INTERVIEW: Child Abuse – Physical, Sexual, Emotional.
ON BEING ABUSED AS A CHILD
I met this lady as she was visiting the hotel I’ve been staying at. She and her husband are calm, smiling people whose lives and joy revolve strongly around their young son.
When I ran into them again while they were strolling along the beach walk, I showed them this project. They were very receptive. At first I thought it might be he who would want an interview, but a few days later it was she who sought me out.
I usually try to find secure, quiet places for the interviews, where we won’t be noticed, heard, interrupted, and where my recorder won’t pick up a lot of background noise; she knocked just as I was finishing packing in my hotel room and preparing to vacate. We were interrupted by the cleaning ladies twice, by her husband, by some noise outside, by my horrible squeaking tape recorder, and by the occasional wake-ups of her son, who was sleeping quietly most of the time in his stroller there beside us.
Yet it didn’t feel like interruptions; she was giving and forgiving, and we both had smiles for each thing that happened to stop our conversation, and then we’d pick it up seamlessly and gently once again. It did get finished, we enjoyed the interruptions, I vacated the room in time, and she gave an absolutely beautiful interview with openness and desire to help others.
Female – “I was abused as a child. My parents were both very abusive, and I was sexually abused by my Dad. I don’t know how old I was – ever since I remember, and for a number of years.
I think Dad was maybe in his twenties when I was born, he was pretty young. I don’t remember exactly when the abuse started. I’ve thought and thought about it… on the first instance I can remember, I was five… but I know in my heart that it was probably sooner.
And that’s probably one of my hardest things about being a parent… is looking at my son and thinking… ‘That was me’ – that I was that young (when it started).”
We are sitting here, looking at her four-year-old son sleeping peacefully in his stroller; how tiny and vulnerable and innocent he looks. And she was about that age when…
ALL OVER THE HOUSE, ALL THROUGH THE FAMILY…
“My Dad abused myself and my sister. It was fairly often. He had a real drinking problem, that was a big part of it. And my Mom was so weak. It’s really odd; my Mom knew, but she did nothing to stop it. Later on I found out that he actually abused my aunt, too. It was kind of shocking; my mother’s sister. And my Mom knew about that, too.”
And there were probably others that he got to, that you didn’t know about?
“Yeah. That’s a really disturbing thing.
They really isolated my sister and I; they wouldn’t let us have friends, they’d keep us on a really regimented schedule. If we wanted a friend over, the answer was always no. If we’re invited to a party, a birthday party or something, the answer’s always no.
We weren’t really allowed to use the phone. Going anywhere – we’d have to announce we were going there. Like if you and I are sitting here, and I had to use the washroom… ‘I have to use the washroom.’ Otherwise we’d be asked, ‘Where are you going?’ Even going to other rooms in the house, they had to know where you were at all times.”
…AND EVERYWHERE ELSE
“My Mom made a point of working at our school. I think she worked there just so she could be around us, check on us. My sister went to the same school. That was in elementary school. Later when my Mom started working elsewhere again, re-entered the workforce, wasn’t at the school… by then it’s (the obeying, the reporting) just sort of ingrained in you. After you live like that for so long, you just wouldn’t disobey.
Because I was the oldest, she’d make me phone; phone her at noon hour, phone after school. I had to make these phone calls, and if I didn’t I was in a lot of trouble.
Ever since I was born, they controlled me, it became really unspoken. My Mom did most of the controlling, she was the one. She was controlling in both ways: through being very angry and domineering, and she was physically abusive.”
BOTH MOTHER AND MONSTER
“She was very abusive; if you didn’t obey her she would take out this big leather strap and hit you with it. She’s even come at me with those big butcher knives; she’d charge at me with a bat, and just chase me. Just to scare the crap out of me.”
And if she ever caught you, did you think she would really hit you? Kill you?
