A Survivors Meeting
The meeting was organized by the women's counseling center was to be held one evening in what had once been the living quarters for nuns teaching in a nearby school in Pineville. Rebecca had told me about it.
It took me a while to get the courage to go because I was afraid someone might recognize me, and then Uncle Walt and Aunt Hester, Aunt Heidi, the kids, students and teachers at Parisburg, and others who knew me would see me as damaged goods. The phrase, the presumption of innocence until being proven guilty, seemed as ironic as that the figure holding the Scales of Justice was a woman--to her credit, however, she was blindfolded.
But I'd been reading about the desire of victims to keep their families together, the importance of going outside the family if you needed help. I hadn't said anything to anyone, and I knew I couldn't--not yet. And what help could Aunt Hester offer anyway, or Aunt Heidi or the others, even if I could get up the nerve to tell my suspicions? If I saw real life victims of incestuous relationships, I'd hopefully see that I was wrong after all.
Partitions had been opened to make three rooms into one, and even then the chairs had to be removed so everyone could fit in by sitting on the floor. I'd found a spot near the hall door and leaned against the wall, grateful that I hadn't recognized anyone. The women were mostly younger than I was, and I wondered why there weren't more women my age? Had they given up trying to understand things, or had they successfully come to terms with it? Could all those younger women hopefully reflect a trend not to keep silent any longer?
The night before I dreamed I was with Jenny and a man at Uncle Walt's went after me. He had me down so I told Jenny to tie him up. I called the telephone operator but got no one, then tried the state police, sheriff, city police, but couldn't get them. I was frantic as the man could get untied any time. He kept telling me I was a nut. I went to the county building and the sheriff thought I wanted to be jailed. I ran and tried and tried to get help but people wouldn't listen. I tried escaping in shafts where cases of pop were delivered until they became the size for individual bottles. I blamed myself for not knowing the number to call. Then I found all the numbers in front of the telephone book but they were written sideways, too small and crowded to see. I interrupted calls screaming it was an emergency but the women also thought I was crazy.
Rebecca began the meeting by saying it was first meeting of its kind in the area and that we should all give ourselves credit for coming by a round of applause. But even with the sporadic hand clapping I could almost hear the women cringing. Rebecca was the type that Uncle Walt would've described as wearing the pants in the family; or if she wasn't married, as one who'd "never had a man look twice at her." I was to see Rebecca only once after that--when she said she wanted a playmate to do things with; it made me feel odd and uncomfortable being with her.
Rebecca continued, "I've asked my former instructor, now the director of counseling services at Elkland Community College, to start the meeting for us."
As a woman about my age stepped forward, I stared at a bulletin board. She spoke softly, saying, "Incest is commonly defined as sexual contact with someone who's a blood relative or who's related to such a degree that marriage is--"
Hands went up and she was asked to speak louder.
She squared her shoulders and in a louder voice continued, " it is a type of sexual abuse that makes the victim appear guiltier than the criminal. But remember you're not to blame. Please, everyone say aloud three times: I am not to blame."
Everyone avoided each other's eyes while repeating the phrase.
The woman, in a more confidence, still louder voice said, "Incest is so hard to deal with because victims feel they have to protect the perpetrator because of their relationship to them. Most never tell. Untold numbers hide this secret, take on the shame, and assume the burden that shouldn't be theirs. This meeting couldn't have taken place if it weren't for those in the women's movement who've spoken out and braved the threats and the ridicule of those around them. All of you have shown this bravery by coming this evening. Let's give each other a round of applause."
Even though it felt theatrical and that I didn't belong there, I joined in.
"Self-help groups are an effective way for women to help one another and see themselves as survivors instead of victims. I've been told that meeting rooms are available, and though there aren't enough counselors to go around, we hope to have one to help each group get started. Along with your name and phone number, please write down the day of the week and the time that would work best for you. There's no cost involved."
She gave Rebecca the sign-up sheets to distribute as she went on with the meeting.
"One of the effects of incest is to make women feel that they are isolated," she said. "That what's happened to them hasn't happened to anyone else. But you're not alone. Please stand up, be brief, to give as many other women as possible a chance to speak out. You are among those who will understand and not blame you. I'll start things out with my own story."
She hesitated, cleared her throat, and then said in an uneven voice, "Even now it is hard for me but each time I tell my story it gets easier. Just remember, the first telling is the hardest, and it helps us all.
