It’s the story no one wants to hear. That’s what the kind but firm support group psychologists told me over the phone or in person. I wasn’t ever a member of a support group, mind you. In each case I was trying to get in and, in fact, offer support. My daughter was two, I was a new mother and social responsibility was staring me in the face. The program director for Victims of Incest was more direct: Your story won’t help women. These women need to grieve. This won’t let them.
Over the last twenty, yes, twenty years, doors have closed in my face as I tried to tell one fairly simple story: you don’t need to be a victim.
The Christmas Eve I was ten, my step father asked me to hold and kiss his penis. It was his second infraction in a month. His first was feeling my chest as I stood naked, prepubescent, ready to step into the shower right before Thanksgiving dinner. What I remember most was not his shaking hands or my mother’s face when she walked into the bathroom, but his crying behind their bedroom door as my mother, only two years into her second marriage, tried to lay down some law.
I knew what he asked of me was wrong. I knew it was bad. A freak snowfall in the high desert in Saugus, California came down with wide flat flakes that Christmas Eve, and he held me tight against him trying to get me to reconsider my “no.” Over the next seven years I endured all the covert and overt acts of a pedophile: chance fumbling grabs in the hall, discussing sex in moments when no one else was around, petting me in his lap, French kissing and more petting while I pretended to still be asleep in my bed, my thighs tightly closed, and always trying to push me to have sex with him. And every single time words saved me. I’d point out almost scientifically, trying to use some teenage version of pop psychology, how some step fathers might be attracted to their teen aged children but they shouldn’t act on it. How attraction was understandable, but wrong. I would offer a reason he could weave into an excuse to protect himself and I, in turn, would stay somewhat protected. Each time he backed off. The power plays, however, were constant, relentless and nearly as terrible as his groping.
My mother didn’t drive and didn’t have a job. I was the oldest of four. The other children were his. She believed me when I told her of the larger incidents and I kept the smaller ones to myself, often too young to even identify his actions for what they were, serving prurient interests. He would pour cold water on me in the shower, walk in when I was on the toilet, made it a house rule never to lock any interior door, and asked if I masturbated, how I masturbated and if I hadn’t had an orgasm, whether he could he help me.
This, apparently is the story I am supposed to tell. The safe story, the one I could have shared with those women telling their stories, and those doors would open….but there is more.
I went on to be a perfectly nice, smart, confident young woman who fell in love with a nice man and had four great children. My sex life was satisfying. My divorce happened 20 years later and I handled that by taking the high road, maintaining deep, lasting relationships with friends and family on both sides. When my mother finally divorced I did not ask my brother and sisters to choose sides. I respected their need to have a father. However, years later, when he moved to Sequim, Washington, I called the local police and told them of my history in case there were any incidents involving children in the area.
I finished college a whole person, never doubting once that any of what happened was not my fault. I even tried for awhile to forgive him, but this proved untenable—he was bent on proving he had some hold over me, using guilt and trying to manipulate my own sappy heart. So I simply removed him from my life. And I did not feel remorse. I just didn’t want my kids around him. I severed my relationship and listened politely when my brother and sisters spoke of him.
Jamaica Kincaid once said she was not interested in forgiveness when it came to her battered relationship with her own mother. That the idea that you can’t be free of someone until you forgive them is a Christian premise. Unfounded, she claimed. She was more interested in clarity, in fully understanding the relationship. I’m with her. I would add: and valuing and investing in the relationships that matter.
This—this story of how my life was not ruined, or even impacted, is the story I am not supposed to tell. These women don’t want to hear it, I’m told. They need to grieve.
And yet, when I mention this piece of myself to people, I invariable have some woman approach me and say something like, “You know I was raped five years ago. It was traumatic, but it didn’t ruin my life. I mean I have a great relationship with my partner. I don’t have fear or trust issues.”
I am not advocating a kind of “get over it” mentality. I am not saying women shouldn’t grieve, or are supposed to soldier through their lives if they are in deep psychological pain—not everyone can or should—and every instance of sexual violation, incest or violence is different. There are also levels of understanding and acceptance that need to be negotiated. I have also been accused (usually from mental health professionals) that I am not dealing with hidden layers of guilt or rage or whatever else they think I should be dealing with. What they do not believe, what they cannot believe, is that those issues really aren’t there. Really. In the fabric of my life, what happened wasn’t that important. It was his problem, not mine. And this is the message I’ve been working vainly to tell those women.
After sexual molestation, victims are often told by professionals, and friends and family in pain themselves, “It wasn’t your fault.” To that young teenager just beginning to define herself as a sexual being, some small sliver of truth could be inferred, running between the words, saying just the opposite. The victim of a mugging or house fire or a bank robbery is rarely told “It wasn’t your fault.”
I think my story has value. I have been described as “resilient.” That is a simple answer. Many people are resilient, can be resilient, but often are left thinking “I'm not.” I want a venue for a voice that says: you don’t have to be damaged because some idiot molested you in a dark closet in ways only you can describe. You are going to be fine. Being a victim does end.
But this is the story no one wants to hear.