Facing My Demons: Coming to Terms with Abuse
Last week, I confronted my Mom about abusing me and my sister when we were children.
I had been dwelling on it. Two years of speaking to people and telling my story has allowed me to come to terms with a lot of things. I’ve opened up about my childhood, my choices as an adult, my victims—all of it.
I promised myself when I started speaking; always be truthful and try to find more about who
I was and why I did all those things.
Some things are easier to discuss than others.
Mom could be physically abusive. She’d get angry and grab a stick, a shoe, the belt buckle.
That happened until I got big enough to take the belt from her. She was hitting me and my sister, Denise, with the buckle end of the belt—real haymaker swings. She got three good strikes in when I caught the buckle. I yanked the belt out of her hand and told her she wasn’t going to hit us again. Mom didn’t put up much of a fight. She screamed, yelled, told me to get out, and locked me out of the house most the night. But she stopped hitting us. Guess her heart wasn’t in it. Mom preferred the more nuanced forms of abuse--verbal, mental, and emotional. She was an artist with that shit.
Dad wasn’t abusive. But he didn’t stop it. Took me a long time come to terms with that. I used to blame him; I thought it was his job to step in and protect me and Denise. Only over the past two years of speaking and trying to process everything did I realize my father was as much a victim of abuse as me and Denise. Mom put him through the wringer. She’d parade men in front of him. Dad would beg her to stop - she wouldn’t. When he was in the army, she would sleep with his commander. After he left the military, she would sleep with his boss. Once, she brought her new beau to the house--a guy named Scott Rose. Scott sat down across from my father as Mom proceeded to tell Dad she was leaving him and was madly in love with Scott. Scott sat there with a classic “What The Fuck?” expression - you know, deer-in-the-headlights, clearly wondering if unlimited sex with my mother was really worth it. Dad sat there and cried, begging my mom not to do it. We were with Scott three months before Mom brought us all home. Dad took her back without argument. He was so scared of losing her he allowed anything my mom did. Catch him asleep and hold a knife to his throat? Yep, that’s ok. Put rat poison in the spaghetti sauce made just for him?
Yeppers. Clock him in the head with a marble statue? Why not? Burn homes, fake wrecks, other assorted crimes? As long as Mom didn’t leave. That even included abusing me and Denise. He’d ask her to stop. He’d beg her to stop. But he never stepped in.
Mom called for me and Denise to come to the bedroom. We were in Fort Knox then. I was maybe 8, Denise 7. Denise and I walked into the bedroom. Mom and Dad were lying in bed. Dad liked to lie in bed and read. Mom, too. No reading going on that day, just arguing.
Denise and I stood in the doorway. Dad looked worn out, broken. Mom was angry, always angry.
Dad: Carolyn, please stop.
Mom: They are my goddamn kids, Ray Gene.
Dad: Carolyn, please.
Mom: Brett, Denise come over here.
We walked over to her side of the bed.
Mom: Your father thinks I don’t love you kids.
Denise and I don’t say anything.
Mom: You know I love you, right?
Me: Yes, Momma.
Dad: Carolyn, just stop.
Mom: Shut up, Ray Gene. I love you and your sister more than anything, you know that.
Me: Yes, Momma.
Mom: I’m going to show you and your sister how much I love you.
Mom always smoked these “More” brand cigarettes. She takes the cigarette she is smoking and pretends to burn her arm with it. Yeah, pretends. She held her arm out to us and acts like she is holding the lit end to her skin. She starts screaming and writhing. Dad is saying,
“Jesus Christ, Please Stop!” But she isn’t burning herself. I’m 8. How does an 8-year old process that? I remember thinking it was fucked up. But I also remember thinking she must not love us very much since she didn’t burn herself.
That kind of thing was common with Mom. She would tell me and Denise she regretted having us, that she sacrificed her life for us, that she was going to leave and never come back, that we would find her dead in a ditch somewhere. She would tell us that our Dad wasn’t really our father, that she had slept with other men and didn’t know who our father was, but it wasn’t Ray Johnson. She’d tell us she sold her soul to Satan to protect me and Denise and then make us defend ourselves against the Lord Satan to show we were worthy. We’d sit in chairs opposite Mom and she would let Satan come out through her eyes while we kept eye contact and thought only Happy Jesus Thoughts so the Devil couldn’t take our souls. She’d do drugs in front of us, cheat on my father in front of us, whatever she could think of. It’s hard to appreciate how much stuff went on unless you were there to experience it.
