Cutting Out My Abuser is not Personal

crackIt’s rather troublesome that my dad is the one who introduced me to Leonard Cohen. But that’s okay. There are poisons come with their own antidotes and I’ve learned that my dad was one such killer/elixir combination. And it’s not even him. It’s not personal. Life itself is what kills you while making the food for the new person that will emerge from the ashes.

Like the second week of November bringing Trump’s election and Cohen’s death. Though the first was shocking, the second expected, in retrospect, they were both inevitable. There was solace, if not an antidote exactly, in Kate McKinnon singing Halleluiah as Clinton on national television that Saturday.

And solace has come for me in the peace that arrives with good boundaries. I reject the villains that seem to be rising in the world and in our country, but I see that they’ve always been there and that previous leaders were just milder flavors of the same dish. And perhaps that’s worse, like biryani with no chili; faded to a point where you can’t tell what it really is.

My anger at a country that would elect a regime that could grab me or my daughter by the pussy, inculcate my sons into a toxic cesspool of patriarchal masculinity, put us and other Muslims in concentration camps, endorse the new slavery of the school-to-prison pipeline for my black brothers and sisters was a crucible for me.

The crucible was made stronger knowing that 53% of people ostensibly like me, my fellow white women, had voted for this new world order.

What was wrong with them? Did I suffer from the same ailment? I mean, maybe I had the sense to vote for the person who wasn’t going to build a wall on our Southern border and implement a bunch of Nazi-like bullshit, but the root causes of their decision to either endorse or ignore those things, were those roots in my subterranean world also?

Were we white women allowing our desire for approval by white men, who would never see us as equals anyway, to influence our allegiance? This is where the personal becomes universal. We may be trying to please daddy or hubby, but in doing so we become agents of the patriarchy.

There was a lot of clashing of identities and stereotypes as I looked around and tried to understand. I still don’t know who my black stepmother voted for. She expressed confusion before the election about what to do because Trump and Clinton were equally poor choices in her eyes. I maybe could have understood that if Clinton’s faults were creating the “super predator” and contributing to the mass incarceration of black men. But it was more to do with “the gays” and “the baby killers,” I think, both of which conflict with her Seventh Day Adventist outlook.

My stepmother once told me I should stop speaking out for gay rights if it was upsetting my in-laws, that it had nothing to do with me and it wasn’t a hill I should die on.

Two weeks after the election, with all this fermenting inside of me, I could no longer serve the people who’d taken advantage of my love and trust. As I cleaned my house to host my father for Thanksgiving, it all felt wrong. I was filled with unadulterated rage, such that I said a prayer over the salad I made, asking that it not be filled with hatred and that it be good for all who ate it. I was reminded of all the Thanksgivings and Christmases of my childhood building one atop the other, an unbroken chain that mirrored the links between my parents’ pain and my own. It felt like I had to cut that tie or decide it was okay to knot it around my children’s hearts.

Just a few days later, there was a spate of stories about the trauma endured during filming by the female actress in Last Tango in Paris, an X-rated movie my father had screened in our home and where I was the only child in the audience. I stopped sleep and all important deadlines to make the first twist in the first link.

My open letter to my father was one of the hardest of a million steps I had to take to unshackle myself and my children from the narratives of our families and our skins and our countries.

So, though the letter was personal, it also wasn’t.

It wasn’t personal because I had nothing against my father. It’s likely he did the best he could with what he knew and the strength he had. It’s not personal because I just did what was necessary to save me and my children. It’s not personal because it’s universal. This is what we all must do if we’re to move forward.  Cutting out what we won’t accept, even if it contains aspects we love, is what we have to do to find out what’s under our soil, uprooting illness and fertilizing the healthy roots that have been graceful enough penetrate the earth and sometimes hang on by a pebble, waiting for this moment.

chem-chem-and-chaka-trees-connected-at-the-roots

Chemchem and Chaka trees connected at the roots.

(Photo: Leonora (Ellie) Enking/cropped from original/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Red Pill Papa: My Molester Corroborates My Story and Feels Entitled to an Apology

If this post sounds a bit manic, well, it’s just because I am ELATED.

There will be very little artistry in this. Just happiness and clarity and a little sofa jumping and some insight into what happens after one publicly shares a story of abuse.

Okay, so I have heard from my stepmother and others in my family that my father feels I have wronged him by going public and that I owe him an apology. He is saying he only molested me twice and that both of those incidents happened when he was heavily under the influence of alcohol. Also, he points out that he has helped me so much and given me money. (It’s not like I’m Donald Trump. Think less 20 million dollars and more of a four-figure, erm, figure. But even if I was a trust fund baby, no amount of money justifies the breaking of parental boundaries in the way he did.)

