interlude

[image: by Kat at https://krazykabbage.com/%5D

Last Tuesday 26 July I did an interview with Lucinda Hawksley on Goldster, for the Purpose, Passion, and Grit (bookclub) series. The series highlights artists and others who are drawn to and campaigning for particular causes, for whatever reason.

Obviously, mine centred around my memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE, and my connected work to do with Child Sexual Abuse.

It was such a very good thing to do. Lucinda was wonderful, the audience was palpably attentive — and I felt like some of what fires me in this world for the last couple of years took flight.

The interview is necessarily general in some ways, but does bear witness to some of my own experiences, my own lived experience, the nature of it, and touches on the beginnings of how this all has impacted my life, and lives of so many others.

I want to thank everyone who came, and everyone who shared their own experiences then and subsequently. We are in this together. We are making progress and raising awareness. Together.

The link to the interview on the Goldster page is here. It is free to access. Scroll down to the ‘most recent’ programme.

The YouTube link is here.

Do have a listen/watch.

Sending love and support to all. I’ll be back with shame (part 2) soon.

shame (part 1)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what holds survivors of Child Sexual Abuse back — from telling someone, from seeking help — and pushes them toward desperation and too often, self destruction. What directs us at all costs away from feeling like victims.

Because a victim must be helpless. And powerlessness feels like weakness, close even to complicity.

Victims of Child Sexual Abuse are NOT weak. No way. They are, indeed, some of the most resilient and tenacious people you will ever know in your life. They — we — have to be. We had to find ways to survive. To preserve, somehow, parts of ourselves.

One of the ways we protect parts of ourselves is to excise — to extract, remove, rip out — or ignore, brush over, push down — toxic feelings which the abuse forces upon us, the most pervasive of which is probably SHAME.

Guilt is a feeling you get when you did something wrong, or perceived you did something wrong.

Shame is a feeling that your whole self is wrong, and it may not be related to a specific behavior or event

from Verywell Mind

SHAME is the feeling that the whole self is wrong. Yes. I cannot emphasise this enough: and if the whole self is wrong, then anything the self does is… wrong. Life, and living, can become One Big Wrong Thing. Shame can become something that feels impossible to row back from, to know where even to start.

And because it’s so comprehensive, so all encompassing, most of us disconnect at some point. Something in us insists on being preserved, remember. Our instincts are always first for survival. We are hanging onto every last bit we have — which usually doesn’t feel like, or isn’t, much.

In order to do this, we don’t tell, we often don’t admit the abuse even to ourselves. We bury the fact of the abuse, we mummify it. When I first faced the terror of having been abused, the damage and shame, I used to think of my life as being on parallel train tracks. And I thought I had ‘jumped tracks’, I hoped permanently. That train track over there is the ‘bad’ part of me. I’m NOT on that track. I’m on this track here, a long way from shame.

However. The train tracks of shame run parallel to our lived reality whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, no matter how hard we try. And sometimes, often, the tracks converge at an unexpected junction. Sometimes there’s a wreck. Sometimes the choking feeling of shame just emerges, triggered. And then if we’re lucky, the trains part ways and we are okay for a while.

This all-consuming shame is not a coping mechanism. It is the opposite. It is engendered by our abusers. It is planted there, inside us, and grows, completely out of our control. In fact, drowning in shame prevents us from coping; it cripples us.

Shame feels dirty. We feel dirty. We don’t want anyone to know that we must be dirty. We do everything we can to stay off those tracks. But sometimes we get stuck on those tracks, those shame tracks, for a long long time.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that the shame we feel is NOT ours; like the abuse itself, it was FORCED and/or MANIPULATED onto/into us. This shame is not an authentic part of us. This shame tells us we have done something — EVERYTHING indeed — wrong, and that it is all our fault.

But NOTHING — ABSOLUTELY NOTHING — ABOUT THE SEXUAL ABUSE WE ENDURED AS CHILDREN IS OUR FAULT.

