My Parents Were Violent — First With Each Other, Then With Us. Here’s Why I Let Them Back Into My Life.

“You don’t have to worry about running away ever again, because when we get home, I’m going to break your fucking legs,” Dad yelled to me from the driver’s seat of the car.

Mom and Dad, with my siblings in tow, had just picked me up from the police station in Green Bay, Wisconsin, after my failed attempt to run away.

Sitting in the back seat, I watched the approaching stop lights, waiting for the car to slow. As soon as the time was right, I planned to push the door open and jump. I had no time to think about what would happen. I knew the alternative — going back home with my parents — would be worse.

Earlier that day, there’d been an altercation when Dad discovered I’d snuck out of the house the night before and gone to a party. I knew it was against the rules but I took my chances and went anyway, hoping my parents wouldn’t find out. I made things worse by involving my 10-year-old brother, whom I asked to put my running shoes and shorts in the garage before I returned that morning. If Dad or Mom saw me, I thought they’d assume I had been out for my usual early morning run.

“Good morning,” Dad said as I walked in the house. “How was your run?”

I breathed a small sigh of relief as I headed toward my bedroom — it appeared I was in the clear. But a few hours later, when Dad summoned me and my younger brother to the living room, I knew something was up. Somehow, Dad knew everything, but he insisted my brother tell him what happened. I assumed he’d found out through the phone recording system he’d set up to listen in on our phone calls, his latest technique to make sure me and my siblings were staying on the straight and narrow.

Ever loyal to me, my brother refused to talk. Fearful of what would happen to him if he didn’t, I tried to interject and confess, but Dad immediately shut me down.

“Your brother is going to tell me,” he said. Dad seemed invested in forcing my brother to tell on me: a battle between authority and loyalty, perhaps.

Trembling, I begged my brother, “Just tell him.” When Dad went to remove his watch — a sure sign of what was coming next — I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Run!” I yelled to my brother as I bolted up the stairs and out the door. Barefoot, I raced down the concrete sidewalk with my Dad close behind. My brother was nowhere in sight; zip-zagging through our neighbours’ yards, I ducked into a large bush and hid. Once my Dad was gone, I knocked on a stranger’s door and called the police.

At the police station, the officer said there was nothing they could do to help. Dad hadn’t hit me or my brother, and in their opinion, we weren’t in imminent danger. I knew better.

The author's parents holding Kristil, her daughter.

Courtesy of Tammy Rabideau

The author’s parents holding Kristil, her daughter.

I was the second oldest of six children in a conservative Catholic family, and extreme violence was normal in our household. From as early as I can remember, Mom and Dad fought, which often escalated to Mom chasing Dad with a knife or Dad holding his pistol to Mom’s head. When I was 12, Mom went to jail for stabbing Dad in the face during one of their fights. As a child, I lived in a perpetual state of fear.

I never understood why Mom and Dad fought so much, and it wasn’t until I was in middle school that I realised what was happening in our house wasn’t normal. Many times, I wanted to talk to a teacher or a school counsellor, but my Dad had given us strict orders: “What goes on in this house stays in this house.” Speaking out against my family would be a massive betrayal — like Judas, who betrayed Jesus in the Bible, he said.

Over time, my parents’ violence toward each other decreased, and they refocused their rage on me and my siblings. We had strict rules in our household, and by the time I was 13 I was already pushing against them. I wore makeup, got my ears pierced (my earrings were forcibly removed when Dad found out), dated boys before I had permission to and snuck out of the house to go to parties. Worst of all, I questioned my parents’ beliefs. In their minds, they were providing the discipline I needed. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” Dad said. The more I broke the rules the worse the consequences became, and I existed in a continuous cycle of rebellion and abuse.

Sitting in the back seat of our station wagon, my heart raced as we made our way home from the police station. I watched the stoplight ahead turn from green to yellow as Dad slowed down the car. It was now or never. I pushed the door open and jumped.

I hadn’t planned for the falling and rolling. As I got to my feet and prepared to run, my parents were already by my side. They grabbed hold of my arms and pushed me into the front seat between them. There was no way I was getting away now.

The next morning, Mom took me to the doctor. Besides the bruises and Dad’s ring marks up and down the left side of my face, I couldn’t open my jaw. I was to tell the doctor that I fell down the stairs; Mom stayed nearby to make sure I did.

