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.

silence is silencing

[image: untitled, Mark Rothko, 1966]

As a result of being silenced during sexual abuse and beyond, I now have an almost pathological and immediate response – physical and psychological – to feeling silenced. I shut down. Very quickly.

This paralysis, accompanied by feeling very low emotionally, hopeless, I now see as directly related to the silencing I have experienced but also somewhat enacted (to save my own pain) as a result of being abused in childhood. This is a very recent realisation — within the last six months, and 40 years after the abuse ended.

I bring this up now because I realise that I also fall silent when I feel I have no reason — no room — to speak. Silence is silencing, indeed. It feeds on itself.

This week I have found myself feeling silent/being silenced in light of the war in Ukraine. There is just so much sorrow, so much desperation, so much depravity at work there. The trauma from this, for those there and well beyond, will echo for generations. What a waste of human life and love. What tragedy. It has been hard to see my own and others’ struggles with Child Sexual Abuse as deserving space in all this.

But I guess the reality is precisely the opposite: that this is in fact where we all meet, on the level of lost lives. Man’s inhumanity to man.

Silence begets silence. It grows deeper and more opaque with time. We are duty and morally bound to break silences, to prevent loss of life and living, whether spiritual or literal.

Instead of my own work this week, here’s a poem that runs on a loop in my head, and has done for many years. We all have a job to do here, folks.

Harlem

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

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.

*

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.

amnesia

Another fairly common characteristic of trauma memory and (C)PTSD is amnesia. Forgetting.

I wonder if this sounds like a good thing. Maybe it does? After all, if you forget aspects of abuse, it won’t bother you, right? Wrong.

And here’s why:

  1. The body keeps the score, regardless of what you remember and what you don’t. There are plenty of survivors who only remember what happened to them as they explore their unhappiness, their suicidal ideation, or why oh why do I see flash images of something I can’t place? Just because you don’t remember something clearly doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. And hasn’t done damage. For instance, I have a solid idea of the first couple of episodes of actual sexual abuse — I was 11. And I am pretty sure that it went on until I was around 15. Yet even then I can only remember glimpses of moments — an action, a positions, a time of day, a pair of trousers, a sound — out of episodes which will have lasted perhaps 15 – 30 minutes each, and happened dozens of times. This type of remembering is more than fragmentation: the mind forces itself entirely to forget.
  2. The mind forgets too what might have been positive, or good to remember. The mind forgets times when you might have been powerful, or successful. It might forget the loyalty of your friends, or in my case, even that you had any. The mind is — depressingly, and distressingly — indiscriminate in its forgetting sometimes. There’s probably a neurological reason for this strange thing — forgetting the potentially good as well as the self-evidently bad. All I really know is that my whole childhood has stretches of absolutely nothing at all. Blankness, regardless of what might have happened in that space.

In my memoir Learning to Survive I call these blank passages of time ’empty rooms’. That’s what they feel and look like when I think of them: grey-scale, entirely bare, deserted, with wind blowing through them. They are all over the place. And I can’t help but feel them as losses — examples of yet more helpless loss of what is rightly mine.

This excerpt captures the nature of these blank passages, and one in particular which I still find startling: I told people for nearly 40 years that I did not attend my high school graduation — but then I discover something that refutes that.

I am 17 here, and living with my mother for my final year of high school. It’s a different high school, in a different town, and I am only there for eight months.

*

so far

Aside from the smoking block, the creative writing magazine, and drama, virtually nothing else in my time at Patrick Henry [High School] sticks. My group of friends is important to me – even if I am aware from the start that soon I am leaving – but I remember nothing about my classes, what I learn, if I learn, what I study. Not even English. I do know, however, that I refuse to undertake Advanced Placement classes, and also refuse to take the exams, even though doing well in them will remove some college credit requirements. I feel certain that the school merely wants the kudos – I have no idea if this is true – and I take heart from there being no one else at Patrick Henry going for AP. So I hold firm, perhaps – the jury is out – cutting off my nose to spite my face.

