I don’t speak to that side of the family. I haven’t in almost 20 years. The last time I remember seeing him was at Carrie Maie’s funeral as he was carrying her casket down the aisle of the church. I was sitting in the very back because I didn’t want to see anyone from that side of the family. But I wanted to go because I loved Carrie Maie. He passed by me and he winked at me. And I had the audacity to furrow my brows, shake my head and disrespectfully look away from a male superior – a man who scolded me as a young girl for not answering with ‘yes sir’, or playing too loudly with my American Girl Doll. A man who had no problem publicly yelling at his wife for not making the right dinner or putting his car seat in the correct decline position before she drove him around.
I had already detached myself from him and that part of the family.
He was at that point just a strange old man in an old body and ill fitting suit who winked at me.
The last time I had heard from him, months before seeing him for the final time at the funeral, was when he had handwritten me a letter telling me I needed to forgive and forget the other man who molested me as a baby. I needed to forgive and forget what he had done to me because we were family. And that’s what family does. I needed to forgive and forget what he had done to me because if I came out and told everyone what had happened, it would ruin his life. It would ruin his adult daughter’s life- the woman who was married to the other man who hurt me. He went on to say that she could never find another man to marry her (not love, marry) so I needed to forgive and forget what had happened to me in order for his daughter to keep her husband.
Southern people like it when things look good.
It was a seven page letter. Front and back. It came to me in my mailbox at the beach house where I was living through college. The beach house that used to be his. My mother and father were there on the downstairs porch swing and I got through the first few pages before I shook my head and handed over the letter to my father – the same way I would shake my head when he would wink at me months later at the funeral.
The detachment had begun. He was beginning his transition from grandfather to strange old man I once knew. He had begun to be forever known as “dad’s dad” in that exact moment.
Just a year prior, dad’s dad had gotten into serious trouble with the law and I drove with my own dad to sit in on the court hearing. I was there for support. Blind, strong support even though I knew what he had done was wrong and against the law. I gave him a pep speech in the lobby after he told us he was going to give up. I told him I was taught to be tough and strong and never give up, so he needed to be tough and strong and never give up. Blind, strong support was delivered to him in tears. I spoke with love and passion. Because he was someone I thought I needed to support blindly and strongly.
And a year later I was reading a handwritten letter telling me to shut my mouth and play nice.
I remember feeling relief. Actual relief that I had tangible evidence of something terrible that had happened to me. That was my first and main thought after reading his disrespect slovenly stuffed into a standard business envelope.
At last I can show something to someone and have them believe me. I had proof.
All my life I was wrong for something. I was lying about something. Something was my fault. I think that has a lot to do with why it took me 15 years to come out with the truth of what happened to me as a baby.
…would anyone even believe me? Did it even actually happen or had I just begun to believe one of my many lies? It was something so monumental that I was coming out with, something that would rip a corner off the perfect picture of the ‘good southern family’, and I had no physical proof of it. I only had my word.
And my word had never been good enough.
But this letter, this terribly insensitive and horribly wrong letter, made it all better.
I was relieved.
Because I finally had proof. I could hand it over to my father and my mother and they could read it and feel something ugly for someone they thought they could trust.
Just like I had for so many years.
I had spent 15 years eating turkey and dressing and rice pilaf in the same room with the other man who took my innocence away. In his bedroom, this other man laid my frail and trusting baby body down and did what he wanted to do with it. He had given me a bath. I was on his bath towel. It was beige and damp. I was alone with him. Where was everyone else? It was dark, there was no sound, and he did what he wanted with me.
And I had to chew and swallow and smile and laugh and nod to this man for 15 years.
One year he told me I looked pretty. I had lost several pounds that year and felt pretty. When he told me I looked pretty, I felt like garbage. But I smiled and thanked him and found an exit.
What people don’t realize about childhood trauma, or sexual molestation at any age, is that the victim questions their role in it. They trace steps and connect dots and replay the incident over and over in their head until it seems more like a movie they saw rather than something that happened to them. And that makes them question its validity even more.
Then there’s the telling. Oh, the telling people part is almost as terrible as the thing itself. There are questions. There is fact checking. And you have to live through it all over again.
Telling people makes it worse. People look at and think of you differently after you tell them you were molested as a baby by someone in the family. They feel sorry for you. They don’t want to believe you.
They really don’t want to believe you.
And all the strength and power that came from finally telling people becomes so small, because you’re now seeing yourself through the eyes of someone who pities you. You feel defeated and tired and wish you had just kept your pretty mouth shut.
When I got the news last week that the man who had written me to forgive and forget what had happened to me as a baby had died, I was in Mexico. I was eating papaya, drinking carrot and beet juice that I had mixed myself, and coffee with evaporated milk (that’s how they do cream in your coffee in Puerto Vallarta). I felt pretty. I had just woken up, my hair was the perfect combination of salty and bed head and I was wearing blue and white flowy pants and a tube top with the pashmina my mother had bought me in Spain around my shoulders. I had on my new sandals with the pompoms at the toes and not an inch of makeup on. My face was sunkissed and happy.
I got the news and no longer felt pretty or sunkissed or happy.
I didn’t feel sad.
I didn’t feel I had lost anything.
I felt burdened.
And then I felt for my father who had just lost his. My thoughts quickly went to my dad and I tried to decide if I should call him or wait. My role in the situation was complicated and everyone knew it, and I didn’t know how I should act. Then I realized I am my father’s daughter, and that was my only role in this.
I felt a lot of things that day in Mexico. My body and mind went into autopilot and I still can’t recall everything I said or did that day.
But there are pictures.
And in every picture, I look pretty and sunkissed and happy.
The thing about trauma is that it’s something that happens to you, but it is not something that defines you. And keeping silent may do a lot of people some good, but you can never heal and move past something if you don’t set it free.