“Yeah. That thought crossed my mind. Absolutely. Now… as an adult looking back in retrospect… yeah, I think she could have killed me. She just lost it, she didn’t have a lot of self-control.
I think because things were out of control in her relationship with my Dad, that she needed to have a sense of control, maybe. And by controlling us, she had that power, right? She felt powerful. And she was; she was very powerful… to me, as a child, she was a powerful person.”
“Now, as an adult, I really despise weakness, I really dislike it a lot in people… when people don’t have the guts, the balls to stand up for what they believe in. No matter what that is – ‘Have some guts about you!’
I got mine (courage, strength) – the deciding moment for me was when I was fourteen. I could see my sister was just… she wasn’t making it through. I knew the whole time that he was doing it to my sister, too. Absolutely.
Sometimes I’d know that he was doing it… and I’d go into her room… and take her place. That’s how bad it was. I knew… and I would just say… ‘Leave.’ I’d tell her to leave.
I thought it… I was saving her – but I wasn’t.”
I’m overwhelmed. That is a breathtaking sacrifice. An amazing act of love and protection by a young girl.
“No, it isn’t.”
Yes, it is. I am so proud of you.
“It’s not something… that someone should have to do. And it’s not something I’m proud of. Because sometimes she would be in her room, and my Mom would be hitting her and she’d be screaming… and I’d be thinking… ‘I’m glad it’s not me.’ But… sometimes it was me. You know? I’m not proud of it.
My sister and I got along okay back then. We’d always fight, though, and I think it was because of our atmosphere. I don’t blame her, though… ’cause we were just kids. You know? Just little kids… making decisions we should never have had to make.
She’s had her troubles over the years, she was suicidal for many years. She’s kind of come out of that part. But for a long time I was scared I was going to lose her. She was trying… she would try (suicide).
I thought about it, when I was living at home. Then I thought, ‘No… I can’t let them win. I just can’t let them win.’ So when I was fourteen, I decided I’d plan what to do; I decided I’d just use them… until I got what I wanted, and then I’d leave. And I’d take my sister with me. I stayed at home until I was about twenty, just got whatever I wanted out of them.
The sexual abuse stopped when I was fourteen. He just stopped, I don’t know why. I don’t know if he kept on with my sister. I don’t know.”
GRASPING FOR HELP
“I tried to tell a teacher once, when I was sixteen. That worked out really badly for me. I told someone at school – my drama teacher. It kind of came out in class, something I said… she called the police. They came to the school, pulled me out of class. That was really frightening. Really frightening.
I told the police everything. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Then I went home, confronted my parents. It was just me, them, and my sister. My Mom was furious at me. My sister didn’t back me up (this was long before her sister confronted her parents), she said, ‘That never happened.’
Then I knew I was on my own. I was scared. So when I figured out what was going to happen… I told the police I wouldn’t say anything – in court, wherever. I said, ‘I’ll just lie. You can’t make me say anything.’ They were mad at me, but I just said I didn’t care.”
So many professional workers lose sight of the original intention – helping those in trouble – and actually deal with an unhappy, scared person by using anger and intimidation. In some situations, in the name of help it’s more important to step back and leave things be for a while, or look at other very different possibilities if the ones you’ve been trained in aren’t working. Timing, versatility are so important. Wisdom, patience and understanding are all needed at that very fine line of knowing when.
“My sister wasn’t going to back me. I talked to a lawyer my aunt got me; I told him, ‘You know what? I’m not done high school; I’m going to end up in foster care, and I don’t want to be there.’ I said, ‘I want to finish high school. And I want a job. And I want a life. And I’m not going to get it if I go this way.’
I don’t think they expected that. I wasn’t going to say anything.”
NOT-SO-QUIETLY GOING AWAY
“It just quietly went away. My parents pulled me out of that school the next year, I had to go to a private school for my last year… because they were embarrassed by it, they pulled me away from all the friends I had. It wasn’t about me; nothing was ever about me or my sister. It was all about them.