            In June 1982 I graduate second in my class of around 500 students. I remember nothing about the ceremony itself – not the location, the gowns, the announcements, the walk across stage – nothing, and have always assumed (and told everyone) that I did not attend. Except I must have, because three days ago I discover two copies of the graduation programme in the manila folder [my sister] passed to me from [my stepmother] – all my paperwork, such as it is, from my 13 years with them.

            The programme shows that I am the top graduating woman in my class, and my sister tells me that the whole family was there: my father, my stepmother, my mother, and my siblings. …….. I wish I could remember being there, remember taking pleasure in it — anything about it at all — but as ever, when the wind blows, it sweeps everything away in its path.

And so the academic year ends. I get the first of many jobs in restaurants, at first as dishwasher, then soon move up to wait staff. My mother is delighted and I love the work; I am earning my own money and am able to save. I am going back to Blacksburg a little more, still uncomfortably, but we all, I think, seem to reach an unspoken truce. And no one is the wiser.

            In August it is time for me to go to Oberlin [College]. Inexplicably, it seems to me now, [my stepmother] takes me there. Together we make the eight-hour journey with a full car, after which I will start the rest of my life. We listen to The Beatles, and I cry all the way through ‘The Long and Winding Road’, hiding my tears by looking out the window. I allow myself to feel homeless then, anchorless, all belief fading, going from who knows what to who knows where. I don’t know if I’m going to be okay. I wonder if I am wrong: if my old life, after all, is better than the one I am going to. I wonder if I will ever come back. If I will ever really be happy.

trauma memory

Three nights ago I was hounded by bouts of sleeplessness. This happens infrequently now, usually as a precursor to a migraine, and such has been the case alas. I usually listen to the radio when life is like this — podcasts, World Service, etc.

After much depressing news, I caught a podcast hosted by Steven Pinker, called Think with Pinker. This episode, ‘Sentence first, verdict after’, set out to look at cognitive concerns around juries and judges — specifically, language and memory.

Normally, I have a HUGE amount of time for Dr Pinker. He has done some fascinating work around language acquisition, computational intelligence, and has been a respected media intellectual for some years now. However, lying there unable to sleep….I just got madder and madder.

His main guest was Dr Elizabeth Loftus, a renowned cognitive psychologist, best known for her work in the area of memory and recovered memory. Her studies show pretty unequivocally that it is possible to ‘implant’ some kinds of memories in children especially (though they may be other conclusions to be drawn from them of course — perhaps just that adults can get children to believe lies?). While there are many questions about her work and how it may intersect with her own history (here is a fascinating and thorough New Yorker piece on her work and her personal history), there is no doubt that she is an influential expert in the area of ‘false memory’, called upon often by the defence in trials of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.

To be fair, I’m guessing that the podcast intended to control the conversation into only speaking about how necessary it is to be careful with language — to watch how questions and cross-questions are framed and asked when it comes to witnesses and victims. This makes sense: it’s good to be alert to influencing anyone on the stand.

But the programme was too dismissive for my liking. Too categorical. Loftus and Pinker laughed about how one of her studies convinced subjects that they’d been to Disneyland, when they hadn’t. One even reported having seen Bugs Bunny — impossible, because Bugs Bunny is not part of the Disney world.

Neither of them mentioned the very specific — and totally UNfunny situation of trials involving sexual abuse and sexual assault. Neither of them mentioned the fact that Dr Loftus is the queen of taking the stand for the defence in these cases — and testifying that memories can be implanted. And that therefore the victim’s recall of events and accusations may well be so unreliable as to be ‘untrue’.

Neither of them took any account of the questions surrounding Loftus’ work and traumatic experiences (see The New Yorker article above). Or mentioned that implanting traumatic memories has never been successful. And that is because it is impossible to recreate a sufficiently traumatic environment, context or individual situation. Trauma has its own rules.

We now know that not only are memories themselves different from each other (self evidently), but the creation and storage of these trauma memories are also different. There are many studies and articles available on the formation and characteristics (the neuroscience) of trauma memory; here is a snippet of a particularly well researched piece:

“Much of what is remembered of a traumatic or threatening event functions as if existing in separate islands of memory.

