or, naivety

I’ve been on my own this week. As I often do at such (infrequent) times, I decided to challenge myself a little. So I watched both of the new documentaries about family dysfunction and sexual abuse: House of Maxwell and Jimmy Savile: a British Horror Story.

I think I do this on my own because I can react as I wish, in private. I can stop and start. I can drink wine. And I can take time to just think about it all. I don’t know if it’s unusual, but I don’t find these things triggering. Neither documentary is sensationalised — that’s what I hate, when things are sensationalised — so I always felt on secure footing.

It was all damning of course. Decades into dealing with my own childhood and the fall out from that, I am well acquainted with the enormous intricacies and confusions and horrors indeed which surround Child Sexual Abuse.

So I didn’t expect to hear anything new. Yet the producer of Jim’ll Fix It, Roger Ordish, said something which completely threw me: ‘How,’ he said, asking himself, asking the interviewer, musing, ‘could I have been so naive?’.

Naivety. I confess that I have never, ever, even THOUGHT about that word in relation to not ‘seeing’ abuse.

And I suddenly realised: I am so steeped in the dysfunction of my young life — that I don’t know any different. Living in awareness of dysfunction is my ‘normal’. I have absolutely NO idea what it would be like to live a life WITHOUT the knowledge and suspicion of sexual abuse, or abuse of any sort really.

I don’t know what it might be like NOT to suspect abuse in the first instance.

Naivety isn’t an excuse, but it IS a reason not to know about abuse. I now — suddenly — understand that sometimes abuse isn’t seen simply due to a (blessed) lack of knowledge. Simply because it doesn’t seem possible. Not within the realm of your experience.

The photograph at the top of this post, for instance: what does it make you think of? We read situations according to our experience, like it or not.

As activists and campaigners and makers and survivors — we need to understand that some people have been lucky. Really lucky. That the whole idea of abuse is alien, and that therefore they lack all awareness of its possibility. That they are not ‘looking away’ (seeing something and dismissing) so much as not even registering the possibility of abuse.

So ‘raising awareness’ can be literal. Not just making something ‘more important’ — but making it important AT ALL. And from there — and only from there — can come action. We can break the incidence of sexual abuse to others as gently as possible, but break it we must. None of us can afford to be naive, as painful as it is to face that. I’m as sorry as the next person that the world is like this, but as we have seen: horrible people take advantage of a naive world.

From my memoir Learning to Survive, about sensing what might threaten below the surface.

***

X is for X-ray Vision

What I am afraid of, deep down and unacknowledged, when moving to Virginia, I do not understand for a long time. I have already been through so much in my six years that this – a house, a family – might well have been for the best. Security. And I have no doubt that everyone involved – my grandparents, my mother, and, I’m guessing, my father – all believe this, despite the inevitable and distressing first shifts in a new place.

            So what do I know? What about my life so far is already sending me messages?

            I do not think I have any articulable way of knowing then. But I do know now. I now understand the messages that I sense under surfaces, behind smiles, in silences.

            There is a man here at Gladstone’s Library where I am working. And I don’t like him. Not one bit. He has a soft face, a spoiled face. He moves deliberately. He watches without wanting to appear that he watches. He repels me. I have seen him in conversation with others, and he seems perfectly nice. This doesn’t, however, change my mind. I know what he is.

on not wanting to make a fuss

It is tremendously difficult to locate your authenticity when you are a survivor. Your authentic self, your authentic emotions. Because up until now so much of your life has been about masking, camouflage, compartmentalisation, and pushing down and away from painful or confusing things. Up until now this has been necessary. It’s not wrong: it’s absolutely necessary. It’s what we did to survive. And we survived. So we did our job well.

Elsewhere I’ve talked about intimacy and being in touch with your body. What this feels like to locate or not locate. The distance from ourselves combined with the longing to know ourselves and others.

But I realised this week, quite sharply, that this distancing from myself, my body and its feelings also has always created every day, practical hurdles in my life. Perhaps most strikingly: I very often do not value or ‘listen to’ the signals my body and mind send me.

Over the years this dampening down has resulted in some upsetting versions of ‘everyday’ experiences. When I was in labour with my first child, I dilated very quickly. When the midwife came to check, she was flabbergasted that I was that far along. I’d dilated with no sounds, no ‘fuss’, entirely silently. Her words: you weren’t making enough noise! Hmm, I thought, is that good or bad?! Where I came from, I realised, it was very important not to show discomfort of any sort…. I remember, indeed, having a really bad ear ache as a child, and my ear drum bursting in the night. That’s quite an ear ache.

And last year, when my second hip was troubling me, it really really hurt. But — I felt it shouldn’t, that perhaps I was making too big a deal of it. That I had misjudged myself. Etc. When I went to see the physio, she was like ‘I can feel the synovial fluid coming out from the joint it’s so inflamed – that must hurt like hell’.

Yes, it did. But I wasn’t sure if it really did. Or what to do about it. Psychologically, I struggle to find my direction, or put myself in the centre of things, deep down.

This is on one hand. On the other hand: everyone who knows me will attest I’m sure to me actively enjoying everyday attention. I love parties, I love a laugh. I love to vent, I love to recount complicated medical adventures, symptoms and diagnosis (partly because I wanted at one time to be a doctor, but that’s another story). So it’s not like I’m shy or reserved. I’m really not. I’m not one to run away from sagas, stories, anecdotes, and my involvement in them.

But there are some barriers I don’t understand. What IS going on?

This week — when I have struggled with ongoing poor health — I had a real think about it all. I have had issues with my asthma/chest since January. It is now April. I have tried several times to address it with the doctor, with weak responses, and no in-person visits or x-rays. I have tried several medication options, as well as practical ones. Then covid hit me and crashed the whole thing. I have had two lots of antibiotics and am on a steroid course. I have changed inhalers. Etc. And indeed, it now looks quite possible that the root of everything lay in my asthma. As I kind of — I’ll be honest — thought all along.

I didn’t have the confidence to keep pushing. This is not a consistent thing — I will push to high heaven for my kids, and my husband. But I am really TERRIFIED of ‘making a fuss’ about myself. If I don’t know what something is — which I didn’t in this case — I’m frightened of being accused of ‘inventing things’, ‘making it all up’, ‘making it worse than it is’. Making a fuss. I second guess myself. All. The. Time.

And here we have it. At some point I always run into this: if I don’t know or understand what is happening to me, I think it’s not important anyway. No one will believe me or care. In fact, do I believe myself?

Of course, there are MANY situations that lead people not to trust themselves. I am not saying that CSA is the only one by any means. But it IS one. It’s a thing.

One of the most important things we can do for our children is LISTEN. Listening — not only to what we want to hear and how we want to hear it, but to EVERYTHING — is not an ‘indulgence’. It’s a necessity. We need to work from within their realities. Because children’s realities are complicated. They have the full range of emotions and experiences. And sometimes they signal danger and pain, or fear and insecurity, even if they can’t articulate it. Sometimes they don’t understand what is happening to them, but they know something isn’t right.

There were lots of things in my young life which sent me the message that I didn’t matter, and that my way of life was conditional upon the ‘right’ behaviour. Not all survivors have this complicated web I know, but I reckon most end up feeling that they didn’t matter, and have been struggling to make room for themselves — their bodies and minds — ever since. I salute you all, and everyone who loves them.

