A Boy's story

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 November, 1993, 12:00am

IT's lucky for me that I grew up with the proper coping and survival skills. Otherwise I couldn't have made it in this very volatile, unpredictable world. Baby talk and nursery rhymes never had a place in my early life.

Being born to people that I feared more than anything in the world was my first clue about how difficult life actually was. To say that my life with them was ferocious would be to down-play that dreadful existence.

I have no desire to go into vivid details because that life is behind me. Many parts of it can terrify me with the reality of their memory, but that time remains as real to me as anything else. I can attest that child abuse is alive and well and living all over this world.

Many people don't want to hear about it because it is too gruesome to imagine and that attitude is sometimes just as bad as physically joining the brutality. Turning a deaf ear has caused more casualties among the ranks of those defenceless and under-18 than any war. If you think I'm exaggerating, check the statistics from hospital reports of those child-abuse cases that have been reported - and those classified as suspicious. That is to say nothing of those we don't know about.

Many are parents like mine who see their children as possessions and operate under the guise of rightful ownership. They believe they can do what they want with their children and they do.

While there are those who strive to do the best they can to see that their children have the best upbringing possible, there are others who don't give such things a thought; it's not a priority and doesn't fit in with what their lives are about.

The scariest part is that there is no way to identify them. My parents weren't peculiar looking and they weren't on welfare or uneducated. My father held a job as a civil servant; my mother could have been your next-door neighbour.

Anyone who saw them would have smiled approvingly because they looked so good. It's always been the norm to say that only minority families are capable of these things. Would people be surprised.

That didn't change what was, where I was concerned. Still waters run deep - and very dirty. My parents were evil bullies who flourished with the administration of pain and fear. They actually derived pleasure from my needs and their unwillingness to attend to them.

I had no bed to sleep in and no warm coat in winter. I pretended for years that I was eccentric and hated bulk on my body and that was why I layered myself with sweat-shirts. They usually belonged to my friend David who was two sizes bigger than I was.

The best meals I had were the ones at school that other kids complained about constantly. If you think such a situation is unbelievable, think again. When a kid is living with parents whose mindset is evil, anything is possible. If you can believe that achild can starve in a Third World country and your heart-strings are being tugged enough to open your wallet, look as nearby as your next-door neighbour, whose kid is someone you wave to every day.

Maybe he delivers your newspaper or offers to take your letters to the post office. Perhaps he is the kid who is always commended in the newspaper for academic or athletic skills. Maybe she made the cheerleading squad for the second year in a row. You don't have to live in a mud hut somewhere far away to go to bed hungry, cold and afraid of what the next day might bring. Misery comes in all sizes and packages and does not discriminate geographically. Its unbiased distribution would truly astonish you.

Since there was nothing within the confines of my life with my parents that ever resembled being easy, I expected nothing. While other kids were being tossed into the air, hugged and caressed and lulled to sleep by their mothers, I was being flung into corners and slapped across rooms. The reasons never seemed to make sense. Perhaps I didn't answer quickly enough when someone called my name. Maybe I didn't perform a task correctly. As I look back on it, my parents' reasons for their behaviour are as enraging as the actions themselves.

I guess I knew that everyone's life was not like mine when I began to notice my first-grade classmates being picked up after school while I ventured eight city blocks by myself every day.

I was told that if anyone questioned this, I should say that my parents worked nights and could not come for me. As I watched those kids get hugged and kissed and told that they were missed, I thought about the night ahead of me and hoped that it would not be too difficult. I listened intently to the various ways that kids talked about their families, their lives and their possessions and I became quite good at doing the same thing. If a classmate got an Atari for Christmas, I said I got one too. No one could ever find out that I wasn't good enough to be like the rest.

By the time I was five, I realised that I was alone in this world and that it was up to me to see to my own survival. I made up my mind that I would do whatever it took. If it meant lying, I would lie. I have a vivid memory of being six years old and sitting on the porch of the apartment building I lived in making lists in huge block letters of wonderful things I wanted to happen. At the top of the list I always wrote: ''Get hugs and kisses like everyone else.'' After I finished a list, I would let it go and watch for a few minutes as it blew away through the air. I didn't realise there was no magic power out there that would read these wishes, and that they would be tossed into the trash along with the rest ofthe litter.

The four-room, 10th-floor apartment that we lived in on West 85th Street in New York was not my home but theirs. I was entitled only to a space in the closet-sized back bedroom at the end of the hall. I slept on the floor there, sometimes on a flannel sheet, sometimes on the bare floorboards. I had a space in the corner where I kept the few articles of clothing I owned - usually the throwaways of other tenants.

I had no toys or possessions and my books were hidden in places at school because my father declared adamantly that only sissies read. I did homework spread out on that same floor, sometimes feeling stiff from the hardness of it.

The king-sized bed in the huge bedroom at the front of the house belonged to them and was off limits to me at all times. So was the red velvet couch in the living room.

