the bargain

[image: ‘Make Me a Promise’ by Susana Aldanondo]

I didn’t feel I could post this on Father’s Day (UK), which was yesterday. I feel I’m stepping on others’ toes, raining on parades, being a party-pooper, for mentioning that yes, I had a father. But he wasn’t really a father. No one wants to hear this, and I don’t blame them, on that day at least.

So I’m posting today. About something which has been on my mind a lot recently.

I guess — actually, I know — that I am forever haunted by the idea that I let him touch me. Swiftly followed by why didn’t I stop him? These questions are in the same area where a lot of other questions surface for most survivors. Even if they don’t ask themselves, others ask them: why didn’t you tell someone? why did you let him/her do it?

Etc.

The answers to these questions are complex. Primarily, and for every survivor I have ever spoken to, not telling has to do with fear of consequences — either within the family (everything will fall apart, everyone will be furious and hate me) or at the hands of the abuser (the abuse will be so much worse, he will actually kill me). This fear is consuming, as strong as super glue; there seems no way to loosen its grip. And too there seems nowhere to go, no one to turn to. The isolation — the forced and manipulated isolation — of a victim is profound. Certainly I believed that my father stood between me and everyone and everything in the world. That I had to go through him to get anywhere, or lie. And because he read my diaries, and because he followed me sometimes when I went out — I couldn’t ever lie or get around him.

However. I knew the abuse was wrong. I knew I hated it. I knew it was all his perversion, and that for now I just had to BEAR it. Which I did. But as soon as my (half) sister began to approach 11 (the age when my abuse started), I felt sick with an additional fear. Was he going to start on her? How could I protect her?

When I first began seeing my now ad-hoc therapist, about six years ago, I went in because I was crazy worried about my own children’s safety. For no real reason. Her first question to me was: what bargain did you strike with your father? what did you exchange?

I knew the answer to that immediately, and told her. Apparently almost all survivors strike either a spoken or unspoken bargain with the abuser, so that the abuse seems somehow for the greater good. Because we have to be able to bear it somehow.

This is my bargain. From Learning to Survive:

***

I come back from Oxford with a bit more courage and sense of self.

            As usual, and soon after my return, one night I hear my father come downstairs. He knocks once, lightly, then opens the door. My lights are off. I can feel him move across the room, his cigarette breath close on my face.

            I wanted to see how you are, he says. We haven’t talked in a while.

            ‘Fine,’ I say, ‘I’m fine.’

            He rubs my arm. Are you? he says, then sighs. I recognise it as the sound of him building up to do something.

            I don’t say anything; I’m so tired. I just want him to go away.

            But no matter what I do or say tonight, it will happen.

            He is beginning: prying my arms apart, unbuttoning my pyjama top. He asks questions as he goes this time: Is this okay? Okay? Okay?

            ‘Daddy.’ He’s so surprised that he stops in the middle of what he’s doing.

            Yes?

            ‘As long as you promise not to do this to [my sister].’

            What?

            ‘I said okay, as long as you promise not to do this to [my sister].’

            He sits back on his heels. Of course not.

            ‘Good.’ I cross my arms again.

            You’re special, he says, I thought you knew that. He sits forward again and strokes my face. No one can take your place.           

[My sister] believes that he did not abuse her, at all. At the time, she must be 11, and my fear for her is all-consuming. I am afraid that when I go to college in three years, he will ‘turn’ to her. Once he doesn’t have me, I am afraid he must have someone else. So I desperately want to believe him when he says he won’t do anything to [my sister]. But I know now that this can just as easily have been another lie. And that the real reason he does not abuse [my sister] is that he cannot – practically, in the house – get away with it. Or that she is not as vulnerable, fundamentally, as me.

            Or, most basely, perhaps by the time I leave, she is too old for his tastes. This is a thought which – among only a few, now, years later – always turns my stomach. But the reason might be that plain.

It is a surprise to me now, and also not a surprise somehow, that I really do believe his promise at the time to stay away from [my sister]. That I do not – again, somehow – find a way to warn her. I love her and [my brother] more than anyone in the world, and I know what my father is doing is wrong. Why do I not break my silence and protect them?

