Before there was The Brady Bunch or 19 Kids and Counting, there was Yours, Mine, and Ours. The 1968 movie starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda portrayed a real-life, blended family with 20 children. (It was remade in 2005 with Dennis Quaid.)
Tom North was the 11th child. Although his life seemed idyllic on screen, it was filled with violence and abuse by his stepdad, Frank Beardsley, played by Fonda. He wrote about this double life in his memoir, True North – The Shocking Truth about “Yours, Mine and Ours.”
The holidays can be a particularly stressful time for adult DV survivors, especially those with children. Everything’s supposed to be happy and rosy, with plenty of family and togetherness — but what if your family has caused you pain? Here’s Tom’s story and his tips for getting through the season.
My father, Richard North, died in a Navy jet test flight crash when I was six years old. Fifteen months after he died, my mother, Helen North—who had eight kids—re-married a man named Frank Beardsley who had ten, making us one of the largest families in the country. We became famous, and our story was featured in the blockbuster movie Yours, Mine and Ours starring Lucille Ball as my mother and Henry Fonda as Frank Beardsley.
But it wasn’t one big happy family at all. Beardsley’s violence and abuse created a life of intimidation, turmoil, fear, and depression for my siblings and me every single day. At school, everyone thought we were happy and rich. In reality, it was common for Frank Beardsley to knock me or another child across the room. When we asked why, he’d say, “Just for drill.” He also sexually abused the female kids on a regular basis. Every day when he came home, the message would shoot through the house as we scrambled with fear: “He’s home. Run!”
I’d feel horribly guilty and ashamed because I was supposed to be happy, and I wasn’t.
We couldn’t reach out to my dad’s family because visits from my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were forbidden. Frank was insanely jealous of anything related to my father, so he put a halt to any communication with my North family.
I didn’t know my North cousins until recently, when I attended a North family reunion. I marveled at how my daughter, who came with me, relished and soaked up all the stories of our lost relatives. The emotions that ran through my heart as I listened to and spoke with these “lost North” relatives of mine were intense. I had lost a very important chapter in my life that could never be replaced, especially the cherished relationship with my grandparents.
So my memories of holidays as a kid are more about the feelings of conflict and depression. There was always the anticipation of violence. I didn’t understand how we could sustain such a horrible emotional environment in the household and still celebrate Christmas as if everything was fine. Then, I’d feel horribly guilty and ashamed because I was supposed to be happy, and I wasn’t.
Luckily, today I’m a proud husband and dad. I’ve since been able to reconnect with my North relatives to form a sense of family—something I’d never known. This has been a key part of my survival process. So has supporting CASA for Children, whose volunteers provide a net of support and bring a positive change to the lives of abused and neglected kids.
But I don’t have to repeat the cycle: Instead, I can try to create a sense of family for my own children—something I never knew.
Even though I learned how to create a positive and healthy environment for my family, the holidays are still hard for me and for so many others like me. The happiest time of the year just isn’t. But I don’t have to repeat the cycle: Instead, I can try to create a sense of family for my own children—something I never knew. Here are some of my suggestions to help other adult survivors and their loved ones create and sustain family ties, allowing children to really absorb and appreciate their heritage.
- Talk positively about your relatives when you can, but tell the truth about your history (and edit according to kids’ ages). It’s important to deal with the reality, but not dwell on it. This is better than sweeping it under the rug. Focus on the positive, the good, when you can.
- Set up a family evening where you look at family pictures and home movies. This is a chance to share personal history. If painful memories arise, identify areas that need some work as well as family to support and validate one another.
- Share family stories of grandparents and deceased relatives. Children need to know they’re connected.
- Celebrate holidays with relatives that focus on a special tradition. Every Christmas Eve my wife cooks a special pasta dish, and everyone gets to open one present that night. This provides consistency and something positive to anticipate.
- If possible, create opportunities for kids to spend a night with grandparents and cousins, provided those family members are safe.
- Start a “Family Notebook” where family members can contribute special items, pictures, and poems to document holiday occasions for the future. We have family photo albums that we pull out and look through. Sometimes we light a candle to remember loved ones who have passed, which sparks wonderful stories.
- Network in the community as a family. Volunteer together for a food drive, or sing at a nursing home. Doing this can create a lasting memory of goodness and togetherness.
- Remember, this shouldn’t end when the holidays are over. Build your family narrative all year long.