Friday, October 16, 2015

We Need to Talk About Dante

Trigger warning.  There is some physical violence and some what would probably be termed low-grade sexual abuse of a child in this post.  No touching, just inappropriateness.  I had planned to write a series of shorter posts about life with Dante, but it all sort of came vomiting out.

Dante was our household's "problem child."  He was my hero in a lot of ways.  He was good at drawing, and he was seven years my senior and very "cool," as far as I could tell.  He seemed fearless when it came to troublemaking, which was the opposite of me.  He got detentions and failing grades in school ("He's too smart, he's not challenged enough, he just doesn't apply himself," our mother explained), while I got mostly A's and was terrified of doing anything that might lead to getting in trouble.  I relished any attention he paid to me.  When he let me have a picture he'd drawn, I kept it on the wall of my bedroom or -- when I was old enough for school -- as the decoration on my Trapper Keeper so that I could tell people, "My brother drew that."

Dante is a scary person.  I knew that as a child, and I know it better as an adult.  He is volatile and violent, and I have never seen evidence that he has a conscience or sees other people as people.  Maybe things are different with his friends, I've always thought.  Maybe it's just because he hated me and our parents.  Maybe that's why he didn't treat me like a person.  Maybe that's why he didn't bond with anyone in our family.  He was so charming and likable.  Most people really liked him.  Maybe I deserved the way he treated me.  Maybe I was asking for it and provoked him, like she said.  But I can't think those things for long because I strongly disagree with them.  I've always strongly disagreed with them.  No child deserved that.  Then a little voice that sounds something like my mother's whispers snidely, What makes you think you're soooo good?

We lived together in our parents' house until I moved out for college.  Mom took Dante to a child psychologist when I was fairly young.  I remember being enthralled with a particular toy in the waiting room -- one of those little tables with beaded wires on it that I always pretended were roller coasters -- and I think I must've been somewhere between five and seven, which means Dante was 12 or in his early teens.  I remember my mother afterward telling me with what I could only interpret as pride that the psychologist had said Dante had "the makings of a criminal mastermind."  I was jealous.  "Mastermind" was impressive.  I assumed she was proud because it was yet another way Dante was exceptional, just like with his art and his being too smart to do well in school.  In hindsight, I think she might have felt vindicated in the hard time she had had parenting Dante, and maybe that was what I was reading as pride in her face and voice.  She was proud of herself -- Dante's behavior wasn't her fault.  She only took Dante to that psychologist one or two more times before they abruptly stopped going.  When I asked to be allowed to see a psychologist myself a few years later, she told me it would be a waste of money because all they do is get you to blame your mother for everything.  Based on that conversation -- as well as what I think any psychologist worth his salt would have advised -- I think the child psychologist might have suggested my mother receive therapy herself, prompting my mother to stop seeking any professional help for Dante.  I think she had been looking less for help to improve things than for someone to diagnose Dante as a "bad seed" and absolve her of all blame.

One of the most irritating things Dante did was the stealing.  As a small child, I habitually saved up any birthday money that came my way so that I could buy my family "real" gifts for Christmas and birthdays.  One year I managed to save up $80 in my Hello Kitty lock box before I noticed the money was gone.  The same day Dante bragged to our mom and me about how easy it is to break through cheap little locks, but our mother refused to believe he had stolen the money.  "You lost it," she said. "Don't blame Dante for your carelessness."  When she found my electronic pocket translator in the back of his closet on one of her regular bedroom searches, she told me to take better care of my things.  I confronted Dante about it later that day and he laughed and admitted he had planned to pawn it like he had already pawned my stereo.  He even cut open a large piggy bank I had filled exclusively with pennies -- over 3000 pennies -- and emptied it.  My mother told me if I was going to complain so much about something so minor she'd give me the money herself to shut me up.

Dante started showing me pornography when I was about six and he was 13.  He invited me into his room in hushed tones and said he had something he wanted to show me.  He pulled out some magazines and said a friend had stolen them from his father and let him take them home.  I was thrilled at the idea of being part of Dante's inner circle.  I knew Playboy wasn't appropriate for a six-year-old, but I thought, He's so excited, and he has no one else to share this with, so he's letting me be his friend.  I sat down and looked at pictures of naked ladies with him, excited both by being treated as an equal and also the fact that I knew we were doing something we weren't supposed to be doing.  Partners in crime!  Then he pulled out Penthouse and showed me a picture of a woman fellatiating a man.  He asked me if I liked it.  I said no, it looked disgusting and I didn't understand why anyone would do that.  He said we didn't have to look at that one if I didn't like it.  We could go back to the Playboy -- he'd look at any porn his six-year-old sister wanted. 

He called me into his room a few more times in the following months, whenever he brought home new magazines.  It never went farther than looking at magazines.  He didn't try to touch me or make me do anything, and it didn't occur to me he might have any idea what he was doing was inappropriate.  He was seven years older than me, but I didn't see him as more emotionally mature than me or someone capable of controlling his impulses.  He has no one else to talk to, I'd thought because that was me.  I had no confidantes.  Then I got older and realized he had friends, including the friend who had given him the magazines in the first place.  Now, giving him the benefit of the doubt just means remembering that he didn't see me as a person, that maybe he just wanted to see what kind of reaction he could get from showing pornography to a small child.  I don't assume he was grooming me for something more.  If he had, in hindsight, I don't think anyone would have prevented him.