Despite us ending up carrying the shame, and despite so few convictions for CSA, so little awareness, and so much surrounding disgust and horror:

NONE OF THIS IS OUR FAULT.

So what do we do about this shame? What do I do about it? Well, I run from it for years. I keep it so firmly on those other tracks that I can’t even name it. I’m not a victim, I tell myself, I am not brimming with self-disgust, emptied of all else.

Yet the energy required to run on two tracks (at least) at the same time eventually defeats me. For me, and only for a short while, the tracks converge and crash, never to be separated again. I have to figure out what to do about this ‘other Patricia’ — the one for whom everything is wrong, everything is dirty, everything is impossible. The shamed one. The one ashamed of simply being alive. Yet alive she is, and hurting.

As I have said so many times: I was lucky. I am lucky. I had help. I had love. I had a few people to catch me when I was falling so, so fast.

It’s horrible to feel so worthless. So useless. So used. So left on the tracks to die.

I don’t know how to dispel pervasive shame. I do know that words alone don’t do it. Words alone don’t do much, when it comes to emotions beyond and before words, and emotions that flourish in a place where there are no words.

In my own life, DOING has helped me overcome shame (most of the time). I have walked the walk until somehow I am really walking it, with my whole heart. I speak out. I don’t hide. I vent. I rail. I don’t Give. A. Shit. I put that shame over there, scream at it, beat it with my fists — and show it that once and for all, I have survived.

I raise my children to know these stories exist, my story exists. I don’t speak to my father before he dies (after 35 years’ estrangement), nor my stepmother, still counting. This is me DOING. This is me BEING how I want to be, how I imagine my best self to be: passionate, strong, thoughtful, committed, loving. I take care of the Patricia he hurt; I look after her. I understand that he never knew the ‘real’ me. Never. And that he never will.

I do this until I believe in and am able to enact these things. Which is moment to moment, and always pretty much now.

***

An excerpt from LEARNING TO SURVIVE, when I realised I ‘just’ need to hang in there, that I have another ‘self’. That I will certainly escape.

***

Most years we drive further south at Christmas – to see either [my stepmother’s] parents in Florida, or Ommie and Granddaddy back in Texas. It takes about three days.

            To save money we all stay in the same room in the motels along the way. For me, it is another welcome splash of rare freedom: he won’t dare, for sure.

            One such night he is changing. [My siblings} and I are all piled into the other double bed. My father misjudges, and his penis flaps between his legs, which he then catches as he slams his legs back together. [My siblings] of course think this is completely hysterically funny, and it’s contagious, because then I’m laughing too. My father instantly loses his temper, and after dressing, comes over and throws back the covers, slapping me and one of them – whoever is in reach – hard on the bottom.

            That shuts us up quick. It is the only time I ever remember being physically punished my whole childhood. Even then, as now, I am struck by the ludicrous hypocrisy of it all: does he really think it needs hiding? He has tried to get me to do things to it, with my mouth and hands.

In my last journey south with the family, I am nearly 17. The abuse has stopped. We are still all in the same motel room.

            I have been involved with Suzanne for nearly a year.

            In this final motel room, my father is irritated. He is irritated and unreasonable about everything. I know he is somehow angry at me – Suzanne, I reckon – and I don’t care. He can’t and won’t corner me tonight.

            I leave the hotel room, taking T S Eliot’s Selected into the bleak and fluorescent lit corridor. Being in a secret love – which he cannot reach – I cherish my solitude. I lie down on the sofa bench there, and open the book.

                The winter evening settles down

                With smell of steaks in passageways.

                Six o’clock.

                The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

                And now a gusty shower wraps

                The grimy scraps

                Of withered leaves about your feet

                And newspapers from vacant lots;

                The showers beat

                On broken blinds and chimney-pots,

                And at the corner of the street

                A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

                And then the lighting of the lamps.

