Recently I was invited, as a speaker for RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) to contribute to a book they are soon publishing. A book that will include letters from survivors of sexual abuse.
I am honored to share, and hopeful that by remembering my past with candor, by revealing my memories, mistakes, and insights, I might be positioned to help a person now.
Well, that’s not entirely honest. I like to go big: I’m hopeful that it will help hundreds of people now and in the future.
This book excerpt is a little bit long and absolutely worth your attention. So I invite you to brew a mug of coffee or steep a cup of tea and find a moment. I encourage you to sit in the quiet while you read my words with volume.
And remember to sign up for The Loop so you’ll know when the book is available in it’s entirety.
Here it is friends.
A letter to my Auntie Carol.
Dear Auntie Carol
I don’t know if you remember or not but when I was twelve years old you were kind enough to let me stay in your home for a few days, it may even have been as long as a week. I was there with a cousin whose name I don’t remember. I do remember that we had loads of fun, just being alone in the country and playing in the fields. I had always loved that house. I was glad you and Uncle Gerald moved into it after Aunt Rose died. It was kind of weird when Aunt Rose’s husband married her sister. She was nice and all, but I preferred Aunt Rose so the house didn’t feel the same till they moved out. I don’t remember what happened to them. Maybe they moved away from all the reminders. It was all a very long time ago. They were elderly and I am sure they are all dead by now; reunited in whatever after life they believed in. Hopefully Aunt Rose wasn’t too mad at her sister. Who knows? Maybe she even appreciated it and was partying with her sister’s husband up in heaven. Life and love, as it turns out, is much more complex and sophisticated than I understood back when I was a child. I think that is what made my twelve-year-old attack of puberty so challenging.
Ah, puberty! What a cruel joke of evolution.
And that brings me to the point of my letter, and why much of my memories are so clouded over with the distraction of a more prevalent story.
Here is what I recall. I had had fun, felt warm and comfortable with you and Uncle Gerald, and enjoyed the company of whoever that distant cousin also visiting was. Likely it was someone my parents thought I would be positively influenced by, because now as I look back I suspect the whole visit was a sort of respite for my parents. Respite from the emotional instability my budding boobies and period onset invited. Acting out in puberty was simply a new kind of more perverse and confused acting out for me, and probably just added to my mountain of weird behaviors in the eyes of my parents. Back then I thought I was normal. I have since learned otherwise and wondered often how the strangeness of me influenced the strange happenings of my life. I have no answers for these wonderings. I just wonder.
So, indeed, it is possible that you were supplying respite for my parents and a positive influence for me. Whether that is true or not you were hospitable, asked for very few chores (which was respite for me) and I had fun. I want to say thank you for that. I don’t think I ever did write the thank you letter my mom asked me to send a few days after the vacation ended. Perhaps you felt ignored, unloved, unappreciated, but you were not. That is far from the truth of things. Sometimes gratitude gets lost in the grittiness of life. That is what happened. Life got gritty and so I shut my mouth.
I think its time I wrote you that letter; the one I never would have written.
Dear Auntie Carol
I want to thank you for your generous hospitality, and tell you what happened to me, and to you, even though you were unaware.
The night before I went home we all went out for ice- cream: You, me, Gerald, the nameless cousin, and your boys. It felt like a true adventure because you lived so far into the country that going into town for Dairy Queen was tantamount to a trip to Disneyland. We were all a little giggly with fun. I remember feeling light and silly and laughing and joking and pouncing from the truck the minute we pull into the parking lot. I wanted to run and prance about under the town street light with my cousin. There were some boys there, and I think I may have been flirting while we danced around. Though I am not sure because back then I didn’t understand the concept of flirting. I do know it was all very titillating and a great end to a wonderful trip.
There is something so exciting about the night air and a socially constructed accident of budding boys when you are twelve years old and displaced with relatives who live on a farm. The combination can really make a memory of delight. For me, though, this part of the memory is super hazy and I can recall just bits and pieces of sensations and emotions. Perhaps that’s because my sixtieth birthday loams a year and a half away. Apparently due to the energy cost of maintenance and the neuronal erosion of time a brain only keeps the important information intact; for me sensations and feelings have always been more important than names and dates.