As my sister and I got older, the abuse just got worse. Mom left my Dad. I guess Dad kept her reeled in to a degree. After he was out of the picture, it was wide open. Mom would either take us with her when she partied with men—we’d wait in the car mostly, in the living room if we were lucky. Mostly, Mom just left us home for days at a time. We lived in a converted apartment in the basement of my grandfather Paul’s house. Paul allowed us to take a bath once a week. We could only use 2 inches of water. We weren’t allowed to eat upstairs with him or his family.
Those who have seen me speak know it was during one of these times when Mom was gone that my sister and I started shoplifting food, since there was none in the house. Mom comes home, finds out what we were doing, and joined us. I gloss that part over a bit in my speeches. Mom did join us, but she started using me and Denise to steal. If she couldn’t get an item herself, she would direct us to. Afterall, no one suspects a small kid.
I get the worst bits from my mom and my dad. From my mom I get the criminal mindset. Watching her burn homes, fake accidents or fake stolen cars, steal heavy equipment, sell drugs, pimp neighbors, forge documents, sue people—I picked all that up at a young age. From my father I get the fear of being abandoned. Mom helped with that one, of course--all the talk of leaving and never coming back, dying, yada, yada, yada.
I grew up in that. Hard for that not to make an impression.
When you’re a child you don’t know how to cope with that. You don’t have the tools. And it isn’t like you can get away from it. Hell, it isn’t like you know any better. Those are your parents, the people who are supposed to protect you, the people who are supposed to show you what a moral compass is, the people who are supposed to show you the difference between right and wrong.
I became a social engineer at a young age just to survive. But a child doesn’t have the tools to cope with that shit. I was 8 or 9 when I started urinating on the floor, down the vents, in the sink. I would wait until the adults were gone and take a whiz. We had a dog and I figured they would think it was the family pet. I hadn’t spoken of that to anyone, ever, until a couple of weeks ago. Public speaking is therapy for me. I’m committed to becoming a healthy person, to knowing who I am, where I’ve come from, why I’ve done what I’ve done. I hadn’t spoken about it because I was ashamed, embarrassed. I guess I thought I was crazy, that people would shun me. It took me 40 years to find out that behavior was fairly common in abused children.
I’m sure there are other ways I acted out before what happened when I was 15, I just don’t remember what they were.
I attacked a woman when I was 15. I was in an elevator, a woman walks in, the door shuts, and I started hitting her. No idea why. Not then, anyway. She looked like my mom. I don’t remember much about that day. I remember my cousins and I were supposed to go see Return of the Jedi. I remember the smell of that woman’s perfume. I remember hitting her. I remember the police pulling up at my grandfather’s and taking me away. I was charged with assault. They didn’t have a juvenile detention center, so I spent 6 months in solitary until I went to trial. The judge then sent me to a juvenile psych center for a 30 day evaluation. Not hard to figure out what the report said. The woman looked like my mom. There hasn’t been a day that’s passed that I haven’t thought about that. I’m sorry for what I did. I understand on one level why it happened, but still to this day, I cannot wrap my mind around it completely. I was 15. I’ve got a stepson about to turn 15. I see his maturity level. I try to rationalize what happened, but still can’t. I don’t know if I will ever be able to. And I will certainly never be able to make amends to my victim.
I spend a lot of time going over my past, trying to understand everything. I want to make amends. I want to become a better person. I want to be healthy.
I’ve been in the process of trying to discuss everything with my mom. Already did it my father. He and I are good with each other. Mom, though? Geez.
I tried bringing it up to her a few months ago. I started talking to her about how she abused Denise. I didn’t mention my abuse. I guess I wasn’t ready then. Mom started saying the only person she had to answer to was God. The call ended with her screaming she didn’t have any kids and then calling back minutes later to tell me she disowned me. That lasted a week.
During those months I’ve continued to work on becoming healthier. Finally, I got the courage to talk to Mom about her abuse.
She called a few nights ago. The calls are mostly the same. She calls and tells me how she is being abused. How she is about to die. How she needs to get out of where she is. She tells me she needs to talk to me, but can’t right now. She doesn’t want anyone to overhear.
