Monday, July 11, 2011


This past weekend my sister and I actually managed to wake up early enough both days to get ourselves to another car event. This time however it was not exclusive to Citro├źns, though there were a few there (including my sister's Deux Chevaux), but to little cars and the people nuts enough to like (and own) them.

And when I say little I mean little. Micro, in fact.

Most of them were made in Europe and date from the 50s and 60s; I'm not sure quite what that says about Europe, though I suppose being infested with medieval towns with tiny alleyways is a reasonably plausible excuse.

There were Goggomobils

And old-school Minis

And the type of Messerschmitt that doesn't fly

Little Fiats (which I understand is short for Fix it again, Tony)

Wait, let's get a bit of scale on that:

As well as a few Isettas, which, and I am not making this up, are actually BMWs:

And in other things I am not making up, the Isetta was created by someone who also designed refrigerators, hence the door:

There was even an old Beetle there, though it was one of the bigger cars and looked, like the Deux Chevauxs, comparatively ginormous. Luxurious, even.

And again, though I don't generally care a whole lot about cars, I will admit to being amused by these tiny little micro cars. They're just so damned odd. And the people who own them and repeatedly attempt to get them running, in spite of the obvious and regrettable lack of common sense and sanity, are for the most part very nice, and quite funny, too.

So we had fun this weekend, and saw some friends. But it got me thinking about whether I'd ever want one. I don't know.

Because my main criteria for a car is comfort (well, reliability is good, too). And these, well, they're not exactly comfortable. First of all if you are a full-grown adult human you don't so much sit in one as wear one. Second, there is no such thing as air-conditioning in them, and in fact some of them don't even have windows that open, which, I'm sure you can imagine, is a whole boatload of fun on a sunny weekend in July. And honestly I don't know how anyone can drive a Goggomobil and remain conscious, what with the cloud of two-stroke fumes it doesn't have the power to get ahead of.

Because that is one of my bottom lines now: I will be comfortable. Because being uncomfortable is one of the things I remember most about my childhood. Now that may not sound like much; it's not really a big deal to be uncomfortable, right? It's not like actual physical pain. Except that it wasn't a temporary thing, a little thing. This was permanent, and across the board.

It's one thing to do without running water for a few days if say the water main outside your house bursts, or if you are camping. It's another thing to have no water at all most summers because the well went dry, and no water in most of the faucets anyway because when they dripped, and they all dripped eventually, my father's solution was to shut them off and walk away. Or to go without hot water for decades, because your father can't be arsed to install the water heater, which is sitting right there. Just like it's one thing to go outside and be cold in the winter, but another entirely to spend a long, long ride in a car with no heat at all, and then come home to a house set at 55 degrees. You simply never get warm in the winter.

It becomes the default, this lack of comfort, this profound unease. In winter you exist from that center of cold-in-the-bones, and any moment of warmth is the temporary thing. It always settles back to being cold, being uncomfortable. Worse yet, if I ever complained I was mocked, told it was nothing, not a big deal, what was I a princess expecting a life of luxury? That was the word my mother threw at me, princess.

And the old, shitty, non-heated, falling apart cars were of course a large part of all of that, especially since my father insisted on dragging all of us to all kinds of places like Import Auto Parts that we could not have cared less about. It was about control on his part as usual, I guess, or something to do with that personality disordered profound lack of understanding that people who were not him didn't naturally like everything he liked.

But getting back to the little car meet-thing. It's not exactly a big community, the micro car enthusiasts, especially given it's Massachusetts. And though the old Volkswagens aren't exactly micro cars, there is a fair bit of overlap in the communities. So there were more than a few old VW fans there.

Now my father worked out of a garage (or shop) on the property for something like thirty years, up until the mid 90s or so.

Saturday afternoon some of the little car people got talking about project cars they had (and trust me, little cars are invariably project cars). They were comparing numbers, how many of the things they had at the worst before they sobered up and came to terms with the fact that some of them were just never going to be fixable, and that they were just never going to have the resources to sink into some of the more hopeless cases.

I interrupted right there, and told them I had them all beat. Seventy-eight cars in the yard, I said. Then, when they looked at me in shock, I explained that my father was a hoarder who was also a Volkswagen mechanic, and one of the things he hoarded was old Volkswagens.

Then one guy looked at me and said, Are you Walter's daughter?

I am. And he knew. Despite the fact that my father hasn't been here in five years, and that he'd retired another ten years before that, and even though we were fifty miles from home, still, he knew my father, and he knew the property.

