To understand the anguish of the man, see him as a boy. See his drunken father beat him. See his father tell him he’s useless, no good. See his father terrorize the boy’s mother nightly, whacking her so hard he bloodies her forehead. See the boy unable to sleep, hiding under a blanket, crying, worrying.
Now put that boy in grade school in Montreal in the 1950s. He can’t learn. He is too anxious. Too exhausted. He gets his sister or friends to do his homework. He reaches the eighth grade-barely-then drops out.
He can’t read. He can’t write.
He can’t tell anyone.
Now see the boy as a man, nearly 50 years old, celebrating before cheering crowds as the head coach of the 1993 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. He and his hockey team are the toast of Canada. But still he hides his secret. He gets his wife to read the news articles to him. He relies on staff members to “sum up” reports. When asked to read something, he pats his chest and says, “Ooh, I forgot my glasses.” When asked for autographs, he only scribbles his name and “Best Wishes”-words he taught himself.
He can’t read. He can’t write.
He can’t tell anyone.
“I was scared to death,” says Jacques Demers, now 61. “I thought if anyone found out, I’d be finished.”
This is a story of what fear and abuse can do to children, and what misplaced shame can do to an adult. The number of people who are functionally illiterate in this country-and the rest of the world- might stagger you. Studies show that as many as one in seven American adults may be unable to comprehend a job application or a newspaper’s front page.
And while the causes are many-poverty, learning disabilities-childhood abuse also can play a part. But abuse, like illiteracy, is often hidden by the victims.
Demers, the son of a Montreal janitor, remembers being so afraid of his alcoholic father’s temper that once, when his father said, “Go home and wait for me,” young Jacques sat in a chair for hours and wet his pants rather than move.
“Another time he hit my mother so hard he split her eyebrow, and the blood kept coming out,” says Demers. “We wanted to help her, but she wouldn’t go to the doctor. She wouldn’t even go out. She had bruises. The neighbors would look at us funny. But we would lie and say everything was fine.”
With such a home environment, is it any surprise that Demers was unable to absorb his school lessons? But the shame of violence kept everyone silent. His father labeled his son “dumb.”
All the son knew was that he had to survive. So he talked his way into jobs, even a driver’s license. He asked people at the bank to write his checks for him. When fate gave him an opening in the hockey world, he relied on verbal communication, getting staff members to handle the paperwork. On the road, in restaurants, he would ask waiters to recommend food, because he couldn’t read the menus. “I learned to write a few words on the blackboard, like, ‘Practice at 10 a.m.’ But that was it.”
Demers, known for inspiring his players, coached five NHL teams over the course of 14 seasons and was twice named Coach of the Year. He worked in TV, radio, even did scouting.
He spoke with a thick French-Canadian accent and was always perceived as charming, jovial and-ironically-honest.
All the while, he was hiding his secret. “I was ashamed,” he says.
The only person who knew was his wife, Debbie. And it might have remained that way had she not insisted, a few years ago, that Demers get help to deal with his anger. For years, coaching hockey had been a shield to Demers’ demons; he was so entrenched in the game that he didn’t have time to wallow in bitterness from his childhood.
But once he left the bench, old issues began to surface.
“I was 58 when I went to see a psychiatrist,” Demers says. “The first time I went, I entered through the back door. I didn’t want anyone to see me.”
But after a few months, he began to realize that the shame he’d always felt was not warranted. That he did not deserve the violence his father inflicted. That he was not “dumb.”
Eventually, Demers decided to come forward. Working with the Canadian journalist Mario Leclerc, he put his story into a French-language book, Jacques Demers en Toutes Lettres, which has become a best-seller in Canada. An English edition is planned. There are 26 chapters-one for each letter of the alphabet. “I can’t read my own book yet,” Demers says, “but I hope to one day soon.”
Demers, who is donating some of the proceeds to a battered women’s shelter, also hopes that his story will shed light on another issue: the damage abusive parents inflict beyond the physical and emotional scars.
“Violence-experiencing it and witnessing it-is a huge issue in children’s ability to learn,” explains Dr. Jenny Horsman, author of Too Scared To Learn, who says she has interviewed hundreds of individuals whose learning has been affected by violence. “Anxiety really can close the senses down. I’ve had people who said they couldn’t hear or see clearly in class, that the teacher’s voice became a blur. It’s as if their anxiety put them in a cocoon.”
Not long ago, Demers says, he was on a radio show. A caller phoned in, using a fake name, and said he had been working for the Canadian government for years. He said he’d been hiding the same problem. But after hearing Demers’ story, he now had the courage to tell his boss.
These days, Demers writes out five new words a day. His goal, within a year, is to send thank-you letters to all those who helped him. He still mourns his mother, who died in her early 40s. And he still struggles to understand his violent father (who also died young). But the secret anguish of the boy finally has been released from the man. When asked to sum up where he is today, Demers responds this way:
“You can say a life started very badly, but maybe it will end very well.”
It’s a sentence worth reading.