            I think I know some answers to this, all these years later. Answers I could not even think, much less write, then. The first is shame:  that is, I allowed him to do this. I feel, in my eyes, and, I am sure, in anybody’s – disgustingly and irretrievably complicit. After all, I let him do it. I should have stopped him.

             The second is fear. I never stop being terrified, deep down, of what might happen to the family, of how much everyone – including [my siblings] – will hate me for making everything (because I am sure this will happen) fall apart, if I tell. That they will or can react in any other way does not occur to me – that anyone ever can or will react with anything but disgust, pity, and hate does not occur to me, in fact, for years.

            So yes. I believe him.

pretty in pink

It has taken me a long time — years — to allow myself to feel feminine. This is not to imply that all women need to be feminine — far from it — but I’ve always been drawn to fashion, accessories, and ‘dressing up’. So the idea of the feminine has always appealed to me.

However. For most of my adult life I have worn somber colours — blacks, greys, browns. I have steered clear of anything bright, or patterned. I have steered clear of anything overtly feminine, except in small ways.

It almost goes without saying — now that you are here, and you know this blog is generally about Child Sexual Abuse — that I have been careful most of my adult life never to wear anything which might be considered ‘too feminine’ (read: ‘revealing’), either.

I have been afraid, all my life, of attracting unwanted attention from men. And because the ‘attention’ I got from my father didn’t make sense, and felt out of control — I thought ALL men were like this. Liable to put their hands on me. That I was liable to ‘make’ men ‘lose control’. Logically I knew this didn’t make sense — but it was what my experiences as a child, and then as a young adult survivor, told me: men only wanted one thing, and if I don’t ‘give’ it to them, I better be careful.

In my last post I mentioned that I’ve been fortunate enough to be working with other survivor/activists and with academics at the University of Bristol Dental School, developing ideas for increased access to and trauma-informed care in dentistry for CSA survivors. The experience has been eye-opening in lots of ways, and hugely empowering. It has been a gift to sit with others who get it, and who want to make a difference.

In the first workshop, we were asked to draw ourselves as a plant that had everything we needed. I am VERY far from an artist, but I instantly knew what plant I’d be: a pink clematis, climbing up the warm brick wall of my grandparents’ house, supported and loved and feeling beautiful. This is what I drew:

Notice that the flowers are PINK. I was surprised I drew this — pink? I don’t really do pink. And yet, I thought again: in the last year, I have purchased a mauve pink top, and just recently, a bright pink cardigan. And a few weeks ago — I went for the bright pink nails heading this post.

There’s another reason femininity — and specifically pink — have made me wary in the past. Because I associate pink with the body. With orifices, with genitals, and with danger.

But NOW! Something in me has been able to reclaim pink. Enjoy it. Revel in it. Pink is lovely. It’s not dangerous. It’s not attention-getting. It’s not about sex.

As for revealing clothing: this too seems to have turned a corner for me recently. I haven’t worn a real bikini except in front of my nuclear family in decades; revealing skin has up til now made me very, very nervous.

But NOW! For the first time I can remember I’ve got up the nerve to purchase a bikini for wearing when we go away in late August. I WANT to be like other women and not worry about it. Not be ashamed. With empowerment and understanding, I’m more settled in all aspects of my body and my femininity than I ever thought possible.

Next up: pink bikini?! Hmmm.

This extract from LEARNING TO SURVIVE captures some of what it’s like to feel disassociated from my body, constantly observed, and fantasised into a ‘relationship’. Which I hated.

***

just looking

The next summer, I end up in Blacksburg. I am keen to spend time with Alice and her new college friends, and have no trouble getting another restaurant job with evening shifts.  I have the days to myself, and stay out of the house as much as I can; Alice and I go to a pool every day to swim, sunbathe, and drink margaritas. On my nights off, I go to the clubs, having several probably quite dangerous sexual encounters with strangers. There is also a woman I work with who appears desperate to sleep with me. I resist. And, as ever and at this point, none of this activity is important to me, despite various one night stands actually ringing my home phone in an effort to see me again. Sex means absolutely nothing to me, yet I seem to attract people, constantly. I wonder, in time, whether this happens to me because they know something about me, sense something, smell something almost. Sleeping with men – going straight to the sex, no enjoyment, seems required of me. I don’t know how to do anything else, or see myself, or them, otherwise. I don’t want to cuddle. I don’t want soft words. In fact: softness and fondness make me feel a bit sick. The sooner it’s over, the better. Let the hormones take care of business. Then leave as soon as you can.