From Learning to Survive, a memory I think on a visit to Texas from Virginia; this is one of the earliest times I can remember understanding that whatever I am feeling is not going to change anything, and doesn’t really matter.

***

Tree

The house is remarkable only in that it is empty, and that my mother lives there and I’ve never seen it.

            I am a little struck by whiteness, or perhaps only by coldness. My mother takes me through the house room by room. It is entirely silent.

            I recognise nothing about the place, or the things in it. This alienation, and my mother’s evident joy in seeing me, combines in a pressing way upon my heart and lungs.

            I have been gone so long, and to such a different place, that I hardly recognise her either. She is as strange to me as any other stranger, any of the many people I seem to find myself living with.

            We go through the house. In particular I remember the kitchen, with its aluminium legged table and white walls, no curtains. The curious emptiness. And always, although I have just arrived, there is the feeling that I will soon be leaving.

            Suddenly we are in the backyard. I don’t know how we get here and I don’t want to be outside. Around me, I can see other backyards, just over the tops of grey clapboard fences, but still, there is not a sound. It is like we are on some kind of set, like we aren’t real at all.

            She says to me: ‘This is the reason I got the house, here.’

            I follow her finger, and it’s pointing to a low climbing tree, dull-barked and smooth. She says, ‘I thought you might like to climb it, when you come to visit. It’s for you to climb.’

            We move closer to it. I tilt my head, look up through the leafless branches. I feel like I might cry.

            ‘Do you want to try and climb it?’ she says.

            I don’t. But I reach out and put my hands on the trunk. It’s soft, warmer than the air.

            Soon, she is helping me up into the bottom branches of the tree. She stands back, smiling.

            I look at her. I look at the flat white house behind her, at the browning sharp lawn underfoot, the utterly empty overcast sky. Without knowing it, I’ve started crying, and my mother takes me down, holds me.            

I don’t know what I manage to tell her. There are many things she can believe, that will be at least a little bit true: I don’t want to climb the tree; I miss her; I am tired. What I don’t tell her is what I hardly know: that I don’t even want to be here, and I don’t want to be with her at all. That it’s too late. That no matter what she does, I’m on my own.

leaving

[image: Mark Vanhoenacker]

Poor parent-child, and especially mother-daughter, relationships seem to put children at far greater risk for being sexually victimized. … children living with only one natural parent, compared to two, [are] at twice the risk for child sexual victimization…

‘Risk Factors for Child Sexual Abuse’ by Danielle A. Black, Richard E. Heyman*, Amy M. Smith Slep in Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 2001

There are lots of stories I could tell about the neglect of my early years. I was living with my mother, who had many problems, and then when necessary my beloved grandparents would swoop in and I would live with them for weeks and even months at a time. They were my lifelines, and made me who I am today, without a doubt.

My mother tried to commit suicide a number of times, and was hospitalised a number of times too, all before I was six years old. At six years old, six months after my birthday at the country club, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I was sent from Texas (my mother and grandparents) to Virginia (my father and his new family). What triggered this event? I now know it was that my mother had made up two syringes of drugs to overdose — one for her, and one for me. She kept them in her car. At some point she realised that she had to get me out. and she did. I never again lived with her.

I did however visit my mother and my grandparents occasionally. From six years old (the minimum age allowed), I flew between Virginia and Texas alone.

It’s probably not surprising that I eventually developed a fear of flying. By way of confusion around it, I always used to say ‘but I’ve been flying on my own since I was six!’. Little did I know — until much later — that this was precisely why I was afraid. I realised, years and years later, that I was most afraid to fly when I was leaving someone I loved. Somewhere, I still loved my mother, and I certainly adored my grandparents. Many years later, as I tried to tackle this phobia, I realised that this six year old just never wanted to leave.

Here are two extracts from Learning to Survive. One about the grief of flying when I was little, and the second about how I began to break the pattern of fear, after a dramatic and uncharacteristic ‘breakdown’ — and how I began to heal.

***

Flight  

We are standing in the kitchen of their house. I am watching Ommie make dumplings. Somehow she and I are on our own together. I think this is because I am back from Virginia for a visit by myself.

            She has posted me next to her in order that I might learn about the making of dumplings. She has a special wooden dumpling board. She narrates for me:

            ‘First, you break the egg into this dip in the centre. Then – and you’ve got to use the spoon, then your hands – you gradually pull the flour in, little by little, lightly, not holding onto it long, until it comes together – look, it’s coming together.’

            I watch her fingers, brown with age spots, the nails painted with frosted polish as they always are, her rings slipping, knocking together. She pulls in the remaining flour, satisfaction on her face. It is so easy, she’s telling me, to make something out of nothing, to do this for people.

            The dough finished, she rolls it lightly and quickly into a soft tube. The special knife comes out and she slices it in fast, short movements, on an angle. ‘You need to seal the edges,’ she explains, ‘or they don’t cook right.’

            Over on the stove, a big pan boils with chicken broth. She drops the dumplings in one by one. They disappear from view into the simmering liquid. ‘When they’re done, they float to the top.’

            Lunch is now ready. We set the table. Already I feel the familiar melancholy of knowing I will forget this. I will not be able to hang on to everything Ommie tells me. When I get back to Virginia, there won’t be any of this.

Another memory dovetails this. I am six years old again, the youngest age you can travel alone. I have no recollection of who leaves me at the gate. Perhaps it is my mother, but I doubt it. More likely it is Ommie and Granddaddy, after a visit, soon after I move to Virginia. More likely they have driven to fetch me in Virginia, taken me back to Texas, and now it’s time to return.

            I sense that I am smartly dressed: a navy wool coat with gold buttons. My hair is short. I am wearing a dress and patent leather shoes.

            The pretty flight attendant takes me by the hand. Whoever is dropping me off has a discussion with her over my head. I do not know who will be meeting me at the other end, but she does.

            Together we walk out of the terminal and onto the tarmac. The plane is waiting, its engines roaring, the hot air blowing. We go up the steps and find my seat in the front row, by the window.

            It must be a long trip from Texas to Virginia. Especially in those days, at least five hours. Perhaps with more than one stop. I never get off the plane, though. As an unaccompanied minor, I can only disembark at my destination.

            The stewardess is very nice. As is the captain, and all the crew. Mid-flight I go through the private door onto the deck. There I see 180 degrees of blue sky, and the surprisingly small nose of the plane behind which we are suspended.

            I must do some drawings, play some games. I think I remember those puzzles with small lettered squares inlaid. You can move only one square one space, up, down or across, and you try to find a way to put the squares in order, solve the puzzle. There’s a pointlessness to it, making the same limited sense over and over.

            Partway through the flight I get gold wings, or a pin. It is stuck into the lapel of my navy coat. By the end of my first years in Virginia, I have quite an array of these pins from different airlines, an old hand at travelling alone.

            There is, however, on this flight and maybe on every flight, a palpable sadness. As this flight is my first solo one, I know it is here. Perhaps I cry, I don’t know. Perhaps others cry around me. Perhaps the stewardess – and this feels almost certain – perhaps she looks at me pityingly, or with bewilderment. My feet don’t even touch the floor.

            I remember never wanting to leave my grandparents. They cajole and stroke me, reminding me of my bravery, my strength. And I am strong, I am brave: I go. I do not raise a fuss. I do not punish or shrink. I carry on.