That night, Dad came up to my room and handed me a “get well soon” card he’d bought for me. He hugged me tightly and gave me two kisses on the cheek. That had always been our thing when I was a kid — not one kiss but always two. When he left my room, I looked at my face in the mirror again. Overwhelmed with sadness, I fell to my bedroom floor and cried.

The next day, I packed a duffle bag and left. This time, the police had enough evidence to help me. They removed me from my home and placed me in foster care. Two years prior, the police had done the same for my older brother. The incident with my brother was a turning point in our lives. I vividly remember the weekend afternoon when I heard my father kicking my brother on the floor. Desperate to save him, I did something I thought I’d never do: I recorded the sound of my father’s violence on a tape recorder.

This tape, which my brother handed over to the school social worker, was the evidence needed to finally extricate my brother from our home. The police, however, inadvertently informed my father about the source of the recording, intensifying his anger toward me. It was a cruel twist of fate. My father, who always preached about doing the right thing and standing up against injustice, became the very antithesis of his teachings.

The author's mom and Kristil as a child celebrating Christmas.

Courtesy of Tammy Rabideau

The author’s mom and Kristil as a child celebrating Christmas.

Life was peaceful in the foster home. Although I lacked some comforts of home, I no longer lived in fear. However, I both missed and worried for the siblings I’d left behind, who weren’t removed even though my brother and I had been. That was because the legal system in the county where we lived followed the principle of minimal intervention and strove to keep families together unless there was compelling evidence of each specific child being abused. This approach, while well-intentioned, often overlooks the children left in the home who are, in fact, being abused, as well as the hidden impact of those not directly subjected to physical abuse but suffering the reverberations of living in an abusive environment.

When I was 21, just five years after I left home, I got involved with a man who was just as abusive as my parents, and despite leaving him multiple times, I repeatedly went back to him. When he went to prison for the abuse and other crimes he’d committed, I was three months pregnant with our child.

What lay before me was my biggest challenge. I was terrified of failing as a mother, but I knew from my sociology studies that the odds were stacked against me. Abused children were much more likely to both choose an abusive partner and abuse their own children. I couldn’t let that happen.

I started reading every parenting book I could get my hands on. One book, recommended by my daughter’s paediatrician — “1-2-3 Magic” by Dr. Thomas W. Phelan — helped me immensely in learning to discipline my daughter without violence. I put all my efforts into raising my child in a home where she felt safe, loved and supported. If all else failed but I did that right, I felt I would have succeeded.

Being a good parent to my daughter also meant healing my past. Besides reading many self-help books, I sought a therapist. Having first experienced therapy when I was 16 and living in a foster home, I knew how beneficial it could be. My abusive past was a continuous topic of conversation, and my therapist asked if I had forgiven my parents or if I thought it was possible. I hadn’t — and I didn’t care to.

But when I was seven months pregnant, a devastating family crisis brought my parents back into my life, forcing me to reconsider.

One July morning in 1995, as I was getting ready to go to work, my 17-year-old sister, Kristin — also estranged from my parents and living with me at the time — suffered a massive cerebral haemorrhage in my apartment. After calling 911, I knew I needed to call my parents to let them know what was happening. They met me at the hospital; two days later, my sister died and it shattered our family like nothing had before.

Kristin’s death changed everything, especially my parents. It was as if their grief and regret were so heavy that they couldn’t live as they had before, as if a part of them had died with my sister.

They wanted to heal our relationship, fix our family and help me with my soon-to-be-born baby. It was overwhelming and almost impossible to comprehend. Kristin’s death couldn’t erase our parents’ abusive past and I wasn’t sure I could forgive them. As broken as I was over the loss of my sister, I decided to try.

In preparation for the baby, Mom arranged a baby shower and invited our relatives and friends. At the birth, she took over my sister’s role as my coach and cut the cord when Kristil, whom I named after Kristin, was born. Dad was there too, nervously pacing outside the hospital room door with my brothers.

Kristil held a special place in my parents’ lives from the moment she was born. They showed her love and care, which may have only been possible due to their realisation of the fleetingness of life following my sister’s death. It was the same realisation that allowed me to open my heart to them.

As the years went on and old patterns threatened to resurface, it was as if Kristin was present with us. The memory of her and our shared grief over losing her seemed to stand in the way of our arguments ever escalating to violence again.

