By: Keith Sena, originally published here on Friday evening, May 20, 2016
“How the fuck [are] you supposed to grow up when you weren’t raised?” –Eminem
Three hundred sixty-five evenings ago, I was reflecting on my first year at Baylor University. It was the 2014-2015 school year. In that school year, I took great strides toward understanding my past and recovering from it. Community, friendships, and the experience of living away from relatives affected me profoundly. This personal essay is about a complex I had for two decades; on this evening last year, I overcame it.
As a toddler, I lived with my parents and three older sisters. Our parents would often bicker, but I was oblivious. Every time our parents began to bicker, my sisters took me into another room and distracted me so I would not have to hear it. My sisters kept me uncorrupted. I was sweet to everyone, since the only way I knew how to treat others was with kindness.
Then one time while our parents were bickering, it got so noisy that nothing my sisters did could keep me from hearing it. I sensed it was bad, but did not know what it was. A man was shouting like I had never heard before. I recognized our mom’s voice responding, but did not recognize the man’s voice. I asked my sisters, “Who is that mean man yelling at Mom?” His yelling sounded much different from his usual mode of speaking.
As I heard the altercation and discovered the man was our dad, something began changing in me. “All over me / There’s something changing in me / There’s something growing in me” (Drowning Pool). Our dad was my only male role model, and he corrupted me. My psyche took the rest of the day to comprehend the change, and I slept on it.
The next day, I awoke a different person. I approached a female member of the household—I don’t remember which one—and said something bad to her. I remember my statement verbatim, but I do not feel comfortable including it here. My statement was powerful. It included a reference to my maleness. For a while thereafter, I was mean to everyone.
After a while, still as a toddler, I began to realize the error of my ways. I did not want to be mean to others. I wanted to be kind like before. I had some successes in returning to kindness, but it was difficult because my psyche was corrupted.
Then, still as a toddler, I was playing at a friend’s house one day. My friend’s mother said something around me to the effect that boys behave badly. Along with her disparagement of boys—which was bad enough for her to let me hear as an impressionable toddler—her statement included a reference to me and my maleness. I would not stand for it. I announced, “No, I’m a girl!” In my mind, boys were bad, and girls were good. Since I wanted to be good, I convinced myself as best I could that I was a girl.
When I was four years old, one day, my parents were having what would be the last of their usual shouting matches. I was standing in the living room, observing. One parent was at each end of the living room, and I completed the triangle by standing to the side between them. My dad was in the military. He threw one of his combat boots to the floor near her feet. I think he intentionally missed hitting her with it, perhaps just to scare her.
Promptly my mom picked me up, and headed for the front door. I held onto my mom, and looked back at my dad. While walking through the doorway, she was saying things like, “I’m done with you! I’m leaving you!” While standing back, he was saying things like, “That’s fine with me! Get out of here!” Then she closed the door behind us.
This moment was the dissolution of my nuclear family; the divorce proceedings that followed were mere formalities. Though I did not recognize its significance while I was experiencing it, I have come to recognize it as the saddest moment of my life. In addition to its sad nature and profound effects on my life, it further instilled in me the sense that maleness is bad.
While I was in elementary school, my father shared legal custody of me with my mother. He is Enneagram Eight, and I am One, so we both have anger as our primary emotion. He taught me to manage anger poorly. What he modeled for me at home was frequent outbursts and a short fuse.
My troubled childhood prompted bad behavior in school. Teachers, staff members, and fellow students often irritated me. I had a short fuse, and would often physically attack anyone who angered me. I attended a few elementary schools, and was expelled from one for “excessive violence.” My fourth-grade teacher joked to my entire class about how easy it was to press my buttons.
On many days, I got in bad enough trouble that the school sent me home. It was usually for hitting a peer. My dad often had to leave work early to come and get me. Each time he had to bring me home for bad behavior, he hit me upon arrival. He hit me to show me hitting people is wrong. The school notified him of my bad behavior whether they sent me home or not, and he often hit me in these cases, too. On one occasion, he picked me up by my shoulders, dug his fingertips extremely hard into my armpits, and yelled in my face about my aggressiveness. Then he wondered why my behavior was not improving.
