In the seventh chapter of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the narrator’s father, under the spell of Ursula Monkton, turns violent against his son. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Trigger Warning: The story and the review after it must address abuse. This will be upsetting even if you aren’t triggered by abuse, so please take care.
I’ve been having this dream.
It’s the same dream, even if the details are different. They started over ten years ago, and sometimes I’ll go half a year without being visited by it. It arrives, its sharp edges tearing at the edge of my consciousness, and it reminds me of the past. It tears open doors and unlocks memories.
I had one a couple weeks ago. In it, I was at my boyfriend’s house, and I had just slipped while walking up the stairs that lead to his place. My shin was pulsing with pain, as I’d managed to tear the skin during my fall. My boyfriend came back down the stairs to help me up, a look of concern on his face. His eyebrows always arch when he’s concerned, and he was doing that then, his hand on my left arm as he helped me up.
But as I limped up to his floor, I saw that my mother was at the top of the stairs, her arms crossed in front of her. “You can’t even manage stairs, can you?” she inquired.
I looked over to my boyfriend as we passed her, and confusion spread through his features. He wasn’t questioning why she was there; he was curious what she was referring to.
We walked to the bathroom and I sat down on the edge of the tub. He gathered a box of bandages, some gauze, one of those alcohol swabs, and then knelt in front of me, pulling my leg up to rest on his, and we both turned to see my mother standing in the doorway. “Stop being a baby,” she told me. “It doesn’t even hurt. Just man up. You’re not the son I raised.”
My boyfriend mouthed the word “Sorry” at me as he continued to clean my leg, wiping the blood away with the swab as the stinging caused me to wince. “You’re such a drama queen,” my mother continued. “You always have to make a scene.”
Could you please leave us alone? I said, my voice cracking on the last word. It was happening. I was remembering.
My mother rolled her eyes and walked away.
I woke up at this point, covered in sweat, my heart racing. The dream seemed nonsensical in and of itself, but it was the memory that it unearthed that frightened me. Why? Why was my brain asking me to remember this?
I was six years old when I began to realize something was wrong. I’d always feared my mother, but I figured that this was just how it always was. She wasn’t a terribly affectionate person, either, but when you’re six, you don’t think of things in such analytical terms. Still, I craved something more. I craved that gentle touch on my shoulders that I would sometimes get from my teacher when I wrote a good sentence. I craved the hugs I would see other mothers give their sons when they came to pick them up from school. I desired so much more than I got, but I never once said anything. I was afraid.
I was afraid of her voice when it rang sharply in my ears. I was afraid of the ire in her eyes, that flame that would burn as brightly as her fiery red hair, the one she dyed from boxes of hair color that had women on the boxes who looked at you with smiles and cheer. Sometimes, I’d look at other mothers at Smiths Grocery when we were in the hair color aisle, and I’d watch to see if they also rolled their eyes at their kids.
The first time my mother hit me was that year. It was my turn to play with my sister that day, and she decided to spray her bottle full of water all over herself, and when my mother was furious upon discovering it, my sister said I did it. I’ll never forget the dinner my mother made that night, and to this day, I can’t eat breaded chicken with pepper in it. You remember those patties they make that they usually have in cafeterias? That’s what my mom made that night, and that’s what she laid in front of me before she told me to put my hands on the counter, before she slammed her own hand down on top of both of them, her wedding ring leaving welts and dents in my skin, and I remember struggling to close my hand around the fork. I couldn’t do it, but I held the tears in my eyes and the sobs in my throat. I knew what would happen if I started crying.
We were not supposed to cry. It was beneath us. Our mother did not raise sissies. The problem was that my mother so closely linked her approval of us to fear that it made me more emotional than I probably would have been otherwise. I craved validation from my mother, and that meant I was terrified to do anything to disappoint her. By the time I was six, anything short of a perfect score on a test or quiz brought me to tears. If someone at school shoved me and I got a grass stain on my jeans, I’d go hide in the bathroom and cry to myself. If the teacher called on me to answer a question and I got it wrong, I’d feel the heat rise in my cheeks, and my throat would close up in terror. I couldn’t control it, and I couldn’t hide it when I was that young. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Wendt, saw it, and she brought it up to my mother during the parent-teacher meeting just after my seventh birthday.
I sat next to my mother as Mrs. Wendt covered my stories, my spelling quizzes, my artwork. She had nothing but praise for me. I was a dedicated student, she said, and I got along well with my peers. I was never mean, and I shared anything I had with other students during recess. She said I was a perfect student.
She hesitated then. “Mark, why don’t you go play in our Play Area, okay, honey?” she asked, gesturing to the loft area I loved to hide in during class.
“No,” my mother said, putting her hand firmly on my right leg, holding me in place. “He’ll stay here. He’s a big boy.”
