I remember Vincent saying when I was going through my divorce, "With Uncle Walt and Aunt Hester behind Cal what can you do? But the Lord knows I did not think much of Cal staying at their place before he moved. Uncle Walt could very well have done things to you as a child but it's time to get on with things."
"Don't you know what goes on? It's like seeing an elephant in your pew and pretending it isn't there!"
"You have always expected too much and go off in your own world. You refuse to see things."
"Why we need God." He must have anticipated my reaction because he didn't give me a chance to reply by saying, "Whatever you think is wrong with you would look small if you read the lives of the saints. No one is free. It is imperative to have order."
"Like in a patriarchy?"
"A hierarchy. I have to follow the bishop, he follows the archbishop. Since you have no husband to obey, you must follow Uncle Walt." Even if I hated to admit it, perhaps he was right and Cal had been right about saying you should follow your script.
Still, I said, "I think women form their beliefs from what they see rather than theories because we're closer to the earth than men. We've more a feel for what's important."
Vincent looked like his housekeeper had moved his favorite chair when he replied, "Do you see where that dangerous and foolish thinking has gotten you?"
Aunt Heidi had chided, "You're too sensitive." That may be part of it but when I get close to accepting what happened, my mind reacts like a horse nearing a cliff. I remember telling Mary Elizabeth's husband that when I mowed the grass when it was so dry one summer in Nicolet City that, "I'd never seen clouds of dust like that before." And when he said, "It's never been so dry before," the logic, the mere acceptance of saying things the way they were seemed crude, impolite, non-Catholic.
I was elated to recently read that finally state legislation, introduced by a woman senator, had been proposed covering the $800-$1,000 rape evidence kit for victims. And that there was now no statute of limitations for first degree sexual assault. When I'd been date raped, I used another name to see a doctor, because I knew if anyone found out it'd be assumed I'd asked for it. The last time I'd gone through the sliding door of Rite Aid I saw the poster: "It is estimated that 12 women a week are sexually assaulted on the White Rapids campus."
Being free is something I've wanted ever since I was a child and now I had to explore this new world in which I wasn't Dr. Hyde's wife or Walter Alger's daughter.
Through my lace curtains I saw a white plastic bag jerking back and forth caught on a fallen branch. Wind freed it. The bag was from the store where I'd read the headlines of a tabloid: Cleopatra Found Alive on an Iowa Farm accompanied by a picture of a woman wearing a wig (or an inverted mop) lifting her eyes as if to hide her amusement. It was where I'd surveyed bottles of Wisk, All, Cheer, and Surf to remember that homes were as much part of me as my hands and feet, conjuring a lace curtained home with a husband, wife father and children. I'd stare and bite by lip to look preoccupied when the same stock boys passed by. When I got another cup of coffee I noticed a tabloid on the table: "12 Year Old Gives Birth to 33-lb. Infant." A picture showed the smiling girl feeding the baby a gallon of milk.
When I left the grocery store I stopped at McDonald's. While waiting in line the father in front of me had a little girl climb up him like Kitty climbed her tree. I raised my eyes to the menu on the wall and read from #1 (Big Mac) to Filet-O-Fish #9 like they were numbers above a blackboard at school. When the little girl started screaming for caramel topping and the father pleaded to tell him what else she wanted, I counted the sesame seeds on one of the buns. When the little girl's brother came clutching his crotch demanding a different Happy Meal toy, I turned to the two couples at the other register holding hands, staring at the wall menu with tilted heads. One of the men was wearing yellow suspenders designed as a measuring tape over a shirt listing Memphis TN, Dayton OH, and others on some tour. The other man had one foot propped against the other, giving his leg a "K" look that reminded me of the stick figures in one the Sherlock Holmes I often read when I was married because the mysteries were always solved. The man with the "K" leg had string holding two back belt loops, the beginning of his crack displayed by a skimpy tee shirt printed with a fish tail and the word TALES; the front of the tee shirt had a picture of a fish head with HEADS. One of the women had large flat copper earrings like shields; the other a bandana with FLATHEAD, MOTOR HEAD printed all over it.
When both kids in front of me started fighting over their Disney toys, I recalled a Disney coloring book--of carefully staying within the lines coloring Cinderella, wishing my waist was that thin and my neck that long, knowing my own feet were like the ugly stepsisters--even Nancy Drew wore Size 4 shoes.
The clerk was giving me nervous glances-perhaps she thought I was an inspector because I'd begun adding up the prices of the nine meals after counting how many had cheese sliding down because she put my order in a bag instead of on a tray. While counting the exact change to give her, I enjoyed the feeling of being in control. I headed towards my table-one for two sandwiched between larger tables. It was the McDonald's (one of four in White Rapids) where the water had the same dispenser as the orange drink and came out tinged.
When would I not hear Aunt Hester warning like a Greek chorus: "If you don't have your kids baptized they'll go to Hell." Not see the outline of Uncle Walt hovering in my bedroom door?
If I told about the past, at least I wouldn't have the burden of secrecy; the Doctor had told me, "You were set up." I wanted to end being the sacrificial goat chased from the village with a red mark on its back to appease the Gods, but traditionally women have been grouped either as good/quiet or knowledgeable/evil. At least the Aztecs had killed their sacrificial victims quickly by just physically ripping out their hearts.
