Sun, Jun 25, 2000 - Page 19 News List

A Korean orphan recalls a lifetime of abuse spanning two cultures

Elizabeth Kim compellingly details her tragic life from the time she watched her mother get murdered in an `honor killing' to the continual abuse that followed. Told in a lively and readable way, this sad narrative doesn't mince words when detailing the sorrows that followed her from Korea to the US, but she also manages to never completely lose touch with hope

By Bradley Winterton  /  SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR

It's comparatively easy to find books detailing the abuse women are subjected to in Asian countries. This lively and readable book, however, goes one step further and tells a story that illustrates abuse so grotesque in both Asia and America that it would be difficult to decide which is the more terrible.

Elizabeth Kim was born in the 1950s to a Korean mother and a GI father. Her troubles began immediately. Because of the circumstances of her birth, no one in their village would accept her, and she and her mother were ostracized and made to live in a little hut apart from the others.

Life was nevertheless happy enough, with simple meals of kimchi and rice, and posies of wild flowers laid before the Buddha. But then a gang of male relatives arrived and demanded the child be sent to an orphanage. When the mother refused, she was tied up and hung from a beam in front of her daughter's eyes.

Following this "honor killing," the child was sent to an orphanage anyway. Run by strict Christian fundamentalists, this was more like a prison than a home. Children were stacked in crate-like cots and numbered. One night Elizabeth had to share her cot with a small boy. When she woke in the morning she found he had died from the cold.

Eventually she was adopted and flown to Los Angeles. From here she was driven out into the desert by her adoptive parents. It turned out to be the first of her journeys from the frying pan into the fire.

The couple were a Calvinist pastor of the most unrelenting kind and his equally intransigent spouse. Repression of pleasure in the world, and especially in the body, was everything. The walls were hung with pictures such as Holman Hunt's The Light of the World and Durer's praying hands.

All infringements of household rules were instantly punished, usually by beating with a wooden bat. These particular punishments, the lectures that preceded them and the screams they provoked, were recorded on a giant reel-to-reel tape recorder that stood in the living-room. When the pastor went to turn on the reel-to-reel, Elizabeth knew what to expect.

Finding refuge

The resulting tapes became family treasures. When Elizabeth was a teenager, her adoptive parents presented her with the entire collection transferred onto cassettes and housed in a decorative box. It was her Christmas present.

She found respite in the classics, especially poetry. How much, one wonders, does literature owe worldwide to abusive parents and unhappy childhoods?

Worse was to follow. At 17 she was married to another pastor from her parents' church. It was soon apparent he was a pathological wife-abuser. He slapped her, kicked her, jumped on her stomach when she was pregnant, and on one occasion, after she'd pleaded for their dog to be allowed to spend the night in the house, made her sleep outside with it in the doghouse.

He called her disgusting. When they had sex he looked at pornographic pictures rather than at her. When once she went to kiss him, he slapped her face and said "Never try to do that again."

When her daughter was born, she lavished all her pent-up affection on the child, instinctively re-creating the loving relationship she had had with her own mother in Korea. Her husband responded by having sex with other women. On one occasion he made love to a hitch-hiker they had picked up on the back seat of the car. Elizabeth, having no choice but to continue driving, adjusted the rear-view mirror so that she didn't have to watch.

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