            In my father’s house, the feeling is always that Ommie and Granddaddy, and my mother, spoil me. So when I come back to Virginia, the faster I return to their ways the happier everyone seems to be, the fewer silences or exasperated sighs. The less ‘arrogance’ I show, the less separate I feel. The less I talk about where I’ve been or what I’ve done, the less trouble I cause. And so, although over the years in Virginia I am time and again told I talk too much, I learn early to keep anything precious close to my chest, to camouflage; I learn not to speak about anything directly, not to tell the whole truth, not to open some things up.

then, later

I am aware, when R and I leave for London in 1988, that I am in all likelihood enacting my final and lasting escape. But it is one I undertake with real hope, with a sense of adventure, with my eyes open, rather than with an underlying despair, desperation, as before.

            We marry in Norwich in June. My mother attends to walk me down the aisle, and [my siblings] come too, as bridesmaid and usher. Ommie and Granddaddy, by now 80, decide that they just can’t make it. R’s family arrange everything; it is his mother’s last big event before she passes away the following year, and one of the best days of my life. I hardly know anyone in the 120 strong congregation, but it is a loving, generous day – a testament to, and continuing hallmarks of, this remarkable family, who have been my family ever since.

            We settle in London – me working at an estate agency, R undertaking his Masters, and later his PhD, at the Royal Academy of Music. We live in Westbourne Grove, in a huge apartment we have happened upon through R’s godmother, and for two years – without much money and with little real direction — we live in easy harmony. Serendipitously, the flat’s owner is another writer whom we rarely see, as during the academic year she lives in California. During her summers in London however she populates the flat with books, all recently-published, adding to the ceiling-high bookshelves already in every room. In this flat over those first two years, I read Ishiguro, McEwan, more Woolf, Auster, biographies and feminist and literary theory, and much more. Above all, and eclipsing everything else, I encounter Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which frightens me at first to distraction, but which I now consider to have changed my life. This book, alongside Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness — these books – seem to me to capture elements of what I want to do.

             I continue to write in the evenings, prose and poetry – R greets me with a cup of tea each day when I get home, and shepherds me into my room. So in 1989 I make applications to American MFA programmes. I am accepted by almost all of them, but am only funded by two, and choose to start at Purdue University, in Indiana, in the autumn of 1990.

            R goes with me at first, and we settle into an apartment in an old clapboard house with a bleak view of a car park and a gas station. I like Purdue itself however. I like the people there, and I love teaching freshman composition; my mentor is brilliant, and I feel good at it. But my creative work stalls. I feel more experienced than others, and that there is no room for experimentation or risk-taking in the fiction programme. I feel stuck. Nevertheless, R comes to see me in a break, and we decide to press on for a while. It is the first time I have ever lived alone, and I discover, quite soon, that it’s not very good for me.

            For a few years now, I have battled with a fear of flying. As a child of course I travelled alone all over the country, but as an adult, I am terrified. At Purdue, I realise this is a problem, and see a hypnotherapist about it, once. I have no memory of what we discuss or discover, if anything, but the flight home to the UK that first Christmas still looms.

            In the past, the image of a loved one waiting for me on the other end of a trip has been of some comfort – Ommie and Granddaddy, R, a close friend. This time, however, even the knowledge of my beloved husband waiting for me doesn’t seem to help. To make matters worse, the plane is flying with a tail wind, and I am sitting in the back. Time and again the plane swings from side to side, like a kite in gusty weather. I close my eyes and count, endlessly. I must look terrible, because the couple sitting next to me asks several times if I am alright. I know I am not alright, but I nod.

            We have a good, family Christmas, with a visit to the Lake District as usual, and much pleasure in the two new kittens R has just acquired, Kafka and Pushkin. However, as the Christmas holiday draws to a close, and the time to board the plane back to Indiana grows closer, one thought flashes over and over in my mind: I can’t get on it. I see myself staying just where I am, in our bedroom in London, with its view over Westbourne Grove, the sounds of traffic outside, and the winter light along the painted floor.

            But I make myself pack. My arms ache, seeming physically to fight the repeating message: don’t do it. The thought occurs to me that maybe I am having a premonition, that this flight is going to crash. And as soon as I think this, every minute I move closer to departure becomes absurd, almost negligent, like there is a cliff ahead, a sign warning about it, and I am going straight over it anyway. I feel doomed.

            I am not sure why I am unable to admit this fear, these voices, to R. In fact, I do not even hint that I am struggling, which he later mentions with regret; he’d rather have known, of course, have helped. But as it is, I start out to Heathrow with him on a crisp sunny morning in early January nonetheless. I remember travelling around the curve onto the M40, thinking, I could stay here, I need to stay here. And more: this is where I belong.

            I belong here. But we are driving into the multi-storey, we are parking the car. It’s too late.

            As R opens the door to get out, I start to cry. He shuts the door: ‘Are you okay?’

            I’m not, of course, and weep and weep and finally say I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go. He tries to convince me: ‘Things will be better when you get there. You want to do this; it’s the right thing to do.’

            We talk. Each time I settle down and think about getting out of the car, the tears start afresh, and I feel the rising panic, the physical sense of flailing, struggling to be free from something. I can’t breathe.

            Finally, despairing, as I cry on his shoulder, R says, almost crying himself, ‘What do you want me to say? What can I say?’. I sit up, look at him, and say the first thing that comes to mind, knowing as I speak that it is what I need to hear: ‘Say I don’t have to go. Just say I don’t have to go.’

            He holds his hands out in front of him. He shakes his head, bewilderment on his face. And then, as if he is simply repeating after me, he says, ‘Okay. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go.’

            Something deep inside shifts. I remember looking at him, knowing something is over, feeling the weight lift from me. I don’t have to go. I feel a rush of jubilation: I don’t have to go, I don’t have to go!

            And so I don’t go. I don’t even want to set foot in the airport; he goes in and lets the airline know. We lose the flight money, but I don’t care. Later, I phone Purdue and tell them I’m not coming back. I leave them in the lurch, but I can’t bring myself to worry. More than ever, and possibly for the first time, I know what’s really important.

            All the drive back to the flat that day, through the winter sunshine, I feel so light, floating. We are both so happy. In the months that follow, I write my first complete short stories, start a novel, and am accepted onto the MA in Creative Writing at the UEA. It takes me years, maybe even to this moment, to realise that on that day, a lifelong pattern is broken: I do not have to do what somebody else says I must do. I do not have to go places I don’t want to go. I can stay, always, with the people I love most.

feeling special

[image: flowers from my husband, 58th birthday]

Today is my birthday (thank you!). I am grateful and lucky to be able to be grateful and lucky; I am so well looked after, and my family and friends always send love.

Alas COVID has stepped in and messed up BOTH plans my husband arranged for me for my birthday: an overseas trip (nope), and then a dinner out tonight (also nope). I’m Day 10 and having fun still testing positive….

I am disappointed, but I know he tried hard, as he always does, to make this a lovely day. So I’m not too disappointed. Instead, he sent me the flowers in the image here. He doesn’t miss a chance to show me he cherishes me (as a friend once said to me, and which I find so moving).

I can’t help but think back to my childhood birthdays and compare. It’s not clear to me how accurate my memory is, but I do not remember celebrating ANY of my birthdays while in my father’s house (11 years, ages 6.5 to 17). Certainly no parties. No guests. No attention.