My father’s account, quite simply, makes my heart sing.

It makes me immensely happy. Why? Let me count the ways.

  1. This is not a he-said/she-said issue. While he doesn’t seem to feel that molesting me was overly problematic, he does admit that these “unconscious,” “drunken” molestations took place. (If they were unconscious, how does he know there were only two times? But let’s not get sidetracked by the nitty gritty here.)
  2. I can officially stop questioning my perception that something unhealthy happened to me because his own account speaks so clearly of moral and ethical disease.
  3. His stance means that the patriarchy is really a thing. Because he clearly thinks it was “just one of those things” and that I should be grateful for all the good he brought into my life, my inkling that he has had a sense of ownership over me has been proven correct. His thoughts match what the hairs on the back of my neck told me about him and about my standing in society. I mean, this is legitimately considered locker room talk and just what men do and I got you this nice piece of jewelry so just shut up and show a little gratitude already. That many of my family members “see his side too” and have even said that my memory could have been fuzzy (though I clearly state in my open letter that I have NO memory of this, just the gross feelings and his own words to point me in the right direction) points to this being a more systemic problem. I know, duh, right? But you drive yourself up a wall thinking maybe you’re just seeing this whole thing from the wrong angle. This is like an antidote to the gas lighting and it is awesome. I’d much rather know there is a cancer than be suffering and having a nagging feeling that I could never put my finger on.
  4. It was 100% the right thing for me to do this in public and in writing! I didn’t want to talk to him because I didn’t want to defend myself and hear him minimize what happened to me (which, if he or anyone else cared to read the letter I wrote, was not limited to the two known incidents of molestation but the entire lack of boundaries and omnipresence of grooming and crazy-making behavior). I have totally outsourced all that listening to his whining and justifications. Other people did it for me and I had the benefit of distance so I could instantly spot it for the load of horse crap that it is. It should go without saying that this approach was right for me. Everyone must do what they feel is right for their own situation.

I’ve been reorganizing around the house during this week between Christmas and Thanksgiving and have come across artifacts of my relationship with my father. The small but powerful stereo system he built me (now I am puzzling over which wires connect where), the bikes he gifted to me and my husband, his tall ladder that I didn’t get around to returning before I laid our history bare. We have half-used paint cans he donated to our kids’ room-painting projects, weird builder sets he created for our children himself out of nylon nuts and bolts.

Of course I miss my dad, or my idea of what a dad could be or the fantasy we all pretended was real, that he was just a kind-hearted, creative-if-flawed old grandpa poet, bumbling about with his coffee and sweet rolls. I actually am grateful for all I’ve received from him, though it is not his place to tell me I should be and he doesn’t even understand the treasures he’s gifted me.

My missing of him and the ache in the place his image occupied are justified and don’t negate his accountability.

I mourned for Anakin Skywalker when he went to the Dark Side. That doesn’t mean that Darth Vader didn’t do great harm. It doesn’t excuse him or make me think I should give a pardon that hasn’t been asked for or that I am obligated look back even for a second.

I am reminded now of a “storysito” folded into Alice Walker’s Now is the Time to Open Your Heart. One of the women on a healing journey in South America recounts her grandfather as her rapist and how she and her mom missed him after her mom whisked her away to safety. He was a professional clown and always had a smile and a home cooked meal waiting when her mom came home from work. (A moment here to thank Creation for books. This one page in Walker’s book might have given me a mote more permission to see my family in a realistic, nuanced light. An abuser can be, and probably often is, likeable.)

What my dad has done by propagating this story of me as ungrateful and unfair and unkind is this: he has given me a red pill. I can see the matrix.

His existence as a benevolent force in my life was a lie (because he has actually corroborated my story and, even if my words were untrue, they would point to mental illness that might be responded to with kind inquiry instead of silence and weird symbols—the booster seats returned from his car, the apparent purging of my photos from his phone via wordless email, a return of the key to our front door).

The tokens of agency for women in our society ring hollow now.

And if the hairs on the back of my neck were right about this, they’re probably right about a good many other things.

I wish I hadn’t spent four decades on this planet before truly figuring this out.

A random online life expectancy calculator says I’ll live to 92, so God willing, I’ve got 50 years of being truly alive to look forward to.

Yippee for the red pill!

