Women in the World

01.28.12

Handcuffs, Ropes, and an Open Window: How I Escaped an Unthinkable Childhood

Five kids die from child abuse every day in the U.S. alone. But one girl lived to tell. Genyfer Spark, a California entrepreneur, describes how she triumphed over her searing past. As told to Abigail Pesta.

The warm night air. The black sky above. The prickly branches pressing against my skin. These are the memories I have of the night I tried to escape my family. I was 14 years old, hiding in the bushes of a neighbor’s yard. My hands were cuffed together; my legs were burning from the nylon rope my mother had used to tie me to my bed. I could hear my stepfather’s boots on the sidewalk as he grew near. Keep calm, I told myself. Stop shaking or he will hear you. Crouched down low to the ground, I tightened every muscle. Don’t move. He rifled through the bushes, his hand passing near my face. Please, God, don’t let him find me. He leaned down, so close, I could feel his breath.

The events that led me to this night are hard to believe, but they are true. I grew up with a mother who didn’t want me—yet didn’t want to let me go. A product of a rough upbringing herself, she often took her anger out on me. She was manipulative, controlling, prone to outbursts of rage at seemingly simple things. A spilled glass of water. A misplaced book. I never knew what would lead her to punish me, so I tiptoed around her.

My earliest memory of the physical punishment is from when I was 5 or 6 years old, in the early 1980s. We were living in a modest house in the city of Perth, Australia. My mom was a single mother, unemployed at the time. I had a younger brother, and no father—he had disappeared before I was born. On this day, I had done something to anger my mother—I can’t remember what—and she grabbed a wooden mixing spoon from the kitchen and spanked me so hard, the spoon broke. “You drive me crazy!” she yelled. The shock and pain left me feeling ashamed, confused. Other punishments would follow: the occasional whipping with an electric cord, a beating with a broomstick. These punishments were random, inexplicable. Maybe she didn’t like that I’d made noise playing in the yard, or that I’d interrupted her while she was eating something in the kitchen. I couldn’t do anything right, but I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong. I wanted to be good, to make her love me. Even then, I could sense that she didn’t.

I knew that she was capable of love—she loved my brother, who was two years younger than me. She didn’t hit him, ever. She often held my brother’s hand, hugged him. I remember trying to hug my mother once in the grocery store, and she pushed me away, saying, “Don’t you wipe your face on me!” It was one of many little heartbreaks.

When I was around 7, my mother met a new man, and we all moved in with him. Things started looking up. He was a plumber, and he did well for himself: he had a nice house, a big backyard, two German shepherds. My mom seemed much happier. She no longer stayed in bed all day, reading romance novels. That Christmas, my brother and I both got new bikes. Mine had a basket. That bike was pure freedom; I rode it everywhere.

One night, I parked my bike next to my brother’s in the garage, and the next morning, it was gone. “Mom!” I cried, running into the house. “Someone stole my bike!” She dismissed me with a wave of her hand, saying I should have taken better care of my property. For weeks I begged her to call the police—until one evening, when I caught a glimpse of the bike through the window of the toolshed out back. Furious, I burst into the kitchen, accusing my mom of hiding it from me. “Well,” she said, “I hope you learned a lesson.” But what was the lesson? I had parked my bike right next to my brother’s. His bike hadn’t been taken. Nothing made any sense. Right, wrong...I couldn’t tell the difference. I knew only that I could never please my mother.

As the months wore on, my mother’s gloomy disposition crept back. She began enlisting my stepfather to do her dirty work: she would tell him when I’d been “bad,” and he would hit me with a whip. I could tell that he was itching to whip my brother, too, but Mom wouldn’t let him. It didn’t occur to me to tell anyone outside the home about the whippings; I was just a kid, and anyway, my mother was estranged from her family. I had no one to tell.

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A young Spark, at left, with a friend. ()

The situation reached a breaking point around the time I was 8. Just after I’d left home for the school bus one morning, I realized I’d forgotten a textbook. When I hurried back to the house to get it, my mother exploded in anger. “Get out of here, you little shit!” she yelled. Then she grabbed a knife from the kitchen and chased me out of the house, shouting. A neighbor saw the crazy scene and called the police. I was whisked away to a juvenile home, where social workers talked to my mother and me. My mother blamed her own childhood for her parenting problems, saying her adoptive parents hadn’t wanted her and had favored their biological child.

