From the beginning, my little brother B was a happy-go-lucky troublemaker, more interested in exploring and trying new things than in whatever rules he might be breaking! Like most small boys, he was often getting into things he shouldn’t, being loud, engaging in rough boy-play, and sometimes careless with the truth. Nothing too unusual for a small boy (or girl!). These small misdemeanors brought scoldings from my parents, after which he’d continue on his happy-go-lucky little way. He wasn’t a bad kid. He was just a kid.
His personality did not sit well at all with Joe LaQuiere, and his philosophy of parenting. Everyone had the responsibility to be self-controlled, and model godly behavior at all times, he said, and children were absolutely no exception. The reason everyone around Mr. LaQuiere had bad results (bad children) while his were good was that he recognized that it was a misconception that children needed to act and be treated as children. They should absolutely not be held to a lower standard than anyone else – that was insulting them and their Creator. They were subject to the same expectations as adults. And if they violated the rules, stern discipline was the key to correcting the problem. “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree”, said Mr. LaQuiere. If you want to correct the wrong bent in a twig, you must exert as much force as necessary to force it to stay in a straight position, and maintain that force until the new position becomes permanent. Children are malleable. If they are expected to act like adults, they will learn to act like adults. They will rise to the level of expectation placed on them – and if they don’t, it is the responsibility of their parents to forcibly hold them to those expectations.
From the first, Joe LaQuiere zeroed in on my brother B as a “bad seed” in need of a strong hand of correction. He didn’t like his attitude, his carelessness about rules, his little-boy jokes, or his tendency to be found in the middle of any mischief. These were all characteristics of a fool, he said. Mr. LaQuiere despised anyone who was a fool. Because B was a fool, Joe decided he needed to make an example of him whenever possible, to teach him (and the rest of us watching) a lesson about how God feels about fools. This started when B was five years old.
One of the character flaws Mr. LaQuiere hated most in B was a tendency to lie to avoid getting in trouble. As B was always getting scolded for getting into mischief, he’d often lie about things to avoid being punished for his little crimes. Mr. LaQuiere decided this was one thing he would not stand for, and he intended to stamp it out quickly and forcibly. He informed everyone in the group that my brother B was “a liar”, and nothing he said was to be trusted at any time. Unless there was independent verification from someone else “trustworthy”, any statement B made was jumped on and accused of being a lie. Mr. LaQuiere encouraged all the men in the group to join in on “helping” to correct B in this way. One time, the husband of my mom’s best friend, Mr. W, decided he would give B an object lesson. He pointed to a green ball on the grass and asked him, “What color is that ball?” B said it was green. Then this man turned to me, and asked me, “What color is that ball? Tell me it’s yellow.” I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to respect and obey all adults, so I squirmed a little, and said it was yellow. He turned to B and said, “See? You’re a liar. I trust your sister because she tells the truth. You…you’re a liar. It doesn’t matter what you say: everything you say is a lie.” That scene impressed itself deeply on my memory and my conscience. It was just one of many conflicts that raged in my heart from then on. I knew B hadn’t lied, but I was told that adults were infallible, not-to-be-questioned, and God’s direct representatives to us. How does a child reconcile those two things?
Punishments (though they were never called that–Mr. LaQuiere made it clear that this was “discipline”, never punishment) were many and varied. B was often made to stand in the middle of the floor for some misdemeanor or other, and stay there all day, missing meals, until Mr. LaQuiere said he could move. He wouldn’t be allowed to work with the other boys and men (“that is reserved for boys with good character who we can trust”) and was made to help Mrs. LaQuiere with laundry and other “women chores” as a mark of shame. He had all privileges revoked, even the privilege of speaking sometimes, or having anyone speak to him for days at a time. He was “tomato-staked”, which meant he was to be within twelve inches of Mr. LaQuiere or my dad at all times, and not allowed to interact with anyone, because he “couldn’t be trusted” out of their sight. But those were the mild punishments.
“The rod is for the back of a fool,” Mr. LaQuiere would say, and he didn’t mean it figuratively. In the bottom drawer of a tall chiffonier in his living-room, he kept The Paddle. About 2 1/2 feet long, and 1/4 inch thick, the Paddle was made of wood, and had finger-grips carved into it, to make spanking easier for Mr. LaQuiere. It was an instrument of fear to all of us, and used to “correct” children for anything from minor rule infractions to major “sins of rebellion”. The offending child would be sent to fetch their own instrument of punishment, and bring it back to Mr. LaQuiere. In our own homes, our parents would inflict corporal punishment: in Mr. LaQuiere’s home, he always carried it out personally, no matter whose child it was. B was sent to get the Paddle more than any other child in our group.
