SAAM Feature 8: Mark

Male Sexual Abuse: My Forty Years in the Wilderness

by: Mark Douglass

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The media’s focus on the plight of kidnapped children is sometimes overly dramatic. The question of male sexual abuse should be addressed more broadly. Yes, kidnapping is what every parent fears most. We all know this. The media knows this. Television shows in which kidnapping is a central element provide painfully gripping drama. We all ponder why kidnapped children sometimes become quite docile and compliant. We wonder why they don’t escape their captors. We also speculate about whether and to what extent they have been sexually abused. Were they raped?

The larger issue is imprisonment. Not so much of the body, but of the mind. My mind and my psyche were kidnapped and imprisoned during the summer of 1963, a few months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A close friend of our family had been a day-care charge of my maternal grandmother’s during the late 1920s and early 1930s. His mother was a newly divorced school teacher who needed care for him from the time of his birth until he went into first grade. My grandmother was like a second mother to him. He was, in effect, was my mother’s and her sisters’ little brother, the only boy in a family of five girls. “Steve”, as he insisted upon being called in an era when all adults were normally addressed by children as Mister, Miss or Missus, spent the summer of 1963 taking me to movies, to the state fair, on fishing trips and all manner of outings. He lavished me with attention, gifts and spending money. He had my parents’ compete trust. He gained mine.

Because I was 12 years old and just about to enter seventh grade, I thought I knew everything. I also knew with great certainty my parents were stupid, old-fashioned, and unreasonably restrictive. I was a typical contrary teenager. My molester, Steve, has long since died.  But, looking back, I now realize he was a sociopath, with a highly polished knack for fanning the flames of my teen-aged rebellion while simultaneously convincing my parents he was the best fire department available. As a solution, he would take care of me, or at least act as a go-between for me and my parents. My parents were willing to let him do so. I was not kidnapped. I still lived at home with my family, but beginning that summer I spent more and more time with Steve. At first, I did odd jobs around his home. As I got older, I worked at his service station, which in a time before franchised fast food outlets on every street corner, was one of the few places for a teenager to get work. Later still, I became a handy-man and a sort of apprentice property manager of some apartment buildings Steve owned. Of course, the longer I worked for him, the more he told me I was like a son to him and that one day all of his worldly possessions would become mine. Also, the longer I associated with him, he managed to slowly and surely isolate me from my family and friends. I came to depend on him, solely.

Just as I was entering seventh grade, Steve and I were watching television at his home one Saturday evening. I think it was an episode of Bonanza, during which the country doctor remarked to Ben Cartwright he had just attended a difficult birth elsewhere in the county—a breech birth. I asked Steve, “What’s a breech birth?” Seeing this as the opportunity he needed, he said, “Haven’t your parents told you anything about the birds and the bees? What kind of parents are they? I am going to have a good talk with them. If they won’t tell you about the facts of life, I guess I’ll have too.” Of course, I felt ashamed about my lack of knowledge, and doubly ashamed my parents hadn’t told me. The effect was just as Steve intended.

The next Saturday evening, he, no doubt, lied to me when he told me my parents asked him to explain the facts of life to me. In the course of this important instruction, and his demonstrating and touching, my pubescent body responded. He played with my body. I felt embarrassed, but I started to feel pleasure. What followed was new and both surprising and troubling to me. My childhood innocence came to an end, not gently and voluntarily given up to a peer, as is the case of most normal teenagers. My childhood innocence was stolen from me at the end of months of carefully planned seduction at the hands of a man thrice my age.

I was never violently raped. But the relationship that developed was filled with violence. Steve, a man of about 300 pounds, and a former weight lifter, loved to “wrestle” with me, my brother, some of my cousins, and other young men that worked for him from time to time. As teenagers we never stood a chance of winning against Steve. That was the message he intended to convey. When “wrestling” I would always end up on the floor with my arm pushed behind my back by Steve and in significant pain. Ironically, I would have to say “Uncle!”.

Steve had a large dog, a boxer named King. King would get out of Steve’s yard, and run away, usually ending up in a dog fight with a neighborhood dog. Steve would go chasing after him, often with a long cattle prod powered by several D-cell batteries. He would use the high voltage shock of the cattle prod to get King to stop fighting with another dog. Once he broke up the fight he would leash King and bring him home. When not using the cattle prod in this way, Steve, with a half menacing, half-teasing manner sometimes used the cattle prod on me. It only happened a few times, but believe me, once was more than I wished to bear. When I cried with pain and humiliation, Steve would claim it was an accident. Or, he would ask, “Why are you crying? Can’t you take a joke?” Can anyone take a joke when receiving several hundreds or thousand of volts of electricity.

