The Unanswered Letter

by: Rene Graham

Angst filled the room as the fragile young woman in her mid-twenties sat at the metal desk in her tiny, non-descript room in the psychiatric ward of St. John’s Hospital.  Peggy’s entire body trembled with anxiety and she could feel panic settling in.  She had a pen in hand, but hesitated at the thought of writing her cousin Dana.  First, she didn’t even know where Dana lived anymore   She would have to write a letter and mail it to Dana’s mother’s house with the hope it would be forwarded. Secondly, and most importantly, she was terrified at how Dana might respond. They had grown apart over the years, and now she was asking for help.   She hated herself for needing Dana, but she was desperate and there was no one else.

Peggy had finally collapsed under the weight of a lifetime of humiliation, fear, anger, pain, and guilt.  She just couldn’t shake the all-to-familiar sense of dread and malaise that overpowered her as she once again felt her insides being churned through a meat grinder, coming out the other end; shredded flesh, bone and blood sinking to the bottom of her gut to rot.  Peggy had spent her entire life developing survival skills, learning to detach herself from herself and building a protective crust from her insides out.  But as hard as she tried, the cycle would always repeat itself.  She would become increasingly distraught until once again her protective crust would crack and the meat grinder would raise its rusty handle, filling her gut with rotting pieces of herself.

Five days earlier a friend had found Peggy’s limp body smothered in crimson colored water; floating in a bathtub thick with blood flowing from her open veins.   Peggy’s life had been saved, but her very being was still on life support.  She had finally hit rock bottom and was desperate for help. She could no longer control the meat grinder. She was desperate and needed outside help; she needed guidance and reassurance from a survivor who had experienced her same torturous childhood, a survivor who shared her same quiet desperation.  Most of all Peggy needed another human being to confirm for her that her childhood memories were real, that she was not fantasizing or imagining the life she remembered.  She was not looking for just anyone, but someone who had been there.  Peggy needed to find her cousin, Dana.

The three little girls were born in 1955 in rural Iowa.  They were first cousins and grew to be best friends.  Peggy and Brenda lived in the same town and Dana lived only twenty minutes away.  The three girls spent weekends and holidays together at either their grandparents’ farm or down the road at their Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Harold’s farm.  During the summer months, each member of the trio was allowed to spend a week at Aunt Dorothy’s all by herself.  They all adored Aunt Dorothy and each niece looked forward to her special week with her favorite aunt.   Dorothy was nurturing and fun-loving and her one outstanding physical characteristic was that she had one brown eye and one blue eye.  Aunt Dorothy was always cooking, sewing, or gardening but she always made each niece feel special.  Uncle Harold worked nights at a nearby factory and was usually asleep when everyone else was awake; the girls rarely saw him and were pretty much free to do as they wished around the farm.  No one suspected that within this seemingly loving family there lived a monster and he was looking for prey.

Roger was the only child of Dorothy and Harold.  His older sister, Anne, had lived only three months after being born with severe birth defects.    Roger was much older than his three cousins, was tall and lanky and had penetrating steel blue eyes.  His dirty blonde hair was usually greasy and unkept.  His features were angular and his pale, scaly skin appeared stretched taut.  His voice was coarse. Roger was described as “slow” by everyone who knew him, with the exception of his parents.  The gawky boy struggled in school, excelling at nothing except hunting.  He was a loner and usually hung back in the shadows, never participating in conversation or group activities.  His parents were happy as long as Roger didn’t bother them or get into trouble.

When Roger grew into an awkward teenager he was no longer satisfied with just hunting game for sport.   He had developed new sexual desires and needed to act on them.  Roger knew his appearance and awkwardness prevented him from attracting a local girlfriend, so he decided to look elsewhere.   The answer was right in front of his face: his three little cousins.   The threesome would become easy targets for acting out Roger’s deviant sexual fantasies.  The girls came to Roger’s house on a regular basis and the farm offered plenty of dark, secret places for the desperate teen to take the three unsuspecting little girls.   There was the barn, the corn crib, the shed, the woods and his bedroom.  Overpowering a four year old little girl was actual child’s play for the growing teenager.  His large hands easily held the girls down while he exploited their tiny bodies.  He secured the girls’ silence with warnings that they would be in trouble if anyone talked and that no one would believe them, especially their beloved Aunt Dorothy.  This was not a difficult argument to make to a four-year old.  To further guarantee the silence of each young victim, Roger threatened to kill the girls’ parents if they told anyone.   Before long the girls were conditioned not to scream or to struggle.  Roger had hijacked their psyches, destroyed their wills to fight, and stolen their childhoods in a matter of weeks.

