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.

silence is silencing

[image: untitled, Mark Rothko, 1966]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harlem

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

forgiveness and complicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

[Stepmother]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            What is she doing? What is she thinking?

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

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

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

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

love across the raging river

[image: Lisa Marder]

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

Except.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Sweet Sixteen

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

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

My dear Patty,

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            Jamie

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

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

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

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

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

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

the body

[image: Ana Manso, Eye Massage]

As seems to happen frequently, a Twitter conversation brings me here. I have recently had some reflexology, and had the extraordinary experience of right at the end — feeling an inexplicable but distinct ‘lightening’, like something leaving me. It was remarkable.

It occurs to me that many who read this blog may not be acquainted with how a Child Sexual Abuse survivor feels about their body. We are by no means the same, or feel the same things, but to a person I reckon we all have issues around our bodies, one way or another.

I have posted before about how dance kept me in my body, shifted trauma for me, something I was not aware of until recently. Alongside this though, I have had to re-learn (learn for the first time?) about physical boundaries, and about my body belonging to me and no one else.

Boundaries are extremely complicated (there’s that word again) in CSA. As a victim, I ‘knew’ what was happening wasn’t right. If so, you may wonder — why didn’t I tell someone? Why didn’t I stop my abuser and say No? Because: the abuser always has authority. The victim may ‘feel wrong’ — but the abuser is always ‘right’. The abuser has the power. Always. The power of the victim to exact the physical boundary, to draw the line, doesn’t exist.

Right through through my 20’s and 30’s I made sure never to wear anything which could be interpreted as ‘revealing’. Or which showed ‘curves’, or ‘skin’. Which could ever, by anyone, be interpreted as ‘inviting’. Given that I was married, had children, and was by all measures of such things really pretty happy — it’s striking that my relationship with my skin ‘in the world’ was completely missing.

I think this is a common experience among trauma survivors of any sort. Specifically and of course, bodies of CSA survivors often don’t belong to them in some fundamental way. Our bodies are not ‘ours’. In fact, we would rather not have bodies, because keeping our bodies’ memories — and ourselves, our inner selves — away from each other is exhausting. If we are lucky we find ways to enjoy intimacy and sex, we make a space to be touched. If we are not, none of this comes to us. Because our bodies are not ours.

Which is why massage can be so fraught, and/or such a release. Survivors usually feel that being touched is either dangerous or meaningless. ‘Getting in touch with’ being touched is huge. Accepting touch which isn’t freighted with expectation or fear is quite a thing. But when it happens, when it does so without feeling unsafe — it can be so healing.

I want to reiterate the Contents Warning for this next excerpt from my memoir Learning to Survive. It plainly shows the coercion with which physical boundaries are transgressed, and how children are helpless to protest. I am 10 or 11 years old when this scene happens.

*

Conversion

[My stepmother] is out. He has been helping me with my homework. He invites me to the sofa.

            Have you started your period yet?

            I am mortified. I shake my head.

            I want you to be able to tell me anything.

            He reaches over, starts to unbutton my shirt. Checks with me, ok? I do not know if I respond.

            He unbuttons my shirt, reaches inside my trainer bra, and rubs my barely-there breasts. It hurts.

            After a minute he stops, and allows me to button up my shirt again. Thank you, he says, and laughs a little.

Not long after, [my stepmother] tells me that I will no longer be sharing a room with [my siblings]. She is excited about the basement conversion; she will get a sewing room again, and everyone will have their own bedrooms. My father adds that as the eldest, I will get the new bedroom, alone downstairs in the basement.