My behavior got bad enough for a teacher to call the police on me. Two uniformed police persons from the city’s police department came to the school—an elementary school, while I was in the fourth grade. They met with the principal and me. The policewoman told me that if they ever had to come there again for me, I would be leaving with them; then she hugged me.
It was nice to feel like the policewoman cared about me, but I felt hopeless to improve my behavior. I expected to be leaving with them in the near future. Somehow I managed not to have them called on me again; perhaps it was not because my behavior improved, but because the teacher who called them on me was never again in charge of me.
I was unpopular in elementary school. I managed to fit in only with a few other unpopular boys, and with mixed results. These boys and I liked to explore as much of the campus as we could during recess and lunchtime. We usually stayed in the large playground or its immediate vicinity. Eventually, the time came when we had explored all but one area around the playground: the girls’ bathroom.
We wondered what was in there, and how it looked, but none of us wanted to be the one to trespass. We formed a circle and deliberated for a few minutes. Since I was the least popular, these “friends” of mine picked me. They grabbed me and forced me over to the girls’ bathroom. When we were just outside the entryway, they pushed me in.
I landed on my back, not hard enough to hurt. I was angry at them. I wanted to jump up and run out; but before I could get up, I beheld profundity. I lied still in amazement.
In the boys’ bathroom, other boys and I often had fun with paper towels. We would wet them, crumple them, and toss them up. If we did it right, they stuck to the ceiling. Once stuck to the ceiling, each paper towel dried and stayed there permanently. Sometimes when we tossed up a paper towel, it would stick to another paper towel that had already dried there. The new one would dry on the old one, forming a paper towel stalactite. We continued some of these stalactites with a third paper towel. The paint up there looked worn out. Custodians never cleaned the ceiling.
On my back in the girls’ bathroom, I saw a ceiling that looked like nothing had ever touched it since the painter’s brush however long ago. It was beautiful. I could find no flaw in it. I stayed there on my back for a moment, admiring it. All the anger left me.
Once I felt I had sufficiently appreciated the ceiling, I slowly stood up. I noticed the tiles on the walls and floor were purple and white, instead of blue and white as in the boys’ bathroom. This purple and white pleased my eyes. Slowly I turned to see the rest of the room. It was all magnificent!
The boys had not checked to see whether anyone was in there before they pushed me in, but I was glad to find nobody in there. I went back outside and found them laughing. I tried to tell them what they had missed, but they would not stop laughing for a second to listen.
Then I returned to reality: I was a boy. That magnificent room I had just seen was not meant for me. I could never be that clean or admirable. My role as a male in the world was to be mean and dirty, and ruin beautiful things. My anger returned. Shortly thereafter, I made a pathetic attempt at arson of a school building.
Through fifth grade and middle school, I became gradually kinder and less violent. My brain was developing, and I was becoming less impressionable and better able to decide for myself. My dad’s behavior gradually lost its effect on mine.
When I was ten years old, my dad remarried. I lived with my dad and my stepmother for two years, and they had primary legal custody of me during this time. My stepmother, using her thumb as a visual aid, made a demeaning comment to me about my penis.
Around that time, my dad took me into a bathroom to instruct me on cleaning under my foreskin. My stepmother later told me that she was (creepily) listening outside the door the whole time. The way she told me about it seemed calculated to assert dominance over me and make me uncomfortable and embarrassed, all of which it did.
A common embarrassment for boys during puberty is sudden erections for no apparent reason. One day while my dad, my stepmother, my stepmother’s adult daughter from her previous marriage, and I were together, I had one such erection. I looked down at myself to see how noticeable it was. My stepmother asked me, loudly enough to draw the attention of her daughter and my dad, “Are you embarrassed about something?” I lied, saying I was not embarrassed about anything, since I wanted the situation to end. Thus I learned to be ashamed of having a penis.
My stepmother would often accuse me of doing things I had not done, and my dad always believed her. He hit me often for her. She never hit me, but she liked getting him to hit me. I once called the police on them for child abuse. A policeman came to the home and spoke with us. I begged the policeman to take me with him, but he said he could not take me.