Me: Mom, I’m not in the mood for the drama.
Mom: There is no drama. I just need to talk to you in private.
Me: You can talk to me now.
Mom: No, I can’t. There are people here.
Me: You mean Charles (her husband).
Mom: (Pauses) Yes.
Me: You can’t go in a bedroom or outside?
Mom: (Getting angry) No, Brett, I can’t.
Me: Mom, you can. The only thing you are doing is talking so that Charles can hear you. You want him to hear you so you can pretend you have some huge secret he doesn’t know about. You did that all the time when we were kids.
Mom: That isn’t true, Brett.
Me: It is.
Mom: No, it isn’t!
Me: You know, I’ve been speaking for about two years now.
Me: About two years. I give a 45 minute to an hour speech. About the 2nd speech I gave I promised myself I was always going to be truthful. I promised I was always going to find something new about myself.
Mom: That’s nice. You should be truthful.
Me: The first 20 to 25 minutes I talk about how I became a criminal: My childhood, the abuse, the crime, hooking up with the Russians, all of it. Then I go into the current state of cybercrime, how it works. I discuss how the most current crimes are committed and finally how people and companies can protect against those crimes.
I can tell Mom is getting a bit angry. This is likely the first time she has realized I talk publicly about my childhood.
Mom: That sounds like a nice speech, Brett.
Me: That’s what I’ve spoken about this first year. The shoplifting, the abuse. Not a lot of it, but I’m learning to deal with it. I’m learning how to approach it.
Mom: Why are you telling me this, Brett?
Me: I’ll tell you why. The past couple of speeches have been different. The past couple I’ve been talking more about my victims and more about things I never thought I would talk about.
Me: I never told you this, but when we were in Panama City…when we were in Panama City, I would catch you and Dad gone and I would pee in the floor. (I’m quiet for a minute) I haven’t spoken about that in 40 years. Guess I was too embarrassed. I didn’t really know why I did it.
Mom: (I can tell she is bothered by it) And why did you do it, Brett?
Me: Turns out sometimes kids who are abused do that. They don’t have the tools to cope with the abuse and they act out. Not really abnormal at all. Well, considering.
Mom: Well, I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m sorry.
She doesn’t say it like she is sorry. She says it like she wants me to shut up.
Me: I’ve been speaking about that lately, Mom. Been talking about that, about that woman in the elevator. I’m learning to deal with it, I’m trying to become healthier.
Mom: And what about your fucking father, Brett?
Me: He was an enabler, Mom. He was so scared of losing you, he let the abuse go on. You were the abuser.
Mom: I did the best job I could.
Me: You did a shitty job.
Mom: I protected you and your sister. I did everything for you two.
Me: You didn’t, Mom. You were an abuser. You were mentally, emotionally, and verbally abusive. You used to leave me and Denise alone for days. You don’t remember that, Mom? You don’t remember us stealing food ‘cause we didn’t have any?
Mom: I remember you and Denise stealing food.
Me: And then you found out and joined us. Not only that, but you went and got your Mom to join us, too.
Mom: I did not! That was my mother who did that. She wanted to shoplift and talked me into it.
Me: That was you, Mom. You did it. It was your idea.
Mom: That never happened.
Me: It did Mom. And then you and your mom were arrested at Fort Henry Mall in Kingsport.
Mom: We were not!
Me: You were. Shoplifting at JC Penny. They picked up you, Denise, and your mom. They only let us go because Denise and I were there.
Mom: That isn’t true.
Me: It is Mom.
Mom: I don’t remember that.
Me: You don’t remember it? That’s how you’re choosing to deal with this?
Mom: I don’t remember that, Brett.
First time she has pulled that one. Doesn’t remember. I remember plenty. The earliest memory I have I was 3. We were on driving on base in Fort Lewis, Washington. Denise and I in the backseat. Mom and Dad arguing in the front. Mom lunges across the seat and grabs the steering wheel, screaming, “Are you ready to die, you son of a bitch?!” She tries to steer the car into oncoming traffic. Dad got her away from the wheel before we could wreck.
