I vividly remember the facts of that day — in sharp, clear detail — but I don’t remember feeling anything. My lack of any emotion might be the most noteworthy thing about the day my mother tried to kill my father.
The day was just like any other Sunday afternoon for my family. We had gone to church and had dinner at home in our dining room. We lived on Holly Hill Drive in Atlanta. I was 5. My sisters were 3 and 1.
Sunday dinner was finished. My father went to lie down on the living room couch to read the Sunday paper. Mother was in the kitchen cleaning up the dishes. I was standing in the open entryway at the edge of the living room, just at the place where the room met the hall. The dining room was between the kitchen and the living room. The hall next to which I was standing was another way to the kitchen.
Without warning, my mother came running through the dining room from the kitchen. She had a knife raised in her hand as she ran. I cried out and my father looked up in time to reach out and grab her arm as she tried to stab him.
I recognized the knife Mother had in her hand. It was from a rack of knives that hung on the kitchen wall. As my mother and father struggled over the knife in the living room, I ran down the hall. The knife rack hung on nails and I reached up as high as I could to pull it off the wall. My little brain reasoned that if that first knife was wrestled away, there were always more for her to get.
As I ran down the hall with the knife rack — toward my bedroom, which was at the far end of the hall — I barely looked back into the living room. They were still struggling and there was a lot of shouting, but I have no idea what was said. I just knew I had to hide the rest of the knives. That’s all that mattered to me.
When I got to my room, I shoved the knife rack under the bed. That’s a good place to hide it, right? Wouldn’t any 5-year-old think so?
The yelling from the living room got quieter, but I still had no idea what was going on. I quietly left my room to find my 3-year-old sister, Rebecca. (I don’t recall where 1-year-old Mary was, but she was so young she wasn’t involved.) I told Rebecca she had to come to my room to help guard the knives.
After what seemed like a long time to us, the house was silent. I didn’t know what we should do, but I was still afraid to leave the knives. Eventually, I told Rebecca to stay and guard the knives while I ventured out to see what was going on.
I found my parents sitting calmly on their bed. They were just talking.
When I entered the room, my father instructed me to go get my sister. I remember thinking that it was probably safe to leave the knives for now — because everything seemed calm and safe.
Rebecca and I returned to their bedroom. My father proceeded to explain to us that adults sometimes play in this way — and that was all this was. I will never forget standing there silently as I listened to that explanation.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” I thought with disgust. I remember those words clearly in my head. I was upset that he thought I might believe such a lame explanation.
Shortly after that day, my mother went to a mental hospital. My recollection is that she was there for about six weeks, during which she had shock treatments. Throughout my childhood, this incident was marked as the time when my mother had a mental breakdown.
As an adult, I learned to see it very differently.
My mother later told me — many years later, after I was grown and had tried to establish a relationship with her — that she knew my father was not going to ever let her leave. She knew she would either kill him and end up in prison — or else she would kill herself.
She had tried to leave him a couple of times already. The first time, my father came to Birmingham and found us staying at her brother’s house. The second time, she moved us into some kind of apartment so he wouldn’t know where we were — but he bribed a clerk at the Birmingham Water Works Board into telling him where she had opened an account. (He later would tell that story with pride, believing it demonstrated his commitment to his children.)
I never saw another incident of violence in my home. There was no hitting. They didn’t throw things at each other. But she did try to kill him — and she did it because she hoped to escape him. She told me later that she was afraid it was her only way to ever get away from him without losing her life.
When I went through that incident, nothing about my reaction seemed unusual. From this point in my life, everything about it seems unusual.
I now think a typical 5-year-old would have frozen in horror to watch what I watched. I have trouble imagining a typical 5-year-old putting aside his feelings and running to get the knife rack.
I now think my reactions were a weird blend. I was smart enough — and composed enough — to grab the knives which I saw as the next-level threat, but I was immature enough to think that a 3-year-old and I could protect them. I was immature enough to think nobody would possibly look under my bed to find them.
I now think that a typical 5-year-old would have been a bit more willing to buy my father’s lame explanation of what happened. Maybe. Maybe not. I just now look back on my entire childhood and realize that I sensed something about the emotional horrors in which I lived — and I knew to keep my mouth shut about what I was coming to understand.
I now think that a typical 5-year-old would have had a strong emotional reaction both during the incident and afterward, but I repressed all of my feelings. I just felt as though I had to be wary. I had to keep my guard up — and do my job of keeping my sisters safe. (This was one of the first times it had ever occurred to me that I needed to protect them.)
This story has created a lot of shame for me over the years, because I didn’t like to see my family as the sort in which attempted violence could happen. We were a nice middle-class family, not some ruffians who fought and stabbed one another. I’ve had to go through several stages of re-interpreting this, because I’ve had a great need to explain it away or to excuse it. I had enough shame and pride that I wanted to feel we were “above” something like this.
My mother was away from us more than she was with us over the next four years. It was a difficult period, full of reunions and sudden departures. There was a lot of shouting and anger. We walked on eggshells at home. When I was 9, they divorced and my father got full custody of the three children. This incident must have loomed large in that.
I don’t know if I’ve ever fully come to terms with what happened to me as a child. I have a string of dysfunctional stories that went on until after I was gone from home. But this one was the first major open marker of dysfunction for the five of us.
In a very real way, I’ve never come to terms with what happened that day. I think it changed me. I think it ended the innocence of childhood for me. Nothing was the same after that day.