In my family, we had a rule: never hit girls.

My family had many rules, and rarely did any of them keep me safe.

My mother’s anger was something to behold.

She had her reasons to be.  She was angry at being bullied in high school and taken advantage of in college.  Angry for being expelled in her senior year on bullshit plagiarism charges. 

Ultimately, though, it was her grief from my sister’s death that would fuel her explosive anger.

My father’s anger was quiet and it rarely exploded the way my mother’s would.  But it doesn’t mean it didn’t explode.  When I close my eyes, sometimes I can see his young, unbearded face contorted in rage, mad over some insignificant thing. A chore not done.  A toy not put away.  Luckily, he worked often and took night classes to get better at his job and was largely absent in those early years. My mother, not so much.

I can still see in my head, often times when I least want to, the anger of my parents.

Of all the children in my family, I was often the only one who would be subjected to their physicality.  Their lack of respect for bodily autonomy.  Their punishment that bordered on sadism and spite.  I was male bodied and the second oldest of six, flanked on both sides by sisters.  And in my house, we didn’t hit girls.  There is a special irony in that, now on the other side of my transition.

My mother’s favorite weapon was her hand, slapping with an unrelenting flurry of blows.  Sometimes she used her wooden spoon.  I remember laughing once when the spoon broke from her heavy handedness.  Perhaps it was a weak spoon, perhaps my body had grown tough enough to withstand such simple armament.

The next time, the spoon was metal.

My father’s favorite was the belt.  I don’t remember it often because he mellowed later in life and hid his shame behind a kind beard and a quiet, thoughtful presence.  The belt stung, and when it was threatened, it was not taken idly.

Both of them yelled.  At each other when the faults that were the cracks in their marriage became obvious.  At us, their children, when we deviated from their standard of perfection. At me, each time I was some sort of new failure. 

One time I wielded my mother’s anger like a well-crafted bow, aimed at a boy who was both bully and role model.  Perhaps even childhood crush.  Kenny.  We had gotten into a bit of a pen war on the bus ride home, and his marks not only covered my arms, but had grazed my nice polo with a few pointed lines that I knew I would be blamed for.  What started as fun, ended with me crying as I walked back from the bus stop.  When my mom saw me, she asked what happened and after I told her some boy down the street had drawn on my shirt, she was like a mother bear, in search of this transgressor.

Her fierce screaming scared him so bad that Kenny ran out of his house, my mother’s echoes chasing him down the train tracks that ran behind our neighborhood.  When his parents would later come over to settle the matter, I would lie about the pen fight, not wanting to take my stake for causing the scene that had scared Kenny half to death, enough to hide in the woods until his parents came home.

I had no woods to hide in at home.  Sometimes, I would hide in the closet.  Sometimes I would lock my door until my parents created another rule stating we had no locked doors in this house.

Eventually, we would start going to family psychiatry.  This was after I tried to kill myself when I was twelve, reasons at this point obvious.  My dad thought I had done it for attention and was especially upset that I had excluded him from my suicide note where I gave my earthly possessions to my siblings.  My mom, she became more protective of me, wielding her anger against those that would try to upset me in the smallest of ways.  In part, that made me feel smug: that I was no longer the target of her rage, but instead the subject.

Eventually the psychiatrist suggested maybe my parents were part of the problem that had pushed this quiet and eloquent child toward drastic suicidality.  A year into our therapy, my parents had agreed to a resolution to not hit their kids any more.  I say to not hit their kids, but really it was rare that others in my family would be punished in this fashion.  My brothers James and Joe at the time were 7 and 5 respectively, though that did not stop my parents when I was that age.  So really, they had agreed to not hit me.

I remember one time though, while we were driving to Michigan to see mom’s family that she and Sophia got into a verbal argument in the car. Mom was not one to make an idle threat and when she stopped the car and got out to slap Sophia in a frenzy of open palms, I shielded my sister with my body and reminded my mother of the promise she had made.  It had fallen to me at 13 to hold them accountable to this tenuous agreement.

It was one of my bravest moments and still I think about how my siblings have never known the slings and arrows I suffered to prevent them from having to have the same trauma.

By the time I was 13, I was large.  I had been gaining thirty pounds a year from 5th grade on.  180, 210, 240, 270.  I had always been a bit cheeky and had little respect for my mom at this point.  When my dad electrocuted himself while redoing some wiring and exclaimed “Son of a Bitch,” I prompted my mother into attack mode when I answered, “Present!”

It was my first triumph over my assailant as I caught both of her hands.  She used her force to tackle us both to the ground but while there, I laughed in her face and in the success that she could no longer hurt me.

I wish I could say my own anger was mild.  It is now, but it too has come on a journey shaped through those moments and through that therapy and through new understandings of bodily autonomy.  I broke objects instead of people most of the time, but I could just as easily explode if someone tried me the wrong way.  You can still see it if you look below the surface.  Enough of it is there that people make way when I have that strange look in my eye or a situation starts to turn physical.

“Nah, let’s not fight. You look like you have training.”

No. No training, just survival.

I did survive. And in the end, that is the most important piece of the story. Because in my family, we had a rule: you don’t hit girls. I wish the rule had been: you don’t hit children.