Excerpts from Stark Raving Sober
Excerpt from Stark Raving Sober
by Donna Bailey-Thompson
© Donna Bailey-Thompson
I sat for hours in a dark living room, quietly, and I thought logically, plotting how I
would murder my husband. My children and mother were asleep upstairs. Across
the entry hallway of the old farmhouse, Steve was passed out on our bed. He drank
heavily that day and the day before; it was inevitable he would wet the bed again.
With each bout of drinking came another volley of diabolical meanness, outbursts of
violent verbal attacks, punches and slaps, and threats of bodily harm to me, the kids,
even my elderly mother. He told me he would break her arms and throw her down
the hill. He added, "And I hope she breaks both hips." Yet Steve was the one who
invited her to make her home with us.
Steve collected guns. Some were kept in custom-built cabinets; rifles and shotguns
stood in corners throughout the house. All were loaded, including the .38 detective
special he gave me one Christmas that I kept in our bedroom, in a bureau drawer. I
thought if I used the Luger he kept in his top dresser drawer that it would look less
like premeditated murder. I visualized the oozy, bloody mess, and I hoped he would
be aware, between shots, that I was killing him. Next I would upset lamps and tear
at the curtains to make it appear there had been a struggle; that I killed in
self-defense. I walked into the bedroom several times, checked the accessibility of
the Luger, stood by the bed and stared at the snoring beast. I loathed him for his
cruelty to me and my family, to our animals. I wondered if the intensity of my hatred
could cause his heart to stop.
Because he had earned a town-wide reputation for having an explosive temper and
had alienated many, I thought I might get away with justifiable homicide. But if the
jury was not convinced I had acted in self-defense, I would be separated from my
children. That they would be relieved to have him removed from our lives I had no
doubt, but who would raise them and how would they cope with the knowledge their
mother had killed another human being? Reason intervened. I dared not kill him.
The long hours awake in the sleeping household, planning a murder and considering
the consequences seemed rational. For me to relish the idea of shooting bullets into
my husband's chest was incongruous with my basic temperament — then and now. I
abhor violence. As a youngster, Mother had to take me out to the lobby during
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz. Even as an adult I wince
at the brutal shenanigans in cartoons. As teenagers my children cautioned me against
seeing certain movies because they knew I would be upset. I was roped into seeing
Taxi Driver and for days its savagery clung to me like a shroud. I avoid exposing
myself to violent situations, even on a printed page. If faced with possible bodily
harm, I rely on my wits because I lack physical strength and self-defense knowledge.
Ergo, I am a physical coward.
On the New England night in 1971 that I contemplated murder, thinking of adding
my own violence to the violence Steve had already brought into our lives, I was on
the brink of emotional bankruptcy. At that time, not widely known nor understood
were the behavior patterns that constitute what eventually became known
as "domestic violence." The symptoms are universal and timeless. In 1971, shelters for
battered wives and children were still a few years away.
With the help of hindsight and discussions with a number of physicians, I believe
Steve suffered with a mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. Depending upon
which cycle was in control, ingesting alcohol either exacerbated his already agitated
mood or deepened a depressed mood. But when his mood was pleasantly upbeat,
he passed for a normal social drinker. His mother and brothers told me that even as
a child, he displayed a mercurial temperament and needed to be handled carefully.
After I divorced Steve, I married Harry and learned to recognize the symptoms
manifested by a bonafide alcoholic who was rampantly promiscuous.
This is a true story about emotional chaos and reclaiming my self. Through reading
about my experiences that are similar to their own, and by combining new insights
with awareness gained from other sources, I hope readers who need empowerment
to break out of the debilitating smog of helplessness will find it soon. And to those
who are dumbfounded as to why anyone remains in an abusive relationship, I hope
these pages will provide perspective and appreciation of why a seemingly simple
decision is fraught with complicated emotions.
Mother had been widowed five months by the time I was born, three days after she
watched eggs frying on a Kansas City sidewalk and six weeks before what would
have been her first wedding anniversary. Mother received no death benefits because
my father had neglected to change his beneficiary; the insurance money went to my
adult half-brothers, children from my father's first marriage, which they used to cover
final expenses and to help keep the family business going. Mother's income from the
company ceased when I was ten months old. One year into The Great Depression, I
slept, burped and cooed in a hammock hung in the back seat of a green DeSoto
touring car, my father's wedding gift to Mother, while the three principal influences
during my childhood sat in the front seat during our trek to New England — Mother,
her mother, and her youngest brother whom I knew was my uncle but I called him
Daddy. We were headed east to the area where they had lived and now would
become home for me, too. Once back in Massachusetts, we stayed with relatives
before moving into our own apartment. Mother found a challenging position in
nearby Worcester as YWCA Business Manager and Director of Maintenance, a
dual position she held for the next 32 years. Almost everyone on the staff, from
janitors, maids and cooks to the executive directors contributed to my upbringing.