            It is a familiar section, and one I know then and now by heart. That night, as I’d done so often before – in a pattern I’d set up since the moon landing – I imagine a home I will make somewhere else. On Eliot’s streets, even. I invent the fronts of the houses, the shapes of the rooms, the soft blankets, hot chocolate, smell of wood on a cold night. In my head, this house is always very tiny, and I am almost like a doll, hiding there. But alive, living, and alone.

            Suddenly – and it’s like a flash, like a fact blooming in me – I know that I will make a home somewhere else. That this is not a dream. It is real. And that the home will be for real people, not dolls: that I really can leave. That I really am leaving. In 20 months I will be leaving for university, leaving my father and his petty disgusting ways. And there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. I can leave! I really can. And will.

            All I have to do is hold on.

holding on to what matters

Yesterday I went into town and picked up my repaired bracelet, pictured here. I wear everything permanent on one side, my left: my bracelet, my watch, and my engagement and wedding bands.

Yesterday as I walked back to my car in the underground car park, bracelet newly restored, I was overwhelmed by the rich and familiar smell of oil on concrete. The smell of my beloved grandfather’s garage, and somewhat, the smell of him, working in his overalls there, fixing things as he always did. I spent hours out there with him, just pottering. Him and me.

Yesterday I got in the car and cried. My grandfather died 20 years ago this month. I couldn’t go to his funeral, as my father would be there. I also cried for my father-in-law, who passed only 18 months ago, who was my father for over 30 years with no fuss, and unconditionally.

It’s my father-in-law who gave me this bracelet, on the birth of his tenth grandchild, our young Max, 22 years ago. I wore it daily for years, wearing out the clasp. But it’s back now.

My watch? Bought with inheritance from my mother-in-law, over 30 years ago too. I only knew her one year, but she made a profound impression on me. I have always longed to have known her longer.

I miss the older people in my life whom I trusted and loved. I miss them so much. I know I was lucky to have any, but I don’t take this for granted. I treasure it. They taught me all I know and have ever known.

My grandfather and my father-in-law would both be so proud and happy for the marriage of our first son Eliot, in two weeks. My grandfather held him at six weeks old; we have a picture. And of course, my father-in-law saw Eliot grow and become someone special; they were close.

So I’m holding onto what matters, clinging to it. Not much else in my young life was worth much, to be sure. But I have always known that somewhere I was loved, really cherished. That has never left me.

There are lots of passages in Learning to Survive about my paternal grandparents, Ommie and Granddaddy. They half-raised me, and saved me over and over from the whims and instabilities of my mother. This section is about what it was like to stay with them, their authentic and entirely loving ways.

***

I believe it is some years before I understand that my favourite people in the world, Ommie and Granddaddy, are my unseen father’s parents. Rather, for all of my early life, I feel they belong only to me.

            They live in Beaumont, a big city in deep east Texas, which first built up around the oil industry, like its larger regional cousin, Houston. Being only a few miles from Louisiana and its swampy backcountry however, Beaumont is never able to take on the cosmopolitan mantle of Houston. It remains fast-growing but provincial, and in the 60’s, all of the Deep South characteristics and traditions are still in place.

            An electrical engineer, my grandfather is a successful part of Mobil Oil’s rise in the 40’s and 50’s. The house I visit is the result of a certain prosperity, designed and built by my grandparents in a then up and coming area of the city. It is a sleek, rambling ranch-style bungalow, set in a large plot of land, with an expanse of lawn and neat caladium-frilled trees in the front. Around back are Granddaddy’s spacious vegetable patch, my swings and a sandbox he makes for me at some point.

            Even now, I can recall the anticipation of arriving on their street, their block. My eyes search for their house, the long driveway, Granddaddy’s pick-up parked on the side, and Ommie’s car in one side of the double garage. We might pull up outside if there are things to unpack, and then walk through the other half of the garage, with its pungent smell of oil on concrete. Someone swings the screen door open; it often squeaks, and always clatters behind you, pushing you through the doorway, announcing your arrival.