So here is what I recall:
I remember the drive home was super happy. We were a truck full of laughter and smiles and I wondered if you and Gerald might adopt me. When we arrived back Uncle Gerald pushed and cajoled everybody but me out of the truck. He asked me to ride with him while he parked the truck. And you seemed to look at Gerald as if you and he had agreed on something. So you all headed for the house while we headed into the darkness of the Quonset. I guess I acquiesced to the plan, but I just don’t remember doing that because my ears were ringing too loud to plant the memory. I do remember feeling weird and dizzy.
Then when we got into the barn-like aluminum Quonset he parked the truck and put his hands all over me. He grabbed at my breasts and pawed at my crotch and slobbered his saliva into my mouth while telling me not to be a cock tease. He said that I was asking for “it” all night long.
This … was … unknowable to me.
It felt so completely out of the blue, so completely unexpected, so completely unbelievable. That my army veteran, buzz cut, body buff, uncle who had always represented safekeeping, hard work and fun, might grab at me in this way and say these words to me threw me into an adrenalin panicked state of confusion. I was scrambling to think. My body was being pressed and scrunched. My mind was being raped!
And the only way that my twelve-year-old mind could make sense of it was to think that he must be in love with me.
Then I did what I had always done, acted in control while searching for a way out of the problem.
I suspect that whatever I did or said stopped him more because it was too crazy to be sexy than because I was strong or threatening in any way.
I got out of the truck fairly unscathed physically. I ran into the house. I didn’t want to look you in the eye Auntie Carol because I knew I was about to ruin your marriage. So I slipped past you and went straight up the stairs with my eyes on my feet. I told my cousin that Uncle Gerald was in love with me and that I knew it was true because he just couldn’t keep his hands off me (a line I had heard in a movie somewhere). While we were whispering about what I should do and wondering if I was pregnant we heard you and Uncle Gerald downstairs laughing.
That was unfathomable. I couldn’t see how you could be happy while he was telling you he was in love with me and needed a divorce. I mean I wasn’t even happy. In fact, I was worrying that I would be stuck with Uncle Gerald and that I was going to have to fall in love with him. And I certainly didn’t feel ready to be a parent to your boys. They were boys, right? I don’t really remember the details of your family. I think that is because it’s all too covered in clouds of confusion and humiliation. But maybe it’s because I have problems with those sorts of details anyway.
Maybe I wouldn’t have remembered them even without this incident. That is what I mean when I say I was a weird kid. I often misinterpreted people and events. And I seldom remembered names and faces.
However, I have always remembered feelings.
I snuck half way down the stairs and watched while you and Uncle Gerald laughed and flirted with each other. That was when I realized that no one was going to speak of this thing that had just changed the course of my life.
I went home in a state of shock that, for me, was sadly familiar and felt normal.
A few days later my mom insisted I write the thank you note I had been avoiding. I was to give you and Uncle Gerald gratitude for your generous hospitality. I was completely conflicted. I wanted to thank you, tell you, scream at you, hurt you. I hated you and every one who was a part of the story that I couldn’t tell because manners dictated be grateful and be quiet. Keep your mouth shut has always caused a war in my head. A war of lies and truth battling for position. The teaching of “tell a grown up” was punching it out with “keep your mouth shut” and leaving me with no mental stronghold because the grownups were the ones doing things to me. So whom should I tell? My cousin hadn’t helped. In fact, if I remember correctly she laughed at me and facilitated my erasing her from my person specific memory.
My mom just kept at me and kept at me. Laying one punishment upon another for my refusal to write the note, and then finally I did it. I told a grown up. I blurted out “FINE! You want to know why I don’t want to say thank you? It’s because dear Uncle Gerald was grabbing my breasts in the Quonset.”
There. I told her. And I knew she would kill him. I would likely be writing to my parents in jail, serving time for murder, happy to be protected.