I remember enjoying that youth home. There, I could freely play with toys, games, chalks. Teachers taught us in an adjoining classroom, and I excelled, unlike in my previous school, a Catholic academy where I was a poor student, often in trouble for picking fights. But after three months away from my mom, I was returned to her. A social worker visited us for a few months, and the abuse ended. Until the social worker stopped coming. Then it started up again.

Over the years, there were other incidents, other youth homes. Somehow I always got sent back to the house of horrors. My mother was good at convincing social workers that there was no real problem. She didn’t fit the stereotype of an abuser: she looked nice, clean, “normal.” She wasn’t an alcoholic or drug addict. She told people I was a difficult kid. I didn’t say much of anything to anyone, fearful of getting into trouble. At one point, I saw Oprah on TV, and I wrote her a note: “Help. My parents are trying to kill me.” I mailed it with just her name, no address.

As a teen, I tried fighting back. One night, I came home after playing with some kids down the street. “Where were you?” my mother demanded. When I told her, she yelled, “You didn’t tell me where you were!” I boldly shouted back. She sent me to my room, and I knew she would tell my stepfather to punish me. When his truck pulled up in the driveway, I slid under the bed. I heard the screen door open, then voices, then his footsteps as he stomped down the hall. He slammed open my bedroom door and tried to yank me out from my hiding place. I scrambled out the other side, jumped over the bed, and made a break for the door. But he grabbed me, dragged me to his bedroom, and pulled down my shorts. The whipping was the worst yet. Each blow felt like a thousand bee stings, breaking my skin and leaving purple welts. I crawled back to my own bed.

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Spark always felt her brother was the favored child. ()

Please, God, don’t let me wake up, I prayed that night. Don’t ever let me wake up again. But wake up I did. That next morning felt slow and strange, like wading through quicksand. When I arrived at school, my uniform was disheveled; my hair was a mess. I knew kids were staring. I lowered myself gingerly into my chair, trying to hide my pain. Everything was a blur that day: I remember the teacher’s mouth moving, but no sound coming out. The trees outside the window looked like blotches of paint, their leaves blending into the blue sky above.

Standing outside my house that afternoon, I felt the deepest sense of dread. “How was school?” my mother asked when I walked in the door. I said nothing, and headed straight for my room. “Don’t you ignore me!” she barked, trailing after me. I refused to reply. Just as I entered my room, she came at me from behind, slapping me across the back with an electric cord. I tripped and fell, trying to get up as she whacked my thighs. “At 16, you’ll be pregnant!” she yelled, punctuating her prediction with a stinging swat. “At 18, you’ll be in jail!” Another swat. “At 21, you’ll be dead!” Swat. That’s when I decided: I will prove her wrong.

Later I opened my bedroom window, climbed out, and walked away. Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, I headed for the nearby beach. I had no real plan, just to escape. I remember the ocean breeze embracing me like a big, warm hug. I buried my feet in the sand; I waded in the water, dreaming of floating far away.

When I was a child, I saw Oprah on TV, and I wrote her a note: “Help. My parents are trying to kill me.” I mailed it with just her name, no address.

I managed to survive for several days on my own, sleeping in public restrooms and eating scraps tossed out by tourists at the local cafés. But each day was a struggle, and my mind started to play tricks on me. I saw a girl in a fluttery dress at an ice-cream stand, hugging a woman in a pantsuit—her mom. Maybe my mother missed me, I thought. It felt as if years had gone by.

And so I went back home. That’s the night my parents handcuffed me and tied my legs to the bed with the nylon rope. I screamed and cried, and my stepfather told my mom to shut me up. She forced two sleeping pills down my throat, and I lay there, furious at myself for coming back. How could I have thought things would be different? Stupid.

When my parents left the room, I worked on wriggling my way out of the rope. I got one leg out, and used it to help kick away the rope from the other. Out the window I went, down the block, and into the bushes. My stepfather didn’t end up finding me that night; a woman named Suzanne did, when I emerged from the bushes and ran desperately toward the porch lights of her home. The police came, and soon after, I was shipped off to another youth home.