Money was an issue I think, and children’s parties were nothing like the requirements they are now. But I do remember going to others’ parties/gatherings, so they must have happened. And there were tons of neighbourhood kids. Why no cupcakes? No games? It’s just… it’s not outward looking. It’s not generous. It’s not compassionate. It’s insular, wary. Hard to live in. As a family we weren’t about making friends or drawing people closer it seemed; we were about keeping everyone apart.

I mentioned birthdays on Twitter this morning. Interesting responses. It seems that ‘no celebration’ is common in families with a high level of dysfunction. I am trying to understand the reasoning behind it: keeping secrets? not drawing attention to the child? feeling risky in some other way? I do feel that this lack of attention from elsewhere drove me further into the psychology of the abuse: I guess I’m not special. I guess he IS the only one who appreciates me. Come to think of it, maybe cultivating this isolation underpinned everything? Maintaining the status quo. Who knows.

I do remember one birthday party though. My sixth birthday, still in Texas, before I went to go live with my father in Virginia. It was a pretty glorious party, and the memory of it kept me going in a melancholy way for years really. I liked attention then, and I knew enjoying it was lovely, and fun. Even though it heralded change I didn’t know about yet, I still felt special that day.

From Learning to Survive, recalling my sixth birthday. At the country club in San Antonio.

***

S is for Six

My sixth birthday party, held at the San Antonio country club, is one of my most prominent childhood memories. Not only are there many pictures taken, but I remember a great deal of it. What things look like, and how they feel, are swept together into one recollection.

As a consequence of being the first, and for a long time the only, grandchild, I am usually dressed immaculately. Both sides of the family enjoy spending money on me: pictures show row after row of pretty dresses – ironed, bow tied in the back, white socks, and patent leather shoes. This love of beautiful things to wear has never left me, something that my mother and Granny also share, passed through the generations.

            Being such a family event, my party sees me dressed in an impeccable navy and white dress. The pictures show blue eyes, dark hair, white skin, and that I am the only child there.

            The hair. Up until the party all pictures of me show long, wavy hair in light brown ringlets, almost down to my waist.

            For the party, it is cut. I have what I think is a memory of my mother’s explanation for cutting it: it will be easier to take care of. Somehow the shearing of my locks runs alongside learning how to take a shower. They are both in preparation for something, something big I don’t know about yet.

            And the party too feels like that. All eyes are on me, my new pageboy haircut, my fancy clothes. It is some kind of last hurrah. Everybody but me must know something.

            I remember clearly what my mother is wearing to this party, and I know this memory is not just from the photographs. The dress is beige, near tan, with golden threads running vertically through it. The neck is high; perhaps there is a buttoning down the back, which leaves a teardrop of her back showing. The sleeves are long and slightly gathered at the shoulders. I remember her legs, a little shiny in hose and her feet in nearly flat shoes. And her red hair, piled up just a little, and her black cats-eyes glasses. She has a quick smile, like I do, but the feeling around her is misty somehow that day, distracted, perhaps sad. I remember a stillness I don’t like, preferring to be with Jamie on the armchairs. We have a private room for my party, my sixth birthday party, and everyone is going to town.

            I feel a little overwhelmed, first sitting in my place at the head of the table, then wandering around the chairs. Everywhere I go conversation stops, people turn to me. The room is all dark panelling, the chairs down one end near a window. The window looks out over San Antonio.

            The pageboy cut haunts me, even though as a grown up I’ve had many versions of this same short, glossy cut. And it’s to do with another memory that always dovetails my birthday. Five or six years later, when I’ve grown my hair out again, I find one long braid in a plastic bag in a drawer in Virginia. It seems entirely ordinary: a thick wedge of hair, as wide as two childlike fingers, and brittle-feeling, tied each end in a blue hair elastic. I know it’s mine; I suddenly remember carrying it with me when I came. And I remember too that my mother has the other braid, back in Texas. I feel oddly disembodied then, overrun by memories of my mother. So it turns out that my sixth year haircut is at once a concession and an offering, a message even: this is who I used to be, and this is who I will be now. Like from that moment, I am split in two.

what a child looks like

This is a photo of me the summer I was 12, in 1976. My father’s abuse of me had started the previous year, when I was 11. I have cut them out of the shot for privacy’s sake, but my half brother (six years younger) and my half sister (four years younger) are sitting on the railings either side of me.

I read Ruth Beecher’s article in History Workshop this week with great interest and recognition. It is absolutely true that the overriding cultural assumptions in my experience — during the 70’s and 80’s — were that girls who were abused were ‘flirting’, ‘playing with their sexuality’ — and ‘irresistible’. This starting point informs everything about how my early disclosures failed to get my father arrested. At the time, regardless of the law, child sexual abuse was still treated as a ‘problem in the family’. He was not considered a perpetrator, and I was not considered a victim.

It is true that from the beginning my father behaved as if the abuse happened because I was ‘so beautiful’. That he ‘couldn’t resist’. He went to great lengths to normalise this environment: men were uncontrollably attracted to girls — whether grown or not. All girls would become women, and were therefore sexual beings from the start. He was ‘safe’ because he was my father — but you never knew who else was out there. I was best off with him, because he had my best interests at heart; he could ‘teach’ me.

I ask you to look closely at this photo. I am a kid. I am a child. My father has been abusing me — touching every part of my body in a sexual way — for a year. He has shown his own sexual arousal to me in a variety of ways. He has tried and failed to make me satisfy him sexually. All before I am 13. All when I am in a training bra, wearing braces, thick lensed glasses, had not yet started my periods — and have no idea how to even begin to want to be attractive sexually, in any way. All I want to do is play, read, write, dance, and have friends.

I’m not a ‘young woman’ here. I am a child. Child Sexual Abuse is NEVER about ‘temptation’.

By the time this photo is taken, I am already struggling to feel ‘like a child’. My father’s abuse is another layer of mistreatment over my history of instability and neglect. I want nothing more than to be a child, to be ‘like everyone else’, to not be worried all the time. My father makes this impossible though, once and for all. This is what survivors mean when we say our ‘childhoods were stolen’. Because they were.

After this summer, we move to from the US to the UK for a year, to Oxford, where my father is on sabbatical. That year was one of the worst for the abuse. From Learning to Survive:

***

Pretence

Perhaps it is more difficult for him to ‘say goodnight’ for a lengthy time in Oxford – [my stepmother] is likely right next door I suppose. So some nights he comes in. Some nights he doesn’t. Some nights he leaves the door open, some nights he closes it.

            I begin to realise that he is going through such elaborate motions – closing and opening doors, sticking his head in, or coming in completely, mornings or nights – in order to deceive [my stepmother]. To misdirect her. To always have something to say. Excuses. Observations. I begin to realise that I am part of his deception. I begin to feel implicated. I begin to feel guilty. I begin to feel like I am part of his betrayal of her.

            My chest aches all the time. Whenever he is in my room, I am so frightened she will walk in. She will make me leave, hate me, if she ever finds out.

            Yet he continues. He acts like he can’t control himself, like I am a creature he cannot – cannot – resist. Like this is all my fault.

            There are more nightgowns in England. Eventually I am forced to wear them, albeit with underwear. His access is nevertheless direct, swift, and, I see now, opportunistic. I cannot talk to keep him away. He gets frustrated; he doesn’t have much time. He won’t listen. He wants one thing.

            In March of that year, I turn 13.

Pact

I make a deal with myself:

            I will be a stone, cold and silent.

            Like a puppet, so he has to move me.

