Family Secrets (Part II)

Zane’s father, Curtis, was by everyone’s account mean and cruel.  His meanness did not come out of a bottle, as one might expect from a mountain man.  Curtis did not drink alcohol.  He was just plain mean.

Zane and his mother lived in constant fear of Curtis.  Curtis would get angry at them for anything or for nothing at all.  When he was mad at Zane, which was most every day, Curtis would yell at him, call him stupid and tell him he was a bastard.

Curtis would beat the living daylights out of Zane.  Curtis would beat him with his fist or whatever he happened to have in his hand at the time.  Zane was forced to milk the cows before school.  If he did not “do it right” or – heaven forbid – he spilled some of the milk, Curtis would beat Zane.  Once, when Zane was about seven years old, he broke his arm.  Curtis beat Zane for breaking his arm.

Curtis would often beat Zane as a matter of routine when Zane came home from school.  To avoid Curtis and the abuse, Zane would plow the fields until late into the night, sometimes as late as two or three in the morning.  When Zane was about ten, he started spending his time over at his neighbor Hoile’s house to avoid Curtis.  Zane would stay in his room a lot when he was younger.  If he was not in his room he would be over at Hoile’s.

Curtis would do other things just to be mean to Zane.  When Zane was very young he had a pet dog which he loved.  Curtis killed the dog and made sure that Zane knew it.  Curtis never offered an explanation to Zane for why he killed his dog.  But then, Curtis seemed to have no misgivings about hurting animals.  He was known to regularly beat cows with sticks, once beating a cow with a hoe in the head killing it.   Curtis even beat his blind horse.  He would get mad at the horse because it did not know where it was going.

Curtis was also known to wield a knife.  Curtis once cut the throat of Albert Whitaker, who had been dating his daughter, Margaret.  Albert made a comment about Margaret going out with other men.  The next thing Albert knew, he was in the hospital, with a gapping slit in his throat.  Curtis even tried to cut Zane with a knife, but Zane escaped.

Despite the reprehensible nature of Curtis’ treatment of his only son, it paled in comparison to the brutality Curtis heaped upon his wife, Selma.  There was physical abuse.  Selma’s sister Mary and her son Zane both recalled seeing the bruises, black eyes, and welts on Selma’s body from Curtis’ beatings.  Curtis used to jerk Selma out of bed in the middle of the night for various reasons such as to go look for Zane or to milk the cows.  Curtis beat Selma once with a switch to try and get her to milk a cow that would kick people in the head when anyone tried to milk it.  Selma’s back was always hurting her.  She even had to go to the hospital a couple of times because of her back.  Eventually Selma had to have her kidney removed, apparently caused by Curtis’s abuse.

There was also psychological abuse.  Curtis was always yelling at Selma, often calling her crazy.   But the worst came at bedtime.  Curtis would twist his shirt up like a rope and keep it by his bedside.  He would tell Selma to go to sleep but not expect to wake up, because he was going to strangle her in her sleep.   Alternatively, he would threaten to hang Selma.  Once he was caught with Selma up on a ramp in the barn with a rope around her neck.  Someone entered the barn and he desisted.

Mary was very protective of her sister Selma.  Mary told me that Selma was the quiet one and that she was the fighting one.  When Mary came around, Curtis would behave himself.

Neither Zane nor Selma talked to others much about Curtis’ abuse.  Selma was afraid of Curtis and never told of Curtis’ abuse until after he died.  Some family members saw the abuse firsthand.  After Curtis’ death, Selma told a few close friends of the abuse.  When the abuse was occurring, the young Zane told Hoile about some of what was happening.  As an adult, Zane rarely talked about Curtis.

When I asked Zane why he didn’t talk about the abuse, he said he was ashamed.  “I knew that other kids weren’t treated like that by their fathers, so I didn’t want anyone to know.”   Now I knew why he didn’t tell his defense attorneys at trial . . . and why I had to get the details from his family.  Old secrets are hard to break.

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