Roger was careful never to molest the girls while they were together.  He picked them off one by one, coercing each vulnerable little girl to meet him secretly at one of his special places. Whether he was unsure of his ability to control more than one girl at a time, or whether he took sick pleasure in telling each that they were his “special one” remains a mystery.  Regardless of the reason, the result was the same.  None of the girls ever saw Roger abuse any of the others.  Through the years, each girl suffered alone in silence, each little soul shattering into tiny pieces every time Roger had the urge to satisfy himself with her.

The three cousins were nearing their tenth birthdays when they heard the good news.  Within a year after Roger’s high school graduation he received greetings from the U.S. Government.  He had been drafted into the Army, and a tour in Vietnam was just around the corner.

Each girl entered the fifth grade that fall feeling secure in the knowledge that they no longer needed to live in fear of Roger lurking around the corner.  None mentioned their years of abuse to the others and all secretly thought that now they could live a normal life and forget all about the farm.  But, the wishful bliss experienced by the trio was quickly shattered when they each received the news of their grandmother’s death just a year later.  Roger was back and so were the memories.   The soldier had been given a month’s leave to attend the funeral; bringing with him a bag full of unimaginable new “techniques” he had learned in Vietnam to use on the girls.

As Peggy struggled to write Dana’s letter from her room at St. John’s, she was still haunted by the memory of her encounter with her other cousin, Brenda, two years before.  At the time, Peggy was in a bad place emotionally and decided to reach out to Brenda for help.  She wanted to break her silence and talk with Brenda about the farm years because she had come to the conclusion that Brenda and Dana must have also suffered at the hands of Roger.  Peggy thought it just didn’t make sense that she would have been the only one that Roger abused.  She concluded that Dana and Brenda must also be suffering in silence, living in fear, and feeling guilty about their secrets.  Brenda thought if the three talked about their secrets, they would all at least find some solace in knowing they were not alone.  She decided to reach out to Brenda first because she knew Brenda best.   Brenda and Peggy grew up together, graduated from high school together and even briefly shared an apartment together.  The two young women no longer lived in the same town and saw each other less frequently, but they were still friends.  Surely Brenda would be a source of comfort for Peggy; surely Brenda would validate Peggy’s memories and join her on a path toward healing.  Peggy arranged to meet Brenda for lunch.

A few days later, as Peggy waited anxiously for Brenda at the table of the local coffee shop, she began to have doubts about what she was about to do.  Her hands began to shake and she broke out in a cold sweat.  What if Brenda hadn’t been violated by Roger?  What if she was the only one?  Even worse, Peggy worried that she might have imagined everything.  Over the years she had pushed her memories further and further into herself, so far that at times the memories became a blur.  What if they weren’t true?  What if she could no longer trust even herself?  If she could no longer trust even herself, then she had no one.

Brenda’s reaction was almost too much for Peggy to bear.  Not only did Brenda deny any abuse at the hands of Roger, Brenda accused Peggy of lying and trying to tear the family apart.  She suggested that Peggy seek professional help because she was obviously delusional.  Brenda’s departure was unpleasant; she screamed at Peggy, leaving in a huff, the door slamming shut behind her.  Peggy’s worst fears had been realized and she had lost one of her closest friends in a matter of only twenty minutes.

After the disastrous episode with Brenda, Peggy spent the next two years in a downward spiral ending with the suicide attempt.  Now sitting alone in her bleak room at St. John’s, she questioned the wisdom of once again placing her fragile sanity in the hands of a another cousin; risking not only rejection but condemnation.    If Dana reacted in the same manner as Brenda, Peggy would crumble with no help of restoration.   Her fears grew worse with every word she put on paper to Dana.  Maybe she was crazy, just looking for attention or an excuse for her miserable life.  Maybe she was to blame.  Maybe she had actually desired Roger.  Peggy was standing at the edge of a cliff and had no choice.  She had to take the risk and write Dana the letter.