Lingering questions:

How do I explain to my children why their Pap Pap is no longer coming over? (And not sure about his wife… she is claiming to be neutral and seems to be supporting him through his pain. When she told me he blamed the alcohol, she didn’t seem to understand how this made the story and my situation as a child worse, not better, etc.)

How do I make sure he doesn’t hurt other children? I’m remembering so much now, like the period of time maybe 15 years ago when he volunteered to tutor grade schoolers in reading and it didn’t even occur to me that this could be a danger. As far as I know, he has no regular private access to children. But still.

(To my family who is ambivalent about my experience, please just err on the side of safety for your children. Being cautious doesn’t require taking sides.)

Even as I ponder the path forward, I am filled with a sense of relief and accomplishment and freedom. In fact, I do kind of feel like he gave me 20 million dollars-or like I made it out of lemons or something.

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I’m Not a Peaceful Parent… Yet

blog_3_st_francis_001I walked into the living room to find my daughter bent over, every ounce of attention involved in a secretive enterprise.

If I had paused and taken a quiet, centering breath I would have realized the sacred nature of her task, her smooth and unbothered brow, her mouth slightly agape in wonderment.

But I didn’t pause and the breath I inhaled was taken in to yell at her. By the time I exhaled, I had tempered my volume as I said, “Why would you pull the feathers off of the cat’s toy bird? Arty has a very small world and this toy is important to her. I’m astounded that you would do this.”

She looked at me and down at the feathers on the floor and she ran to her room. The wind from her feet caused the feathers to rise a bit and resettle. They were white like snow and clouds, two of her favorite things.

It was at this point that I took a centering breath. Why had I approached her like that?

Why the hair trigger? Why the guilt?

In fact, Arty has many toys and I don’t know that this one is particularly important to her.

I knocked on my daughter’s door entering with her permission. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” I said. “You have a good heart. I should have just reminded you that we don’t damage others’ things. You care about Arty. If I had reminded you, I know you would have stopped. I should have done that.”

“Yes, you should have,” she said.

That night as I tucked her in she continued our conversation. “Grownups have this way of talking when they want to yell. They lower their voice so they can say they’re not yelling, but inside they really are.”

“So, you feel a kind of violent energy when grownups do that?”

“Yes,” she said.

She had totally nailed me, of course. “Is that how you felt today?”

“Yes.”

I felt it too, felt what my energy had done to her. “I’m sorry. I’m working on it. I don’t want to hurt you.”

As we cuddled closer she said, “Maybe you should take those classes that help you manage your anger.” Her voice was not harsh or judgmental. She was giving genuine advice.

“Maybe I should,” I replied, humbled. I think that I need to meditate more and be especially vigilant when I’m tired. We’ve all been running pretty hard lately. There’s been a violent twinge in the air with the conflicts between she and her older brother getting mean and physical on both sides. I think about how I am the leader—this is my circus and these are my monkeys and the best thing I can do for my beautiful children is model a peaceful energy.

I asked my daughter if she’d heard of St. Francis. “Animals loved him,” I said. “Wild animals would just follow him around and sit on his shoulder. Do you know why?”

“Because he didn’t yell?”

“Yes,” I say, as if I am certain of the story, which I’m not. “He didn’t even think about yelling or want to yell. No part of him even had a thought of hurting anything and the animals could sense that so they wanted to be around him.”

As her bedtime story, she wanted to hear about her birth which was the most peaceful one of the three kids. I recount again how I stayed up late talking to her aunt, my newlywed sister-in-law, between contractions, called the midwife at 5 am, went for a walk, and into the world she came by about 8 am. We were attended by a midwife, her assistant, and a nurse in our home. I wanted all of my births at home, but hers was the only one that worked out that way and it was very gentle compared to the hospital world of IVs, monitors, and surgical steel. She likes knowing that her favorite purple exercise ball is the one I was leaning on when she practically fell out.

Later I look up St. Francis. I’m amazed to find he was a soldier during The Crusades who became an advocate of nonviolence, returning to the battlefield as an agent of peace. In 1219 he walked unarmed for a year through the war zone from Italy to Northern Africa where he met the leading Muslim of the time, Sultan Melek-el-Kamel who said, “If all Christians are like this, I would not hesitate to become one.”

St. Francis certainly did much for humans, and the endorsement of the animals is meaningful. How many times have I given someone more trust because my shy cat liked them?

Perhaps children, being less corrupted by societal training, being more fully human have their energy receptors intact.

Perhaps they can sense even more than adults the angry, sardonic, resentful thoughts and feelings that emanate from us like Chernobyl waste.

