No More Hugs

Harlow's Monkeys

When I was seven years old I did something for reasons I can only guess at, and about which I harbor certain regrets – but in some ways don’t regret at all. It is hard to explain.


I remember the day, the time, this scattering of moments with crystal clear clarity. I can clearly see the bedroom, lit by the overhead light; I can feel myself in the bed, the covers pulled halfway to my chest; see their rumpled billows embracing me. I can even orientate myself; my head is to the north, my feet toward the south; the doorway is to my left and down, and the hall light is on. It is bedtime.

My dad comes in. Despite his cruel ways, his hidden sadism, he is smiling, almost laughing as he bee-bops through the doorway and across the linoleum tile floor. He was always fond and affectionate when it came time to put us to bed – though he has a rude way of awakening us – coming in in the morning, jumping on the bed and roughly tickling us, and sometimes even worse – grabbing us by one heel and snatching us up and dangling us upside down. That’s the way he used to beat us sometimes – holding us up with one hand by one foot, and lashing as hard as he could with a thick leather belt with the other. I don’t remember those times real well, but my brother recently told me, triggering flickers of memory and pain; of squirming like a tortured frog within his grasp. I guess I am fortunate I cannot remember those times as well as my brother, for my brother has told me he could hear me scream and scream and scream. To me they are just blackness; a time buried and lost in my memory, or within the memory of my inner child.

He comes to my bed; places a knee on the bed. I feel uneasy, uncomfortable. I don’t know why – just a general uneasiness. He bends over, scooping my thin shoulders – broad for a child, but thin as a kid – in his arms. The warmth of his closeness, the feel of his closeness, his bristled chin scraping my face. He hugs me tightly, goes to kiss me – a parent’s kiss, nothing more. And when he releases me I tell him.

“Dad? I don’t want you to hug me anymore.” I feel odd telling him him this, but my uneasiness is forcing me. I don’t know why I am uneasy; just that it’s there, the feeling of some undefinable something wrong.

“What?” he asks kindly, his face a few inches from mine.

“I don’t want you to hug me anymore,” I say – a bit more forcefully, a bit more sure. “I’m a big boy. I don’t want hugs.”

He leans back and looks at me, confusion clear upon his face.

“Why – okay,” he says, taking his knee from the bed and rising. His face is clouded, then clears. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I say. My uneasiness is leaving, and yet I am troubled – there is a deep churning I cannot describe, even now. A dark thing within me. A bothersome feeling I cannot pin down.

“Well. Okay.” His face is now unreadable, a slate hiding his emotions. He goes to the door, pauses with his hand on the light switch.

“Good night,” he says, flicking off the switch. The room plunges into darkness. I can see him, a dark featureless shadow framed in the doorway, silhouetted by the hall light.

“Good night, dad,” I say, turning over as is my wont, towards the crevice between the bed and the wall. That’s how I often slept – my nose stuck in that crevice, breathing in the cool air from beneath the bed.

Over the years I have replayed that scene in my mind, wondering. My mom was devoid of physical affection – I don’t remember her ever hugging us. During my childhood and teenage years, I don’t remember them ever saying they loved us, except as a tool, such as “We are doing this (a punishment) because we love you.” That was the only time love was ever mentioned – as a reason for a punishment. Why would I suddenly decide to put an end to the only source of parental affection available to me? Why did I do that – and yet seek an even more intimate form of affection from my peers and the teenager next door?

I suspect I know why. I guess I write this as a warning something to look for in your child, though I cannot be sure this was the reason, nor do I wish to raise undue suspicions. But I think – and this is just a thought – that my uneasiness arose from what was happening between the teenager and I. That I was afraid my dad would go further, as the teenager did. That that kiss would turn into something else; something more adult and demanding. The press of his body against mine – I guess it subconsciously reminded me of something, what was happening to me two or three times a week during the summer; a little less during the school year.

My brother and I both discussed this in a sidelong sort of fashion. We never admit the sexual abuse that happened. But we both agree: dad never touched us “like that”. He never did anything sexual to or towards us. He never (to the best of our faulty recollections) – touched us inappropriately. There was only one time he ‘touched’ me in a way that was bad, but that was for a medical procedure, and if it hadn’t been for the sexual abuse by the teenager, it wouldn’t still stick out in my mind. I’ll write about that sometime later.

The majority of my ‘selves’ regret that day, my decision – but the little child inside still doesn’t. I don’t know why. To this day I can feel his firm resolution on the issue. (In my mind I can see him shaking his head “no”, still stubbornly refusing to change his mind.) Strange. This is one of the problems with my kind of madness. Having these ‘beings’ within you, some fighting other parts of your mind.

But I think – and this is the warning, the admonition – that when a small child suddenly, out of the blue, refuses or no longer wants a parent’s affection – when it suddenly becomes uncomfortable to the child, makes them uneasy – it may indicate . . . something.

Just a thought. Perhaps a warning,. I don’t know. Like I said: I’m still not sure why I felt so uneasy about my dad hugging me anymore – but I have my suspicions.

And sometimes suspicions are grounded in fact.

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