Growing Up as a Witness to Violence

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In addition to the readers who related to the abuses that Eudocia “Lola” Pulido experienced, some readers saw parallels between Alex Tizon’s story and domestic violence they’d witnessed within their own families. Mara writes:

I am a white, American-born woman many years younger than Alex and thus my experiences are very different from his, yet I relate to his story in a way that I have not seen addressed: I grew up in an abusive household and live every day with the guilt of not doing more to rectify my parents’ transgressions.

It must be acknowledged that exposing a child to domestic violence is a form of abuse with lifelong effects; Alex witnessed Lola’s mistreatment as a constant presence in his youth, and clearly struggled with that legacy for the rest of his life. Although he did not recognize himself as such in “My Family’s Slave,” he too deserves our sympathy as victim. A child has no choice but to comply with their parents’ abusive behavior—must comply in order to survive. That normalization of and forced complicity with violence creates a sense of self-doubt and helplessness which does not magically vanish in adulthood. The criticisms of Alex’s decisions have not acknowledged this crucial dynamic, and it’s not something easily understood unless one has lived it.

Bruce gives a wrenching account of what he and his mother lived through:

Like Alex, I grew up with domestic violence. It began even before I could even remember. My mother told me that one time, my dad had her on the ground, and was standing over her, whipping her with his belt. My twin brother and I were cowering in a corner crying, and when my dad left, I crawled over to her and caressed her face. I hadn’t learnt to talk yet.

I remember waking up one night to sounds of my father yelling and my mother whimpering. My brother was too scared to go outside of our bedroom. I did and saw my father on top of my mother, pulling out her hair and ripping her nightgown. I yelled out at my dad, asking him what was going on. When he turned around, he warned me not to come closer or he might do something he would regret. I was probably in fourth grade at the time. He would bring knives out and say he may have to kill our entire family in order to somehow “protect” us, and often he would tell my brother and I to yell at my mother, so that he wouldn’t have to. He was conditioning me to abuse my mother, and I meekly complied because of the fear I had of him.

One time when I was about 17, my father made my mother kneel in front of him, and when he slapped her across the face, I pushed him away and yelled at him to never touch her again. I was physically stronger than my father at that point, but still paralyzed by the ingrained fear I had of him until he physically hurt her. It was the first time I physically and verbally confronted him.

As an immigrant and a minority in Australia, I was accustomed to hiding things from my white peers about my family. From the food we ate, to the customs we observed and did not observe, and to the language we spoke. This sort of home life was almost another natural secret I had to observe to fit in. This is not an excuse for my cowardice, but perhaps a contributing factor as to why I didn’t fight back. Hiding things, including my volatile home life, was normal to me.

With this personal background, I did not see Alex’s essay as an apology for slaveowners, but a sincere effort to recount the most profoundly affecting piece of his life as it was. To me, Alex’s story is of a poor minority child and his mother, and a powerlessness when seeing his mother beaten and humiliated from his earliest consciousness. Sarah Jeong’s commentary alluded to this well, and I believe Alex saw Lola as his mother, and loved her as such. Alex’s later understanding of his biological mother was not an apology for her behavior, but understanding the complexity of human beings. I’ve also come to understand my father not just as the monster that I knew, but as someone who came from abuse and homelessness. Nobody exists in a vacuum.

Today I am a 30-year-old man, a medical scientist, and a combat engineer in the Australian Army Reserve. I am still coming to terms with how my childhood affected and continues to affect my brother and I. It’s easy to be quick to judge others, but takes much contemplation to be able to walk in their shoes. In the military, it is compulsory for us to watch videos every year on domestic violence, and many of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms cannot understand how victims of domestic violence can allow themselves to be so. I hope that my story can perhaps put into context Alex’s experience when trying to understanding this multi-generational tragedy.

I am glad Alex was able to tell Lola’s story before he passed.

Rest in peace, Eudocia Tomas Pulido.