My Childhood Development, Part II
Ninety-five percent of childhood sexual abuse victims know their perpetrators and keep the abuse a secret (Darkness to Light, 2001-2005, as cited by Miller, Dove, & Miller, 2007). Moreover, victims who don’t tell anyone, or those who tell but aren’t believed, “are at greater risk for physical, emotional, and psychological problems that can persist throughout adulthood. Consequently, many adult victims describe child sexual abuse as a ‘life sentence’” (NAPSAC, 2008, as cited by Miller, et al., 2007). Though I consider myself out on parole these days, I am serving this life sentence.
I was an A student from the very beginning, an easy kid who did what I was told. Child of an alcoholic, I was a careful observer, a vigilant surveyor of the environment. Sober adults were easy; I was expert at figuring out what they wanted or expected, and I designed to deliver it. They put me in the accelerated program, where I learned about the circulatory and digestive systems; they sent me to the speed-reading lab, where automatic film-strip projectors flashed words in faster and faster sequences before I was tested for comprehension; they gave me my own chalk-holder and blackboard and a small contingent of slower kids to tutor.
Able to memorize anything, I starred in all the school plays. I remember like yesterday my role as the popular Swingy doll. I wore a platinum wig and a pink polka-dotted mini skirt. A dead ringer, I danced her stiff twist. I was spelling bee champion and president of the Chess Club. I won poster contests and science fairs. I won my first writing contest in second grade, with a short treacly Christmas story that was published in the school paper. Eventually, I had my own gossip column, “The Tattle-Tale Tells.” From the time I was seven, I knew I’d be a writer and a teacher.
As Erikson would have it, I was diligently industrious. I was trying my hardest to master knowledge and skills that would minimize my feelings of inferiority (Santrock, 2010). It didn’t work. I couldn’t do enough, achieve enough, or wish enough to make them go away. No matter what I did, as I got bigger my shame also grew. If I forgot for a moment that I was unredeemable, my father made sure to remind me.
From the spring of second grade, I played softball but lacked the hand-eye coordination to hit or catch. On the way home after every game, I endured my father’s loud and heated come-to-jesus about my failure as an athlete. I was 12 when someone discovered I could pitch, and my team took the Regional Championships during my two years on the mound. My father would yell at me from the stands, “GET IN THE GAME, PITCHER!” He prided himself on his objectivity.
Outside the house, my father’s hair was his top priority. His charm was as handy as the Ace comb in his back pocket, as pervasive as the Royal Copenhagen cologne he kept in his glove box. He was a Mason, a Jaycee, a City Councilman. He was the Mayor’s best friend. Inside our house, there was constant shouting, frequent punching, and the occasional slam of the drawer that held my father’s 22. Outside, my father was a social drinker. Inside, he was a drunk.
I felt safer at school, where people were please-able and the punishments were predictable. For a while, school was blue ribbons and smiley faces. It was prizes and certificates. Then, school was where I was molested again: fourth grade, by my social studies teacher, Mr. Massey. I saw no reason to tell anyone. The last time I’d told, nothing had changed. We still went to my grandparents’ every Sunday for pot-roast. My parents would go on vacation and leave me there, my uncle still living in my grandparents’ house. I figured what had happened either didn’t matter, or it was my fault. No one spoke of it.
According to Buchele (in Klein & Schermer, 2000), sexual and physical abuse are unique traumas in that the psychological fear, coupled with physical actions and sensations, leads to disturbances that have physical components, such as eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, and hypochondriasis. In fourth grade, I tried to disappear. I started counting my peas and doing “calisthenics” in the floor. I collected recipe cards in a file box and dreamed of cake. I created elaborate food rules and rituals. I got thinner and thinner, until store-bought wouldn’t fit me and my mother had to make my school clothes. I refused to wear corduroy, because it made me look fat. By fifth grade, at the age of ten, I was diagnosed as anorexic. The doctor was not concerned. Puberty would correct it, he insisted. That said, I held my own.
In spite of a relentless melancholy, I had fun with my friends. We lived by the woods and spent our free time riding our bikes on trails and picking wild strawberries. There were always adventures: abandoned shacks to dare each other into, giant pines to climb and nap in, feral kittens to catch and wish we hadn’t. We liked to walk the dirt road to Mr. Reece’s general store to buy our mothers’ cigarettes. Along the way, we were an animal rescue team, or orphans, or Donnie Osmond’s girlfriends. When we reached our destination, we’d hide in the bushes in back of the old store and spy on the family of midgets (that's what they were called then) who lived in the basement.
