by Maura O’Shea
Some adults think that the most effective way of punishing a child is through humiliation. Humiliation is a tricky word full of negative connotations, but humility shares the root, humilis, meaning: of the earth; low, grounded.
Spanking is a very common punishment that I hear many of my peers have also experienced. It is interesting as a punishment mostly in the way that the physical pain is almost negligible, and what really hurts the most about being spanked is the shame. I remember being about five years old, and being horrific in the backseat with my older sister one day when we were all in the car. I can’t even claim to understand how frustrating it must be having two horrible little kids in the backseat while you’re driving. I think I stuck my tongue out at my mother, which she saw in the rearview mirror. She pulled over to the side of the busy freeway, and, on the side of the car that was facing oncoming traffic, spanked me in front of all four lanes of traffic passing by.
I wonder if the biggest shame we feel is the shame we feel when imagining perfect strangers’ judgments upon us. There, with my pants around my ankles, bent to the sun, she brought her palm down flat and square in the middle, and I remember crying so hard that I was screaming. I was unable to breathe between gasps, hiccuping, with drool streaming out of my mouth.
Equally horrifying to me was when she would force me to hold her hand when I was being punished. I would hate her with every cell of my being, and she wouldn’t let me let go. The more that I tried to squeeze my palm from her grip, the tighter her pointer finger and thumb would squeeze around my wrist as she gritted her teeth.
That was another terrifying way that my mother had. When she was angry she would line up her bottom row of teeth with the top row, and then move her bottom jaw slightly to the right. She would often shoot this look to us while we sat in the back seat, in the rearview mirror. We wouldn’t be able to see her entire face, just her mouth, framed perfectly in the rectangular mirror. She would pull her lips back, folding her upper lip under, and moving her lower lip well down beneath the gum line. She has (like everyone in my unfortunate family) extremely diminutive teeth—so you could see gum, and the entire tooth, top and bottom, except for the sides. The sight of her teeth evokes a bare skull– the way skulls, with no skin and flesh to hide behind, look to always be consciously baring their teeth out to the world.
One year we got a puppy after my father’s golden retriever died. A chocolate lab that my mother named Tess, with a wild spirit. This dog was hit by a car three separate times, and made it through each time, the last time coughing blood onto the white gloves of the old lady who had hit her on the street out in front of our home. The only other memory I have about Tess was watching my mother house-train her. My mother would set her face in that way, lining up her top and bottom jaw, when she found that Tess had had an accident in the home. You could almost hear the grind, the grit of tooth against tooth, and she would move her bottom jaw slowly to the right. She’d grab Tess by the scruff of the back of her neck, dragging her across the room, her hind legs splayed in resistance. She would grab the dog’s face and shove the dog’s nose in her own shit, the dog yelping in discomfort, all the while insisting it was the only way the dog would learn.
Both of my parents would explode at times, like amateur science experiments or volcanoes. Their blasts were blind and expansive. It’s how I imagine the big bang when scientists describe it, moving out into space in an unfathomable speed, taking up lots of space, fierce and impossibly rushed. My father would lose his temper, and when he did, he would bellow, “SHUT THE FUCK UP” at the top of his lungs through the house, and this screaming was effective, in that it did shut us up.
I can’t remember exploding quite like that, except when I was very young, and would rip the posters off my wall, and rip all the drawers out of my dresser and destroy my entire room until I was calm and then I would put it all back together.
When I was sixteen I lied to mother. At home I had a locked box in which I kept various trinkets and special things including my diary, in which I wrote my feelings about all the new and ground-breaking experiences I was having. I had smoked pot. I had gone to a lake and swam naked with a group of boys and girls and drank beers and jumped off rocks. A boy had fingered me. I had gotten drunk and thrown up in the living room of a party and fallen off the deck.
I remember “coding” some of these experiences, even in my diary, because I knew what big trouble I would be in if anyone read it. It’s the nature of the book—all the strange inwardness of it.
By the time I got home from school the day my mother had received this incriminating phone call revealing my lies, she had broken into the box, and in her hand she held the pages she had ripped from the journal. She held them in her hand like evidence. She laid them before me with a look on her face that said, “I win.” I had a feeling she’d been waiting for an opportunity like this—to break that lock. Like she’d been eyeing it, just waiting to pounce. I had lied and thus forfeited my right to privacy, under her roof no less. Now she wanted me to break down, to confess, to humble myself before her. She wanted apologies, but I knew what she really she wanted was to push my face in it. She wanted me there on the floor in my humiliation and shame, so she could hover above me. She wanted me bowing and scraping at her feet, or to hold my wrist so tightly that I couldn’t wriggle out. She wanted my penitence. She wanted me to tell her the truth.