Being “paddled” involved telling the child to bend over and hold his ankles. They were not to let go under any circumstances until Mr. LaQuiere finished the punishment and said they could move. They were also only allowed to cry silently, or as silently as possible. Wails or screams were punished with further beating. Any infraction of the rules resulted in starting the punishment over again. The minimum number of “paddles” was 5, but that was reserved for extremely minor infractions, or for very young children, maybe 3 – 5 years old. For most of us, the average beginning number was 10, but this was quickly increased for any breaking of form while being paddled: if you let go of your ankles, Mr. LaQuiere started counting again from the beginning. If you put your hands behind you and they got hit with the Paddle, Mr. LaQuiere started again from the beginning. If you cried loudly, he started over. If your crying sounded angry, he started over, and sometimes tacked on extra paddles for showing “rebellion”. It was common for my brother B to be struck upwards of 20 times during one “paddling”. Each “paddle” was accomplished by Mr. LaQuiere taking a full-bodied swing and hitting the exposed rear end of the child with the full force of an adult male (this was modified for the small children, but it still hurt good and proper, as it was intended to).
For the children that were considered “good”, like me, spankings were rarely experienced first-hand. Instead, Mr. LaQuiere told my parents that I was a child “who learned best by watching”. Meaning that I wasn’t actually committing offenses deserving of being spanked, but I was forced to watch all my siblings and friends get spanked, because that would teach me to be “afraid of sinning” and I would be even less likely to sin myself. I was forced to watch a lot of these spanking as a young child. What made it the most traumatic for me, even more than seeing my terrified brother or cousins being hurt, their wide eyes streaming tears as they fought to hold back the cries that would earn them further punishment, was the fact that Joe LaQuiere treated it like it was funny. He would smile, laugh, and even joke with the other adults while he was carrying out these beatings. This was to show that he wasn’t punishing “in anger”, but out of love and genuine care for us.
Once when I was 9 or 10, during a public “paddling” of my brother B, I ran into the dark front room and hid under the piano, my tears mixing with my panic. I sat there in the dark, hugging my knees, until Mr. LaQuiere’s oldest daughter came and found me and coaxed me out, telling me “everything was fine”, and “there was nothing to be sad about”. I dried my tears and went with her, but the fear remained. Maybe these kinds of experiences – watching my siblings be hurt by other adults while my parents watched and joined in laughter – are why I can’t remember ever being afraid. I live with fear every day of my life since then, and it took me well over a decade after we left to realize that it is really not normal for a child to live life in constant fear. The thought of how I’d feel if my own children were forced to endure or watch the things I was made to, makes me want to vomit.
When my brother B was 10, he developed a nervous tic – an involuntary twitch in his eye. I’m personally surprised it didn’t start sooner. It started off happening every time an adult made eye contact with him, but increased until it was nearly a constant thing. It was nearly impossible for him to look anyone in the eye. To correct this “misbehavior”, Mr. LaQuiere told my parents to put rubber bands on his wrist, and snap him every time he did it. His wrists were red from then on, even so, it was a long time before he could learn to control the eye twitching.
“Paddlings” were not the only punishments my brother B endured. As he got older, it seemed like any and every expression of anger, contempt, disgust and violence was fair game. The most violent of the treatment took place during the times we were working construction with the rest of the families. My memories of this time are somewhat hazy, maybe because my subconscious is protecting me, but I easily recall him being called “lazy” “foolish” “ignoble” “idiot” “knucklehead” “stupid”, and other names — not by other children, but by the adults. In addition to the regular beatings he received in public, or behind closed doors in Mr. LaQuiere’s home office, he was often dragged places by his hair. He was thrown against walls. He was held up against the wall by his throat, high enough that his feet dangled off the ground. These things were mostly done by Mr. LaQuiere and the other men in the group, but eventually they were also done by my father in the privacy of our own home, as he fought to control an increasingly-troubled B who was getting older and older, and still a “problem” to his authorities.
Other children were considered “hardened” and “problem children”, but none received as much time and attention at the hands of Joe LaQuiere as my brother. B was targeted for verbal, emotional and physical abuse from the age of 5 until we left the group when he was 13 (though the pattern continued at home for many years after that).
Years later, my dad would express regret over this treatment of B, but his most recent comments on the situation to me were that “he doesn’t have much sympathy for B and J, because they weren’t ‘innocent’, and also, it’s hard to feel too bad for them when they’ve gone on to make bad life choices as young adults”. I’d like to ask my dad why he considers my brothers “not innocent” for acting like children, but seems to carry no lasting guilt for himself for letting other full-grown men physically abuse his sons, and joining in on it himself. I’d like to ask him how he can see the devastation and depression in my brother B that followed and that has plagued him through his adult years, and not feel responsible. How he can’t see the link between the abuse and the high level of control they grew up uner, and their tendency to make “bad choices” later on. But I also feel guilt myself. Guilt that I didn’t stand up for my brother. That I didn’t tell somebody who could have stopped it, though we were strongly ingrained with fear of Child Protective Services, and heard horror stories of older children who “informed” on their parents, and had CPS come snatch all the children away. So calling CPS would never have entered my mind as a possibility, even if I hadn’t been too afraid to take action. Though my adult logic can admit that I couldn’t have done much, if anything, to stop the abuse, I still feel guilt and grief over what was done to my brothers, and my own inability to stop it.