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I Turned Out OK In Spite Of Corporal Punishment, Not Because Of It

Illustration for article titled I Turned Out OK In Spite Of Corporal Punishment, Not Because Of It

Drew Magary's post yesterday on corporal punishment and parenting inspired a great deal of feedback, including a long, thoughtful email from a reader named Jason Mello, which, with his permission, we've reprinted below.

I was (am?) a victim of child abuse. After reading your article, I wanted to share some of my feelings on the issue. I apologize in advance for a long email, but this hits me pretty deep.

Let me start by saying I was an average kid growing up. I was a little hyper, but I never got into any real trouble at school or with law enforcement, and I was a standout student academically, and in both music and athletics. Never at any point did my behavior warrant the abuse I repeatedly faced (at least in my mind).

I was a victim of "corporal punishment" administered by both parents growing up, from about age two or three straight through to the last time my mother assaulted me, when I was home from my first semester of college at 18. I have two younger siblings; however, one is a female, and the other is significantly younger than I and experienced health issues growing up, so I caught the majority of the violence.

Let me also say that physical abuse is almost always issued with mental abuse as well, so after your parent is done beating you, you hear about how unworthy you are as a child. My mother once left me at an orphanage for an hour as punishment while she ran errands. She said she was done with my behavior and told me to have a good life. How disturbed is that?

One of the first things I want to dispel is that this is some sort of "race" issue. I grew up in an upper-middle-class, white, suburban household. My father was a town selectmen and a prominent area lawyer. He had an "image to keep up," and he viewed any sort of misbehaving from his children (mostly me) in any public setting (political event, school, swim lessons) as bad for his career and grounds to hit me. My mother agreed and went along with everything. My parents don't have a drug problem or anything, either. From the outside, you'd think they were Mr. and Mrs. Everytown USA.

Growing up, there was more than one occasion when I missed a family event or school day—or had a doctor's appointment rescheduled—to avoid the visual signs of my abuse from being seen. My parents would simply lock me in my room for the day or evening, and leave the house (leaving me alone in said locked room). When I was finally let out, usually very hungry and occasionally having to use the small waste bin in my room as a toilet, my parents would tell me how the beating and subsequent solitary confinement was due to my actions. I have no idea what a child could do to warrant this treatment.

I'm almost 30, and still to this day I have vivid memories of many of the beatings I endured. After a parent-teacher conference in second grade during which my mother was told that I was acting out, she came home, and I got the paddle while standing in Time Out (my mother elected to employ a wooden paddle-ball paddle and usually hit me while I was standing in a corner). I will always remember her saying, "If you think this is bad, just wait until your father gets home." What kind of sick person says this to an eight-year-old?

Going to bed that night was torture. I knew as soon as my father got home from the Selectman's meeting that night, I was in trouble. Sure enough, when my father got in around midnight, he got me out of bed (I couldn't sleep, as I was terrified) and beat the hell out of me, yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs about how I embarrassed him. I could share many more stories, but I think you get the point.

This kind of reaction from my parents was commonplace for the remainder of elementary school: I do something trivial; Mother puts me in the corner and spanks me with a wooden paddle; I get sent to a locked room for the remainder of the evening to "go to bed"; Father comes home, gets me out of bed at whatever time of night, and beats me. I still have problems falling asleep and staying asleep. Once during a beating I called 911 and hung up, knowing the police would be sent to the house to investigate, which would force my parents to at least temporarily stop hitting me. Think of what has to go through a child's head for this to seem like the most appropriate course of defending yourself from your parents. My parents separated when I was in sixth grade, but all that meant was the abuse was issued in two different homes rather than one.

I want to speak about the so-called "positive" aspects of corporal punishment. First off, there are NONE. It's ridiculous for any human with a normal IQ to think that hitting a highly impressionable young child—one who looks to you for nurturing, support, and affection—would reap any positive outcome. It does not teach a child to respect his or her parents; it teaches you to fear them. It took until I was 17 for me to get over this fear, and the only way I did was to finally fight back during two beatings I was receiving, one from my father and one from my stepfather. It took until I was strong enough to fight back and injure these two men who I was supposed to look up to to feel like I didn't have to fear them. Corporal punishment didn't teach me right from wrong; it taught me that if my parents were upset, I was probably getting hit. I swear they would beat me sometimes if they just had a bad day at work.

The amount of emotional and mental damage being abused as a child did to me is staggering. I began smoking pot at age 12 to zone out from all the yelling and violence, and to allow myself to sleep at night. To this day, I have extreme difficulty sleeping without being high. I never listened to any authority figure growing up, often seeking conflict instead, as it was what I was most comfortable with. I was almost thrown off sports teams and out of Boy Scouts for my lack of self-control and complete lack of respect for adult leaders. I had trouble with friendships and relationships, often quickly breaking off friendships if anything remotely negative occurred. I got overly attached to every girlfriend I had because I was grasping at straws for any semblance of a caring family.

I used to have severe anger issues. I would lash out at complete strangers over nothing. My fight-or-flight response was essentially always on. I took everything personal and felt alone. I haven't spoken to my mother in 10 years (I was issued a permanent restraining order after the aforementioned assault at 18), and I really only see or speak to my father at large family gatherings. My relationship with them will never be that of a normal child-parent situation, as I have no plans to forgive them. Ever.

At my first job after college, all of these behaviors were magnified when I encountered several supervisors who were mentally abusive. My reactions ranged from walking off the job to challenging people to fistfights. My anger began to have a serious effect on my relationship, to the point that my girlfriend told me she was going to leave me if I didn't change. I was never and will never be mentally or physically abusive towards her (or anyone else, for that matter), but my anger was just out of control. That's when I started seeing a therapist.

Fast-forward several years, and I am doing worlds better. I'm regarded by people who've met me since my years in therapy as a laid-back guy, something people who met me in my early twenties would have never thought. I very seldom get mad, and when I do, it's about serious stuff, not dropping a spoon on the floor. My relationship is stronger than ever, and I can't thank my girlfriend enough for staying with me. My friends are awesome and supported me through everything. I have a new job, and I genuinely love my new career.

I've accomplished a lot in my life. I have a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in civil engineering from one of the best engineering schools in the country. I've completed more than one 1,000-plus-hour volunteer project for my town. I've hiked every mountain over 4,000 feet in New England. None of this was because of my receiving corporal punishment as a child; it was IN SPITE of it. The only thing "positive" I gained from being abused was that now, essentially, I'm emotionally cold, which helps in my industry (construction). Things can get heated on construction sites, and I am a pro at conflict, especially for a young man. Yell at me and insult me all you want—I can handle it and give it back with the best. Now, this isn't really a positive—it's really just me trying to take something positive out of a real bad situation.

Hitting children is one of the worst crimes humanity undertakes. It causes emotional and mental damage to people for a lifetime, and teaches children that violence is an acceptable way to get what you want. The only people who hit children are ignorant cowards who shouldn't be allowed around children.

I'm glad you've been giving this issue the exposure it needs. You're helping a lot of people like me and hopefully you're helping a few kids not get abused.

My parents abused me, and I turned out OK, not because they hit me—IN SPITE of them hitting me.


Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images.