I can’t get it out of my mind that my daughter clearly feels these things. It’s so intimidating, so much responsibility to think about the fact that my bad day or lack of enlightenment or tools is doing harm to her and to my boys.

I have peace and energy on the brain.

It’s appropriate that one of the most famous stories about St. Francis is about his meeting with a Muslim leader. I think of our own tradition of Islam, and how the meaning of the word is “peace through submission.”

The yogic concept of ahimsa comes to mind as well. It’s nonviolence and compassion for all living beings.  I took a yoga teacher training once that emphasized looking upon students with kindness and non-judgment because even your thoughts about your students can affect them.

Then there’s the study by Robert Rosenthal where teachers were told that some of the children in their classrooms were about to make big leaps in IQ. The students were randomly selected, but the ones in the “high expectations” list did make big IQ leaps. Scientific commentary on the study points to additional time and care given to those students, but I also think their thoughts and energy had an impact.

My son wasn’t ready to read in kindergarten. This wasn’t a big deal to me and the reason he was in a Montessori class was so he could learn at his own pace, as Maria Montessori modeled. But suddenly there were parent-teacher meetings about how he was “falling behind.” I had to get him tested for learning disabilities—tests which proved what my mother instincts said, that he was perfectly normal, intelligent, and sensitive.

Though none of us spoke to my son about how his reading compared to others’, he got the idea that he is not a good reader. The following summer, he started reading almost on his own and has learned to read pretty well through home schooling. But he still tells people he can’t read. That unspoken thought seed germinated and I’m not sure how to help him uproot it.

In the days since I found my daughter on the floor with the feathers, I’ve been embarrassed to realize how often my thoughts and sometimes my words and actions jump to blame, shame, threats, comparison.

This doesn’t match the concept I have of myself and I’ve had to eat some not-so-subtly-seasoned humble pie.

But eat it I will.

In a time when the world is demonstrating so much violence, maybe one small thing I can do is create a non-violent ecosystem in my own family and with the people we interact with.

If all those hokey ripple-effect and pay-it-forward ideas are true, this could change the world, do the “impossible” as St. Francis encouraged.

But even if not, it will change the world for my children and that is something.

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The Truth Will Never Be Objective. That’s Okay.

world_split_openI’m making peace with the fact that there’s no objective truth. 

If you ask several honest witnesses for their account of a crime, each will give different details. Even subatomic particles, when closely studied, change their behavior so you can never know what they really do when you’re not looking.

It’s been two weeks since I dropped my big truth bomb: my dad molested me and generally had poorly defined boundaries around sexuality.

Many women reached out in comments and privately to tell me how much my story meant to them, often because they were holding a similar burning ember.

Since then, I’ve felt much lighter.

I’ve also thought a lot about whose truth this is and why I told it.

News about the non-consensual nature of the Last Tango in Paris rape scene conspired with some cold snap in the air or internal rustling, giving me the entry point I needed to finally write about the ways I felt violated by my father.

Now I wonder should I say I was violated or that I felt violated. Do I wish to state that this is an objective reality or (just) my perception?

This is the strange thing about my experience, and that of many, many women.

We are left not knowing what is real and what is imagined. We don’t trust our gut.

Also, it’s complicated to process our experiences. I have a core belief that no one is all good or all evil. It’s at the heart of well-crafted writing, right? A villain isn’t believable if they’re always plotting to destroy. They have to stop once in a while to slip a twenty into the hand of a homeless person or paint a work of art that is divine to behold. Or maybe they are just vulnerable, worrying about their graying hair or suffering from fraud complex at work.

My dad checks off many of these boxes. As I wrote in my letter to him, he cultivated the artist in me. He did give his money, time, and presence to the homeless and downtrodden, even when he had very little himself. He is witty and an interesting writer. About once a month he’ll send a poem out to his “fans,” which include me, his siblings, his professor friend, and a niece and nephew. Sometimes they don’t make sense to me, or else I can see the structure of it too obviously, like a boom mic caught on film. Occasionally, his words are perfect and surprising, conveying human themes in visceral tingles and gut punches. The nonstop expansion and contraction of the universe and the temporary nature of our human experience are recurring themes.

My dad is handy. He has tools and he will bring them to my house and fix what needs fixing, sometimes unasked. He makes food and has overall done what he could to make my adult life as a business owner and mother of three easier.

So how could I write this public letter to him about something that seems to be so subjective? How could I take a chance that I’ve interpreted the facts, and my gut, and incorrectly maligned this loyal, talented father and grandfather?

