It was a simple question that started a very long day.
“Who moved my belt?!”
My father bellowed the question to his three children. It was a Saturday morning in Pensacola, Fla., and he was getting ready to go to work. He didn’t normally work on Saturday, but there was a lot to do at his office.
My sisters and I dutifully streamed into the bedroom from which he had yelled his question. I was 12 and my sisters were 10 and 8. He was already angry, but it took us a minute to understand what was going on. He repeated the question.
“Who moved this belt?” he angrily shouted again. “It’s not where it’s supposed to be. It’s on this end of my closet instead. Who moved it?”
The three of us looked at each other and then looked at him. None of us had any idea what he was talking about. None of us knew anything about moving a belt, at least not on purpose. All three of us denied knowing anything about it.
My father was obsessive about having everything in a designated place. He was a neat freak. Growing up with him was a cross between being in Army boot camp and living in a museum. Although he would eventually become a bit less extreme about it — well after we were gone from home — he was fanatical about it when we were young.
Everything had to be in a specific place. In a closet, all the pants had to hang together. The short-sleeve shirts were grouped next, followed by long-sleeve shirts. Then the suits. Belts had a specific place. Neckties had another place. Everything had its own spot. There could be no deviation from his system, whether it was his closet or my own.
He was similarly obsessive about the organization of clothes in drawers. If my drawers weren’t organized as he demanded, he would pull my drawer out and dump the contents on my bed — screaming at me to fix it.
On this day, he had found a belt out of place in his closet. I will never know — or care — how it happened. He might have absent-mindedly done it. One of us children might have mistakenly hung it in the wrong place. But none of his three children would have done it on purpose. We had no reason to do so. We knew better.
For some reason, this was a maniacal breaking point for him on that day. As the three of us stood before him in his bedroom, he screamed at us.
He ranted. He threatened. He shouted.
He said someone had moved this belt and nobody was going to do anything until the guilty party admitted it. We were scared and confused. Even in our young brains, we knew this was insane, but we had no option to walk away from it. And since we had nobody else in the household — our parents had divorced three years before this — we had nobody to intervene.
This bizarre confrontation went on all day.
Periodically, he would send us out of his room for us to talk about it — to figure out who had done it and then confess. My younger sister wanted to just confess to it and get it over with. I asked her whether she really did it and she said she didn’t, but she just wanted the ordeal over.
I was adamant that we weren’t going to admit to something which we hadn’t done. Being pragmatic about it today, I can say that it might have been best for everybody to allow her to confess to the “crime” and get it over with. But I always had a strong aversion to what I considered injustice — and it seemed like injustice for anyone to confess to such a thing.
We would return to his room and try to explain — again — that one of us might have moved his belt by accident but that none of us had done it intentionally. I remember doing most of the talking, but maybe my sisters said more than I recall. Some details are surely lost in my memory.
I realize now that the children were the adults in the room that day, as we were for most of my childhood. I was the one trying to fight the injustice — as respectfully as I could, to avoid his wrath — and my younger sister was the pragmatic one trying to take another reasonable position to end the ordeal.
My father was the one whose actions were insane.
We spent much of the day lined up in front of him — like recruits at Army boot camp — while he screamed at us like a psychotic drill instructor.
He didn’t go to work that day, even though he had promised to come. He told us that he was going to be fired from his job — and it was going to be our fault, because we wouldn’t confess who was guilty. He was an out-of-control maniac all day.
As it finally got dark in the evening, he had angrily sent us to another bedroom to confer again. I remember the dusk taking hold of the house. There were no lights on anywhere. I didn’t even want lights on, because it seemed as though it would make us easier for him to find and punish.
The three of us huddled in a bedroom — confused about what else to do — when he suddenly disappeared into the den and turned the television on. He didn’t turn on any lights, but he just sat in silence in front of the TV.
There was no resolution to anything that day. Nothing else was said about it. The whole thing just sort of petered out. The three children stayed away from him for the rest of the evening. I have no memory of whether we ever ate that night. I just know that the craziness of the day — the insane rage — just sort of faded.
We spent the rest of the evening in silence, scared to say anything. We were terrified of setting him off again.
He never said another word about the incident, but it became a day that the three of us talked about for years afterward. As I recall it, we referred to it as the “who-moved-the-belt incident.”
Years later, well into my adult years, I brought up this incident with him as an example of something that terrified me in my childhood. He said he didn’t remember anything like that. Then he moved on to claiming it didn’t possibly happen. And then he went with his favorite argument.
“Nobody ever gives me enough credit for all I did for you,” he snapped.
As I’ve told you before, nothing about my childhood ever made sense to me until a psychologist started explaining narcissistic personality disorder to me about 10 or 12 years ago. Even with my understanding of malignant narcissism, this dysfunctional incident doesn’t make sense, but it fits into a long pattern.
Most of our days were filled with fear of him — fear of his volatility exploding into something inexplicable — but there were some incidents that stand out as especially bizarre. For me, this was one of those days.
Even well into my adult years, I am still filled with tremendous fear of unknowns. I can’t explain many of my fears to others, but they’re always there, lurking in the background. One of my sisters — the one who wanted to confess to moving the belt years ago — told my other sister and me last week in an email that she believes we all suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
I had never thought of putting it into terms of PTSD, but I suspect she’s right about that.
I’ve grown tremendously over the last decade. I’m not the same person I was then. (Back then, I was still a little afraid to have children, because I feared I could be like him.) But despite all the growth, I still have triggers. They’re unpredictable, but they’re there.
And no matter how long it’s been, I still feel a sense of dread when I think of the question, “Who moved my belt?”
I’ll never know who moved his belt that day. I’ll never care. The truth is that it never mattered.