"My father fondled me at an early age, and when I was of school age, he demanded oral sex or he said he'd tell what a bad girl I'd been. He was a school principal, so I believed him. He said I was his special girl. Rather than blaming him, I blamed myself because a young child needs their parents to be good parents, have the world a safe place, and so blaming myself was typical. I didn't know if my mother knew, and I didn't ask her till I was out of the house; when I did, she excused him by saying he'd been poor as a child. There wasn't any information on sexual abuse around."
Yes--I believed that: I'd just tried to order a book on incest for the school library I'd hunted down but the requisition was denied. And I hadn't realized how few female authors I had until I put up a display to observe National Women's History Month begun in 1987.
"In college I was institutionalized for six months. No matter how high my grades were, I didn't feel I was good enough. My father did the same thing to my sisters. My older sister still refuses to admit anything and keeps getting into abusive relationships; my younger sister died from an overdose."
She cleared her throat again, and then asked, "Who'd like to be next? Remember, you are among friends."
A pretty girl, about eighteen with long bangs partially covering her eyes, raised her hand and stood up. "Things started when I was about eight," she said. "My father would come home drunk and force himself on me. He wouldn't allow locks on any of our bedroom doors." She took a deep breath, and continued, with her head down. "It was easier to believe that he didn't know what he was doing because he was drunk than it was when my brother tried it. I never told my mother because I knew she wouldn't help because my father kept threatening to leave. It ended when my father died and my brother joined the service."
Several of the women nodded.
Then a woman in her late twenties dressed as a waitress spoke.
"It was my grandfather," she said. "I don't know when things began, but I was real young. My mother had to work because my father had left us, so she moved us back to her home. When she'd find me crying in the bathroom, she'd get angry and tell me she couldn't understand why I was unhappy since I had a home. She ignored the blood and bruises. I quit school as soon as I could to get out of the house."
Listening to the women testify I could see the pattern that applied to me as well--Aunt Hester who for one reason or another wouldn't, or felt she couldn't acknowledge the behavior of Uncle Walt, had indeed abandoned me.
In my case, Aunt Hester wasn't a blood relative and I always felt her jealousy. She'd come from "a hole in the wall," as Uncle Walt put it, and enjoyed being the wife of a prominent engineer. Her Catholicism valued suffering and classified women as second class; it was the way things were. If she felt any remorse, she probably expended it on an extra recitation of the rosary while contemplating the sorrowful life of Christ. Or attend extra novenas, or say prayers nine days in a row from her prayer book to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Or wash a clean floor, rub imaginary spots off the wall with hands red and raw from bleach and antiseptic--when they bled, she offered it as penance.
What had Aunt Hester thought when I started stuttering and leaving notes for her to wash my underwear? What was happening then?
And yet, I was certain that even if she'd known something, she wouldn't have done anything. Perhaps we both knew it wouldn't have done any good because when Uncle Walt had obstacles placed in his way, they only spurred him on to get his way. She tried to control him through religion; to make him feel guilty for not going to church as often as she did, but I often heard him laugh and respond with, "Christamighty! You want me to turn into one of those dried-up old bats hugging rosaries to flat chests praying for something to fill their brassieres? You go and feel holy for me."
The next speaker spoke in an apologetic voice, "I'm not sure if I belong here," she said. "When I was babysat by a cousin, he'd show himself to me but he never had actual sex--intercourse, I mean. He was my cousin and wouldn't accept money for babysitting, and my mother had to work two jobs. But I keep getting into relationships with losers, and I think he has something to do with it."
A woman in front of me was next. "My brother said he'd help me know things that girls needed to. He was seventeen and I was eight. I remember hiding the pain and evidence because he said if anyone knew we'd both get in trouble. Our parents were very strict, and I believed him. I made myself forget as much as I could, but when my daughter turned eight recently, a lot of it began coming back. I know I have to tell her about sex, about growing up, but I don't know how to without scaring her and making her afraid of men."
A thin, tired looking woman stood up next. "My stepfather beat my mother, and when he forced me to do things, I was nine. I thought I was saving her from being beaten. She'd dropped out of school to have my brother and was afraid she couldn't make it on her own. My mother would tell people her bruises were from falling down the stairs from toys on the stairs. When I was too old for toys, she said it was because of too much wax on the stairs. The Lord has been a great help, and I plead with Him every night to take away the same terrible nightmare. I hate going to sleep."
