We were in bed and ostensibly asleep by the time our father, a State Department official at a foreign post, arrived home. Having stopped off at a bar on the way, he arrived drunk and ready for battle. Then it began: the verbal and physical assault on my mother.

Although we admired our clever father and elegant mother, we four children lay wide-eyed in our darkened bedrooms, listening to the barrage of vicious language, the screaming and crying, the crashing of heavy objects and the awkward sounds of shoving and scuffling from the large master bedroom suite at the end of the hall. Neither parent seemed aware of the four terrified children lying awake in their beds. Our daytime parents had been replaced by a monster and his victim.

Years earlier, I had become quite religious, although my family eschewed organized religion. Since the age of eight, I’d attended church whenever possible, my white New Testament (a gift from my grandmother) tucked under my arm. By the time I was eleven, I was convinced that my father was on the road to hell, and that only my faith stood between my mother and her eventual murder at his hands.

I hatched a plot. I urged all my siblings to join me in one night’s prayer vigil. Instead of lying in frozen terror in our beds during our father’s rampage, I planned for us to pray fervently and continuously for delivery from his tyranny. I never knew if my siblings joined me in the dark of the night, but I gave it my best shot – hands folded as I’d been taught at Vacation Bible School. I do not know what my young mind imagined would happen: would angels come down to earth and convert my father to a new, sober life? Would my mother suddenly gain superhuman strength and level him where he stood? Would we all be carried away to a better, more peaceful place?

In any case, nothing happened. That night and many that followed passed as usual, and I couldn’t understand why God hadn’t seen fit to deliver four innocent children and their defenseless mother from a terrifying nightmare.

Eventually, weeks or months later, my mother reached her limit and fled the house to seek help from a neighbor. Soon we were shipped back to the US, where we struggled with a new set of challenges with our mother as a single parent. Although we were poor now and ill-suited to life in small-town Oklahoma, I remember the sweet pleasure of falling asleep in the quiet of a silent and peaceful home.

I was an adult and well into a life of tentative agnosticism before it occurred to me that my prayers had, after all, been answered.


  • Barb says:

    You have created a great retelling of an all-too-common story. It brought back memories for me, less poignant, less vivid, but still something I can recall 40 years later. I remember the white New Testament. I remember the alcoholic rage.

    In our family’s case, the parents stayed together, and the abuse switched from alcohol-induced fisticuffs to a lifelong series of verbal harangues. I am happy for you, your siblings and your mother that she had the strength to leave.

    Perhaps, had I been more inspired by the New Testament, my family’s story would have been different.

  • kambrogi says:

    Thanks for sharing your own memories, Barb. Your words are moving, and it goes without saying that I know what you mean. The question is: what difference do our actions as children make at a time like that? Surely very little. And yet, more often than not, children come away feeling responsible. I know I did, and still do.

  • Chun li says:

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  • kambrogi says:

    Thank you, Chun Li. It is always good to know that someone is listening, even though it’s been a while since I “said” anything.


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