When I recall my earliest memories, Charlene is ever-present. My father’s co-worker, she’d been in my life from the beginning; she brought him a cupcake the day he announced my mother was pregnant with me. A few days after I was born, she strode into the hospital (I was a particularly difficult c-section, and both my mother and I had to stay in the hospital for a week or so) and presented my mother with flowers and me with a little stuffed toy. Who needed a babysitter when she was constantly calling up and offering to babysit?
“It’ll be nice,” she told my parents. “You can go out and get dinner, just the two of you. The baby will be fine.” My father was touched by her generosity but my mother suspicious; she seemed just a tad too insistent, too eager to burrow her way into our lives.
Of course, it didn’t help that Charlene had a visible crush on my father. She never directly crossed the line—it was the giddiness when she spoke to him, the eager smiles when he walked into the office, the puppy-like enthusiasm with which she followed the events of his life that gave it away. Co-workers teased him about it; my father was flattered but a loyal husband; my mother seethed with loathing.
Charlene remembered my birthday every year and gave me a gift each time it rolled around. I’ve no memory of this—I can’t recall what she looked like, the timbre of her voice or if I enjoyed her presence—but I’m told she was a frequent guest, swinging by our house a few times per week to say hello.
I don’t know when, exactly, it stopped, or what the catalyst was, but by the time I entered first grade, Charlene was little more than the name of a woman I couldn’t remember having met—a nebulous, malignant entity that seemed to frighten my parents but meant little to me.
Charlene was dangerous, they told me.
Charlene wasn’t our friend anymore.
I was never afraid, in those days. At six years old I only cared about swishing the little skirt on my school uniform when I twirled around in circles or playing with the parachute at recess, or what we were having at snack time. My greatest fear was not getting to the bottle of pink paint before Stacy, she of the paint-monopolizing fingers, during art class.
And so I can’t say our daily checklist of Survival Skills particularly alarmed me. Every morning my parents would pull up in front of my school to drop me off and run me down the questions:
“What do you do if a stranger asks you to get in their car?” they asked.
“Run away and find a grown-up,” I said. I knew the answers like the back of my hand by this point.
“What if they tell you Mommy or Daddy sent them?”
“They’re lying. Run away.”
“What do you do if a woman named Charlene tries to talk to you?”
“Go get a teacher.”
“Do you remember what Charlene looks like?” I shook my head. “Can you remember her hair color?”
“That’s right. And what do you do if she ever tries to grab you?”
“Scream and fight and run to a grown-up.”
And so it went. Every day. For years.
We lived in a mid-sized city but were involved in a small community; my father worked 18 hours a day, often in multiple shifts, to climb out of an economic status many would label “the working poor” and send me to a private Catholic school. It was nothing fancy, but it was safe and welcoming and a good education—extremely important to my father who’d grown up knowing a level of poverty I truly can’t imagine and was working full time at 14 to help his parents pay the bills—and the tuition was expensive but manageable, even if it meant he often went to work with holes in his shoes and socks and skipped a meal so that he could purchase my school books.
We could never seem to get ahead.
Small private schools truly are like small towns: everyone knows everyone else’s business, and St. Mary’s was no exception. The children had all grown up together, the parents all mingled and made small talk at birthday parties, and collectively we all attended Sunday mass. It wasn’t long before the information made it’s way out, though I’ve never been sure if it started as a rumor or if my parents broached it with the others privately.
Either way, the parents and teachers of St. Mary’s began to keep an extra eye out for me. I was checked on multiple times during recess. Other teachers would swing by my classroom on their break to make sure everything was okay. Parents would pass me in the playground and check-in:
“Anybody bother you today, kiddo?”
“Nope.” Nobody ever bothered me, and they seemed pleased by the answer. Mostly I was annoyed at having to answer the same question every day.
My father was a city bus driver, and as anyone who grew up as the kid of a bus driver can tell you, it’s like having an army of watchful aunts and uncles who are not only able to casually track your whereabouts in the city but are trusted with your safe travel. Riding a bus might prove potentially dangerous for others, but you’re untouchable when you’re the one kid sitting upfront and on a first-name basis with every driver.
Years later, I found out my father spread the word about Charlene amongst his co-workers. She’d left for another job at that point but still lived in the city, and every driver was on the lookout. My school was on one of the bus routes, and every time I saw a bus drive by during recess I’d run-up to the fence and wave, knowing it was likely to be my Dad or someone else I knew. The drivers all used CB radios to communicate back then, and every time they saw me at school or out and about they’d give my Dad an update:
“Little Beef at recess, doing fine.”
“Little Beef walking down Hudson with Mom.”
