It Happened ….
I was four. At least, that’s what I was told. I don’t remember it happening. For 32 years, I’ve had this …. thing … this secret that has been kept even from myself. I was just barely forming long-term memories at that age, and they are a jumble of snapshots. Two different traumatic events happened in that same year, and I remember the aftermath of them both in vividly detailed photographs – a hospital visit to treat a near-fatal bite by a black widow spider, playing on the kitchen floor and innocently asking my mother how old I had to be before I could get married, sitting on a parent’s lap at the police station as the officer held up a doll – “Where did he touch you?” How can my mind remember the aftermath, but not the events themselves? All I know is that at that age – for all of my childhood, really – all I wanted was to keep up with my big brothers. It got me into quite a few scrapes, including these two events, which also happen to be my earliest memories.
It Was ….
My oldest brother was in fourth or fifth grade. He brought home a friend, William. I followed them around like a puppy, begging for morsels of attention. This, I remember – I spent most of my childhood trotting behind my brothers, trying my best to be as big as them. We played in the vegetable garden in the back yard, in the treehouse in the front yard, on the brick pile in the driveway (which is where I met the black widow spider), and in the detached garage (which is where William cornered me, alone).
It Made Me Feel...
For twelve years, the memories of the spider and the abuse haunted my dreams, though I didn’t know it at the time. I had a recurring nightmare that melded the two together. Until I was about 7 or 8, I dreamed it at least once a week. My mom couldn’t always calm me, and suggested I think of something positive (like the litter of kittens my cat was about to deliver). She didn’t know it was the same dream – I never told her. Over time, the dream happened less frequently, but it could still catch me off guard and leave me breathless. And it was always the same – except that dream “me” grew as I did. It begins with me being chased through a dark alley, through a park, and around a fountain by an unseen shadow. I take refuge in our old garage, but right when the shadow passes in front of the window, I notice a spider on my arm. Then another. And another. I am covered in spiders, biting me all over my body. But I don’t move or scream, in case the shadow hears me. I suffer silently, because the spiders are less scary than what the shadow brings.
When I was 16, I wrote a story for Spanish class about this dream. I read it to my mom, who had studied Spanish – I wanted her to help me with some grammar. At the end of the story, she took me to her bedroom, and, crying, told me the significance of the garage and the shadow. All my mind could understand in that moment was the word “abused.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask for details. Twenty years have passed since she told me, and we have never spoken of it again. The dream stopped immediately. Now, my awake mind wonders all the time what happened. Did he “just” touch me? Was it more than that? I know he went to juvenile detention after that, and I wasn’t the only girl he abused. He was eventually released and attended school again with my brother, who was regularly suspended for “picking fights” with William for “no reason.” But how could he tell anyone? He felt responsible. And he has protected me with a vengeance ever since. Or so my mom says, because of course I can’t bring myself to ask him, either.
When I was first abused, I told my mom. I remember this very clearly. My innocent question about marriage gave my mom pause. She set down her saucepan and asked me who I wanted to marry, and why. I don’t remember how I responded, but my next memory is talking to the officer in the police station. Clearly something about what I said mobilized my parents instantly. William went to court, then to jail, then was registered as a sex offender. But even sex offenders have a right to an education, and he remained a peripheral part of our family’s existence.
As an adult, I have only told two people. A fiance, whose response was to say, “So what? I was abused too. It’s not that big of a deal.” That relationship didn’t really work out. Later, I told the man who I eventually married. He held me while I cried, shook, and confessed my “brokenness.” To this day, he still encourages me to work through it, but I don’t know where to start. When he read this article, he said, “You aren’t broken,” and I try my best to believe him.
I’m still working on that part. I don’t know if I will ever be fully healed until I can know what really happened to me. But the love and support of my husband has helped immensely. I have talked more about this with him than with any other person on this earth. Though it is still scary, it gets easier every time. Together, we make plans for teaching our daughter about safety, consent, and sexuality, so she can recognize (and hopefully avoid) “tricky people.”
I dream about a day when victims (and their supporters) are not blamed for “getting themselves into a bad situation,” when their stories are believed, when they don’t have to face their abusers on a daily basis, when “abused” isn’t synonymous with “broken.” I see hope in the recent surge of women who are speaking out for the first time – sad that so many women have these stories, but hopeful that their stories (and mine) might help someone else. I am grateful for this platform to share my story without sharing my identity, because, for now, I am not ready.
I want children to know about consent from a young age – that they have the final say in who touches them in which way. I didn’t know that when I was abused. Who would ever imagine that a four-year-old should know that? My husband and I recently learned one method – “strangers” vs. “tricky people” (http://safelyeverafter.com/
**This blog post is copyrighted and cannot be republished without the expressed written consent of the author and The Mama Bear Effect.**