Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Summer I Turned Twelve: Trigger Warning

The summer after fifth grade, instead of caring for the baby which was not to be, my mother decided to finish her Master's Degree at University of Florida, in Gainesville. This summer, however, my brother and I would not be staying in Roseland with my grandparents but would be moving to Gainesville with Mother and C.
C. had recently gotten a job at the brand new Polk Community College in Winter Haven, Florida, and would start teaching there in the fall but until then, we would be living in an apartment in Gainesville- a completely new experience for me and my brother. Although Gainesville was still a sleepy town in those days, compared to Roseland it was a big city with probably more buildings in it than were in all of Indian River county at that time. Instead of being in a tiny village where we literally knew everyone and where we were allowed to roam anywhere we wanted on foot or on bicycle, we would be in a place where we knew no one at all but Mother and C. and were completely lost by the many roads, the college campus, and (to us) urban areas.
Fortunately, the apartment was bordered in back by a tiny stream which trickled and sang that all of us children played in endlessly that summer. We made dams, we laid in the water and looked up at the sky, we collected rocks, we dug clay from the banks and tried to make things with it, shaping it into cups and bowls with our hands. And we were enrolled in the summer program of a developmental school called P.K. Yonge which was associated with the university.
That was completely alien to me. I had only ever attended Sebastian elementary where again, everyone knew everyone. And instead of high-ceilinged, old-fashioned rooms with great windows which opened up to the breezes and heat and bugs and sometimes birds, P.K. Yonge was housed in a modern building with air conditioning and teaching centers and a two-way mirror in the back which students and teachers could stand behind, hidden, and observe us as we were taught. We all knew we were being observed, it wasn't a secret but it still felt odd. Everything that summer was odd, though, and being looked at all morning by strangers was definitely not the oddest.
It was all right. I don't remember a damn thing I learned at P.K. Yonge but I do remember juice and graham crackers at snack time. It seemed babyish to me and pretty boring but it was tolerable.
The best thing, the very best, miraculous, amazing, wonderful, unbelievable thing was that as students of P.K. Yonge we could check books out of a big library. For the very first time in my life I had all of the books I could read and I took every advantage of that I could.
That part was heaven.
The stream was lovely.
The fact that I was allowed to take my brother (I was eleven, turning twelve, and he was nine) down city streets through a fairly sketchy neighborhood to a five and dime store where we could buy amazing junkie treasures for cheap was thrilling.

So all of that was good.


Mother was in deep, deep depression. Times then were absolutely cruel when it came to things like mourning a baby who died before birth. The general thought was to forget it, get on with life, and try to have another.
And Mother was trying to do all of that. She went to classes, she spent massive amounts of time in the library studying, she was absent literally and figuratively, and I don't know how she did it.
Still though, she was stranger somehow, than even all of this would explain. She had begun to confide in me again. She showed me her newly-wed underwear, silky, sexy things. She pointed out that although the apartment had only twin beds, she and C. had pushed theirs together to make one for them to sleep on. I wonder where this came from. She had never, ever explained or discussed sex with me. I suppose she merely assumed that in all of my reading I had figured it out. Or...something? I have no idea. But it put me in a terrible position. She was obviously happy about her sex life with C. and was, in fact, bragging about it to me in this subtle way. And at the same time, he was still molesting me.
Two things happened that summer in Gainesville which I will never forget.
One was that one day when my brother and I got home from school, C. took me into the bathroom. By this time, I knew far better than to allow him to get me anywhere alone. But when your father-figure tells you to do something and you are as good a little girl as I was, you just do it.
And in the bathroom, he proceeded to show me several quite lurid porn magazines. His rationale for doing this was so that when other kids started showing these things around on the playground, I would know what they were and wouldn't be shocked.
This of course was the least convincing argument for showing a child porn that I can imagine.
I may have been relatively innocent but I was not stupid.
And I had never seen anything like that. At the time I still thought "Mad Magazine" was cutting edge racy.
I had no idea what to do and just tried to jabber my way out of that bathroom which, eventually, I did.
And as sordid and wrong as this episode was, the other one I recall was far more bizarre and perhaps a cry for help from C. although if that were true, no help showed up at all.
It was an early morning. Mother and my brother and I were in the kitchen of the little apartment, eating our cereal, getting ready for school, and suddenly, C. was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, leaning up against it like a model, wearing nothing but one of my mother's pairs of her sexy, sheer underpants which were stretched impossibly over his much larger body, the nylon fabric barely able to contain body parts which they had not been made to contain.
We all looked up. There was silence for a moment. C. had a look on his face which still gives me nightmares. Sheepish and defiant at the same time.
"C! What are you doing?" my mother finally shrilled.
I don't remember what he said but eventually, he turned around and went back to the bedroom.

