Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How to Notice Red Flags by Molly Pennington

Art by Arna Baartz

My first husband once broke his neck by smashing head first into a brick fireplace. “I did it for you,” he told me. “That's how much I love you. Instead of hurting you, I hurt myself.”

“But you did hurt me,” I answered. “The bruises—”

“The bruises aren't from me,” he countered. “That's on you. Everything makes you bruise. You can't blame that on me.”

Brian (not his real name because he'll find me and sue me) had lots of pronouncements for me: I pushed buttons. I asked for it. I walked into fists. I bruised easily.

I have to tell you that I missed every red flag.

That's just it about the flags. They aren't red. They aren't obvious. They come in like whispers. Like the scent of lilies. They're shaped like chiffon hearts. They are the color of bubbles. They are apologies and proposals. Intensities in the dark. Pleadings. That you must give in to. For love. He tells you it's love. The flags are sinews of shame, stretching slowly, bending to an ache, then finally snapping sometime when you're pretty far away from anything you recognize as home.

In my case, our son was two. He was standing by the stove, watching us. He had always been way too pensive for a baby. Serious. Observant. Clingy.

“You bitch like a fuckin' cow,” sneered Brian.

I looked at my son. I met his eyes and his understanding, and finally, my Achilles tore. And just then, when I irreversibly had the fire to leave… it was all just beginning.

When I left, Brian argued. But not about our child. I don't think it had hit him yet. I was the one who took care of the baby after all. Why wouldn't I take him with me? Brian complained about our son anyway. “He doesn't like me. The kid prefers you,” he seethed.

“He's a baby,” I explained. “He doesn't have to give you anything. You give it to him. That's parenting.”

When I said this kind of thing Brian looked at me like I was an alien.

I was blindsided when I found out that he wanted our son. Not only that. He wanted him away from me.

I count fourteen custody hearings or events over the years. That doesn't include the four-day trial when our son was 12. Or all the psychological evaluations. Meetings with lawyers. Mediators. Court appointees. It also doesn't consider the divorce proceedings. The child support disputes. Usually before hearing officers. Or the final lawsuit—claiming I owed travel expenses from five years prior. I was served those papers a few months after our son turned 18. He was away at college. The lawsuit demanded nearly five figures in cash and also included a motion that I serve time in jail should I be found guilty.

I was not found guilty—so ruled the court, eventually.

Brian instigated each court battle, each hearing, trial and lawsuit—every single one. And I won them all. When I didn't willingly concede. I gave in as much as I could. I cut child support to just $200 per month. I gave him visitation on every weekend and holiday. I gave in as much as I could. To avoid expense and hassle. And the expense was considerable.

If you knew the amount you would probably vomit.

The amount is what it would cost to send two students to college. It's three times the amount of my highest-ever salary. And that was only to fight some of the battles. I didn't fight on child support.

Did you know that it costs thousands of dollars in lawyer fees to compel a person to release their tax returns?

Tax returns he's probably lying on anyway because he was always like that about money.

I gave all that I could. But I could not give him primary custody of our son.

“You'll never see him again,” said my lawyer. And I knew she was right.

Brian didn't care about the outcome of court. He was excited by the idea that I hated it. One time he called me in advance of a hearing with a custody mediator.

“I want to work this out,” he said.

“Me too,” I gushed. “Totally. I hate this conflict. It's bad for our son. I want to compromise.”

Then I got there. And it started. I had fallen. Again. I'm such a sucker when people act human. I believe in the best in them. I believed that even after years of lies, it was possible for him to become decent.

Forgive me for being such a fool because I've finally forgiven myself.

Only a few years previously Brian had told another mediator that I had been evicted from my apartment for prostitution. His lawyer said it so sheepishly. So apologetically.

“Her neighbors had to petition the landlord to have her removed.” Then he leaned forward and lowered his voice, but we could all still plainly hear: “Men coming and going at all hours.” I had neglected to bring a lawyer. I was alone. Sitting there for that.

I wasn't a prostitute in case you were wondering.

And no men ever came and went. I was the only graduate student with a child in a competitive doctoral program. I didn't have time for a social life, let alone a side job. I did move out of that apartment. At my own behest. It was a terrible place. I had to find it, secure it and move into it in about 24 hours. It was all I could find. Brian had confiscated my car during the night. A friend flew in to help.

It took at least a year to get on my feet. I moved again to a little house with an upstairs and A/C – on my teaching stipend. But Brian branded me a loser to anyone who would listen.

I look credible. I'm mild. Well-spoken. Conservatively dressed.

But so embarrassed. I mean, who marries the kind of person who would say these things?