Often, when watching a television show in which a murder was a central story element. Steve would boast, he knew someone, who for a few hundred dollars, would kill another person of Steve’s choice, and Steve would never be connected to the murder. To top it all off, Steve would frequently say, “I never get mad. I get even!” What was I to conclude about my chances of safely breaking away from this man’s control?

In the first year of this twisted relationship, one of Steve’s power and my helplessness, I tried my best to resist. When I saw him drive up to our family home in his Lincoln Continental sedan, I would hide beneath our basement stairs, or in our garage attic, or I would run out the back door and go over to a friend’s house. In part, I felt guilt and shame about the sexual aspect of our relationship. I also knew if I got into his car he would take me on an isolating drive of several hours’ duration. During such drives he would talk with me or lecture to me, all the while probing my mind and twisting ideas and facts to indoctrinate me. Fed up with this at one point, I even sat down with him and tried to talk with him “man to man”, explaining that I no longer wanted his attentions. I thought I made a persuasive case and he had understood my concerns. I was wrong.

He carefully and skillfully enlisted the help of my parents. My mother would serve me oatmeal in the morning before sending me off to school, while asking me, “What in God’s name did you do that has so offended Steve that he is giving everybody in our family the cold shoulder?” What could I have possibly said in 1963 at age 12? “Well, Mom, I am tired of being a sexual plaything for this man you so revere and trust?” The closest thing I heard from my parents about sexual abuse was overhearing a couple years before my mother trying to warn my younger sister she should avoid strange men in the park who had a habit of wandering about with their pants flies unzipped and their private parts exposed. In my pre-Steve innocence, I remember thinking, “Why would anybody walk about in public with their “barn-door” open?”

Steve also enlisted my older brother in forcing me back into Steve’s control. One day, he and my brother drove me twenty or so miles out into the country. Steve told me I had a bad attitude and needed to learn a lesson. He threw me out of his car, drove off, and told me to walk home. I was confident enough about finding my way home, so I set out walking. (As I look back in time I realize I never thought of calling my parents or securing the help of a policeman or other adult.) Steve and my brother tried to keep me in sight as they drove about, but they lost track of me. Steve, no doubt, then realized he would have a lot of explaining to do to my parents if I were to walk all the way back home. Searching and searching, he finally found me walking across a field, he and my brother got out of the car, chased after me, and forcefully dragged me back to Steve’s car.

With such tactics, finally, Steve prevailed. He was so successful in marshaling my family against me, I stopped fighting and embraced the oppressor. Sadly, I became almost a devoted slave. I was his sexual plaything from the time I was 12 years old until my early twenties. As a legal matter, I certainly could not have given my consent to this conduct until I was 16. Therefore, I was raped between two and three times a week between the age of 12 and 16. Thereafter, as a psychological matter, did I give consent? When did I become mature enough to give my consent?

All through middle school, high school and college I feared I was gay, even though I had a few girlfriends. My orientation was heterosexual, yet I was involved with this man. At Harvard College I was involved in several theater productions. One year I worked with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals the producer of an annual, campy, drag show. I knew and was friends with several gay men, yet I wasn’t attracted to them sexually. I was completely closeted about my relationship with Steve. What took me a long time to sort out was that all pedophiles are not gay, and all gay people were not pedophiles.

In my senior year of high school, Steve manufactured a crisis between me and my mother. I moved out of my family’s home to Steve’s home which was only a mile or so away from my family home. Except for my time away at college, I lived at his home until I was 29 years old. In 1980, I moved out of his home to live with my fiance and soon to be wife. We married in 1981 and have been married, now, for over 25 years.

From age 12 until pre-marital counseling at age 29, I never mentioned my being sexually abused to anyone. On the surface, I did not appear terribly troubled. In fact, if you were to look at me, I was a model teen-ager and an up and coming young man. I didn’t smoke or drink. I didn’t use drugs. I had excellent grades. I was on the student council year in and year out. I was in the senior class play. I was the president of my senior class. My class voted me “most likely to succeed”. I was an Eagle Scout. I attended and graduated from Harvard College with honors, and as a varsity athlete. I graduated from Hamline University School of Law and became an attorney. Yet, I was a prisoner of my own silence and of Steve’s control.

