Trigger warning: This blog post deals specifically with child sexual abuse and may be unsettling to some readers.
I hadn’t planned on writing about this, not until a few days ago. I’d put some thought into our ELEW writing group, and how important it’s been to all of us. Over the past five years we’ve seen each other through good times and bad, triumph and tragedy, but we always come back to the stories that live in our heads. It’s what connects us. We value writing, and we all have our own reasons for that, our own stories about why playing with imaginary friends on the page became so valuable to us. This is mine, and hence the warning, it’s less sunny and more stereotypical ‘art comes from pain’.
As I said, I hadn’t planned on writing about this, but the fact that I hesitated pissed me off, because silence allowed it to happen in the first place. Also, something occurred last week that lifted a veil and made me realize how certain events in my early life taught me not to value who I was on the inside. One of my best friends contacted me, and I knew right away something was terribly wrong. Her little girl had been molested by a man she and her husband know; a man they thought could be trusted. She learned this when her daughter came home screaming. While I can’t discuss the details, I can say that my friend did things right with her kids. Because she told them at a young age that this could happen, what to look out for, and how to respond if it did. Fight, run, scream, get out. Tell.
I wasn’t taught such things as a child. It was a different era, and these things weren’t discussed in schools, and rarely talked about at home. I was warned not to talk to strangers or get into cars with people I didn’t know, I knew about kidnapping. But I was never given the finer details of why someone would want to kidnap a child. It was enough to know that some people were bad, and wanted to take me away from my parents. So in this, I was vigilant. But my parents never taught me about sexual abuse. So when my grandfather started sexually abusing me at age four, I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I knew I didn’t like it, that it felt wrong, and sometimes it hurt. But this was family. My parents bathed me and dressed me. That was okay. So this must be okay too. I never told anyone about it.
The abuse continued until I was seven, and it only stopped because I stopped it. Not because I understood it, because I still hadn’t been educated on sexual abuse. I just knew that I didn’t like him touching me, which he did during parties and Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house, when oddly, there were a lot of other people nearby. I started simply running out of the room when my grandfather—a decorated police officer—asked me to sit next to him on the couch. I started refusing his invitations to go down into the basement so he could give me a present, which was usually something simple like a pencil eraser or a milkshake before he abused me. I avoided him, and made sure I was always around other people when we visited. And so, it stopped. Sadly, I found out a few years ago that some younger cousins ended up suffering the same fate after that. Because of this, I wish I’d told. But my parents didn’t tell me about sex abuse, therefore I didn’t know about sex abuse, therefore I didn’t tell, and therefore someone else got hurt. Silence is a bitch.
It wasn’t until I became a young teen that the lightbulb blinked on, and having learned about child sexual abuse at that point, it dawned on me what had happened to me. In a way, this was when it really started to damage my self-esteem, but in hindsight, there were signs that it already had. I went through severe depression in grade school, fearful of everything and unable to sleep, which frustrated the hell out of my parents. They tried to be understanding for a while, but ultimately got angry because they ‘didn’t know what my problem was.’ Teachers phoned home from school, telling my mother they were concerned that I sometimes stood alone in the corner at recess and wouldn’t play with the other kids. Anything loud, violent, or rambunctious jarred me, even normal play-fighting kids did in the schoolyard. This is when I began sitting alone and writing stories. Creating worlds and scenarios where I was the one in control gave me both a rush and a peaceful contentment.
When I was sixteen years old, my grandfather who’d abused me died. You’d have thought the pope died. He was a powerful, respected man in the community, and his funeral procession had a police escort, rifles, American flags, the whole bit. Bystanders saluted. People stood up and spoke about what a wonderful man he was. Relatives wept and told amusing stories about him, and how he always took time to go for walks with his grandchildren down to the corner candy store. I couldn’t take it anymore. That night, I told my mother that my grandfather, my father’s father, had abused me. Her first response was, ‘Are you sure he wasn’t just being affectionate?’ When I cried, she finally believed me, and she cried too. Her own lightbulb blinked on, as she tearfully recalled having to take me to the hospital frequently when I was little more than a baby for vaginal problems and injuries, and the doctors couldn’t figure out why this kept happening. My mother told my father. But he never said a word to me. My father was an intelligent, gentle man, and I loved him. But for as long as he lived, he never said a word to me about the fact that his father had abused me.
This taught me that it was something to be hidden, swept under the rug, not spoken about. That maybe there was something shameful about me. Unfortunately, the way my mother raised me as a teen and young adult reinforced this feeling. When I talked about wanting to be a writer, she discouraged me, and instead gave me advice on finding a good man to marry. She advised me on how to dress and how to behave on a date. When I was home from college one summer, my parents hosted a cocktail party. My mother had invited several doctors to the party, ‘prospects’ for me. She tried talking me into getting friendly with an anesthesiologist who thought I was beautiful. He was older, and not attractive to me. I told her this, but she said I was being a diva. I wondered if maybe she was right. After all, my own grandfather saw me not as a person, but a thing. An object.
The message I got was that my writing, my brain, who I was on the inside, didn’t matter. It was nothing. My body, my looks, my ability to attract the right man…that was important. That was my value. I struggled with my dream to become a writer, pushing forward as the world pushed back. I married a handsome young man who seemed to support my dreams at first, but ultimately asked me to stop writing. There were houses to buy and babies to have, after all. This was my turning point. I discovered the Internet. I found thousands of other people like me, struggling writers who knew who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do, who valued what people had on the inside. I wrote. I published. I got divorced.
It was a slow, arduous journey, but at this point in my life, sitting here writing this blog post, I can say that I truly value myself, and have for some time. I am not just a body. I am not a thing. I have thoughts and feelings and stories, and there are people who want to hear them. I’m now married to a man who values and respects my writing. And I count other writers as some of my best friends.
Everyone has to find the balance between the different parts of themselves, life, family, day jobs, and often we’re taught to put creative endeavors aside. Art, music, and books, are often seen as frivolity in a serious world. But embracing my art saved my soul. It was that small nugget inside that was still me when I tried to become invisible and disappear. It fought and kicked and screamed and pushed back, telling me that this is who I am. This. Embrace it, become it, and you will be whole.
Happy Anniversary to my ELEW crew. However you got here, to this place where it’s as necessary as air to sit down and write stories, you’re important. You have value, inside and out. And you matter.
Melissa Hayden says
Wow. Thank you for sharing. I really hope things work out for your friend and their daughter.
Adrienne Jones says
Thank you, Melissa. My friend had a rather grueling and frustrating wait while the detectives did their thing but he’s now been arrested. Little girl’s getting lots of support and counseling. XO
Melissa Hayden says
I’m glad justice is working. Shame on the wait, but at least he’s in custody. We hear about how the process falls apart at times. Hope it all goes as it should and he gets what he deserves.