Until I was almost five, we lived in South Lancaster, a sleepy college town.
Chameleons purchased during circus visits lived on the kitchen curtains and ate sugar
from our fingertips. Daddy didn't have much luck finding work but he was jubilant in
the middle of the night he awakened us with the news, "I've got London on the
radio!" — a crystal set. While Mother commuted to work 20 miles away, Grammie
cared for me and indoctrinated me in her strict fundamentalist religion which seemed
to be against almost anything that was fun. When I was sure she could not see me, I
danced in the living room in front of a picture of my father. I believed he could see
I was told I was born with a beautiful disposition; that I always woke up smiling. I
was told I was a happy child and I can agree with that, but no one knew I feared that
my mother might die and leave me an orphan. That would have meant Grammie
would raise me, and although I loved her with all my heart, I did not like how serious
and pious she was most of the time, reading and quoting the Bible, always talking
about Judgment Day when Jesus would come again and know if I were good or bad.
I reasoned it was important to be good so God would not punish me by taking away
my mother. When it was time for me to begin kindergarten, Mother moved us all to
For the next nine years, I attended the neighborhood grammar school. I enjoyed
school; I liked my classmates; and the neighborhood kids were great playmates.
When I was six, I told Mother she was wicked because she went to the movies;
another time I told her she was wicked because she ate meat. Both were pleasures
Grammie's religion forbade. When I was seven, I stopped participating in dancing
class because Grammie had told me dancing was wicked. Mother intervened. She
told Grammie I could continue going to Sabbath School and church with her on
Saturdays but once Mother and I found a church we liked, we would go together on
Sundays to the new church.
Grammie threatened to leave unless Mother relented. Mother stood firm. Grammie
moved back to the little college town but not before telling Mother, "God will punish
you for this. Something terrible will happen to Donna." A few days after Grammie
left, I came down with chicken pox, and Mother was scared. This was the first of
many childhood illnesses that were monitored by worried looks and anxious
questions, thermometer readings, gargles, alcohol rubs, and prolonged gradations of
recuperation. Before I could resume a normal lifestyle, my temperature had to be at
98.6 or below for at least 24 hours. A reading of 98.8 was not acceptable. I was
also carefully overdressed by Mother during cold weather in long lisle stockings held
up by a garter belt harness that hung from my shoulders. I had a poor appetite and
for a while, the doctor prescribed that I walk before breakfast. Between meals I was
allowed to snack on fresh fruit or raw vegetables. Soda pop was verboten except I
could sip ginger ale when I was sick. Sugar was not added to my cereal. We never
bought white bread. I may not have eaten heartily but I ate healthfully. Practicing my
piano lesson daily was expected, from age four until I was almost 18. I had many
friends but not having a father made me feel different.
Following Grammie's departure came a succession of live-in housekeepers — all of
them kind, some more strict than others and some openly affectionate — who
carried out Mother's instructions to the letter. I may have been more closely
supervised than my friends whose mothers were at home. With Grammie's prediction
never out of Mother's mind, I was overly protected. I thought of myself as delicate.
On the few occasions I experimented climbing fallen trees with my energetic and
daring peers, I exalted in the joy of pushing my body and spirit into somewhat
precarious situations and then felt guilty because what if I had gotten hurt? Mother
took pride in seeing I was well dressed in classically simple clothing that more often
than not was purchased in Filene's bargain basement. Piano, dancing, and voice
lessons ate into her limited budget. I was acutely aware of the need to economize
and of her sacrifices.
I longed for Mother to remarry because I wanted the security of having two parents
and having my mother at home. Daddy was a pretend father, and I knew that. I
loved to go into the bathroom after he shaved to smell the mixture of aftershave
lotion and the smoke from his cigarette, which he always tossed into the toilet bowl
where the paper disintegrated freeing tiny squiggles of tobacco to float in the water.
My happiest times were when Mother's brothers and their families gathered to
celebrate holidays, including Mother's Day. My uncles' wives never spent Mother's
Day with their own mothers. Instead the daughters-in-law acquiesced to their
husbands' life-long devotion to their mother: Grammie lived to be a spry and mentally
acute 101. This diminutive woman who barely cleared five feet, who bore seven
children, she of the snapping brown eyes and strong will was tendered obeisance by
all who knew her. Mother showed courage when she declared she would take me to
a new church on Sundays.