Beginning in 1976 and throughout law school, I began to see Steve for what he was. Yet I remained silent about so many things. Finally, In 1980, I first began breaking the bonds of my enslavement——my seventeen years of silence. Prior to our marriage, my fiance and I took part in pre-marital counseling. The minister suggested I had some family problems I should resolve before marrying. He suggested I consult a psychologist. At a time when nobody believed the problem of the sexual abuse of boys was a problem, let alone the wide spread problem we now know it to be, I first opened up to that psychologist. I remember fearing making any disclosure at all until I was assured he would not write anything in his notes, not record our conversation, nor ever mention my abuse to any other person. Simply stated, I was terrified. But I opened up.

In the first years of our marriage, I disclosed to my wife that in the past I had had a sexual encounter with a man—one man, but I refused to identify the man. I also refused to discuss whether it was only once, or whether it was many incidents. At the time of this disclosure, I had not been sexual with Steve for several years. But I could not disclose any more details because of my shame and because Steve was still a respected part of my extended family. At least, my parents still held him in high esteem.

My silence about Steve ended in about 1982. My wife and I held a dinner party at our apartment. The guests were my parents, a visiting aunt from out of town, and Steve. During the course of the dinner party’s conversations, Steve jokingly, but pointedly announced to all present—while looking directly at me at the other end of the dinner table, “I know so much about Mark, I could easily blackmail him!”

“What the hell did that mean?” I thought. I immediately realized he was blackmailing me by his very boast. He was trying to enforce my continued silence. After the guests left, I called a friend and mentor, my favorite law professor at Hamline University School of Law, Richard T. Oakes. I then made a lengthy disclosure to him and subsequently to a classmate, James W. Kerr, who became my attorney in a civil suit against Steve. I fully expected to lose because the statute of limitations at that time would have barred my suit. James W. Kerr did a masterful job of keeping the suit alive. Throughout the suit, Professor Oakes kept my spirits up. With their help and support, I sued Steve for civil damages in Hennepin County, Fourth Judicial District Court of Minnesota. I began unburdening myself to my wife, and anyone who would listen, about all the shameful details of my childhood. That unburdening took many years and many tears.

In 1988, a jury awarded me a judgment of over $1,000,000 against Steve. Being the sociopath that he was, I never was able to find or collect any of that judgment. But I disrobed him, in a manner of speaking; the case was front page news in the Minneapolis Star. It was on the local television news. I appeared on a local talk show and a national talk show—the “Sally Jesse Raphael Show”. I even helped get the Minnesota Legislature to extend our statute of limitations for suits based upon childhood sexual abuse. During my “fifteen minutes of fame”, I was elated. I knew, or hoped, my example would encourage other men and boys to come forward and break their silence. I knew there were many like me, but I never expected so many survivors to step forward. Nevertheless in so many ways, I remained imprisoned, not by silence, but by feelings of shame and inadequacy.

For years prior to and after my successful lawsuit, I suffered from career dissatisfaction and an ongoing battle with depression, a fight that began when I was in seventh grade. Funny thing, that! I sought help from several psychologists and one psychiatrist over the years since 1980. From time to time I needed anti-depressants in order to endure. I received good care from these people, but I never was able to free my mind from Steve’s possession—-even after his death. I only sought professional help in order to deal with intermittent crises of depression. I never stuck with my therapy long enough to fully resolve my issues.

There were other sexual abuse victims of Steve’s. During a highly publicized kidnapping of the young Jacob Wetterling here in Minnesota, certain details were published in the news. In particularly, the kidnapper drove off with Jacob in a large sedan such as a Lincoln Continental. I called the FBI office investigating the case to suggest Steve fit the published profile. The agent informed me my call was not the first call they had received. Like the kidnapper in Missouri Steve seemed focused upon boys who were just on the cusp of puberty. As I grew older, Steve looked favorably upon other youths.

