Events of the past week have me thinking a lot about secrets. The pain they cause, the anxiety they feed, and what happens when they are left to fester. I have more than my fair share of secrets. I’ve kept them a long time because I thought that by staying silent they would not harm me. I was wrong.
Here is my biggest secret, the one that only my closest and most trusted friends know about. I was abused. First as child by my stepfather, and then during my first marriage by my husband. In fact, most people don’t even know that I was married very briefly at nineteen. My religious upbringing taught me that there was something shameful in this, and that in bringing it up I’m only showing that I am a broken unworthy person.
Please hear me when I tell you that I am not writing these things in anger, nor do I desire punishment or revenge. I only want to share my story in the hopes that in doing so maybe someone else who’s experienced these things may feel less alone. I have realized that as events have unfolded over the past few weeks, that the things that happened to me are still alive in me. They may not have the power to hurt me anymore, but they do have the power to wound.
My mother married my stepfather when I was nine years old. She was a divorced woman with two children in the late 1970s who belonged to a faith where (as one person in a position of authority in her congregation put it), “A woman without a husband is like a half a pair of scissors.” In marrying my stepfather she could regain some of the respectibility she lost by becoming a “divorcee”. In the eyes of our congregation my step father was a real catch. He was a college professor who would drop everything anytime anyone in church leadership crooked their finger.
By marrying my mother he became a hero. After all what man would be willing to marry a divorced women with two daughters and health problems that included (they soon learned) an inability to have more children? He was a saint, and we were a project.
Shorty after their marriage the abuse began. He would fly into rage with the slightest provocation.. A light left on, a spot on a dish, or for some minor trespass known only to him. He would scream and curse and call us bitches and shitheads and whores. He would slam doors and yank us out of bed so we could turn off the light or rewash the dish while the screaming, slamming and name calling continued.
Generally, he wasn’t physically abusive, only verbally. Fear of his rage was enough to make us all tread softly in order to avoid it. This tactic rarely worked as the things that set him off were not predictable. What amped him up one night might be laughed off the next, while on the following night something entirely new would set things in motion.
There was one night though his temper took physical form. I don’t remember what I had done exactly to spark his anger. We were in the kitchen so most likely I hadn’t cleaned something properly or had put something away wrong, as nine year olds are wont to do. A tirade was in the cards, only this time he did not stop at yelling. He put his hands around my neck and began to throttle me.
I don’t know why he did it. I don’t know what I said to “make” him do it. Maybe nothing, or maybe I made a smart remark. I was a little kid who tried to pretend sometimes that she was gutsy enough to stand up to her tormentor. Maybe this was one of those occasions, maybe not. I don’t remember.
What I do remember is the floor. It was this awful faux brick sheet linoleum in a red that can best be described as blood clot colored. I remember being on that floor with his hands around my neck. I remember the feel of my body as it thrashed against it. I don’t remember what made him stop but he did. I do not remember the aftermath. Did I tell my mother? I can’t tell you with any certainty. Did she come onto the room and stop it? I have no clue. I only remember what it was like to be on that floor with his hands around my throat.
Maybe my mother did stop it, maybe this is what finally sent her to our bishop who told her that if she were a better wife he wouldn’t behave this way. This was the begining of ten years of my mother going to her church leaders who would not help her. Most refused to even believe her. How could this man who was in church every Sunday with his arm around her do something like that? It’s impossible. He was always there when the missionaries needed a ride, or someone needed help moving, or the Sunday School teacher needed a substitute . He was so soft spoken and they’d never heard him raise his voice so there was no way this could be true.
Some of those leaders betrayed my mother’s confidences, and people began to gossip. They said we had to be lying. I was a child when this started but I remember the feeling of people knowing and not believing. The condescension and attitude that we were not sufficiently grateful to the man kind enough to take us in. They were certain my mother was doing this for the attention. Even now, I am sure that there are people who will read this, who will claim they were there and none of this ever happened.
But they weren’t there. They weren’t there behind the locked door when it was just my mother, my sister, me and my stepfather’s rage. They didn’t hear him calling us names and threatening our lives. Let me say this again, loud and clear...THEY. WERE. NOT. THERE. I was.
Eventually they divorced, shortly after I left home for Manhattan. There is more to that story, as there always is, but even on a blog I only have so much space. I left home thinking I was leaving this behind, but the twin damages of abuse and being branded a liar for trying to speak of the abuse had done it’s job. On the outside, I was a blithe independent smart ass who could take care of herself, but beneath that I was a terrified kid with no way of processing what had happened to her. I was a prime candidate for an abusive relationship. It is no wonder that I found one and three weeks before my twentieth birthday married a man fifteen years my senior.
He was, I reasoned and he assured me, the best I was ever going to get. I was irretrievably broken. I knew it, he knew it, and he was going to remind me of it every chance he got. I told him about my past and he told me it was no wonder those things happened to me because I was so very difficult to live with. He confirmed what I knew deep down to be true, it was my fault. I was unloveable and difficult and I had caused (and deserved) everything that happened to me. I was nothing, and if I didn’t watch my step with him he’d send me back to nothing. He told me this often.
Other familiar patterns began to emerge including an attempt to go to my bishop for help. There I was asked “Well, what was your part in this”, which is an urbane educated man’s way of saying “what did you do to deserve it?” It slowly began to dawn on me that if I wanted a chance at a real life I had to take matters into my own hands and leave. Which I did, and which is why at the ripe old age of 21 I became a divorcee like my mother before me, and her mother before that.
My story does have a better ending than most. I’ve been married for over two decades to a man who loves me unconditionally and would be mortified at the thought of doing something that would harm me physically or psychically. But the scars are still there. They are the tripwires under my skin waiting to react to a threat. They’re there in my hyper vigilance and the constant thrum of anxiety that never fully goes away. It can be tricked into submission, but it always comes roaring back.
As I’ve watched women come forward this week to tell their stories it has brought all my experiences back to the surface. I know what it’s like to be called a liar and to watch the people you are supposed to trust take your abuser’s side. I know what it’s Iike to feel broken and afraid and to spend your life trying to appear not so. I know what it’s like to feel like somehow I must have brought this upon my self. I know what it’s like to keep secrets because secrets are safer.
But I also know now that there are some secrets not worth keeping. I used to tell myself I didn’t share my story because I didn’t want people to see me as a “victim”, an abused child or wife. I know I am no one’s victim. And honestly, I am never going to be in control of how people truly see me. I can only control what I put out into the world. If by telling my secret I can reach someone’s heart it has been worth it.
This is my truth. It has made me who I am. It is forever a part of me. I will not be ashamed.