My sister was born in the fall of 1970. I was five going on six. Having been an only child for so long made the adjustment of sharing my mother’s attention with another particularly difficult. In retrospect and after having experienced what it’s like to go from having one child to having two, I now empathize with how impatient and frazzled my mother was with me during her first few months with a preschooler and a newborn. As a child, though, I felt adrift and alone. I remember her telling me, “Now that your sister is here, I just don’t have time for this anymore!”
We were living in a three apartment building that my father’s parents owned. My grandparents lived in one of the downstairs units. Our place occupied most of the second floor. A woman and her elderly father lived in the other downstairs unit. The building was in a rundown urban area. There were few children around, but in the ramshackle building next door, there lived two ragamuffin little school-aged girls. Always in dirty clothes, it looked like they rarely bathed or washed their ratty brown hair. They ran wild through the neighborhood day and night. Attracted by the only swing set for blocks, they found me one day in early spring, swinging happily in my backyard, determined to touch my toes to the sky. Desperate for playmates, I eagerly obeyed their every command. They loved treating me like their baby doll by brushing and braiding my clean blonde hair and by painting my tiny fingernails and toenails. I followed them everywhere. One day we visited the downstairs neighbors, the woman and her father. We had fun. More importantly, we had cookies. The wild girls were gone one day, so I went there alone.
The old man was the only one home that day. The girls called him Mr. R. They adored him so much that, with the crayons and paper my mother gave us to help keep me occupied, they often drew and colored pictures of him. I could see through the screen door that Mr. R. was sitting in his easy chair watching television. I knocked. He came to the door with a broad smile and invited me in. “I’ll go get some cookies for us,” he said. He returned with the package of cookies and settled back into the recliner. He patted his knee and motioned for me to come sit on his lap. It started with a tickle. I felt my face flush with pleasure. The tickle turned into a touch. It felt good, but it felt bad, too. When he was done touching me his lap was wet, and I knew whatever had happened was bad, and I was bad for letting it happen. I told my mother about the “tickling” visit. Her face registered the briefest moment of shock before saying, “You don’t need to go back there. Okay? Stay away from that apartment.” Here’s the thing, though. I didn’t stay away. I went back again…on another day when the wild girls weren’t around.
This time the daughter was there, too. She brought out the cookies and smiled at me. She seemed nice. She asked me if I wanted to see the rest of the apartment and took my hand. She led me to the only bedroom at the back of the tiny apartment. I now realize how odd it was that a middle-aged woman and her elderly father would share a one-bedroom apartment. She sat me on the edge of the bed. Mr. R. followed us into the room. She sat beside me and put her arm around my shoulders. Mr. R. stood in front of me, smiling like he had the last time. Then the woman put her hands on either side of my head. Mr. R. unzipped his pants. My memory of what transpired next is this: the feeling of the nubby, chenille bedspread beneath my fingers; the glare of the light fixture above me; the buzz of that same light fixture ringing in my ears so loudly it made me feel dizzy; the smell of perspiration; and a salty strange taste I would only remember again years later during my first consenting sexual experience.
For some reason, they didn’t feel the need to tell me not to tell. Maybe they knew my mother had told me to stay away. To my child’s mind, though, that made it my fault. I didn’t listen. I never listened. A few days later, after my bath, my mother was brushing out my hair in front of her bedroom mirror. I looked at my reflection and felt disgusted. “Look at that ugly girl. What an ugly little girl.” For many years, I mistakenly believed those words had been spoken by my mother, and I hated her for it. It turns out that those words were my own thoughts. Those thoughts signaled the beginning. It was then that a handful of tiny black seeds were planted within me – the seeds of self-loathing and shame.
Though it went largely unnoticed by my parents, my behavior changed after that “visit.” I became anxious and secretive. I had an unusual curiosity about things adult and sexual in nature. At a time when most children abandon thumb sucking, mine intensified. I spent hours alone in my room spinning and twirling and pacing to the music of records on a little record player that would automatically kick back to the start and replay a record over and over again. It was like hypnosis. It sent me, deeply, into an internal world of my own making – one in which I could control everything that happened. Much later in life, I learned that this behavior is called dissociation. Dissociation is a common psychological coping mechanism for children suffering abuse. My parents just chalked it up to my “weirdness.”