Sadly, Steve was only one of many mean-spirited, evil men, and sometimes women, in this world who gain satisfaction and pleasure in sexually and psychologically dominating children. Over the years, I have met many other men who survived childhood sexual abuse. I have met them in group therapy. I have represented a few during my years as a practicing attorney. I have met them at the Minneapolis Men’s Center. I have met them at a convention of male survivors of sexual abuse held here in Minneapolis a couple years ago. I have read many similar on-line accounts of abuse (MaleSurvivor). To one degree or another each of these men was still in chains.

In a twist of fate straight out of a Greek tragedy, the actions of one sociopath freed me from the chains of the earlier, long dead, sociopath, Steve. A few years ago, my then 13 year old daughter and I were traveling in the Netherlands. On the first day of our vacation, we stumbled upon, or rather were overtaken by the armed kidnapping of two major Amsterdam drug dealers. In the course of this kidnapping 5 or 6 shots were fired by one of the kidnappers at one of the drug dealers as he fled past us on an otherwise charming and peaceful street. One bullet struck a car next to where my daughter and I were walking, missing us by only three feet. I forced my daughter to the ground and covered her with my body in order to protect her from any more gunfire. The gunman lost the man he was chasing, he doubled back and stood near us, cleared his jammed machine gun, reloaded, paused for a moment, and mercifully commanded us, “Stay down!” before running away. For that brief moment, our lives were in the balance.

Throughout the remainder of our vacation, and for at least a year after returning to the United States, I suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I thought of the shooting incident every waking hour of every day, wondering if I had done the right things and if I acted like a man, bravely. With the help of a retired police officer turned psychologist, Dennis Conroy, Ph.d., I was able to sort through the issues of the gunman’s power and my powerlessness, as well as the issues of Steve’s earlier power over me and my childhood powerlessness. The paramount significance of these two events for me was when I was raped by my family’s closest friend, my parents stood by and did nothing. At best, they were too trusting and naive. At worst they failed as parents. In contrast, when my daughter’s life was threatened in Amsterdam, I protected her, even at the risk of my own life.

The time between my abuse and this shooting incident was a little more than forty years. During many of those forty years, I was lost in the wilderness just as the Moses and the Jews were so many centuries ago. But now, as I reach my mid-Fifties, I can see the promised land of milk and honey. For me it is a land of psychological peace. I have been led besides the ‘still waters’ promised by the Psalms.

Yet so many boys and men are still in Pharaoh’s chains, stuck in their own separate, lonely and painful Egypts, the landscapes of which differ from mine only in separate detail and dramatic narrative. Some of these boys and men have risen up and broken their chains, yet they still wander in the wilderness. A few have reached the promised land, of milk and honey, of peace and forgiveness. But how many have, or will perish in the wilderness marked by depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholism, under achievement, and inability to safely bond with another human being?

We need to help and understand abused boys throughout our country. We also need to help and understand the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of boys and men who still are wandering in a wilderness of despair.

SAAM Feature 7: Kymberly

my lips are sealed copysay something once back copy

vigil copycan't seem to face up to the facts

See the rest of Kymberly’s series here.

SAAM Feature 6: Eric

It must be okay, he’s a doctor

by: Eric

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Boys will be boys.  I’d already had a broken elbow when I was in kindergarten.  Being a father myself, I know that accidents happen and they usually result in the inevitable trip to the emergency room.

But this time, it was really serious.  I was carrying empty bottles to the place where they got recycled.  I’m sure I was not paying attention when I tripped on the curb and fell to the pavement, my right wrist slamming into the broken bottle that had fallen from my hand.

I was bleeding quite seriously.  I ran into the closest store where the owner wrapped up my wrist in a towel and we waited for the ambulance.  The next half-hour or so was a blur; I lost a lot of blood but I was conscious and remember the ambulance ride to the hospital.

I was eight.

*

I laid in the emergency room, with one of those curtain things drawn around my bed.  Somewhere in the distance I could hear my mother crying.  Then I was left alone for a while, until a man appeared and walked over to the left side of my bed, closing the curtain behind him.  He had a long white coat on, and a stethoscope around his neck, just like a doctor on TV.  He asked me a question in a thick accent and I had no idea what he was saying, so I just shrugged.

He undid my pants and started fondling me.  I remember telling him I cut my wrist, as if to point him in the right direction.  He said something back to me but again I didn’t understand.  I figured, well he’s a doctor, he must know what he’s doing.

I don’t remember how long this went on.  I do know that his hand was warm and he was touching me all over down there. Mostly I could see his dark face standing over me, that was the image burned into my mind.