            This is the homely way in: on the left is a toilet where Granddaddy washes up from working outside, and Ommie’s enormous laundry room through to the greenhouse. Then you are in the kitchen, with its small table and every inch of counter space laden with food. Outside that window is the hummingbird feeder, with its bright red liquid. Through the kitchen is the lounge – comfortable chairs, a huge half-circle sofa, the television, lots of Readers Digests, a candy dish of clear sweets, and a whole wall of glass doors looking out into the back garden.

            By contrast, the whole front of the house is more formal, with a dining area, a living room no one ever sits in except at Christmas time or with visitors, the piano, and the front door with a sort of entrance hall. The front and back of the house make up a large rectangle; off one end of that rectangle is the hallway to the three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

            The living room, the hallway and the bedrooms are all unusually silent places. Heavily carpeted, you can never hear anyone walk or speak between the bedrooms. The curtains in the living room are always drawn to keep the upholstery from fading, and the windows in all the bedrooms are surprisingly small, high up. Sleeping at Ommie and Granddaddy’s house is like sleeping in a cocoon. I always want to be there, always want to stay.

In truth, I begin to expect to stay with Ommie and Granddaddy; I look forward to it. We traverse the highways between San Antonio, where my mother lives, and Beaumont. I settle into the high twin beds in my grandparents’ house like they are in my own bedroom — more so, as they never change.

            It seems, at one point, or maybe more than one point, that I am always with them. My Aunt Lois tells me that I stay with them for months on end, one time almost a year perhaps. Ommie continues to work, teaching Spanish at the high school. I remember going to see a friend of hers who owned a grey parrot that speaks Spanish.

In Beaumont, I even go to nursery, and Sunday School, where I listen to the lessons and remember a colourful room to play in.

Ommie and Granddaddy take me everywhere. To my grandmother’s hairdressers once a week: a small operation with four or five brown Naugahyde chairs and women who never stop talking. Every once in a while Ommie gestures toward me, mouthing ‘big ears’ to get them to stop gossiping, but they never do. I sit and watch and listen, sipping my coke from a small glass bottle through a straw. Ommie is at her most animated with these people, with her women friends – they even talk while under dryers, their hair up in curlers, flipping through magazines and exchanging views. Sitting on my chair to the side, every once in a while someone comes by, tells me what a good girl I am. And they tell Ommie too, ‘what a good girl she is.’ By the cashier, Ommie reaches out, puts a hand on the top of my head, ‘I know it,’ she says proudly.

I go everywhere with them. Granddaddy takes me out in the pick-up truck, sometimes even in the back if I promise not to move around too much. He drives around the block so I can feel the wind in my hair. For longer journeys, though, I sit next to him in the cab. Together we go to the hardware store, the gardening shop, the fishing tackle store. I inspect tiny drawers full of screws and nuts and bolts, and once, lots of extravagant fishing flies lined up on the counter. It’s not my world, but with Granddaddy in his overalls, his hand around mine, or often, his hands resting on my shoulders, I get a peek at it.

It is Granddaddy who sets up the swing and slide in the backyard, and who builds a sandbox around the bottom of a tree for me. Outside, it is always hot and wet, but with Granddaddy working next to me, I play. The chameleons on the house fascinate me; I stand completely still, just waiting for one to run from the green grass to the red wall so I can watch it change colour. In the front, together we see the squirrels fussing in the tall trees, running through the thick spiky grass. I sit on the front step and watch him mow, watch our neighbours mow their front yards, the hands they raise to one another. And always, should anyone stop to talk, my grandfather waves me over, rests a hand on me: ‘This is our granddaughter,’ he says, ‘come to stay with us for a while.’ And whoever it is, sensing something, or maybe just liking what he sees, says, ‘Well isn’t that nice. Isn’t that nice for you?’ And my grandfather, with a little squeeze, says, ‘It sure is.’

the challenge of normalising

Two or three times in the last couple of months I’ve ended up in conversations about Child Sexual Abuse — with friends at hydrotherapy, and line dancing. Not soul mates, but folks I talk to and who talk to me. Whom I’m glad to see, and vice versa.

