For Little Tony
Updated: Oct 13
Forty-five years ago, my first experience with child abuse left me with questions about society’s attitudes, and a sense of guilt that I carry to this day.
When I was eighteen, I moved out on my own to go to college and to try out my brand-new adulthood. I rented a room from a fellow student in my Psychology class, a middle-aged woman who was the coolest person imaginable. Marnie was married to a black man – this was the seventies, folks, and they were literally the first mixed-race couple I’d ever met. They had an eight-year-old son named Tony, after his father. A pregnant girl and her boyfriend were renting another room. And there were always people staying at her house; it was like a mini-commune, which was, again, very cool in the seventies.
Marnie was larger than life: she was a big woman and she owned it, with flamboyant clothes and makeup and a sexy attitude. She loved being the center of attention, and I loved hearing her outrageous stories about her life. Big Tony, her husband was a cop, and he was tall, muscular, and intimidating-looking. But I don’t remember him talking to any of us except Marnie; he would just watch TV, eat supper, and go to bed. Little Tony was a quiet kid, and it took a while for him to warm up to me. I remember the first time he smiled at me, because it took me by surprise: it was such a lovely, warm smile, and it occurred to me that he didn’t do it often enough.
At eighteen, I was unimaginably naïve. I’d always been a bookworm and an introvert, and there were things living under rocks that had more life experience than I did. But after a while, I started wondering about Marnie. For one thing, she was adamant that our professor had been coming on to her, propositioning her in the elevator or whenever they were alone. This guy was easily sixty years old, which was obviously much too old to be interested in sex. Also, he was a long-haired, sandal-wearing guru type, very spiritual and easily the least sleazy person I’d ever met. I started taking Marnie with a grain of salt.
And some of her stories were a bit weird. For instance, she told me that Little Tony would come into the bedroom when she and Big Tony were making love, and try to get between them. She laughed and said that he would get a tiny erection while it was happening. I felt that she probably shouldn’t have allowed this, but I didn’t know much about other families. Mine wasn’t physically affectionate; my mother hugged me once, and I thought she was having a seizure or something. But I never even suspected that people might get sexual with children. So it just seemed odd.
I noticed that Marnie didn’t give Little Tony a lot of attention. I’m the oldest of seven children, so it was natural that I would mother him a little. Over the few months that I was there, he began to warm up to me quite a bit. If Marnie was aware of it, she didn’t seem to care.
Until one morning at breakfast, when I was giving Little Tony some cereal. We were just sitting at the table, talking, and Marnie roared in. She screamed at Tony, “Why are you wearing those shorts? I didn’t tell you to wear shorts!” We both just gaped at her. Then she grabbed Little Tony by the arm and dragged him into his bedroom.
I was in shock: Marnie had never acted remotely like this before. I followed them to the bedroom door. Marnie had thrown Little Tony onto the bed, still ranting at the top of her voice. Then She got a belt, I don’t know where from, and started strapping the child full force across his back while he was screaming, “No, Mommy! No, Mommy!”
I ran into the living room, where Big Tony was sitting on the couch watching television. We could both hear the screams and the slapping of the belt, going on and on, but he sat there like a statue. This confused me even more; by now I had no idea how to respond to the situation. I grabbed the phone on the side table, called my mother and, with Little Tony’s screams ringing in the background, begged her to come get me. I snatched up my purse and ran for the front door, and waited outside at the curb, shaking all over.
And if that was the biggest shock of my young life, what happened next was the second biggest. When my mother picked me up, I told her what had happened. It seemed obvious to me that we had to call the police about this.
And then my mother told me that we were doing no such thing.
I told her again, in terrifying detail, what I had seen Marnie doing to the child, sure that she just didn’t understand how bad it was.
My mother repeated that we were not calling the police.
We didn’t talk any more about it. When we got home, I went to the bedroom and just sat there. I had never been so confused in my life, before or since. My mother was a good person. We were never hit as children. How could she just let such a thing happen to a child and not do something about it?
And why did I just stand there and watch Marnie brutally beat her child and not grab the strap from her, or yell at her, or something? I wasn’t afraid of Marnie, although Big Tony was pretty scary. But that wasn’t why I didn’t do anything. What was wrong with me?
I never called the police. Little Tony stayed int that home with his crazy parents for the rest of his childhood as far as I know. I never found out what had happened to him, although with all the research I have done on abused children, I can make an educated guess. I’d had it in my power to change that for him, and I didn’t do it. And I still can’t really understand why.
And you could blame it on the times. My mother grew up in a time where parents could beat their kids and call it their right as parents. Even in the seventies, reporting child abuse was not a legal requirement for professionals, as it is now.
But I think it is more than that. I read a study in which teachers at a public elementary school were given training on reporting suspected child abuse among their students. They were educated on what to look for, role played the process for making a report, understood their legal responsibilities to report, and appeared to be very enthusiastic about the training overall. But over the following year, not one report of child abuse came from that school.
It may be hard to accept that we as a society do not stand up for vulnerable children, but it is crucial that we acknowledge this situation. That is always the first step in changing it. In future blog articles, I will talk about specific actions that we as individuals, as groups, as voters, and as a society, I am doing this, in part, because I still owe a debt to Little Tony for my failure to help him. I think that there are enough of us out there who are tired of accruing such debts, and who want to change things. I would like to hear from you.