            I will be blank, like I’m dead.

            Like he’s touching a dead person.

forgiveness and complicity

[image: Petra Lea https://lelu-designs.mysupadupa.com/collections/k-collection%5D

Generally when we talk about ‘forgiving’ in Child Sexual Abuse, we mean ‘forgiving our abusers’ for their criminal actions. However a conversation on Twitter this week got me started thinking about forgiveness at large, in general… forgiveness around the whole situation which occasioned the abuse.

This is a fraught area. On one hand there are always family members etc who say they had no idea the abuse was happening. On the other hand are those who say they ‘suspected’. And let’s say we have a third hand; on this third hand I’d place the thought that the family members did not look and did not see.

I have already entered a contentious place, I know. Because what do I know about peoples’ lives while children are being abused close by? Nothing, I’ll admit. Because I was one of those children being abused.

It wasn’t my job to understand or know what the adults around me were going through that prevented them from protecting me. I suspect that in my case the household was so dysfunctional that the adults were completely shut off from each other.

So what about school? Dance teachers? Friends’ parents? There is a lot of work being done now around ‘signs’ of sexual abuse to look out for in children. And they are not necessarily what you think (see also the work of The Flying Child Project). So there is I guess a degree to which some adults — adults at a distance — might be forgiven for not noticing abuse: they didn’t know what to look for.

I return though to the family adults. In my case, there was only one other. My father, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, drove wedges and divided the family from other family members, so there was only my stepmother in the house, ever. So there was no one else to take notice of his behaviour. No one to ‘call out’ the family dynamics, which were undoubtably skewed.

Can you remain angry with or unforgiving of those who by all appearances ‘didn’t know better’? Is ignorance a defence? Maybe. Is fear for your livelihood a defence? Maybe. Is fear for your other children a defence? Maybe.

But now I’m feeling on a dark path. Is there no one who should have been responsible? Is there no one who is duty-bound to take care of us, no matter what? Don’t surrounding adults, as expressed on Twitter this week, at some point become complicit if they do nothing?

After years of thinking and feeling all this through, I have arrived at my own conclusions. Those that are right for me. And they are: I cannot forgive my father for his abuse of me; and I cannot forgive my stepmother for not looking after me.

These two conclusions look the same, but they are arrived at differently.

  1. if my father had accepted responsibility for the abuse, and been held accountable for his abuse of me, I believe I STILL would not forgive him. The damage done to my life is irreparable, and ultimately HE made the decision to inflict it. Nothing can change this.
  2. however, if my stepmother had ever expressed remorse, had broken ranks, had asked to be forgiven, had apologised, or had spoken with me about her (unknowing or not) complicity in my father’s abuse of me — I believe I could have forgiven her over time. I recognise that she is a victim too, of something. As it stands however, none of this happened.

Forgiveness is a difficult term. It implies ‘all good’. But to some (including me) it also implies ‘resolution’, ‘forgetting’, ‘integration’. My anger and sorrow at losing parts of my childhood mean that I cannot resolve this, and nor do I want to ‘integrate’ the abuse into my life. On the contrary, I want it far away. But I can’t and won’t forget. Because it’s with me every day.

In the best world, forgiveness also implies ‘understanding’. And I suppose this is where I can imagine ‘meeting’ adults who became complicit in child sexual abuse. Showing understanding of each other’s situation may encourage education, and begin to create situations where CSA cannot happen. I am not sure, and I feel like I need some possibly unattainable ‘proof’ of this — but I do believe in education breaking silences of all sorts. And breaking silence breaks CSA. In theory, it’s a simple equation.

This excerpt from my memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE looks at my stepmother’s role, and how I try (and fail) to understand.

***

[Stepmother]

There is just so much I do not, and never, understand. So many questions I do not ask, so much unsaid. Unacknowledged.

            My father implies that [my stepmother] will be angry. He says best to keep all of this between us. So I do. I am, as ever, so very afraid of anger, of disapproval.

            Everything needs to keep being alright. I must never show unhappiness. Never stop talking, but never talk back. Never stop doing well in school.

            It is not difficult for my father to control what I say or do. My time there is conditional, after all. And I am a quick learner; soon I am convinced that making any fuss at all will lead to terrible trouble. Then where will I go? What will I do? I am capable – my grandparents tell me – so I can do this. I can bear it. And I do.

            Over the years in Blacksburg I feel I watch [my stepmother] become unhappy, and see that unhappiness turn inward, turn to silence. I know very quickly that she doesn’t really like me, doesn’t like me being there. That she probably doesn’t love me. Later, when I become good at telling stories, I can make her laugh – a lot. And I enjoy that. She also believes in education, thinks I’m a good writer, and, along with wonderful English teachers, is formative in my learning to write with strength and economy. I think she is fond of me. But I don’t ever remember feeling love from her. I don’t remember any physical affection.

            [My stepmother] is, incredibly it seems now, a trained social worker. And later goes to university part time to study for, and receive, her MBA, which is no mean feat. And yet: my best guess is that she is as cowed by my father and his control as I am, as eventually [my sister] and [brother] are to an extent. She lives, I think, around him. My father can fly into rages if his keys are in the wrong place. If dinner isn’t ready on time. If no one knows the answer to a particular maths question. He can be silent and rude. He does not tolerate silliness. He does not like any of our friends, as far as I can gather. After a first flurry, there are almost no dinner parties, and as far as I know they never go anywhere together. No holidays, no nights out. He doesn’t seem to like anybody. He’s awkward, and when he feels left out, of anything, he is angry.

            Saying all that: for several years he comes to my room nearly every night and she never does so, not once. During this time she never says good night to me. For several years he stays in my room for a considerable time. From when I am eleven years old. Eleven!

            What is she doing? What is she thinking?

            I wonder if I have a sense of what she may be feeling. And that is: excluded. The more attention he pays me, perhaps the less he pays her. The more he values me, perhaps the less he values her. This equation should not even exist – we are not equal, [my stepmother] and I, we are not factors x and y working across the = of my father – but for her, this seems the case. Years later when we are all (briefly) in therapy, after [my stepmother] ‘knows’, we are on our way back from the therapist’s office, and I am in the back seat, trying not to cry. I am 17. I am upset. And [she] swings around to me, calling over her shoulder: ‘How do you think I feel? I’m the one married to the man!’.

            I think, perhaps from early on, long before the abuse starts, I function in the family as ‘other’, as ‘different’. And so, perhaps, it is not such a leap then to turn me into ‘the other woman’, even though, of course, I am a child.

            I can work my way through all of this, all of the explanations and mitigations, here now, as a grown up. But still, as I write, my heart pounds, and I feel that inner shivering which only comes with emotion as it forces its way to the surface: [my stepmother] has the chance to stop it, over and over. Night after night. Day after day. For years. She has so many opportunities to look after me. And I am so willing to be looked after; I need looking after.

            But she doesn’t. And I don’t know how to forgive her anymore.

grief

[image: The UnStill Life, at Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, Grenada]

Planning our son’s wedding, I am more aware than ever of the huge holes I have in my own family. Both my husband and my future daughter-in-law have large, cohesive families, with marriages and relationships which have lasted, lots of children, and no more than a ‘usual’ sprinkling of the inevitable dysfunction.

My blood family — what is left of it — are disparate, spread all over the US, in tiny pockets.

