I almost drowned early in life: a gift. Death doesn’t seem very big when you go there young, and that particular fear got crossed off my list before we were properly introduced.
At four, every day is a bright present in ribbons to be unwrapped, and it is hard to tell one gift from another this day: a picnic with giggling cousins, the mossy green steps into a chill Texas lake.
I grip the cold steel handrail and balance, considering.
The water is at my knees, raising gooseflesh. I wiggle my toes.
One more step, and my arms surprise me, waving suddenly and slowly above my head.
Down at my feet the world has turned Midnight Blue, my favorite Crayola, the first in the box to be scribbled to a nub, and now it is all over the bottom of the lake, which is why I can no longer see my way back to the steps.
It gets very loud. Then very quiet. Then the world drops away.
I don’t know anything of the yelling and the tears and being pulled back to earth. I don’t know how anyone could have possibly seen the spot of red ruffled bathing suit that was there and then suddenly not in that wide crowded lake, could have sensed that beneath the surface, there was a still-roiling heartbeat.
Someone must have been watching.
A wiser non-swimmer of, say, seven or eight, might have turned from those steps and returned to her mother’s side. Would have already unwrapped enough days to perceive, dimly, the harsh outlines of human frailty; the smell and taste and feel of things about to go wrong.
Not at four.
At four, everything beneath your feet is as solid as can be, until it isn’t.
‘Even a good child can fall’
From dawn to dusk, I was never afraid of anything real.
Not at five, when my unsupervised strolls through our tiny Texas downtown horrified my future stepfather; not at eight, when I would crawl under barbed wire and around a Louisiana bayou to get a closer look at Brahma bulls locking horns.
Not after all that and more left my name strung like new candy across the coffee breath of gossiping neighbors.
All that was my world, then. Plus one more thing.
I knew the secret thing the grown-ups knew.
I knew there was worse than drowning.
I knew the world had no floor.
You could be tucked in for the night, your knuckles white with prayers and not forget to God Bless a single living thing; not even Mammaw, who had the best smile because she had no teeth to block the view.
You could pull three milkweeds to chew and give a friend two. You could throw back every crawdad that raw bacon and a string had tempted from the bayou; you, the great forgiving queen of air and light come to save even the ugliest and meanest of her bayou realm.
You could weep from rage or shame and scream yourself out of sleep at night.
You could forgive the blue-eyed Nazarene of your Sunday School class for not showing up to smite the wicked when the bottomless world opened its maw and called your name and even the noonday light of a summer sun would not thaw the sick chill in your bones.
You could do all that and a lot more, and it didn’t matter, because in a world with no floor, even a good child, a prayerful child, can fall and fall and nobody sees how far.
And it wouldn’t be any good to go and cry about it, because no grown-up was going to fall down with you and shine a light on that dark place.
That was the other part of the secret.
The grown-ups were scared, too.
‘Breaking my silence’
It is not what the priest does to you, not what the trusted coach, the family friend, the neighbor who sexually abuses you does with your body and to your soul.
It is what you do to your own life, after the sexual abuse. It’s whether the larger world, the good men and women, can bring themselves to see and hear, or whether they will be complicit in your next wrong step.
It is why we all come to learn the same words:
It happened a long time ago.
Maybe he didn’t mean to hurt me.
Maybe it’s my fault.
I’m okay now.
Sexual violence exists on a continuum. On the one end of the spectrum is talk of a willingness to assault. At the other end, the shadow point, where I lived, is sexual abuse of a child.
The two points are not tied by common perpetrators. The person who speaks is not necessarily the person who assaults.
The real link between the two is the willingness of a society to forgive the one and forget the other.
That’s why, when our President-elect endorsed a near-textbook description of misdemeanor sexual battery, I was less disturbed by what he said than what the good men and women would say next. And who would be listening to them:
It happened a long time ago.
It was just talk.
Nobody really got hurt.
Somewhere, far beyond the politics of bitterness, I imagine there is a 13-year-old girl who is trying, may have been trying for years, to make sense of what was done to her; who heard the same words we all did; who is dropping through the dark, who feels again her sudden wrongness in the world, but being 13, she won’t know much more, not for a long, long time.
And she is sitting in her room, doing all of this in silence, which is as good a reason as any for me to break mine.
‘They took away my world’
Twice in my lifetime, the grown-ups forgot to remember.
In the 1970s and again in the 1990s, the American public discovered, was enraged by, could not get enough of the news that children were sexually abused.
Maybe the headlines were too lurid, certain stories too famously discredited.
Maybe it was too much like staring at an angry sun. Maybe we all just needed to close our eyes.