One day when I was 12 years old, my stepmother accused me of doing something I had not done, as usual. My dad put me over his knee and began spanking me. As he struck me several times, I looked up at her. She was looking on from across the room. She had a big smile. The longer I looked, the bigger she smiled, and the more animated with delight she became.
As I experienced her sadism and his abusiveness, something began changing in me. “There’s something changing in me / Something growing inside of me // Go away / Don’t want this” (Drowning Pool). I no longer cared about finding peace in life. I just wanted my father and stepmother dead. I did not care about getting caught. Whatever would have happened to me, I would have been satisfied knowing I had killed them. I became the epitome of hatred, valuing their deaths over my life.
My rational faculties recognized this state of affairs was no good. I wanted to stop myself. Excelling at introspection, I recognized I had two years until I would no longer be able to restrain myself. A short time later, still 12 years old, I decided to tell someone.
I don’t remember whom I told; the important part was that I told someone. I was at school when I told someone. Various professionals met with me on campus. That same day, my dad went to court on my behalf, and the judge ordered I stay in a mental hospital for at least 72 hours. My dad took me to the mental hospital that very day. I never saw or heard from my (now former) stepmother again after that day.
In an earlier post, I said I had stayed in a mental hospital, but I did not say why. My desire for murder was the sole reason. It had nothing to do with suicide or self-harm, neither of which I was even considering. This brief time 12 years ago (I’m 24 years old now) is the only time I’ve ever been homicidal. My relationship with my dad has improved, and he has admitted it was his fault I wanted to kill him.
After my 72 hours in the mental hospital, my dad and I lived together. We were talking one day about my former stepmother, trying to make sense of what she did. She had two housecats; she was kind and gentle with the female cat, but mean and rough with the male cat. She had a better relationship with her daughter than with her son. Her obsession with my penis was peculiar. Everything we recalled led us to one conclusion: She hated maleness.
I continued through my teenage years and into adulthood with the complex that something is inherently wrong with me because I am male. My rational faculties recognized it was probably untrue, but complexes cannot simply be reasoned away. Communities, friendships, and experiences can remove complexes.
Three hundred sixty-five evenings ago, I was reflecting particularly on my friendship with Lydia Williamson.
Lydia and I began amicably at the start of my first year at Baylor University. However, late in my first semester there, I showed her a rough part of my personality. She did something harmless and playful with me that happened to upset me, and I responded adversely. I could tell it bothered her significantly about me. Surprisingly to me, this incident seemed not to harm our friendship; afterward, we moved on no less amicably than before.
This past fall semester, 11 months after that incident, I asked her how it had affected her. She said it had made her feel like I was not a safe person. I said I was sorry. Then we agreed our friendship had been better since then.
Lydia is one of few people in recent years to have experienced a rough part of my personality that would make me seem unsafe. Considering my background, it is a miracle my personality still has any warmth. Three hundred sixty-five evenings ago, feeling touched by Lydia’s kindheartedness, I stopped hating my maleness. Our friendship was not the only factor, but it was the greatest by far.
During my past two years at Baylor University, several feminist women have befriended me. They have had positive attitudes toward my maleness, and reassured me of my goodness. They have made me feel more comfortable in my masculinity than any other people group has.
Now, imagine my reaction when people say feminists hate men. Ludicrous! Because of my stepmother, I know what it is like to be hated and mistreated because of my gender; feminism promotes nothing of the sort. As far as I can tell, my stepmother is the only woman I’ve ever encountered who hated men—and she didn’t even claim to be a feminist! On the other hand, women throughout their lives encounter many men who hate women. For every instance of petty “misandry” a man perceives, a hundred instances of harmful misogyny go unnoticed by him.
My old teddy bear is pictured atop this personal essay. Do you see those dark spots on his face? One day I was playing with him, in the same room in which my dad would later throw a boot toward my mom. I tossed him up to the ceiling, like I would later do with paper towels in the boys’ bathroom. He struck a light fixture. Those dark spots are permanently burned onto his face. Likewise, my childhood has scarred me.