A PRISONER WITHIN
A Psychological Thriller
All she wanted was a loving mother. Instead, she got a monster.
After a horrific childhood, Tiffany cannot wait for her eighteenth birthday. However, her tyrannical mother is unwilling to relinquish control. Relying on years of lies, she convinces everyone her daughter is self-harming and should remain in her care.
Tiffany must prove she is of sound mind to earn her independence, but how can she from inside a mental ward?
How far is she willing to go for freedom and is redemption worth the price of her soul?
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I stood there, battling with myself. The various pieces of silverware seemed weighty as I held them in my hand. My grip was so tight, as my eyes constantly darted to the sharp knives which lay inches from me in the drawer. It was a minuscule space that I could cross in a fraction of a second.
She was so small compared to me. I was young and strong. I couldn’t understand why she’d be so cruel or so hateful, especially when I could so easily overcome her. I couldn’t fathom what any child could do to make their mother despise them the way she despised me. The venom in her eyes was like a physical blow, and her words stung like acid.
I had only wanted to please her; to be close to her. I worked to do things that would make her smile or laugh. All that seemed for naught. Nothing was ever good enough; I was eternally flawed. I wondered why she had kept me if I was the life-ending leech she said I was.
As her screaming droned on, all I wanted was to end her reign of tyranny. At that moment, it wouldn’t matter if that meant I had to kill her. It’d be so easy to just grab a knife, turn, and cut her from my life. I envisioned my lethal strike, as I stood shaking, trying to maintain control.
I felt a thrill at the idea of slicing into her body. I didn’t care if I did it with a knife or not. Hell, I would’ve settled for any of the utensils in my hands, even the spoons. They’d all manage my desired goal and bring the anticipated damage I so wanted to reap. It might take a little more force, exerting a bit more effort, but every piece of silverware would inflict harm.
As I stood battling the desire to attack, she continued her ranting; yelling insults at me as she threatened me. She didn’t seem to care what she said or did, as long as it hurt me. Her aim was to wear me down. Whether she was genuinely oblivious to my desires or just that confident that I wouldn’t move into action against her, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that she wanted control and submission. Her goal was to break me into giving her just that.
I don’t abide by the idea of ruling by fear. I don’t agree that “it is better to be feared than respected.” I don’t believe you can sustain a civilization built upon the backs of slaves. That creates an undertone of hatred and the hope for rebellion; revenge. Forced servitude isn’t the same as offering fealty. Fear births hatred and that yields such dark, seedy things that I couldn’t see why anyone wanted to use that as a motivator for anything.
Love is the eternal power. Even if your ends are wicked, if your means are full of kindness and warmth, masses will flock to please you. They will gratefully give you what you ask for and do so with a sense of joy. Hasn’t history shown us that time and time again? Of course, I wouldn’t intentionally use love for personal gain, but I knew my mother would. If she had the capacity or understanding to do so, she’d wield love as her most prized weapon.
So, I realized I was at a crossroads. Did I allow my mom’s evil to swallow my love and provoke me into darkness? Did I ignore who I was, allowing my actions to be hers instead of mine? Was I becoming a person I knew I wasn’t? Talking to her was futile; she never listened. I wasn’t sure if that was because she didn’t actually care or because she was arrogant enough to think she was the only one right in the world. I didn’t think the answer really mattered, as nothing was going to change because she didn’t want them to.
You can’t change a person unless they allow it. You can only control your own behavior and hope that you can offer a good example to influence others. Just like with therapy – or anything really – if a person isn’t willing to put forth an effort to try to modify, better, or adjust their reactions, their situation, or their ideas, then all attempts to force a change is futile. Change is personal and entirely dependent upon one person – yourself.
No, I wouldn’t compromise who I was. I placed the silverware into its proper place within the drawer. I shut the drawer, hiding away the knives that called to me with such loud voices. I refused to sacrifice my life for a heat of the moment crime. I wouldn’t allow her to win. Giving in would feel great, but then, it would ultimately destroy me; making me everything I hated about her. No, I was strong enough to back away and take her abuse. No matter what she did, I wouldn’t reciprocate; not today.