On the way to a dental appointment to stave off seeing strays, I recited one of Aunt Ida's holy card verses: "The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord shine His face upon you" and since I'd forgotten the rest of it I continued with: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" picturing the church-converted-hospital scene in Gone With The Wind before the huge stained glass window shatters when Atlanta was invaded. I pictured Aunt Ida saying her rosary, the worn pearl beads rattling like bones against wooden pews made of trees once with green leaves or needles.
When waiting in the dentist's waiting room, I noticed a request in a magazine to take part in a study about child incest survivors. The two other women there were discussing how cleverly Julia Roberts had faked her death to escape an abusive husband in Sleeping with the Enemy. Covers of magazines read: "Be His Very Best in Bed," "What Men Won't Tell You." I recognized the toothpaste advertised on television by a woman in a desert using the last of her water to brush her teeth. After she collapses, the sparkles radiating from her smile attracts the attention of a Tom Cruise look alike overhead. The magazines there were the kinds that women pored over because they had models who never aged--they were constantly being replaced with younger ones representing "today's look."
For weeks I thought about participating in the incest survivor survey. My family was the only one I'd ever have and wasn't the illusion of a good one as necessary as breathing? Yet shouldn't what happens when it becomes twisted be told to stop churning out women like me? But wasn't it human nature-men are stronger than women are and the strong have ruled the weak from the beginning of time? And doesn't the Bible admonish wives to obey their husbands and honor their fathers? But wasn't there a wider truth that's corroded by silence?
Muriel Rukeyser might have written that if a woman told the truth about her life "the world would split open," but I feared I'd hear: "So what? Abuse's as common as chicken pox, and like the poor will always be with us. You think you can fix the world? Think again, lady." Still, even if this was so, why not do myself a favor and get rid of the burden of carrying it around? But wouldn't I always-so what difference would it make?
Aunt Ida's priest saying, "Accept things the way they are because it's God's will," often came back to me; at times I thought it was solid wisdom, other times the easy way out even though I've come across the same idea in other major religions and Alexander Pope's Essay on Man ended with, "Whatever is, is right." Did the old women in Aunt Ida's church still recite rosaries hoping it'd be the one that'd tip the scales for them?
Still, how would I know if I didn't tell? But wouldn't I be a snitch, one speaking ill of the dead in the bargain? And if no one cared, wouldn't that make it worse when I lost my illusion of how things would change when I did? What if no one would have anything to do with me?
And yet, if I didn't face it, symptoms would continue because they were attempts to get things right--to rescue and thereby feel rescued--to make sure plants had enough room and water to grow so I did.
I read that a little more than one out of ten women in the United States will get post-traumatic stress disorder. But when I got enough courage to ask a physician when I had a physical if it could be what I had, he told me it was what soldiers got-predisposed soldiers because not all returned traumatized.
How much should I tell Mark and Jenny? If they knew, wouldn't it ruin the memory of their father and my adoptive father? Wouldn't I be angry with them for not taking my side, feel guilty if they did?
But I had a 99.99% certainty that I had post-traumatic stress disorder: it was like finding a hidden picture in one of those children's puzzles-once you knew where it was, you couldn't believe you hadn't spotted it right off. To borrow Betty Friedan's phrase "the problem that has no name" now had one. I still didn't accept it all the time because it turned things upside down more than if I'd lived during the time the Copernican Theory became known. But the knowledge that anyone could get it gave me assurance that I hadn't started out "half-baked."
In the meantime, I continue to be grateful for Rite Aid greeting cards: new occasions continue to be added even though the parents of girl babies still receive pink cards with "sugar and spice and everything nice", and boy babies illustrations of toy soldiers with blue drums.
I walk Rite Aid greeting card aisles often when the White Rapids Humane Society I helped start gets too frustrating-times when I thought I'd do as much good cutting pictures of cats and dogs from magazines. When getting in my car, I talk to myself like I talk to Kitty: "You're a F-I-N-E girl. Yes, you are. You're a pret-ty girl. Yes, a pret-ty, pret-ty girl. Aren't you a pret-ty, pret-ty girl? Yes, yes, you are. My! You ARE a handsome little thing you sw--wee-ty delight. You're a F-I-N-E girl" And sometimes I liked the way "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" rolled off my tongue.
Whenever Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is on TV, I can't watch it because the snakes trigger the dream of being with Uncle Walt in a dim basement with snakes writhing in and out of me when I was about five. It's the dream Doctor said "had everything in a nutshell." I feel his hair tumbling on my face and he uses his pet name for me: "Dolly, this is our secret. If you tell you won't be my girl anymore." I concentrate on a narrow shaft of light from a small window, but the more I struggle the more the words suffocate in my throat. I scream so loud that the dust particles in the narrow shaft of light explode; we turn into butterflies and escape through the window.
Because the book reveals so much, when I put the book down my walk is unsteady as if a dentist had exposed nerves to reach deep decay. I walk away surprised that the floor supports me, not unlike when my first grade nun at St. John's told my class that if we talked the cracks in the worn wooden floor would separate and we'd fall into the fires of Hell.
I keep Trauma and Recovery out where I can see it and touch it, proof that my problem without a name now has one.
Carol Smallwood's most recent books include Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Communications, 2015); Women, Work, and the Web (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); Writing After Retirement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Carol has founded, supports humane societies.
This excerpt from Lily's Odyssey (print novel 2010) 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