Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Running from childhood terrors

This column was published in the Tri-Valley Herald on September 25, 2008. The young woman I interviewed is a student in my English class. Her story touched my heart.

In July 1975, her new baby sister arrived, she said, “in the guise of a chubby cherub wrapped in a pink fuzzy blanket.”

Eyes peeking out, round as the July moon, the new baby stole all the attention from the two-year-old sister.

“I’d become invisible even to my favorite aunt,” said the 30-something woman who lives in the Tri-Valley and who asked that her name not be published. “And this aunt usually hugged and kissed me and twirled me around in her arms each time she came to visit.”

As time passed, she grew to love her little sister, playing together from dawn to dusk in a home full of sweet aromas, of herbs, garlic, onion, and tomato sauce. A blend of music and languages made up the background of their childhood—French, Spanish, Croatian, German, and sometimes even English, though English was never spoken in a complete sentence.

“It was fine with us,” she said, “because my little sister and I had our own language.”

But among today’s memories lurk dark recollections of sexual abuse.

“We’d take refuge under our bunk beds, hand in hand, our hearts pounding as our father walked past with his dirty black steel-toed boots looking for us,” she said. “Either one of us would do if he found us.”

Another memory is of palms-up punishment, red welts rising from sticks whipped across hands for slamming the back screen door or running in the house or other small infractions.
“If a tear was shed, we’d get double,” she said.

What haunts her most is the memory of the nightly ritual when her little sister would scramble up the side of the bunk bed to join her. Together they would wait for the sound of keys in the front door, then the opening and closing of the refrigerator door and the cracking of beer cans one after another.

“Five, six, seven,” she said, “as we held our breath.”

Next came staggering feet and wicked laughs echoing down the hallway outside of their room. On cue, they would plunge into the safety of blankets, plugging ears so hard it hurt, plugging and unplugging for hours, checking for the sound of soft whimpering of their mother from the bathroom.

Then snores from the living room would signal the terror that night was over.

“In the morning we’d run to check on our mother,” she said. “We often found her in the kitchen washing a single dish over and over, staring out the window as if in a trance.”

Daylight brought playtime in the park, being kids again, a mother in dark glasses, swings flying up and away from the night before.

“One night, when I was about 10, I decided I wasn’t going to allow this any longer,” she said. “My father was chasing my mother through the house with a gun.”

From a crack in her bedroom door, she watched, and then warned her sister to hide in the bed as she ran to the kitchen for a knife.

“I draped myself over my mother, who had fallen and was crying,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what to do next, but as he sneered at us, something snapped.”

Her anger came to a boil and wielding the knife a voice emerged she hadn’t known she possessed.

“If you’re going to kill her, you’re going to have to kill me first.”

She doesn’t remember what happened next, but she does faintly remember her father locked in the basement, and paper bags of possessions being quickly loaded into a station wagon. She remembers her mother driving them to her aunt’s house, where little girls didn’t have to plug ears, where the anticipated nighttime sounds now were crickets and frogs.

“Many people have looked at me in shock when I say I wish I’d never had a father,” she said. Yet today, assisted with therapy, she strives to replace the devastation of her childhood with positive thoughts. In fact, she occasionally speaks with her father, a man whom she has come to realize was no doubt abused himself as a boy. Growing up in a foreign country, he’d married and brought her mother to the United States to run away from his own childhood terrors, to purse a dream that became a nightmare for a mother, two innocent girls, and for a lonely man still struggling for a better life in America.


Jim Ott said...

After this column was published, I received two emails from readers, which I forwarded to my student, who in turn emailed me with the following remarks:

"I know it was probably a bit risky for you to tell my story, but I appreciate you having the courage to do so and I thank you for sending these readers comments.

I know that it's not any better, but [just to clarify] my father had molested us, not raped us. He raped my mother. I also belong to several online Borderline support groups and one in-person trauma group where almost all of the members have suffered a medium to high level of sexual, physical and emotional abuse by parents/caretakers. Which is a huge factor in developing some type or many types of emotional personality disorders. I hear similiar and even worse stories all time. That may be why I wasn't ashamed to tell this story and I'm not shocked by much anyone tells me.

What I wanted to mention the other day [before class] is that I spent the first part of my life trying to kill myself or make other people kill me because of the pain I felt. When I had my son, that all changed and I would never dream of doing anything like that anymore. I'm still working through a lot of issues because of my experiences, but I came to realize that people need me in this world more than they don't. I have helped many who have suffered the same simply because I have been there and they can feel this and they can finally share their secrets with someone who truly understands. I trust that others will always be sent to me that I can help in some way. People always feel they can talk to me about their highest dreams and their deepest pains and fears. I wouldn't trade that for anything. I apologize for not offering some of this more uplifting information from the start. Sometimes I take for granted that others don't know exactly how I feel."

she said...

God bless this woman and her sister, mother and all victims of emotional/psychological/sexual abuse -there should be no shame in sharing this story

no risk in sharing it with others.

but until we fully realize that truth.. sharing takes courage; so a congratulations & thank you are in order

these are tragic facts for too many, and the more personal stories we disclose, share, learn about and learn from

the better chance we have for prevention & recovery

having left home early because of an alcoholic step father.. i'm well aware too, the role alcoholism plays.. how it highjacks the brain

ignites unimaginable anger/aggression in a % of people -making the aggressive drinker a victim of a different kind

the result.. these horrific crimes, the terror inflicted on innocent people; especially children..

makes all of life's challenges for the survivor; more challenging

it is to go through life with the invisible injuries a veteran of war might know

glad to read here, the pro-active steps taken -the services available- to help her and fellow survivors navigate through life

this healing journey requires a great deal of self-love, patience, kindness

baby steps & leaps of faith

and requires being surrounded by people who love and care and understand, and completely protected from anyone who adds to (or even triggers memories of) the pain/suffering in any way

and i smiled to read the change of heart once she had her son,

you know my story ren man.. in addition to the alcoholic step dad.. three violent sexual assaults

and a heap of healing necessary to continue on in life

but i would say, as a single person, the pace of my healing was slow

once i became a mommy.. giving & receiving such unconditional love on a daily basis

this contributed enormously to increasing the momentum of my healing process; making life & living worthwhile again

love can do that.

interesting to me though.. to read this:

"a man whom she has come to realize was no doubt abused himself as a boy."

and for many abusive people (mostly, but not exclusively male) we make this association; accept this association:

the abused becomes an abuser

BUT.. mostly, not exclusively for the female gender

the abused young female cannot imagine.. would never.. is incapable of inflicting pain on another

i've read it over and over throughout the years..

how (again not 100% but close) female survivors make sure

their loved ones never know the pain they've known,

but a higher percentage male survivors (not all, but higher percentage)

make sure their offspring, or others within reach & control, know exactly the pain they suffered.. like "i suffered so you will suffer too!"

vs. "i suffered and want to make very sure you never have to"

i'm very interested in understanding this/looking at this closer: an outcome of more anger vs. deep compassion/protection..

from both a soul and neurological perspective

thank you both for sharing this story. my prayers, blessings, and love

God shine!


Jim Ott said...

As always, she, you're observations are appreciated and remarkable. Intriguing point about men carrying on the abuse, but not women. I'm not sure I'd ever consciously thought about that. Something in our testosterone or hard wiring. The question is how to short-circuit the pattern.

Thanks for your thoughtful response...