I mentioned in my last post the way that my father drove wedges between family members, both immediate and extended. This is a typical abuser tactic for maintaining the silence of the victim, and control over ‘information’ generally. An abuser needs to contain any possibility of the abuse being revealed — often not because he (in my case) necessarily believes it ‘wrong’ (though it obviously is), but because he believes the relationship is so ‘special’ that no one will ‘understand’.

The end result is a lot of missing relationships. When I think of ‘wedges’ I think of pieces of pie — and so when I imagine the ‘wedges’ my father drove between us all removed (which they are now in theory), I still see the spaces where the wedges sat. Those pieces of pie will be missing forever. And not just in my life, but in my whole family’s lives — my brother’s and sister’s, my step mother’s, my aunt’s and her children’s, my cousins’, and even my grandparents’, who knew about his abuse of me toward the ends of their lives. They too must have felt the terrible loss, and the lies: their son was a criminal, though never brought to justice. And everyone could see — everyone — how all of our lives had been misshapen and distorted, like trees forced to grow in high winds, over time.

When my father died in 2018, unexpectedly, the focus of the dysfunction died with him. We were all left with empty spaces, untethered ends, gaps now thrown into sharp relief. There was no memorial or funeral.

I know my brother and sister found grieving for my father complicated, and I cannot speak for them in any deep way. I can however speak for myself. The layered grief of past loss — what never was — with present loss — what isn’t now — with future loss — what will never be, for a time threw my own life into chaos, again. Loss upon loss upon loss, again and forever.

I only really acknowledged the wholesale destruction my father wrecked on all of our lives after he died. I only really felt the gaps, the collateral yet irreparable chasms that he and his actions created between us all, then.

It’s easier to feel a righteous and focused anger at someone who’s alive. It was for me, anyway. When my father died, my fierce and full anger at him did too. What took its place in some ways feels worse: bitterness, hopelessness, and a useless regret — not for my own actions (I truly know I did the best I could), but for the incredibly incompetent and deluded person he turned out to be. He could have done so much more to help his family find ways through, and he didn’t. He could have filled in some chasms, but he didn’t. Instead, he just left us all here, forever picking up his ‘charred’ pieces.

Part 4 of my memoir Learning to Survive is a collection of 16 poems written while my father was dying, and directly after his death. I’m pasting three here. They are untitled, so this […] denotes a new one. In my writing life, poetry has been what emerges when I can only see the world in fragments, and so it was this time too.

***

***

***

love across the raging river

[image: Lisa Marder]

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

Like much around LOVE, I have rejected Valentine’s Day and all celebration of such for years and years. Too much about ‘love’ has felt fake to me, or worse, sinister, a way of disguising the true motive of abuse: using, misusing, abandoning, damaging. With no thought for the suffering.

And yet.

And yet. Time and again LOVE has shown itself to me, in its pure and authentic form. Time and again I have stumbled upon moments of real love, in spite of myself. I have known that it exists, though I have sometimes not known what to do with it, ill-prepared as I have been for it much of my life.

Over the weekend, my elder son got engaged. The wedding is this summer. We are all, to a person — absolutely delighted. Thrilled and so, so happy. It’s still a shock to me that I can experience such pure happiness. That I am capable of it. I mentioned this on Twitter: I’ve been thinking about joy, being joyful.

So how am I able? How do I have the capacity for joy?

I get asked this question a lot, in fairness. What kept you going?

Because the more realism with which I come to see my early life, the more damage I see. The more darkness and despair.

Except.

Except that I think — I believe — I understood, somehow and deep down, about unconditional love. I knew that somewhere — not with my mother, and not in my father’s house, but elsewhere — I was loved unconditionally. And ‘all’ I had to do was hang on long enough to be near it once again.

I see now that there were two sources of unconditional love in my life, right from the start. First, my beloved grandparents Ommie and Granddaddy, my father’s parents. I stayed with them for weeks at a time in my early childhood, and they provided the routine, the warmth, the indulgence I needed. They loved me unconditionally my whole life, and even when I moved away from them, when I was six, I was aware that they were there, somewhere, even if far away. And that someday I would see them. I would be grown up, and go and be with them. They appear a great deal in my memoir, and I’m sure I’ll mention them again more than once here.

When I moved from Texas to Virginia to join my father’s household, my father — I found out later — asked all my Texas relatives not to contact me. This included Ommie and Granddaddy, Granny (my mother’s mother, in San Antonio), and all my various relatives on both sides. Even my mother. Because, he decided, hearing from them upset me too much.

I was six years old, and in the space of a few months I lost everyone and everything I’d known before.

I remembered, and held onto, my grandparents’ existence throughout. And being my father’s parents, we did hear from them sometimes. However, my mother’s side — Granny and all those relatives — almost completely disappeared.

The second source of unconditional love surfaced as I approached my 16th birthday, 10 years after moving to Virginia. Here is what happened then, from my memoir Learning to Survive.

So I’m thinking today: Love begets love. Unconditional love saves lives. And in that spirit, HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY, one and all.

*

Sweet Sixteen

I remember taking the letter outside for privacy, onto the front porch. It is January 1980, six weeks before I turn 16.

            I don’t recognise the writing, or the name in the top left-hand corner. I open it. And it’s from Jamie – gentle Jamie, my long lost and barely remembered cousin in Texas.

My dear Patty,

            I honestly don’t know how to begin this letter to you except by way of an apology for not having written it years ago. I can only hope that my many years of silence have not led you to think I have forgotten you, or much worse, have stopped caring about you.

            It may have taken me even longer to put pen to paper had it not been for some shock therapy inflicted on me by your Granny Wood. During Christmas holidays she handed me a picture of a near 16-year-old woman and told me it was you. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I accused her of playing practical jokes but she assured me it was indeed my favourite second cousin.

After the initial jolt wore loo off, I began thinking where all the time had gone. Last time I held you in my arms you were half as old as you are now. I think [your mother] was teaching at [a middle school in San Antonio]. I best remember the way you loved to climb on my back for a horse ride through the house. That is, until you got so big that I was almost left with a permanent curve in my spine. I loved you more than you’ll ever know, Patty. You were like the little sister I always wanted but never had. I love you to this day.

            I hope I haven’t thrown too much at you at once during the course of this letter. Ever since Nana and Papa died, I’ve slowly come to appreciate the need for close family ties. I don’t know how much you remember about me and the rest of your Texas family; nor do I know if you are aware of the some of the petty feuds which took place here so long ago. I barely understand them myself. I do know that our generation had nothing to do with them, and we don’t have to inherit them either.

            If you can find it in your heart to do so, drop me a note, ok? After all, you shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to tell me what do with my life – fair is fair. Stay healthy and happy in all you do. I love you so much,

                                                            Jamie

The sky has the grey of snow coming. But I sit on the front porch and cry and cry then, my old life rolling back over me in all its heat and greenery.

            Someone cares, someone still cares. They are still there. They have not forgotten me. And he is right: I really, truly thought they had. Until that moment, until I read his letter, and except for the distant voices of Ommie and Granddaddy, I think that this is all there is. And now I know it’s not.

Jamie and I remain in touch from then on. I write him; he writes me. I don’t see him again until I visit San Antonio with R in 1988, eight years after the letter, but since then, we’ve met up several times – his family, mine.

