to envelope you
encase you in tenderness
mother's love conquers
Everything she knew changed
Everyone she loved changed
Everyone she read changed
But she continued
Everything she thought changed
Everything she wanted changed
Everything she felt changed
But she continued
Everything she learned changed
Everyone she met changed
Every new day brought change
And she continues
Originally written 1/31/2008
During my last two years of high school, my family lived in a nicer-than-usual home in Southern California. We usually lived in solidly middle class digs, but our home in Chino Hills was decidedly upper middle class. And there was plenty of room for all of us. Most of the bedrooms were upstairs, but my little sister, who turned thirteen in that house, used the downstairs study as her bedroom. We were doing very well. As often happens when people prosper, a hapless extended family member was drawn toward the bounty.
My Uncle Dan moved in with us.
To understand the importance of this event, one must understand the kind of man my uncle was. He was the family’s prodigal son, the black sheep. I really didn’t know him before he came to live with us. I had met him a few times as a little girl, but it was usually at some big family celebration like the Fourth of July or Christmas. He didn’t come around much. He and my mom had the same dark, curly hair and the same striking greenish eyes. That was the extent of the similarities. I’m sure he felt uncomfortable and out of place as the only one who smoked and drank in a very principled family of teetotalers, non-smokers, and vegetarians. It probably didn’t help that he never went to college, that he couldn’t seem to hold a job, that his new marriage was already falling apart, and that the word alcoholic was whispered about him.
Initially, I liked him. I thought he was funny and I enjoyed the way he challenged the stuffy notions of my puritanical family. More than that, I felt like here was one person in the family who was fun and normal. He liked classic rock music and I liked classic rock music. He liked to tell off-color jokes and I liked watching my mom squirm with embarrassment when he did. He was always willing to drive me to the mall or take me out for a milkshake or whatever. He was spontaneous and free with his compliments and money.
So when my dad and his friend built an enclosed room for Uncle Dan in our two-car garage, I was fine with that.
Once the newness of the situation had worn off, Uncle Dan relaxed and changed noticeably. For one thing, he began drinking and smoking pot in and around the house whenever my parents weren’t there. He offered it to me, too. I was too guarded to take him up on it, but I was immensely flattered by the overture. Here was someone who regarded me as an equal, not as a little kid to be enveloped in bubble wrap and protected. My seventeen-year-old ego relished his regard. He made me feel like the most talented and beautiful girl in the world. According to him, I could be a model in a magazine, a brilliant scientist or a gifted hair stylist. He freely praised my poetry and drawings, my attempts at sewing and crochet. I adored him for it. At a certain point, his opinion was the one that mattered most to me.
Sometimes he spoke to me about his wife Dharma and her kids, Ken and Vikki, in Oregon. Vikki was fourteen. The way Uncle Dan described her, she too was lovely and talented, but also royally screwed. “I was that girl’s best chance to make something of herself,” he lamented. “Now that she’s stuck with Dharma, she’s got no chance. None.” I felt bad for Vikki, that she’d lost my uncle and that her mom was such a loser. But I felt like her loss was my gain.
At some point, Uncle Dan began to drink and use drugs much more heavily. He grew irritable and annoyed at my mom. When he was inebriated, he might yell and cuss and sometimes even throw things at her. Books come to mind. I noticed that he seemed able to control his temper whenever my dad or my brother were around. When only we poor females were home, he let loose. My mom was always the target. I was sometimes afraid of him, not for myself, but for what he might do to her. I still thought he was a good guy, but that my mother’s strict religious outlook was too much for anyone to handle sedately. After all, I too felt stifled by the household rules and conventions. He angered me with his outbursts, but I always excused his behavior in my mind.
