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  • Writer's pictureJoey Amato

LGBTQ Author Heals Trauma by Breaking Troubled Family Legacy



By Dr. Frank Anderson


To Be Loved Excerpt from Chapter One: “You’re Not Going to School Today”

 

I was just six years old when I learned there was something seriously wrong with me. Even though it happened more than fifty years ago, I can still see where I was when it happened, as vividly as a Polaroid snapshot: the carpeted hallway from my bedroom to my parents’ room, the king-size bed that swallowed up most of the room, the two dressers that occupied the remainder of the space—Dad’s against the far wall, tall and narrow with a wooden box on top that held his cufflinks, and Mom’s at the foot of the bed, its wide surface scattered with jewelry boxes, perfume bottles, and their framed wedding picture, all reflected in the big vanity mirror.

 

I was used to stumbling down this hallway in the mornings and climbing into my parents’ bed. Today, however, both my parents were awake already. My dad was perched on the edge of the bed in his Jockey underwear and “dago T” (as we used to call it). At his side was my mom in her lace-edged nightgown, propped up by pillows against the headboard. Though they’d called me in, they looked up when I entered the room as if I’d caught them in a secret conversation. 

 

“You’re not going to school today, Frankie,” said my father.

 

For another kid, these words might have brought a moment of pure elation. For me, it was a disappointment; I loved my first-grade class. Moreover, being kept out of it was a clear signal that something strange was happening. Louis and Maggie weren’t the sort of parents to have me miss a day of school without a good reason.

 

It’s not the weekend. We’re not on summer vacation. I don’t feel sick. 

 

“Why not?” I asked.

 

Their answer was more confusing than the announcement. “We’re taking you to a hospital downtown for some tests,” said my dad.

 

Missing school, visiting a hospital in the city rather than our local hospital, my parents’ secretive tone—all this could mean only one thing: I must be sick. Very sick.

 

*

 


My parents drove me to Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center, more than an hour away from our house in Oak Lawn, Illinois. The familiar surroundings of our tranquil Midwestern suburb, all modest split-level homes like ours, fell away in the rear window as the road took us into the high-rise canyons of downtown Chicago.

 

The tests weren’t the kind one would expect at a big university hospital. No bright lights, no stethoscopes, no blood work or X-rays. No explanation from my parents, either. I found myself alone in a stark white room with a stranger, trying to answer the questions he asked me while looking at a peculiar array of pictures: a woman gazing forlornly out a window, a little boy playing with a dog, a series of half-finished shapes, a collection of black and white blobs that made no sense to my eyes.

 

More mysterious than the pictures themselves was the purpose behind it all. I’d never been in a hospital room like this one, never heard of my friends being left alone with a stranger who asked questions like these, never encountered the kind of tone my parents had used in talking to me that morning or to the stranger afterward. Sensing that it wasn’t something they wanted to explain to me, I didn’t ask. But I could tell that whatever was wrong with me, the hospital visit hadn’t made it go away. Deep in the pit of my stomach, I felt what they wouldn’t tell me: There’s something in me that needs to be fixed. I’m clearly wrong somehow. Staring out the car window as the skyscrapers returned to split-levels and manicured lawns, I made my first attempt at what would become a lifelong practice: forget what just happened, suppress my feelings about it, and try my best to appear normal. 

 

*

 

That visit set a new routine in place for the next six years. Every Tuesday night, I took a long car ride with one of my parents to a long, low building in the distant suburb of La Grange. Arriving there felt like pulling up to a motel—the entrance to the psychiatry office was one of several doors in the building, and we walked directly from the parking space into the waiting room. I remember reading Highlights magazine as I waited for my turn. I remember the big wooden desk in Dr. Dwight’s office, which he said was strictly off-limits. I remember two big chests of drawers against the wall and, beyond them, a white desk filled with art supplies.

 

Dr. Dwight directed me to sit down at the desk and laid out sheets of white paper, crayons, and colored pencils. “Can you draw a picture of your family?”

