Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Six-Inch Valley Through the Middle of My Soul

In response to a comment, I am posting this essay I wrote about twenty years ago. Originally titled "Drinking Blue Milk," I have renamed it in keeping with the tradition of this blog.

--for vinestreet--

I have often heard of the chastity lesson with the milk and the ink drop: Sister Smith drips, almost tenderly, the midnight blue ink into the whiteness. The point is, I presume, that the milk is supposed to be ruined. I have never seen it done, but would, I think, probably watch in delight as the blue tendrils curl softly, coaxing the white, joining in gentleness until the glass is filled with pale blue. I know I would do it again at home to see the softness of a new color come to life. I have heard that others use chocolate cake: offering the largest teenage boy a slice of cake, then, instead of using the knife, plunging his hands through the cream and crumbs to offer, as it were, a spoilt offering. I cannot but envy his sensation as his fingers pierce cool cream, then rough, warm crumbs, dark chocolate working its way underneath his nails. I would have asked to do it myself, to be able to feel the texture ooze through my tightening fingers like river mud.

I am the fifth child in our family—a girl, who always wanted to be a boy. Perhaps it was my brothers' fault: I wanted to be like them. I have two of them immediately above me in the family line-up: Jonathan, three years older than I, who was small and asthmatic (no longer). He played the piano and the girl parts in the school plays at his all-boys school. We fought constantly, perhaps because we had nothing in common, but maybe because I was just as big as he was until he hit his growth spurt at 17. I do remember though when we both had chicken pox. It must have been an uneasy truce that day. Mom was gone Visiting Teaching, the sky was pure blue and the breeze blew salt through the house—early summer in the Cape. Suddenly we found ourselves naked at the swimming pool in the back garden, our scrawny white bodies dotted in fiery red pox, jumping off the electricity pole into the deep end. The water felt cool against my skin and we laughed.

On the other hand, Paul is big and brawny with bow legs and crooked teeth. My mother was asked to remove him from nursery school, I think, when he was four: he was teaching the other children to swear. He had a mess of freckles strewn across his round face and report cards filled with comments like "A satisfactory result but Paul is not reaching his potential." His room smelled like rugby boots and mud. He played the recorder and the guitar, crooning "Norwegian Wood" into a tape recorder to send to the mission president's daughter up north, and about the only eligible Mormon girl in the country beside his sisters. Paul left for BYU when he was seventeen, the first of the children to leave. I dreamed I would marry Paul, but he loves Janet Nicole, whom he met in the Reserve Library. When she first saw him, he was wearing Easter grass in his moccasins—he wanted to be a walking Easter basket (as I remember or disremember the story). Janet knew it wouldn't be boring to spend a life with a walking Easter basket, so she married him.

I don't remember when my body started changing. I just know I never wanted to be a girl. I even fought once on the rugby fields of Rondebosch Boys High School with a boy who disbelieved me when I said I was a girl. Secretly, I am thrilled, but I have to defend my honor. So we wrestled until he finally conceded my femininity. I was ten years old. I even went through a phase where at night I prayed to be changed. Come morning, I would sneak my nighty up ever so slowly over my stomach only to be disappointed.

Womanhood came early the next year. It came before I wore a bra, before my first kiss. It came when Harry moved his hand slowly across my chest. He whispered roughly, "Let me show you how I love you." I kept my eyes firmly on my book, trying to pretend he wasn't there, that he wasn't doing what he was doing, that I wasn't feeling what I was feeling. "Touch me," he whispered as we walked between the pillars of the garden gate to the front door. His voice was hoarse. "Please, touch me." I ran, pretending I hadn't heard. I was twelve years old. He was my sister's husband.

