the bargain

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

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

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

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

Etc.

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

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

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

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

This is my bargain. From Learning to Survive:

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Yes?

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

            What?

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

            He sits back on his heels. Of course not.

            ‘Good.’ I cross my arms again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            So yes. I believe him.

something is wrong

[image: mast cells, stained]

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

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

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

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

No one will believe me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Other Mornings

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

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

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

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

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

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

or, naivety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

X is for X-ray Vision

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

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

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

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

on not wanting to make a fuss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

intimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

him, them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amnesia

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

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

And here’s why:

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

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

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

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

*

so far

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

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

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

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

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

the girl by the pool

I’ve been thinking a lot about hypervigilance, and the part it plays in my life. And many if not most survivors’ lives, actually. Right now for me, it’s brought on by one of my children needing surgery.

Hypervigilance is one of a long list of PTSD symptoms, and one I cannot remember being without. I’ve had it all my life it seems — before my father’s abuse, for sure.

I can trace this particular ‘high alert’ habit/necessity right back to living with my mother, which I did (part time, as it turns out) until I was six years old. My mother was ‘unwell’ — a lot. When I was older she used to reminisce that when I was three years old I would bring her my teddy bear and some orange juice when she was incapacitated on the sofa. I didn’t realise how inverted those actions were until I told a therapist at some point. And she was like ‘so you were the parent?’. Um, yes.

My mother had mental health issues on and off for most of her life, and I believe I witnessed some bad times, particularly before I was six. I have no visual memory of these times, but I do have the sense of vigilance, of being aware, of needing to be so — otherwise I’d be in danger.

And of course this vigilance had no reason to fade when I went to my father’s house at age six. Here I had to be ‘good’, and eventually, I had to try to protect myself as much as possible by ‘reading the room’. The danger was real. What I didn’t know is that I couldn’t really protect myself. That’s the catch about hypervigilance: quite often, it doesn’t serve us. What’s going to happen, will happen — no matter how aware we are, and how hard we try to cut it off at the pass.

I posted on Twitter recently about the extreme ‘alertness’ I often feel in my life now. I have been haunted by ‘what if’ scenarios, and images of disaster and catastrophe, and the ‘cat on a hot tin roof’ feeling of I must be prepared my whole life. I now more or less recognise it, though this doesn’t mean I can prevent it. Most of the time I see it when I am in it. I never see it coming.

The physiological effects of hypervigilance are worth noting here: constant spikes of adrenalin, and rushes of cortisol to deal with stress. The long-term impacts of years of this are both known and unknown, depending on how individuals are put together. But it’s a fact that survivors have higher incidences of chronic conditions, autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, and some cancers (from The Body Keeps the Score). There is the health of complex organisms — us, all of us — at stake here. These distorted reactions to — life — of course also impact our families, especially our children. These are tough roads to walk. But with honesty and communication, we can walk them, and we can halt the cycles of dysfunction.

Vigilance is not always a bad thing of course. Being alert and aware and sensitive to each other are all good ways to live. We want this in our lives. And in fact, sometimes even hypervigilance — that weird constant state of high alert — can serve us. For instance, I have known within half a day in every instance when our children’s colds or sore throats became infections. Every time. I also knew that ‘something was wrong’ with our elder child when he started wetting the bed and was very thirsty. I googled. And insisted he go to the doctor. He did — and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — a life threatening condition — that day. Because of my (hyper) vigilance, he was never very ill at diagnosis, which is fairly unusual. We caught his diabetes very early.

Recently I told my therapist about an event in my childhood, as a way of talking about my mother’s neglect really. But my therapist ended up saying ‘well, here your hypervigilance paid off’. Yes. I’d never thought of that.

I’ve written about it in Learning to Survive. There are two passages below about the event. A few months before she died, I asked my mother if she had any regrets. She said she did — and the very first one she mentioned was that she wished she’d jumped into the pool.

*

Q is for Quick

I am playing outside with a friend, or an acquaintance, another little girl. I am not sure where we are – not at the apartments where I learned to swim though. It is a perfectly still day, the sky grey and flat. I know this because when I look down at the water, I can’t see my own reflection, I can only see down into the dark blue depths.

            I know we are not supposed to be down this end, somehow. The colour of the water frightens me, a deep blue-grey, verging on black. I know what it’s like to be in deep water, your chin barely out, and I don’t want to be there again. The edge is white, shaped and curved rough concrete, the kind that grazes your knee each time you get out.

            It is entirely silent. I do not even think we are speaking to each other, my friend and me, we are just walking. I don’t even know if we are really friends.