There were no exceptions to this rule. Even if I was so tired that I couldn't see straight, I never entertained any thoughts of plopping down on the bed or the couch because the consequences were not worth it.

The contents of the refrigerator were theirs too, and I never had the luxury of just opening it up and raiding it as I had heard other kids talk about doing. Even the rhythm of the place was theirs - for their convenience. I was the one who was responsible for keeping everything clean, for getting the laundry done and for doing whatever else they said I had to do. And there were consequences for rebelling against the rules.

My mother did not care whether I slept or not. I had a toothbrush only because I got a free sample from a dental-care programme at school. I was given permission to eat only on certain days of the week. My father said constantly that I had no right to things because I had not earned them. He also never made it clear how I was supposed to do that.

He said that he was going to make a man out of me or kill me - and on too many occasions I couldn't even fake knowing what he was talking about. There was never any logical reason given for their actions except the harsh vicious declarations that I was a''bad boy''. Those words became as wearisome and emotionally tedious as the bruises that were regularly spread out on my body. Each time they said them, I struggled within myself to find the solution that would change their feelings towards me. I berated myself constantly because I could never manage to do anything that would buy me any kind of peace.

I was beaten often because they said I deserved it. When I went without basic necessities, it was because I didn't deserve them. When sexual depravity occurred, they reasoned that such acts were my shortcomings - I made them do it because I wanted it. Did I? Maybe I did, I thought, because I didn't fight them hard enough.

Could it be that I was missing something very simple and that my own stupidity was causing this? I closed my mind when those things happened, sometimes praying to die. It all had to be true, I thought. After all, what but this kind of treatment can happen to anyone but a bad boy.

With the sincere conviction of all that was inside me, I promised myself that I would do better - but it never worked, because there was never time for a reprieve.

They stopped at nothing to control my mind and body. They laughed at my pain; they took their best shots at my spirit and my soul. They made it clear that I was not safe, that I had better not become secure in anything. Not even as a slight consolation did they ever let me know that they loved me. Perhaps if they had, I might have been able to tolerate more.

When I was eight, a teacher brought The Muppet Movie to school. I sat mesmerised as I listened to the words of the song Rainbow Connection. It gave me a sense of promise and told me in the simplest, most joyful way that we can seek out our own means to abeautiful life. If a frog could play a banjo and project such love, I, too, could have possibilities of the same thing.

One day, when my mother was in an uncharacteristically good mood, she heard me humming it as I sat by myself in the bedroom. She asked what it was and I told her. I summoned the courage to ask her if, sometime when I was a good boy, she would get me a cassette of the soundtrack of the movie.

She said that as a matter of fact that she wanted me to do something for her, and if I did, she would buy me the tape. I was thrilled. But I didn't realise until it was too late that what she wanted me to do was to allow her friend Jake to have his way with me sexually. That meant I would have to co-operate and not cry - no matter what Jake did, regardless of how much it hurt.

That type of request was not very unusual in their circle of acquaintances. They thrived on pain, particularly when it had to do with children, and even traded one another's children around to participate in bizarre rituals.

To strip away at a child's soul gave them pleasure and a sense of power. It excited them, and consideration was never given to the inevitable toll it took.

Many parts of that experience with Jake (from whom he caught AIDS) draw a blank for me now, but I've always held on to bits and pieces of the pain and fear, and mostly my deep sense of worthlessness. How could I want anything so badly, I asked myself, that I would actually submit to such a thing? When I asked later on for the tape, my mother slapped me and denied that she had ever promised it. She said that I was to do what I was told when I was told to do it, if I knew what was good for me. She ended the conversation by giving me a beating that left me bleeding and sore for several days.

I swore that from then on I would never ask for anything again. I doubted that a bad boy like me could ever find a rainbow connection at all, there was too much rain to run interference.

Hearing my story, you might think nothing good could come of a life like mine. I can imagine the questions about my sanity, my temperament and my survival. You may want to know how such things can happen.

My key to surviving has always been to keep a low profile and to maintain a sense that everything is all right. People don't want to make waves and unfortunately many never try to crack the surface if it is appealing to the eye. Such was the case in my life. I did my homework, was respectful, and managed to be outwardly presentable - even if my insides were caving in.

I've seen other kids my age become hostile over experiences they've been forced to endure. I didn't come away from my experience unscathed. I'm not demure or mild-mannered when I'm feeling threatened; my temper can be explosive and I'm stubborn and headstrong. Sometimes I can be rancorous enough to cut my nose off to spite my face and much too often pride can be my first deadly sin.

I've never felt that the world did me wrong; I've always figured that it was just pretty messed up. I took good things from wherever I could get them and sought my own comfort where I could find it.

Anthony Newby Johnson 1993 Extracts taken from A Rock and a Hard Place by Anthony Newby Johnson published by Little Brown next week.