Children who grow up with serious family violence often enter adult life as persons who have very little integrity. In my own case, by the time I reached junior high I was skilled in lying, stealing, forgery and lock-picking. I depended on these skills for my survival, so I was very, very good at them and was only caught once. I took a dime from my grandmother's purse. I couldn't bear being the only kid who didn't get to stop at Pano's Drugstore on the way home from school. My grandmother, who had supported two children, two foster children, and an alcoholic husband through the Great Depression by taking in washings, always knew to the penny how much money she had. After realizing a dime was missing, she went down to Pano's Drugstore and asked if I had been in there and if I had bought anything. Mr. Pano told her I had been in yesterday and enjoyed a coke and an ice cream cone. I don't remember what punishment she meted out for that. Corporal punishment was not considered child abuse in the 1950s. There were trips to the woodshed, and being made to go and cut a lilac switch. Generally, the number of blows administered were set in advance, and ranged somewhere between three and ten, according to the severity of the offense committed. That sort of thing went on at my house, but it didn't stop at that. There is what I once heard referred to as 'the humiliation of violence.' That phrase always brings to mind being knocked to the floor and kicked repeatedly with my grandmother's gardening boots. I was nothing. Integrity was a luxury that did not exist in my world.
A child who graduates from high school with lying, stealing, forgery and lock-picking on her resume, slides quickly in the direction of drinking, drugging and promiscuity. Magic substances blot out pain. There is what passes for love and is, at least, touch - soft touches that have nothing to do with boots or lilacs. There was no voice in my head saying, "You are better than this." In my experience, I wasn't better than anything.
The down side does emerge. Being a drunken, semi-employed slut isn't much fun in the long run, and becomes in its own right a threat to personal survival. Personal survival is what it's all about in a violent family. That is the priority that rules everything. So I needed to find a way out of the morass.
My half-assed attempt to get a college diploma included taking a class in Shakespeare. Reading Hamlet, I came across this line that Hamlet delivered to Gertrude, his shameless mother who was rolling around in the bed of her recently deceased husband's brother. Gertrude was sort of like me. She would do anything for a good time. Hamlet says to Gertrude, "Assume a virtue if you have it not."
This line resounded through my entire being like the Voice of God speaking from the heavens.
I had attended Sunday School throughout my childhood so I at least knew what virtues were. In fact, when I was in the third grade I ran across the Bible verse, "Be ye perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." I set a goal to become perfect, and even held to it for awhile. It was a survival strategy. I thought if I was perfect she would stop beating me. But it didn't work so it was discarded.
Now, miraculously, the idea of practicing virtues had come back to me. I went out and bought a notebook and made a list of virtues. I then made a list of goals. I would never again steal anything. I would try as hard as I could to never tell lies other than ones like, "You look wonderful with that new haircut." I would put money into a savings account. Even if it was a dollar a week. I would clean my little hovel of an apartment. I would start going to church. I would take notice of what good and virtuous people did and imitate them.
Over the years, I developed integrity and a new and much better self-image. I became the type of person who doesn't lie and steal because she's better than that. Hamlet gave very good advice.
Now, as I work with homeless people, I often hear them being judged harshly for their behavior. "They drink. They do drugs. They walk down streets at night looking for unlocked cars and take change from the drink holder. They have babies they can't afford." And so on and so forth. 'If only they would behave decently they wouldn't be homeless". Many good people have these opinions. They take personal credit for their goodness. They don't realize that on the Merry-go-Round of Life they were blessed to get the brass rings marked "Goodness," "Integrity," and "Self Respect.
Many homeless people are amazingly good, kind, and decent despite the multitude of problems and traumas they have had to survive. Those who aren't - I really understand. I can now thank God for giving me those years of being dishonest and drunk and crazy. I have many faults, but being a pious, judgmental prick will never be one of them.