            The noise is barely noticeable. I turn just in time toward it, in time to see the top of her head going under, and something white – her hand, her face – near the surface.

            I do not want to leave her there, without anyone. But I turn and run toward the building, toward my mother and Bill who are all the way inside, up some stairs, sitting on the sofa. It seems to take so long, and it feels so heavy, like a storm approaching. I don’t know what I say, but the grown-ups come out in a great rush, Bill’s watch and shoes flying.

            I remember him diving in. Cleanly, clearly, with next to no sound, just the slip of someone going under. I remember my mother teetering on the edge, staring down. And I remember later, someone telling me I did the right thing.

            This girl must not die. I think I would know if she did. She must survive, dragged or lifted out, choking. After all, Bill is a doctor. Or perhaps she isn’t choking; perhaps she is silent, like all of that day seems to be. Perhaps she looks perfectly normal, as if none of it has happened, she is just holding her breath.

            You would think that I remember the moment of re-emergence, when everything is alright. You would think that her survival shapes the whole incident, is the one good thing. But it isn’t, that isn’t what I remember at all. What I remember is the feeling of helplessness staring down at her, my arms by my sides, and the feeling that I too might fall in. I remember the vision of the looming building, so far away, up the steps. That I cannot run fast enough, my own legs in water, that they are not going to understand me, sitting together on the sofa. That I am not going to be able to say, a girl is drowning and I know what she looks like.

And Questions

What my mother is thinking – much less Bill – allowing us out by an empty, unguarded pool, I am not able to fathom. I am also not able to say to her: and where were you? She will say she could hear or see us, she will say the distance between the pool and the apartment building wasn’t far. She will say that no one died. But I know differently and have always known differently: I ran up the stairs and turned left into the apartment, a long way away. I could have died that day, not to speak of the girl who almost did. Looking back, I don’t know why I too don’t fall in. On the edge of a pool, it is always on the verge of happening.

            I don’t know exactly how old I am when all of this happens, but I know I am younger than six. I am six and a half when I go to live with my father, and my memories have as their central axis pre-Virginia (with my mother) and Virginia (with my father).

            Why don’t I fall in? Why do I know what to do? As is the case for so many stories from my childhood, I am feted as sensible, knowing. But perhaps that’s not why, why I rarely if ever put a foot wrong. Perhaps instead I know, even then, that there might not be anyone around to save me.

even the ‘good’ goes away

For many years I tried to ‘reconcile’ the parts of my father who was my abuser with the parts that weren’t. I tried to hold onto the ‘good’ parts. I tried to look past the ‘bad’. Because without doubt, he had much to offer to the world.

Like probably all survivors of sexual abuse, I am hugely relieved to hear of Ghislaine Maxwell’s conviction for sex trafficking girls. Regardless of her no doubt manifold ‘good’ qualities, her ‘bad’ qualities, her crimes, have taken priority. She has been held accountable.

Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) can ruin victims’ lives. Sexual abuse is an extraordinarily damaging crime. Its effects bleed into everything. There is no way to look past it, either in your life or in the life of someone you love. The blame lies squarely with the perpetrator, and absolutely nowhere else. Sexual abuse is so heinous that it negates whatever else a perpetrator might have done in their lives. This may feel ‘unfair’ or ‘out of proportion’ to those who love or respect the perpetrators. But dealing with being a victim of sexual abuse is a lifelong sentence. Being sexually abused doesn’t ‘clear up’. It is never ‘out of sight’. There are ways to tackle its effects which are helpful, and which develop good tools for living. But trauma changes the wiring in the body; it changes us physiologically. As survivors, we are forever altered.

Perpetrators’ lives — no matter how much ‘good’ they do in the world — deserve likewise to be forever changed. The decisions they made, and the damage from them, are irreparable.

From Learning to Survive, writing about the loss of anything good to do with my father.

***

Good Things

After the age of about 11, I cannot remember a single decent time with him. That is, one that isn’t inflected with fear, or repulsion, wondering what his next move will be. Wondering how he will use any moment to bring me closer to him, to be with him, later. As I look back, I think I may experience some moments of joy, in theory – like listening to music with him, peering through a telescope, arriving at the correct answer to a maths problem together – but none of them exist separately for long. I cannot tease them apart from everything else; I cannot make them stand up strong. They are never far from everything else I want to forget. They become meaningless.

            So I forget them all. I forget any possibility of good in him, and it never comes back. That room, like so many, is entirely empty.

[photo Martin Muir]