“Treat people the way you want to be treated.” I lived by that rule. I’d never be like her if I could prevent it. I’d never purposely make someone feel the way she made me feel. I wanted to on some primal level. I knew I’d be horrified at how much pleasure I’d have if I could watch her life slip away, knowing she was fully aware that it was me who took it. No matter how badly I wanted to drain the blood from her, I knew I’d never attack. God said to be kind and compassionate. That meant I’d never raise my hand against her; at least not intentionally or with premeditation.
As I tried to avoid eye contact, I continued to put away the clean dishes and began washing the new piles. She watched me with a sour look, wanting me to challenge her authority so she’d have a reason to knock me back down. I acted as docile and obedient as I could manage. I apologized and agreed with everything she expected me to support her on – which was how useless and ungrateful I was.
I knew that if I did anything to provoke her, I’d have more to deal with than her irritation. Her displeasure in my ability to execute my chores more expeditiously was more than enough. If her initial anger wasn’t immediately abated, or her attention redirected, she’d watch me the whole time I washed the dishes. She’d take note of everything she felt I did wrong and use that as her ammunition against me when she’d inspect the dishes for cleanliness. No matter how clean the dishes were in reality, she’d ensure I washed everything again.
If my re-clean didn’t appease her and she continued to be angry, I’d be screamed at while having to wash every dish, cup, pot, pan, and utensil in the kitchen. Sometimes she would burn her energy out when I got that far with things, but other times, she’d just build to a crescendo. That would mean I was required to stand at attention, like a soldier, watching my mother as she washed everything herself; which she would do in full insult mode and at max volume.
What hell that would be – too long a night for me. I prayed that my mom would stop short tonight. I hoped there was something on television she wanted to watch or that someone would call her, distracting her. If I were really lucky, she’d be impressed with the program or call, and it would catapult her into a good mood; well as good as could be expected for her. That would mean I could slip into bed, feigning sleep for an escape.
Once I’d finished putting away the clean dishes from the dish rack, I worked diligently to prep the kitchen for dishwashing. I disposed of the meal’s leftovers under my mother’s strict direction, then began to organize the dishes before I pre-cleaned the sink and surfaces. I did everything thoroughly and deliberately in order to avoid more drama. If I was going to be yelled at, I’d rather it be a result of being slow opposed to doing things poorly.
I scraped and rinsed the dishes, stacking them in an orderly fashion on the counter so my mom would understand that I knew the proper order in which to do things. The routine had been ingrained in me. First, you soaked the silverware while you washed the glasses and cups. Next, you scrubbed the bowls, followed by the plates. Once you accomplished that, you, finally, washed and rinsed the silverware and cooking utensils. At that point, the water would be too dirty to be of any use, so you had to empty the dishpan, recleaning and refilling the sink before you began to wash the pots and pans.
I meticulously scrubbed while my mother watched attentively. I hoped she’d be comforted by my organization and preparations. I hoped she recognized that I was smart enough to know that you didn’t wash dishes in a dirty sink. I hoped she’d leave me to my task.
“Make sure that you clean that sink good. You can’t clean dishes if you wash and rinse them in filth.” Her voice dripped with disgust. I was doing all she asked, so why was she still so angry at me? What was I doing wrong?
I just wanted her to walk away, to leave the room. I just wanted to be invisible, so she’d forget about me. I dropped the silverware into the hot, soapy water and mentally chanted, “Please leave. Please leave.”
“Make sure you use hot water!” my mother screamed. “It needs to be so hot that you can barely stand it, or it won’t get all the germs and shit off.”
“Yes, mom,” I acknowledged, so she knew I was paying attention.
“Your skin should turn red, it’s so hot,” mother bellowed. She stomped over to test the water temperature to ensure I followed her instructions.