We moved into a tiny two-bedroom house in a suburb a few miles away the August after my sister’s birth. We were a growing family. We left the place that would chart the path of my entire life, but the events that happened there never left me. For some strange reason, that place is still the setting of my dreams sometimes.
A few years later I suffered another instance of sexual abuse at the hands of a friend’s mentally ill relative. This time I was old enough to understand how wrong it was. My friend was dealing with it too, though, on a regular basis. I thought telling would get her in trouble. So I didn’t. I don’t know if my friend eventually told someone or if the abuse was discovered another way. I do know that it eventually stopped. Still, the strange behaviors that began when I was younger never went away completely, and they only intensified after this. I was dissociating more than ever – hours and hours at a time. I’m certain the music playing loudly from behind my closed bedroom door over and over again didn’t seem out of the ordinary for a girl my age. I’m not sure if my parents ever had a clue about the pacing, though. I also started lying and stealing. I overate constantly and was obsessed with food. I engaged in crazy, OCD-like behaviors. I have a distinct recollection of feeling an urgent need to have every hanger in my closet equidistance apart and to keep the crayons in my crayon box at school arranged in Roy G. Biv order – the order of the spectrum. I was still sucking my thumb at the age of nine. I didn’t stop until I was twelve. I suffered insomnia, and I engaged in a variety of alarmingly adult-like behaviors. All these things should’ve looked and sounded like a four-alarm fire to my folks. Unfortunately, their own dysfunctional family background made them blind to it, so they did nothing. I guess, once again, they considered all to be a part of my peculiarity.
We moved again when I was twelve going on thirteen. Enduring such a transition for any child that age is difficult, but it was particularly hard for a kid as battle worn as I was. As I got older, things only worsened. My lack of confidence was excruciating. I had trouble making friends. I had three or four female friends, but, by and large, I wasn’t very social and had little interest in doing the normal things that teenage girls do together. Conducting even the most normal interactions with boys and men, even my male teachers, was impossible for me. The typical contentiousness of an adolescent’s relationship with her parents only exacerbated the angst already inside me. It was then that my battle with depression and suicidal thoughts began. I withdrew further into myself. I was still dissociating, but after a summer with my grandparents and being forced to display a semblance of normalcy, I’d trained my mind to do it without the pacing. I only needed the music now. The music…and the tiniest glimmer of hope that things would get better…is what kept me alive during this time.
I emerged from adolescence rudderless, socially and emotionally stunted, and lacking even a thread of self-identity. I had grown up spending too much time in a world of my own making to be able to conduct an adult life in reality. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. I couldn’t find a career path. I was desperate to get away from my emotionally and psychologically abusive family. I was even more desperate to find a relationship, though. And, as it often does, desperation resulted in poor decisions. I dropped out of college. I did a lot of stupid, dangerous things and put myself in situations that were incredibly risky for a woman. I got involved with men who neglected, used, and mistreated me. I even married one…all because I was once a little girl who went looking for love and attention only to find malice.
I wonder who I’d be now if it wasn’t for that fateful day in the tiny apartment. Would I have had the self-confidence to pursue my dreams? Would I have actually known what my dreams were? Would I be so guarded and mistrustful of people? Would I have allowed boyfriends and husbands and bosses and friends to treat me with such cruelty? Would I have treated myself better? Would I have expected more?
The little black seeds that were planted all those years ago took root without me really even knowing. All the abuse, neglect, and mistreatment drove the roots deep. They grew so well and so strong that they’ve been next to impossible to excise, even after all these years. I’ve tried to pull them up. I’ve tried to dig them out. I’ve tried to burn them down. I’ve tried to eradicate them with religion and therapy and medication. I’ve medicated myself with food and drink and drugs and other reckless, self-destructive behavior. Nothing has gotten rid of those roots completely. The person I am today had to grow around them. My mind is more cynical because of it. My personality is a little darker. My soul is a little older, and my heart…my heart is forever misshapen.
I’ll never stop working at those roots, y’all. I’m still fighting to rescue that little girl who was trying to touch her toes to the sky that day, and I still love, even if it is with a misshapen heart.
“Come on Ramona. Make it your mantra. Fuck what they taught you. Take back the life that they stole.” (from Ramona by Night Beds).