Truth is further distorted by the fact that there is almost always some level of gaslighting going on in a situation like this.

We are told either that things didn’t happen the way we remembered them or that they aren’t as terrible as we think they are.

Martha Beck has written about a gut-checking tool she refers to as “shackles on” or “shackles off.” If you think about a time when you felt trapped or unhappy, let it drop in and define the physical sensations you have. For me, it’s a constriction in my chest and shoulders and a kind of sick feeling in my stomach along with a sense that my physical existence is centered in my chest and head. Do the same for a time when you felt totally free, totally yourself. For me that’s dropped shoulders, and open chest, and an awareness of my whole body. Beck posits that this can help you regain awareness of and trust in what I call my compass, the instincts we’ve honed as a species for millions of years of survival—an ear for that still, small voice inside you.

So, the most accurate thing I can say about writing the letter is that it felt completely “shackles off.”

The amount of weight that dropped from my shoulders, even as I shook with fear at hitting the “publish” button was astounding to me. And they relaxed and moved more freely and I felt even a joyous rise in my heart as I not only received support from so many but repeated cries of, “Me too! Thank you for putting words to something I could not or dared not name.”

Of course, my revelations were shocking to many of my friends and family.

I emailed the post to my husband. A day went by without comment, so I asked if he’d gotten it. He just said, “Yes.” He has known about my experiences for years, and has seemed to never quite have a handle on what to think of them. Or maybe he can’t reconcile what I’m saying with the goofy, helpful grandpa who spends hours cooking for us most Sundays; the devil’s advocate who argues to my husband’s devout Muslim self that there is no God.

Though I have perhaps twenty people from my in-laws’ side of the family as Facebook friends and I shared the post publicly, not one of them liked it or commented. I don’t take this too personally. Sex itself is a taboo topic amongst Hyderabadi Muslims and, really, much of Indian society. I’ll always remember a sign at the Ashram I stayed in at the Hindu pilgrimage town of Rishikesh. One line on there, intending to forbid public displays of affection amongst Westerners, informed, “Lovemaking is not part of the Indian culture.” To which my inner voice cheekily responded, “Then why are there so many Indians?!”

My sisters-in-law reached out privately after a day or two to express support. Upon further questioning, my husband said it was just so painful and hard to think about that he didn’t know what to say.

It’s a weird feeling when your lived experience is too painful for others to discuss.

On my dad’s side of the family, two of my cousins did reach out with strong support the same day and it was welcomed. My aunts aren’t on social media. One of them reached out to say that she’s concerned about me and can’t ignore the needs of her brother (my father) or her niece.

My friends, however, freed from the conflict of knowing my dad, gushed support.

I had more than 60 comments-in-solidarity on Facebook and several on the blog itself (not being a social media “personality,” this was much more than I expected). Each expressed sorrow for my experience, admiration for my courage, or understanding as a fellow member of “Tribe of the Sacred Heart, Scar Clan” as Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes us.

I haven’t yet heard from my dad, except that he sent me a wordless email, having only attachments of photos from his phone. The photos were of my children and of my in-laws’ recent visit. Was he trying to remind me of all he’d done, playing with the kids (one of the photos he staged, modeling the work of a German choreographer he’d come to admire), cooking for us, spending time with us? Was it a message that he was purging me from his phone? His life? I decided not to try to interpret it.

Through his wife, he said he was mischaracterized.

There were only two incidents and one may have involved alcohol. He wished I’d spoken to him about my feelings. But I had twenty years ago and they were completely minimized by him and then by me.

I didn’t want my experience minimized.

I didn’t want to “go to court.” I just wanted to get it off of my chest. This was for me and for everyone who has been in the same position. We have that right.

Also, his “just two incidents” story has many logical and moral holes, which I won’t detail here as I really don’t wish to have an absentee trial.

There are so many reasons we Scar Clan don’t tell our stories. Some I’ve danced with have been:

  • Fear that spouses or other family members won’t be able to deal with it
  • Possibility of losing the “good parts” of the relationship you have with the person who mistreated you
  • Not wanting to identify as a victim
  • The possibility of being judged

For me, the part about identifying as a victim runs strong. I grew up in the Midwest, raised by working-class parents who were the first in their respective families to go to college. They were raised by people who’d lived through the depression and World War II as farmers, coal miners, steel workers, soldiers.

There was a strong urgency to pull myself up by my bootstraps, tough it out, not complain.

There is benefit to this ethic. It saves you from the tar pits you could get stuck in if you wallow.