I never forgot anything, not the day, not the place, not the quality of light. After supper but before bedtime. Inside the brick house, my mother and her best friend drank coffee. Outside in the car, her oldest son gave me a tiny toy deck of cards to play with, the kind you could get in a little plastic ball from a gumball machine.
Then he and his brother took away my world.
I never told anyone. How could I?
For the longest time, there were no words in any community’s out-loud vocabulary to describe what happened, both that night and later. What I knew was mine and theirs alone.
I would be 22 years old, standing in front of my grandmother’s antique mirror getting ready to go out in my platform shoes and crocheted mini-dress when in the background noise of Phil Donahue’s TV talk show, I finally heard someone say out loud that sexual abuse of children was a horrific wrong.
I might have paused. Just for a minute, though.
It had happened a long time ago. I had a beautiful baby boy, a new job in broadcast news.
So maybe once in a while I had to work hard to forget to remember. Mostly I was fine.
‘The number always with me’
I was lousy at math until I escaped school; the despair of a string of algebra and geometry teachers.
One number, though, was always with me.
One in four American girls were abused by the age of 17.
One in four does not count American women raped as an adult. It does not count women who committed the error of riding a crowded subway where a stranger would grind against them and –“Oh? Was I too close? Sorry” and walk away smiling. It does not count the number of women who experienced the same thing or some version of it, in grocery aisles, in department stores.
It does not count my friend from high school drugged and raped in a fraternity party in her first weeks at college.
It does not count my other high school friend’s struggle to keep her job when her staunchly liberal civil rights-attorney boss repeatedly cornered and groped her.
It does not count women whose shame has locked them into silence.
And it does not count the one in 20 men suffering right alongside them.
I refuse to count that high. I refuse to sum the numbers. But I recognize their weight. It is the silent, breath-robbing crush of water.
‘Telling my friend’
My friend takes me for a birthday dinner in a French café. Over the veal, and after three glasses of wine, I tell her; the only person I have ever spoken to.
Just a little of it.
I had known her since high school. We had gossiped together, borrowed each other’s clothes, negotiated marriages, childbirth and second husbands, all together.
She responded by talking, a little too fast, about someone she knew – a teenage girl — who probably faked accusations.
She did not ask me questions.
She had trouble making eye contact.
A prosecuting attorney specializing in abuse cases was once asked what the hardest part of her hard job was. It wasn’t hearing the children’s stories.
It was getting jurors past their sometimes-desperate desire to hang onto the world of their understanding; a world where none of this could ever happen.
A world with a floor.
I wasn’t angry with my friend. I understood. I really did.
The grown-ups were scared, too.
‘I blame it on Freud’
I went therapist shopping.
“And, of course, we would deal with the abuse,” the noted psychiatrist said across the desktop, paper piles all but obstructing his view of me.
“Assuming, of course, that it really happened.”
I blame Freud.
Oh, how I blame Freud. Sigmund the mama’s boy, Sigmund the coke addict, Sigmund and his bad dreams.
I don’t blame Freud for being a product of his times. Madness’s physiological underpinnings were beyond his grasp. When he penned his dreamy studies, even antibiotics had yet to be discovered.
I blame him for what he did to the girls.
As a young doctor, Freud’s initial reaction to hearing multiple female patients tell him they had been touched by their father was: These young women have been touched by their father.
He wrote it up. He presented his findings.
Vienna’s best and brightest did not want to hear it. And Freud, who frankly yearned to fulfill family expectations of his impending greatness – and who was very nearly run out of town on a rail by his colleagues — suddenly did not want to say it.
“You will recall an interesting episode … which caused me many distressing hours,” he wrote. “Almost all my women patients told me they had been seduced by their fathers. I was driven to recognize in the end that these reports were untrue … that hysterical symptoms are derived from fantasies and not from real occurrences.”
Decades after the old goat put down his pen, women would be coming to therapists, anguished over familial abuse and be met with flat denial. Seductive children and teenagers and women that we were, we must have wanted it. We must have dreamed of it.
We must have made it up.
‘Robbed of the life we planned’
I keep shopping.
“It was quite a long time ago,” points out the Ph.D with the uncomfortable couch. “Do you really believe it affects your life now?”
This from a woman who I am betting has pictures of herself as a child. Or an adolescent. Or an adult.
Mostly, I had cut mine up.
Trauma echoes, and not in altogether expected ways.
It’s why I have spent a lifetime writing about other people’s secrets. It plays a role in what I choose to wear and what I fear.
Once I walked alone into a riot where reporters were being targeted, and twice I have had people pull a gun on me, and once a convicted killer and drug dealer tracked me from Pensacola to my little house outside Orlando, and once I took a baseball bat in the middle of the night and went outside in my nightgown hunting for a prowler — it never occurred to me to call the police — and I never felt afraid, ever, but I slept with the lights on until I was 30 and could not have told you why.
