“When sleeping women wake, mountains move.”
I was fourteen and my brother Joe was eight, the summer we were shipped off to visit our grandmother in Macon, Georgia, and our aunt (Mom’s sister), uncle and two young male cousins in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I never understood why, and there is nobody left to ask. Well, maybe there is, but I’m not about to make that phone call.
When we were in Fayetteville, my aunt worked during the day, but my uncle was home. He wouldn’t leave me alone—always coming up behind me when I was washing dishes or making lunch for my brother and cousins—grabbing me, tickling me. I wriggled away—uncomfortable, confused. I was tall, skinny, and gawky, with braces on my teeth.
At night my brother slept with the boys, and I had a pillow and blanket on the sofa in the den. When it was late and dark, my uncle emerged from their bedroom wearing a white T-shirt and boxers, turned on the television, and touched me. I pretended to be asleep, or stared straight into nothingness. My aunt never came out.
I don’t remember how long Joe and I were there—I just remember being repulsed by and afraid of my uncle, but unable to tell anybody. I was scared to tell my aunt. My brother was too young to understand. When my uncle put us on the bus to Macon, he gave me a trashy “romance” magazine. Horrified, I threw it under the seat.
When we got to Grandma’s house, I told her—she was my safe person. Grandma was instantly enraged at my uncle, pulled me close—rocked and comforted me. When I got home I told my mother. She didn’t believe me, said I probably “didn’t understand.” I didn’t tell Daddy because I knew he would believe me and I knew he would kill him.
I was alone with my shameful secret. It was never spoken of again until years later and then, only obliquely. Mom was living with me and my family in Chicago and she told me my aunt and uncle planned to visit. I said, “They can’t stay here.” She asked, “Why not?” I said, “I won’t have a child molester staying in my house.” Mom blanched and said nothing more. My aunt and uncle never came to Chicago.
Through my years of education and training to be a psychologist, I learned the “language” of abuse—shame, denial, dissociation, collusion—and over the years my personal experience has informed my work with patients, women and men. I have complete empathy for their shame and fear and feelings of betrayal. And I have rage.
A few years ago I was in session with a young woman—talking about how her sexual abuse manifested in physical symptoms—when I had a realization. It was one of those moments when the lens turns and suddenly something you didn’t even know you were looking at comes into sharp focus. Suddenly, I KNEW.
Daddy was a paratrooper in the Special Forces, stationed at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina (just outside Fayetteville) when I was in pre-school and kindergarten. It’s where Joe was born when I was five. My uncle was a mechanic with his own garage. There was a field in the back that was planted with crops. He had a tractor and used to put me on his lap while he drove the tractor. It was fun, and he was my favorite uncle.
But when we lived at Ft. Bragg, I used to have severe break-outs of hives my parents called “peek-a-boos.” They always happened at night, always involved my parents returning home after a phone call, and always resulted in a trip to the Army hospital. Although I have NO MEMORIES—that day during that session I realized with absolute clarity that my “peek-a-boos” only occurred after my aunt and uncle babysat me.
My questions have always been why my aunt never came out of her bedroom—why didn’t she KNOW? My guess is she DID. Why didn’t my parents figure out why I had hives? Why didn’t my mother believe me? Why didn’t my grandma do something? (Maybe SHE knew Daddy would kill him, too!) My questions always involve WHY.
Last night, I “Googled” my uncle. I hoped to find his obituary, but I didn’t. My aunt’s, either. I haven’t kept in touch with any of my mother’s side of the family since her death, so I doubt any of them will ever read this. But I have no interest in protecting anybody to compromise my truth. I was compromised enough as a child.
Sadly, I am far from alone. The statistics on a woman being beaten, raped, or otherwise sexually violated in her lifetime is one in three. That means one billion women on the planet. I have no doubt the numbers are accurate, or even low, since sexual and domestic abuse are still the least reported crimes. This Thursday, February 14, has been declared V-Day by the organization, One Billion Rising. V-Day is an activist movement to raise awareness and end global violence against women and girls.
V-Day is a beautiful start. To continue the fight there needs to be more education. Abused children will usually only reach out once, and if not believed or heard, the shame they experience will cause them to retreat inward and keep their terrible secret. Shame is the great silencer. Only when we all break through our shame and add our voices to the chorus, can we teach that shame belongs to the abuser—not the victim.
This was my hardest essay to write. Last night I couldn’t stop itching. As I reached behind me to scratch my back I felt the rash of welts—hives. Speaking the truth is scary, but not sharing what can help others feels shameful.
To find out more about and to support V-Day go to OneBillionRising.org.
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