But after going public with my experience, I think differently about what it says about my identity. I feel like I’m leaving victimhood behind by sharing this and maybe planting the seeds for others to do so too.

If this defines me, it defines me as a truth teller, something I must be as a writer.

Not telling my truth, not having integrity and confluence between my words, deeds, and actions has held me back in every area of my life.

And we return to the question. Who’s truth am I telling? My father has a very different version of this narrative, and I’m pretty certain he believes it. My stepmother, a former paralegal, has lent me support but also said that she’s trying to look at things objectively. When so much is at stake for her, I can understand that.

But my truth is the only one I have.

I was given my experiences and perspective and they are what I give back. It’s not my place to judge them. It’s my place to listen to them, to trust them, to reclaim my compass.

In this interview, Guru Singh says that living a mystical life requires faith because there is no double-blind study to prove that it’s any more meaningful that acting from a completely logical place.

Truth might be like that. I’ll never know for sure if my truth is objectively true. But I must live as if it is in order to have a sense of meaning, direction, and heroic journey. If I question my own truth, I become mute and unmoving or a puppet to others’ objectives.

I have this feeling that if we all did tell our own subjective truths, that we could get at the universal. I think poet Muriel Rukeseyer had it right when she wrote:

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”

I can already feel the tremors beneath my feet.

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Last Tango in Paris Was Not Just Art: An Open Letter to My Molester

kim-young

Me at about the age my dad molested me.

Dear Dad,

Somebody put two and two together and realized that the rape scene from the movie Last Tango in Paris was non-consensual. Though the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, revealed this in a 2013 interview, it has taken three years for people to get upset about it. Nine years if you count from 2007 when actress Maria Schneider said of it, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”

It’s the scene with the butter. I know it because I watched the movie when I was 12. You showed it to me along with several of your adult friends who came over for the screening. None of them brought their children, though.

As far as I remember, it was one of many graphic sex scenes between 43-year-old Brando and 19-year-old Schneider.

One of the things I’ve always been grateful for in you as a father was that you treated me like an artist from the start. I have memories from about the age of two of saying something and having you respond, “You just wrote a poem.”

When I had an interesting dream, you would write it down, setting the stage for me remembering and being in touch with my dreams to this day. One you were particularly interested in began, “I dreamed my father was a farmer.” You reference it even today.

Well, you were a farmer of sorts. You cultivated me. You taught me that I was an artist and then you used that against me. Because I was so mature and insightful and creative, you deemed me “mature enough” for adult movies and books (it was around the same time that you introduced me to Basketball Diaries, an amazing book but very explicit with sex and drugs).

You used your own identity as a creative free spirit to walk around nude in front of me my whole life.

You must have had an inkling that something was amiss. I’ve heard you say that you used to take baths with me when I was young, until I started having nightmares about snakes and you thought better of it (yes, you interpreter of dreams, you connected a toddler’s dreams of snakes to the phallus—so insightful of you).

Speaking of dreams, there was certainly talk of Freud and Oedipus and Electra in our house as well. It didn’t include discussions of Freud’s original findings, that his patients (mostly girls and women who suffered from “hysteria”) were largely the victims of sexual abuse by older men, often their fathers and that the trend led him to create the Seduction Theory. There was no mention of the fact that, after receiving threats and criticism of the Seduction Theory from his patrons—many of them the fathers, brothers, and uncles of his patients—he came up with the Oedipal theory instead.

But perhaps you were unaware of this cover up as news of it came from feminist quarters.

Certainly, we had literary tête-à-têtes about Lolita and about how the young girl in Nabokov’s novel represented life itself. At least, I thought of those conversations as meetings of the mind between two equals. I wanted to be equal, so I nodded and probably came up with my own erudite interpretations of what was, at its heart, a glorification of pedophilia.

I’ve already written enough here for the average person to say, “Wow, that upbringing was a little twisted,” or for an “artist” or “spiritual person” to quip, “Oh, your father was so open, so real.”

I can say upon reflection that what I’ve described in-and-of-itself was harmful, especially because it came with no healthy discussion of consent and often with an air of fun naughtiness, of inclusion into the secret world of grownup intellectuals. If I could deal with this material intelligently enough, I got credit for being smart, mature, and creative.

But there is more.

Sometime between the ages of 9 and 11, we were visiting your parents in West Virginia. I shared the bed with you there. The morning we were to leave, we sat down to breakfast. As usual, a bit of canned fruit cocktail was doled out to each of us in a bowl. The sweet rolls, milk, and ample selection of cereal was there. Just as I poured the milk over my Chex, watching the tiny squares within squares fill with whiteness, Grandma said, “What were you dreaming about last night? You were screaming, ‘Stop! Stop!’”

