By the time Empire Strikes Back was released in movie theatres in 1980, I had been out of private school for three years. I had no idea a second Star Wars film was going to be released, and I was excited when it finally opened. The second movie in the franchise, episode 5, opened on a barren tundra called Hoth. Cold, snowy and desolate, it reminded me of my town, Hopeless. Luke Skywalker eventually begins his training with Yoda on Dagobah to become a Jedi. There is one scene in that movie that I often think about. It’s the scene when Luke and Yoda are taking a break from training. Luke senses something off in the distance. Under a nearby tree in the swamp is a cave – a “domain of evil” as Yoda calls it. Then Yoda tells Luke he must go in there. Luke asks Yoda what’s inside the cave – “Only what you take with you,” he is told. Luke grabs for his weapon belt and Yoda tells him he will not need his weapons. Luke takes them anyway. Inside he is confronted by Vader and ultimately sees himself within Vader’s mask. Survivors of any kind of abuse deal with this – at least I am sure other survivors do as well. When I was recovering from the abuse at private school I felt so much confusion and anger. Luke appears to experience that as well as he endures his Jedi training. Often my anger was kept hidden from others. Having been used to endure cruel punishments I found the easiest recourse was to go limp and shut myself off while my tormentors did what they wanted with my body.
Though I may not have given much resistance – in my mind I was fantasizing often about what I could do to have my revenge upon all of them. Though I was filled with hate and fear towards my abusers, it wasn’t until after I was out of that school that I really began to turn the hatred against myself – the blame, the guilt – I was convinced that it was all me.
At the cave in Empire Luke sees himself within Vader. I was seeing myself as my abusers told me I was – evil – unworthy of love. In many ways I felt it would be better if I were dead. I was hurting so much within at my new school. Food became a weapon of mine – a weapon against myself. Feeding my shame with fattening foods. I became overweight. It was partly as a defense mechanism to make myself unappealing to any future predators. It was also a way of numbing the pain. I went all out – wagon wheels that I would cover with peanut butter, or Count Chocula cereal sprinkled on top of mounds of mint chocolate chip ice cream. These became part of my daily diet. The more weight I gained, the more I hated myself. The more I hated myself, the more my peers at my new school hated me. The after-effects of abuse can be very destructive. I made very few friends at school. I kept to myself more often than not. To this day, honestly, I keep few close friends. It is rare that you will find me at a party, or other social gathering unless I am working at an event. I don’t exclude myself from gatherings because I feel I am better than others – it’s because I still am uncomfortable around groups of people. I cannot really explain this. It makes no sense. There is still a small part of me that speaks out to me when I want to go out and do something. A nagging little voice – “you are not worthy. Why bother? No one likes you anyway.” So many years later and it still can prevent me from doing things I want to do.
I went through a period of time as a young adult when I tried to compensate for my insecurities and shame by being gregarious. I worked hard to be extroverted – to take over and dominate conversations. It appeared to work. People seemed to like my company. There was one friend (a friend at the time – a caustic friendship) who called me out on my superficial behaviour. “No one likes the way you act,” he told me. “People think you are too boastful”. He took pride in his ability to bring me down to earth. He likely had no idea that he not only brought me down to earth, but also contributed to my sinking below the surface. Again I wanted to hide myself from others – to go unseen. After all, I had somehow caused the abuse that happened to me, hadn’t I?
