The following recollections are of a childhood. They are painful to have to regurgitate and I’ve spent most of my life since trying to overcome their scars and move on. Most of these traits in my behaviour I always interpreted as a result of the verbal and physical violence I witnessed in my childhood home. My dad was an alcoholic and his painfully cruel verbal abuse directed at my Mum mostly, although not confined to her, was soul and ego destroying. When the words failed to crumble their target it was not uncommon for physical violence to follow.
Perhaps my sense of alienation was already genetically ordained and the abuse I witnessed was merely the topping on the cake. I don’t know and will leave that intellectual prognosis to others more learned than myself.
I always had an overpowering feeling of being alienated from others. My mother used to smother me with praise and affection. My father, when sober, was a kind and loving man, who also dotted on me. Whereas my mum was very touchy feely, verbal and open in her display of affection, my dad was a complete contrast. He was a man of few words and I don’t ever recall him ever saying “I love you” or giving a hug. He was of another time of men and he too carried the scars of his childhood having lost his mother when he was but two years of age. He’d grown up without any maternal love. .
My sisters were openly jealous of my mother’s affection for the “baby” of the family. When I was a toddler they were already teenagers. I always remember them being very critical and saying a lot of sarcastic things about me in front of guests and boyfriends in order to humiliate me. Most times they simply ignored me. This resulted in me purposely trying to annoy them to grab their attention and validate my existence. This childish plan of mine didn’t work and resulted in me being type-cast as “spoiled”. I probably was. But spoiled in the true sense of the word from what I saw and heard around me. It was a confusing world for an over-sensitive soul.
As a child with no siblings to play with and two much older sisters who couldn’t be bothered, I had lots of times of feeling alone. I used to play soldiers and would act out both sides of the fight. Games of imagination became a big part of my existence, as well as listening to the radio. My mother said that by the age of three and four I could name just about every singer on the radio just by hearing them sing a couple of words. I recall many hours of listening to the radiogram with my ear up against the speaker. This love of music and studying singers would become a lifelong obsession of mine. To this day I can just about name any hit record of the sixties and late fifties. In many cases I can even name the “B” sides of the singles.
I used to wet the bed almost every night. It became a ritual. I hated the feeling of waking in a cold bed in the middle of the night but I didn’t seem to be able to stop or control it. I’d wake and go into my parent’s room. They would get me dry pajamas, strip my bed of its wet sheets, and I would get in with them.
My earliest memory is of someone screaming at our front door and my parents and I running down the street in a panic. We got to my grandmother’s place and I recall looking into her room as my Uncle Alf soaped her fingers trying to get her rings off as she lay unconscious on her bed. She was dead. I was two years of age but I remember it clearly.
I always felt painfully shy with other kids. I would wait to be invited to play. I didn’t have the nerve to just stroll up and take part in any existing cliques. Yet, this shyness didn’t translate to performing. I knew all the words to Tommy Steele’s hit “The Little White Bull” and if I was invited to a birthday party I would nag my mother to ask if I could sing the song for everyone. It was easier for me to perform to strangers than to talk to them.
When I was embarrassed, I would talk in a falsetto voice. Almost like I was too exposed if I used my “real” voice. I would also not look people in the eyes. I always thought that this was because I was very shy. I only overcame this because someone I worked with at my first job, noticed this and brought it to my attention. He used to make me look people in the eyes. I concentrated on this and overcame this lack of self-esteem with practice.
My mother said that I virtually had an in-built aversion to school even before I understood what it meant. She said she’d wheel me past the local school in my stroller and I would start crying and screaming.
Being sent to school was very traumatic for me. I had to leave the protective shell of my parents and spend the whole day with strangers my own age. I felt alienated, stupid and useless at school from the very beginning and it never got much better.
I showed ability for drawing and religious study. The latter because I had the knack of always remembering a story once it had been told to me. The bible stories were full of imagery and danger and they stuck in my memory in all their detail. With every other subject I was hopeless. Mathematics was gibberish to me. To this day I still have no concept of what Algebra is other than a headache. I used to sit in class and count the minutes to home time. Hoping I wouldn’t be noticed by the teacher and asked a question. In my later years I learned to use humour as a shield and would, when questioned and out of my depth, I would answer with something so inane that it would make the class and even the teacher laugh. If I was going to be a fool I opted for being an entertaining one.
I hated the discipline and boring ritual of school. I remember trying to concentrate and study in class but it was difficult for me to stay “focussed” and not daydream or become sleepy. Sleep has always been my welcome escape. The more problems I have, the deeper I sleep.
My mother transferred me to a better school. In her mind anyway. Christian Brothers College. In those days CBC was very strict and big on punishment. If her idea was that fear would propel me to learn more, she was grossly off target. This “fear” of being punished for uttering a wrong answer only succeeded in dragging me further into my inner world. I was weary from the fear I witnessed every night in our lounge room with my parents raging World War 3 and then sent off to school in the morning to face another fear.
I remember always feeling mentally tired as though my mind was on overload. And continual daydreams which I couldn’t seem to overcome no matter how much I tried to concentrate on the subject at hand. I struggled very badly. Homework was a nightmare. Most times I couldn’t do it and would wake in the morning sick to my stomach knowing if I didn’t come up with some excuse I would be beaten in front of the class for having not done it. Usually I developed breathing problems and would be kept home from school due to ill health.
One day the headmaster Brother McCartney asked my mother, “How come your son has the highest I.Q at the school and the lowest grades?” She didn’t know the answer anymore than he did. Or I did.
At playtime I gravitated to the kids no one else wanted to play with. The outcasts. We had much in common and they were grateful for my friendship. As I was grateful for theirs.
I stayed away from school a great deal with illness. The grades got even worse. Finally, I was kept down a year, which lost me the few friends I had made in my class.
I tried to learn but my mind wandered too much. It was restless with anything it couldn’t immediately understand. Also, anything I couldn’t master straight away I tended to give up on and blame myself for being stupid. I was also mad keen to have a life in show business and kept thinking that it was no use wasting all this time learning boring school stuff that wasn’t going to be any use to me in my real career.
At home I kept lists. I had an exercise book and I would write in it lists of all the number one records on the charts. A separate list of all the records I wanted to buy. A list of all the bands I enjoyed. A list of all my favourite films. A list of books I wanted to read. I recently found this book and it filled me with such sadness for that lonely, frightened boy who wrote it.
I was very quiet in the presence of anyone I didn’t know. Didn’t want to say anything that may be considered “inappropriate” so I would sit back and wait for others to talk. Once I felt that I knew what the other person was all about I’d then begin to open up and talk about things they were interested in.
I hated anyone to see me hurt. Hated looking vulnerable in front of others. If I fell over my mother would tell people not to go to me or acknowledge it in any way. If they did I was liable to get up and kick them in the shins. If they ignored me, I would get up in silence, no matter in how much pain, and go on.
For most of my life I’ve detested being laughed at. It’s okay if I send myself up and others laugh at me, because then I’m in “control” of the situation even if it’s self-depreciating. But if I was laughed at it made me feel like the frightened, vulnerable, stupid school student. So I usually tried to get in first to laugh at myself. Beat others to the punch, so to speak.
I think I’ve succeeded in overcoming most of these traits, but it has been a lifelong struggle. Somewhere along the journey, the fear washed away, or perhaps I just got tired of carrying it, and I became fearless. That too brought its own price. Funny, I’ve finally found myself and feel comfortable just as the light is ebbing.
(c) Frank Howson 2013