But then there's this part, and I don't know what to do about it.

Now I know that these people love their little cars; I get that and I think it's great that people have hobbies. I have more than a few myself. I can even, if not truly understand I suppose, accept that there are some people who simply love old air-cooled Volkswagens without being bad people, perhaps in the same way that someone can be fascinated with the history of Hitler's rise to power without being a Nazi. I get that, and while I will never understand why on a gut level I can see that it is true.

It's when they start going on about how great my father was that I get lost.

Although I can even sort of understand that part of it, I guess. If you only knew him through the Volkswagen stuff, if you'd only come by to look at parts, or ask him about your Bug (and he was always very happy to talk and talk and talk about VWs) you might think that he was just some nice older guy who was a bit eccentric, maybe.

Well maybe. Because how could you then look around at the yard and still think that? How could you see seventy-eight cars, even if in your eyes they weren't 'junk' cars, which were obviously taking over the yard, which were everywhere, in every space they could possibly fit, along with all the car parts and all the other stuff that was obviously junk, and also, also, know that there were children there, (Are you Walter's daughter?) and not think Wow this is fucked up? I suppose I could see if the person doing the observing was also a hoarder, but so far few of the people I've had this conversation with have given me that vibe (although occasionally someone really really does).

And then what do I say to that? Yes, I'm Walter's daughter. While I'm not expecting that you should have called CPS on my father's ass, how is it that you are standing there smiling at me about all this? I just said my father was a hoarder. I even asked if you'd seen that TV show and you smiled and said yes. Are you just not thinking? I understand this is a fairly shallow conversation, and I even understand that most people are not as ridiculously introverted as I am (and so deep conversations are not the default for you as they are for me), but really? That situation was obviously fucked up, you saw it, and you are standing there telling me about how my father had all this great stuff?

Over and over that is the reaction.

So where does that leave me? The older I get, the more I recognize and acknowledge the truth of the situation here, the less tolerance I have for just smiling and nodding when people start in about how great my father was and Oh wow all those Volkswagens! The hoarding, which included all those marvelous bugs and squarebacks and fastbacks and busses and campers and 411s and 412s and even that white pickup truck and the odd MG or Spitfire or Triumph or Datsun or old Saab 95 or 96, was child neglect and abuse. Making us live in all that, because his needs came first, was child abuse.

No, it's not that his needs came first, and this is the part that is so hard to articulate and make anyone understand, it's not even that; that implies that there was a hierarchy in his mind, that he had some kind of list in his head of people's needs that he had put in order, with his own at the top. The reality is that he was incapable of seeing or imagining that other people had needs at all. I have no idea, really, how my father perceived other people. Were they simply shadows cast on a wall? Things that could be talked at? Something that makes dinner? Noise, things moving, like some TV that you couldn't turn off? Something that's always trying to take his money? I honestly don't know. I really don't. Can someone tell me?

If I try to tell people well no actually you don't understand about him, he was a hoarder, it was hell growing up in that house, he was profoundly mentally ill, and this last one, that he was 'profoundly mentally ill' was an exact quote to this guy I was talking to on Saturday, it just gets glossed over. Like I said I understand a conversation with me sometimes, because I am so stunningly introverted, can be like wading into the shallows and suddenly stepping into the Mariana Trench. I get that. But they just nod and continue the conversation. I don't know what to do.

But that's the thing. I can't not say something. I can't just smile and nod when they go on about my father. I don't, really, I don't think, want to make someone feel bad, to grab them with a gotcha, to imply they are enabling something, glossing over child abuse like that; but at the same time, not saying anything is for me just more invalidation. It's me keeping silent, once again, as I always did.

I was trying to think the other day about what my father said that was so invalidating. And I couldn't really come up with anything. My mother, sure, oh I could think of plenty she said, but my father, no, I was coming up blank. And yet the almost overwhelming feeling I have of him is of invalidation.

He didn't need to say anything, that's the thing. Everything he did was invalidating to the people around him, his family. He didn't need to tell us we didn't deserve hot water; his adamant refusal to install the water heater until he did X, Y, and Z was invalidation enough. Especially since his reasoning was all couched in terms of his rights, not just what he wanted, but his rights; that he didn't have to, we couldn't make him, we didn't have the right to make him. And that is telling us that we didn't have the right to hot water, that we didn't ever have the right to be comfortable, to heat, to running water, to a yard not full of cars, to not be publicly humiliated (because everyone knew the yard was a junkyard), to have friends over, to have enough to eat, to be warm in winter, to have the lights on in a room with the window open in summer because the bugs could get in with the crappy screens we had, to eat in peace, to dislike certain foods, to have a closet to hang our clothes in, to get a gift that was our own; and anything we did get from him (and it was all from him, as he was the one with a job) was always so grudgingly given, couched in terms of how we should be grateful for getting even that and never forget that he was always entitled to a piece of it as he paid for it.