*

I had surgery later that day that saved my hand, thanks to the skill of a kind woman doctor who talked to me and my parents and put us at ease.  I stayed in the hospital for three days.

The “other” doctor came back to my room, once again I saw that face standing over me, but this time my memory didn’t register what happened.  I also remember my family coming to see me, aunts and uncles too.  I didn’t tell anyone what happened with the doctor, though by this time I pretty much realized he was doing something he shouldn’t have been.

*

I’d love to tell you that that was the end of it, that my life went on normally, happily ever after, yadda yadda.  My nightmare is not knowing how many other kids he did this too, and the guilt of not having said something to someone, anyone, about what he was doing.  As an adult I became promiscuous with both sexes, ruined two marriages and many relationships.  I’m now getting the help I need for sexual addiction.

Say something.  Please.

SAAM Feature 3: Tiffany

Letting Go (My Life So Far)

by: Tiffany

“I’m proud of you,” she says, cocking her blonde head to the side, “Someday soon, I’d like to hear your whole story.”  I think of what a funny word proud is. It’s a big, round word that fills up the whole mouth.  Makes it seem important. Mama use to be proud of me for my good grades.  Now, she just expects them.  I’m sure my sister use to be proud to call me her big sister, back when I still protected her. Back when I would lie in bed, counting the stars between the blinds, watching her sleep.  Back then, I was proud of myself, too.  Proud that I could hold it all in without bursting.  Proud that I could hold onto silence like it was something precious.  But, for someone to be proud of me, just for speaking the truth . . . well, that’s a strange feeling.  I look at the doctor, as her hair falls to her shoulders, straight and shiny.  She could not possibly know what it feels like.  But maybe, maybe she’s right.  It would feel good to tell my story.

~

Mama never said we were poor, but I could see it in her eyes.  I could see it in the way she carried herself, like a walking sigh.  Her eyes reflected my own, blue-green, filled with hunger.  We were hungry for food and hungry for something more than our off-white trailer that sat nestled dead-center in a plot of land her father owned.  Our meals came from cans and boxes; there was nothing wrong with eating soup for every meal.

My mother worked the late shift at Plumrose Meatpacking Company, scrounging together the dollars she made just so we could get by.  I was left with Nanny, my great-grandmother, whose tiny yellow cottage always smelled like laundry detergent and boiling vegetables.

“You hungry, child?” Nanny would ask, and I would always say yes.  Mama would have called me a fool to turn down a free meal.  Then, Nanny would lug the jug of Sunny D. from the humming fridge and pour me a glass, alongside a bologna and ketchup sandwich.  Then, Papaw, my toothless grandfather, would give me a wink and we would head out to the garden.  Papaw carried a walking stick to fend of snakes and poke through the overgrown leaves of the garden.  The plants sat in neat rows that Papaw himself would sculpt with the tiller.  He would crank up the heavy machine, sweat beading on his neck, and smile the smile he only reserved for me and his vegetables.  They were his pride.  I guess I was, too.  We poked at almost-ripe tomatoes, hoping that they would turn red just because we wanted them to.  I still like to believe that our wishing paid off.

When Mama would stop by after work, the scent of marble steak still dripping from her rough hands, she’d say, “Tiffy Jay, ready to leave?”

I’d shake my head and cling to my grandfather’s leg, my face still burning from our garden walks.  My grandparent’s home was my safe haven.  It was the only constant in my life, the place I knew I could always return to.

On windy days, freshly laundered shirts would drag the ground, then blow off the clothesline and tumble across the yard, landing in bushes and dirt patches.  The old orange truck forever sat nestled in grass that clawed at the tires and threatened to consume the vehicle.  The truck was resilient, however, and always managed to stand proudly above the green waves.  These things were absolute.  They were indestructible and endless.  To my young eyes and imagination, the world created at my grandparent’s house was eternal.  I thought my childhood was also.

I was fine with it being just Mama and me.  We would sit on the couch, in front of our fuzzy-pictured television, squinting at the shapes that we knew had to be people.  Then, when it was time for bed, Mama would carry me to the back bedroom, and I would sleep snuggled against her solid form, the sound of the crickets and frogs bouncing off the tin roof.

It never bothered me that I didn’t have a father.  Mama never mentioned him and when I tried to picture his face, it came out blurry like our television people, and just as fictional. Mama was all I needed and I thought I was good enough for her, too.