That was never mentioned again.
And in later years, when I asked my brother if he remembered it, he denied that it ever happened.
More tellingly, I asked my mother the same once and she, too, denied it ever happened. Vehemently.

This is a common theme in the families of abuse. Some children are able to block things from their memories. Some adults are too. And then they accuse the one who does remember of making things up. Of remembering a dream, not a reality. Of...being crazy.

I have a lot of memories of that summer but those are the two that stand out. I do remember playing tennis with my brother and C. on the courts at UofF. In the same spirit of us laughing behind his back when he got finned by the catfish, we conspired to hit balls where he would have to run frantically to return them. It was one small way we could get back at him. And why did we want to get back at him? Well, for me, it was obvious but he had already started displaying behavior which can only be called cruel and selfish. He accused my brother and me (especially me, because I was older) of being thoughtless and bad because we caused our mother so much trouble when she was working so hard on her degree. I have no idea what it was we were doing or not doing but I remember feeling constantly observed and criticized along with being constantly observed in that sexual way. Also, he and mother seemed to be arguing a lot which made Mother even more unhappy than she was. There was a great deal of crying on her part. I was crying a lot too, but tried my best to hide it. I had also started biting myself in the fleshy part of my hands below the thumb which left marks. No one seemed to notice either the tear-stained face or the bite marks. I was obviously furiously angry in a way in which I could not express and I think I wanted desperately for someone to notice and force me to tell my secrets. But no one did.
It was not a happy summer.
It was not a happy family.

The other main memory I have of living in Gainesville was of C. taking me out for my birthday. Just the two of us, like a date. That's what we called it. A date. My mother, I am sure, was completely relieved not to have to deal with a birthday party and she was still under the delusion that C.'s interest in me was a very, very sweet thing, indicative of nothing more than how much he wanted to be a good daddy.

So. I dressed up in my best dress and he took me, just me, to one of the fancier restaurants in town. A steak house with candles on the table and it was just like a date. He gave me a piece of jewelry, albeit one that was fairly appropriate for a child- a silver pin of two Scottie dogs. I didn't really like it at all but I pretended that I did.
And I liked the steak and the baked potato with sour cream and the salad with roquefort dressing. I surely did. Food was still (and will always be) my comfort.
But the whole time we were alone together I was in a state of near terror, knowing that being alone with him was the most dangerous situation I could be in.

Ah, the mixed messages. The being chastised for being childish one moment, being treated like a grown-up the next, expected to help keep the apartment tidy, make my brother's lunches when we got back from school, help with the dishes. The obvious insanity going on all around me which no one but me seemed to note. And soon enough we would be packing up and going back to Roseland and packing up everything I knew in life from our house there and moving to Winter Haven.

Where the insanity definitely did not end.


  1. Oh Mary. This just breaks my heart. I hate C with a vengeance. And your mom being so absent and unknowing. I want to take your 12 year old self and hold her tight, protect her. The damage can never really be undone and yet you somehow went on to lead such a beautiful life. You deserve it all. I love you.

