I waited until we were the only people in the apartment. I remember feeling nervous. I was only eight years old. I stood quietly in the doorway of my mother’s narrow bedroom. It looked like a little tunnel, totally dim, except for the lamp on her desk.
“Mom,” I said. She looked up right away.
Then I told her about my stepfather. How I had awoken the night before to his rough hands running over my butt, my nightgown pushed up, my panties pulled down. “Are you sure he wasn’t just tucking you in?” she asked. I was sure.
There are plenty of stories where mothers know, or suspect and push their creeping sense of knowledge away. This is not one of those stories, at least it wasn’t that day. This had never happened before and I was telling her immediately.
The cascade of stories from the current #MeToo movement have brought this all back to me, and I suspect many other survivors of childhood sexual abuse may be experiencing similar reactions. For a long time, I kept my cursor hovering over the spaces on social media to write my story. In the end I just wrote, “#MeToo.” Yet, every day there are more women stepping forward to talk about abuse, harassment, unwanted touch and even rape.
“There’s no doubt about it…it’s triggering,” says Dr. Judith Alpert, a psychoanalyst and professor of applied psychology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She says the current national discussion is affecting adult survivors. “It reminds them of experiences they’ve had. Suddenly they’re talking about things they hadn’t talked about before – which can be good.” The #MeToo discussions can give survivors a sense of assurance that it’s not just them. Alpert, who also teaches courses on trauma and treating adult survivors of sexual abuse, says that, “Many of my patients are talking about it. They’re not surprised, but they’re horrified.” What makes them most upset, she adds, are the apologies of “oh, I’m sorry I did it,” from men who think they can offer amends “and just go on.”
What stands out to me most is the sheer number of women who have never spoken up until now. On the flip side, however, there is another truth: Some girls and women do tell, but sometimes not much happens. And, still, there were people who knew, and people who suspected.
Standing in front of my mother that day, I now wonder: Was I taken aback that I had to convince her that what I was saying was true? Yes, probably. But what surprised me more was that we didn’t leave. I think I expected she would tell me to pack a bag. But was I sure, she wanted to know…was I really sure?
Yes, I was sure because I had feigned a slow, almost waking up that night. I was sure because my stepfather had taken time to bring a chair into my bedroom and sit at my bedside. I was sure because my mother wasn’t home that night.
Yes, I was sure because I stayed awake staring into the darkness, heart pounding, running endlessly through my mind how long it would take me to bolt for the front door. I saw myself flying down the stairs, banging on the front door of the woman who watched us after school and lived two flights below. But I knew I’d never get the locks undone in time. It was the 1970s and we lived in Jersey City. There were deadbolts and a long police lock with a bar that slid into a metal slot on the floor. There was no way I would get all of that undone in time.
I was sure because I thought if I moved he would kill me. I was sure I did not want to leave my baby sister, asleep in her crib just feet from me, in the room by herself. So I just lay there, trying not to fall asleep. Waiting for my mother to come home. When I awoke it was morning.
“I told him if he ever does it again I’ll leave him,” my mother said after going to counseling with my stepfather. It was five years before it happened again. I had hit puberty, my mother had given birth to another baby and, in our new house, my bedroom was at the top of the stairs. One morning my stepfather woke me up for school by rubbing my budding chest. I pushed his hands away, and my mother was irritated with me for asking him to wake me up early that day. So she bought me an alarm clock.
Then something else happened, because I remember a very long night when he woke me up again. I can’t remember what he did, even though I recall being wide awake. When he left, I dragged my dresser in front of my bedroom door.
All night I was worried. I knew I was going to tell my mother, but then she would leave him, and I felt I would be responsible for breaking up the family. That’s how it seemed to me at age 13. I worried about my baby brother, my toddler sister and my stepbrother. Would they hate me?
Still, I told her.
Yet once again we did not pack our bags. From the moment it became clear we weren’t leaving, my mind went blank. It was like blacking out while being awake. Finally, my mother had my stepfather install a lock on my door, which I could latch from the inside. It was surreal. I was in the room while he installed it. Many years later my mother told me she’d thought the marriage had been worth saving at the time.
Having recently gone through a divorce which took me three years to navigate, I feel I understand her a little better now, but I never forgave my mother. During my college years, when I underwent psychotherapy, I tried to talk to her about it, but she accused me of “emotionally crucifying her.” And, while we did talk about ‘everything,’ this was one thing we forever danced around. Since she died three years ago, this is a conversation we can never revisit.
The urge to protect the family, to be a ‘good’ girl, is still very strong. Even today, as liberating as it is to write this, I wonder what affect this story will have on my adolescent daughter, and her memories of her strong, sweet grandmother.
I should note that my mother eventually did leave my stepfather, at the end of my freshman year in high school. One day as we were driving she pulled the car over and said, while crying, “Nothing good came out of that marriage.” While my little brother and sister were silent in the back seat, I told her, “That’s not true. We have them,” pointing to my siblings. I believed that, but I was also trying to make her feel better, forever being the ‘good girl.’
Theta Pavis at the Social Media Weekend (#smwknd) hosted by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism on Saturday, June 20, 2015. Photo by Skyler Reid.