group gift that is sure to excite the shit out of our parents. Most the time we all avoid answering for so long that it’s never brought to fruition. But about 5 years ago he suggested one that stuck, that felt fun, that was really for everyone: let’s convert all our home videos to DVDs and blow Mom and Dad’s minds.
I remember watching a lot of those tapes as a kid. Most of all I remember making my own. I loved that camera. First teaming with my little sister and a couple of hamsters filming a symphonically set video about an agile criminal and equally nimble detective nipping at his heels I then moved on to more dynamic soundtracks with gripping scenes and dance numbers performed enthusiastically by my girlfriends. We shot talk shows, music videos, fashion runways, life stories of each other on our birthdays, candid footage just fucking around on sleepovers. Shortly after The Blair With Project came out a friend and I made The Drunk Bitch Project and brought the camera with us one summer night walking through dark neighborhoods from party to party, lens and spotlight shining back at our faces whispering accounts of our journey and levels of incapacitation. Basically - we were typical teenage girls. And true to form, replaying movies with the group a year or two after their production was cause for celebration and endless laughter. However over time as I’d sift through the big drawer in my parents' bedroom for one of those tiny cassettes, all labeled with clever titles or my name and date, I’d pop them into the VHS surrogate tape, push it into the VCR, turn on the TV, and dark shaky footage of a boy’s hockey game would start to scroll. Oh. Not ever of me playing hockey. The sport I was never able to successfully quit as a teen due to hostile guilt trips and fatherly disappointment. Only my two older brothers skating around on the high school varsity team which was also filmed professionally at every competition. And really I don’t remember them ever watching those homemade tapes. I seem to recall that they all went over plays before practice with their own damn coaches. Pretty sure we had plenty of blank tapes too. At least I know we weren't struggling enough to not be able to drop a few bucks on another pack. But this was my father. He loved that camera. Under the guise of parental attention and love he’d use it at his favorite tool to diminish and abuse the object of his narcissistic sadism. It was so subtle and twisted that it took me 31 years to even understand what was going on.
In 2011 on a highly anticipated Christmas morning we presented my parents with 10 DVDs packed with home videos, upon which they teared and thanked us and Oh My the love and beauty of our close-knit family! Each was titled with a few words indicating the content, one in particular that read Carrie and Friends. Apparently my sister did not take her responsibility as the only child with access to my parents’ house seriously and when gathering the tapes she made no effort to watch them or even look at the labels, instead just threw everything in a plastic bag and handed it to the poor man commissioned to do the converting. HE watched every single one and did his best to organize it all. Something about the idea of a person outside of the 6 of us seeing our family history made me cringe a little, not entirely sure why. But during the first viewing session I quickly found out.
There was enough wrong with the first portion set in Paris when my parents were a young couple raising their first child, both in how my father used the camera to control and belittle my mother and how as we watched it in present day he continued the trend by mocking what he saw on the screen from his comfortably poised spot on the couch. It was seeing those years that sparked the massive amount of writing affirming my reasons for never wanting to get married or be in a serious relationship. And for losing all respect for how those two pretended to love each other. However the most damaging videos came after. When I entered the picture. When my mom ceased to be the target of abuse and all attention was directed at me. Not only was she relieved of her position of victim, she actually teamed up with him to ensure that I would keep it. It was a quick transition for her. She must have been thrilled. For the earliest evidence I saw when sitting around the television that night was at just 2 years old.
It was Pizza Bagel night at the Wayne house. Why such a uninteresting event like my mom slapping some tomato sauce and mozzarella on a few bagels and sticking them in the oven on a Tuesday night deserves documentation seemed unclear. You usually see home videos when a parent wants to capture a meaningful moment with his or her family. A vacation that brings everyone together, the first snowfall of the year when everyone’s packed into little snowsuits slipping around on sleds, dance recitals and plays, Christmases, birthdays, reunions with all the cousins. Sure we had a few of those. But the majority of that filming was of the family just doing regular shit, usually focused on me, talking my ass off because that’s what I did, and suddenly being asked a weird question like “how do you tell the difference between the male and female donkey?”, ignoring it to continue my story because I’m 6, and being interrupted and asked a second time. Having seen this particular video at the kitchen table eating fake pizza a million times as a kid I had never fully appreciated that it wasn’t just filmed out of boredom or some fascination with the accessibility of technological advances in the new camcorders we had in the 80s. It was a direct and intentional act to abuse a fucking toddler.
