(This week, I’m offering my own contribution to the extra:ordinary project (stories of everyday survival and resilience) — what does it mean to have to try and find your way back into a humanity you are afraid doesn’t want you, or that you don’t deserve, after you escape from trauma or violence? How many of us are living that question right now?
Be easy with you as you read; I talk somewhat explicitly about sexual violence and psychological manipulations in this piece.)
The story of a normal girl
It happened again the other day. Over dinner, some friends started talking about their teenage years, sharing sexual coming of age stories. Normal stuff: how old they were when they first touched themselves or touched someone else, parents who were clueless about who they were fooling around with, what kind of sex they were having and how young. They told the stories of how regular girls try on on these experiences of being grown up – how they learn to flirt or play or shut someone down.
Women bond over these stories: how we negotiated the travails of adolescence, learned to navigate the nuances of adult womanhood, learned to relate to sex, men, boys, our bodies, femininity, other women.
I sipped my tea, quiet, disappearing. I did not participate in the conversation. I never participate in these conversations unless I know I am with other sexual abuse survivors. I listen and wonder. It’s like eavesdropping on people who were raised in another country or maybe on another planet. They speak a foreign language, one I lost the grammar for when I was fifteen years old. I know some of the vocabulary, enough to make it sound like I am a native speaker.
I can pass myself off as one of them for a little while when I need to. It’s not that I don’t have my own stories of awkward early sexual fumblings in the back seats of cars with boys – it’s that behind and around and beneath those fumblings was my stepfather’s mouth, telling me what to do, how far to go, when to stop, and then, after, demanding that I tell him in detail about every erotic encounter so that he could put his hands in his pants at the thought of it.
I had few casual sexual explorings. I learned sex at the hands of my stepfather, who undertook my/our education and indoctrination when I was a young teenager. (At least I had the great good fortune of an unmolested childhood, save for the sexual harassment by strangers and from elementary school classmates, but doesn’t every girl deal with those?)
As a teenager, I understood that my family was different from my classmates’ families. I assumed—as I assumed about the woman friends in conversation the other day—that the other girls in my class did not spend parts of their weekends watching sex films with their stepdad at his psychotherapy office while he encouraged them to masturbate or let him touch them. I assumed other girls weren’t studying oral sex techniques in porn movies, weren’t being instructed to practice on their stepfather’s bodies, weren’t having to pretend to enjoy their stepfather’s oral and digital and genital attentions.
I know now that many of them were being abused, too; not because any of them told me—simply because of statistics.
My stepfather wanted to be the leader of a cult, I think, but he was not charismatic enough to draw throngs of followers to him. He instead preyed on his wives and, in our case, their children. He used the tactics of cult leaders, though: controlling our worldview and cutting off outside contact from family or other influences; using sex as a training device, control mechanism, punishment or “reward” that we were supposed to strive for; sleep deprivation; demanding that we learn and obey his strict rules, then changing the rules without warning and punishing us for not knowing the new rules; indoctrinating us into the behaviors and beliefs he said would help us to evolve to a higher state of consciousness while flouting those rules whenever he wanted to. (When I read through this checklist of cult characteristics, every single one is familiar to me.) He trained my sister and I to bring other followers/victims to him – I succumbed to that training. The person I brought him got away, though not unscathed. I got away, too, not long after. It took me about ten years to really believe that I was not a rapist or perpetrator, and that I deserved to be alive.
As I got older, into high school and college, the disconnect between my real self (who I was at home with my stepdad) and the self I pretended to be out in the world became an unbridgeable crevasse. I had to work harder and harder to look like someone normal, given what was expected of me when I got home after school and on the weekends and, later, on breaks from college. I felt wholly separated from everyone else I knew, even after I got away, even after I began to connect with other survivors, even after I learned how common, how normal, the experience of sexual abuse is.
I know now that this experience of disconnect from other people, this profound isolation and sense of monstrousness, is also normal.