Another early memory has Mom tying a woman to a tree in the front yard and beating her. The woman had been sleeping with my aunt’s husband. Mom didn’t like that. The woman was bleeding, crying. Begging. Neighbors were outside watching, but no one called the police. No idea how old I was then. No idea what happened to the woman. I want to think my grandfather came downstairs and made Mom let her go. I don’t know.
I start mentioning this stuff to Mom.
Mom: That isn’t true! You are a fucking liar!
Me: No, I’m not.
I ask if she remembers leaving us in the car while she screwed other men. Or leaving us at
home. I ask if she remembers pulling a knife on a professor who flew in from California to offer me a full scholarship to college. She threatened to kill him if he took her son away from her. Does she remember finding out Denise had a boyfriend at college and driving to Berea to see the college president to try to get Denise kicked out of school? Does she remember pimping her neighbor? Remember coming home and telling me whatever man she’d spent the night with had beaten her or tried to rape her, just to get me to want to fight the guy? Remember any of that? Remember telling us you regretted having us, that you were going to leave and never come back, that you were going to commit suicide, or that we would find you dead in a ditch somewhere?
Me: Jesus, Mom. You’re trying to tell me you don’t remember any of that? Not like that shit was just a one-time thing, Mom. It was constant. You were ALWAYS doing that shit. Hell, you still do it today. That’s why Denise hasn’t spoken to you in a decade.
Mom: You’re a fucking liar. I never did anything like that. I raised you and your sister the best I could. Maybe I should have given you both up to foster parents!
Me: Maybe Mom. Maybe we wouldn’t have been abused then. I don’t know.
Mom: You and your goddamn sister.
Me: Is it any wonder I beat that woman up in that elevator? Any wonder I popped? I can’t blame you for what I did, but is it any wonder I did it?
Mom: Why is it only you and your sister that say I was a bad mother? Everyone else says I was a good mother.
Me: You weren’t a good mother. You were an abuser. You abused me and my sister and we couldn’t do anything about it.
Mom: That’s a fucking lie.
Me: You know, if you were thinking rationally, Mom, you would be proud of me. To know that I came from an environment like that and I was able to turn it around. It took me 40 some years to do it, but I was able to turn it around. You should be proud of that.
Boy, was that the wrong thing to say. And yes, I admit it was a backhanded compliment. I was starting to get mad.
Mom: How come I never found any urine, Brett? If you had really done that, I would have found it.
Me: I’ve said all I’m going to say about that, Mom.
Mom: I would have found it, Brett. If you had really done it, I would have found it.
That was the snapping point for Brett Johnson. It’s taken me decades to talk about some of this stuff and now I’m being called a liar by the person who abused me.
Me: Tell you the way this is going to go, Mom. I don’t expect you to ever answer why you did all those things. I don’t think you really know yourself. But I do expect an apology. A sincere apology. Until I can get that I don’t want to talk to you, see you, nothing. I’m trying to be a better person. I’m owed at least an apology from you.
Mom: If you had really pissed the floor, I would have found it. You are sick, Brett. You need help.
Me: Don’t call me again until you can apologize. Then we can talk about it. I’m not going to talk to you until you can do that.
Mom: I’ll not be calling you or your whore wife.
I hung up.
That was 8 days ago. Mom has tried to call maybe 30-40 times. The first calls, I’d picked up to hear her screaming, threatening nonsense. After a couple days I stopped picking up the phone. The voicemails had her saying she didn’t remember any of those things, but she was going to go to hypnosis to find out the truth. Then the voicemails started saying if I were telling the truth, that her saying sorry would never be enough. All that the first 3 days. I started deleting the voicemails without listening to them. I picked up the phone long enough to tell her I wasn’t going to listen to any messages and we didn’t have anything to talk about until she was ready to apologize. Today, she has been calling over and over, almost nonstop. She isn’t leaving messages. She just calls over and over. I’ve not answered the phone. I just decline the calls.
I’m just too tired to talk to her right now. I feel relieved to have confronted her, but I’m exhausted. And I’m hurt that I was called a liar and my mom took no responsibility for anything. I didn’t really expect her to, but it still hurt when it actually happened. I don’t want to talk to her right now. I just need some time.
One thing I can say about this journey of mine is that it damn sure isn’t easy. I can feel myself becoming healthier, but it isn’t always pleasant getting there. Facing everything I’ve done isn’t easy, but I’m damn well going to follow through with it.