As in almost every video we've watched the scene starts on my oldest brother who immediately says something indicating his unabashed sensitivity like warning us about eating too early for fear of burning your mouth. Lame, you little nerd. Where’s Caroline. I’m in the high chair, quiet, shyly looking at the camera. Meanwhile, as always, middle brother is practically shouting “Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad.” He’s got something to say, film that kid! He’s brilliant, he always has something clever to say! But as per usual he goes along ignored and we come to this little girl, basically a baby, and the questioning begins. He doesn’t waste much time on bullshit like “How old are you?” I’m not a moron, telling him two with a couple fingers to match isn’t that complicated. So we move on. My father wants to know what happened today. He asks my mother, who sounds as if she's sitting across the table. She describes that I had a rough one. We were out and I threw a fuss. The tone of their voices was condescending and cold. Mocking in a way. The camera never moved from my face. What else happened? "And she pooped." You heard it. Little Caroline shat her pants. In public! So now she’s mad, wants to go to sleep, but isn’t allowed to until she eats her dinner. "Is this true, Caroline?" Motherfucker you know it’s true. The two of you discussed this already when you got home from work. I looked directly at my father, behind the camera, face crunching, mouth turning down, and started to cry. "Oh stop it, now you know you’re not really sad. Are you really sad?" My brothers jumped in telling fart jokes and I cracked a smile. Suddenly my mom was warning me not to eat the dump truck and spoon feeding me yogurt while the boys rattled on about magical fruit. The scene cut to those two idiots fighting with plastic dinosaurs. I had successfully eaten dinner and been put to bed.
What I had witnessed here was a grown man making a direct and successful attempt to humiliate his own daughter, nearly an infant. Why was he recounting my traumatic experience that had already happened earlier in the day, then refusing me my emotional response when this made me upset? Recording it, putting me in the spotlight, in front of my older brothers, and bringing my mom in on it? A tantrum and accident was in no way shameful or deserving of guilt or punishment - it’s actually normal for a 2-year-old probably still going through potty training. Truth be told, my parents never properly potty trained me. I can bet this was my father’s task, as he took the responsibility out of my mother’s hands to cut my hair and teach me how to adult shower during my toddler years as well. When I was in the 8th grade I developed a severe bladder infection. So bad that I had to go to the ER. While visiting with the nurse he asked off-hand if I was wiping back to front. I was. I WAS! Of course as a 12-year-old girl and almost to this day it only reflected upon my own embarrassment. Not at all on what terrible fucking parents I have that they can’t teach a child the most important act of personal hygiene there is. That they endangered my health as a result. I don’t doubt that my dad had this basic human function in mind when assuming the role to teach me and instead used it, much like in that video, as a way to control my sense of dignity and self-worth when I was supposed to be learning autonomy like a normal growing child. Similarly that event at the kitchen table was nothing less than child abuse. Sadistic, intentional, sociopathic abuse of a virtual baby.
I have concern that this doesn’t sound like damning evidence that my father is a sociopath. That someone could read this story with a lighter heart or even just infer stupidity or bad parenting. But my parents were in their 30s when I was born. They already had two boys who were doing just fine. They had money, education, and came from healthy supportive families and communities where all the information they could have possibly needed for how to raise a child was accessible. Yet I still endured a lifetime of systematic manipulation and pointed humiliation, singled out individually from the rest of my siblings, continued even after my little sister came into the picture. My dad is a smart motherfucker. Brilliant in a way. Being told how much I was loved, worshipped, for as long as memory allows, and having no physical scars to prove otherwise, makes it very hard to claim that I was born to a ruthless predator who may have even hated my guts. He hates a lot of children. He makes fun of them in their absence. For being ugly, stupid, fat, annoying. Why the animosity towards innocent little kids I don’t know. But this constantly posed a challenge to how I could remain off the list of the unknowingly damned. It felt like I came close sometimes. I even felt like I was Number One. The insults he threw at me were harsh and biting. Calling me selfish, manipulative, worthless, a liar, all counterpunched with how much he loved his most special daughter, more than anyone else in the world ever will. It was constantly dismantling. Always confusing. I never for a second believed that I was worth a damn. And any anger I felt as a teen was directed away from him and turned inward at myself.
It’s hard to learn that you have lived three decades under the assumption about not just one person but an entire family, including yourself, that is 100% false. But it doesn’t seem that difficult to know why I never really got it. Though I was abused daily in one way or another, even if just by having to look at naked pictures of myself as a toddler framed on our walls, I was so brainwashed by both my father and my community as to what it means to have a good life and what real abuse looks like. And by the way - it doesn’t exist here. I could have at least garnered sympathy for the fights we had in high school, the words he used, the time he slapped me and choked me on my brother’s bed. But it was the underhanded incessant torment that laid the foundation for how he was able to control me and cause constant suffering, and that would have never been obvious enough for others to hear my case. I had everything. What did I have to complain about? In a place where showing emotion is a sign of weakness, emotional abuse goes unrecognized, and is that much easier to enact. The camera was the most damaging, subtle, and painfully imbedding tool my father was able to use in this case. It gave him insurmountable power. It produced images that are permanent, even if lost or destroyed, he made the gesture that a moment in time had been captured, frozen. He had control over what was seen and what was ignored, and he never had to be exposed himself. He remained the eternal voyeur, focusing all attention on his subjects whether or not it was invited. He asked the questions. Which already had answers. And it was all displayed in the halls of his expensive home or on the screens of his big TV for the rest of the family to see and be continuously reminded of who ruled the kingdom and who was the weakest subject. That camera was a weapon. And it assaulted me on a regular basis. Even as an adult I wasn’t able to escape the evidence it produced, whether accidentally brought to my attention by an act of good will on my brother’s behalf, or the intentional taunt of parading images nothing short of child-pornography in front of the entire family. My father is a sociopath. Plain and simple. I won’t accept a rebuttal. I can only keep sending the message.