“Little Beef and friends at Forest Park, Mom’s watching.”
Ignoring the indignity of a nickname like “Little Beef” (I was a chubby child and prone to imitating pro-wrestlers I saw on TV; these were dark times and I don’t want to talk about it) this was also how I got busted trying my first cigarette at twelve. A driver spotted me and my best friend, Julie, down by our local bodega, taking half-assed drags off of a pilfered cigarette and pretending to like it. Immediately radioed my Dad. I was grounded before I even got home. (Little Beef was not pleased.)
It’s hard to say when the escalation began. I only know it started with the phone calls.
My father arrived home to find my mother in tears. All-day the phone rang, she said. All-day. He’d been at work and I’d been at school and she’d been alone. The phone rang and rang and yet every time she picked it up there was nothing, just a terrible, menacing silence and, later, breathing. She was afraid; he was worried; I wondered what was for dinner. We changed our phone number.
The calls continued.
Shortly after it was time for my school’s annual Halloween carnival. My favorite time of year, I was excited to dress up and play games and eat too many caramel apples. My mother, eager to be involved in my schooling, was an active member of the PTA and their head of treasury. It was from this fund that the money for our Halloween Carnival and other various holiday celebrations came; parents and teachers donated to ensure we took fun field trips and enjoyed haunted houses and age-appropriate Christmas parties. A lovely thing.
Then the money went missing. All of it. The PTA’s treasury had been wiped out.
This was discovered two days before the Halloween carnival when another PTA member went to retrieve some money to buy supplies. Horrified, she reported it to my mother, who collapsed sobbing. Sure, it was possible a parent or teacher could’ve stolen it, but was it likely? In a school this small, with a community this tightly-knit? And my mother was the head of treasury; this felt targeted.
The tension in the school, and my home, skyrocketed. You couldn’t walk through the hall or the school parking lot without finding a group of parents clustered together, talking quietly but intensely. The air was shifting, the adults around me suddenly alert and on guard; a pack of dogs catching the scent of a predator.
I was in third grade when the picture arrived. Dad got off work early and swung by to pick me up, a rare treat. We walked into the front door to find my mother red-faced, sobbing, visibly shaking. Before she could say anything my father demanded I retreat into my room. I whined; he raised his voice, a thing he seldom did; I slunk off to my room, pouting.
It was a family photo, taken at the old Sears photo studio a year or so earlier. Dad, Mom and I smiling into the camera. Dad’s arm slung around Mom’s shoulders. Me sitting on Mom’s lap.
Except Mom’s face had been scratched out and on the back, in bright red marker, it read:
“THEY’LL BE MINE, BITCH.”
Like something out of a bad Lifetime movie.
After that, I had my very own security guard at school. Or, rather, one of the school’s two security guards hung out wherever I was at the time: the playground at recess, the parking lot waiting for Mom, the cafeteria, moving from one classroom to another. Teachers stroked my hair like I was a scared animal, other parents constantly smiled at me with tender, sympathetic smiles. And, underneath, of relief, a brief flicker of: thank God it’s not my child.
Things were mostly quiet for a while after that. Mom still reported menacing phone calls. She mentioned hearing someone walking around our home—the crunch of leaves a telltale sign—and later when Dad went to look, there were footprints in the soft dirt beneath the window.
The day my mother cried about hearing someone tapping at the windows and rattling the door handle, my father set up shop in front of our front door. With little more than a rifle and a chair, he dosed in front of that door throughout the nights. Waiting for the first sign of anything. Waiting for Charlene to make her move when he was home, to try and harm his wife or kidnap his little girl.
Years later, when I’d long been in the full flush of adulthood and he’d knocked back a few too many whiskeys, he told me he’d briefly considered killing Charlene. A preemptive strike against the woman terrorizing his wife and plotting to steal his child. He shoved the idea away quickly, full of shame. But still, it had been there, and the remnants of it lingered.
After all, we all say things like “I’d do anything to protect my family.” But how many of us are ever truly put to the test?
Strange to think it all came to a horrific end over the pettiest of crimes:
All the money from my parents’ bowling league treasury was stolen.
And then the police arrived at our door and took my mother away in handcuffs.
My generation was the first of its kind. That is to say, the first digital natives. At 37 years old, I’m on the older end of the millennial generation; old enough to remember the days before cell phones, young enough to have never known life without a personal computer. And it’s odd to realize this is precisely what allowed my mother to commit so many crimes without notice for so long. And, later, what would ultimately prove to be her downfall.
It was a perfect confluence of factors that led to my childhood being what was it.