It has been a long time since I’ve disclosed to acquaintances. And I’ve come so far in such a short time when it comes to being open, not apologising, not rushing to make them feel somehow okay about my experiences — so far indeed, that I have been surprised all over again at the responses:

  1. oh, it hardly bears thinking about, paired with a pursing of the lips. Horror.
  2. this happened to YOU? (to someone middle class, educated, from a ‘good’ family)
  3. it turns my stomach, said with a flat hand outward, keep it away. Disgust.

Sigh. There is SO MUCH work to be done, still, in order to have ‘normal’ conversations about CSA. So many misconceptions, factual and psychological.

  1. We MUST think about child sexual abuse, as upsetting as we find it. Not acknowledging its existence perpetuates it. Silence creates secrecy. It perpetuates abuse. This is a simple equation.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen ‘over there’ somewhere. Abuse happens everywhere. But the stigma surrounding it — that it only happens in ‘bad’ households, in ‘deprived’ areas, to ‘uneducated’ people — ensures it’s kept at arm’s length. Refusing to acknowledge how widespread it is — you guessed it — perpetuates it. If people don’t believe it happens everywhere, they won’t believe it happens anywhere near them. So it will continue. Another simple equation.
  3. Sexual abuse IS disgusting. But for 1 in 6 children, it’s a REALITY. These children don’t have the luxury of turning away in disgust. By not acknowledging this reality — again, as upsetting as it is — again, we perpetuate abuse. We abandon children to the perpetrators.

The shock of sexual abuse is real. Finding out that a friend or acquaintance was abused, or that a child you know is being abused, is pretty awful. There’s no getting around that. We all know abuse is BAD.

I’ll admit that it’s easy for me to forget how upsetting those who have not been abused or are not involved in intense dysfunction can find the whole idea of sexual abuse. I probably mention it several times a day in conversation, and have done now for a few years. It’s my ‘normal’.

However. Hear me out. NORMALISED doesn’t mean that CSA is RIGHT or OKAY. ‘Normalised’ means in the open, discussed — not ignored, skirted around, backed away from. ‘Normalised’ means part of a life. A sad part of life, an upsetting part of life, to be sure — but day to day reality for perhaps 15% – 30% of families in the UK right now (the victims and their families, and the perpetrators and their families).

When we ‘normalise’ CSA we aren’t saying it’s ‘fine’. We are saying this happens. Everywhere, and to every kind of person, across all ages and stages. We are also saying perpetrators are close by. We are also saying be alert, make space for children to disclose, be open to the possibility. We are saying: we see this, and we want to stop it.

The gap between survivors for whom CSA is an openly discussed reality, and those fortunate enough to claim they have ‘never known anyone’ who has been abused, those who are so horrified that they physically and mentally turn completely away — this gap is hard to bridge. We need to be able to acknowledge the awfulness of abuse, the horror of it indeed, alongside being able to take practical steps to help, to raise awareness, to see it as possible anywhere, and possibly perpetrated by someone in or well known to the family.

CSA is a terrible thing — destructive, damaging, a lifelong sentence for survivors and their loved ones. But not allowing ordinary conversation and awareness of CSA is another kind of terrible, the kind of terrible which guarantees more and more suffering for those who are drowning in silence, the 1 in 6 children, the 11 million adult survivors in the UK.

***

This poem is from Learning to Survive, written within days of my father (my abuser) dying. This is the openness, the awareness, the acknowledgment of complexity I know is possible. The place where we are not keeping secrets anymore, and friends and colleagues know and understand, without horror.

[…]

yesterday

white flowers

evergreen foliage

huge blooms

arrive for me

from work

they know

who you were

what you did

because I am not

keeping secrets now

there’s a card

edged in black

for mourning

and the florist

is tearful at my door

later Sarah D

sends me a text

with condolences

then Dorothy

Claire, Vanessa

Simon, Nancy, Scarlett

David, Eliot from Boston –

so many now know

so many understand

the complexities

that I begin to believe

I am grieving

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.

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.

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.