Sunday, March 02, 2008

How to Build a Time Machine

"The consequences of sexual abuse, however, are not restricted to problems in one's sexual life; they impair the development of the self and of an autonomous personality. There are several reasons why this is so:

1. To have one's helplessness and total dependency taken advantage of by the person one loves, by one's mother or father, at a very early age soon produces an interlinking of love and hate.

2. Because anger toward the loved person cannot be expressed for fear of losing that person and therefore cannot be lived out, ambivalence, the interlinking of love and hate, remains an important characteristic of later object relationships. Many people, for instance, cannot even imagine that love is possible at all without suffering and sacrifice, without fear of being abused, without being hurt and humiliated.

3. Since the fact of abuse must be repressed for the sake of survival, all knowledge that would threaten to undo this repression must be warded off by every possible means, which ultimately results in an impoverishment of the personality and a loss of vital roots, manifested, for example, in depression.

4. The consequences of a trauma are not eliminated by repressing it but are actually reinforced. The inability to remember the trauma, to articulate it (i.e., to be able to communicate these earlier feelings to a supportive person who believes you), creates the need to articulate it in the repetition compulsion."

-Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child

The seemingly small act of courage of reading a sex poem in public and then admitting on this blog something I have never acknowledged before, that I find sex disgusting, has opened the floodgates. Since then, I have been thinking and writing day and night about how I am affected by the sexual abuse, yet, when I sit down to translate these thoughts into a blog post; my mouth goes dry, literally and figuratively. These feelings run deep, and the humiliation and despair I struggled to deal with as a child is still difficult as an adult. Sexual abuse is a violation like no other; it robs you of physical self-determination, of ownership of your own body. The terror of being at the physical mercy of someone else, as powerless as an inanimate object to be thrown around and used for whatever the person wants, threatens to rob you of your individuality. Your body is not the physical boundary between you and other people. I don't want to dog on Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a formidable feminist and role model, but someone else can make you feel inferior without your consent. When you are as powerless as a child is, and facing a systematic attack on your dignity and self-worth, withholding your consent does not protect you from emotional and psychological damage.

I know because I told myself thousands, maybe millions of times when I was growing up that I would not let them drive me crazy, I would not let them destroy me, I would survive, and I would survive to adulthood as myself, they would not twist me or make me into something I wasn't. I fought for every shred of control over my life. I had a constant dialog going in my head, I am my own person, I am not how they treat me, I choose to be how I want, I do not choose this. When I say "they" or "them" I mean my great-uncle who sexually abused me and my dad as well. He did not sexually abuse me, but when I told him about the sexual abuse he said he would beat me senseless and throw me in the car if I refused to go to his uncle’s house. I consider my dad to be a co-conspirator in the sexual abuse. He also brought my step-niece to that man's house. He put the fear of physical violence in me from the age of six- he used to make me stand still, facing him, and look into his eyes as he described how he was going to punch me so hard my head would go through the wall, and that he would beat me with 2x4 boards. He even told me what 2x4's were, so I would know exactly what I had coming. If I looked away, stepped backwards, turned my body to the side, slouched (he had been in the military so not standing up straight was especially bad), cried, or even flinched he would scream in my face and hit me. He made it abundantly clear that he believed that I belonged to him, he could do whatever he wanted to me, and if his uncle wanted to put his fingers in me, I had better go along with it. I literally, on many occasions, thought he would kill me. I grew up in fear for my life, and my body was not my own.

I had to find coping mechanisms to live through what I did. One of the things I did was compartmentalize my dad, my great-uncle, and my mom. I had "bad dad" and regular dad. Regular dad was tolerable. He did things around the house, he laughed and told stories, he was affectionate to my mom, and he was smart and would tell me and my brother the scientific names for plants. (He is a botanist, and he has a photographic memory so he actually seemed to know all those long Latin names.) Regular dad was also my dad was before my brother was born, before he decided that my brother would have everything he didn't have growing up with his abusive dad, and I would get the treatment his dad gave him. (I should point out that my brother didn't have it much better than me. Besides that he was a witness to the violence against me, the sister who he loved and who took care of him, my dad treated him as an object, too. My brother was expected to make my dad look good, like he was Mr. Devoted Wonderful Dad, and he had no patience or interest in what my brother actually wanted or who he really was. Our dad treated us with contempt, like his whole family were giant pains in his ass and we were lucky to have him, and we better not complain about anything or he'd make us all sorry. Jeff and I never threw temper tantrums or said the word "no" to him. We knew better.)

