I was twenty-two and heavily pregnant with my only child when I finally told my mother about being raped as a child. I was looking through a box of photographs and clippings and there with pictures of school days and Christmas trees, was a picture of my rapist and me. It was a clipping from a newspaper, a slice of small town life captured by a local news photographer, on one of my bi-weekly visits with my father. I’m sitting in a little red wagon, smiling, blonde. It was my fifth birthday. My rapist is holding the wagon’s handle, taking me for my special birthday ride around the neighborhood. He was eight, maybe nine, years old. I don’t know. About fifteen minutes after that photograph was snapped, I was laying, pinned, on the dirty floor of a storage shed, being raped, while two other boys hooted and shouted encouragement.
I looked at the clipping, really looked at it, for the first time in years and before I could think, I heard myself saying “That boy molested me. I wish you would throw this picture away.” Momma hardly skipped a beat in her chores and responded by telling me this kind of thing happens and I needed to get over it and it was such a cute picture, she couldn’t stand to part with it. And that really told me all I needed to know. I didn’t elaborate. I didn’t plead. I didn’t even protest. I digested this bit of information and I never, in the twenty-one years since, ever brought it up again.
I don’t know if that boy planned on raping me that day, if that was his idea all along, or if it was something that just…happened. It wasn’t the last time he would hurt me. Wasn’t the last time he put his hands on me. Eventually, I figured out if I stopped playing outside by myself, he couldn’t get to me. By that time, I had another abuser, a teen-aged girl, and she didn’t hurt me the way he did and so I chose her over him.
And so it started, years upon years of abuse, at times sex-based but just as often not. I was terrorized, bullied, beaten and played with the way a cat bats around a small bird before finally ending its struggle. I learned that my body was not my own. I learned that everything that happened was my fault. I learned that it was my job to do whatever I had to to please everyone around me. I learned everyone else’s feelings mattered more than mine. I learned to keep my mouth shut.
I don’t know how I knew at five years old that I should not tell. I don’t remember my rapist expressly telling me not to but I knew what had happened was bad and wrong and I knew it would make other people upset if I told and so I didn’t. I don’t know if it would have changed anything. It was the early ’70’s and things were different then. My parents were divorced and their divorce, like their marriage, was rowdy and loud and filled with acrimony and recrimination. I don’t know if anyone would have believed me and if they did, if anything would have been done about it. I don’t know.
That warped sense of responsibility for others and the need to please and the absence of a feeling of ownership of self, it set me up for a truly unhealthy view of my life, of my worth, of my agency. I was adrift, waiting and wading. Marking time until some outside force acted upon me, told me where to go, what to think or feel or be and I would do that, I would be that. I would go in that direction until all force was spent and then drift again until the next current, wave, storm picked me and carried me somewhere else.
It almost goes without saying that of course my romantic life was a complete mess, which brings us back to me, hugely pregnant and single and twenty-two, telling my secret for the first time. From that point, it took years of therapy, reading and reflection to work through all of that morass of pain and suffering. There were times when I couldn’t be around my family, for fear I would lose my composure and become a screaming, raving lunatic. WHY DIDN’T ANYONE STOP THIS??!! HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW??!!
I raised my daughter in a different age, when we talked about these kinds of things. There were workshops and children’s shows about stranger danger. It became okay to talk about abuse on national television. Praise be to Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. I raised her to believe her body was her own, to do with as she wanted and that no one else was allowed to touch her without her permission. This led to sometimes awkward moments when she would refuse to hug an adult relative or squirmed away from folks who wanted to pat her on the head but that’s how it goes, how it should go. I protected her, fiercely.
I don’t talk about it now. I’ve done my therapy. I’ve processed my anger and all of that stuff and it is all behind me. Nothing good would come from talking about it. I don’t identify as a ‘survivor’ of abuse. The title is used so much, I think it has lost all of its meaning. This series of truly shitty things happened to me, the end.
I read a lot about the craft of writing. I always think I have room for improvement. I am never satisfied with my work. The writers who are professional advice-givers keep telling me I am supposed to write about what I know. I have to get personal and vulnerable and be willing to take risks. Lay everything on the table.
This is me. I am as vulnerable as that blonde-haired five-year old, off on a wagon ride around the neighborhood. I’m giving you this part of me. I’m choosing trust. I trust you.