Structural changes in the brain have been linked to childhood abuse.
People abused as children are at risk of drug use, divorce and depression, at risk of embracing suicide and, perhaps because certain boundaries get erased before they fully form, we are more likely to be raped as adults.
Among other things.
But they are also wives celebrating their 50th wedding anniversaries and the person at work who showed you how to reboot your computer and the compassionate surgeon at your bedside and doting — if somewhat overprotective — mothers and fathers.
It’s not that we are robbed of a life. It’s that we are robbed of the life we thought we were going to have, and building a new one can be very, very hard.
Assuming, of course, it ever really happened.
‘Hope was sandpaper on my skin’
The neighborhood dance floor is barely 15 by 15, tucked away in the corner of an already impossibly small bookstore. A sharp left out of the bathroom and you risked running into the band’s drummer; a sharp right and you were facing off with Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy.
I am here with friends, and their children, and their friends’ families. “This is the perfect yuppie entertainment,” one yells in my ear. “Everyone brings their family, the kids dance, too, and we all go home by 10.”
It is perfectly wonderful, and perfect torment.
People confuse sadness with depression. I was not sad that night. That night, only one thing in the world could still bring me to feel much of anything at all, and the feeling was rage and the trigger was hope.
Hope is the bright thread that tugs us forward.
Getting up in the morning and putting one foot in front of the other is an act of hope. Bear a child, open a savings account, kiss a date good night; all these things presume that there will be a next moment and a next, each of them ripe with possibilities.
Hope was sandpaper across my raw skin; a reminder of everything I did not have, everything I thought did not deserve.
Hope lingered, just out of reach, on the dance floor that night; children and parents and friends swimming in the casual assumption of life’s current and next steps, and I think, how wonderful a memory this is going to be for this 11-year-old daughter of my dearest friend, twirl-dancing with her father, a gift to remember far into her adulthood, and I look at my friends, people I have loved for years, and I celebrate their happiness and I drink to their health and their hope and how relieved I will be to die soon and be rid of it all.
‘I am drowning’
I do not write about child abuse or child abusers.
But it is a slow weekend shift. A 66-year-old Jupiter gymnastics coach has been arrested for child porn, and parents are meeting at the gym that evening.
“Don’t bother about a story,” my editor says. It will be handed off to another reporter. “Just go and see if anything happens.”
Sit and listen.
They are upper middle class parents, parents with nice SUVs and enough money to afford gymnastics classes for their little girls.
They sit in rows on chairs. A few fathers laugh nervously before the questions start. Should I talk to my child? Should the coach’s wife, who also works at the gym, talk to the little girls?
There is some thought of protecting Coach Carl, who after all, has been charged, not convicted. There is some thought that Coach Carl could not have molested any of the children because he would have been in a busy gym with other children and adults.
An attorney stands to speak. Her friend, a federal prosecutor, has reassured her, and now she wished to reassure the parents, that men caught with caches of child pornography almost never actually abuse children.
And before I know it, I am counting parents. Two parents for every little girl. I stop at 20 little girls.
I divide by four.
I rise to leave. I am drowning.
Eleven days later, Coach Carl is arrested, again. As it turns out, the Fort Lauderdale police department had investigated him for molesting a little girl more than a decade ago, beginning when she was three years old.
For more than a decade, the case languished. The little girl’s word was not enough.
And in those years, Coach Carl went and got himself a job with more little girls.
Last September, the longtime children’s coach pled guilty to multiple charges of child pornography. The sex crime charge against the preschooler, who would now be about 14, was dropped almost as soon as it was filed.
By one estimate, as many as 90 percent of people who download child porn act on their impulses.
By one estimate, there are 30 million or more computer downloads of child porn worldwide, every day.
‘I went looking for my abusers’
I find a white-haired therapist with a bow tie who reminds me, inexplicably, of a bunny I once owned.
I begin collecting white rabbits. Stuffed rabbits, ceramic rabbits, straw rabbits.
I tell him a bit of my story. Then a bit more, a bit more, until he becomes the only person who has heard all of it, and likely will be the only person who ever will.
I got better. Then I got good.
And then I went looking for the sons of bitches who had put a match to my childhood.
I found two brothers living a few miles from each other in a godforsaken little strip of Texas at the edge of the Arkansas border.
I know that stretch of rural Texas. Car doors freeze shut in January.
Mercury melts in July.
One brother died. He seemed to have left no footprints behind; no record of family and no published obituary that made it beyond the city limits.