            At the time, I feel I am wise beyond my years, that I know something others my age don’t: this is all there is; get used to it.

That same summer, the household in Blacksburg acquires a set of weights and some gym mats. They are in the basement, in the half of the downstairs sitting room which has never been used for much. After a serious knee dislocation during a modern dance rehearsal at Oberlin, I am in rehab, building my leg muscles, generally getting back into shape, and use the weights every other day, doing core exercises etc as well. When he’s home, my father comes downstairs to watch me. He says he is learning about weights, and smiles, laughs a half-laugh. But I know he’s simply coming down here to look at me. When June comes home, he quickly gets to his feet, goes upstairs.

            Encounters like this are common, I realise now. From age 16, when the abuse stops, right up until the last time I see him, at age 21, every time we are alone he behaves as if I am party to a secret, a secret between us. He behaves, I realise now, as if we are in a secret relationship. As if external forces have ‘broken us up’, but we still long for each other.

            For me of course, nothing could be further from the truth. He repels me, disgusts me. His laugh, his hands rubbing together, fingers clasping. His physical awkwardness. I have a hard time being around him at all. I have no wish ever to see him again. Yet: here I am. Here is the family. Here is Blacksburg. Here is where I grew up.

            What I struggle to accept now is my tolerance of the situation. How do I not storm out and never come back? How do I eat in the same room? How do I smile? How do I breeze in and out every day? Secrecy, I guess, is hard to break the surface of. It holds firm, membranous and tough, despite the liquid chaos underneath.

            And I suppose, if I’m honest, a part of me still hopes. I hope that this will pass, and I know that some part of me is strong enough to last until it does. I continue to hope – for years – that he will change. That he will seek help in the ways that perpetrators I later witness are forced to seek help. I know – deeply and with real regret – that everything about his attitude to his relationship with me is wrong. What takes me so many years to do is give up on him. Give up on the family, give up on [my stepmother]. And it’s this giving up which brings lasting pain, to this day.

the body again

I feel like I’ve been ‘gone’ for ages. But I’m back, after four (?) weeks of resting, teaching, discussion — and investigations into my body’s insistence in going off piste.

First, we went away for a few days. I painted my nails pink. More on pink and what this means to me in another post!

Second, I participated in several weeks of a research project being carried out by the Dentistry School at the University of Bristol — with the aim of a co-produced outcome between survivors of Child Sexual Abuse activists, and academics, all of us keen to improve access to dentistry for survivors of CSA. More on this incredibly worthwhile endeavour in another post. And watch this space for the first outcome!

So to my health. Regular readers may recall that I’ve been dealing with nighttime coughing and choking episodes since January. After numerous interventions (two rounds of antibiotics, steroids, change in asthma treatments) and tests (peak flow, CT scan, X-ray), my own instinct was that something in me had been ‘triggered’ and had gone into ‘overdrive’. Fortunately, and finally, a GP in my surgery contacted me, remembering that she had had another patient with similar symptoms. She wanted to refer me to an allergist/immunologist, as it was also clear that I had an ‘allergic disposition’.

I decided to go privately, as the wait on the NHS was likely to be around nine months. My own instinct (and that of my GP) was that this was somehow related to my mast cells (a theory I raised a month ago on this blog). It took me three days, but I found a formally trained allergist who openly declared an interest in mast cell issues.

In preparation for the tests he wanted to run, I had to come off all antihistamines. I have been taking two one-a-day antihistamines for years. Coming off of them produced a TON of nasty things: sweating, all over body itching, a low fever, headaches etc. Interestingly, my chest did NOT worsen. But clearly: the antihistamines were suppressing a LOT that I was unaware of. I had one set of tests, then a few days later had to come back off the antihistamines again. This time I had dramatic joint and muscle pains, incredibly painful. Argh.

However. Long story not-so-short: blood tests, patch tests, and skin prick tests later, a bit of a shocker. It looks like I am allergic to NOTHING (nothing we found, anyway). I have been having ‘allergic type’ symptoms for 30 years — hayfever, asthma, various food intolerances — which have gradually worsened to the point of being quite debilitating… and yet I’m allergic to nothing. What IS evident though is that something is driving my symptoms: the overall antibody level (Ige) is significantly raised, indicating ‘allergic’ response levels are raised regardless.