The best family gatherings occurred when unexpected snowstorms prevented
everyone from returning to their homes. Front seats removed from cars became
makeshift beds. Uncles, aunts, and my beloved boy cousins filled the house. The
organized confusion, the joking and good-natured bickering, the profusion of so
many relatives all under one roof filled me with happiness. For however long it took
for roads to be plowed, I was not an only child of a widow but an integral part of a
large family. I was in hog heaven. With many of the same schoolmates I had known since
kindergarten, I enrolled in the college preparatory Classical High School. I began
dating, an extracurricular activity I considered of equal importance to studies. I
didn't have swarms of boys buzzing about me but I did not lack for dates. I was
more interested in quality than quantity. I had my share of hurt feelings. Mother
reminded me that every disappointment was "character building," a phrase
I came to hate so much I vowed I would never inflict it
upon any children I might have. As usual, however, Mother was right.
I flirted with romantic love and then with one boy, Dane, our dating progressed from reciprocal attraction to falling in love. When after months of dating he asked me to go steady with him, my happiness was complete. I loved him, loved knowing I did not have to guess if he really liked me, loved feeling I belonged with him, the sense of emotional safety. Those were the days when going steady meant commitment and sometimes it was a forerunner to becoming engaged-to-be-engaged. A few times we teased about marrying one day; we even chose the name for our first child, a son, of course. The future included graduation from high school, then college. Even with interim separations, I could not envision a future that did not include him. He had the attributes I wanted in a mate -- intelligence, dry humor, socially well-developed, wide interests, kind, courteous, and a strong moral code of right and wrong. He seemed to be his own person until the dreadful day he succumbed to peer pressure: his buddies who were temporarily without girlfriends convinced him that going steady was both too limiting and too expensive. My heart was broken. But I accepted invitations from other boys and dated frenetically. I'd show him! I went through the motions of having a wonderful time but when alone, I cried. I mourned. A few months later Dane phoned and we resumed dating but I dared not invest myself in him again. Neither then nor now, decades later, do I underestimate the power and depth of so-called puppy love. In conversations he and I were fortunate to have 30 years later -- yes, he matured into a fine man -- he asked, "Whatever happened to us?" After my daughter met Dane, she said, "He's the one you should have married."
When I was introduced to Brad, I wondered, "Will I know when I meet the man I'm going to marry?" A year went by before I saw him again in October of my senior year. Although I would have denied it, I was rebounding from my first love and was primed to be swept off my feet by a handsome young man who, although only a year older than I, had graduated from prep school (valedictorian) at 15, attended college for one year, enlisted in the army to qualify for the G.I. Bill, became the youngest member of OSS (clerk typist), and was stationed in Trieste where he became engaged to an Italian girl who worked at the British Embassy. She predicted their romance would end when he returned home. After Brad was discharged from the Army, he monopolized my time. He introduced me to his parents and kid sister and their black cocker spaniel. Through the stars in my eyes, I saw an idealized family, a complete family unit. Our romance flourished. Brad's father told him, "You know, with the G.I. Bill, and with us and Donna's mother helping out financially, you and Donna could get married." The idea had not occurred to either of us, nor to my mother. We had college degrees to earn. Brad's parents presented what I eventually referred to derisively as The Master Plan: while Brad accumulated degrees, including a doctorate in mathematics, I was to acquire a business education so I could augment the G.I. Bill with my earnings. Mother was crestfallen. I waited for her to veto the marriage because I lacked the gumption to challenge Brad's parents but even she was overwhelmed by their public relations campaign. While compiling the invitation lists, Brad's family were not pleased when they learned my list included not only the YW's professional staff but the maintenance people, residence maids, and cafeteria cooks, all of whom had a hand in raising me from babyhood. Brad was upset because I was including boys I'd known since we sang in the children's choir, some I had dated. He manifested such unreasonable jealousy that I wanted to cancel the wedding. But I was assaulted by the admonition, "What would other people think?" The pressure to fast forward the marriage obliterated common sense. His parents urged us to have a secret civil service a few weeks prior to the wedding so we could have a longer honeymoon than the time allotted between the church service and the beginning of classes. Brad pressured me. But I refused because if I were no longer a virgin, it would be dishonest of me to wear a white wedding dress. While I waited with Daddy at the back of the church for our cue to walk down the aisle -- I in my white dotted Swiss gown -- I wanted to bolt. But, what would other people think? And so on a hot August day, three weeks before my 18th birthday, I married Brad. I had cancelled my dorm registration at Rhode Island School of Design and with it my personal goals. I loved Brad but married him for the wrong reasons: I wanted independence and to become an integral member of a ready-made family. For years I mentally adopted my girlfriends' fathers. When I was in public with Brad, his younger sister and parents, I hoped strangers mistook me for being a daughter, not a daughter-in-law. Years of fantasizing about the joys of a complete family were to be paid off by the real thing. I saw Brad's mother and father as ideal surrogate parents. Disillusionment occurred two years into the marriage when I had a miscarriage and Brad and his parents responded in a hurtful way that was neither kind nor supportive. Their words and behavior demonstrated they wanted the miscarriage so that I would not be prevented from fulfilling The Master Plan -- earning money to help support Brad while he completed his education.