The summer after fifth grade, my family moved to a different neighborhood and a bigger house, where I had purple shag carpet and a four-poster bed. My new friends were Ricky, Russ, and Lisa. We played Whiffle Ball and Fumbly-Wumbly. We made cane poles and fished in the creek. There were no little people, but there was a giant turtle that sometimes emerged from the storm drain. He was our Loch Ness Monster.
I was lucky to have good neighbors all through childhood—kids my age with parents who didn’t fight out loud. I was lucky there were chinchillas and Chihuahuas and king snakes. I am fortunate to have these memories today. I believe my ability to play or, more likely, the play itself, went a long way toward mitigating some of my trauma symptoms. According to Snow, Oustz, Martin, and Helm (2005), play is largely metaphorical. Through metaphorical communication children are able to express their desires, concerns, and emotions. They can gain a clearer understanding of their problems and create solutions (2005). The stories I told myself had happy endings. The risks I took were chosen. The monsters I imagined could be slain or conquered.
Because of my low weight, I didn’t go through puberty until I was 15. Middle School was a time of breast- and boyfriend-envy. Even as I subconsciously staved off my physical development, I wanted to be “foxy” and make out in a closet. Among my many deals with God, I had promised I wouldn’t even kiss a boy until I was 12. Long past that, my prospects were nil. Boys wanted someone like the new girl, April, whose long legs and B cups set the gold standard. I was average and angular. I wore a quilted training bra.
The teachers loved me, though. I edited the school literary magazine, wrote for the paper, joined the band and the science club, and played intramural sports. It turned out, I was good at gymnastics, so fearless when it came to double stunts that the male coaches always picked me as their partner. They would flip me onto their shoulders or hold me upside down high above them, their arms locking with mine. When I look back now, I wonder where my faith came from.
Men were not the problem in middle school. It was my P.E. teacher. After an initial grooming period, during which she always made me captain, she struck. She never touched me but would call me into her office, lock the door and bar it with her body, then proceed to ask inappropriate, mortifying questions. I was incredibly naïve, and in spite of my history and the immediate discomfort, it took me a couple of times to understand that she really was doing something creepy. When I graduated middle school, I was first-chair flute; I knew all about blind fish and stalactites; I was voted Most Athletic. I felt more ashamed and more unanchored. Even women were not to be trusted.
Buchele (in Klein & Schermenr, 2000) says that when another human being inflicts the trauma, “the helplessness is accompanied by the terror of becoming the focus of intentional and mobilized evil.” (170) She maintains that such trauma, inflicted by a trusted caretaker or authority figure, is worse than the trauma associated with a natural disaster. The abuse of power alters forever the survivor’s view of and coexistence with power (2000). Because I was sexually abused, repeatedly, and because I had no one to turn to for comfort or absolution, I concluded that I must be evil to have attracted so much evil attention. I was in the midst of what Erikson would have deemed identity confusion (Santrock, 2010). I would struggle with it well into middle age.
I joined the First Baptist Church of Powder Springs and started reading the Living Bible from cover to cover, a new nightly ritual. I wore a long, flannel nightgown and fancied myself some kind of religious novice. Every once in a while, my father would get home late, drunk, stumble into my room where I was in bed reading the self-inflicted penance of verses, and throw his body over my legs. He would cry a blubbery, incomprehensible confession. “You’re such a good girl,” he would mumble before he crawled away. I didn’t believe him.
After the move, my father was seldom home during the week. He left for work extra early and came home late in the evening. On the weekends, however, he woke us up with Songs of the Pioneers playing full blast on the stereo. He’d fix breakfast--either giant, oozy Velveeta cheese omelets or soggy French toast--and we had to eat it, suppress the gagging, and pretend it was delicious. I think that under different circumstances, with a different man, that memory would be funny and endearing.
I finally hit puberty my freshman year, though it was not much to speak of. I was slim and muscular, with little to show up top. I was an uber-nerd: marching band, Beta club, office aid. I was even a nerd in sports, running the mile and two mile back when no one else would. I didn’t have to run fast; I simply had to cross the finish. Still, high school was a string of attempted seductions by middle-aged men: a friend’s father, a couple of coaches, my boss at the mall. The hair stylist I thought was gay felt me up, and he still charged me for the cut. I had become a perv-magnet.