And still, when I mention any of that, these acquaintances who knew my father as the VW guy still stand there and smile and talk about how great my father was, as if they knew him better than I did. When I try to explain most of them just don't want to hear it. I know we have a problem with dealing with child abuse in this society. I do honestly think has its roots in that this society counts on certain kinds of inequality to function, and so not only wants to look the other way but must. I really do believe that. So nobody wants to hear it, to the point where most people out there will make excuse after excuse for abusers, even the really violent ones, oh he was such a nice guy when I saw him at the coffee shop, blah blah blah. But I just want to scream:

Dude. I knew my father. You didn't. You chatted with him about a mutual 'hobby'. You are making a whole lot of assumptions about him probably based in your own motivations, in your own way of doing things, assuming that he thought about things the same way you do and because you believe yourself to be a good person my father must have been one as well. And then when I say Well no he wasn't you don't want to listen. Do you know what you are saying then? You are saying that you who chatted with my father over a hobby knew him better than I did. Can you not see how stupid, how belittling, how arrogant that is? How profoundly invalidating that is of my own miserable experiences?

I don't blame you, I don't. I understand you don't want to hear it. But it is true, and I lived it.

I just don't know what to do with that.


Anonymous said...

Those are great photos. The "scale" photos and the one showing "how you put on a car," are particularly fabulous.

Maybe part of what you do is be loud about it: refuse to be silenced again. When they go on and on and on about how great a guy Walter was, you wait for an opening, and you say, "Along with all of that, he abused and neglected every single one of his children. I don't want to listen to how a great a guy he was, because he wasn't." And then you walk away.

You owe these enablers-without-realizing-it NOTHING. Nothing at all, not even common politeness.

Imagine the comfort of knowing that you spoke up for that hungry cold child you once were. It's yours for a little rudeness directed at a person who doesn't matter in the least to the rest of your life, and who is unlikely to be damaged by, or even very cognizant of, your rudeness.

Thank you for writing this post. It made me understand my own craving for comfort a great deal better than I did before I read it.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

People don't know their ass from their elbow. Never have. Never will. Fuck 'em.

Anonymous said...

To know a hoarder is not necessarily to have lived with them or had to be responsible for them. My hoarding mother is the master of putting up a charming, humble and self-effacing front for the world to see, but there IS a reason why her only two offspring are estranged from this "delightful" person.
I can certainly identify with your teeth-gritting frustration when you father is described in terms that you could only have hoped were half-way to being true.

My mother has been described as "sweet", "cute", "funny", but none of these people have ever seen the viper that lurks within when her hoard is threatened.

I hear ya loud and clear!

Jack said...

Love the photos, and thanks for sharing them. I find that genre of car fascinating, but I don't think I'd want to own/drive one.

As for the people who remember your father...

As a society, we have a lot of willful ignorance about mental illness. Even something as common as depression regularly gets people responding with "oh cheer up" and "I have days like that too".

Hoarding's press is much more recent, and thus plenty of people can't yet tell the difference between "oh I have a lot of stuff in the garage, too" and actual, disordered hoarding.

Hopefully people will eventually understand that mental illness is neither something to be minimized nor something to be set up as an overgrown monster, but until then, you'll probably continue to encounter people like this, and I'm sorry for it.

The Writing Goddess said...

Totally am there about your need - and RIGHT - to be comfortable now.

My NPD father would make me come into the living room so he could talk at (at, not with) me. Only, I was required to sit there and wait for the commercials, because even though it was important (to him) for me to sit there and listen until he was done holding forth, it was not important enough for him to interrupt his TV programs to talk at me. How's that for invalidation?

I think newwitchway offers a great solution.

I think in some ways, people don't want to hear it (about how awful it truly was for you & your sis) because it's a burden they don't feel prepared to carry. Sometimes I feel emotional overload. I want to battle OCPD & hoarding and educate people, so that's where I'm focused, but I also recognize there are many other worthwhile causes that I wish I could battle, as well. Breast cancer. Childhood leukemia. Rape and sexual assault. The slaughter of dolphins and whales. Racism. Global climate change. So much that needs to be done, so little *I* can personally do while working full time and pursuing a writing career and running my blogs (OCPD - Scattered Thoughts from the Front Lines and site Perfectly Awful that I kind of - not close my ears or heart, exactly, but I don't accept personal responsibility for taking major action on those issues.

