Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lies My Mother Told Me - David Nugent

Lies my mother told me
By David Nugent
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:30:00 06/01/2008
Filed Under: Family, Lifestyle & Leisure

MANILA, Philippines - Everyone has a story. This is part of mine.

My story begins on a desk. Or, my mother says I was born on a desk. It had become a family joke—David who was born on the desk. For years I didn’t believe it, until I’d find out later that much of the family lore of my youth was a lie.

Those lies ranged from the mundane—my parents being married in a grand church wedding in the Philippines—to the ridiculous—that no one in the family had photographs of that wedding because my grandmother’s house where all the photos were kept burned down. Only years later would I find out that it never happened.

In the summer of 1989, I was going through my mothers’ papers. I chanced upon an envelope of old birth certificates and other documents. One caught my interest—a Philippine Record of a Live Birth. In the section that noted whether the child was legitimate or illegitimate, mine was marked in the latter.

Up to that day, I had lived with another story. No one had told me the truth about being born illegitimate. I remember eventually confronting my mother, a proud, if obstinate, woman, and who faced with the 19-year-old lie she had kept me enmeshed in, reacted only with anger and distress. I could barely understand why.

I had a childhood that was marked by severe and tragic behavior—abuse. Violent, bruising physical abuse. Abuse that began at an early age, from a father whose own father had abused him, who as a child had to pull a shotgun on his father to prevent his own mother from being beaten even more savagely.

Hidden away

When you are hit often and hard as child, when you are kept largely hidden away from the relationships and friendships that one needs in early childhood socialization, your emotional self can go in several directions. Many cope by creating places to escape to in their mind. If you cannot physically run away from abuse, you will find some place in the soul where you can thrive until you overcome what is being done to you.

That was how I began at a very early age, to deal with the abuse of a family environment that could have nearly broken me. Truth is, it nearly did.

Abusive behavior is usually unpredictable. It comes from the most unlikely places. I recall one time being beaten severely because I had returned home from a Boy Scout meeting and my drunken father was in no mood to hear a thin 12-year-old ask for a new backpack and hiking shoes.

I was dragged upstairs, where, before my nine-year-old sister, my father grabbed my shorts, pulled them down and started to belt me. Again and again. I screamed. I screamed for my mother, who was downstairs. But she didn’t come. I was screaming for my sister, who was imploring my father to stop.

But one person did try to stop him. The only person who was not afraid of my father’s blows was my grandmother. Kind, soft-spoken, she had a bravery and a determination that her grandchild should live, and because of incredible love, she jumped into the melee my father had launched, and demanded he stop beating an already bloody boy. Eventually, he did.

Another time I remember my father coming into my bedroom. As is the case for most lonely but smart boys, I had developed an acerbic wit. To my father’s question about my plans for that evening, I recall giving a flippant answer. His response was swift and cutting—a punch to my right jaw.

I didn’t go anywhere that night as I sat in my room, icing my bruised face and reading a book on ancient Egypt. I thought I bore a resemblance to the dead Tutankhamun—in my little head the dead King Tut looked at least happy and serene. I was far from that as a tortured youth.

People have often asked me why I moved back to the Philippines. The true answer is something I have long held dear, and have rarely spoken about. I moved back because of a woman—my grandmother. Because in my life, there had been only one person who had consistently stood up for me. It was a sprightly old woman from Dapa town, Siargao Island, Surigao del Norte.


In her halting English and broken Chinese and Visayan, she made it clear on many occasions she was unhappy with the man my mother had chosen to be with.

It was because of the precious memories of her I carried during my harrowing years as child in the Philippines that I wanted to come back. To the country where I was born and where I felt the love of a relative the strongest.

I moved home after the technology bubble burst in 2001.

Turned out, I had moved home too late to see her. She died in October 1993—which my mother told me only the following year. She hadn’t told me of my grandmother’s death because she was “mad” at me for the failure of her own marriage.

That summer of 1989, my homecoming, was my first since the three-year period my family lived here, when my father was stationed as a civil service officer working for the US Department of Defense.

To escape the brutality of his own childhood and the relative poverty his family had suffered, he joined the US Navy as a grunt in the mid ’50s. For much of my early life, he was gone. Gone nine months of the year, and then, when he retired from the navy in 1975 and began a moderately successful career working for various defense contractors—Northrup Grumman and Lockheed for example—he took a job with the US Department of Defense.