At fifteen, I started binging and purging. I could eat an entire box of Life cereal (ironic, yes) in one sitting. The milk would still be cold when it came back up. At night, when everyone was asleep, I’d make and devour huge stacks of pancakes or Bisquick biscuits, then flush them down the toilet.
Dayton (2000) writes that trauma and addiction go hand-in-hand, that a person in deep and intolerable pain is likely to seek relief from alcohol, drugs, sugar, or sex. At sixteen, I started drinking. My friends and I would go to the Bamboo House, a Chinese restaurant that didn’t card. I’d order almond fried chicken and Mai Tai’s, eat until puking was inevitable. Since what goes down doesn’t always come up, my weight began to creep higher, and with it the self-hatred of being out of control. I stole my mother’s Dexatrim, existed on diet pills and diet soda. Junior year, I was promoted to drum major in the marching band. In the middle of the half-time show, I had to rip off my baby-blue-satin-lined circle skirt and dance in hot pants. I could not be a fatty.
That was the year I worked with my friend whose stepfather turn-keyed apartments. It was a dream job for two teen girls: her “Dad” supplied the liquor and left us to our own devices. We did everything that needed to be done to an apartment between tenants. We cleaned ovens and made bathtubs sparkle. We hauled out the stacks of porn in the closets. Totally trashed on Bacardi, we painted, wallpapered, stippled ceilings, and steamed carpets. For this, we each made about $16 an hour, a considerable fortune in 1979. There is much more to the story about this job, and about this man who raised my friend from the time she was two. It is a sordid, gothic tale, seeped in dark humor. It’s Flannery O’Conner mixed with the Coen Brothers. But, alas, we haven’t the space for it here.
During my senior year, things got worse at home. My sister, who was two years younger than I, and not nearly as compliant or as adept at staying under his radar, became the target of my father’s wrath. A tall, blue-eyed, blonde bombshell, she was famous for crawling out of her window at night to meet her admirers. She hung out with a bad crowd, the kids from the alternative school. Because she refused to give my father any respect, he drew blood instead. My sister moved in with family friends.
Constantly searching for order, I liked the discipline of marching, the demands of distance running, and the hard work of dirty jobs. I often ran on the trails near Dobbins AFB, and the recruiters were always flagging me down. I almost joined up just to get away. One night, I watched a movie on television about the first female cadets at West Point and mentioned to my father that a military academy might be cool. Before I knew it, I had a senator’s recommendation and was facing 12 officers, all men, in a boardroom. I wore a dress, the appropriate attire, and they commented on my legs. They asked a lot of questions, mostly about my boyfriend.
The next round of screening was the physical ability test. That morning, I had my worst hangover to date, rough-seas-in-a-dinghy bad. Try doing the eraser shuttle run after a night of 151. Try doing the flex arm hang. I ended up being an alternate for Annapolis. I can’t say I’m sorry that happened.
Today, with four kids, a messy house, and a poetry degree, I’ve swung as far in the other direction as a person could swing. It has been a long and treacherous journey, with lovely and wondrous stops along the way. Things got worse before they got better—the drinking, the eating disorders, the depression, the domestic violence, the death of my wild, gorgeous sister. I see a therapist for complex PTSD. I haven’t spoken to my father in almost 18 years.
I’ve written poems about all of it, two books’ worth. Writing, my first calling, has helped me heal. One of my favorite poets, Gregory Orr, accidentally shot and killed his younger brother in a hunting accident when they were children. For four years after his brother’s death, Orr, says, he was hopeless. He could find no relief from his grief and despair. Then he found poetry. He claims it saved his life (2002).
In Poetry as Survival (2002), Orr writes about how disclosure and the ordering of the chaotic material of traumatic experiences can heal the self. He suggests that the elaborate and intense patterns of poetry can make people feel safe: “It’s possible to say that the enormous disordering power of trauma demands an equally powerful ordering to contain it, and poetry offers such order.” (92)
All my life I have searched for meaning. I’ve tried to contribute, chosen creation over destruction. Poetry has provided the order I needed, too. It has given my life meaning, even the worst parts of it, and it has told the meaning of my life. I hope when someone with similar experiences reads my poems, that person feels less alone.
“Ever since the Romantics,” Orr writes, “the personal lyric has been reclaiming territory from the silence of the family or social oppression: speaking what is taboo.” (2002, 101) As a child, I was taught that a little girl should be seen and not heard. This woman, however, will not be silent.