Actually, right around that time was when my hair did that… just turned white (she has a pure white streak of hair running through her jet-black hair). When I was sixteen.
My sister was put into the same private school. She’d been running away, she’d been drinking, talking to people (about the abuse). So now the police came and pulled her out. They put her in the remand centre, and then into a mental hospital. Social Services took her.
My Mom was like, ‘We’ll get her back.’ I said, ‘You’ve never going to see her again. She isn’t going to live here ever, ever, ever again.’ And I was right. Totally right. She left home when she was sixteen; she didn’t finish high school.
And I felt sooo… abandoned. I was so scared.”
“I just kept going. I went to university for a year. Didn’t like being there. Went to a technical school, I got a technical degree. I had some really weird times; I was angry, I was scared; my sister was in the hospital; the aunt that had helped me was diagnosed with brain cancer. I spent all my time working, because my parents let me live at home but refused to pay for any tuition. I worked at three jobs.
Around then I just started yelling, started fighting for it (freedom). And I think they wanted to appease me because they were afraid that I’d go (away, thus breaking the control they had over her). I was the only one who could see my sister at the hospital, they wouldn’t let my parents see her. The doctors were kind of using me to help, since I was the only (true, safe) source of information they had about her – I wasn’t her parent, I hadn’t been abusing her.
I’d sneak my sister cigarettes when I went to see her, and I’d go across to the cancer institute to see my aunt, in between working, and in between school.”
HERE’S A LITTLE JOKE, FROM GOD?
“The program I picked was electronic engineering. And I didn’t even think about it: I was terrified of men, I didn’t even talk to any guy – and the year I went into electronic engineering, I’m telling you… there were no girls. Not a girl in my class.”
I was nineteen. I’d had one boyfriend when I was younger, but… he used to give me gifts. I knew that if my Mom and Dad found out I had a boyfriend, and that he was giving me gifts… I was stuffing them in places, hiding them, ’cause my Mom hated us taking things from other people. She hated that. My sister even got beat, just because her friend gave her some plastic dime-store ring.
So I knew I was in trouble. I told him, ‘I really like you… but you give me too many gifts.’ (But she couldn’t tell him about the fear, the home life, the abuse,) So it just had to end.
I had another boyfriend, but he was just an idiot. I think all guys might be idiots at that age (ha). I think girls are, too. He was seeing all these girls, and I was so hurt. He was so skanky… he’d come see me, then he’d go see the girl across the crescent (street). I was finally like, ‘Go away!’
Anyway, I sucked at math, I didn’t talk to guys… and here I was in electronics engineering, with all men (ha). Like, ‘What did I do?!’ I had some rough times at school because I was really naïve. One guy wanted to be more than my friend, but I didn’t recognize that. He just lost it when I told him, ‘No, I just thought you were my friend.’ He took it all wrong; tried to kill himself… and he phoned me while he was trying it. It turned out that he was being abused by his parents (that’s why he was so over-reactive, unstable).
Then there was one teacher there who liked me – he got my phone number, and started stalking me, following me everywhere. He was my teacher. And this is weird: my Dad came to find me once at the library, finds this guy stalking me… and they’re arguing. My abusive father and my teacher who’s stalking. I’m like, ‘How bizarre is my life?!’ It was sickening. Just bizarre.
But you know… that class was my niche. I’m really good at that stuff. I’m a total nerd. That’s where I met my husband (he’s also an electronics engineer).”
SOME FREEDOM: SHE EVEN REMEMBERS THE DATE
“After I graduated, I got a job out of town, like three and a half hours away. My parents were furious with me for moving. My Dad had earlier given me a beater (run-down) car, I was like, (sarcastically) ‘Thanks, Dad, you’re the best.’ But I’m taking whatever they’re giving, so I took the car.
My aunt had died then, of cancer. My sister was wherever she was… I had done what I could for her. I always kept in touch with her. I packed up those suitcases, threw them in the car. My parents came with me the first time… and then I was alone.