The other, though: He’s a family man.
His wife sings in the church choir. They have grown children.
And many grandchildren.
Having found him, I needed to see him. For months, I planned. I would fly there with a friend. My friend would stay in the car and I would walk up to the front door, and this man, this now-old man, would open it.
I needed so badly to see how tall he was. I needed to know I was not the little one anymore.
And then maybe I could talk to his minister. Or I could talk to his neighbors. I could square the circle. I could force a reckoning. I could bring this out of my home and to his.
Several months later, the white rabbit paused in our talk.
Don’t you recall why you didn’t go? he asked.
No, I answered, genuinely puzzled.
He let me remember at my own pace.
It took a day.
‘Taking back my life’
In Texas, as in Florida, there is a state registry of sex offenders. Google it up, and the state allows you to map their home addresses. Once when I looked, the various classifications of sex offender showed up as red, green or yellow dots.
I hit enter.
The entire county lit up like a Christmas tree.
There are, today, more than 200 registered sex offenders living in that rural county. One of them, a convicted child sex offender, lives at the address of the man who abused me. They do not appear to be related. He is just another abuser, just another one of many.
And when I saw the state registry map, that’s all I could see for a while: the many.
There were so many, many more of them than me.
Except, of course, there aren’t. I am with the girls and the boys, the women and the men, the one in four, the one in 20, and there are millions of us, and there is strength in our numbers.
I don’t actually know when I began to unclench my fist. I don’t know when I came to believe it was no longer my responsibility to rage at my abusers, or explain them, or forgive them, or for that matter, knock on their door.
I came to believe it was my responsibility to take back my own life, the gift they had so casually stolen.
It is not that I might not someday drive to that county, that town, that front door, that past.
I just don’t have to anymore.
Looking back, I think opening my fist required three acts of forgiveness. I needed to forgive the grown-ups. I needed to forgive God. I needed to forgive myself.
But these are all the atonements of a child’s heart. Only a child would believe she had brought this on herself. Only a child’s heart would believe the world had conspired to blot out the sun.
As for the abusers and their enablers, I leave forgiveness to whatever higher power claims ultimate jurisdiction in these matters: Hindu karma, Baptist brimstone, reincarnation as a slow moving armadillo on a fast moving highway.
So many years past, the Texas statute of limitations does not allow for legal action in my case. So I did the thing I could.
It is not much, but satisfyingly enough, it is a behavior and lifelong practice traceable in part to the stifling silence of my own abuse.
I wrote down another person’s secrets – his and his brother’s.
Then I mailed them to the sheriff in their little town.
‘A bright, shining thread’
There are no happy endings here.
I am not a better person because I was abused. The idea that saintliness follows this particular suffering is a well-intentioned thought, but at its core, it’s a story we tell ourselves to help make sense of the senseless.
Nor is childhood abuse a celestial get-out-of-jail free card, entitling one to escape future tragedy, deeply dumb decisions and the development of irritating character flaws.
So. No Hollywood endings.
But there is this. There is walking the green chapel of a path to a rain forest waterfall and barreling down the Florida Turnpike at 90 mph in the dead of night. There are friends of friends of Bill W. meeting in church basements and friends of Bill W. meeting in the rooms next door; there are white rabbits saving lives right and left; there is the continuing education course that is life and the hope of the three in four.
Somewhere, there is a 13-year-old girl awakening to her worth in the world. Everywhere, there are people willing to help you save your own life if you can only bring yourself to let them, and running through it all, there is a bright, shining thread pulling us forward, together.
And what’s a happy ending compared to that?
HOW TO GET HELP
National Sex Offender Public Registry (NSOPR)
Provides information about sexual abuse and how to protect loved ones from potential victimization. Includes links to multiple related sites. Combines public state, territorial and tribal sex offender registries that can be used to identify location information on registered sex offenders.
Child Help National Child Abuse Hotline
Darkness to Light
A toll-free helpline for individuals living in the United States who need local information and resources about sexual abuse.
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
A toll-free line for reporting information about missing or sexually exploited children to the police. This number is available throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada.
By phone: (800) 843-5678. The TDD hotline is (800) 826-7653.
National Center for Victims of Crime
A toll-free helpline offering supportive counseling, practical information about crime and victimization, and referrals to local community resources, as well as skilled advocacy in the criminal justice and social service systems.
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Hotlines are free and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and offer secure, anonymous, confidential crisis support for victims of sexual assault and their friends and families.
Toll-free National Sexual Assault Hotline. By phone: (800) 656-4673.
Online: www.rainn.org/get-help/national-sexual-assault-online-hotline (Instant-messaging format National Sexual Assault Hotline.)