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An 8-year-old Spark at her First Communion. ()

This time, however, I did not get sent back to my mom. I settled in and made new friends, who also hailed from broken families. Sadly, they were drowning their memories in alcohol and drugs. They sucked me into their world. I started smoking pot in the bathroom at school; I became an outcast. I began cutting classes. Two years slipped away in a fog. Finally, when I turned 15, a social worker named Paul helped me get my act together. He encouraged me to take school seriously and get my diploma, He said I could excel, and that he would help. It was the first time I had ever felt supported in life, and I took his advice.

During this time, I didn’t see my family. But when I turned 16, a memory of my mother came rushing back. I remembered her terrible prediction: “At 16, you’ll be pregnant. At 18, you’ll be in jail. At 21, you’ll be dead.” Hey, I realized, I was 16, and I was doing just fine—not pregnant, in jail, or dead. It felt like a victory. I reminded myself of my long-ago vow: don’t let her win. And with that, I began to visualize a different future for myself. I would go to college, pursue a career. I would learn to function in polite society—something my mom had never taught me. I got a library card and started reading a slew of self-help books and biographies about successful people: Donald Trump, Oprah, Walt Disney. I finished high school.

At 18, I started attending a vocational college called TAFE, living in my own apartment nearby. Financial aid and a night job as an office cleaner carried me through, and at 21, I graduated with a degree in social work. Bolstered by my success, I decided to continue my education, and applied to Murdoch University. Thanks again to financial aid, I graduated with a degree in business when I was 24. Around this time, I met an American engineer, and we fell in love; I moved to California with him in 2000. We married soon after.

Thrilled to be in the States, I began studying for a real-estate license. Ultimately, my marriage didn’t last—we were divorced within two years—but my drive to succeed did. I got a job as a real-estate agent; I saved money; I made friends. I completely severed my ties with my past self, telling no one about my childhood. I picked up cues on how to act in social settings from the professional women I met. By 2005, I had become a top performer in my company.

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Spark at one of many youth homes as a teen. ()

At the same time, I decided to try to track down my biological father. My mother had never told me his name, and I had often wondered about him. Had I inherited my ambition, my resilience, from him? Hoping I might find a clue to his identity, I started researching my childhood medical records. I didn’t find my father, but I did find something that floored me: in a report from the youth home where I had stayed when I was 8, my mother had admitted to a therapist that she’d begun abusing me when I was just a baby, even knocking my head hard against a wall. I couldn’t believe she had started so early. Deep down, I had always harbored the irrational thought that I had been a bad kid, that I had somehow sparked her ire. But how can a newborn be bad? The knowledge of my mother’s behavior was infuriating, but also freeing—it helped me finally understand how deeply disturbed she is. My childhood was not my fault. I called my mother and told her I understood this now; she simply shouted back.

Two years ago, my younger brother found me online. Still living in Australia, he had become a drifter, unable to hold down a job. He shared his lifelong guilt at not helping me when we were kids. He suggested that I seek justice, in the form of a criminal-injuries award from the Australian government—an acknowledgement that a crime had been committed against me.

I decided to do so. I gathered up reports from my youth homes and social workers—all the records of the times I had been sent back to my abusers. The evidence was overwhelming. Ordinarily there is a three-year time limit to file for a criminal-injury award, but the government made an exception for me. I filed my claim by mail in the spring of 2009, and was quickly granted $40,000 in compensation, the maximum amount allowed under the law. I don’t care about the money, but I do care about the document I received, signed by the attorney general. It has given me the confidence to talk about my past and know that no one can doubt me.

Today I’m 36 and living in Los Altos, California. I date occasionally; I have wonderful friends. Last year I launched my own Internet company, a social-networking site called ClueHut. The website allows people to achieve their personal and professional goals by connecting with like-minded individuals. I figure if I can find success in life, anyone can. Maybe I can help some people get where they want to go.

I tell my story now for all the little girls who are abused at the hands of their parents. Five kids die every day from child abuse in the U.S. alone. Sometimes I’ll see a headline about a girl who ends up dead after social workers rescued her but sent her back home. Everyone always asks: why did no one prevent this tragedy? Those girls don’t grow up to tell their stories. But this one did.

As told to Abigail Pesta.