On JUNE 14, 1993, I left home. And on June 15, I started a brand new job in a big oil plant. I knew nobody, I was in a hick town where I must have been the only black person there… because everything stopped when I walked into the mall (ha). I’m like, ‘What!??’ Everyone was staring at me.
It (the new job, life) was the best thing; it was awesome. It was scary, scary, scary, but it was cool: I got away from them, finally.”
UNHAPPY EVEN IN FREEDOM: FEELING BROKEN
“There was a time when I was totally screwed up. Oh, absolutely. I went through so much… there was a point when I was about twenty, I had gone in for some (medical) procedure and the doctor told me I couldn’t have children. They said it was because of the abuse. And that just… that just… I don’t know. I can’t even put it into words… that just took so much from me. That was like – I could take everything else, but that was like… so… bad.
I just went through a number of years where I was just kind of broken. Like… really broken. I just abused myself, and I was really angry, and I was just… I was so angry – I can’t even quantify how angry I was.
When you’re abused, you sort of feel like you’re walking around with a stamp on your head, and everyone can see it. And if this interview helps someone else that’s abused… I hope it does help them wade through the muck, and see that they’re… a valuable person. In some way. That they can contribute. That they have value.
Because it takes away so much; it takes your sense of self, your respect; it takes your dignity away.
I did drink. Drugs too. No shame in saying that. I think it was just to feel happy sometimes. ‘Cause I was out of that situation by the time I was doing drugs, but I wasn’t really happy. I wasn’t happy at all. Drugs give you some happiness. It’s empty, it’s a very empty happiness, and it’s temporary. You sort of get to the point where the drugs don’t even help; you’ve just taken so many that you think you’re going to die. Then even your (drug-induced) happiness is gone.
When I met my husband I was happy for a period. But I was still unhappy even while with him. And when I moved out of town to work, what I’d do just so I wouldn’t be lonely, be in my own thoughts, is I’d just work. I’d work from 8:00 to 5:00, then I got another job and worked almost all night. On weekends I’d drive back to town to see (husband); I was just so busy, I never stopped. I think it was on purpose. It was unconscious, but on purpose. I never had a moment’s break.
I eventually started to change my life a little. I slowed down. I stopped teaching dance, which I had been doing. I stopped doing my second job, the night job. I was doing too much, just needed to be alone. I had stopped the drugs, stopped the drinking. I had stopped smoking. I was just starting to feel happy.”
HEALING AND GROWING: BY EXCLUSION
“I feel like I’ve gotten most of my self-respect, dignity back. I have a lot of problem with trust though. I think I’m trying to achieve that again; to try to trust people again.”
A confusing dynamic: the people she loved were also the people she hated; the people she went to for trust, safety, were the people who were hurting her. There is no stability, clarity, nothing understandable for a young person to hold on to within that confusion.
Interesting that she used the word ‘again’. Without even thinking about it, we remember that we were born with trust for everything, everyone; it’s only lost if it’s taken away from us… and we can find it again.
“I found that the best thing for me to do… is just to erase them from my life. – You can’t really erase them, but you exclude them. They want to be included in my life… but they lost that privilege. They lost that privilege a long time ago.
It took me a long time to exclude them. Even now, some people that don’t understand give me the guilt trip. Like, ‘Why don’t you let them see their grandson?’ At first I feel extremely guilty, because my parents didn’t let me see my grandparents – I just re-united with them a few years ago.”
FINDING A HURT AUNT
“And that’s when I found out my aunt was abused by my father. The only reason I found out was because I strove to break the cycle and re-unite with my grandparents, and aunts and uncles on my Mom’s side; just see them, meet them. And if something came of it, great, and if nothing came of it, fine.
I searched my aunt out, and when I met her she broke down, she cried. And after a couple meetings, it came out: She said she worried all these years; she’d been in therapy (for her own abuse by the interviewee’s father), and she was afraid for my sister and I, but she felt powerless to do anything.