We live in a world of constant surveillance, extraordinary technology, elaborate fraud detection. But in the 80s and early 90s? There’s wasn’t anything of the sort, at least not widely available enough to be of use.
My father, a wonderful, protective, and doting father came out of a horrific background. The abuse I truly cannot fathom, with a sadistic alcoholic for a father who tortured his two sons and weaponized masculinity to immunize them to any influence that might save them. After all, only pussies cry. Only pussies need therapy. And we all know what happens to pussies, don’t we?
“You want something to cry about, pussy? I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Ad nauseam throughout childhood until it’s so ingrained you have no chance of escape, not even in adulthood. An abuser’s greatest advantage is teaching a child to ignore the monsters under their bed but to fear the monsters in their head.
Couple that with growing up in the 50s and 60s, an era when it was believed PTSD was something only veterans had, a man beating his wife and children was “unfortunate but none of our business,” and therapy came with a stigma so powerful it was essentially social suicide (and, again, only for “pussies”), and you wound up with a loving man riddled with unchecked PTSD, the paranoia and over-protectiveness that often comes with it, and an unflinching belief in his wife. He trusted her with his child and all the money he earned and it never occurred to him, not even once, that it might not be a good idea.
After all, he was so grateful to escape the Hell of his own childhood and create a happy family. Why wouldn’t he believe her?
He called the police early on, when Charlene seemed determined to torture our family, but given that there was no substantial proof, there wasn’t much they could do. And later, my mother begged him not to call again; they hadn’t done anything useful last time, remember? What would be different this time? Besides, our family—my father’s family—believed in handling problems in the house.
“We take care of our own,” my grandfather had always told his sons, nevermind the relentless abuse he inflicted upon them.
And so my father took care of his own; he sat in front of our front door with a rifle, and wondered if he’d have to kill a woman.
He never had the slightest idea that everything that had controlled so much of our lives up to this point was nothing more than my mother’s lies.
He had no idea she was abusing his only child while he worked 18 hours a day to put food on the table and give her the education he so desperately wanted for her. Or that his own experience with abuse had made him vulnerable to people who would use that to their advantage.
And he certainly had no idea that his wife had not only stolen all the money he brought home and asked her to put into their savings but had committed dozens of felonies in his name, racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt (credit cards he didn’t even know he had), took money from her daughter’s school and had various sources of income he’d never even been aware of.
And it wasn’t the first time she’d done it.
When I think of my childhood, I remember how little my father was around. Certainly not his fault—he was working such long hours to provide for us—and most importantly, when he was home he was home. Every memory I have of going to a park, or playing with my toys, or being read to sleep involve him. He taught me to cook, made me chicken soup from scratch when I was sick, cuddled with me in bed when I was sad, or lonely, or scared. He was, in many ways, the only parent I had.
My mother stayed at home, ostensibly to raise me. She loathed it. Parenting’s not for everyone, I suppose. Despite being the one that was around all the time, I have no memory of her ever playing with me, or reading me a book, or taking me to the park. I try to search my memory, figure out if it’s simply the fog of time, but nothing ever comes up. All I remember of her in my youth was the visible contempt she held for me whenever I was around.
Well, that and her temper.
Abuse is hard to fathom when you’ve grown up in it. All the more so when it doesn’t resemble the popular media portrayals. I was never beaten; my mother never broke any of my bones. She was simply unpredictable, known to fly into a rage at the drop of the hat, often for reasons I didn’t see coming or couldn’t understand. She screamed and threw things at me, slapped me in the face so often and so suddenly I’d long stopped crying about it, and flinched whenever she moved too quickly. If I did something that displeased her, she’d tell me she had breast cancer.
It miraculously cleared up the next day once she’d forgotten about it, only to reappear the next time I did or said something she didn’t like.
She abandoned me in parking lots and grocery stores as a punishment—the panic of being left behind meant to teach me a lesson. (The lesson was never quite clear.) She threatened to take me to the family priest and force me to confess my sins (at six, I wasn’t quite sure what those sins were). She sobbed uncontrollably when I told her not to slap me, screamed about how her mother whipped her with tree branches, and scarred up her legs. (Her legs were astonishingly scar-free.)
She hid her behavior from everyone, especially my father. And at the end of every outburst, she’d turn to me with big, watery blue eyes and a quivering voice and ask, “Don’t tell Daddy, okay?”
And so I didn’t.
My mother was fired from her first job for theft.
And her second.
And her third.
And many thereafter, although there was apparently a break somewhere between the third and the fifth. I guess even dedicated thieves need to relax.
My mother stole her first husband’s life savings (the man she married before my father), several thousands from her brother and parents, and the college fund my great aunt set aside for me.