My consultant says this is actually quite common. I have very reactive skin (without enough antihistamine, I always itch and have various random bumps etc. I also have ‘dermatographia‘, harmless but indicative of high histamine skin). My histamine levels (produced by mast cells) are ‘agitated’, and seem to have become increasingly so over the years. Apparently, mast cells are making more and more histamine — with no external trigger. [A side note: interestingly, there is clear research around how when countries are developed, and infection rates drop through vaccines and antibiotics, ‘allergy’ issues rise. The working theory is that the immune system develops differently (partly due to hygiene practices), thereby reacting differently to the environment. Which goes some way toward explaining why ‘allergies’ are often considered ‘posh’ things which aren’t taken seriously: because most seem to originate from a ‘more affluent’ lifestyle.]

Anyway. It turns out that most people who experience what I am experiencing are women. Most are middle aged, middle class, and make efforts to be healthy in their lives. Like me. And yet: something in their bodies seems to be constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode, essentially.

I’ll let that sink in.

Did I mention CSA to this consultant? Yes I did. Did I outline the statistics? Yes I did. Did I make clear that there is research which shows that CSA survivors are much more likely to develop inflammatory conditions, autoimmune conditions, and chronic conditions? Yes I did. We talked about how the immune system seems to shift with trauma, physiologically. He was open, interested, and listened. He believed me.

So. My guess is that my chronic uticaria/mast cell activation springs from childhood trauma. I don’t like those apples at all, but I suspect this is the root of it. I suspect too that the several thousand of mostly women my consultant has treated for this have also undergone some kind of trauma — be it serious illness, domestic or sexual abuse or neglect. And the body (which keeps the score) has reacted like this.

That’s the super irritating news. The good news is that with several months of high dose antihistamines and montelukast (Singulair in the US), my agitated system is very likely to calm down enough to be able to very much reduce the meds or get rid of them completely. This is his experience. He also (wisely) advised me to stop trying to ‘figure out’ triggers; this in itself can ramp up the system, which intensifies reactions. This all makes sense, and I’m now enjoying NOT worrying about what is ‘setting me off’!

As I’m only now confronting the lasting physical ramifications of my childhood, there is little in LEARNING TO SURVIVE which considers it directly. This though from the end of the book does capture the sense that you don’t ‘get over’ abuse. You can’t. It stays with you, in many forms. What we strive for is how to manage it, and how to live well in spite of it. We are the ones who have to learn to live with it all.

***

My own father died unexpectedly in October 2018, while I was in the middle of planning this book. He was an abuser. I am a survivor. That isn’t all he was, nor is it all I am. But it has shaped me and continues to shape me, no matter how hard I have tried and continue to try to keep it away from what matters. I do not know and now will never know the extent to which his sexual obsessions shaped him, but I am also, unsurprisingly, not sure either the extent to which I care.

            I have for the most part grown around the deep-running grief and betrayal that I can name. But after years of saying (perhaps more in hope than belief) I am ‘past it’, that I am ‘totally fine’, I now accept that the legacy of abuse never ends. You never ‘recover’ to the point of completely letting go. These days I ask different questions – no longer why and why me – but rather: who would I be if this had not happened? What might I have written, done? Who would my brother and sister be? And my mother? My aunt? My stepmother?

            And then, of course: how has the abuse affected my own children? All aspects of my relationship with my husband, and the way we live our lives? The things I am afraid of, the things I can’t explain. The lasting sense I have that life is fleeting, and apt to disintegrate. And that I must always be prepared for the worst to happen. That what I think and feel, when it comes to it, aren’t of real significance. Would these anxieties still be here? And if not, might I have taken more risks, been more ambitious? Had, more so, the courage of my own convictions?

            I have no answers to these questions, and never will. There remains so much, so much I don’t know and will never know, and despite my survival, all of our survivals, there is so much too with which I will never be at peace. And there is so much loss. The ripples of my father’s paedophilia, his deluded selfishness, his refusal to accept responsibility, go on and on, and continue to damage all of us, and all of our loved ones. When the ripples hit the shore, they just come back again. They never disappear. It is this fact which brings the most despair for me, and these days, anger.