It's not that I don't care - I do care, deeply. It's not that I stand by and do nothing, but the support I give to such issues is minimal, as compared to what I do on the OCPD front. And I am okay with that.

Perhaps that is part - not all, but part - of what is going on with those people. They have other causes, they aren't willing/able to take up the gauntlet against OCPD and hoarding. Also, I was always taught while it's one thing for ME to criticize someone in my family, outsiders have no right to do so. Maybe it's hard for people to adjust their opinion of your father in so short a time, and maybe they don't want to commit the social sin of criticizing someone to a member of his family, even if that person is critical of him.

In any event, I fully support YOU in doing whatever you need to do or say to be comfortable in such situations. :-)

Anonymous said...

One time in college, my best friend confided to me that her boyfriend hit her. I was horrified. I said: "He's an a--hole. Break up with him. You can't stay with a guy who hits a woman."

A week later, she had patched things up with this guy, and she told me we couldn't be friends anymore because I called her boyfriend an a--hole. We never spoke again. I lost a friend by speaking up.

People learn that sometimes agreeing with a negative assessment of someone can come back to haunt them. Most folks want to believe in the goodness of people, and that's why they said something positive about your dad, even after you broke the news about what an abuser he was to his family.

These folks were strangers to you, your statement was in a festival-type of setting, and I'm guessing that they didn't want to get into anything heavy that day. If you met these same people in a recovery meeting, you would no doubt get a much different reaction, an in-depth exploration of your experiences, and know that your feelings are very valid indeed.

My dad was an abuser in an eerily similar way that your dad was, so I totally get that you want your story to be known. I've never had much luck in getting casual acquaintances of his to have empathy for my side of the story of the man they regarded as "a great guy." I love your blog, and hope you will continue sharing your journey with us, your readers. Because we get it. We really do.

--Veronica in California

Anonymous said...

can I just say, your parents and mine seem to have the same phliosphy regarding comfort. If my house ever got to 55 degrees in the winter, though, we were lucky. Not to mention the yard full of old beat up rusty cars. Are we related!!!!

Erica Lucci said...

I'm sorry for your frustration and hurt. While I don't know you, I'd like to send an internet hug.

Elaine said...

You are so right about our society not wanting to acknowledge child abuse. There's a business blog I follow and someone wrote in saying that she called Child Protective Services about a co-worker who had TOLD her that her new husband was abusing her son. The co-worker figured out who "ratted her out" and went to their manager. The manager was interrogating all the employees to find out who "betray" the co-worker. The poster was asking how to handle a situation when the company is going way outside their legal boundaries.

People criticized her for calling CPS.

They said that she probably over reacted, that she had NO proof, and that she shouldn't have made the call.

Sorry bunch of idiots!

Rosa said...

The most validating thing that ever happened to me was getting to talk to my dad's employees *in private* about him. Because they hated his guts. He can be very charming, with strangers, with customers, with bosses. Children and employees, not so much. So at a time when my life was a series of conversations with people who said "Oh that must be terrible for you, your dad is such a great guy, such a shock, your family always seemed so perfect" I had a few people who just nodded and said "Good. How're you doing."

With your dad so old and ill, that may never happen to you - people aren't dealing with him right now, and they're reticent to speak ill of old, sick people anyway.

But even if you can't see it happening - people don't think well on their feet, so when you say that to people they're not likely to say "Oh my god, really, that's awful, how resilient of you to come through that" - every time you make people remember that junk car yard and think "hoarder", you're helping them progress to a point where, maybe someday, they'll react differently to another person like your dad.

Tonia said...

I'm so sorry for the hell you went through growing up. My heart aches for the children you were.

I'm in a similar situation as the people who spoke to you about your dad at the meet. I recently reconnected with my childhood best friend. I spent quite a bit of time at her home when we were kids and just adored her family. They pretty much adopted me as one of their own, and I in turn was fascinated by this nuclear family with four kids in their sweet little bungalow. (Hard to believe these days, but I was the only Child of Divorce I ever knew growing up.)

My friend is now completely estranged from her family and has been for many years, and can't stop telling me about how awful they are in general and specifically how painful it was growing up in that environment. It leaves me in a bad position of not knowing what to say. I never saw the behaviors she tells me about now, but why would she make it up? Yet my memories of spending so much time with them are completely different; they were a cherished part of my childhood.