            Not until the summer of 2018, however, when he comes with his wife and his daughter, and we are all sitting around after dinner, am I really able to say to him, to let him know, the extent of the lifeline he throws me when I am nearly sixteen. The truth is that it is always hard to imagine escape. It is hard, no matter how determined or strong you are, to keep holding onto that thought, when beyond all this is the unknown, perhaps full of even more loneliness and being alone.

            In the letter, Jamie does not directly mention the ‘injunction’ placed on the family by my father, forbidding much communication. He does imply it though, and also implies that he rejects that, and that we aren’t bound by those ‘rules’. His rejection of my father’s orchestrated surroundings – his blast through them, indeed – helps give me the strength I will need later to break all ties, because I now know, for sure, that Jamie is there.

            I tell Jamie all this over dinner that summer. His eyes are full of tears, as are mine, and I’m having a hard time finishing my sentences. When I’ve said enough, I look up to see my own now-grown-up children’s eyes full of tears too. Again and again, I remember the moments that keep me from drowning; I remember how I stepped one to the other across the raging river.

intimacy

Further to my last post about feeling damaged, I want to refocus on a more elusive element of our complex lives: actual intimacy.

Intimacy is different from sex. Intimacy is quiet, exploratory, gentle. It’s connecting with others, usually emotionally, deeply.

We all know or think we know what sex is. It’s the Act, whatever that act is for you.

Intimacy, or an attempt at intimacy, often precedes sex, or develops after sex. Apparently. I say ‘apparently’, because for decades intimacy made my skin crawl. I felt that intimacy ‘wanted only one thing’ — sex. There are reasons for this which are here worth spelling out: my father was not a violent abuser. He in fact behaved with me like a ‘lover’ might. He was coercive, seemed ‘loving’. In fact, I now know that he believed he was ‘in love’ with me. He said as much. PLEASE KEEP IN MIND HERE THAT I WAS 11, 12, 13, 14 YEARS OLD.

He would say that he wanted to ‘show me’ what relationship were, for when I was ‘older’.

So it’s not a big leap to see how all subsequent intimacy in my life felt like a lie to me, for years. It felt wrong and disgusting. It made me feel sick.

My answer to this as a young person was to jump straight to sex. My belief was that this is what men wanted. And I couldn’t bear anything gentle or loving anyway — so I believed I was simply saving time, ‘getting it over with’.

For many, many years — well into my now nearly 34-year marriage — I struggled with tenderness. I struggled with soft words. I struggled with caresses. It was an enormous, at times insurmountable, challenge for me to be ‘present’ in times of intimacy. Sex without intimacy was comparatively ‘easy’, as an Act, to more or less ignore. It’s intimacy which has been such a source of distress for me. It’s learning and believing that not everything has to lead to sex. That intimacy has its own place in my life. That I’m not always being ‘used’.

Sexual abuse can take many forms. Perpetrators utilise different methods as a means to abuse, no doubt according to their own pathologies. But I think it’s fair to say that a huge proportion of sexual abuse takes place under the auspices of ‘love’, and ‘specialness’, particularly intra-familial abuse or abuse within family contacts. The abuser establishes the emotional parameters of the abuse, and most of the time they are that the abuse is ‘good’, ‘nice’, ‘right’. So in this world, if the child objects or is hesitant — then they are rejecting the abuser, who after all is only ‘loving’ and treating the child as ‘special’ — and, the child’s narrative goes, who wouldn’t want to be treated like that?

As I have said so many times on this blog: I was lucky. I was comparatively older when the abuse started (11), and I therefore had awareness of other places I’d lived, and that others (my grandparents) outside my nuclear family really loved me. I knew that what my father said was love was not love. But I still could not escape, or push him away, etc…. Because the one thing he did manage to convince me of was that life as I knew it would fall apart if I did anything ‘wrong’.

I was lucky too in that it was ‘only’ a matter of ten years before I understood, deep down, real love. Before I gave myself over to it. Intimacy took much longer to unfurl in an authentic way, but with patience and understanding, it did happen.

So many survivors just aren’t this lucky, for so many reasons. But one thing is for sure: trust in what is good and natural and real about life is too often completely destroyed by sexual abuse. Trust in ourselves, trust in others. Intimacy — the delicate and precious balance of the expressions of love between partners, close friends, and parents and children — is so fragile. For many survivors, me included, intimacy heralds danger. It’s one of the first things to go, and one of the last to find its way home.

This excerpt from my memoir Learning to Survive details my early disconnected relationships with intimacy and sex. It also includes mention of being raped; I am certain that my vulnerability to this alarming situation was the result of being sexually abused in childhood.

*

him, them

I wait tables every summer between my college years, and that first summer, 1983, I return to the restaurant in Roanoke. I live with my mother again, enjoying the freedom of knowing that everything is once again temporary.

            There is a new dishwasher at the restaurant, Steve. Like me, he’s in between years at college. He’s soft-spoken, slightly chubby, wears glasses, reads books, and really, really likes me. For the first time in my life, I go on dates. He’s lovely. We see films, we talk, we make out.

            I decide, I’m not sure why, but I think amongst young women – abused or not abused – that it’s a common feeling – I decide that I want to get this virginity business over with. Though I don’t say it exactly like that to Steve. He keeps asking me if I’m sure, keeps saying he’s honoured – and one day we do it in his bed at his house, when his parents are out. It hurts, and I bleed. I rush through it, pressing him on, feeling nothing, wondering right after, for a moment, if I have used him. At the end, he looks crestfallen. But I’m glad it’s done.

            Steve. He is so sweet, so loving, and becomes more so after we have sex. Whereas I, in part of a larger pattern that I will repeat again and again over the next two and a half years, become less attracted to him, less content, less interested generally. The more someone likes me, it seems, the less I like them, the less I care at all what I do, or when, or with whom. But this is not something I recognise for years. Steve and I stay together for the summer. When I return to Oberlin however, again in a pattern I repeat over and over, I never respond to his letters, which strike me as pleading then, almost pathetic. He eventually takes the hint, and I never see or hear from him again.

Returning to Oberlin without my virginity seems to set me upon a particular path. In the very first week – before classes even start – I go to bed with one of the dorm monitors. He is blonde, a hippy type, and empathetic. I remember this incident in particular because he, unlike so many, stops. Stops me. Doesn’t want to rush. And in the end, we don’t actually have sex, because he feels he mustn’t, being older than me by two years. As I know now, I need this taking stock. But I didn’t know this then.

            That same semester, something else happens. One night, when my roommate is out, very late, there is a knock at my door. I am in my pyjamas. I open the door a crack. It’s a guy from down the hall – Wesley – and he wants to come in. I don’t really know Wesley. At all. He’s a football player I think. Well built, and I find out, very strong.

            I let him in. And before I know what is happening, he is kissing me and taking off my clothes. He then proceeds to – and I find it hard now to even write this, having only acknowledged this in recent years – rape me. I only know this for sure because there is no consent, and I do know that I don’t want this; he just ploughs on, intent on getting what he wants. I do not fight him however. I do not feel anything. I am waiting for it to be over. He then leaves.

            At the time, I see nothing wrong with what he does, except that it catches me off guard, and that I don’t really understand why he does it. I remember thinking that I had no idea he even knew I existed. But I accept it.

            I do not tell anyone, not even my closest friends. I never have another encounter with him, or speak to him, or speak to any of his friends. Now I can see though that I retreat to stone:  I am not there. Losing my virginity does not, it turns out, make me ‘normal’, as I think I hoped; in fact sex and everything surrounding it just divide me even more from myself. I perform what I don’t feel, and I wonder time and again what is wrong with me. I feel dirty, faintly disgusted, and disinterested – still, and after all.

