Knowing Me, Knowing You
(dedicated to the children of flawed communities)
Mother’s Day makes me think of my neighbor Kerry McFabe, a skinny guy with low self esteem who lived a few hundred steps from my house. Because he was 3 years older than I was, we were never in the same class, but for a few summers, we hung out fairly regularly. He’s the guy who introduced me to Abba.
His mother didn’t know we were hanging out and no one wanted her to. She didn’t like him having friends over. There were all kinds of adult problems at his house when he was a child mainly because his father was mildly autistic, and to make things worse, received massive amounts of LSD as “treatment” at an experimental clinic which was eventually shut down.
Once, when he as a toddler, his dad tried to bash in Kerry’s head with a shoe, exposing his bleeding skull in the process. Their house was set on fire three times. Twice by teenagers as revenge for Mr. McFabe “intentionally” running over their pet dog with his car, and once by his own mother, who got really stoned on painkillers one day and let a pot full of potatoes boil down to a burn.
Because Kerry was socially awkward and slightly paranoid, kids teased him a lot and even non-bullies called him names like Fairy McFag and Brainiac. But this was nothing compared to what his own mother called him in private. Kerry’s mom was a skinny, nasty woman who used to talk to him in a way that degraded the human experience. I once overheard a teacher neighbor opine that the McFabes were soul-murdering their son – that Kerry was having his self esteem and ability to feel joy sucked out of him.
I would wait silently for him in his porch while he changed from his Sunday School clothes into play clothes. His mother never knew I was there, so I overheard a lot of what she used to say and it was always a mixture of bitterness and impatience, non-stop attacks on his ability and esteem. It was never a joy for him to arrive home.
Whenever he got the guts to defend himself, this would turn into a yelling fight, and I would have to sneak away and then call to see if he was alright.
I offered to defend him in these useless fights, but he told me that I would just make things worse if I said anything, that his mother had a lot of problems, and that he probably deserved it anyways. Kerry walked with his head down and wore a lot of black. But with me and his other two friends, he was loyal and responsive.
Mrs McFabe was a frail, worn out little woman, but she had a well-earned triple Dan in psychological violence. It’s amazing how an amazing way with words can be used for spiteful ends just like an amazing karate chop. Even though I’m not a professional psychiatrist, I would say Kerry sustained a considerable amount of small puncture wounds to the ego.
And yet with all the life and joy sucked out of him, Kerry soldiered on, listening to Abba on his headphones.
Many years after leaving home, Kerry was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. While in therapy, he read that music could be used to reprogram a damaged mind because it operates on a different part of the mind than speech. Maybe that pop pastry from Sweden he listened to religiously was medicine, and not just entertainment. Maybe the soothing female voices of Agnetha and Frida helped to reconfigure his pain-filled soul.
Kerry was the first person I knew who had bought a record album, and it was Abba’s second release. He told me that he liked to put on the headphones and disappear into a kinder, more logical world, filled with synthesizer hooks and Swedish accents.
Last month on Facebook, Kerry sent me a list of songs he used to use as medicine to neutralize some of the more toxic words his mother deployed on him, along with the approximate number of times he was called each name.
“You antichrister bastard!”
Kerry’s mom was a practicing, God-fearing Catholic. She was also Irish, so this word might have had less impact than it would have in my French Catholic home. To me, calling Kerry an “antichrister” on a regular basis was full-strength hate speech. Is there anything worse you could be than the killer of Jesus’ beautiful message?
Antidote: I do, I do, I do, I do, I do
(1500 – 2000 listenings)
Like the word antichrister, this song’s title makes a vague reference to organized religion. The reason it works is because the Abba antidote confirms that there is love inside the listener’s heart, in the same way that the hate speech denies that any love is even possible there.
“You hateful little slut!”
This one had a double-edge because it introduced sexuality – a corrupting strategy as well as an abusive one – to a child who felt instantly dirty and sinful. Corrupting a child can cause damage long after the verbal abuse has ceased.
Antidote: Gonna Sing You My Love Song
(2000 – 3000 listenings)
This song’s lyrics are about curing the damage caused by an abusive or absent lover. “Still I see that she makes you blue…” It works well for curing the damage of abusive parenting too, so this song may have actually saved Kerry’s life by reprogramming his inner voice.
“I’m gonna wring your neck/crack your head open/etc. … you poison bastard!”
His parents threw objects when they were angry and weren’t afraid to bruise, so these words carried some weight. A permanent threat of physical violence is sometimes more effective than actual violence in destroying self esteem and social confidence, so this was actually one of the most difficult hate-bombs for Kerry to diffuse.
(4000 listenings or until self esteem reappears)
Working class males are made to feel inadequate for not being strong (like Superman or a robot), and this gives abusive parents impunity with their sons. In the meantime, this song was like a silent cry for help – muffled by giant pink headphones in a bungalow in suburbia where no one can hear you scream.
Of course, you might want to listen to a more recent pop band if you’re currently being psychologically tortured by a close family member. Abba may have worked for Kerry, but styles change, and so do the vocabularies of abuse and the songs that are made available to help mitigate it.
And though Kerry grew up to be another Steel City Fruit, it’s likely that his daily retreat into Abba helped him cope with his less than ideal existence in a damaged household.
Kerry hasn’t spoken to his mother in many years, and grew up and became a much better person during this hiatus. Perhaps he was following the wisdom of Abba Mega-Antidote Bang A Boomerang.
(Note. Any resemblance to real human beings is unintentional. This story – like other Steel City Fruit stories – is purely fictional.)