Over time, there was a shift in Uncle Dan’s behavior towards my little sister and me. I think he started to look upon us as his. Not his nieces, just his. He started ordering us around and snapping his fingers at us. “Get over here and give your uncle a hug,” he’d snarl, snapping his fingers and pointing sharply at the floor. I loved my uncle and had no problem hugging him, but my insides clenched with disquietude when he ordered us around like that. I wasn’t exactly afraid of him, but little tendrils of unease tickled my insides, warning me of danger. That feeling, what I now refer to as my gut feeling, was there nearly all the time I was around him. I grew accustomed to it and ignored it after a while.
Because he restrained his behavior and attitude in the presence of the male members of the family, my dad and brother were oblivious to the growing problem in our home. Imagine how it would feel for a black person and a white person to visit South Africa at the height of apartheid. They would have two very different accounts of their experience and of their treatment. One might think it a lovely place and the other might think it a veritable hell on earth. The males and females in my family, likewise, had very different ideas of who Uncle Dan was, because he adjusted his persona in the presence of each.
During that time, I began to grow concerned, again not for myself, but for my little sister. Except for her, the entire family had upstairs bedrooms. Her bedroom was five feet from the garage and Uncle Dan’s lair. This layout nagged at me, so I made up a bed for my sister in my room. We had “slumber parties” every night and I locked the door against the possibility of Uncle Dan sneaking in. I don’t remember what made me think he might try to enter my room in the night, but I did what I could to protect myself and, especially, my sister. I didn’t mention my fears to my parents. I just acted on them.
As things escalated, I grew more and more uneasy around Uncle Dan. He often contrived reasons for us to be alone together. If the whole family was in the living room, he and I would go sit on the back patio. If everyone was in the family room looking out on the back yard, he would make up some reason for the two of us to withdraw to the living room.
Everything he did seemed calculated to bring us into close physical proximity. He paid me to cut his hair, saying I was a great stylist and besides, he preferred my fingers in his hair to a strangers’. When we sat together, he always wanted me within easy reach. If we were on a couch, our thighs would be touching. If they weren’t, he would say something like, “What, are you afraid you’ll catch a disease from your old uncle? Get over here,” and whether I scooted over to him or he scooted over to me, our thighs would soon be touching. What used to be ordinary hugs became prolonged and awkward embraces, with his nose buried in my hair, sniffing my neck and murmuring, “Mmmm, you smell so good.” Although warning bells went off in my head, I pushed them away. He might be weird, but he was harmless. He was my uncle, after all!
Uncle Dan frequently told me that I was developing into a fine and beautiful woman. In the beginning, his admiration didn’t sound much different from that of my parents and grandparents, whose compliments were always uplifting and encouraging. But almost imperceptibly, they transformed into the unseemly expressions of my uncle’s underlying desires. The change was so gradual, and over such a long period of time, that I thought I was imagining it. I now recognize it for what it was: he was grooming me for sexual abuse.
One day, he waited until we were alone and presented me with a gift box. “You have the perfect build for this,” he declared, as I lifted the lid, revealing a skimpy string bikini. He asked me to model it for him, which was perhaps the most outrageous of all his brash requests. I was stunned and nearly speechless. The little trickles of fear I had been suppressing for so long, engulfed me in a cold wave. I mumbled an excuse and ran to my bedroom, locking the door behind me. I was so upset by what had just happened, that I was shaking. I felt like he had asked me to twirl for him in my underwear. I couldn’t brush it aside any more. I finally understood that he was the crazy one, not me.
He never got me alone after that. I still complied with his demands for prolonged hugs. I still let our thighs touch on the couch before getting up and sitting somewhere else. I still listened to his rambling when others were present. After a few months, he finally moved out on his own and I was free of him. I never told anyone what Uncle Dan was really like until years later. And I never allowed him to even glimpse my children.
I have a friend I’ll call “Reggie”. He’s intelligent and kind. Reggie is the type of person who talks roughly twice as much as he listens. When making a point, he grows quite serious, relaxes his face and barely moves his upper lip, making his lower lip shape most of the sounds into words. He seems not to take a breath when speaking, but plunges on without the usual conversational rhythm of give and take.
