The first thing I have to do here is offer a trigger warning, which is something I've never done before. It's a little like dialing 911 for the first time. You kind of can't believe you're really using those numbers, that the emergency is yours. So, okay, to it: if you're someone who's triggered by discussion of sexual abuse, then proceed with care or skip this if you need to. There are no particulars included here, no details, in case that informs your decision. But this is my experience I'm going to talk about. This is not an abstract discussion.
When I was small, four or five, I had a recurring fantasy. It was my secret favorite, and I knew it probably meant I was bad, but I loved it anyway and played it out for myself over and over. In this fantasy, I would be with some adorable toddler, somebody two or three years younger than I was, and I would first hurt this child somehow—the how wasn't important, but the severity was; the toddler had to be in tears, serious ones—and then, the best part, I would comfort the child. That part was the payoff, silky and delicious. The first part was merely necessary. And it was no good comforting a little child that somebody else had hurt. Where was the honor? What was the worth of comforting somebody you hadn't hurt properly yourself? And when I say the first part was merely necessary, I'm underplaying it a little. The second part was better, definitely, but I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy seeing the fantasy toddler dissolve into tears. There was a sadistic pleasure to delivering these, well, whatever kinds of blows they were, which I never troubled to make clear for myself. This was power. I had it. I was the bigger one. And as soon as that fantasy toddler was good and broken, I could enjoy the wave of tenderness that swept over me for that sweet little creature, and I would cuddle it up like a bunny rabbit and whisper to it and pet it, and we'd sit there in that luscious, soft-focused cloud. I was happy, and it didn't really matter how the toddler was. I'd done my job. This was love, and I was the one who could give it.
I both can and can't tell you with 100% certainty that I was sexually abused by my dad. I can because I was. I can't because it's my dad I'm talking about, and the mind will contort itself however necessary to protect itself from something so foundationally wrong.
This is something I've wrestled with for more than twenty years; my first bout with the sick feeling that it did happen was when I was 22. I first saw a therapist about it at 23. The sick feeling eventually submerged itself and then didn't emerge again until I was 30, and then it went under again and didn't crop back up until I was 35, this time with more evidence, and then it faded and returned when I was 39, and I learned that my brother had been molested by our dad. (Which he's given me permission to mention here.) And it faded yet again and didn't return until just last Wednesday, at which point nearly all doubt evaporated.
I won't be going into details here. They're not necessary and not the point. I don't need or want to explain how I suspected and what evidence accumulated over time and what clinched it. Some other time, maybe, maybe some other place. And I'm not going to talk about my dad now either. He died in 2005. He's gone. I loved him. Something warped him, made him—in addition to the wonderful things he was—grasping and blind. In any case, it's not about him any more.
I'm writing about this, I'm telling you this, because I need to get it out of my way. This happened when I was extremely young, and my personality formed around that fact. I absorbed a lot of wrong information and acted accordingly for decades. I knew I was not important, I knew I existed to please and care for other people, I knew I wasn't quite real. I knew my problems were mine to solve on my own. I knew that help was not available. I knew that my speech was not for me, not for my own free expression. My speech was harnessed to other concerns.
But I'm a writer. My speech: I'm fucking using that. I need that channel clear. I'm not going to have some hulking secret blocking my flow. I'm not going forward with some part of myself bound and gagged. I may have agreed to that before I knew what I was doing, but I'm nullifying that agreement now.
I tried writing this post a couple of days ago and failed. I'd get a few words out, freeze, get some more words out, freeze again longer. I gave up and lay down on my bed, shaking, defeated. I didn't think I'd be able to do it. I thought I'd have to write about something else this week, something safe and inconsequential.
Two things made me change my mind: Xanax, which I took earlier today, and fuck you. Fuck you to this overwhelming pressure to be silent. It's different from the instinct for privacy. No, this is shame. I can feel it creeping around me, pressing me down. It comes from within, it comes from without. Our culture isn't helping. Who wants to hear this shit? What a downer! Can't you tell it to your journal? Nice people don't talk about this stuff. We live in a world where women get killed for saying they were raped. That's this earth, right now. So fuck you, shame. You're fucking bogus and I'm onto you.