Her response was immediate and unsurprised, “Well knowing you, you probably asked for it. Just say thank you and be done with it.”
She echoed what Uncle Gerald had said about me asking for it. I was stunned into numbness. Maybe I had? I wondered.
Back then the “maybe” was frightening. Now in my senior years it’s a little more logical.
Maybe I had been asking for it because I was unaware of what asking looked like. Maybe body language in a curvy body is read differently from body language in a child’s form. In fact, now as I look back from fifty-eight years of life experience I know that that was probably true. When I was twelve I was discovering and blossoming and budding and growing boobs. I was also still behaving as I had done previous to this transformation. I was unaware that being friendly and fun had changed its messaging. A new component called flirting had entered into the same actions. No one told me. They just touched me and called me names. When I was eight years old and I was friendly, it was just friendly. But suddenly my boobs and pubic hair had transformed it into a silent form of provocation and penile torture called cock teasing.
Given the disgusted energy with which people said those words I figured that “cock tease” was the worst thing a girl could do.
A lot of things happened as a result of that misunderstanding.
A lot of things!
So here we are. Its many years later. I know Uncle Gerald was terminally ill so he has probably passed. You may even have passed by now as well. Eventually time takes every one of us, like the great equalizer, we all end up dead. Perhaps that is why it’s a good idea to write to you now? Because time is catching up with me. And an untold story never dies. Personally, I don’t really want to take it with me. Besides, maybe someone else can have a better life because of it.
At any rate I have been asked to write and so I will. I have learned at least that much. Share your gratitude. And while you are sharing, share your truth.
I can tell you that Uncle Gerald’s pawing wasn’t the worst of the things that happened to me. Though not talking to you about it might have been. Uncle Gerald wasn’t even the first one to touch my body parts. Though he was the first to touch them with curves and hair.
Uncle Gerald not being motivated by love was the problem. Because then I couldn’t continue to believe in the lie I had been telling myself about why this sort of thing happens.
I closed my eyes really tight and tried not to think about it. And while I did that I decided that the one thing I would never, never be was a vile little cock tease. Love, I decided, only comes to the person who is willing to please.
Uncle Gerald never left you and dad never left mom.
I assumed you were both more pleasing than me.
Up until then I had decided dad stayed with mom out of love for us kids. That had given his needs a perverse kind of sense. But Uncle Gerald made it into something different. I could no longer believe in romance, soul mates or destiny. Because the incident with Uncle Gerald wouldn’t fit into my fantasy of romance, the walls had crumbled and this dirty feeling action now became something about me and men and my life ahead.
I had buried a lot of truths about grown-ups already. Tried hard to fantasize them into protectors and caregivers. My Quonset date with Uncle Gerald taught me that even the grownups in my family were more enemy than friend. I found myself alone amongst many.
I decided to bury it all, again.
But my damn mother just wouldn’t let me be impolite or ungrateful.
She blamed me, again.
Just as Uncle Gerald had done.
The walls of my carefully constructed defenses were now broken. I had spent so many years immersed in the art of mental gymnastics that it was a surprise to find myself unable to duck and weave from the truth. Surprise – to understate the truth – was extremely uncomfortable.
Suddenly, I could no longer trick myself into believing that the soft touching adults in my world had been loving me. Immediately, sensual touching and sexual touching became one. I wanted to throw up the word love.
Previous to Uncle Gerald I had been able to bury the truth of my father’s character by calling it romance. I wanted to love my father, by any name. Then when Uncle Gerald pawed me I was faced with a dilemma: see my father as bad or see Uncle Gerald as in love.
I chose love, again.
Most days I understood that my father had to stop loving me and stay with my mother. That made sense. I had siblings. They would be sad if I married my father. I had built a lovely little harlequin fantasy until Uncle Gerald burst the bubble by laughing with you at the foot of the stairs.