This compartmentalizing of people helped me accept that my parents and other adults acted in contradictory ways, and often didn't seem to care about Jeff's and my well-being, even though it was inconceivable that they wouldn't. Your parents are supposed to care about what's best for you, and other adults are supposed to be responsive to the needs of children. It wouldn't make any sense for them not to. A child is not capable of understanding the complicated motivations and psychologies of adults, and you think your parents are infallible when you are young. Even after I realized that my dad was treating me unfairly, and taking things out on me that had nothing to do with me, I still believed he loved me and cared about me, all evidence to the contrary. I thought regular dad did, even if "bad dad" hated me. I knew "bad dad" hated me because of that look he got in his eyes when he was screaming at me or about to hit me. His face looked like there was fire behind it, but his eyes looked cold and empty, like falling off a cliff at night and you know you will disappear into black nothing. I looked into his eyes and saw absence- absence of love, absence of compassion. I knew he was capable of anything because bad dad didn't care. Even with all his professed love for my brother, I knew my brother was in danger too. When Jeff moved back in with our dad when he ran out of money for college, after my mom had moved out, my dad was happy to take him in but not willing to help him get the money to go back to college, or even take him to a therapist or psychiatrist when he started making suicide threats. My mom and I knew he was in serious danger. Who knew living with your dad could be self-destructive?

My feelings about my mom are a little more complicated- she is smart, interesting, and creative. I like (and love) her, as a person. And I empathize with her. She was just totally ineffective as a mom. She was "passive, depressed, not there (emotionally, and sometimes physically when she would lock herself in her room for long periods of time when she was depressed), undependable, critical, apologist for bad dad, out of it, sometimes hysterical mom". To summarize, she is “weak mom”. Jeff and I took care of each other because weak mom wasn't there for us. Weak mom was emotionally absent. Weak mom was often staring into space. Weak mom was scared to leave her husband when he was abusing her daughter, but managed to get the strength when both her kids had moved out and she was the only one left for him to take his anger out on. Weak mom stood in the doorway and watched while bad dad beat her daughter, watched him punch her in the face again and again and again, and pick her up and fling her against the wall, and punch her some more and throw her against the wall again, and left her daughter lying there with a concussion and bleeding.

Time moved so slowly for me, I could feel every bone in my dad's knuckles with every blow, and when my body slammed against the wall, first the force hit the bone in my butt, then my feet hit, bump bump, then the back of my shoulders, and finally the back of my head, which made such a loud noise, a meaty thump, it was all I could hear after that. I thought, this is it; he'll finally put my head through the wall like he always said he would. I didn't think he would stop hitting me, especially after he picked me up after the first time he threw me into the wall, and held me up by my arm because I had gone totally limp, I couldn't move, it was so painful but then I stopped being able to feel anything at all, and he just kept punching and punching. I thought, I am going to die. I thought, she is just going stand there in the doorway while he beats me to death.

After the second time he threw me against the wall, he just stopped, looked at me in disgust on the floor, and walked out. She looked at me like I had done something wrong, like, why did you make him do that? Her face looked twisted and scared, she said some things, and then she left me there. She didn't call the police or an ambulance, she didn't come over and look at my face, she didn't touch me, and she wouldn't even look me in the eye. I saw red flashes in my left eye. I looked over at the mirror and watched my face puff up. I saw that my braces had broken through my lip, and then I tasted the blood in my mouth, metal and salt. And I thought, this is because I told them about what my uncle was doing to me. I was 13 when I told them, and they treated me different after that. It was like I became a threat. I wasn't a little girl anymore. I was a little slut. I caused it all, because I had been born a girl. My dad didn't want daughter, he wanted a son. My mom just had children because my dad wanted to. To them, I was inferior.

