One of the often forgotten casualties in the life of a childhood sexual abuse victim is the family in crisis. While I have blogged on this before it needs repeating. When child sexual abuse occurs, especially when the crime is incest, no one goes unharmed in the family circle. The family members go on with life, each one with a dark secret on their soul; most have no idea where it came from. One day all was fine and the next the family has fallen into deep despair. In my own family I described it in my memoir, I Never Heard A Robin Sing,
“My family life reminded me of a camp of mutilated and injured soldiers from some obsolete war, indescribable in its agony. All the figures were shadowy and disoriented as if only half alive and that half living in a well of misery. We moved in and out of our days appearing to wait for some catastrophic happening, all of us knowing that once it did, we were ill prepared to handle it.” At the end of each chapter I added my own version of wisdom I had garnished.
Even in times of anguish, the wounded family seems unable to bond together and fight the battle from within. Lost and desolate, we carry our pain, a load that grows with each passing day, until it becomes more burdensome than our lives can handle.
Prior to this, we had been what I told everyone for decades, “a happy, Catholic family”. We deeply loved both of our parents. We had the world’s greatest maternal grandparents to whose cabin in the woods of northern Minnesota we traveled every summer. We were deeply steeped in our Catholicism. As we grew up in the Midwest our world revolved around our religion, confession on Saturday night, mass on Sunday morning, Fridays meant no meat, Friday Stations of the Cross during Lent, daily rosaries, and five small children kneeling nightly before our mother as we said our prayers with dad watching while he smoked his pipe listening to the Litany of family members as we asked God to bless all.
My father worked as Superintendent for Elliott Construction company following their work from town to town as they built electrical substations. We loved growing up in the Midwest, the small towns where we walked barefoot from one end to the other and the changing of the seasons. We finally settled in a small town in northeast Nebraska, a 97% Catholic community boasting a 510 population. Here we lived in a red house out on the highway, growing our own vegetable garden every year, swimming in the Beaver River in the summer and ice skating on it in the winter. I had finally found a home as I fell in love with Petersburg and everyone who lived there. I felt I must surely be the luckiest child in the universe to have been given this town as a gift after all the years of roaming from town to town. Mostly I loved Rae Creek, a half mile outside of town. In its wooded area I sang to the cattle who roamed nearby, I climbed my favorite oak tree and wrote poetry as I sat on a wide limb. The many robins, the purity of their cheerful warble filling me with enchantment, seemed the perfect accompaniment to my majestic world and became my symbol of freedom and euphoria. Rae Creek was dotted with them, their red breasts sparkling like large fireflies as they danced among the trees. My roots planted deep, bonding with the land and the townspeople with a surety that sprang from years of searching. I had finally found a place to call home. I wanted nothing more than to live the rest of my life in this small town surrounded by my happy Catholic family.
Then, one night, my father entered my bedroom where I slept with my rosary under my pillow and raped me. I screamed and screamed for help and by the time my mother, a heavy sleeper, entered my bedroom, dad was standing in the corner holding his bathrobe tightly. She told me I had had a nightmare and to go back to sleep. In a matter of days, my mother found out what he was doing during his nighttime raids and had my father beat me with a belt until I admitted I was the guilty one. I was terrified that if I didn’t it would break up my happy Catholic family. I didn’t know what I was confessing to. All I knew about babies was that you bought them at the local hospital. I didn’t know what my father was doing. I sobbed my wrongdoing.
Now, our whole life changed. My baby sister, who was three years old, slept in a crib next to our bunkbed. She wet the bed until she was ten and was unable to talk except in a childish lisp that only I understood. An auto accident took her life at the age of 25. I found out from her husband decades after she was killed that she had witnessed what my father was doing. She had predicted her own death to me both in a letter and a phone call. My other sister, a year younger than me slept on the top bunk. Years later she told me she had watched it as well and then the next day phoned to deny having said it. She spent most of her life terrified of any change, a neurotic, humorless controlling woman who had our dad on a pedestal and became angry at anyone who disagreed with her. She moved in and out of my life like someone who is bi-polar. My two brothers slept in the attic bedroom. My oldest brother became an alcoholic at the age of 15, joined the Navy, served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam and died a few years ago after many years of alcoholism and chain smoking finally took his life with lung cancer. The few times I saw him he rambled on and on about disjointed parts to his life; he thought he had been married, he wasn’t sure if he had any children but he thought maybe…….. My other brother became a Catholic on steroids, judging everyone and chasing any friends away as a result. One of his sons committed suicide. His other two children have little to do with him. It’s tough to be related to someone who sends you long letters of chastisement for transgressions. He says God put him on earth to set people straight.
My mother died of breast cancer at the age of 47. At the end she told her brother she wished she had protected her children more from dad. My father twice spoke to me about what he had done. It had become apparent to him that my life was in constant turmoil, going from man to man as a sex addict. I was suicidal, twice spent time in psychiatric wards and seeing multiple therapists looking for answers. None even asked me about my childhood. I had terrifying nightmares on a regular basis always screaming that something was coming over me like a steam roller and crushing the life out of me. The first time, when I was in my thirties and Dad told me about our incest relationship, something I barely remembered, He said, “it wasn’t so bad kiddo. They do it in the Appalachian District all the time.” The second time he had me drive up to where he lived four hours north with his second wife who was paralyzed from a recent stroke. He asked me if I remembered when he had first told me about our incest relationship. I nodded my head, my eyes wary. My stepmother began screaming, “Don’t talk about that. I’ve had to hear you talk about it for 25 years and I don’t want to hear anymore.” He stopped talking and I left the following morning. For his birthday a few weeks later I sent him a card and a letter telling him that whatever was unspoken between us needed to come to the surface before it was too late and whoever was left behind would be left crippled by unsaid words. My father died of a massive heart attack after receiving my letter.
And that is my happy Catholic family.