When he does listen, one has the singular impression that he’s not really listening but rather that he is formulating a rebuttal to whatever is being said. Sometimes his thoughts slip out prematurely and he interrupts instead of waiting his turn to speak.
Reggie often begins his sentences with, “Yeah, but” and even if he agrees with you, he will frame his response as an argument. For example, if were to say, “The sky is so blue today,” Reggie might counter with, “Yeah, but really it’s more of an azure. The word blue just doesn’t capture it for me. Calling it blue is a gross understatement. I think it’s really important to properly describe things.”
Needless to say, conversations with Reggie can be challenging. I mean, I like the guy. He has a good heart and is well-meaning. He does have some good ideas and I can tell that he’s trying to improve himself overall. It’s just that he lacks self-awareness in his conversational style. With Reggie, it’s all give, give, give and no take. He comes off as a know-it-all.
I don’t want to unfriend Reggie, if I may borrow the term from Facebook. I like him. I just want to be able to have a conversation that doesn’t feel like a competition to be heard. I want more give and take.
I’ve never come right out and told him how I feel. As his friend, I owe him that honesty, but I lack the courage. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. So the way I’ve been dealing with it is to avoid him as much as possible, without totally shunning him.
As I write this, I realize my course of action has to be to tell him in a gentle way, taking care to sound like the true friend I am to him. I’ll share the results after I talk to him, if it’s at all interesting.
Fool me but don’t lie to me
I know I sound naive
Hold me close in fallacy
The truth just makes me grieve
Fool me but don’t lie to me
I’m easy to seduce
The counterfeit as fact I see
What’s real is of no use
Fool me but don’t lie to me
I need a place to hide
Feign love for me so tenderly
I’ll melt but not confide
I spent fourteen years of my life married to a broken man. Because of the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his alcoholic father, coupled with a severe learning disability, he never really grew up emotionally.
He had no idea how to be a man. He thought that being tough and aggressive were manly attributes. He drank compulsively to cover up the pain he felt and to add to that tough-guy image he wanted so badly to convey to the world. He parented the only way he knew how: with an iron fist and beer-tinged tirades.
As his wife, his special pet names for me were cunt and bitch. I was his punching bag. He took pride in the fact that he never actually punched me throughout our marriage. And while that’s technically true, he did choke me, sit on my head and shoulders, pinch me hard enough to leave bruises that lasted for months, threw knives at me and threatened me with a gun.
I survived that relationship, but obviously, it left me with a lot of scars, both physical and emotional. Counseling helped me with the psychological effects of the abuse like PTSD and helped me to guide my children through the messy divorce and ensuing custody bloodbath.
I got through all that, but a decade later, I was still resentful of my ex-husband. I couldn’t hear his name without malice: I wanted him to pay for what he’d put me through. I was obsessed with the idea that there was no justice for my kids and me: he had gotten away with so much. In fit of jealous insanity, I actually envied a friend of mine whose abusive ex-husband had killed himself in a violent and gory manner. I thought my friend had it so great: she didn’t have to worry about her abuser harassing her anymore. I didn’t think about how it affected her young boys.
My resentment was eating me up. I’ve since heard someone say that nursing a resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That’s exactly what it was like for me. My ex had no idea what I was thinking and feeling. It didn’t affect him at all. But my thoughts and feelings were toxic to me. I didn’t want to feel that way, but I couldn’t let it go.
Then one day, I happened upon a documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele, about the intrepid Eva Mozes Kor. She and her twin sister were Holocaust survivors, the “Angel of Death”, Dr. Mengele’s lab rats. The title intrigued me. I had heard many of the horrific stories of the concentration camps, but never considered the concept of forgiveness as a possibility for crimes of that magnitude.
I watched the documentary, unable to stop the tears. Mrs. Kor acknowledged the agony she’d suffered and did not minimize any of it. She admitted to having nightmares and anger and scars. These were all things I could relate to on a much smaller scale.