Anger is pretty unfamiliar for me. I generally reroute to something safer. But it's up a lot these days. Yesterday I felt the anger in my arms, in addition to the normal emotional hangouts: chest, solar plexus, tummy. It's as if we ran out of space in the usual places and had to spill over. I'm not going to be surprised if I wake up one morning and feel angry in my hair.
But this seems good. I'm glad I'm not just sad this time. It's good to be pissed off. It's as though I've realized I'm actually worth something.
When the adults around fail you early and often, it makes for a Catch-22 with the idea of God. On the one hand, you could use somebody big on your side. I've dragged around that Hamlet quote all of my adult life like a blankie, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Quiet addendum: there had better be. But at the same time, when your own parents handle you poorly, why is God going to bother with you at all, much less love you with some kind of gigantic, perfect love? It's like trying to imagine a color that you've only heard of. Nonetheless, I've ended up somehow with faith. I needed some, and I got some. I don't know if I'm sold on the love bit, but a vast presence seems plausible. It's something to work with.
Last Tuesday evening, the night before the memory came back, I came out of the grocery store and had just finished loading my bags into the hatchback of my car when there was a sudden THUMP THUMP from the car next to me. I whirled around and saw a little girl, all by herself, who'd thrown herself at the window and was pressed against it like a moth, hands splayed against the glass. She was smiling. She'd gotten my attention, which appeared to be the object of that leg of the game. She hung there for a minute while I peered into the minivan to make sure that what I was seeing was right, that a preschooler or kindergartener, tops, had been left in a car by herself. I was right. She was alone. I was livid, and started cursing under my breath. Fuck! What the fuck? Who leaves a child alone in a car in the dark in a grocery store parking lot? And this was a block off of Aurora, which is arguably the most sordid street in Seattle. Insanity.
The girl wheeled away from the window, flipped into the farthest back seats, then darted into the middle again, pressing the button on the ceiling, flashing the overhead light on and off, and then she slipped into the driver's seat and started playing with the buttons and dials and instruments there. She might as well have been setting off flares, for all the attention she was drawing to herself. Leaving was out of the question until the adult/culprit returned so I sat in my car and waited. I called Dave and told him I couldn't come home yet, explaining why, and we fumed together a while.
Eventually her mother returned, frazzled, a smaller boy in tow. As soon as she had the kids buckled in and she was in the driver's seat, I rolled down my window and gestured for her to roll down hers. I didn't shout, but I spoke in capital letters.
YOU CAN'T LEAVE A CHILD ALONE IN A CAR.
I STAYED WITH HER. I MADE SURE SHE WAS SAFE.
YOU CAN'T DO THAT.
I DIDN'T LEAVE. I STAYED WITH HER.
YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE A CHILD LIKE THAT. DON'T DO THAT AGAIN.
She mouthed "thank you" and then frowned and mouthed "okay" and she drove away. I sat in my car for a few minutes, my heart pounding, exhilarated.
There's some Zen story or parable about a monk who's hanging over the edge of a cliff. Above is a tiger ready to eat him. Below is a plunge onto rocks. And right by his hand a strawberry is growing, perfectly ripe, and the monk is so in the moment that he can stop thinking about his imminent death and just groove on this strawberry, have a tiny enjoyable picnic before getting crushed. My death may not be imminent, but with the situation at hand I never know when the pain is going to strike. It comes on suddenly. I'll be fine, fine, fine, and then doubled over out of nowhere. But something nice is that when this thing has come up at other points in my life, I've sunk into a wash of pure darkness for months on end. I wasn't enjoying any fucking strawberries. But now, for example, I see the young cherry trees in the morning light in the Safeway parking lot, all blinged-out like so many brides in their thick, lacy blossoms, and I can give it up for them. I can get into it. And when I was driving to pick up Fred from preschool the day after the memory returned, the noon sky was so blue, and a fierce bright line of white vapor was slowly carving down through that blue, and it looked so forceful and steady and optimistic that it brought tears to my eyes, like it was telling me something.