This story is not pleasant, but it is true. I’m going to try to put it below a “read more” tag, so as not to shock the unwary, but I don’t know how well it will work.
My first memory, literally the earliest thing I can remember, is teaching my brother how to give our father a hand job. I don’t know how old I was; I could have been anything 5 or under. Younger is actually more likely, both because trauma can stimulate very early permanent memories and because my brother was older than I was, and I don’t think either of us can possibly have been near the age of reason. And the really shocking thing about that memory is this: I already knew what my father wanted and how to do it.
It was pervasive, my father’s sexual urges. If my mother wasn’t home, it was all he was interested in, all he ever talked about. Dodging his gropes—even before I had breasts to grope—and eventually dodging my brother’s gropes as well, consumed me. I became hyperaware of my surroundings, and later on, in my 20’s, combat veterans would ask my husband if I had been a combat veteran of some kind, perhaps a frontline nurse? They recognized the way I moved, the way I watched everything around me.
But living with it day in and day out, I couldn’t dodge it all. Often enough my father forced me to accept a “feelie” for food or other things I needed, like clothing, or a ride to school. He tried to rape me, when I was eight years old. I’m not sure how well he succeeded, since I had no idea what he was doing, only that it was spectacularly painful. But after that, for years, he made a game of seeing how much of his dick he could get into me. (Thank god for vaginismus.) He taught me to drive by groping me when I made a mistake. He talked about sex until I wanted to scream.
And that…wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg. Beating me down, and keeping me down, with constant denigration, neglect, and cruelty, was the other thing he seemed determined to accomplish. My earliest Christmas memory, for example. It was the year the Skipper Barbie doll came out. She was small like me, she was brunette like me, she had brown eyes like me, she had freckles like me, and I wanted her, badly. I got her for Christmas, and I can still remember the joy of opening that little box and finding the thing I wanted most in all the world inside. I remember happily playing with her under the Christmas tree, when my father came up and whispered in my ear, “You should put Mommy’s Skipper doll away. She might not like you playing with it.”
Oh, I protested that it was mine, but he said it was my mother’s, and at that age, of course I believed him. So I put her up, on her little wire stand, on a shelf near the tree, and then I gazed up at her until I cried, I was so heartbroken. Which is when my mother found out what was going on, and she gave it back to me. But by then, the joy was shattered.
He shattered every Christmas he could, every birthday, every seemingly innocuous event. I went off to some kind of Wednesday Christian children’s meeting with some of the little neighbor kids. We came back singing that venerable children’s song, “Jesus Loves Me.” I loved to sing. I kept singing as I climbed the metal stairs into the dirty pink trailer we lived in, in a trailer park literally right next to a railroad track, and my father said, “Stop singing that. It isn’t true.”
There didn’t seem to be anything he wasn’t willing to spoil. Stealing my Christmas candy. Forcing me to give my gifts to my brother. I was only allowed to keep what no one else wanted.
After we moved to California, I remember a hot summer day when my father took us to the beach and I accidentally slammed my brother’s leg in the door getting out of the car. I truly thought he was going out the other door. But my protests were ignored, and for the rest of that day, as punishment, I was not allowed food or water, and my father kept me from using the public water fountains by telling me the water would make me sick.
One year, a couple years later, I didn’t even get a winter coat. I went to school in the winter cold, in sleeveless summer dresses, because I had nothing warmer. My skin would be mottled and almost blue. I hid in the bathroom during recess, because even though it wasn’t heated, at least it wasn’t windy like the playground. I got sick. A lot. I still wonder why the teachers didn’t say anything. How could they not notice I was inadequately dressed?
And when I found an old sweater in the drawer of a dresser my mother kept in my room, I asked if I could wear it.
She said no.
I wore it anyway, and she didn’t seem to notice.
The hell of it is, in the middle of all this, I was so smart. I learned multiplication and division in 2nd grade, as was common then (I don’t know if that’s still true), but you know what I did with that? I made off with my mother’s astronomy coffee table book and figured out how far the earth was from the sun in light-minutes. And I got it right. Then I made a chart of how far each planet was from the sun in light-minutes and light-hours. I got stymied trying to figure out how far the planets were from each other when they weren’t in a straight line with the sun, but hey, I wouldn’t learn trigonometry for another 6 years.
I took it to show-and-tell, that chart. I was proud of it.
How many 7 year olds even want to do something like that, much less figure out how to do it? I remember diving into the numbers with relish. I loved it.
Anything I was good at, however, my father pronounced worthless. The sun rose and set on my brother, though. He had to be smarter than me, you see, because he could take an engine apart and put it back together, and I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed to say anything about my report cards. It might bother my brother, and besides, it didn’t mean I was smart. My brother was smart. My father made sure I knew that was family gospel. My brother was smart. I was stupid. And ugly.
I have so many stories like that. Fighting with my father about college. I wanted to be an astronomer. He didn’t see the point. He insisted that my destiny was to be a good wife, which he defined as spreading my legs every time my husband got a hard-on. Oh, and I was not to be a frigid wife, as supposedly my mother was (she slept on the couch. always).
So much potential. So many possibilities. All wasted.
I did eventually get to college, on my own, with loans and grants. And I took an independent study astronomy course, since the university didn’t have an astronomy department. The professor set me the problem of plotting the Halley’s comet orbit. He said there was a book in the math library that would help, but I was not to look at it, and he would know if I did.
I had no idea where to start. He gave me no tools, no ideas, no hints. I’m told now, in retrospect, that what I was supposed to do was go to him to confess that I didn’t know where to start or what to do.
What it did was convince me that, despite my straight A average, my inability to figure out this problem proved I was as stupid as my father always said I was. I certainly wasn’t graduate school material, if I couldn’t figure out an undergraduate problem.
I dropped out of college.
So much potential. All wasted.
By then I was married, so I stayed home with the kids. I thought it was all I was good for, and all those feminists back in the 80’s and 90’s reinforced that belief by making sure I knew they thought I was making the wrong choice. (Because, you know, they’re all for choice, unless you don’t make the choice they think you should.) They actually said things to me like, “I’ll never waste my brain changing diapers!”
Oh, I argued the point. But deep down—they got to me. I believed that I wasn’t good enough for anything else. However much I made intellectual arguments in favor of doing what I thought was best for my children, I was defensive, and I wasn’t temperamentally suited to being a stay-at-home mom, but I didn’t believe I could do anything else.
Looking back, now that my children are grown—and please believe me when I say that my time raising them was worth every minute, however hard on me it was—I shudder to think how I would have dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace. Once I married my second husband, a kind and gentle and considerate man who treated me (and still does) with a sincere respect that I didn’t (and still don’t) think I deserved, that part of my life was over. But before I met him, I was harassed and asked to sit in laps and even raped in my own bed by a man I knew. Blaming it all on myself. Not even thinking to report any of it.
I probably wouldn’t be alive to report it.
It’s so much more than #MeToo, for the girls who were unwanted in the first place, for the girls whose very existence was an affront to their father’s machismo. My father attacked the very base of self-worth and damaged it irreparably.
Because I was a girl.