    1. Well the damage has been mitigated. The wonderful therapist I had, the survivors' group I went to for years, all of the reading and studying and living I've done since all of it happened have been my saving graces.
      And my family. My precious, funny, amazing family. The love.

  2. Alarm bells started going off in my head as soon as you started talking about the initial move to Gainesville. A new environment, the family being relatively isolated from everyone and everything sounds like a recipe for escalating mental health problems and abuse.

    " I think I wanted desperately for someone to notice and force me to tell my secrets." This line stood out the most to me. It's so important for those of us that work around children to take the time to NOTICE least enough to have some idea if something is going horribly wrong at home.

    Thank you, thank you, for sharing such insightful writing about your experiences. Who knows how much good might come from it...and no matter what you say, I think you're very brave. In fact, I think you're a shining star.

    1. YOU are the shining star, beginning your work with damaged children, children who just need someone to listen to them talk if nothing else.
      I mean that, too.
      Bless you, Jennifer.

  3. I am so fascinated by this, as I've heard so much from you these last ten years that describe these things without actually describing them outright like this. Thank you for doing this. I hope it helps and doesn't trigger nightmares. Maybe it'll even help. A la, as you say. Time will tell. I love you so much othermother.

    1. I love YOU so much, otherdaughter.
      Thank you.

  4. I know this must be so hard to write.

    I am so glad you are writing this.

    I too want to stand with that 12 year old girl (my boy is 12--sweet jesus) and hold her hand and tell her she's not crazy and I believe her and promise her that she's going to get out.

    I hear you. I believe you. You are loved, loved, loved.

    1. It's not as hard to write as you would think. Perhaps it's finally just time. And as such, it is more of an exercise than an exorcism. You know?
      I am so grateful for that because this has not always been true.
      And I know you understand because you have been through such abuse. I promise you that one day, it will not cut you as sharply either. I swear it.
      You are loved too. You hear me? You are.

  5. I wonder if this had happened now, would it have been allowed to continue? Sadly, very likely. I dated a man for a very short time (a few weeks) that made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't like the way he touched his daughters. I didn't like the way he looked at my daughter. I didn't like how harsh and belittling he was with my son (words like sissy and baby). We broke up but I knew, I knew he was having an inappropriate with his girls. He would say things like how he knew "they were going to have tits like their mother". I talked to my mom about it. I called the police who did not want anything to do with it because I had no concrete proof, just a "feeling" and a few of his inappropriate conversations. There were other things too. He wanted to invite another female into the bedroom. Suggestion of S &M. (I had just left my husband, the only man I had ever been with, and a born-again Christian as well.) I had never heard of such a thing. Anyway, long story short. He was eventually charged with a sex crime against a minor, an exchange student he had living with. She was 17. He got off because she had to go back to Japan. He freely and almost boasted not only of the relationship but getting away with it.
    So have things changed? Probably not.

    1. I am afraid you are correct. You were brave to call the police.
      This breaks my heart.

  6. It is hard for me to imagine what might have been going through C's mind -- or your mother's, for that matter. And it IS interesting that your mother and brother so effectively blocked out that episode in the kitchen. I can see your mom denying it out of a feeling of responsibility. Maybe your brother was just too young to remember.

    1. Mother's words were, "That never happened!" and truly? I think she blocked it from her memory. I really do. And yes, my brother probably truly did not remember. I think he has had the ability to forget a lot. And this has been a point of horrible contention between us. The dysfunction never ends.

  7. oh Mary. What is wrong with people, with men who do shit like this? and that scene in the kitchen...why on earth would you make up something like that? who would even think of making up something like that. I'm pretty sure your mother remembered.

    1. See Ellen- that's the thing. I DO have a good imagination but I sure as shit could not have come up with that. No way in this fucking world. It happened.

  8. That you are writing it is good. That is happened is horrifying. As a mother, I want to wrap you up in my arms, wrap that young girl up and take her out and away.


Tell me, sweeties. Tell me what you think.