It's a strange thing when you're twelve, in seventh grade at an all-girls school, and a man touches you. It's a fascinating, repulsive thing when you're eleven and a man shows you pictures, pulled from beneath the Welsh dresser in a secret drawer, of things you don't know the words for. It's an anxious thing hoping the family won't see when he kisses you hello in an open-mouthed masquerade of familial affection. It's an agonizing thing waiting to see who will take you home after a night of babysitting. It's fear rising inside as your sister asks Harry to drive you home; she's too tired. It's knowing his hand will come over the back of the front seat to find you in the dark where you sit huddled in the corner. Most of all, it's a frightening thing, when at eleven and twelve, your prayers are filled with earnest pleadings that your sister's husband will drown at sea and never, never come back.

I didn't know what else to do. I was twelve years old. He was my sister's husband. He was family. He told me it was a good thing, a beautiful thing. He told me never to tell. I never did. I loved her too much. And so I prayed, and feared, and prayed, and felt my body respond in ways I had never known. I hated my body; it betrayed me. I hated him; he betrayed my sister. I loved him; he was my sister's husband. I felt in some way responsible. If only I hadn't started developing so soon. If only I didn't look back when I was seventeen when I was eleven, eighteen when I was twelve. If only, if only, if only. Eventually, I just learned to block it out. I carried on doing homework, I carried on reading, I carried on (with a few bouts of bulimia in between). What else could I do? I carried on, in silence.

Until one summer twelve years later.

I returned home after two-and-a-half years away, half of that spent in missionary service to find our family reeling and an older sister, numb, spirit deadened. After thirteen years, she had finally had enough. Enough of trying to raise children in a maelstrom of emotion, of trying to remain calm in the face of violent episodes, of trying to placate and reassure a hair trigger. In one long afternoon, Mom and I sat at a kitchen counter making chocolate cakes, and she told me the story. Then, hesitatingly, awkwardly, I told her mine. But it was not only mine. It was my younger sister's story too. He had done the same to her, convincing her it was right because Tessa, her older sister, had done it. In her distraught whisper, Mom said, "I must tell your father."

Perhaps the biggest reason that I never told anyone is because my father loves his children. I thought he would kill Harry if he ever knew. His reaction surprised me.

We walked along the beach front at The Wilderness, an isolated village on the east coast. The air smelled of salt and sand and the ocean mist creeping grey across the horizon. Mom and my youngest sister, Alex, and I had joined my father that weekend in his speaking assignment, about 600 kilometers from home, to a tiny branch of about 11 people. Arriving early after the six hour drive, we drifted to the beach where we had come so many summers before as a young family. I can see myself, brown curls sandstapled to my head, turning hand-sand-sky down the slopes of the dunes to land cold in the ocean. I am older now, the sun has gone down, and Daddy walks ahead of me, his legs still lean, his belly a little bigger, his hair grey. I can hear his words, the words I have feared for so long: "Oh sweetheart, I don't know why the Lord gives us such strong urges. It's hard to control them and so difficult to understand. But we must learn to battle them and to be forgiving." I consciously loved my father more then than I had in years. I wondered at his understanding of human nature. Then I remember he too had had to forgive another's urges so that his life and theirs could heal and go on. With his kind and gentle wisdom born of experience, he gave me the family's permission to feel the peace that I had felt for years. At that moment, for all I knew and had experienced, my episodes with Harry were gone and forgiven.

I had forgiven Harry. To enter the House of the Lord, I had to forgive. But the healing began long before that interview day. I don't think I was the one who consciously chose to heal. Through the silent and divine process of time and faith, the pain was gone, first buried to ease it, then washed away in an understanding born of age and time. My bishop asked me whether there was anything in my conduct relating to my family members that was not in keeping with the Spirit of the Lord. I remember searching the faces in my mind: childish fights with Jonathan, harsh words with Laura, but, more recently, letters of love and support; rocking Alex to sleep; Daddy and I watching Silverado on a rainy Saturday afternoon. From a recess, long unvisited, came shadows of fear and anger and Harry. I hesitated then, and said, "Yes, but it's over now." He must have understood because he said, "I sense no animosity." And he was right. I did not hate Harry then, ten years after the fact, and I don't hate him now.