When I was a baby, my mom made my dad and I matching shirts, he took me everywhere with him, carried me on his shoulders, and I waited for him to come home every day because he would play and laugh with me. I was a precocious little girl- I talked early and read early, I wrote stories and illustrated them, I loved big words. When we went to my great-uncle's house, and he would talk to me like I was as smart as an adult, and I felt special. I was the only little girl there, and I sat with the adults and played card games with them. And then it started to change. He stopped talking to me, besides to tell me to come sit next to him. If I said I didn't want to, he would keep telling me to until I did. I tried to sit far away, and he would pull me over so our legs would touch and he would slowly stroke my leg, absentmindedly, as if he didn't even know he was doing it. I felt like a cat whose fur was being rubbed backwards, but I couldn't get away and I had no claws. Then he would clamp his hand between my legs, and move a finger around, searching. I felt humiliated- we were sitting next to my adult relatives, and I felt sure they saw it but no one told him to stop. Why did they look away? Why didn't they do something?

I spent my time away from there trying to think of how I could make it stop. When we walked in, I hid behind my parents, I ran the opposite way, I stayed outside and played in the yard, I sat on the floor with my cousins, but we were there all day and he would corner me in a room, coming out of the bathroom, in front of my cousins. My body would freeze and I would start to float away (disassociation, it’s another coping mechanism), but I would fight it. I jerked my legs around. He would pin me with one hand, and with the other he started going in my pants, in my underwear, stroking my child flesh and pushing his fingers in me. It hurt. I told him to stop, but he wasn't listening. He was looking far away, smiling. I'll never forget that look, the pleasure on his face as my legs flailed around and I tried not to cry. My cousins looked away. They stopped looking me in the eye, even the older ones. It was all because of what was between my legs.

I felt sick all the time. I couldn't go back. I didn't expect my parents to take it well, if I told them. My dad would be angry. The therapist my mom dragged me to told her I was being abused (but didn't report it). She told my dad and he was angry. This would make him angry, and mom would blame me. I knew it. It was a formality, declaring my intention to never go back. I had to take a stand. After that, every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every Easter, I went out the back door and ran. One year I got frostbite. I stayed away until I knew my mom would be so glad to have me back she'd keep my dad from going off on me. I stayed away more and more. No one would look me in the eye. It was like I didn't exist, which would have been fine except that sometimes I did, and then I was in trouble. I couldn't predict it, but I knew it was coming. What did I do to deserve it? It was all because of what was between my legs.

She took his side. They denied everything, no one stood up for me, and no one asked my brother anything. He was the only witness who wasn’t lined up against me. Child Protective Services and the police never even considered my brother's safety and never questioned whether he should be living there. They never thought about him because everyone assumed that I was the problem. Get rid of me, and problem solved! No one seemed to think that a man capable of savagely beating his daughter might be a danger to his son. They had pictures of my face, my mouth, the bruises on my arm and back, the lumps on my head, they took me to a doctor who confirmed my "story", locked me a room with nothing to do for 3 hours like I wasn't even a person, put me in a foster home and the only explanation I got from them for them dropping the case was that I turned 18. My dad and great-uncle committed crimes, but it didn't matter because it happened when I was under 18. I belonged to them. My dad was right; he could do whatever he wanted with me. I was a thing, a possession. My life began when I turned 18, so what did it matter what was done to me before then? It was in the past. Everything I went through, it was of no consequence, it was nothing. My dad doesn’t even have a record. In the eyes of the law, he is without blame, innocent. And I was just a kid, just a girl. A little body. My feelings had never mattered. The one person who knew what I had been though, who had never turned away from me, had always looked me in the eye and treated me like a person, like I mattered, was my brother. My brother who was taken from me. My brother knew the truth. Without him, I was truly alone. No one else understood how bad it was. We didn't even need to talk about it. We understood each other in a way that no one else could.