That's a major theme in our culture. The belief that if it is said, then it must be true. Brian threatened a custody trial for years and then finally followed through. Though I had been on my best behavior to avoid it. To placate him. During my deposition, Brian's lawyer asked me why I “strip nude, get down on all fours, and howl at the moon.”

I do not, in case you're curious.

But he said it out loud.

Even after the prostitution allegation, I really did believe that we could compromise. I arrived to the mediation excited, ready for conciliation. As if we could finally move past it. I wouldn't have to say what was on my mind: “That was horrible. I forgive you. Let's move on.” My petition would be present, but unstated. Grace.

That was my mood when Brian began the detonation. Even our mediator seemed stunned. Brian has this way of speaking. His eyes narrow. His voice lengthens as if lies cause drawl. There is an undertow of wrath.

He alleged that I was abusing our son. He said that I was abusing our son in the same way that I had always abused him. Physical attacks. Emotional manipulation.

I couldn't help it. I cried. And I begged him to please stop lying. To please stop. Just please stop lying.

I didn't know then, but I know now, that a narcissist sees compromise as weakness. It points them not to truce, but to confrontation. And weakness isn't accepted as peacekeeping, but assaultive.

“Please,” I sobbed. “Please,” I said it again through choking tears. “Stop. Just stop. Don't do this.” I almost fell to my knees. And might've if not for the formal setting.

The mediator shifted, embarrassed. This was beyond his scope. The dynamic. The accusations. The strike and then entreaty. Nuclear dysfunction.

“I can't stop,” Brian told me. And he smiled.

“You're dangerous.” Then he turned to the dumbfounded mediator: “She's a dangerous woman.”

I have retained primary custody since the day that I left.

Twice, Brian failed to return our son after visitations, for more than a week each time. That's how long it took to rally my lawyer and a court of law to even begin to act. By then my son was returned to me.

Once our son burst into tears after Brian (with his parents) dropped him off and left. “I thought you didn't want me anymore!” my sweet boy cried. They had refused to allow phone calls. All contact was denied. Not by the courts. By Brian.

Whatever Brian threw—and it was truckloads of never-ending mud—none of it ever stuck. But everybody still had to gather and listen. Allegations are eventually proven baseless, but still, the words have been typed into documents, shuffled through bureaucracy.

I do not have any advice on how to get through it. If you've got millions for lawyers, then you are all set. Unleash them. While you're at it, get a solid therapist for yourself and your child. If your insurance sucks and if you've sold, mortgaged, liquidated and borrowed everything you can, then still, get the best attorney you can. The only thing left to do is endure it with whatever grace you have. It will feel like you don't have any, but you do.

Trust love. Even still after all this, trust love. Figure out your past. Get a degree in red flags that are actually, as discussed, the color and consistency of sugar water. Figure out their every nuance.

Think about your own life as a child.

In my younger days, there was a strange, almost dream-like period before these men (Brian was not the first) turned mean and mighty. I try to turn my memory back to the moments before that Big Bang, when I know, when I see… that they are going to hurt me.

It's always been the last thing I'm expecting.

Even the final lawsuit. I thought I was so used to it. So ready. Then my lawyer told me about the motion to send me to jail. It was ridiculous, of course. She would get it dismissed, of course.

You should know that he got me there. It stung.

I didn't realize that he still had it in for me. I'm sure it's just projection or some upside-down fucked-upped-ness like when he told me he broke his own neck to save mine. He knows he belongs in jail, or is in a psychiatric one, so he slaps that onto me. But I was caught off guard. There's a twinge of surprise, a catch in my breath, just like when I was younger, every time, before the storming.

An excerpt from the upcoming Girl God Anthology, Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy.

Molly Pennington is a writer, a mentor, a speaker, a wife and a mother, and a lover of insight and whimsy. Her default setting is perpetual cheer, but she doesn’t shy away from the wounds of the world. To Molly, nothing is more vital than social justice. She believes that perception and compassion are curative. Molly is here to make the world a little less mean. Instead: smarter, brighter, better. You can find out more about her at www.mollypennington.com.


  1. Gorgeous writing. Brians are sad, small people. My own daughter (with a Brian) is only 3, so there is still a long road before us. But I've done the work and am optimistic, entering into a doctoral program myself. Thank you for your words.

  2. Wow. I see myself in you SO much! The desire for things to be civil, hope when they act human, only to be smashed back into reality when the ridiculous accusations are made. My son is only five and I won a month long trial this summer, but I know it's far from over. Thanks for writing out what I am living through, I'm trying to keep the boundaries up and be on guard at all times with the ex.