I realize that what happened, happened. Not much I can do about it now. I had hoped my husband would have been the first to touch me so; but he doesn't condemn me. Sometimes, I wish I hadn't sat through youth classes knowing exactly what the teacher was talking about. I wish, in hindsight, that those very strong feelings and passions had not been stirred in me at such a young and inappropriate age. Often, and still, I wish I had not learned to associate those expressions of love and tenderness with sick men and misguided desires. That association is so hard to undo.

To preserve the normalcy of my life, there is another association I have been loath to make. I do not find it easy to call myself "a survivor of abuse," "a victim." Those are words I see emblazoned across angry T-shirts on the nightly news with Tom Brokaw—applicable to someone else more desperate, more vile, more dirty than I am. Or are they? To realize what happened and accept what I am because of a man's actions stirred a smoldering anger that I don't quite know how to deal with. So, sometimes, I smile, in self-deprecating humor (which is only to leaven my anger) at the thought of being a statistic. In the beginning, I used to cry. To be so violated and so young is so unfair, so unjust, so ungodly. While the understanding of human mistakes and the forgiving came relatively easily, my healing continues still. Mostly, I remove myself.

Before I was married, I did not think very often of what happened so long ago, but when I saw the stretch across the back of the mountain sky, or I saw the swell of the hills green in the spring, or when I felt a hand resting warm in the small of my back, and lips gently brushing my neck, then I remembered, not Harry, but the swells of passion and I had to fight against them. I knew, dangerously well, how to focus my mind on something completely unrelated to the activities of my body. I knew how to turn off the guilt; and how to rationalize, even enjoy in a panic-heightened state, what was happening to me. I needed to do that when I was 12. It was vital in order for me to psychologically survive. And Christ knew, even in my youth, how to succor me so that I could go on. He dimmed my memory and dulled the hate, turning me to acceptance and a hazy understanding of why Harry did what he did. At twelve, I did not consider myself a victim. In fact, I did not regard myself as anything out of the ordinary. For all I knew, I was normal, healthy, passionate.

But I am 26 now, married and a mother, and the legacy lives with me still. However, there is no longer one person who must suffer from this period in my life. In fact, when I was alone, I did not suffer. If I kept control of my life and my passions, I could avoid situations like those of 12 years before. But now, married, I think Kevin and I are both victims of what happened. I use the word victim with trepidation. I don't wish to shift the reasons for our situation onto anybody. But, in my case, I can share the blame. What happened is a dark thread in a rich tapestry, useful perhaps to make lighter colors seem richer in comparison. However, sometimes, it is hard for me to see anything but that one thread. I know I would never have chosen so dark a thread as that fear of intimacy and sexual guilt which Harry brought into my life.

I struggle to know that Kevin really loves me. I convince myself, through some strange logic, that if he loved me, he would not ask me to share myself with him. I struggle to dissociate the sacred acts of husband and wife from the perverted acts of a middle-aged man and a 12-year old girl. I misinterpret Kevin's loving caress as gropings. My mind tells me that Kevin cannot be the same as Harry, but many times, that silent, rigid, young girl is closer to the surface than I realize, waiting and watching with bated breath, trying not to panic as a hand comes closer and closer to her body. These are the things I struggle with.

I entered marriage with Hollywood dreams and third hour allusions to the delights of marriage. We were going to live happily ever after in satin sheets and temple garments. I thought, because Kevin and I were so passionate in our dating, that the same passion would continue in our marriage. I could not have imagined the irrational fear and guilt that accompanied our first nights. I needed more than Calvin Klein lace lingerie to still the sobs and screams welling in my throat. My perplexed new husband could not reconcile the stiff, frightened girl before him on the bed with the demonstrative, passionate woman he had been engaged to. We could not have imagined I would fight him, pushing him away to physically escape what I had mentally escaped before.