Then Mama met a man.  They were introduced through mutual friends and hit it off immediately.  A man with ice-blue eyes and long hair.  He was from California, a place Mama had never seen with her own eyes.  A man who swept her up in the world of candlelight dinner and days at the park.

He would come over and cook us dinner, more food than I had ever seen in my lifetime.  Steak, the kind Mama worked with all night but never tasted herself, vegetables that had real flavors, and sometimes even dessert.  We were an almost-family.  It was different, but I was still happy.

Once, we visited friends of Mama’s.  The woman bent down close to me, her eyes inches from my own.  “Who’s that man?” she asked me, through smiling teeth, pointing at the man who had entwined himself into our lives.

“He’s my Daddy” I whispered, staring at my shoes.  Some days I think I would like nothing more than to go back to that day, years ago, and keep the little-girl-who-was-me from choosing that answer.  From saying those three words that helped my mother make the decision to marry that man.  The man who would change the way I saw the world.  The man who pulled me from a childhood surrounded by family and left me so much older than I should have been.

When Mama got pregnant with my sister, Heather, the couple decided it was time for marriage.  The ceremony took place the summer after my fourth birthday, on the steps of our local courthouse.  People say my Mama never looked prettier, in her floral dress that she still pulls from the bottom of the closet on special occasions.

We became a family.  It was not hard to fall into the pace of having a man in the house.  We moved from the small trailer to the pink house that Mama had grown up in.  Meals lasted longer because there was more to eat.  Our laughter grew because there were new jokes in the house.  And soon, I became a sister.  There was a calmness in the house that I had never experienced before.  The four of us took trips to the park, Mama pushing Heather in the stroller while my new Daddy would take my hand and lead me through the jungle gym or hold me upside down on the monkey bars until I squealed with laughter.  I knew that for once, we were safe, somehow.

I am not sure when things changed.  There was a shift.  A swift fall from our secure stillness to something ugly and scary.  I was young enough to trust people but old enough to know when things were not exactly as they were supposed to be.  My sister took up most of my mother’s time.  I’d tug on Mama’s sleeve, a Barbie doll in my hand and she’d shoo me away with a “Not now, Tiff, I’m feeding your sister.”  I was not a jealous child.  Somehow, I understood that my sister needed Mama more than I did and I was willing to wait.  Daddy should have been willing to wait, too.  Instead, he turned to me.

At the time, I’m not sure if I knew what was really going on.  Those memories lurk like dark pads of ink in the back of my mind, sticking to and staining my childhood.  Years that should have been happy turned into ragged blank spots in my mind, the pain blotting them like silver.

The years soon became tight and compacted into just a few memories.  A handful of nights that I should have been sleeping. I should have curled up with my favorite bear, hiding under the covers from the dark.

Instead, I was pulled from my bed, from the room with purple carpet, into the silence of being given what should have been Mama’s, not mine. Those nights of someone telling me I was beautiful and then just as quickly, taking that beauty away from me forever. And then, at the ends of those nights, always the same promise, in that sharp whisper that hurt more than screaming,  “There’s a gun in that drawer, there.  Tell anyone, and I’ll use it.”

Shame.  Sometimes, too much for my five, six, seven, year old body to handle.  I cried all of the time.  Over small things like spilled water and splinters.  Cried because I could not cry about what really hurt.  Mama did not know what was wrong with me.  Or if she did, she kept silence like I did as she took me to the doctor for infections they blamed on bubble baths and soda.

“She’s just going through a phase,” Daddy would say, his eyes flitting back and forth between me and Mama.  But no, not Daddy anymore.  He became nameless to me because the monster under the bed does not have a name.

Things changed when he turned to my sister. I had already entered school and found some solace in letters and numbers.  In books that teachers read: The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, and even The Hardy Boys. I liked those books because they were constant.  There was always a problem and that problem would be solved by the last page.  I could take comfort in the hope that maybe, someday, someone would see that I had a problem, too, but I couldn’t fix it by myself.

The first time he hurt my sister, she told.  I feigned sleep as my mother drove through the streets of Booneville, Mississippi, asking my sister the details of her accusation.  And my sister answered each question without faltering. I could feel the cadmium glow of the street lights on my face; I felt naked, exposed, revealed.  When Mama turned to me and asked, “Do you know anything about this?” I shook my head and answered, “No.  Now let me go back to sleep.”  But of course I couldn’t sleep.  I had failed.  I failed my sister and myself.  I let my own shame smother what needed to be said.