Bruised and bloodied

We spent three years at Subic Bay in the early 1980s, when I’d visitSurigao, become reconnected with my mother’s family. It was also whenmy father’s anger turned into a rage that became uncontrollable. Iwould often show up at US Boy Scout meetings bruised and in tears. It was a known secret what went on in our house. My father’s attitude to children was that they should be seen, never heard.

And therein I learned that people tell lies to cover lies. My mother would lie about my bruising. My parents’ friends would lie about the reasons my father drank himself into a stupor every night. Yet none of those lies could hide what was apparent to everyone in plain sight—a nearly daily dose of beatings and sublimation of a young boy’s spirit.

All I can surmise now is that perhaps, to escape the sad reality that my father had little power in his own life, he was determined to demonstrate whatever power he had over some one—me.

Once, I remember my father having left for Washington, very early after a pre-dawn beating when I tried, I tried to call some family assistance number. I was desperate for help and convinced that some should help me stop this man who was purportedly my father yet was unlike any of my friend’s fathers.

Where was my mother during this time? I really don’t know. I mean, she lived with us, she liked us all piling into the Volvo and driving off to some hotel in Manila or Makati or up to Camp John Hay where she’d load a nylon bag with cash and go looking for gold jewelry bargains.

Now, at 38, I learned years ago to stop asking her—why mom, didn’t you do anything?


People who abuse know, very deep down, that what they are doing is wrong. Many try all kinds of ameliorations to assuage that guilt. My parents dealt with their guilt through bribery.

A bruised and broken boy found that he could be easily bought with one of his father’s crisp $100 bills. On more than one occasion I remember being dropped off at a shopping mall somewhere in Manila or Makati, by guilty parents and given $100 to spend. I would usually buy cake and watch people go by.

I’ve tried over the years to get the full story from my parents about my birth and the truth is, they never really wanted to level with the truth. They had created their own, fictitious life as a solid, happy middle-class family, with two houses in San Diego, California, a red Volvo station wagon that followed us to our brief stay in the Philippines and back to the US. There were private schools for most of my life, summer camps, swimming lessons and accoutrements people associate with a successful childhood.

In family photos, I see these two people earnestly smiling into a camera—two weary individuals, probably not in love with each other, but in love with the hope that their own fictional story would be believed.

I have no knowledge of my mother’s life before her erstwhile marriage to my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of a father. From what I’ve gathered from relatives, her life was happy , except for the periods that no one wanted to talk about.


As it turned out, I really was born on a desk. On a desk in a crowded hospital in Olongapo City, where my delivery doctor was a Doc Nepomuceno and where I was marked as an illegitimate birth. It was the only place my mother could give birth in because that was where apparently she was accepted, even nominally, pregnant with the baby of an American navyman.

Good Chinese-Filipino girls in 1970 did not get knocked up by whiteguys, and I can imagine she had few options available to her. But shecarried a baby inside her and the same instinct that made her survive theearly horrors of World War II in Surigao and the decades of mygrandfather’s tyranny drove her to the only place where she could bring her baby to life.

The people she found there welcomed her because they themselves were survivors, refugees from other lives. Shady waitresses, bar girls, disreputable bar owners, the pimps and the madams that ran amok in 1960s and 1970s Olongapo and Angeles.

But my mother couldn’t care, because she was desperate. And as you’d learn as your own life’s arch extends, people of quality aren’t always those with pedigree. The people who matter are those who’d stand by you, help you when no one else would.

So it was in that environment that my mother, Chinese-Filipina in her early 30s, and a serviceman could craft some romance.

Except that it too was based on a lie. Because as I found out only from my mother’s file in 1989, my father was already married. To his third wife, Jean, back in the US. My father was married two more times after my mother.

I have to believe now, that the fiction about a real wedding having taken place must have started in those hazy days. Days when two damaged persons had a new baby and decided to build something of a life together.


It’s taken me years to learn how to deal with the abuse of my childhood. In 1991, I went into a long depression. I had returned from a hapless attempt to be a penniless young writer in Paris—I lived in a garret room in one of the dorms at Cite Universite for a few months—and upon returning to the US had settled into the old, little house my parents had bought in the middle of an almond orchard in Hanford, California.

It was a mistake to go there. My mother was then in the midst of a terrifying divorce with my father. She had, after years of emotional abuse—strangely he never hit her, at least to my knowledge—finally gotten the courage to give up her modest material concerns and leave the man who had nearly killed her son.

I spent nearly a year and a half with her, a descent into an emotional hell in which she blamed me for the failure of her marriage and for the failure of her attaining the middle-class security she strove for. The houses were sold. The cars were too. And times were very, very tough.