Brad was a scholar with genius mentality. His humor was sophisticated, subtle, at times delightfully childlike. He knew he was a disappointment to his parents because he excelled in the classroom, not on the playing field, although he was varsity tennis in prep school and college and on the chess team. Eventually he cautioned me not to introduce subjects into conversation with his parents but to let them choose the topics with which they were comfortable. I developed violent headaches whenever I knew we would see them. Between aborted graduate studies at Harvard and Brown, Brad joined a major life insurance company as an actuarial student. He studied year round, year after year. I was an executive secretary. We rarely socialized except to play bridge and to see almost every movie that came to town. His personality quirks, which at first I found amusing, became irritating. He was absent minded to the point of discourteousness and created dangerous situations when behind the wheel. He had inherited his father's preoccupation with his health; hypochondriac episodes became commonplace. Librium was prescribed for tachycardia. Five years into our marriage, he said, "I'm glad you haven't conceived because I do not want to reproduce myself." That should have sent me screaming for help but I thought I needed to love him more. After all, hadn't his parents said to my mother during the bridal dinner the night before our wedding, "We hope Donna can do for Brad what we've been unable to do." They expected me to change an intellectual recluse into a sociable extrovert. But his anti-social behavior deepened. During our tenth year of marriage, a young relative of mine, age 14 going on 30 and deeply disturbed, lived with us for six months. Brad, twice her age, told me he was in love with her. I squelched the infatuation, but the incident compromised my trust in Brad.
We conned ourselves and an adoption agency into believe ours was a healthy marriage. I wanted children and stupidly thought a child would create a family. We were married almost 11 years when six-week-old Elizabeth was placed in my arms. Within hours my bond with my daughter was solidified. A year and a half later, three-month-old David was handed to me, and another bond was formed. However, the already deteriorating marriage went on the skids. I consulted our family doctor who suggested counseling. We saw a psychiatrist with whom Brad connected but I found unapproachable. Instead, I counseled with a psychologist who helped me regain my feelings of self-worth even while Brad continued to tell me no one liked me, that family and friends only pretended to like me. During the last two years of the marriage, Brad chose to sleep in another bedroom. I was ready for divorce but the psychiatric consensus was for me to delay initiating proceedings until Brad could cope. That year was permeated with sadness; my heart went out to Brad as it never had before. But I believed that to remain together would have been mutually destructive. So I bided my time until early one afternoon he walked into my office (I was general manager of a summer theater) to tell me, "The die is cast. I have filed for divorce." By early evening I had counter-filed. Our marriage ended after 15 years.
In 1963, a divorced mother of two little children was not commonplace. I was scared but convinced I had made the correct decision. The beautiful home in the suburbs was sold, and on a dead-end city street in Springfield, I rented a three-bedroom house with a large fenced-in backyard across the street from an elementary school and its playground. My job with the theater led to an offer from a local radio station. Every weekday morning I left Liz and David at a fine nursery school, continued on to work, and picked them up at the end of the day. When they entered public school, I was fortunate to latch on to a wonderfully kind and competent housekeeper who came in by the day. I loved my job -- a daily on-air program about the performing arts, interviewing the near great and formerly great, covering area professional and community theaters, occasionally
New York theater, Ice Capades, movies, books, and even doing a play-by-play of the Shrine Circus. For evening assignments, I had a stable of reliable baysitters.
And I enjoyed my kids who were bright, witty, inventive, loving, and very active. I felt guilty about depriving them of a father figure, which I felt compounded the emotional loss they had suffered due to their respective birth parents' decisions to release them for adoption. I had grown up without a father; I didn't want them to. Everyone I dated I appraised as potential husband-father material. Some might have acquitted themselves well as fathers but not as husbands, or vice versa. I was embarrassed and a new date probably alarmed when my kids asked him, "Are you going to be our new father?"
Nine months after my divorce, on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend, I met the man I would marry two and a half years later . . .