We returned home the next day.  And he was allowed to give his side of the story.  Of course he would never do anything like that.  Heather was such a good liar, even then, wasn’t she?  And my mother chose to believe him.  Because, after all, she couldn’t raise two girls alone, no matter what sort of man she was choosing to stay with.  That close call didn’t stop him.  If anything, it made him more careful.

Things did not get better, even after it stopped.  When my sister and I grew too old, he turned to other poisons.  He was an alcoholic, and a mean one at that.  More alcohol meant a darker mood.  Some days, I would sit in my last class at school, hoping that somehow, the clock would stop and I would not have to go home.  Going home meant hearing words too old for my ears.  It meant the possibility of another sleepless night.  Or, sometimes, I was sure it meant I would not see another day.

When he was sober, he was teasing and playful, but I could never see him as the man he had once been.  After a few beers, he was jeering and annoying.  Then, once he was drunk, things got serious.  Harsh words crashed over my head as soon as I walked in the door.  It was not enough that I was a straight A student.  I was quiet.  I did not bother anyone.  But I was not perfect, not whole, and I could never be again.  And somehow, he made me believe it was my fault.

I could see how much he loved my sister.  We could all see it.  He bought her sweets and bears while he was away on long trips, and she would take them, store them away like jewels.  Like somehow, they made up for it all.   He did not love me, but that was okay.  I did not want to be his favorite.  I did not want to be his anything.

It is hard not to blame Mama a little bit.  But, sometimes, she had it as bad as we did.

My sister and I would cower in our bedroom and listen to our mother scream, knowing that someday, he would hurt her bad enough to make her leave or kill her.  Sometimes, he would come home and just scream and hit until he was satisfied that she had been punished enough.

Shouts bounced sharply off of our tiled ceilings and somehow found their way through my bedroom door.  Conversations that my sister and I were never supposed to hear—my name always brought up as a divider, something that split the family into two uneven halves.  The arguments could not be blocked out by the cartoon-sound of our portable television set that stood on the far dresser.  Even at full-blast, some sounds could not be muffled.  The shatter-crash-crack of an end table being overturned, dishes breaking, and the piercing sound of my mother using her words to protect me from the punishment I did not deserve.  And finally, the cranking of a car, spinning of tires on loose gravel, and the silence that said everything.

“Sissy,” my sister would question, tapping me on the shoulder even as I feigned sleep, “is he coming back?”

I would always answer yes.  Because I knew that would always be the answer she would want to hear, despite everything.

Even back then, I knew it was a sin to wish harm upon someone else.  Our preacher’s words rattled around my brain on those nights as I hid under the covers, listening to my own shallow breathing, counting the minutes that the house had remained quiet, hoping deep down that something would happen to keep it that way.  But then, the front door would slam open, my mother would listen to his I’m sorry’s and his I didn’t mean to’s, and I would come out from under the cover to once again guard my sister’s sleep.

The house would settle into an uneasy stillness, and the roof of my mouth filled with the taste of unrest.  Because despite the silence that enveloped our flaking pink cottage, and the moonlight that squinted through the blinds and our grime-tinted windowpane, I could hear the pain, shame, anger, sadness in our heartbeats, my sister’s and my own.

~

The thin white scars have not always been there.  And they were not the result of some terrible accident or tragedy.  I put them there, years ago.  With straight-razors and broken plastic cards.  With safety pins, push pins, writing pens, fingernails, paperclips, and my favorite, keys.  The shiny-new key to our shiny-new house meant to erase all the years of bitterness and secrets that still hide in the walls of the pink-and-white-and-flaking cottage that we lived in for so long.

Mama was convinced that all we needed was a change of scenery.  A little less trees and hills and a little more city.  She had lived in the pink house since childhood, even slept on the same bed that my sister and I came to share as we got older.  I’m sure the house use to be quaint with its heart-carved shutters and tiled ceilings.  There must have been some charm to it.

I still cannot see it, though.  When I think about that house, I see the crumbling ruins of a ruined family that stays together no matter what.  No matter what secrets and shames we buried in the walls, between the carpet fibers, and deep down inside ourselves.