The girl who spoke next was sitting near a table lamp, and half of her face was in shadow. The sweatshirt she was wearing, half black and half red, made her look like a harlequin, a medieval jester appropriate for someone who'd led different lives. "I ran away from home to get away from my dad when I was thirteen," she said, "after an overdose. I lived on the streets till he left home, but when I returned, my mom shoveled it on me for my dad leaving. Shit, I almost went back on the streets."
"I know a girl," another girl said that looked like a high school freshman; "it's her father. She's afraid he'll go after her younger sister next but all her mother says is to pray. She's a freshman and is afraid of getting pregnant. A girl I knew got pregnant by her father and nobody would talk to her. After she got an abortion, guys saw her as fair game and no one would help her. How can I help her?"
A woman rose and said, "My uncle raped me on my wedding night after getting my husband out-of-his-skull drunk. He's my husband's boss in construction and I don't know what the hell to do. My uncle said he'd finish me off with his rifle if I spilled the beans. I hate having sex with my husband so he's threatening to divorce me or have me admitted. He has me drink to relax."
It was dark by then, and the moon came into view through the far window. The cool, perfect, impersonal moon seemed to belong to ancient Greeks, Doric columns, and amphitheaters: it was perfect in its beauty, in its remoteness.
"Nervous breakdown," someone said.
"Not to tell "
"Destroy the family "
"What would people think?"
"Thought I was bad"
The voices blended together like a Greek chorus or a Catholic litany.
More than one woman got up to speak but could only get a few words out. One had to be led away because she couldn't keep stop crying in such a gut-wrenching way that I couldn't see why she didn't shatter. Most of the women hunched their shoulders. Their voices lacked confidence and they spoke as if afraid to draw attention to themselves. Even if the majority could have been considered attractive, it seemed there was a mist, a cloud, around--some incense of indecision, guilt, and fear. But as one after another spoke a sense of unity, of transcendence emerged that I'd only felt in church: only this was a deep, collective suffering, a sense of commonality both healing and sad.
I saw a spider on the floor so got out my empty ear plug container and put it in so it wouldn't get walked on.
I envied those women who knew what'd happened to them, and again I wished that I could remember too, because what testimony could I give? What could I prove? My uncle's dirty stories, cuddling, having children look for candy in his pockets, walking around in boxer shorts, and all the rest didn't result in pregnancy-even as a child I knew the commonly held concept that incest was penetration: Uncle Walt's actions had been accepted, joked about. So perhaps Aunt Hester hadn't been guilty of covering up anything. The term, emotional incest, used by Dr. Schackmann, was one I'd never heard of. I could only tell that something had happened to me because of the symptoms. That was the evidence. I didn't make them up and more than anything else I wanted to get rid of them. I could now no longer doubt that the foundation of the panic I felt when seeing abandoned animals was because no one had cared that boundaries had been crossed by my uncle when I was a child, and that when Cal distanced himself, it triggered things. Dirk had said I'd made a big step when I realized what I felt was what I projected on animals.
After an hour the director again asked for a round of applause for ourselves and for us to repeat, "I am not to blame." But like the first time, it seemed only an ironic chant.
I was the first to leave, slipping out in the moonlight before anyone could see my numbness. In the darkness, I shook the ear plug container until I was sure the spider had been freed on the grass. I'd seen the moon that morning low in the sky like some errant girl; now, still on its appointed course, it was more distant and in a different place. Without success, I tried not to feel that I wasn't unique anymore after seeing and hearing so many others like me; I felt more alone. And a sadness that had no bottom.
The fresh air greeted me as if I'd emerged from a long subterranean journey, my sense of being unique fading into the cool air. When some branches came between me and the crescent moon, giving the moon a set of grinning teeth, it lost its beauty like a Chopin nocturne played off key. I wrapped my arms around myself to stay the chill and remembered Alice protesting in Alice in Wonderland, "But I don't want to go among mad people."
"Oh, you can't help that," said the cat; "we're all mad here."
Carol Smallwood's books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, foreword by Molly Peacock (McFarland, 2012) on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers; Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Editions, 2014); Bringing the Arts into the Library (American Library Association, 2013). Carol has founded and supports humane societies.
This excerpt from Lily's Odyssey (print novel 2010) is published with permission by All Things That Matter Press. Its first chapter was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in Best New Writing. http://www.amazon.com/Lilys-Odyssey-Carol-Smallwood/dp/0984098453