But she did something I had never even considered: she forgave the Nazis. Wholeheartedly. She faced a lot of criticism from other Holocaust victims who thought that forgiving the war criminals meant she was okay with their crimes. She was not. But she explained that “…forgiveness is not so much for the perpetrator, but for the victim…”
The idea was planted: if Mrs. Kor could genuinely forgive them, Dr. Mengele and the Nazis for crying out loud, who was I to withhold forgiveness in my smaller sphere of pain? Yes, my ex did wrong, but he was no Dr. Mengele!
That was the beginning of my forgiveness. I never sought out my ex husband to renew relations or tell him anything. It’s enough that I can let go of the rancor and enmity I had fostered for so long.
Today, when I think of him, I pray that he finds true love and happiness in this life.
When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I was fortunate enough to be part of a loving, caring family. We weren’t perfect. (There’s no such thing in humans.) But there were no drugs, alcohol, cussing or sexual abuse in our house. We did receive corporal punishment in the form of spankings sometimes, but usually our discipline was standing in the corner or cleaning the garage or a cut in allowance money. Things like that.
I remember my mother talking to my brother and sister and me about the importance of not talking to strangers when I was ten years old. My brother was eight and my sister was four. Our mother tried warn us about “bad men” and told us what to do if someone touched us “inappropriately”. I’m not even sure if I knew what she meant by that and I’m positive my little sister had no idea. “If someone touches you in a way you don’t like,” she said, “kick and scream and yell, ‘Don’t touch my body!‘ in a very loud voice.”
Later that week, my mom spanked my sister and was shocked when my sister kicked her and screamed repeatedly, “Don’t touch my body! Don’t touch my body!” We all got a good laugh out of that, but it shows how confused we were about our mom’s advice. I came away from that talk always wary of strangers, not relatives or friends of the family.
Fast forward a couple of years. I was going to a small, Christian elementary school in Santa Monica, California. My best friend was a girl about a year younger than me who I’ll call Isabella. Her parents were from El Salvador. Years before I met her, her dad had left her mom to raise Isabella and her brother, while he went off and started another family. She lived in a duplex with her mom and brother. Her aunt and grandmother lived in the other half of the duplex. Sometimes her uncle lived there too, but never for long.
There were things I noticed about my best friend that I thought at the time were odd. Isabella always wanted to come to my house after school and on weekends–whenever she could. I thought that was because we were such good friends and also because she had such a huge crush on my brother. I’m sure that had something to with it, but in hindsight there was more to it than that.
On the nights that Isabella slept over, we would talk late into the night about school, church, boys, dream cars, music and celebrities. Once she told me that her mom’s brother was an alcoholic. Another time she said that he sometimes came over to their side of the duplex and yelled at her mom. She never told me anything graphic or in detail. I was there for her as much as I could be, but I usually didn’t know what to say or how to relate. I just told her to come spend the night as often as she could.
After Christmas vacation, when we all returned to school, I noticed that Isabella had a large bald patch on the back of her head. Her skin there was shiny and smooth. It was almost impossible to hide. She would carefully arrange her long hair to hang perfectly over the bare spot, but a slight breeze, or even just walking around caused her hair the swing out of the way, betraying her embarrassing secret. Another odd thing about Isabella was that her eyelashes and eyebrows grew very sparse. I can’t remember if they actually disappeared, but it was very noticeable.
I thought my best friend was ill and that there must be some medical or scientific explanation for her hair loss. I felt sorry for her but I didn’t know how to help her. All I could really do was be her friend. So I did that.
It wasn’t until I became an adult that I began to put the pieces together. I read somewhere that one of the signs of child sexual abuse is that victims sometimes pull out their own hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. When I read that, I cried for my childhood friend. At the time I’d had no idea what she was going through, but in hindsight, it all made sense.
A few years later, I felt the first flutterings of fear when my uncle began making advances towards me.
I’m grateful to live at a time when abuse victims are believed, not automatically dismissed as troublemakers. And I’m glad I know some of the signs. I’m also glad that I can write about what I’ve witnessed and experienced. Hopefully, I can be of service to others by sharing my thoughts.