Ted Robertson, the headmaster of my prep school, Hollingbury Court in Sussex, had a collection of canes in his study. Thick ones; thin, whippy ones; long and short. Different materials. For hours I would stand in a gloomy wood-panelled corridor, next to a creepy chapel, waiting for the beatings. This could be several times a week. Talking after lights out, talking at meal times, running in the corridor, wearing the wrong bit of uniform – these and other outrages were all punishable with a good thrashing. “Bend over, boy.” I would focus on a spot on the floor. The most important thing was not to wince. And I wasn’t going to give those bastards the satisfaction of seeing me cry.
This sounds familiar, as my mother would spank for even the smallest of infractions: if I “talked back”, if I didn’t get good marks on my report card, or if she just thought I was acting up and she was in a bad mood. In my case, I didn’t have to wait; my mother did not use any implements, just her bare hands. I honestly can’t say whether or not that made things better, as there was no waiting but there was also no warning.
Most times, there wasn’t a warning. I was simply struck. But after a while, that stopped working, as I’d start smarting off once I was hit. I did it just to irritate her, which would in turn, cause her to hit me harder. It was a vicious loop, a circle of abuse but at the time, I didn’t see it that way. Worse? If I pissed her off enough to hit me harder, I goaded her even further, as I figured that I had somehow “won”.
My mother often said that she did the same thing to her father, goading him into beating her. When she’d pick herself up from the floor, bruised or bleeding, she’d thought that she had “won”. Sound familiar?
I was beaten like this throughout the 1970s, with canes and bats and shoes and clothes brushes, from the age of seven all the way through to when I was 12. The pain doesn’t last so long. But a burning anger settles in your soul.
That sounds bitterly familiar to me. The pain fades. The welts disappear. But the anger remains. It’s always there, simmering under the surface. Even today, I can remember the rage and the shame that I felt when my mother hit me. I can remember how much I hated her, hated what she was doing to me and hated what was happening. There were plenty of times that all I thought of in my formative years was how to get some sort of revenge. I wanted my mother to suffer, to feel the same pain that I was feeling in those moments.
Part of the purpose of empire was to promote evangelical Christianity. But the empire was no place for effeminate Christians. And so the ability to take a good beating became training for the sort of mental toughness that was required to rule the world.
In my home, the corporal punishment had nothing to do with masculine Christianity. This was different; my mother believed in obedience. As a child, I was to be completely obedient. I was to do exactly as she asked, no matter what the task may be. That meant that any sort of disobedience had to be removed from my personality.
The quickest way to remove it? Spanking. Because spanking causes kids to obey without question, therefore it works!
It “works” in the short term. The long term? Not so much. We’re seeing that in a lot of studies now. And the personal stories say the exact same thing.
The moral formation I received from my school beatings was almost entirely the opposite of what was intended. They gave me a lifelong problem with authority and a kneejerk identification with victims.
There is a lot of truth in this quote.
To this day, I have a real problem with authority figures. If they come across as too bossy or demanding, I instantly do not like them. It’s a complete kneejerk reaction but they immediately make my mental shit list. As for how the corporal punishment affected my relationship with my mother, I think everyone here knows how troubled it can be.
I moved over a thousand miles away from my family. I don’t really have the desire to go back and visit. There are multiple reasons for that, I admit. This one might be the biggest.
It takes me back to the so-called decency of the man who caned me, and the sickness I felt in my stomach as a little boy, waiting outside that chapel in a gloomy wood-panelled corridor. This was more than 40 years ago – but I still don’t have it in me to forgive him for what he did to me.
It’s been at least two decades since my mother struck me. I can still remember the anger. I can still remember the shame. Yes, my mother honestly thought that she was doing “the right thing”. Yes, my mother thought that this was for the best. But I still have difficulty forgiving her for it. The memories still sting, the pain is still there, lurking below the surface.
It’s difficult to forgive that sort of betrayal, especially when it comes from someone you are supposed to trust. It may have been for the greater good but nothing good came of it.