The first time I wrote publicly and honestly about my parents was my senior year of high school. I had to write a paper for English class -- one of many -- and I don't remember the theme of the paper, but it included a memory from my childhood. My parents were screaming at each other in the living room. I was maybe six years old and watching them from my hiding spot crouched behind the recliner at the edge of the room. My mother wanted to leave the house and was trying to take her purse, and my dad had wrapped the shoulder straps around her forearm and was yanking on them, trying to prevent her from leaving. When she finally got the purse off, there were red strap marks on her arm.
I rarely witnessed physical altercations between my parents, so that one had stuck with me, comparatively benign as it was. I don't remember what my parents had been fighting about, but the screaming matches were an almost daily occurrence. My six-year-old self had crept back to my room at the end of the long hallway and scribbled a note to Dante, who must've been 13 at the time. It read, "Mommy and Daddy are fighting. I could really use a friend right now," and I folded it up and pushed it under his bedroom door, which was adjacent to my own. A minute later his door opened and Dante stood in my open doorway holding the note. "I could really use a friend right now," he mocked in a high-pitched voice, and then he threw the note into my room, laughed, and walked away. Typical Dante.
Sharing this memory in an English paper was kind of a big deal for me. We did peer editing, so several of my classmates had to read it before even the teacher did, and as far as I can remember, I had never told any of them about my parents' fights. Up to that point, I usually tried to make my papers funny rather than serious. I mean, look at Dante's reaction when I tried to write something sincere -- can you blame me? The surprising outcome was how many of my classmates came up to me at the end of class and said something along the lines of, "I thought it was just me." I hadn't expected to strike a chord with people who I thought had happy, loving homes. That's when I decided everything could be relatable if the retelling is honest and detailed enough.
I finished editing my paper and turned it in the next day with the rest of the class. I would get an A, as I always did in high school, though I didn't know that at the time. My mother took me out to dinner that night at Outback Steakhouse. This was years after she'd given up cooking at home. She was sullen and significantly more quiet than usual that night. I knew she was mad about something, so after we sat down to dinner I tentatively asked, "Are you feeling okay?" and she erupted. She informed me that she had found my paper and read it. "Why?" I asked, and it came out that she had a previously unknown to me habit of searching my backpack every night after I went to bed. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was surprised I hadn't found out about that sooner. I was also surprised at how upset she was. I didn't think the paper painted her in a bad light at all. It was about my dad being physically abusive, and she was the victim. It seemed like a depiction that would delight her, though I admit I wasn't enough of a fool to say so out loud. Apparently I hadn't understood the house rules as well as I'd tried.
My mother had told me since I was old enough to write, "Don't write down anything you wouldn't want published on the front page of the newspaper," and I had indeed taken that message to heart. Since I was old enough to write, she had searched my bedroom for journals and stories and notes under the guise of "cleaning," in spite of the fact that nothing ever got clean, and she'd read them out loud to me in a mocking voice much like Dante did, so I knew to be guarded. I knew to make sure I really wanted to say what I was about to say before I wrote it down. I knew to say only what I wanted to publish. The English paper was the first time I understood that her intended lesson wasn't actually, "Don't write down anything you wouldn't want published," but instead, "Don't write down anything I might not want published." But it was too late for that now. Now I knew how good it felt to tell the truth.