By 2009 Dana was a woman in her fifties and the mother of three grown children.  She had begun to wake each morning with a foreboding, sinking feeling.  It was as if her insides were being churned through a meat grinder, coming out the other end; flesh, bone and blood sinking to the bottom of her gut to rot.   This feeling of dread and malaise had come and gone throughout her life, but recently it had become her companion almost on a daily basis.  She had managed to keep things under control for most of her life, developing the ability to detach herself from herself and build a crust from her insides out.  Something was wrong now, though.  She was losing control.

Over the years Dana had been in therapy and support groups and had taken medication for depression.  They had worked before, but this time Dana was afraid, sensing they would no longer mask her demons.  She felt a crisis approaching and was desperate for someone to throw her a life line.

Dana had always regretted not responding to Peggy’s letter some thirty years earlier.  She still remembered that fateful day in March of 1979, her mother handing her Peggy’s letter with a look of suspicion.  Ignoring her mother’s stare, Dana had gone into the kitchen, read the letter and immediately shredded it so no one else could read it.  Unlike Peggy, by the time Dana was twenty-four she had succeeded in covering her wounds well enough to build a good life for herself.  She knew Peggy was desperate, but Dana just couldn’t muster up the strength to help her.  Over the years Dana had convinced herself that if she did not talk about her past, then her past had not happened.  By confirming Peggy’s memories for her, Dana would also be confirming her own memories and re-opening the wounds she had so painfully covered; the thought of which was terrifying.  Reliving the past with Peggy might also mean that all of Dana’s nightmares were true, and she was definitely not prepared to deal with the truth of her nightmares.  No, she decided to continue her silence and her denials.  She would block Peggy’s letter from her mind, convincing herself that she never received it.   If she never received a letter then there was no reason to respond to a letter.   There would also be no reason to feel guilty a year later when Peggy finally succeeded in taking her own life.

Now, thirty years later, it was Dana’s turn to ask for help.  In Peggy’s letter, she had revealed to Dana that Brenda had denied everything and had accused Peggy of fabricating stories to deliberately break up the family.   Dana knew reaching out to Brenda now was a bit of a stretch, especially since she already denied any abuse. But Dana was desperate.  She needed outside help; she needed guidance and reassurance from a survivor who had experienced her same torturous childhood, a survivor who shared her same quiet desperation.  Most of all Dana needed another human being to confirm for her that her childhood memories were real, that she was not fantasizing or imagining the life she remembered.  She was not looking for just anyone, but someone who had been there.  Dana needed to find the one other remaining member of their trio, her cousin, Brenda.

She decided that what she had to say to Brenda was not the type of thing you could put in an email, an email that could be forwarded to anyone.  She also didn’t want to risk being interrupted or dismissed if she talked to Brenda on the phone or in person.  No, this was the type of thing she needed to put in a letter.  She needed to explain her desperate need for help, her guilt and her shame.  In a letter she could choose her words carefully and not risk losing control of her emotions.

Dana had deluded herself for thirty years about her role in Peggy’s death, but she could never escape the lingering guilt she carried inside her.  She tried to convince herself that by abandoning Peggy she was merely saving herself, a matter of pure survival.  Besides, Peggy was so deeply disturbed she would have committed suicide eventually anyway.  Dana hoped that Brenda, too, was plagued by guilt.  Guilt is a strong motivator and just might force Brenda into reality.  Surely Brenda couldn’t risk losing another cousin.   Maybe guilt would force Brenda to end her denials, to admit what happened to them as young girls on the farm and to join with Dana on a path toward healing.  Dana now understood what Peggy had written so many years ago; they should all at least find comfort in knowing they were not alone.  Maybe this time, her time, Brenda would respond differently.

Dana chose her words carefully; working through draft after draft before finally finishing the letter.   She dropped it in the mailbox on a Tuesday morning and waited nervously for Brenda’s response.  Two days later the phone rang.  Dana was ecstatic when she saw Brenda’s name on the Caller ID.  She held her breath and paused before saying, “Hi Brenda”.  To her surprise the voice on the other end of the phone was not Brenda’s voice, but that of Brenda’s mother.  Brenda was dead.   She had left a letter for Dana.