I was eight years old when it started; when I began to wonder what was wrong with me. I even remember exactly where I was when I first started to hate myself.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. I was in my great grandmother’s back yard under her rose bushes, taking in their sweet fragrant smell. It should have been a happy day. I was in the place where I felt most safe. But instead, I was wondering what was wrong with me.
I went over the day in my mind. We had gone to the library just like we did every Sunday. I had helped pick up the books from the book drop and put them on the carts so that my aunt and uncle could put them away. I had helped my aunt clean the bathrooms. Nothing about any of that was different. So I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong.
It happened in the basement. I was helping to stack the newspapers when my uncle suggested we take a break and have a Coke. However, I quickly became uncomfortable when he asked me to sit on his lap. I didn’t want to. I hated to sit on his lap although I didn’t quite know why. I only knew that didn’t like it. Still, I did as I was told. I obeyed my elder.
He started telling me the Christmas Story. I loved that particular story. But this time he didn’t focus on the baby Jesus, which he knew was my favorite part. This time me kept talking about Mary and how she carried the baby in her womb. Of course I didn’t know that word – – womb – – so I asked about it. That must have been my mistake.
It wasn’t until later that evening, after I’d taken a scalding hot bath and rubbed my skin raw, that I began to cry; deep wracking sobs that washed through my body like waves on an angry shore. I put the pillow over my face to muffle my cries. I didn’t want my mother to hear. I couldn’t tell her what happened. Not ever! I was so ashamed and scared and lost. Most of all, I just didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I didn’t know when I had turned bad.
It took me forever to bury my first experience of molestation. My uncle repeated the act two or three times before he died. I was secretly glad when he was finally gone, even though I felt tremendous guilt over wishing him dead. Still, it really wasn’t him that I hated. It was me. I hated me. After all, it had to be my fault, didn’t it?
That might have been a thought I could have eventually dismissed within my young mind had the situation not occurred again, with someone else. I was older the next time it happened. Strangely, however, it didn’t make that repeat event any less traumatic.
I had already begun to hate the way I looked. It frightened me the way that men stared at me. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I had developed much too early. I was out of a training bra into a cup size larger than my mother. Because of my figure, most people automatically assumed that I was much older, but I was just 11 years of age.
By this time, I’d pretty much forgotten how to smile. More than that, I seldom laughed. I wasn’t sure that I even remembered what laughter was supposed to sound like. I was shy, backward, and awkward. My mother instinctively knew something was afoot when I suddenly traded in my trademark all-girl frills for baggy tomboy clothing; something I wouldn’t have been caught dead in before. She knew it wasn’t me but I guess she dismissed it as a phase that I was going through.
The next time around it was a family friend. I guess you would call him that. He sold bottled water to the floral shop where my grandparents worked and he was married to a friend of one of my uncles. He was a disgusting man who smoked cigars and constantly used bad language.
I didn’t like the man and I stayed away from him whenever I could. But he always figured out how to corner me. His breath was putrid on my neck as he tried to kiss me. His hands were absolutely everywhere I didn’t want them to be. I remember thinking more than once that I wished I could just float away. Of course, I never did.
By the time I was 13, I knew enough to threaten that if he didn’t stay away from me, I’d turn him in to the cops. By then, I knew how to bluff well because it was a skill I had developed to handle my father when he was on an alcoholic bender. Plus, I had also learned where a well placed knee could go to get him to let me go. He moved on to someone else. I, unfortunately, never moved on at all.
Like I had done with my uncle, I pushed what happened into the recesses of my brain. I blocked the thoughts off, or so I told myself. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood that what I’d really done was given three horrible men power over most of my life.
Yes, I said three. The third man was my father. Although he never molested me, in many ways his physical, mental and emotional abuse was every bit as decimating. Although he hit me only once, it is a moment seared into my brain.
He was, as usual, drunk. Which meant he was also angry. That particular morning he came rampaging up the stairs because we had over slept. As soon as I heard his footsteps on the stairway, I leaped out of bed and headed toward the nursery. I knew if Willie had wet the bed again, dad was going to spank him. I couldn’t allow that, especially in his inebriated state.
Unfortunately, I was too slow. Dad and I both hit the nursery at the same time. “Willie Dwight, get out of that bed,” he shouted. “And it better not be wet!” I pushed past him and grabbed the boy in my arms. “He can’t help it,” I cried. “I’ll clean it up.” It was as I tried to move past him that it happened.
“Don’t mouth off at me, you little bitch,” he shouted as I tried to pass. He grabbed my arm trying to wrestled the baby away from me. I wish I could be uncertain that he meant to push us down the stairs. But the truth is that I can still see the look in his eyes; his anger at my defiance. No, it was more than that. It was the first time I really knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my father hated me.
Although I managed to cradle the baby and avoid his being hurt, I received a concussion that hospitalized me and left me with dizzy spells for years. Still, it wasn’t the bumps or bruises that remained with me. It was something much more.
After that, there was never another civil word spoken between my father and I. He never missed a single opportunity to batter me with his words. I was always too fat, even at 5 foot 8 inches and 115 pounds. I was always too stupid, even though I finished in the top of my class. I was too much of a slut, even though I was actually a virgin on my wedding day. He knew how to hurt me and he never missed a chance to do it.
It wasn’t until I’d been married for many years that I began to see how much damage the sexual molestation, physical, mental, and emotional abuse had done to me. I hated sex but I really didn’t know why. My husband figured it out before I did. I had no self-esteem but I didn’t put together the cause behind that until my mentor spelled it out for me. I wasted over 40 years of my life believing things that were burnt into me as a child; things that were not true and that I might have been able to live with had I just had the right kind of help earlier in life.
My biggest secret is that because of what happened to me as a child, I’ve always felt unworthy of love. It has taken me 56 years, an amazing husband, two beautiful children, and two adorable grandchildren for me to realize that I really do deserve it.