I tried really hard to keep the fantasy intact. That is the main reason I didn’t want to explain to my mother why I didn’t want to write the thank you note. I was afraid to look at the family I came from as people who condoned molesting. I was afraid to risk finding out that they were the kind of parents that blamed the child. I was afraid to realize that molesting was the right word for all of them. I was afraid. I couldn’t look at it because then I would have to see the true faces of my sensual father and my hating me mother and all that had come before. And all of that had been happening in me for years. So when my mom said, “Well knowing you, you probably asked for it.” I figured it was easier to believe she was right than to believe that all of you were all wrong.
For years after that my mom brought you and Uncle Gerald up to me on a regular basis. Always acting as if nothing had happened. Behaving surprised when I refused to be where you were. Mom invited, “Uncle Gerald and Auntie Carol are coming!” to gatherings that I had to hide away from. She brought you up and brought you up and even bragged that you were coming over to babysit my little sister, effectively forcing me to act out in anger as a means of keeping her, and me, safe.
Every time it happened I screamed, cried or cajoled, “Why are you doing this? Stop reminding me of them. Stop inviting them and talking about them. You know what he did.”
Yes. I kept the truth alive and spoke out to my parents but I never told you.
So here it is many years later and I find myself writing a piece for a collection of stories about sexual assault. The intention is to clean up unfinished business by writing a letter to the appropriate person. But most of my business is finished, out in the open, available to all who like to read. So I though about the concept and then… you… popped into my unfinished business file.
You– more than Uncle Gerald– are my unfinished business. I don’t want to address the person who molested and confused me, that is a done deal. I want to address the person I kept the secret from because I think that could have been the moment when everything had a chance to go differently.
I think if I had gone downstairs that day and bravely walked into all your laughter and said, “Aunt Carol. Uncle Gerald was just touching me in the Quonset. He must be in love with me and telling you about it. How can you be laughing? Aren’t you mad enough for a divorce? Even my mom was normal enough to threaten that.” If I had spoken this twisted truth you might have laughed for a different reason, you might have known I was weird (if you didn’t already) but you would also have known what happened, and that could have changed everything.
You see, now as I approach sixty, I understand that when a secret is kept from us a whole new series of events unfolds. Like how grown-ups teach manners and lies about adult activities and leave children ill equipped for the truths that their adolescent bodies encounter. Maybe for you, had you known the truth in that moment everything would have morphed into something magnificent.
Heck, maybe you were in on it. Maybe you both thought it would teach me a lesson to have a man call me on my flirting, in fact I have a vague memory of something like that being said at some point. But that doesn’t mean it was. My memory is flawed after years of trying to justify the why of the adults in my life.
And even though I have no idea what kind of skeletons are twisting in your closet, no idea if you maybe even like that sort of deception, I still doubt that living your life was improved by my silence. But, who knows? Maybe if I had told you, your life would have changed for the worse. But I doubt it. People who do yucky things tend to be yucky more and more often as time goes by.
One thing is certain, it would have changed for the better. For me anyway.
I am sorry I never gave you a chance to know enough to have a choice and take a new aim on your future life that is now past.
And that’s really why I wanted to write this to you. Because finally at this late age I understand that nobody gets to change the trajectory of their future into one of empowerment by keeping something hidden. In fact, the way to purposely grow in the direction we want to grow in, is not by avoiding problems, hiding from them and keeping secrets, but by saying, “Hey, there is a problem here. Something happened. Help me make sense of it. Let me tell you about it.”
In that moment even Uncle Gerald might have changed. He might have taken a new approach and corrected his aim. He might have apologized. It’s possible.
Maybe even you would have. One thing is certain I would have known what was really going on and in that moment I would have grown stronger. I would have grown aware. I would have re-aimed and changed my trajectory.
And that might have prevented the many rapes that followed.
Because it might have corrected my mistaken belief that manipulated sex was what love looked like.
So, if for no other reason than to straighten out a past mistake and grow stronger today in my retirement years, if for no other reason than to share with others who may be having the confusion of this experience in their lives today, I would like to apologize for flirting and being apparently irresistible.
And tell you that you were wonderful. Thank you for letting me stay there. Uncle Gerald was not your fault, unless he was.