But her true masterpiece occurred during her marriage to my father. The crimes included but were not limited to:
- welfare fraud
- identity theft
- credit fraud
- grand larceny
- document forgery
And that was just as she charged with. She’d committed so many crimes in my father’s name, it took years and an army of lawyers to sort it out. There was a legitimate fear he might go to jail for her deeds.
She had two social security numbers both for her--and myself, each card with a slightly different number. If that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, understand that even a single number difference in a social security number equals an entirely new identity. She had numerous aliases; several people knew her by different names and were oblivious to her actual family life.
She took out credit cards in my name when I was but an infant.
Hell, she even briefly got a job as a photographer at the local newspaper until being fired once they realized her qualifications were nothing but lies.
As for Charlene?
She was nothing more than an innocent woman with a crush on my father. Perhaps a tad too eager for his attention. But beyond that, utterly innocent, and utterly unaware of the drama she’d been dragged into or the potential threat to her life.
The calls, the photo, the theft, the menace, all of it: a fiction created by my mother. And for what? To hide her theft? To disguise her child abuse? To ward off a woman she felt was a threat to her marriage? Because she was bored?
Hell if I know. The truth’s never been her forte.
My parents divorced shortly after her arrest began the unraveling of her deception. My father was awarded sole legal and physical custody. Mom spent some time in jail, though not nearly as much as you might think—a charming white woman with no history of violence (I never spoke of the abuse until I was an adult) and white-collar crimes? Prisons are overcrowded and she wasn’t their target demographic. Besides, a lot of people elected not to pursue damages against her for the sake of myself and my father, a kindness we've never forgotten; we were already barely treading water.
My mother carried on her usual tradition for a while. She dated two men in rapid succession after her divorce, the second of which she nearly married, and she stole enormous amounts of money from both. Again, jail time—just not as much as you might think. She enjoyed several lengthy hospital stays after faking various illnesses, as was her favorite pastime whenever someone confronted her about her bullshit. She “borrowed” obscene amounts of money from coworkers and friends that never seemed to be paid back. She stole things from my home and sold them off for petty cash, left a trail of angry landlords and loan officers, and bewildered casualties in her path of destruction.
And then, finally, she was trumped by technology.
No longer able to get by with her usual routine, she settled down a bit. Worked a steady job for a few years, before eventually being diagnosed with MS and going to live in a care facility. Which is not to say she’s a changed woman: I still field phone calls from collection agencies (she gives them my number in place of hers) and landlords who think I’m her (because she’s used my name in the past) and “family friends” who loaned her a great deal of money to pay for my funeral expenses only to realize with quite a shock years later that I am very much alive. (I’ve died or been gravely injured in a great many of her “I need money” stories.)
At the recommendation of my father, we hire a lawyer every year to make sure she hasn’t taken out a life insurance policy. On me. This is not to say that I fear my mother trying to kill me—I absolutely do not. We are just very, very aware she would seek to capitalize off of my untimely demise were it to arise.
We still speak, my mother and I. While I’m occasionally of two minds about it, I’ve a strong sense of familial duty and it’s an aspect of myself I value deeply. But we’re not close; I don’t know if she realizes that.
I visit her once a month or so at the care facility, mostly to make sure she’s being treated well enough. She strokes my hair and pats my cheek and calls me her “baby girl” and prattles on to any caregiver who will listen about what a wonderful daughter I am, and what a wonderful job she did of raising me. She enjoys referring to me as her "disabled daughter," a reference to my PTSD. She enjoys the coos the nurses offer her--such a brave, loving mother, having raised a disabled child!--seemingly without the realization that she's the cause of said PTSD.
Once, about three years ago, I thought of Charlene again. Mom’s never been one to part with answers: ask her about any of the abuse or crimes or lies and she’ll claim them never happened, even if you’re waving the documentation in front of her. Still, I couldn’t quite help myself.
“Mama, remember Charlene?”
“Charlene. The lady you thought wanted to hurt you and kidnap me? Remember?”
She shook her head. “No, honey,” she said, “I don’t know who that is.”
She wasn’t lying. After all these years and a mountain of bullshit, I can spot her lies a mile away. And this was true. She had lied so much, and so often, to so many people and perhaps even herself, she’d forgotten the foundational myth of her child’s early life.
The day before their wedding, my maternal grandfather pulled my Dad aside and said, “be careful around my daughter. She’s a bit of a liar.”
My father was stunned, bewildered, and had no response. No further context was given, the warning never elaborated upon. My grandfather changed the subject immediately and continued on as nothing had ever happened.
I think about that often.
“She’s a bit of a liar.”
Grandpa, you have no idea.