This book emerges here and now partly because this is a story I need to tell, like all stories which find a writer. This book is also here, I hope, partly as a way of helping to make the invisible, visible. To help stop this. To be seen, and heard: I am here. We are here.

something is wrong

[image: mast cells, stained]

I am aware that more days than is usual have passed since I last posted. And I haven’t until recently — until lying in bed last night — been able to get my head around my lack of focus.

The truth is, I have been in the middle of a world where something is wrong — to do with my health — and I don’t know what it is.

I don’t do well when I don’t understand something physical about myself. I quickly lose confidence in my bodily sensations: do I really feel this? did this really happen? Etc.

This time I knew I was spacing out when I had to speak to my husband to confirm what questions I was going to ask the doctor when they rang. We had to rehearse my questions. Because although on one hand I knew my symptoms were happening — on the other, I didn’t know if anyone would believe me.

No one will believe me.

It’s not a big leap to get to why this situation is so hard, in Child Sexual Abuse terms. As I have spoken about elsewhere: as victims we are forced to repress instinctive responses like pain, revulsion, fear. Our fight or flight mechanism resorts to shut down, disassociation — and shame, guilt, avoidance.

What most of us do feel in some way however is that something is wrong. That this isn’t right. This shouldn’t be happening. But we are helpless. We are children. And all around us, all we see is that no one is doing anything to help. So what is happening must be okay.

As an adult, for me, I am able to manage illness or disability when I am able to figure out what I think is going on. Those of you who know me also know that I once I get an idea of where things are headed — I’m a dog with a bone. I have advocated for my children (both of whom have chronic conditions) numerous times. I pursued a good surgeon for my hip operations. Etc.

But this illness has been different. It started in January — waking up at night, coughing, choking. Like asthma gone mad. It is quite debilitating. We tried to get to the bottom of it, but every time we tried something and symptoms went away, they marched right back. Then in mid-March I got Covid-19. This layered on top of my chronic chest issues made for a bit of a mess. Two courses of antibiotics and a course of steroids later — the symptoms continue. Sigh.

Just this week I am becoming convinced that my lung issues have their root in mast cell activation — like a way-over-the-top allergic reaction. But one that can’t only be controlled with antihistamines. Like most people who present with mast cell issues, I have a bunch of other stuff going on too, and have done for years, ignored to the best of my abilities: shocking insect bite reactions, mounting food intolerances, increasing allergies to medical adhesives. Etc.

All of this however falls into the realm of ‘uncertainty’. Mast cell things aren’t really diagnosed with ease, and most doctors aren’t clued up about the possibility. It’s certainly a thing, but it’s not a clear cut thing, with obvious treatments. Unless you happen upon a knowledgeable doctor. Sigh again.

There is another factor here, which just adds to the ‘is this all in my head?’ problem: victims/survivors of sexual abuse are more prone to illnesses rooted in inflammation (which is mast cell), and more prone to developing auto immune conditions. We also need more medical care in our lifetimes. These are facts, the sources of which are numerous. Here is one.

As survivors, we can’t do anything about the ways our bodies keep the scores of abuse. But the manifestations of this score-keeping are so various, so often nebulous, that we can be forced back upon our default thinking, which is something is wrong (with me). Accompanied by no one will believe me.

Which is what I have been battling with in my head for the last ten days. I know this is real, but all I can really say is that something is wrong. When I am faced with trying to prove it, I run aground and lose confidence. Who will believe me?

I am tired of all of it, frankly, of trying to bolster myself and be certain, to somehow be more believable. I long for trauma-informed care, for someone to help me and take over and say gee we know this is hard for you. We believe you.

So far though, I’m on my own. I’ll persevere, but it’s a challenge if I’m honest. I’m mired in uncertainty, and the fear of no one listening.

This now from Learning to Survive. It’s a painful memory. Who would ever believe that something was wrong? We need to stop abuse — so children are never in the position of not even believing themselves.

***

Other Mornings

The three of us kids might go into their bedroom, where the television is, and watch something.

            He is still in bed, even though it’s late.

            Only now do I realise that these particular memories must be Saturdays, and that in the UK [my stepmother] has probably taken [my siblings] to school. However it happens, there are some mornings when no one else is home.