We became close at first, but later we became sort of disjointed. And I don’t really know my Grandma, I sort of have trust issues with her, too. I don’t know whether to trust her or not, ’cause my mother was estranged from her, and my grandmother gave my Mom up when she was a baby, and let her live with her (the grandmother’s) mother. So my Mom never really grew up with her Mom, she was brought up by her grandmother.
I confronted my grandmother about that, but I don’t think she was honest with me (the suspicion here is that the grandmother ‘stole’ the granddaughter by control tactics, in order to raise her by herself). I said to her, ‘If my mother tried to take my child… I’d kill her.’ Forget it, she couldn’t get my child. I’d physically attack her.
I asked her, ‘How could you let that happen?’ She didn’t have a real answer for me. She said, ‘It was a different time.’ Maybe… maybe it was. I don’t know. I can’t relate to it. It doesn’t mean she was bad for doing it… it was after the war, things were different….”
DIFFERENT SISTERS ADJUST AND MEND DIFFERENTLY
“My sister… I don’t want to say I’m more adjusted than her; it’s just that my sister and I are different people. She was put in a mental institution for quite a number of years, she’s only just now getting her life together. She lives in the same town I do. We get along now pretty good. Sometimes we don’t. I don’t push our relationship (to get closer) because I love her to pieces… I just want her to be happy.
The doctors said I was kind of weird – I tried to re-unite with my parents. Before I had my son I tried to go to family counseling with them, to see if they were willing to admit what they did. The doctor said to me, ‘You’re the only person I know who’s coming here to have counseling with your abusers.’ My parents had no interest in doing it. They didn’t think they’d done anything wrong. Didn’t think they were abusers. They think that they’re… fine.
I had a meeting with our family doctor who’s been with all of our family a long time. I told him about the abuse. He’s left the door open for them all these years… it’s been years now. They did go into that initial meeting, and they denied everything.
And my sister’s just a mess – they didn’t want me talking to her. She’s taking them to court for the abuse. She’s diagnosed as multiple personality, dissociative disorder. She’s suing them. I don’t agree with it, but I told her I’d support her in any way I could. For her – she wants a financial outcome. For me… I thought it over, and I decided: whenever I embark on a task I go full bore, one hundred percent; I wouldn’t have gone with a civil suit, I would have gone with a criminal suit, then a civil suit.
But I thought, ‘Do I have the energy and the strength, and that much anger… to do that?’ And I just… was tired. I couldn’t have. I wanted my life. I wanted to be free. I just wanted to be free. To me, it was like, ‘You’ve taken enough; I’m taking back what I can.’ I thought I was really selfish for this (in not taking steps to charge her parents, and thereby not help bring them to accounting, nor help other people they may have hurt). But I thought, ‘I can’t save the world… I’ve got to save myself.’ Otherwise I would just be so unhealthy. I just didn’t have the strength to do what my sister’s doing… or the anger, or whatever it takes to do that. I just sort of flushed it all. I was just like… ‘Who cares? You guys suck. You’re never going to change.’
Lawyers are so unfeeling, they don’t care. They don’t care about you, or what your family is doing; they just care about money. That whole thing is all about money, my sister’s thing is all about money. But whatever she needs (in order to heal), if money’s going to give that to her… that’s awesome. But I couldn’t see it giving me that. I think it would just give me more anger.
I warned her; I said, ‘I think you’re going to come out of this and be really, really hurt. You’re going for something that you think is going to be awesome and make you feel better… but in my opinion you’re going to be hurt; you’re going to feel hard done by.’ I still believe that.
I think the system needs to change… that sexual offenders need to be labelled. You can advertise for Coke and Pepsi to get everyone to know about them; I think we should do the same for these people. There’s children that are being hurt every day, and… you worry about so many things.”
HER AND PARENTS NOW?