 

Dutifully, I sketched representations of my family—my mother, my father, my brother Ross, our dog Puggie. I liked to draw and, since he seemed impressed by my work, I added my red house with the front door, several windows, a chimney, and a big tree to the right. I hoped for more drawing assignments; instead, he proceeded to ask me questions about my family. I answered readily, wondering again what this was all about. Why does a doctor want to know about what color my dog is or what my house looks like or how I play with my brother?

 

Despite having no answers, I got used to the routine. Every Tuesday brought another long car ride, another “special meeting” that remained largely a blur. It wasn’t until several years later, when I was in the sixth grade, that Dr. Dwight asked me if I would like to play with some toys. He walked me over to the carpeted area and opened the chests of drawers. My eyes lit up at the things in the first chest—stuffed animals, ribbons and buttons, multicolored beads. But even as I reached for them, Dr. Dwight intervened.

 

“No, Frankie, we’re going to play with these toys.”

 

He gestured toward the other chest and instructed me to choose something I would enjoy playing with. I looked inside—construction trucks, the game Battleship, tiny plastic army men. Nothing interested me, but he sat and waited until I finally chose the army men. Dr. Dwight chose a plastic battleship. Together, we lined up the little green figures in rows and pretended to fight, knocking each other’s men down, and pushed the boat around the carpeting as if it were the sea, making motor noises with our mouths. Noticing that the tiny men would fall over if I pushed the boat too quickly, I was careful to make it cruise along slowly—if these were the “right” toys to play with, there was probably a right way to play with them.

 

No one ever asked me what had happened during the hour I spent with Dr. Dwight. Even if they had, I don’t know if I’d have been able to answer. I spent the long drive home each week finding other things to think about, things that helped me ignore the uneasy feeling and the unnameable truth behind it. I got so good at ignoring my own questions that by the time I got home, whatever had happened in that day’s session had faded into mystery. To this day, I find myself wondering, What in the hell was I doing in there?

  

                                                                        *

 

During the time I was seeing Dr. Dwight, my parents had a “special meeting” of their own with a marriage and family therapist named Dr. Johnson. As a result of these counseling sessions, a new rule was issued in our house: No more hitting.

 

I have no memory of telling Dr. Dwight about the hitting. Those memories were as blurry for me as the sessions in his office. What I do remember is the frequent feeling of breathless relief: I got away. He didn’t get me this time. Just one visual memory is burned into my mind: I’m ducked on the floor with my hands clasped over my head, elbows squeezed tightly together to protect my face. I’m frightened, and my mind is focused. Don’t hit my face. I need to protect my face. It will hurt too much if he gets my face. Hit me on my back. My back is strong. It can handle anything. I hear the blows—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM—as his fists pound on my back, but I don’t feel any pain.

 

How did I do that? Why didn’t I feel anything? Despite the thrill of being apparently invincible, I always hoped for a broken bone or a bruise, some visible mark on my body to prove what just happened. But other than the occasional red handprint that remained on my arm or leg, lasting evidence of my father’s physical abuse never materialized.

 

My dad was the only one who did the hitting, and for some reason, I was the one who got hit the most. My younger brother Ross, despite always getting into trouble for one reason or another, was hit only occasionally. My sister Luna was born six years after me, and Sophia eleven months after that—by the time they were toddlers, the “no hitting” rule was already well established, and so was the habit of acting as if none of it had ever happened at all.

 

This wasn’t the only new rule in our family. My brother Ross was under strict orders not to say anything to anyone about my “special meetings” on Tuesday nights. Those meetings were private, a family secret, and they were to be kept that way. When my brother made fun of me about it or dared to tell someone, he got in trouble for it. It felt nice to be protected by my parents, though the protection had its limits. For instance, the “no hitting” rule didn’t put an end to my father cracking me across the face if I said anything to contradict him. Dinnertime offered a prime opportunity for this—our family’s seating arrangement made me an easy target because I sat directly to the left of him. A differing opinion, a word in defense of my mom or siblings, even an eye roll at his dictatorial rants, and his hard knuckles met the side of my face. It came too quickly for me to get out of the way; it left my face on fire with pain and humiliation. In the tense silence that followed, I’d soothe my wounded feelings with fantasies of one day being an adult and getting out of this house for good.


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