I looked at the stove in disgust, seeing all the food that had baked onto it. I couldn’t understand why my stepdad never wiped up his spills while cooking. If he did, then it wouldn’t get baked on. I wouldn’t have to work so hard to scrape and clean the stove. I felt certain he did it on purpose; perhaps a gesture of disrespect. I wasn’t sure if he really disliked me that much or if he just enjoyed my mother’s performance as an overlord.
“This stove better shine when you’re finished. I don’t want any of your lazy shit!” my mom snapped. “Either do it right or don’t do it at all!”
I’d heard it before. It was pretty much the same scene every night. I didn’t think that her tantrums were very good for her digestion, but she never seemed to suffer any ill effects from them. The best that I could wish for was that she’d become tired of the usual rampage and walk away. I continued my silent chant, “Please leave. Please leave.”
“You will do it right.” My mother said this as though I seriously thought I had a choice in the matter.
My mother’s threat wasn’t hollow. I knew things had to be done correctly, or at least right per her standards. I just wasn’t sure how many dishes would have to be washed before that was accomplished. To my surprise, it seemed as though my mother was losing interest in our nightly ritual as she called out to my stepdad to see if their movie was ready to start. I felt a sense of excitement, delighted with the prospect of something that would divert her attention away from me.
When my stepdad informed her that the movie was about to begin, she gave me one last look of warning, saying, “Get it done.”
I felt a wave of relief wash over me as my mother finally exited the room. I sighed deeply, though quietly, so no one would hear. I now dared to hope that I’d be able to cower in the dark of my room sooner rather than later.
I hated living on eggshells. I hated that I didn’t have a voice. I hated being nothing.
There was a funny smell. I’d been moved around so much that I felt tired and a little disoriented. I vaguely remembered the blur of lights and sounds as I had traveled. Ultimately, I ended up here, in this small quiet room; naked.
“Do you know where you are?” the lady asked me calmly.
“What?” I could hear her voice, but the information wasn’t being processed. I was distracted by her lovely red hair; it was so thick and curly. It wasn’t that clown color red either. It was that lovely deep auburn with the golden halo that brought the red more to the forefront. I had always loved red hair and dreamt of having a beautiful daughter with lovely red locks and intense green eyes. I wondered what color the talking woman’s eyes were.
“Tiffany? Do you know where you are?” the lady asked again with more conviction. I looked directly at her. Of course, I had to; how else would I see the color of her eyes?
“I’m a little cold,” I complained mildly. I still couldn’t figure out why I was naked. Of course, I wasn’t overly concerned about it either; I was trying to see the lady’s eye color. I bobbed and weaved to try to follow the lady, and I grew agitated that she wouldn’t stay still or look directly at me. Why wasn’t she being cooperative?
Brown; her eyes were brown. I loved brown eyes best, but I always thought that was too ordinary for my imagined daughter. I wanted her to have striking, vivid eyes of green; a green so intense it made people think she was wearing contacts. My precious child would have such unique eyes that people would think they were inhuman. They would radiate; she’d radiate in gold, amber, and jade. She’d be my jewels; my treasure.
Another woman grasped my arm just above the wrist and asked in a direct, authoritative voice, “Tiffany? Tiffany, do you know where you are?”
I slowly turned toward this new voice. I wasn’t sure whether she sounded angry or just determined. I wanted to look at her face so that I could decide; I needed context from her body language. I didn’t know what she had to be upset about; I was the one with no clothes. Upon inspection, I was content to see that the woman didn’t appear mad, just extremely focused.
This new woman was a bit huskier and a little older than the other lady. She had her hair cut short, and I admired the feathering displayed in her golden locks. She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t ugly either. I did note that she was quite strong; her grip was tight and firm. Her voice was deeper than the petite redhead, and it caught my attention sufficiently enough that I began to concentrate better on the conversation.
“What?” I asked her. “What did you say?”
The woman smiled kindly at me, and I instantly felt better. I was relieved that she wasn’t angry, and I was encouraged by her outward display of friendliness. Her smile was warm, and it made her ordinary face look extraordinarily pretty. I smiled back at her, hoping my smile was just as lovely. I was certain it wasn’t, but I smiled anyway.
