Hard childhood

“I hate it when people complain about what a shitty childhood they had,” said Hal, 15. “They need to grow up. I’ve been pedophiled, and I’m not bitching about it.”

He and I were talking about his mother’s reflex of citing her love-starved childhood as a means of controlling Hal—to counter his requests, to deny his claims, rebut his assertions, and make him feel bad for having resisted or disobeyed her.

Lisa has honed victimhood into shield, sword, and spear, an all-purpose weapon to be wielded against all who trudge too near the palings of her rustic fort of pain and anger. The hot core of her victimhood is the feeling that her mother didn’t love her and “emotionally abandoned” her. That mother was, in my estimation, a radically self-centered person, one who cared not a whit for anyone but herself, unquenchably thirsty for flattery, attention, love, the product of God knows what sort of childhood with drunken, brawling Irish parents in south Philadelphia. And she spread the legacy to her daughters, though the older one, Hal’s aunt, older than Lisa by 16 years, has a more generous view of her mother than does Lisa. And Hal’s aunt has passed her relatively benign view of Lisa’s childhood to Hal, who therefore tends to see her mother’s egregious behavior as more gratuitous than I think it really is. Which is not to excuse it.

“Tony was the worst,” Hal continued. “I mean, worse than Eddie.”

Eddie is Hal’s biological father (Is or was—he may be dead), who came into his son’s life when Hal was five and Lisa, bored and itchy, was trying to drive me away and break up the home we had had (but for the interval of insemination—that is, her affair with Hal’s father) for almost 10 years.

Once I had left the house, with the bed still warm, Lisa brought Eddie into Hal’s life: “Hal, this is Eddie; Eddie is your real dad.”

Hal fell for it, and fell in love with that truculent, swaggering father, so skilled with knives and lures, so good on the water and in woods, but so lost on the concrete surfaces of civilized life. Eddie would have made an excellent Mohican, a trapper, a tracker, a decoder of scat and other animal signs, a woodland guide in a forest free of artificial intoxicants. But as a father, as a family man, as an employee, he was disoriented and unstable. In and out of jobs, in and out of jail, consistent only in his steady ingestion of stolen drugs and cheap alcohol.

This is the man whom Lisa picked at age 35 (confronted with my ambivalence about creating a nuclear family with her—and my irreversible vasectomy) to father her child.

“She brought Eddie into my life,” Hal went on, “and he was great with fishing and crabbing and all. But that night I’ve told you about before he was all drugged up with his sunglasses on and he said he was going to kill me, and I looked at him, like ‘What?’ but then he started to chase me, and I ran out of the house and his mother called mom to come get me. And that was the last I saw of him.”

Hal was seven then. He’d had his “real” father for not quite two years. Long enough to love him and to mourn losing him. His tale reminded me of Huck Finn and his pap.

The incident of pedophilia involved a teenaged boy with two moms who lived in the neighborhood and who attended Hal’s touchy-feely alternative school. Lisa had hired him as a babysitter cum playmate when Hal was four or five. At some point, Hal told Lisa that Alex had “put his mouth on my penis,” and that was that. Lisa told the two moms. Hal never suppressed the incident, never blamed himself, so I believe (I hope) that it did minimal damage.

“Eddie was bad,” Hal said, “but Tony was worse.” Tony was Lisa’s boyfriend, whom she had dredged up at an AA or NA meeting, meetings that Lisa, who was addicted to no substance, attended for the social life they afforded, the way others might go, say, to a bar or sign up for e-Harmony. At one of these meetings she found Tony, a once-handsome man with a chiseled face now ruined by drugs and self-pity, and brought him home to join her menagerie, which, in addition to her only son, consisted of an unknown number of dogs, cats, birds, and other creatures, plus the attendant paraphernalia and sequelae (leashes, bowls, cat boxes, cages, bags of chow, bins full of smelly cans, hair and dander everywhere, hairballs and other regurgitations like land mines in the hallways, shock pads to discourage defecation on furniture, and so on).

“Tony would give me the finger when mom wasn’t looking. They’d have sex really loud upstairs when I was home. And she’d feed him but forget to give me any. Which sucked. Like Tony and all the animals were more important to her than me.” He paused.

“That was when I said, OK, she’s not going to look after me or stick up for me, so I have to do it for myself.”

Realistic enough as a life lesson, but harsh for a boy of seven or eight. I thought of Huck Finn again, who showed similar resilience and generosity of spirit.

Things came to a head with Tony (I think I’ve told you this) when Tony found out that Lisa had also been sleeping with her tenant, James, a burly, jovial black ex-addict who lived in the basement and with whom Hal was always and remains friends. (For that matter, Lisa and James remain friends and occasional lovers: James tolerates none of Lisa’s nonsense and self-pity.)

Learning of Lisa’s perfidy, Tony let himself in one day when only Hal was home, broke up the house with a baseball bat, and proceeded downstairs to James’s room while Hal escaped to the neighbors’ to call the police. When the police arrived, Tony was dragging the last of James’s things, his mattress, into the swimming pool behind the house, where James’s clothes and guitar case were already floating. The police cuffed him and perp-walked him into the squad car, pushing his head down like they do on TV. As the car was pulling away, Tony turned to look at Hal standing on the front lawn. Hal met Tony’s gaze, raised both arms, and gave him an emphatic two-fingered send-off. Hal 1, Tony 0.

For a while after that Tony would cruise by the house late at night. Hal could see his ruined face through the window, gazing with who knows what mixture of puerile emotions at what he had had for a while—or what had had him.

“So when mom tries to shut me up by talking about what a crappy childhood she had, I’m not buying it.”