Mrs. Wendt swallowed. “Well,” she began, “it’s just that he can be a bit nervous at times. He’s rather sensitive, and when other kids pick on him, he can get quiet and emotional. And I just wanted to talk to you about his development a bit further.” She paused, then cast a quick glance down at me. “Without him around, you know.”
“He’s fine,” my mother said. “And I’ll make sure to talk to him about it.” She smiled at my teacher, her lips pursed together, and I knew that something awful was going to happen.
My mother was silent the entire way home, and my brother, who sat next to me, sensed that something was wrong. We had this look we gave each other when we knew our mother was upset. Sympathy? Fear? Or some mixture of the two? It’s hard to pinpoint what it was, but we knew.
That night, I lay in bed with the sky blue comforter on top of me, pulled up to my chin, listening to my mother scream at me about how I was a big baby, how I needed to stop crying, and how she was going to show me what real pain was. She disappeared into the hallway, but I knew she was going into her bedroom, heading for my father’s side of the closet, and she returned with one of my father’s wider leather belts, and she raised it in the air as I begged her No, no, no, please don’t, and with each whoosh through the air came a stinging sensation on my bare legs underneath the comforter. Please stop, I told her through the tears that burst from eyes, the sobs filling my lungs.
“That doesn’t hurt,” she yelled at me. “Stop crying, it doesn’t hurt!”
But it did hurt, and I couldn’t stop.
“I will not raise a liar!” she screamed, and then she pulled the comforter off me, her hand on my arm, and then she was yanking me out of bed, leading me into the bathroom. “If you want to lie to your mother, then we’re going to have to clean out your dirty mouth,” she explained, and I watched in horror as she brought out a brand new bar of soap from under the sink. I turned to see the rest of my family staring at me. They looked sick. My brother gave me a new look. It was sadness and terror.
“Take a bite.”
I shook my head. No.
“Open your goddamn mouth,” she said, the force in her voice and in her hands as she pushed the soap bar against my lips, and I obeyed her, afraid of the alternative. I bit down, the soap surprisingly more malleable than I expected, and then I stood there, a chunk of Ivory in my mouth, and my mother turned me around, pushing me back into my bedroom. “You will leave that in your mouth until I say so,” she explained. “Until you learned your lesson. Do not swallow anything, and do not spit it out.”
We both heard the sobs at the same time, and we turned to see my brother standing there, crying out of (what I imagine) was fear and sympathy. He soon joined me, and we both clutched our blankets and cried quietly, our mouths full of the bitter substance that made us drool a combination of suds and saliva all over the sheets for a half hour. Our mother allowed us to spit out the soap then, and neither one of us slept that night.
That was the moment my mother broke me.
I had a conversation with my boyfriend just a week ago where I told him a very truncated version of this story related to the complicated things I feel about my own family. I don’t think anyone is necessarily surprised that I would respond so personally to the absolute horror that is this chapter. (Let me extend a huge thanks to the person who originally commissioned this and then swapped it out so that I wouldn’t have to read it on camera. I appreciate that. It would certainly have been too much to me.) But there’s another reason why this was so brutal to me, and it touches directly on the issue of children and wrongness. Again, I think we discount how well children are able to determine what should and should not happen. I didn’t need to be twice my age to know that, at seven, what my mother did to me was deeply and fundamentally wrong. I knew it innately then, even though I didn’t tell anyone about it for over a decade. I never spoke to my brother about it until a few years ago, and he echoed the same sentiment: he knew definitively then that the way our mother treated us when she was upset was wrong.
I really do believe that children implicitly trust their parents, and that’s a huge reason why I empathized with the narrator here. To realize that you can’t trust your parents for whatever reason is a horrifying thing to experience. I was seven years old when my fear became something more than just that. And it’s weird talking about it because while that feeling lasted a long, long time, I did eventually reconcile with my mother when I was eighteen years old, the summer before I left for college. I forgave her, too, and I love her. We’re close, but… well, I don’t think we can ever truly be close again. I go weeks without talking to her at times, and it doesn’t bother me as much as it should. I wasn’t being hyperbolic when I said that my mom broke me that night. I mean it. So many of my issues surrounding trust, affection, and validation are completely rooted in what happened that night, and they only got worse as the homophobia and abuse continued. But it’s rooted in one thing.
I think that in Ursula Monkton, Gaiman has created an antagonist who I despise more than Delores Umbridge or Warren from Buffy. She turned the narrator’s father against him, and he nearly killed his son. But it’s Gaiman’s willingness to cast the father’s abuse as abuse that really hit home for me. Repeatedly, Gaiman references (through the narrator) the fact that the father doesn’t hit his son. He doesn’t need to in order to abuse him. I remember when I finally started opening up about what my mother did to me and hearing people tell me (to my face!) that my mom wasn’t abusing me because she rarely hit me.
She didn’t need to.
And let me just say thanks in advance for being the kind of community that makes it easier for me to talk about this sort of stuff. That’s awesome, and it’s what makes doing Mark Reads such a rewarding thing for me.
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