I didn’t know what I was dreaming about. I didn’t remember anything. I do recall that I was very angry at you and petulant and I didn’t understand why.

When we sat in the car at the top of the huge hill of your childhood home, you turned to me and said, “I’m sorry about last night. I was having a dream about a blond woman.” I think I said it was okay. But I didn’t feel okay. At all. I remember pushing myself as hard as I could into the passenger door for the 10-hour drive home, wishing to put as many millimeters of space as possible between me and you.

There were incidents in between. You walking into my bedroom unannounced in the early morning, seeing me sleeping in the nude, putting a blanket on me and reporting it to me later. My sexuality seemed both intriguing and intimidating to you. The first time you hugged me and felt a bra strap, you jumped back as if something had bitten you and, of course, commented on it. I remember dancing by myself in the living room once and catching you kind of leering at me. I don’t think I’ve danced freely since (but I will–that is why I’m writing this letter).

I was bullied at school. I tried to kill myself in seventh grade, swallowing the contents of every bottle in your medicine cabinet. I buttoned all of my shirts up to the very top.

At 20, I dated a college professor. He didn’t look much like you, really. But something in the angle of his jawbone, or his hair, or perhaps his age (not your age, but older than me) or position of authority? His view of me as a promising young writer? Whatever it was, I found I couldn’t kiss him without seeing your face. And so, I couldn’t kiss him at all.

I wrote you a letter about that. I asked you why it was that I saw your face when kissing this man. When we spoke on the phone, you hemmed and hawed a bit and finally said, “Well, when you were about five I used to sleepwalk and I’d wake up and find that I was fondling you.”

Oh. Okay then. That explains it.

Just as I don’t remember what happened to me that night in West Virginia, I don’t remember the fondling.

When you revealed this to me, I think I just wanted it to go away. We somehow patched things up. After all, I’d been groomed by you to see that sexuality is a part of life and it’s inevitable that there would be some sexual tension between a father and a daughter and isn’t it great that we are artists and can embrace everything about life, even the dark parts that most people ignore. Perhaps we should even discuss this all over dinner. What an interesting conversation that would be if we had the artistic courage.

But wait. This artistic courage is awfully selective.

It wasn’t present at six when I revealed that my older cousin was touching me inappropriately. The next time we visited West Virginia, I was sent to his house to spend the night, even though I gave you the best imploring look I could and said I really didn’t want to. I don’t know if you ever had the balls to talk to his mother, your sister. I do know you put me in a horrible position.

If you were sleepwalking and fondling me, where was your courage then to get me out of that situation?

But that wasn’t how I thought then, in my twenties. I kind of thought, “Ew, gross. Let’s move on.”

But then, I got married and three beautiful children were in my home.

And so were you. Every week. You brought food. You helped us with money when we needed it. You fixed things around the house. You have been a model grandfather. You’ve even taken the kids to the zoo and to tennis lessons.

At some point, I found myself in a therapist’s office to deal with my marriage. She wasn’t one of those, “Tell me about your father,” Freudians so it was a few months before you even came up in conversation. She said, “Sleepwalking? Really?” It was the first time I’d even questioned your sleepwalking story.

I told a second therapist. “Sleepwalking? Come on. That’s a good one.”

When I told my mother, she said, “Your father never sleepwalked a day in his life.”

Oh, and by the way, the therapists also said they’d have to call the police if I gave you access to my children alone.

This was a wake-up call for me. I don’t know what all happened to me because I don’t even remember the incidents of molestation I heard about from your own lips. But they are enough for me to understand that I would never want something like that to happen to my children.

You did more than violate my boundaries in those moments. You broke my compass, my understanding of which behavior is acceptable and which isn’t. That’s why I’ve struggled in abusive relationships. That is why I did the unthinkable and let my children be alone with my molester.

As I cleaned the house for our family Thanksgiving—you of course spent the day fixing most of the food in that artisanal super-dad way of yours—all I felt was rage. You were going to be eating at the table I was setting, walking on the floor I was sweeping, eating the lovely pear/pecan salad I was chopping and tossing. I was so furious that I was in this situation and I realized that I had a choice.

I am almost 42 years old and I am working damned hard to convince myself that I have a choice. Because as a child, I never did and I seem to have concluded that that’s how life is, that I have to give that beseeching look to a grownup and hope they protect me or change things, but not expect too much in that department.

