Almost every night for the past ten years, I’ve dreamed about the house I grew up in.
Not the first few places we lived. We bounced around a lot when I was young and there are many houses that never had the opportunity to become a home. But when I was 11, they finally bought a place, an aging ‘70s suburban bungalow that was identical to every other one in the cul de sac. In my dreams, the sky is perpetually twilight, and everything seems darker and bigger, the trees and neighbors’ houses looming over me as I wander the main road. The fence we installed is there, and though I never did in waking life, I often cut through the neighbor’s front yard to reach ours. Where my room used to be is now a small covered stoop that leads out to the backyard, a half acre of lawn that stretches forever to the back fence, and as I climb over, the landscape shifts to the nearby beach, the waves towering and crashing until they chase me back to the high cliff walls made of clay.
I haven’t seen that house in 15 years. There’s no reason to go back, really. For me it’s not that you can’t go home again, as the old saying goes. It’s that I don’t want to. I didn’t have the happy childhood that so often prompts people to take a stroll down memory lane. And at my age now, I’m wise enough to avoid what I can’t handle. But the topic does come up sometimes. Most recently, in a videogame.
In Wolfenstein II, we explore B.J.’s upbringing and the verbal and physical abuse he suffered from his father, culminating in an early game scene where he visits his childhood home. His decision to do so is on a whim, a last minute decision as he passes the exit to his hometown. Once you get to the house, you spend several minutes wandering from memory to memory, filling in B.J.’s backstory, and viewing the painful moments that would come to define his character. He has come back to process, and reflect.
It’s a scene mirrored in other art forms to the point that it’s almost a trope now. Jenny in Forrest Gump, Laura in Twin Peaks: The Return: folks who, like B.J., return to the scene of the crime. To a person who didn’t grow up in a house of abuse, the act might seem cathartic, or triumphant, as if to say, fuck you, I beat you this time. But it’s not. As you get older and the distance between you and the abuse grows, the memories take on a surreal quality, as if they didn’t happen, like a dream. You revisit the nightmare to prove to yourself that it’s real. There’s nothing redemptive about it.
While I still can’t bring myself to drive by that old house, or even look at it in Google Street View, I have visited others from my childhood. Five years ago my now-husband Alex and I took a trip to Whidbey Island, where I lived in my grandparents’ trailer park for a few years in elementary school. It too shows up in my nightmares. As we made the rounds, I was struck by how sad and dirty it was now that my Grandpa Moe wasn’t there to keep it up. But more than that, I couldn’t understand why it looked so tiny. It seemed strange that this one little place was the stage for so many of the events I would carry for the rest of my life. Everything is just so much bigger when you’re a child. Whether it’s the countertop in the kitchen that you just can’t reach, or the anger in your father’s voice as he tells you to go back to bed—the whole world seems to be looming over you, reminding you that you’re helpless, and trapped. Staring at that muddy lawn and its sagging, wet shack in the corner, it looked as miserable as I had been as a child. But the adjusting for scale stopped there. It was still just as powerful, no matter how small.
As B.J. ascends the stairs in their grand old farmhouse, he’s met with a surprise: his dad. Apparently the senior Blazkowicz heard that B.J. was in the area, and correctly guessed that B.J. would show up at the property. Their confrontation is heartbreaking. As I watched the scene play out, I realized how different it would be if I hadn’t straightened out some issues with my own dad. During my “big confrontation” with my father, he’d been living with me following his divorce from my mom. I still harbored a lot of resentment towards him for my childhood, but he had just been diagnosed with diabetes following a heart attack and surgery, and he had nowhere else to go. It was okay at first but by month five I was slowing losing my sanity, culminating in an epic show down in my kitchen at 6 AM in a Saturday morning. I remember how as we fought, I brought up one of the times he hit me. I was 11 years old, and asked for an Adidas jacket for school. He slapped my little face so hard I hit the floor. Bringing it up all those years later, he looked at me and said, “I never hit you.” And in that moment I lost it. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t have an aneurism, or that the cops weren’t called. I screamed so hard I thought my face would shatter.
I got lucky that day. My dad actually listened. The next week, as my mental health began to collapse, he quietly moved out. Eventually he moved on and married my stepmother. Since then we’ve had many talks, and to my surprise, he continues to grow. Whereas once he spent all of our visits bragging and talking about himself, now he stops, and listens, and seems genuinely interested in other people. It’s a bewildering thing, to watch an abusive parent become the person you always needed them to be. The relationship isn’t perfect, and I think a part of me will always resent how he treated me, my sisters, and my mother. But he’s starting to grow. People can change, even if our memories won’t.
As I continue in therapy and make gains in healing from the past, I don’t know if my dreams will adjust to reflect my personal progress. For now, as I close that swinging metal gate, and leave the asphalt road, I take a right. The grass and mud turn to a bus stop, and suddenly I am on Market and 5th in San Francisco. For a few brief minutes, the nightmare stops, and I’m enjoying a sunny day on the sidewalk, slipping into a crowd. I’m no longer scared. I’m just happy.
And if I’m lucky, that’s when I wake up.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.