Preceding traumas lead to current ones

Anita is 37 with blonde, wild, disheveled hair. She is overweight, has bad teeth, wears too much make-up, and is severely depressed — sometimes psychotic. She tells me she often hears voices. And she constantly complains that the medicine she gets from our clinic (and she gets a lot), does not take the edge off her feelings.

She has severe anger and is in an anger-management group at our offices. Each week she meets with the anger group — when she shows up. She is court-ordered to attend. I remind her frequently of this, not to threaten her, but to let her know I am obligated under the court directive to inform the judge if she is not regular with the weekly anger group. I am happy if she makes the meetings half the time, although I don’t tell her so.

When she first started in the anger group, she came to me with a complaint that there was a particularly offensive man, a young blonde guy by the name of Bobby, who was supposedly tormenting her.

“Ray, he even puts up his fist like this (she demonstrates), like he is going to hit me. I swear I will pound him into the ground like a nail if he tries anything.”

It is difficult to keep from smiling when Anita talks this way.

“Maybe that guy is in the group to test you,” I suggest, “to help you learn control.”

Violence is not just an empty threat from Anita. One recent court appearance and jail time involved an incident where her boyfriend, Donald, a slightly built, sickly-looking fellow, was cut up by Anita.

The attack on Donald came about because Anita got jealous. It seems Donald arranged for a double date, he and Anita and another couple. But Donald had neglected to tell Anita that the other woman was someone Donald used to date. So when Anita found out, she went ballistic and cut up Donald, so much so that the police came and hauled her off. That didn’t seem to discourage Donald, though, much as I think it would be in Anita’s interest if it had.

For several months now, I have been after Anita to get an apartment of her own closer to our offices, because where she now lives is, technically speaking, out of our catchment area.

We have to wait to get into the building to see the apartment I have found for her, so we sit in my car with the motor running. It is a cold day. It has been a very cold winter. Anita offers a bit of information, unsolicited, about her early life. She begins by telling me about her father, who died of lung cancer at age 54.

“He never knew he had it,” she says, “until it was too late. I remember he had big bumps on his back, and they were full of green puss. Wasn’t long after that he was dead. He died at home. My mother called me and said she could not rouse him, and he was cold to the touch, and his hand fell back when she tried to move it. She thought he was dead.”

Anita says this without much emotion.

“Were you close with your dad?”

“Not really. I didn’t know him hardly. From age three or four to 17, most of the time, I was in foster homes. My only memory of him in those years was him coming home drunk and beating up my mother.”

“What did he do for work?”

“You know, Ray, I don’t know. I think maybe he worked for the railroad some of the time.”

I knew about her foster care years because I was in court the day the state took her daughter, Ellen. She also has a married son, age 22. Anita cried, saying how she didn’t want the same thing that happened to her to happen to Ellen, a life of foster care. But the sad truth is, Anita is not a fit mother. That is not to say she is not a decent, caring person in many respects, because she is. But she is incapable of raising a child. She was totally unable to control or protect her teenage daughter, and from the worst kind of violations.

Only today, she is flailing at the system that keeps her child from her, telling me how she is going to tell all those f**king judges and lawyers where they can go and demand Ellen back immediately. I try to explain, not for the first time, how little such an approach would get her.

I don’t know how the subject came up, but when Anita starts talking about her childhood, she tells me that at age 12, she was raped.

“By your father?”

“Oh, no,” she says, but I can see she is not at all shocked by such a question.

“I was gang-raped by a bunch of bikers, a motorcycle gang.”

I don’t ask her how many men were involved, but she hints in her telling that there were quite a few. She also tells me how, whenever she hears the roar of a motorcycle, she relives for a moment that horrible day.

I want to ask, but don’t, Were you in foster care then, and if so, where were the foster parents? But I happen to know about foster care. I worked in it for a year. Children go in and out of foster care for their entire childhoods.

The lady who is to show us the apartment finally arrives, and the place is acceptable to Anita. Brenda, a friend of Anita’s, lives across the hall, and they will share the bath together with a man down the hall. She and Brenda met in a homeless shelter the year before.

For Anita, the shelter came right after she was released from the state mental hospital. She had been kept there for three months. She was penniless, her life in total disarray. That’s where I found her.

The apartment isn’t exactly what Anita had hoped for, but it is a beginning, I tell her, and she will be away, if she wishes to be away from Donald and his entourage. It is not clear if she wants this.

I caution Anita as we drive back to my office, “If Donald and his friends start coming around there will be trouble, quickly. It won’t work.”

Anita assures me again that she wants to get away from Donald, be free of him. But when I leave Anita off a few minutes later in front of our offices, she goes one way, and I go the other, but I look back through the latticework fence we have in front of the building. I see Donald come out from behind a car where he has been waiting for Anita.

Timidly he walks up behind her, and she walks along as if she has not seen him, but I know she has. Soon he comes up alongside Anita and puts his arm around her waist, and she does not resist or push him away.

Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.

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