The author, her mom and Kristil in 2011, two years before the author's mom passed.

Courtesy of Tammy Rabideau

The author, her mom and Kristil in 2011, two years before the author’s mom passed.

Over time, Kristil learned about the abuse I had suffered. I wanted to be transparent about what happened; when she asked questions, I told her the truth. Still, I didn’t want to live in the past. I didn’t want it to hold Kristil back from having a relationship with her grandparents because they had truly changed.

When Kristil was four, my parents divorced and my Dad remarried soon after. After that, we didn’t see Dad more than twice a year, usually during the holidays. Me, Kristil and Mom remained close.

As a working single mom, I was often short on time and money, so my Mom helped whenever she could. She babysat Kristil so I could work or spend time with friends. She bought her all of the best school supplies and made sure she had a new backpack every year. Mom attended every one of Kristil’s baseball games, dance recitals and award ceremonies, and continuously praised her for her accomplishments. The two of them even made a yearly trip to Florida in the winter and spent summers camping in Door County, Wisconsin. (I accompanied them whenever I didn’t have to work.)

Kristil still talks about her fun times with Grandma, especially spending hours in her kitchen draped in aprons and chef hats, preparing family recipes and desserts. Every November, they’d get up at the crack of dawn and rush out excitedly for Black Friday shopping. They spent countless Saturdays snuggling in Mom’s enormous bed, eating popcorn and watching Disney movies. Mom was fiercely protective of Kristil and never hesitated to step in when she needed to. Kristil told everyone, “I have the best Grandma in the world.”

My Mom apologised to me years ago when Kristil was still a toddler. She admitted what she’d done and acknowledged the impact the violence in our home had on me and my siblings. That apology, along with her love for Kristil, helped me open the door to forgiveness.

When Mom got sick with cancer in 2011, she wanted to talk about the past again. Sitting on a bench outside a storefront she’d just opened for the summer in Door County, she said, “I need to apologise for what I did to you.”

“You already apologised years ago,” I said.

“Yes, but I need to know that you’ve forgiven me,” she said. “Have you?”

I could hear the suffering in her voice as tears welled in her eyes.

I reached over and hugged her.

“Yes, a long time ago,” I said.

Two years later, Mom died in 2013. I miss her terribly.

Though Dad kept his promise that he would never be violent again or issue orders that a family member be “cut off” for not following “family rules,” he could never bring himself to apologise for what he’d done. If I brought it up, he changed the subject. I always felt like admitting he’d abused us was just too painful for him to face.

Because of that, I’m not sure I ever fully forgave him. If forgiveness means letting go of the past and continuing in a relationship with him, then yes, I did that. If it means no longer feeling hurt or angry about what he did to me, then no, I haven’t. Knowing the peace that Mom’s apology provided me and the impact it had on our relationship, I wanted the same for me and Dad. Unfortunately, that opportunity disappeared when he died suddenly in 2021.

We can’t choose our family, but we can choose how we live our lives and the kind of people we want to be. We can choose who we let in and who we don’t. We can choose who and when to forgive, and sometimes we can’t. I’m grateful that my Mom and I were able to reconcile and that the love she had to give finally made its way to me and Kristil.

Not everyone in situations like mine is as fortunate as I have been. Though I struggled with the effects of my violent upbringing in many ways, the cycle of abuse ended with me. By the grace of God, therapy, a paediatrician, dozens of books, a lot of hard work and the luck of having a mild-mannered child, I raised Kristil without ever laying a hand on her. More than that, we developed the kind of parent-child relationship I could only ever have dreamed of — one of acceptance, fun, mutual respect and unconditional love.

Now that Kristil lives in Paris, we don’t see each other as often as we’d like to, although we talk or text most days. However, a few weeks ago, I made a trip to see her. As we strolled through the streets of Paris savouring our time together, we went to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, a place we often go to when I visit. While there, Kristil did something she routinely does when we stop at the historical church — lit a candle for Grandma.

Tammy Rabideau is a writer living in Iowa City, Iowa. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek and other publications. She is working on a memoir based on her New York Times Modern Love essay. You can follow her on Twitter at @TammyRabideau2 or visit her website at tammyrabideau.com.

Help and support:

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:

The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321

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