The only joy I shared then was my old Australian Shepard, Biffi. She had a ridiculous name, but she was ferociously protective of me and I of her. We’d go walk in the orchards behind the house, she chasing squirrels, possums, skunks, and I’d sit on wooden bench in the cold, usually not saying much. It was an odd existence for a young man.

Yet I loved the outdoors because there at least, the horror of the interiors I had known growing up did not exist.

The lies my birth was hidden in became part of who I believed myself to be. And one day, I decided that if I were to finally escape the abuse that had nearly broken me as a child, I needed to be something other than that broken and bruised boy. Instead, I carried the wounds further into my own life, never healing them.

Denial and half-truths and untruths are often the hallmarks of childrenof abuse. So is, too, an innate desire to survive that abuse—by any means you can. And when you feel as if your very life is being threatened you will look for any means to come out of that madness.


Children who eventually escape abusive families—if they can escape at all—often also carry a deep desire to rebuild themselves into something from which they came—and for many persons of abuse, myself included, fiction intertwined with truth resulted in a hodgepodge of excuses. And repetitive behaviors.

Eventually, those demons that haunted a child of abuse will haunt her or him as an adult. Peace of mind eludes abused children.

Starting over the past couple of years, because I have stumbled and fallen, because my own life’s arch has given me the luxury to finally examine what had gone wrong many years ago, I began to deal finally with my demons.

It is not a shameless exercise. I can now discuss the nature of my illegitimate birth. I wear it as a badge because that instinct for survival was what drove me as an incomplete adult who made mistakes along the way.

Confronting abuse is tough. One has to look at what one has endured, and confront it, honestly. Honesty is the only way to deal with abusive families and through this essay, I hope to begin putting what had been an abjectly unfortunate trajectory into an altogether more powerful one.

To talk about what I went through as a child, and hopefully, in trying to lead a better life, the path to forgiving those who wronged me as child can make me a better adult.

It is critically important if you were abused that the only way out of that life is through forgiveness. So here is mine—I forgive you dad, you’re probably sitting in your lonely house on the Midwest Plains outside of Antler, North Dakota. I forgive you for everything.

My brave ‘lola’

In 2001 I decided to finally go back to the Philippines, a place that had been strangely dear to me, despite the horrors of my childhood. It is here where lies buried a woman who spent only a little time with me. I remain connected to her. She was a warrior, a woman who had protected me.

I felt her spirit as a child and again many years later when I returned to Surigao and visited her grave. I wanted to do right by my Lola Carmen. I still do.

I had asked my lawyer if I needed to do anything to prove my status as a natural-born citizen of the Philippines—my parents were married when I was three years old, finally, in a roadside wedding chapel in Las Vegas. It was so important to me to have a piece of paper stating I was indeed a legitimate citizen, that I am of this country, that I am of this family.


Surprisingly, my mother actually did me a good deed shortly after I moved back. She gave me the title to a small piece of property, her reduced and remaining share of my grandfather’s coconut farm on Siargao Island. Its only about 3-4 hectares but part of it is beachfront, where I have sought solace in the past. There, a few years ago, I learned to forgive my mother. I realize now that she was damaged as well by her own life’s trauma. I realized it would be important for me to forgive and to move on.

We have become a family again, and there are no more lies. The lore of lies, abuse and hidden truths has been broken, finally.

Verbal abuse

I continue to learn lessons each day about the abuse I suffered and the abuse I carried as an adult. The worst abuse isn’t even physical. The worst abuse comes from the mouth. And unless you—as I have finally started to do—deal with that abuse once and for all and turn it into something good for someone else, you will continue to abuse. As I did and continue to do.

If anyone who has been in an abusive situation does not confront his demons, he’d find out that the damage he does could be worse. It takes the form of lies you tell a loved one, the hubris you present during a meeting. You will continue to damage yourself until you become the thing you are terrified of becoming the most—the people who abused you.

I have learned from a life that, I pray, others will never have. I feel it’s my duty to do something good to ensure that no other little boy has to learn the painful lessons I have.

So, those of you who are lucky enough to be in a happy and secure home, kiss your family and hug your children. Do not hit them because they will remember that forever.

Do something

And those who know of abuse being inflicted—whether upon a child, or a wife or a sister or a brother or even just an acquaintance do something. Stand up, speak for them because they cannot speak for themselves. In turn, your own life will become richer and more true.

Writing about one’s truths is liberating. It is honest, it is real. I visited my sister and her family last December in their California Victorian bungalow. As I ran the chilly fields with my seven-year-old nephew and my four-year-old niece, I found myself doing an incredible thing—I no longer sat silent in the cold.


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