We don’t talk about these things. If there was one rule obeyed in our family, it was the rule of silence. As adults, I think each of us has touched on speaking, and then backed away, putting up walls of denial between ourselves.
My sisters and I, between the four of us, probably show nearly every symptom of having been sexually abused as children. Physical problems, mental ones, emotional ones: the signs are there, but we don’t talk about it. My older sisters talk almost constantly about their various physical problems, but have never mentioned sexual abuse as a possible factor. My younger sister? Well, she’s the one who does the acting out, sleeping around, making really unwise choices, having brief intense affairs, and all of that.
Four or five years ago, she asked me whether I had ever wondered whether I’d been sexually abused. Her timing was bad: I was on the way out the door to the first meeting of a class, and our younger brother was visiting. I meant to get back to her on it, but… well, I didn’t.
Part of it is because it’s all tangled up in shame and guilt and denial. As much as things happened to us, there are the things we did to each other. And it becomes difficult to confront, because I don’t know how to approach one part without acknowledging the others. I remember the sheer mean-ness of how we—me, my older sisters, my mother—treated my little sister because we were jealous of how her father favored her over the rest of us. We teased her, a lot. And none of us protected her.
And there is the anger I hold towards my next-older sister, who even if she didn’t sexually abuse me (she may or may not have, I don’t remember clearly enough to say), definitely taught me that she had the right to touch my body whenever and however she chose, whether or not I wanted her to do so. It’s something I’m not entirely able to forgive, and as I grow older, I still hold her responsible for it. She may have been hurt herself, she may have been young, but I still believe she should have been old enough to know better.
I worry, sometimes, that part of why I am reluctant to get clear memories of my childhood is that I, too, did things to hurt my siblings. I don’t know, and I also have no idea what I would do with those memories if I had them. The rule against speaking holds strong, and words are a weak tool for making up for sins I committed a quarter of a century ago.
The rest of this post is a story I wrote quite a few years ago, pulling together some memories I had on this topic.
Excitement flared as soon as I saw the door. I had to have that room. It HAD to be my room. A lock, and no one in the family had the key. Nothing could be better than that.
I got the room, not so much because of the lock, but because the room was roughly the size of a large closet, and only had a tiny window, which looked out on the blank wall of the neighbor's house. When we moved in, the room was mine. And there was no key to the lock.
For the first time in my memory, I could sleep every single night, safe behind my dead-bolted door. I had that room for six months.
The next summer, I went to visit my father for the first time. I was away for the whole summer. I was eight, and I mostly forgot what it was like, back home. At the end of the summer, I returned. I was nine now, and, with my hair in fancy cornrows and beads, and my ears pierced, I was a new person. Someone who could sleep at night for three whole months, with the door wide open, and not have to worry.
I took my suitcase up to my room, and got ready to show my family all the things I'd made and gotten that summer. But something was different. I looked around the room. My red white and blue quilt still lay across my bright red bed. My books were on their shelves. My toys were piled in their box. My winter clothes sat on the closet shelves. What was different?
And then I saw it. The lock was broken!
Mom! What happened to my LOCK?!
My little sister, the blonde haired, blue-eyed princess, the one everyone loved best, had been in the room. She locked the door. No one could get it open. She couldn't get it open. My stepfather got a ladder, and climbed into the room from outside. He broke the lock so she wouldn't get stuck in there again.
How could she ruin this for me? How could she RUIN it?!
I was furious. I was helpless. I wanted nothing more than revenge.
My revenge came within a few weeks. She said she had missed me. She begged and begged, and finally convinced me to move my bed out into the big room, and have it across from hers. We could share a room. We could be friends. I didn't want to be her friend. She ruined my lock.
That night, I heard the sounds, and I turned to face the wall. I didn't have to hear them. I closed my eyes. I didn't have to see the shadows. I made myself a story. I didn't have to be in that room.
Later, I heard her voice. "I had a nightmare. Can I get in bed with you?"
My revenge was ready. "No. You'll be fine. Go to sleep."
The next night, as we got ready to go to sleep, she begged. "I don't want to have a nightmare. Can I sleep in your bed?"
"Please, please, can I sleep in your bed?"
"No. Here," I gave her my stuffed cat, a present from my stepmother. "Sleep with this. You won't have nightmares if you sleep with this." It was a lie, and I knew it. But I was her big sister, and she believed me.
The sounds came again that night, and the next, and the next. I learned always to sleep facing the wall. I had to be invisible. If he noticed me, I wouldn't be safe any more. With her in the room, I was safe. He didn't love me, because I wasn't his real daughter.
She finally gave up begging to share my bed. We didn't talk about our
But she finally figured out how to get her own revenge. One day, we were playing outside, and both of us wanted the bicycle at the same time. I was three years older, so I was able to shove her away, and get on the seat.
"I hate you," she shouted,
"Why?" I asked, since that had stumped her in the past.
"I hate you because you're black." The words, lashing from the mouth of a six year old, couldn't have been her own. We didn't talk about me being black in the family, not openly. We both knew it was something not to talk about, even if we didn't know why.
It hurt. She hated me for something I had no control over.
Even if it wasn't really my skin color at fault.
She slapped me. I ran inside to tell.
She ran after me. Mom was at the store, or at the doctor, or somewhere not at home. My sister's father was taking care of us.
"She slapped me," I tattled.
"Because she pulled down my pants outside," she lied in retaliation.
My stepfather grabbed the excuse. Even though it would never occur to me to do that, he was happy to punish me.
"I'll show you what it's like to have your pants pulled down," he shouted, and yanked down my pants and underwear. My sister and brothers watched, without surprise. Spankings were common enough.
He quickly glanced around the room, and picked up an extension cord. He pushed me over the arm of a chair, and began to lash my bottom and thighs. "You'll never do something like that again," he warned.
The pain began to burn through my whole body. "I DIDN'T do it!" I protested. It did no good. He continued to whip me with the extension cord.
My body was on fire. I couldn't make it stop. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" I begged, but I couldn't stop him.
Afterwards, my bottom and thighs were raw with welts, but it was okay, because it was fall, and I wouldn't be wearing shorts any more until summer. No one would see the welts.
My sister and I kept seeking revenge. I pulled further and further away from her. She searched out ways to punish me for the things that neither of us could control.
I still hate her for making me lose my lock.
I still feel guilty for not sharing my bed.
I am finally learning that I hated the wrong person all those years.