I don’t know what kind of secrets Mama kept to herself.  Maybe all those years she kept the secret that she didn’t really love him.  I’d like to think that, anyway.  But, if she didn’t really love him, she put us through all of that for nothing.  At least if she loved him, she had some sort of excuse.

The secrets that my sister and I carried and still carry burn beneath the skin and crawl, writhing in our hearts and minds.  I don’t know how much it bothers her.  She laughs (maybe too loudly) and smiles (maybe a little too big), but I do hope that she has forgotten, at least a little.  It would be more than I can say for myself.

I will never forget.  I am reminded every time I think about that house, that hallway, that bedroom.  The bedroom that use to be Mama’s and his.  Where everything happened that I cannot forget.  Then, it was my bedroom and I slept in that room every night, staring at the walls like I did when it happened.

I remember every time I’m in the shower, washing, rewashing, then for a third time because I can never get clean enough.  I will never be clean again.  The water is hot, I’m sure, but it bounces off of my skin in beads until it’s so cold I have to take a second to catch my breath.

~

I moved out, away from it all when I was sixteen.  Going away to school was not something that I only wanted, it was something that I needed.  It was somewhere I could be new, clean.  Where the bramble criss-cross scars on my arms faded to white.  Where I found someone who listened, cared, loved, understood the best he could, and made me become not-so-quiet about it all.

We stretched out on the grass, his bigger, warmer hand encasing my own.  Then, he trailed his finger, down, across my arms, my scars.

“I wish I had been here earlier,” he whispered and I could hear has sadness and regret for things that he could not prevent.

My voice caught in my throat.  I answered, “I know, me too.”

Then, there was silence.

~

We burned down the house in spring.  The Dry Creek Volunteer Department saw it as a way to practice.

We watched the ashes fly upward, into the sky, taking away the house bit by bit, wrenching those memories from the ground, propelling them out, up, forward, to land somewhere far from there.

People broke away in twos and threes, the glory of the flames dimming in the dusk.  And we, I and the person I love most in this world, stood silent as the only solid proof of my pain swirled and twisted into the dark.

I will never forget those nights when I was taken from myself and dunked into the chill and fury of someone needing to control me.  No, I will not forget.  But it will not rule me either.

I let the ash fall through my fingers and blanket the charred cinderblock at my feet.  The concrete that once help hold up my bedroom.

The frame of the house fell like a dying soldier, making its last reach for the cool March sky.  I stood with a handful of ash.  For a moment, I let my eyes travel across the granite scene, remembering remembering, aching, breathing, living.

Then. . . I let go.

SAAM Feature 2: Debra

Trapped

by: Debra G.

_

Inside a posh Herzelia home
of a so-called friend
deep inside
warm bed
sweetest dream
he ripped off
my mask
clothing
ripped into my dream
ripped out my heart
raped my sleeping body
and then threw it into the street

the rest
remains
there.

SAAM Feature 1: Jennifer

Shattered

by: Jennifer M.

_

I was made shattered.
A ruined soul now exists
where a whole person
once
was.

I break plates and glasses,
smashing them for release;
The fractured pieces litter the floor
and I can’t help but relate
to each broken fragment.

I’m the broken vase that lies on the floor,
the spilled water decorating the tile
with the tattered roses
begging for
life.

The body is soft and supple,
able to absorb blows.
Identities are fragile
and difficult to repair.
My self is destroyed.

I’ve put the pieces back together with glue-
that’s progress-
but the glue is still curing and the pieces
don’t fit together quite right.
I’m not okay.

We work with
available light
to mend the fractured soul.
Like plates, I am the
product of human efforts.

You made me shatter.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness about sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse and educating communities about how to prevent sexual violence. This year, there is a special focus on increasing awareness about rape on college campuses. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:

“The April 2010 Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign focuses on preventing sexual violence on higher education campuses. College students experience disproportionately high rates of sexual violence – 1 in 5 college women will be a victim of sexual assault by the time she graduates.”

Check out the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to find information and resources related to Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Click here to learn more.

This month, End the Silence Campaign will be featuring a survival story each day on our blog. We believe that by sharing stories, poetry, and art with the community we can increase communication about this important issue and demand that our voices be heard. Stay posted for some amazing writing and art featured on both our blog and our Facebook page. If you are not already a fan of End the Silence Campaign, click here.