Dante did eventually get yelled at for having pornographic magazines.  One of our parents found them somehow -- I think it was Mom on one of her regular bedroom searches -- and Dad lost his mind while Mom insisted that boys will be boys.  It was a really big deal for the rest of the day, and I don't remember anyone mentioning it ever again.  After that, Dante stopped bothering to hide his porn and it took over the cabinet under the bathroom sink where normal people might keep cleaning supplies and extra toilet paper. 

I remember a family gathering at my dad's parents' house a couple years later.  My grandmother had made a lot of the fancy picnic dishes that I so hated as a child but probably would have loved as an adult, and my few paternal cousins were there with their parents.  I rarely saw my dad's family, despite them all living nearby and Eric being my closest family member in age at just a few weeks my junior.  Eric and Dante and I were wandering the large yard after lunch and, out of the sight of parents, Eric unexpectedly shoved me hard to the ground and walked away.  I don't know why.  He was always kind of a prick as far as I could tell.  Dante looked down at me lying on grass for a few seconds.  Then he stepped over my body wordlessly and followed Eric.  I cried.  I was heartbroken.  I knew Dante would sell me out for older kids any day of the week, but Eric wasn't even older.  Eric wasn't even cool.  Dante was high school aged, and he wouldn't even tell him, "Hey, that's my sister," or help me up.

I went crying to my mother and told her what had happened.  She told me that couldn't be what had happened.  Older brothers stick up for their sisters, she said.  She'd had an older brother in Uncle Charles, so she knew.  Once when she had come home from school and said that a car full of boys had threatened to rape her on the way home, Uncle Charles had been so enraged he had sworn he would find and kill them all.  He hadn't actually done anything, but he'd sure been mad!  That's what big brothers do, she said.  What I had described couldn't be accurate, so I needed to stop lying and trying to get Dante in trouble.

When I was about 12 and Dante was 19, I was sitting on the living room couch with my mother when a woman called our house.  She told my mother to keep Dante away from her 13-year-old daughter.  "Who is this?" my mother asked.  The woman introduced herself and said Dante and his friend Darrin had been calling her home and coming over and hanging around her daughter, who was far too young for them, and she wanted them to stop.  My mother replied, "I've never even heard of your daughter, and I'm sure my son hasn't either," and she promptly hung up.  She ignored the fact that the woman had known the name of Dante's best friend and also that we rarely knew where Dante was when he wasn't at home.  After all -- he was an adult.

Dante had some minor trouble with the law when he was around the same age.  I remember my mother saying that he and a friend had been arrested and hauled to jail in a paddy wagon for disturbing the peace.  It was another occasion when I thought I heard pride in her voice.  "A paddy wagon!" she kept saying.  "Can you believe it?"  She'd had to go to my grandparents' house to ask for enough money in cash to post his bail because it was late at night and the bank was closed and, if ATMs existed, we didn't know about them.  As an adult, I understand that "disturbing the peace" usually means the police come to your house and ask you to keep down the noise.  Dante had been at a friend's parents' house in a particularly affluent neighborhood.  Affluent white adults don't typically go to jail for disturbing the peace, nor do their adult children when the parents are standing right there as his friends' supposedly were, so I wonder now what he and his friend had actually done.  I don't think this was the only time he got arrested and my mother had to post bail, but I can't remember the other times.

Probably the most physically aggressive thing Dante did to me that I can remember was the time he wrapped his hands around my throat and choked me while simultaneously lifting me off the ground.  I was in my early teens, and he was in his early twenties.  I don't remember what prompted this action from him, but I do remember our parents were in another room and, when one of them called for us, I was able to regain my footing with minimal physical damage.  I don't remember if I "told on him."  I usually did, endlessly optimistic as I somehow was that someone would help me, and depending on which parent heard, either our dad would scream at Dante, our mom would scream at me, or both.  There was often a circle of screaming at our house.

There is a splintered area in the door of my childhood bedroom from the time Dante tried to knee or kick it in.  I had said something mocking to him, knowing full well it would piss him off the way he liked to piss me off, he had given chase, and I had only been safe because I was fast enough, my bedroom was close enough, and he couldn't pick the shitty locks on our interior doors with his fingernail like I could.

When I was in high school and he was in his twenties, Dante started stealing my yearbooks and keeping them with his stack of "Barely Legal" and other assorted pornographic magazines under the bathroom sink.  I went to my mother outraged and said, "Tell your son to stop stealing my yearbooks and keeping them with his porn!"  She acted shocked and told me I was never to use such a bad word as "porn" ever again, she said nothing to Dante, and Dante kept stealing my yearbooks, even after I took them back and told him to stop doing that.  They are probably under that same bathroom sink right now.

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