Our marriage is not smooth at time because of this. Kevin shrinks from expressing his affection (not a natural posture for him), not wanting to be mistaken for Harry. I retreat behind a barricade of silence, protests of fatigue and mountains of books. (Robert Ludlum is the equivalent of a swear word in our family. I took the Bourne Ultimatum on our honeymoon and finished the book—all 700 plus pages of it. Reading is my way of escaping, of going somewhere else when the intimacy required becomes too much.) We are beginning to talk. The talking helps. Knowing Kevin is trying to understand me helps. But how can you really understand a feeling, a fear so irrational, yet so real unless you have felt it yourself. The revulsion comes in a wave so unexpected that even the sweetest kiss turns instantly rancid in my mouth. The swell of passion that causes me turn my body into his freezes me even as I feel it. The fear and guilt are with me still. Even after bearing a child, I still feel afraid when I try to enjoy my body with my husband or try to enjoy his. Just as I learned to fight the passion, I need to now let it ride, climb on its back, do something, anything to enjoy those moments.

Kevin enjoys me. He loves me passionately. He's a remarkably kind, gentle man who entered marriage with the same passion-filled dreams I did but with the capacity to fulfill them. Unfortunately, he married me, a survivor of abuse. I don't think he regrets the decision. Nothing indicated things would be this way between us, that I would be so crippled. But at times, he struggles to know that I love him, that I find him desirable. Because if I did, I would want to make love to him. But, most days, I don't. I tell him it's nothing personal. He doesn't quite buy that. Round and round we go.

So we struggle through this area of intimacy and withdrawal, which may or may not be different, from the struggles each sexually inexperienced newly-wed couple goes through. I often yearn to love my husband but feel myself incomprehensibly incapable of expression, frozen in some adolescent fear of guilt and complicity. I cannot but help it would be easier for me, for Kevin, for us, had we not had to drink blue milk. While I am not ruined as Sister Smith insisted I was, I am irrevocably changed, different. To give oneself clean and undefiled, naive and inexperienced, eager to participate, must be a fearful, reverent, divine moment free of shadows and fear and guilt. It was a moment I never knew. But I know, I hope, that I can come to know that moment. If there is such a thing as forgiveness and a lighter yoke, then there have to be for us, for Kevin, for me, nights and mornings and lazy summer afternoons of sensual, sexual, divine moments. They are not with us yet. God willing, they will be.

Postscript: Fifteen years after I wrote this, I am thrilled to announce that we have been the blessed participants in many "lazy, summer afternoons." There have also been tricky nights and petulant mornings. But enough "lazy summer afternoons" that we keep coming back for more.

Title from Bruce Springsteen, "I'm on Fire"


  1. Thank you for sharing this. I think you have been blessed with the miracle spiritual gift that is forgiveness. At least for me, and the dear women in my family that have been sexually abused, I have had the toughest time even wanting to pray for forgiveness.In my case, it's because the perpetrator (also a family member) for almost fifty years now, has not sought reconciliation with them, and has continued as normal.

    I can see here, through you, that unconditional forgiveness is possible! At the same time I wonder, if the consequences of abuse last so long and are so hard to manage and have victory over, how does one continue to let go of the anger when every day there is a battle to face?

    You don't have to answer these questions...I'm mostly asking myself them.

    Thank you again.

  2. There is a legal remedy. Sometimes that is the only thing that will cause the perpetrator to take notice. If the statute of limitations hasn't expired, consider the legal remedy. Sounds harsh, but it is the natural consequences of his actions.

  3. In my bitterness (which I have recently discovered can be dissolved if I will apply the Atonement), I have wanted to do that. It just so happens that the victims refuse to speak.

    As I continue to think about this, I am wondering if perhaps this challenge was custom-made for me. Not having closure can be and has been at times, unbearable for me. Maybe this is one of those times, when I have to learn to still love the beauty in my own life, and make the choice to not let this part of my life ruin me. At the end of the day, it really is a choice.---At least, I desperately hope it is.

  4. P.S. I need to clarify. The victims have selectively chosen which family members they want to tell. Some know, others don't. They completely refuse to be involved in any legal action, and have resolved to lie if confronted. To them, death is worse than confronting this--even though ironically, they are dying a slow death already.