            He asks me to rub his back. He asks me to sit on him. He moans. Then he suddenly turns over, laughing, underneath me, and I can feel his hard penis right between my legs. See how much I love you? He is smiling.

            I am 12 years old. I cannot smile back. I cannot do anything.

            Once, someone comes in and he rolls me over, pretending to wrestle.

my own private restoration

It’s Easter Sunday for Christians. We have one child home for family time and a good meal. We have each other. Although I do not consider myself a Christian, I am profoundly grateful for our lives today.

On Radio 4 this morning, the ‘Sunday’ programme asked all of its speakers what they did to restore themselves. So I asked myself: what do I do?

Dealing with the fallout from Child Sexual Abuse can be gruelling. I value ALL the work I can do to raise awareness of it, of its prevention, and of survivor issues, but the process can be hard — managing triggers, hearing such grim stories, trying to handle the reality that the world seems to allow CSA, still, by virtue of not looking, and not believing. Yet from this, I value too the support of others, and the authentic love that comes from building friendships and connections out of often such dire circumstances and despair.

So in a sense, connections are part of my constant restoration. What else? My own family. Yes, every moment of every day they restore me. I know who I am because of them, and I know that our love — hard won in many ways, generous, open, funny, and sincere — is completely unconditional.

I don’t have to look far for my lifelong restoration: my beloved grandparents. People often assume that they must have been my maternal grandparents — but they were my paternal ones. In their 80’s, they had to accept what their own son had done. But they always believed me.

I lived with them a great deal when I was little and still in Texas, so before I was six. The image for this post was taken in 1967, when I was three. Each holding my hand.

They treasured me, I see now. They absolutely cherished me. As a college student, I went to Texas to see them more often than I went back to Virginia, where I had grown up. Because in some deep way, they were and always have been my ‘home’. My memories of being with them are — from here — almost unbearably happy. We adored each other. At times I feel that everything I learned that is good in my life — I learned from them. That all the good that I can bring to the world comes down to them. To what they believed in (they had strong Christian faiths) and how they manifested that in the world: through generosity of spirit, through acceptance, through unconditional love. I know that realistically they could not have been perfect — no one is. But they were my perfection regardless, and I hold them as such in my memory always.

My grandparents were married for 72 years, and died 10 weeks apart. I missed both funerals because I couldn’t see my father, their son. But I did go see my grandmother Ommie after Granddaddy died, in that intervening 10 weeks. And later, an extraordinary thing happened on the day of her funeral.

Happy Easter everyone. Happy Restoration Day.

From Learning to Survive:

***

young again

I fly out to Beaumont [Texas] as soon as I can after Granddaddy’s funeral. My aunt Lois’s husband, Walter, picks me up in Houston, and when we arrive back in Beaumont, we don’t head to their house, but to the hospital, where Ommie has taken a turn for the worse.

            I meet Lois coming out of the elevator, and she is distraught. The care has not been good, Ommie is disturbed, Lois herself is fragmented, fractured. Granddaddy has not been gone long, and now this. She has found a bed in another ward, another hospital, and is in the process of moving Ommie there.

            We follow the ambulance over to the other hospital. As I’ve felt before, I know these are my people, and that Beaumont is my American home, and always has been. My father – despite being Lois’s brother, and Ommie’s son – is not part of this conversation. He doesn’t belong here, and I do.

            At the hospital, Lois and I go upstairs to find Ommie being hoisted into her bed. It has been six years since I’ve seen her, since Eliot was a baby, and I am shocked by her appearance. She has grown suddenly very old, and Lois says it’s all happened quickly, especially now that Granddaddy is gone. Ommie has on a diaper, her hair is wild, and she looks around her as she is hoisted, landing in her bed, with no recognition whatsoever.

            I don’t know what to do. I stand back. Lois relays all of the vital medical information to a kind young nurse, who dutifully writes everything down. I notice that Ommie has frosted nail polish on, as she always does. So the remnants of her life are still with her.

            When the nurse leaves, Lois finishes tucking Ommie in, and smooths and brushes her hair back. Ommie seems to recognise Lois now, and looks at her gratefully, occasionally saying ‘thank you’ and smiling. After a minute, Lois gestures for me to come over. She says that Ommie’s eyesight is bad, and that I must get close. I lean right over the bed. I hear Lois talking behind me: ‘Ommie, it’s Patty. Ommie, look, Patty’s come to see you.’