So, when I say things to her like, "I just loved your family" -- I don't see it as challenging her perceptions of them, but just saying how I felt as an 11-year-old. I would never presume to tell her that I'm right and she's wrong because I completely believe her and I see her hurt and anger. But I did love her family. I don't see that as challenging her. I tell her I had no idea what was going on with her then, and I understand her pain. I just didn't see it, and had the complete opposite experience with them.

I can't shake the feeling of profound sorrow for how you were forced to live, growing up in that house. Makes me want to build a time machine and go back and rescue you.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with thenewwitchway - you don't owe these people ANYTHING, so let rip. I love your blog, and this post really struck a chord with me. I've been in this same situation where people are telling me how kind and generous and my dad is, and how he always goes out of his way to help them. I want to scream at them that this is the same dad who used to shout and swear at me when I was a child for moving an empty cardboard box to a different place on top of a floor-to-ceiling pile of empty cardboard boxes so I could get to my toys. Or the same dad that hoarded so much food, I had rats and mice running under my bed at night. What a great guy, eh? Keep fighting through, I hear you too.

Superwife said...

I'm not sure if I ever commented on your blog before but it's one of my favorites. I love how honestly and openly you talk about your upbringing. While my mother was not a hoarder (she was the opposite of a hoarder and we lived in a 'museum' which had it's own issues) she does display a lot of the same personality traits as your father did. I believe she's borderline, histrionic and narcissistic, perhaps even OCPD. I loved this post and wanted to chime in because I've been in those situations. People love my mother. They think she's amazing, kind, funny, etc. I hear this ALL the time. And how I've come to accept this and not take it personally is to tell myself my experience (which was hell) is not their experience. Their viewpoint is their own. It doesn't invalidate mine. People with personality disorders put their immediate families through the ringer and then put on a happy face to the outside world. Had any of these folks who love my mother lived with her they'd know differently. Having this type of boundary, one in which I validate my own feelings based on my own experiences, helps to take other's comments at face value. Does that make sense?

Suella said...

I would guess you were dealing with older men primarily? Empathy, especially public empathy, doesn't come easy to some of them. And you are only "the kid" as well.

But who knows what realizations they may come to in the privacy o their own environment? This may open their eyes to the idea that what you see isn't always the whole truth.

I try not to let others have power over me by my caring what their opinions are. But... I can't imagine how frustrating it must have been to have you heartfelt comments brushed aside.

The work you are doing is wonderful. I take my hat off to you for what you are doing and the hurt you are working through.

Best of luck in your further clearances.

Becky said...

Talk about it. And keep talking about it. It makes it easier to bear when you share, no matter how hard it is for others to hear it.

I don't have a hoarder parent. I have an undiagnosed NPD/bi-polar parent, an alcoholic parent and some incredibly screwy grandparents that I haven't talked to in well over 20 years for reasons that would take me hours to tell you. And we won't even begin to get into the siblings, which is a whole other level of dysfuction and madness....

I bottled this for years and cut myself off from everyone but my family, hoping to hide this. I am now learning the best way to deal with it is cut my ties from my 'family' and take care of myself and my family. And talk about the mess. I have gotten some support from places I wouldn't have thought I would, simply because I was able to speak the truth. The truth others saw for years and didn't know how to address. People don't know how to address mental illness. They don't understand it.

So, keep talking. Keep sharing. And keep cleaning up.

Faith said...

Just found your blog. Suffice it to say that I empathize and I will be reading back in your archives and following your journey.

Anonymous said...

My Dad was nice to other people and crappy to us. That is the sucky rotten truth. I too used to be really angry when someone would say what a great guy he was until I came to the realization that if my dad was nice to somebody, or enjoyed fun times with someone I couldn't hold that against them. It was HIS fault he gave the best part of his personality to coworkers and church goers, friends and even strangers while leaving the yelling, screaming and abuse to my mom and me. Telling every person who was shown the postive side of my father about his dark side is a waste of time and energy. Not because I don't deserve to tell my story, or because I'm ashamed but because it won't accomplish anything convincing some old friend of his that he was an SOB. Really, why do I need them to care? They might give me some sympathy but it changes nothing. What you are doing now, educating people through your writing, reaching out to others who had the same experiences and using those experiences to be a better person is what changes things. Keep going! You'll get to the bottom of that trash heap eventually!