I stopped watching the videos with everyone else after that night. I told myself it was because of how turned off I was by my parents’ marriage. And then wrote for a week about hating committed relationships. But what I felt in seeing that footage was deeper than anything that could just relate to a connection between two people outside of myself. I didn’t want to know what else was going to surface in those 10 seemingly unending DVDs. So I holed up in my bedroom hoping to find a little joy by watching my own collection. Of course disappointed about the countless missing gems of cinematic genius, I still was able to get a great deal of pleasure from seeing my always happy girlfriends strutting down the catwalk and performing the Sister Act 2 medley. Included was a really heartwarming bit of myself hanging out with my two best guy friends that offered a lot of insight into my relationships with men versus women as an adult. Thinking at the time that my dad was the closest connection I had in the family, as he’d always presented it, I went to talk to him about this, just needing to get it out. As I started up on “Because most of the videos with the girls are just us dancing around in costumes…” he looked at me and said “Yeah I know, I watched it, it’s not very interesting.” Not as bad as when he read all of my journals from high school after I had already started writing in a new one for college, even if I had had a hospital scare, leaving the pages marked and two long lists written both by him and my mother of dates specific to those entries and a bloodwork report folded inside before storing then returning them years later, this was yet another intrusive violation of my deepest privacy. And frankly something that he shouldn’t give a fuck about. The old perv. But just like being behind that camera and directing videos intent on making me feel small or diminished or humiliated, he took the time to either place ownership on my very personal memories by watching and critiquing, or by erasing them all together with shit that wasn’t even going to be used. So I’m sorry to say, ladies of NC, Supermodel Sue never survived. Neither did Katrina Kool or the brilliantly scripted Jive Turkey. One of you had a copy of the Mambo Number 5 video though, thank god for that. Please send it to me, because I’m pretty sure my dad taped over that one, too.
Though all of this should chill the reader to the bone, I still feel reservations about making direct claims of abuse. In a digital age where it’s normal to plaster images of our home lives all over Social Media I feel as though we’ve grown insensitive to how we document our children and share them with others. I know that most of what I’m seeing is meant as self- or child-congratulatory, but it still frightens me to think of the embarrassment it could likely bring to that kid as he or she gets older and realizes a picture or video of them is online and really not representational of what they’d want to be. Most parents, most humans, are not sociopaths. They’re not evil. They’re not motherfuckers who take joy out of hurting people. I simply urge us all to be careful with how we use our cameras. Exploiting children isn’t always intentional. And sometimes it starts with the purest of intentions. But images and videos are permanent. Privacy is valuable. And consent extends to all ages, and is even more important when someone doesn’t have the capacity to understand how to give it. That being said I saw a video on Facebook recently of a father playing with his 1-year-old daughter. It was only about 15 seconds long. He was teasing her. In the most obviously non-teasing way you could imagine. When she did exactly what he told her not to do he laughed and cheered and lovingly acknowledged that she won the game. Odds are she would have won the game whatever she had chosen to do. Because that man, someone I don’t even know, was a real father. I was overcome with emotion when I saw this, both sadness for my own history but more joy that these are the experiences that normal families have. It’s hard to assert that this baby will ever grow to be concerned that a record of how much she is loved has been seen by others. It’s so important to consider, a question we have to constantly ask ourselves, but I’m really not mad about finally getting my first healing glimpse at how real men relate to their daughters. Even if it was a total stranger, I felt a connection to family on Social Media that for once didn't freak me out.
The older I get and the more my friends start to have children it’s easier to understand that love exists. And that being set up in a game in order to lose from as far back as 2 years old is not how most people are raised. Our communities thrive when we set our children up to win. It’s the most basic right we can give to them - to feel like they deserve to be loved and to be who they are. To feel like this makes them capable of success in the first place. So please, go hug your kids today, tell them they're special, and yeah, you can even take a picture of their adorable smiling faces, say what a great one it is and brag to your friends. They’re your children. Love them. Take care of them. Let them know how valuable they are. They’re fucking kids. Give them everything. They goddam deserve it.