            Ommie holds my hand and looks right at me, her eyes flying around my face. ‘Hi there Ommie,’ I say, ‘I’m here.’

            All of a sudden she sees me. Her pale grey-blue, bright eyes fix on me, and she squeezes my hand, so tightly, just like she’s always done, shaking it just a little, as if she can’t, she can never, believe I’m really there, because I am so precious.

            ‘Patty?’ she says, ‘Patty, oh my goodness!’ And she turns to look at Lois for confirmation, and Lois says ‘Yes Ommie, it’s your Patty, she’s back!’ And Ommie gives the broadest, happiest smile for a moment.

            Then her eyes fill with tears. Lois says ‘I know, Ommie,’ from behind me, and then to me, ‘She’s sad.’

            I don’t know how I know, but I know she is thinking about Granddaddy, and about how he can’t see me, worse now that I’ve come to visit.

            Ommie squeezes my hand again, her eyes full up. ‘He’s gone, Patty,’ she says, ‘he’s gone.’ And all I can do is say that I know, that I’m sorry, and that I loved him so much.

            Ommie loses some focus then, and soon I know it’s time to leave. ‘This is a lot for her,’ says Lois. ‘But it’s good.’

            I am barely able to breathe. I say goodbye to Ommie, hug and kiss her, knowing this is the last time, even though I am here for a few days, that I will see her. She says goodbye, but I don’t know if she knows she’s saying it to me.

            Lois takes me out into the corridor, and I just about make it to the seats. There I cry and cry, sobbing, doubled over, like someone has kicked me in the stomach. It is so painful. Lois rubs my back, saying ‘I know, I know’ and ‘you were like another daughter to them’, ‘they were so proud of you, and of R and your kids’. And I cry and cry so hard I think I may break in half. I don’t know how long we stay there, but eventually we have to leave.

There are my cousins to see, and Lois to help, and I visit Granddaddy’s grave, but I don’t see Ommie again. I have said my goodbyes. After a few more days, I head home.

            Sitting on the plane is the first time I am really alone, and as soon as we start to taxi down the runaway, I fall apart. I never want to leave Ommie and Granddaddy, never, and yet I have flown away from them so many times, now for the last time, the last time. I cry almost the whole journey home, tears streaming down my cheeks. My seat neighbours check on me, but I can’t speak. I know I will never see her again. I know she will die soon. She has always said that as long as Granddaddy goes first, she will be ready anytime. And I already miss them – miss them being there, somewhere – so much.

            Three weeks later, when I come home from a day out with the kids, R meets me at the door: Ommie has passed away, peacefully. It is July 17, 2002, only ten weeks after Granddaddy’s death. Later Lois tells me that she thinks Ommie feels able to go after seeing me, that only then is she really ready.

*

the end

Ommie’s funeral takes place a few days later, and, like last time, I can’t go. But I am more at peace with it now, and on the day itself I am alone in the house.

            As the time for the funeral approaches, I am restless. I imagine everyone in the church, I imagine the gathering. I both want and don’t want to be there.

            The hour arrives. I walk out to our back garden, through the gate, and into the wild part of our land, with the stream along the end, a log cabin studio, and a patio situated underneath old trees. For some reason I want to sit down, so I perch on the edge of the studio decking, as if I’m waiting for something. The air is very still. It is overcast, but not dark. It is summer.

            Some birds fly overhead, and I notice one bird left behind, taking its time. I think maybe that bird is sending me a message, a goodbye or farewell. Eventually it catches up with the others, and they move out of sight. And then, as I’m sitting there, there is a sudden, brief rain shower, which lands almost exclusively on me. I can see that the decking is not wet. I can see that the grass is still dry. But I am covered in little raindrops, tiny damp circles spreading on my top. It lasts for only a few seconds, and then moves off. There are no apparent rain clouds, no change in anything else. The sky is the same. But it has happened.

            I look up. I feel certain that Ommie has somehow reached me today, and is letting me know that she’s okay. That they are okay. And right away, I believe her, as I always have. Right away I know that I carry in me every gift they ever gave me, and that nothing, not even their deaths, can empty the rooms where they have always and will always live.

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.