“Tiffany, do you know where you are, dear?” the woman asked me quite deliberately this time.
“Yes,” I responded to the older woman. “I’m in a hospital.”
I looked around me to make sure I’d given the correct answer. The dingy, white room with soft blue and green accents – soothing colors, I acknowledged; to calm a patient – was affirmation enough for me. It also made me understand why I was so drawn to the splash of color the pretty redhead provided in the sea of mundane décor. I immediately returned my attention from the blasé room to the beautiful color.
“Correct,” the older woman replied with a hint of relief in her voice.
The two women were turning me about, so they could look at my body from every angle. When they looked at my thighs for a long moment, I looked too. I wasn’t sure what they were trying to find, but I didn’t see anything. The only thing I did notice was the bright blood smeared across my left forearm. It was quite noticeable in the boringly sterile room. Still, it didn’t have the appeal of the lovely hair that tickled when it accidentally draped across my skin.
“I don’t see any other cuts or abrasions, do you?” The voice was so sweet, and the pitch reminded me of something. I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what that something was.
“Me either,” I heard the attractively deep voice say.
“Me either,” I echoed and then smiled, hoping the ordinary lady would flash her extraordinary smile back at me in return.
“Tiffany, do you have any cuts or wounds other than the one on your arm?” the deep voice demanded kindly.
As I answered, I realized they must be checking me for additional damage. “No. No, I don’t think so. Why, did you find something else?”
I began to reassess myself. I still didn’t see anything, so I wasn’t sure why the women were worried. After all, the ER staff had already handled this very thing. Hadn’t they cleaned, stitched, and bandaged my arm? Looking at my wound, I saw the hint of blood staining the bandages, but it wasn’t so much that it provided any reason for alarm.
I noticed the two women looking at each other briefly. I didn’t think I would’ve noticed or cared except that the motion of moving her head made the lady’s soft red curls bounce and sway. I liked how even the horrible fluorescent lights made her hair shimmer with copper. I just knew that it’d be breath-taking to see in the natural light of the sun. I was about to ask her if we could go outside when I detected another question directed my way.
“Honey, do you know why you’re here?”
Oh, the cute redhead was talking again. A hummingbird, that was it; her voice was like a hummingbird. It was a bit high pitched and small, especially compared to the other woman. I realized I preferred the deeper voice.
“Yes, someone tried to kill me,” I answered very matter-of-factly.
“I am truly torn with this book.
Rated at 4 because I was captivated by my own turmoil as I read about the life of a young woman and how her up bringing had been, become. The reality that someone could be subjected to this life…unbearable.
Initially lost upon reading, but once the writers style was adjusted to, it read quickly.”
authors of PEOPLE OF THE MORNING STAR
“A Prisoner Within by J.M. Northup is a hard-edged psychological thriller featuring Tiffany, an abused young woman committed to the Breckenridge Institute for the Criminally Insane. She awaits trial for the murder of her mother, who forced her to endure the tortures of the damned throughout her lifetime. Carol, Rhonda and Charlotte are the team of nurses who show mercy and human kindness to Tiffany, and Dr. Maxwell does his best to help her keep her grip on reality. The author pays homage to child abuse discussions in the spirit of An American Crime as we explore the depths of human cruelty in this novel.
Northup spends a large part of the work dissecting two key elements of the scenario. There is the rationale of the victim, who tries to contend with their environment by interpreting a twisted logic in their condition. We also see how the source of the conflict, the psychopathic mother, is factored in as a force of God as well as a benefactor despite the brutal conditions provided for Tiffany. There are also the enablers, personified by the spineless stepfather and the circle of friends representing the dregs of society. Tom, Silvia, Alice and Molly stand by and do nothing, just as so many neighbors, relatives and community members do in perpetuating the abusive cycle. Although this is a grim reminder, it should serve as a moral compass when we have the opportunity to right the wrong in our own lives.
Pick up a copy of A Prisoner Within by J.M. Northup. It may not be a lively read but it will be an eye-opener and even a reminder of how real life can inspire the darkest fiction. “