But dammit, I don’t care about your pride or anybody’s pride who’s abused me. I care about myself and my children and not passing this sickness on to them.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, when this news came out about Last Tango in Paris, I got a flashback to that whole period of my life.

This kind of “art” is dangerous. It goes beyond the original, horrible violation of the actress. It is exponentially violent because its propagation into the world gives men like you permission. It gives men like you tools. It normalizes violation. It makes people like Schneider and like me think that they must allow themselves to be violated if they want to play with the real cutting-edge artists, if they want to be relevant.

In my Facebook feed right now are grown women saying that watching it (as consenting adults) made them uncomfortable or sick. Some are glad they never saw it and never will.

Yet at 12 I sat in a roomful of adults watching this movie and nobody said, “This movie is misogynistic, sexually explicit, and violent,” let alone, “Hey, should you really be showing this to your daughter?” If they were uncomfortable, they said nothing. And that nothing made it normal, for them and for me.

Just before the butter scene, Brando told his costar, “Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie.”

But it’s never just a movie or just a joke or just a psychological theory. It’s always a magnet, pulling our compass off-center, giving us a violent version of reality.

The good news is that I really am an artist. I really do listen to my dreams. You may be a farmer, but my nature is wild and will not be contained in the rows built generations before you, rows that were worked by you and will no doubt be ploughed into dust before men give them up.

But they will turn to dust.

This goes against nature and it cannot stand.

My dreams and my writing have returned my compass to me. I’m growing as I was meant to and I’ve made a different movie. In this one, I don’t have to hug you, swallowing my disgust and working hard to make myself smaller so my breasts don’t touch you. In this movie, I take up space and that is as it should be. I don’t have to listen to you prattle on about my food choices or my weight. I don’t have to nod and smile when you invite my children to your house for sleepovers or ask about taking them out to play tennis, knowing I will later find an excuse either to come along or to cancel the plans.

Once when I invited myself on one of these outings, you said, “You know I’d never do anything to your kids, right?” I gave a noncommittal answer and changed the subject.

But guess what. I DO know you will NEVER do anything to my children because you won’t get the chance. You will NEVER be alone with them. Further, you will not be the source of lies and cover-ups, the very energy of which could land them in the same situations I’ve found myself in because of your actions and decisions.

Equally important, they will have a mother who is truly, imperfectly honest. I have already taught them about consent, that their bodies and their emotions are theirs. If I have anything to do about it, they will not find themselves preparing to host a meal with people who have abused them and not made amends. I am learning how to have integrity—my thoughts, words, and actions in alignment—and I will teach them to have integrity just by having it myself.

Whether it’s a sexist car commercial or the laws of some states that force the rape victim to co-parent with the rapist or the woman who endures harassment from her boss, what you have done to me is done to all women in one way or another.

Instead of strengthening me against this world, you indoctrinated me into it.

 

I’ve thought about “confronting” you for a long time. I’ve researched it. It seems most molesters minimize or deny what they did. I have no reason to believe you wouldn’t, given your complete minimizing and lack of remorse when we spoke about this 20 years ago. I thought it would be easier for me to tell my story, which is the important on here, in a letter without being interrupted.

I am your daughter, and I will do what I can for you in what I see as a moral light. I will perhaps see you once in a while, support you as I can when you are ill, etc. But I can no longer just ignore what happened.

Just this week, US veterans made a thorough apology to the people of Standing Rock and asked for forgiveness. If you seek my forgiveness, you might want to look that up or perhaps the truth and reconciliation process of South Africa so that you have some idea of what would be needed.

As for your wife, as far as I know she has had nothing to do with any of your choices. At the time she married you, also when I was 12, I think she was often looking out for my best interests more than you were. She is welcome in my home anytime as often as she likes and if she still wants a relationship after this letter, she will have one that is just the same and probably better as I won’t be hindered by the distance necessarily caused by me pretending that you didn’t molest me. I am sorry for her as I know she is a private person. But I also know she believes in justice, so I hope she will understand my need to do this.

As you can see from the statistics below, many people go through this. Almost every girlfriend I’ve shared my story with has her own story of molestation or rape. If I did a survey of my friends, the numbers would come out higher, I’m sure. That’s why I’ve decided to publish this as an open letter, in solidarity with my sisters.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau report Child Maltreatment 2010 found that 9.2% of victimized children were sexually assaulted (page 24).

Studies by David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, show that:

  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
  • Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
  • During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13.
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