“They live one town away. Location-wise they’re still very close to me. In fact, my Mom works at the same company as I do. She’s away on disability right now, but when I started there they didn’t know she was my Mom, I wanted to get the job on my own merits. When I started, she was in the office right across from me. I wouldn’t go see her, but she would come and visit me, want to do stuff.
I finally told her to stop. She was very hurt. But… she knew why. Absolutely.
She even called me on my birthday, and wished me a happy birthday. But I don’t have anything to do with her anymore. Or my Dad. I’ve completely cut them out of my life.”
Remember that she did try to get therapy with them, re-unite; she isn’t cutting them out as a punishment, she’s cutting them out because they refuse to admit what they did, they refuse to try grow, heal, make amends, become better people.
And someone who refuses to do that is still in denial… and thus, still very unhealthy to be around, still untrustworthy, and still a danger.
BY DIVINE GRACE: HAVING A SON
“Oh, I dig being a Mom. I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity. Really fortunate.
I didn’t think I’d ever be able to. The doctor said no. And they said no to (husband), too, because he’d had cancer, and an operation. So there wasn’t much chance for either of us.
I thought I had the flu. Seriously! (Husband) said, ‘Just go to the doctor.’ She comes back and says, ‘Oh, you don’t have the flu; you’re pregnant.’ I almost fell off the chair. I went home, I think I was in shock. I saw (husband) just sitting there in the armchair. In retrospect, I should have been more sensitive. All I said was, ‘I’m pregnant!’ (ha) He just looked like I had punched him in the gut.
I was like… ‘Wooooww.’ My son has changed my life. Absolutely changed it. Before that, I was… I don’t know; I was lost. I almost died having him, but… it’s absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me. To become a parent… it’s scary. I was really happy, but I was really scared. Because I didn’t know if I’d get a healthy baby (due to damage caused by her abuse). I was scared that I wouldn’t. And then just being pregnant is (normally) scary. It’s beautiful.
It was really hard on our relationship, because we were on this totally different path. It was going to just be the two of us, we’d do whatever, right? Because we didn’t think we could ever have children, it was just party all the time, that lifestyle. So our whole lifestyle had to do a total 180. Our whole home had to be changed, childproofed, we weren’t… parents.
It’s unbelievable how much different I want his life to be… because my childhood was a total waste. No, not a total waste, I shouldn’t say it like that; like, some parents teach their children by doing the right thing… and my parents taught me by doing the exact wrong things. So everything they did, I have to now do the opposite of. That’s confusing at first… when you’re young.
I’ll never lie to my son. I’ll tell him (about the abuse) when he’s old enough to understand. He does have a good relationship with my sister, they get along fabulous. My sister’s awesome.”
“I try to listen to what he has to say. I want him to feel loved. I want him to feel like he has the ability to make decisions on his own.
I want him to feel confidence. I want him to feel strong, beautiful. I want him to feel the exact opposite that I felt as a child. I want him to feel… you know, ‘Where’s the world, here I come!!’ I did not feel like that when I was a kid, at all.
Some mothers say (sadly), ‘Oh, my kids are growing up.’ As he grows, I’m just, ‘Wow.’ I’m in awe of his stages. I’m not sad because he’s not one year old anymore; I’m like, ‘You’ve done it, you’ve accomplished this much. Good job, guy! Move on to being four, let’s see what you’re doing now!’”
A HUMBLE YET MAGNIFICENT GOAL
“My success in life would be… if he regarded me as a good close friend when he’s all grown up. That would… that would be awesome. I don’t wish to be his friend at this point in his life; he needs a mother. But later on when he has enough life experiences and is grown up, I would hope that he would feel he could trust me.
If he felt enough love for me to come to me with anything… if he had a problem with drugs, or if he felt bad. If he would have that much trust and love for me… when he’s my age… that, to me, would be success. That would be awesome.
I never told anyone that before. But that would be… great.
That’s what I would have wanted… if I’d had a mother who loved me.”