There are many sayings about family. Family is supposed to be there for you. To be honest, the only family I really had was my mother and father. I knew they loved me. I knew I had to protect them from my secret. I had been warned if I had told them what was happening to me at the private school God would wreak his vengeance upon them. It was up to me to protect them. I had to keep them safe. I would do anything for them. Three years out of private school and now in grade 7 of my public school another event happened. This was something else that I would add to my own personal blame. My mother, it seemed, had the flu. It hit her hard. She sent me to the store to pick up ginger ale for her. I didn’t know how bad her sickness was. I took my time riding my bike, stopping to talk to one of the neighbourhood kids as I returned with the six-pack of soda hooked through my handlebars. I returned home only to find a note from my father. “Took mom to the hospital. You will have to make dinner on your own. Love dad.” I mean it couldn’t be bad, could it? It was only the flu. It turned out she had a severe gallbladder infection. She had to have emergency surgery. The doctors told my dad there was a high probability that she may not survive through the surgery or even the recovery. I faced the fear that I may lose my mom and I believed that because I stopped to talk with another kid I might have affected what she was going through. My dad and I spent many days going up to the hospital to visit her. It was very hard for me to see her like that – she was a powerful woman in her own right. She was so tired in that bed, with the tubes going in her. I couldn’t spend too much time in there – I felt it was my fault. I had somehow caused this. God was angry with me and now he was going to show me what he could do. I would spend a few minutes with her and my dad in the hospital room, then go downstairs to the lobby and have a Dr. Pepper and a bag of Old Dutch barbecue chips – at times adding a Cuban Lunch chocolate bar into the mix. Feeding my fear…..literally. One night, as I sat feeding my face I was confronted by other members from my family – adults. Out of courtesy for them I will not reveal who they were here. They started in on me about how bad I was for what I was doing, sitting there eating. One of them even said to me (I was only eleven) “I can’t believe you are sitting down here while your mother is up there DYING – shame on you.” If asked I can describe exactly what that relative was wearing and the anger on that relative’s face as she yelled at me. People around me looked over at me. I had no defense. I wanted to say, “You’re right, I am a terrible person. My mother doesn’t deserve this. I am responsible for her condition. I know that God is doing this to hurt me.” Instead I just sat there and cried while they went up to see her. Sometime later my father came down and we went home. My mother was ill throughout that fall. No one in my family invited my father and I to Thanksgiving dinner. Since my mother was in the hospital, my father and I had been excluded. My dad and I visited my mom. Later he took me to Burger King in Hopeless for Thanksgiving dinner. Together we sat alone. Quiet. Reflective. That night he bought me a present at that Burger King in Hopeless. I still have it. It was the Empire Strikes Back Darth Vader glass tumbler. That Thanksgiving I learned who my entire family were – who I could count on. My mom and dad.
I cried a lot at home. My dad was strong. He did what he could. I had to get to school on my own, as he had to work early at the mill. I had to pack my own lunches – often I would come home at lunch and eat my ice cream/cereal instead. I began to hate school. The teachers were aware of what was going on at home and distanced themselves from me. Now here is where I want to get back to my earlier comment about how the choices we make can alter our future. One day I woke up and had no desire to go to school. I had twenty dollars. I walked to school and told the teacher I had to stay home and cried. She let me go home. I didn’t go home. I went to the mall. For the first time ever I played hooky. Not only did I play hooky, but also I did something else. I found an amazing toy I wanted. It was the Kenner Snow speeder from the Empire Strikes Back. I remember looking at it and wanting it. It looked amazing and would be a great distraction from the pain and the guilt I was feeling from my mother’s illness. It was slightly more than I could afford. However, there was a die-cast version of the same toy but it was significantly less money. The computer till would list what the item was and the price. I carefully peeled the price tag off of the die-cast toy and placed it on the regular toy. I approached the till. The woman who was working the till scanned the item – it came up snow speeder. She looked at the box. It was a good price. She bagged it, took my money, and I got a lot of change back. So much I could afford lunch out. It was a great day. Until I got home. It didn’t feel right. Something was wrong – My half-sister was a drop out. She was a shoplifter, a drug user. I skipped a day of school. I swapped price tags to afford a toy. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to become that. My mom would have killed me if she knew what I had done. I was doing this to fill a hole inside me – nothing was working. Again I knew that I couldn’t do this to my mom and dad. This day off I took (and maybe it was needed) was the last day off I would take. It was the last time I would do those things. It wouldn’t be the last time I would cry about my mom, and the fear I had inside. Unfortunately the hate and shame within me only grew more. Thankfully my mom got better. Maybe God saw that I needed her and her love. Maybe God saw that the only two people who really loved me were my parents. Maybe God wasn’t going to destroy us after all. Maybe, just maybe, there was something worthy inside my messed up childhood self – something worthy within me that should live. In many ways I think of that particular fall as my experience in the cave of evil. I had a choice to make between following my half-sister’s path into a deception of theft, drugs and dropping out, or to take a more solitary path towards my own inner discovery (often attempting to bury the past along the way out of shame and anger for what I had done, what I had caused to my family.
Decades have passed and yet I am still untangling the past, one strand at a time. And yet along the way Star Wars – in many ways – has provided me a new hope. If you ever come over to visit – be sure to ask me about my Darth Vader glass. As Thanksgiving approaches, you can be assured that I will be drinking from it – my yearly reminder of my fathers love for me during a time when family failed us in our time of need. My reminder of the year I almost lost my mom and almost turned a corner into a life I don’t even want to imagine. I will never forget the Thanksgiving my father and I were excluded from the rest of the family’s dinner. To this day ask any of my in-laws what I do on Thanksgiving. Our house may be full of people – but every year, I will politely slip away and end up watching television with my arms around my kids. For MAXIMA DEBETEUR PUERO REVERENTIA – We owe the greatest respect to the children.