            For the next two and a half years, I go on to have crushes, to feel something close to love, but sex is something else. I have numerous casual sexual relationships, in overlapping timeframes. Sometimes I even sleep with other people’s boyfriends. I have no boundaries. I am rarely without at least one person ‘on the go’. And yet: I know none of these relationships are very important to me. Even those with the most promising histories – Mark, whom I meet on a plane down to Texas, and Matt, a mature art historian student at Oberlin (who, as it turns out, has a girlfriend at home) – I know won’t last, almost from the start. Deep down, I suspect I am not capable of forming a relationship. I am willing to make the best of it, but I suspect – I know – that I am damaged, and somehow not worth it. I know too that these suspicions will ensure that I drift away from them, always and eventually.

damaged goods

[painting: Hope Within, by Kirsten Bailey]

Sexual assault of any kind can make the victim feel dirty. If we dig a bit deeper, we arrive at the nature of this ‘dirtiness’: that is, the body feels trespassed upon, invaded. No longer our own private property, or in our control; the body becomes someone else’s. Reclaiming the body from assault can be a long and confusing process: this is my body, supposedly, but why does it not feel like mine? Or why do I hate it?

I think it’s important to acknowledge and accept that Child Sexual Abuse is freighted with all this — this body foreignness — to an almost overwhelming degree. Because the child does not yet have a body identity when the abuse happens. The abused child’s sense of self is very much still forming: what do I look like? what do I want? what do I not like or want? The child without a body becomes an adult without a body that feels like theirs.

A victim of CSA is forced to figure out their body — including its physical responses, its capacities, its foibles and pleasures — already shackled with the knowledge that their body has never felt like theirs.

The incidence of eating disorders is very high in survivors of CSA, as is the incidence of self harm. It’s not rocket science to see where this urge to destroy the self might come from: it comes from the even stronger urge to get some control, to have some impact upon this alien body that isn’t ours.

As in so many things around my recovery, I have been lucky. I had my dance, which meant I never lost my body entirely, and I found an amazing partner young, when I was only 21. Yet it has taken decades of slow work to feel comfortable with intimacy, with my body. To learn to say No thank you. To learn that others do not have ‘rights’ to my body, no matter how I dress or behave. It has taken decades to reclaim my body.

The psychological knock-on of feeling like ‘damaged goods’ is shame. After all, ‘allowing’ someone to interfere with your body must be your fault, right? ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’

This shame, the sense of something deep down being wrong, and being your fault, for me is never far away. If I have a disappointment of some sort, Shame says ‘what did you expect?’ followed by ‘it was bound to mess up, because you will never be like everyone else’. You are unworthy. This shame has held me back in my career, and in my life. It has also kept me from enjoying some moments in my life fully, like the arrival of my first child.

This excerpt from my memoir Learning to Survive traces my pregnancies, and some of my early psychological complexities as a survivor around shame, feeling unworthy, expecting disaster, and having children.

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un/made

I live for a year in Norwich doing my MA, and R meanwhile has landed funding to do a year at IRCAM in Paris. We are apart again, but spend a fortune seeing each other every other week so survive it quite well. It helps too that his father lives in Norwich; I have family again. Eventually I write stories, publish a couple, and in time complete my first novel – which, I now see, is the first full-length attempt to write this book.

            In 1992 R secures an academic job in Canterbury. R’s father helps us buy a house, and we move there with relief and energy; we both know this is the new chapter of our lives, and relish it. I have teaching work in Norwich and in Kent, and R very quickly establishes himself as a fine teacher of music composition. We make close friends.

            We also start trying to have children. I have always – despite everything – known I want a family. R is less committed, but fortunately I don’t believe him; as it turns out, he becomes the most natural parent I have ever witnessed, even though our wait is a long one.

            In the 18 months it takes me to become pregnant the first time, I have convinced myself that something is wrong. That I am wrong. And this feels expected: of course I am. We are only 28, but have all the tests, all of which come back borderline everything. As is so often the case, we start to give up – and suddenly we are pregnant. I begin to allow myself to believe everything will be okay. R is overjoyed; I try not to panic.

            Almost immediately I begin spotting. And at nine weeks, I miscarry. The grief is intense, the loss crushing. I remember sitting in the play room in R’s father’s house that Christmas, watching the other grandchildren, tight with tears, and R’s father resting his hand on my shoulder, deep in understanding.

I dream about babies for weeks. In the one I remember most vividly, I have three babies, all newborn. In the dream, I lose them and begin frantically searching the house. They are naked, vulnerable. At last I find them in a kitchen cupboard, with all the glass jars and odds and ends. One baby is fine, called Laura. Another has Down’s Syndrome, and another – I don’t look closely – is shrivelled, mewing like a cat. I leave these last two in the cupboard. The memory of this dream, of losing or abandoning two babies, triggers my worst moments in the grief following a second miscarriage years later.

            However, after this first miscarriage, everyone says, all the doctors, that it will be easier to get pregnant the next time around. They are wrong. It takes much longer, two and a half years, and in that time I retreat to an old place. This old feeling, so familiar, says that I am fundamentally flawed, different. That I am not like other women: I am damaged.

            Indeed. As each month ticks by, the feeling becomes more entrenched, the evidence mounting. I am not going to get what I want, and this should come as absolutely no surprise. I don’t, of course, deserve to. I should be happy with what I have.

            When I finally, by some miracle it seems, and with the help of Clomid, fall pregnant again, my fear of losing the baby is almost paralysing. I feel convinced of something no one else will believe: that I am incapable of carrying a baby to term. As the days tick by, I force myself to act as if this is all perfectly normal. In secret, I create a mantra for myself: I am afraid of being afraid. I steel myself never to look at my underwear for signs of bleeding.

            In this case however, nature manages to plough its furrow regardless. On 10 March, 1996, Eliot emerges, healthy and huge. Everyone celebrates, but I am numb with surprise. This numbness takes weeks to dissipate, and it is months, even years, before I believe, truly believe, that this is real, that I deserve him, and that I am not living in the middle of another disaster waiting to happen.

            Eliot is the most amazing baby and toddler. Of course. He is bright, kind, funny. When he is two we begin to try for another. And after another year of trying, I fall pregnant, only to have another miscarriage, at nine weeks again. This loss, if anything, is deeper and harder than the first. I am useless, incapable, and will not get lucky again. Who do I think I am?

            We decide to keep going, one more time. This time I am put onto Clomid quicker, and although I don’t conceive on it, I conceive shortly afterward. However, as with the other pregnancies, I begin to spot at six weeks. In full panic mode, I go straight to the hospital, where an internal scan shows a heartbeat; this is a relief, but also terrifying, as I now know if I lose it – I am losing a viable baby. I am reassured, placed on aspirin, just in case there’s a blood clotting issue, and within two days, the spotting stops. To their credit, the midwives at the Foetal Medicine Unit recognise that I am nearly incapacitated by fear, and I have a scan every week for another three months, suffering terrible morning sickness, and sky-high anxiety, all at once. At 20 weeks, my usual midwife says to me ‘Now do you believe you are having this baby?’, and we manage to laugh. I have to believe her. Nineteen weeks later another huge, healthy – and every bit as bright and kind — baby emerges via Caesarean, Max.