I broke away, finally, from my stepdad’s control at the age of 21. I lived under his control and domination until I was a senior at Dartmouth College, an ostensibly smart, supposedly take-no-shit college girl. How many victims do you know who have phone sex with their rapists? I certainly didn’t know any. How could I call myself a victim when I had an orgasm every time he raped me – because he would not stop until I did? How could I call myself a victim when I had to say “yes” every time he “asked’ if I wanted to have sex? How could I call myself a victim if I had convinced others to do what he wanted them to do, if I acted as his mouth and hands, if I’d become his emissary, puppet, and clone?
And if I couldn’t claim victim, how could I call myself survivor?
For me, it has been a manifestation of resilience that I stayed alive and wanted to have any relationships with anyone else at all, ever. I had every reason not to want to be around people, build relationships, be expected to trust others. I let myself not have those relationships for awhile. And then, when I found the loneliness too much to bear, I started to teach myself, and let other people teach me, how to be in human company.
If I’d participated authentically in that casual conversation a few days ago about sexual “explorations,” I would have said something like this:
“I first got to third base with my stepdad when I was in 8th grade, or before, maybe, I can’t remember.”
“Yeah, we didn’t have instagram or digital selfies when I was a kid, but my stepdad had his Polaroid that he used to document me and my sister, and that worked just fine for him to record our naked bodies.”
For me to participate in these conversation is to introduce the story of trauma into what was supposed to be something sweet and light and fun. My story comes in like an anvil. Sometimes I choose to drop the anvil in, though, because keeping silent just reminds me of all those years I acted like a regular, non-molested girl.
Sometimes folks are uncomfortable when I share these stories. More often than not, though, it’s an opening for others to share their own secreted-away stories of violation and violence, an invitation to break the silence. And I remember—I realize, all over again—that I was regular — just your normal, average, sexually-traumatized girl who has had to refind her place in human community.
I want you to imagine with me what it would take for a 21-year old young woman, who has been controlled and manipulated since she was 12 or younger, to decide that she deserves to be free. She lives across the country from the place where she grew up. Even after leaving home, she continues to obey to every one of her stepfather’s demands. She tells him everything she does. He has convinced her that he can read her thoughts and that he has spies watching her—he already knows what she’s doing and so it will behoove her to come clean, to prove she is trustworthy. He has convinced her that he will kill her and anyone she loves if she attempts to leave him. She is smart, naive, brainwashed, and terrified. She tells no one about her life, about the things her stepdad makes her do, about how afraid she is that he will make her do these things for the rest of her life. She has relationships with young men her age; her stepfather wants to hear the details of their sexual encounters. When he is bored with them, or when he thinks she and the boy have grown too close, he will demand that she break up with him.
Forget getting free. I want you to imagine what it would take for her to get up in the morning and decide to go to class.
This is a girl, I would say now, who fucking well deserved to go dancing, who sure as hell deserved to get drunk. Those were two of the practices that saved me, that got me through. Other practices include (but are not limited to!): endless hours of writing, taking care of pets, therapy (eventually), lots of crying, long and meandering walks, getting involved in work that was of service to others and politically relevant, eating too much, isolating, getting overly involved in organizing work, fantasizing, reading, having sex, and playing around with BDSM.
Imagine that girl who was 21 went dancing in jeans and a tank top, flannel shirt tied around her waist. Imagine she suddenly wasn’t trying to be anybody’s video vixen, she learned to bounce, spin, and sweat. I mean, sweat. This girl—who developed asthma at 10 years old, who was divested of her physical agency, who stopped doing all sports, who had stopped moving except when and how her stepfather told her to—she remembered how to sweat.
Imagine it’s 1993 and “Everybody’s Free!” is pounding through the flashing lights and the awfulness from the smoke machine and she is drenched. She is not yet free but she is dancing, and her body is sweating, teaching her how to get free. Her body is teaching her. Soon, she will listen to her body, and she will walk away. She will not be afraid to die. She will not die. She will get free.
That is her resilience, dripping shimmering her face, dripping over her neck and down her back. That, there, what you said girls aren’t supposed to do: that’s her resilience.