I wanted to die so many times. I felt so humiliated and betrayed by every adult, everyone who acted like they cared and then left me to deal with it on my own, so angry at the people who looked past me or through me instead of seeing me, who treated me like a doll instead of a person. I wouldn't cry in front of them, I wouldn't let them see how badly they hurt me. The hurt feelings made me angry at myself- I didn't want to let them affect me. I felt like my dad and great-uncle would be taking even more from me if I let myself feel sad or ashamed. I couldn't give them the satisfaction of being right about me being weak and powerless. I pushed down those feelings and worked really hard to prove them wrong. I'm not a liar, I'm not a screw up, and it wasn't my fault. I am better than all that, I am more than that little girl with her little girl parts.

I was always worth more than the way I was treated, and now I know that some adults are really screwed up in the head, and children are easy, defenseless targets. I also know that other adults, even well-intentioned ones, often have a hard time believing that parents could be capable of abuse. No one wants to believe that a parent doesn't love and care for their child, and could be so selfish and cruel to someone so helpless. It’s easier, less challenging to believe that children are imaginative, or exaggerating, or too immature to understand what they're saying. We tell children to say "no!" if an adult touches them in a bad way, expecting that children will be in a position to stand up to an adult, and then if it doesn’t work and they ask for help, we don't believe them. Even if we do it doesn’t matter. Adult institutions are there to protect adult interests. Children have no rights, no standing with courts and CPS and police, yet we expect them to control the behavior of adults and somehow navigate the adult world, take on the abusers and make them stop. And, on top of all that, you're supposed to turn 18 and get over it. It’s like children aren't even people.

As a lot of people who were abused as children do, I thought I could push my childhood away and forget about it. I believed I had a right to, that when I turned 18 all the adults who betrayed me would cease to have power over me. I suppressed my childhood feelings of hurt and mistrust in order to survive in the adult world, but they lived on, in my subconscious. Similar to how I segmented the adults in my life so I could understand their good and bad sides, I segmented myself so I wouldn't be overwhelmed with grief and pain. I didn't lie about the abuse but I did try to trick myself into forgetting about it, and I lied to myself about how bad it really was. I did the same thing when my brother died- I tried to disconnect from my entire life before his suicide. The memories were too painful for me to live with day to day, but it was like I was only a fraction of a person. There was me as a hurt and confused little girl, who was suppressed by me as an angry teenager trying to fight back. Then I tried to suppress my anger at the world because I was trying to get along in the world as an adult. You can’t really live like that and feel good about yourself because you’re not being yourself. I wasn't me because most of me was in hiding.

The way to fix myself seems so simple yet so difficult- talk about it. Talk about all of it. Talk about the sadness, the grief, the shame, the rage, feeling cheated, feeling robbed, feeling betrayed. Talk about the little girl I was, the teenager, the 25 year old who lost her dear brother. Talk about the bad times, and the good times that got suppressed along with the bad times. When I say talk, I mean write because that's what I do. I am a writer. I tell my own story. I am my own witness.


Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your childhood. Yet in some way i'm happy for you. I'm happy that you're telling your story' That people who have gone thruogh what you di can read it and know they are not alone. I have a friend who is also a girl that was raped last year at age 13. I could see that talking about it does help having people care and understand eases the pain. The difference is it was a boy of 16. It happened in what is supposed to be a girls safe haven from guys the girls bathroom. It killed and broke her. It is terrible just thinking that at a christian school you have to be afraid to go to the bathroom or in any bathroom for that matter. Again I am happy for you that you were brave enough to tel your story.:)

Tealrat said...

That is very tragic. When I lived in the dorms during college, the womens bathrooms had to be locked because of rape, and while I was there a woman was raped in a study room. Pathetic, disturbing world we live in. But yes, I think talking about it helps. If only because you realize you are not alone.

Thanks for the comment!