Information encoding and storage are impaired for aspects of the experiences that are not considered essential for survival or are of little emotional importance. This includes the sequence of events as well as peripheral details. This often results in a disorganized and incomplete narrative memory.

This is immensely important for how victims of trauma are interviewed. The primary emphasis of the sexual assault police interview should therefore be on the sensory, emotional memories that the victim has encoded and remembered rather than expecting the victim to give a narrative with a chronology.”

Trauma memory is different. It cannot be accessed like other types of memory, nor can memories be truly ‘planted’. The area of the brain into which the implanting would have to happen is too primal, and not open to suggestion.

The notion of memory — in all of its layers and mutability — is not solid at the best of times. But we must not confuse ‘normal’ memory with trauma memory. We have to establish respectful ways of questioning victims and witnesses who have been traumatised (or allegedly so) without risking re-traumatisation or further silencing. Sexual abuse and domestic abuse are SO common that we simply must find ways of doing this right. Discrediting memories, and/or eliding testimony into False Memory, fatally disadvantage actual victims and survivors — who are disproportionately penalised for having memories that behave differently, and which do so completely out of their control.

My memoir Learning to Survive reflects trauma memory at work in its structure, its gaps, and its fragmentation. I recognise and acknowledge these irregularities as the book progresses, but they are my reality, my memory, and ultimately they shape my life. This excerpt details what I can remember, and what I can’t, around an early traumatic sexual assault.

*

L is for Laundry Room

Close to the pool at one of the apartment blocks, there is a laundry room. I’ve been in it plenty of times. It’s a long thin room with washers and dryers along both sides: you open up the top, load in the clothes and close it, then line up the quarters in the sliding tray, push it in with a satisfying clunk. Many, many times I have helped my mother load up and push in the metal tray. You have to get it just right, but when it goes in, the water comes on immediately, a great rush into the drum of the machine.

            My friend Deidre and I are hanging around, as usual. It is summer. We wander past the laundry room, on our way somewhere else. There’s a man in there, and he steps out, calls after us, ‘Hey, can you help me?’

            We turn around. Deidre is wary, but I am not. Together we go back to him. He’s a big man, older, dressed in overalls like Granddaddy wears when he’s gardening or working on the pick-up truck. But he’s not as old as him, he’s more like an old father. He says, ‘Thanks. It’s just that I can’t get this to work, I don’t know how it works. Do you need quarters?’

            We are standing at the door, in shorts, barefoot and barelegged as usual, five years old. It’s darker in the room. We don’t say anything.

            ‘How many quarters do you need?’ he goes on. Finally I answer. ‘Two,’ I say.

            ‘Oh well,’ he says, ‘I’ve got two quarters. Could you show me how to work it?’

            Somehow I am moving into the room, and he lifts me up to put the quarters in. I push the slide in, and the wash starts. He puts me down. The moment of fear, the stepping forward, has passed, and I turn to leave.

            ‘Thank you,’ he says, then, as if it’s an afterthought, ‘oh hey, do you like Coke?’

            ‘Yes,’ I say.

            ‘Do you want one?’ he says.

            I do. He hasn’t given me anything for helping him, and I wonder if he’s going to give me a Coke for it. I nod.

            From now on, I don’t know what happens to Deidre, I only know what happens to me. I step forward again, and the man shuts the door. He says he’s going to put something over my eyes, then he’s going to give me a Coke. I am blindfolded. Fear begins to press at me, panic fluttering, but I don’t move. I don’t want him to see I am afraid. I tell myself that whatever is happening will be over, sometime it will be over.

            Something goes into my mouth. It doesn’t taste like coke. It tastes and feels terrible, but it is over quickly. I spit it out. I remember the sound of a zipper. I remember not looking at him when the blindfold comes off, and walking calmly out of the door, still not wanting to be afraid, the glass bottle of Coke in my hand.

            I sense that Deidre is with me, but I could be wrong. Perhaps she runs away, to find someone, to tell them, before the door is closed. Or perhaps she is blindfolded too.

            Some conversation comes up later, with older children or even with mothers, not my own. Someone asks me if I’ve seen anything, if anything has happened. ‘No,’ I say. I lie. I know I have something to hide. I’ve been greedy.