(I previously wrote on this topic in a blog dated 7.26.14)
John Bradshaw, the guru of child sexual abuse recovery, wrote a book called The Family, based on the public television series of the same name. While in the original stages of my own recovery I stumbled upon this televised series at a local church. I had never heard of John Bradshaw and was floundering in my own realization of the incest relationship my father had initiated with me when I was 13. I had no direction, a therapist who was a child sexual abuse specialist trying to bring me to terms with the truth and only a vague knowledge of Twelve Step programs. I remember sitting in a darkened room when the face of John Bradshaw appeared. As he began speaking, I felt, tears rolling down my cheeks, as if someone was putting salve on wounds I had been carrying for decades. I listened with focused attention as if this man’s words were the only words there were.
Afterwards I purchased every book he wrote, especially Healing the Wounds That Bind You, and read them all avidly, the latter so many times that I wore out two books and three tapes. I had never considered the part my siblings had played in our dysfunctional family, feeling only that it had been about me and my mom and dad, my four siblings only vague shadows lingering in the background grateful that they too had not been traumatized. How wrong I was.
I had two older brothers and two younger sisters so I was the middle child. There are pros and cons on that. We are not just a product of our DNA and our environment, we are also a product of our placement in the family systems. Having two older brothers who doted on me as well as being my father’s favorite child (he delivered me in an at home birth during a blizzard in International Falls, an event he almost compared to winning World War II single-handedly) gave me a sort of early on arrogance.
My younger sister, born 13 ½ months after me was, in my mind, sort of a non-person. When we were younger, she figured out how to manipulate me in to doing her chores knowing if I didn’t we couldn’t go out to play. At the time I thought she was being stupid. Working hard and doing a good job made me feel even better about myself. Decades later I realized she was the clever one and I was the dope. When my baby sister was born I was nine. I was already doing many of the household chores by the time I was eight and when Jeanne was born my mom, worn down from having had four kids in four years, turned her over to me. I got up in the middle of the night with her to change her diaper, feed her her bottle, and sing her to sleep while I rocked her. My brother says he never remembers me vacuuming without my baby sister on my hip and Jeanne said until she was ten she thought I was her real mother.
But trouble lurked in the bowels of this seemingly happy family. I was soon to be not only the family housekeeper, the mother of a baby but my father’s unwilling mistress. I was to lose any arrogance I had, any self-esteem, any confidence. I was soon to be so covered with shame that I spent decades covering myself with even more. When my father entered my bedroom in the middle of the night when I was 13, sleeping with my rosary under my pillow in the lower bunk bed and raped me for the first time little did he (or I) know that my younger sister sleeping in the top bunk had awakened and witnessed the entire thing, my screams for help and all. I doubt if he ever found out that Jeanne too woke in her crib where she slept next to my bottom bunk and at the tender age of three witnessed an event too traumatic for her to emotionally or mentally digest. As a result, she didn’t speak except in a baby prattle till she started First Grade and wet the bed until she was ten.
When mom discovered my father’s night time raids, she had him wake me up and beat me with a belt until I confessed that it was my fault. I had no idea what I was confessing to as I knew nothing about sex. I only knew that if I didn’t confess to whatever was happening our happy Catholic family would fall apart. As far as I knew you bought babies at the hospital; that’s where we got Jeanne. Two older brothers sleeping in the upstairs bedroom and two younger sisters in the bedroom down the hall must have heard my screams from the beating and felt terror stricken that they were next. My sister who slept on the top bunk was to spend the rest of her life denying that my father had ever raped me, while confessing that she witnessed the whole event. She became sullen and slump-shouldered struggling to make herself invisible, turning as an adult, into the female version of a controlling patriarch. In her terror and confusion for the rest of her life she worshipped my father as if he were God.
Our happy Catholic family fell to pieces. My father found a job in a town an hour’s drive away coming home only on weekends. My mother lay in bed all day distraught and sobbing while she had me bathe her, shave her legs, comb her hair. I was to find out years later that this in itself was a form of abuse and common among child sexual abuse survivors. My oldest brother turned for solace, at the age of 15, to alcohol dying many decades later from complications of the disease. My other brother embraced Catholicism in all of its dark side, becoming judgmental and believing that God had set him on earth to set people straight. He spent decades doing just that, losing friends, going through two divorces with a son committing suicide in his 30s. Not all of that was my brother’s fault but being unable to make healthy choices was. That was a gift from our patriarchal father.
I have two siblings left. Only the heavy judgment Catholic will speak to me, albeit I have to use caution in proceeding through the minefield of conversations, any one of which could earn me a stern lecture on God’s judgment and implode our fragile relationship. My sister who lay on the top bunk has refused for decades to see me or her surviving brother. My baby sister Jeanne died when she was 25 in a car accident telling me months previously that she was soon to die.
And the mother of these siblings? She died of breast cancer at the young age of 47 going to her grave wishing she had protected her children more from their father.
I don’t know what it’s like to have a healthy relationship with a sibling. I cannot ever call on either of my surviving siblings if I need emotional support or help in any way. I have no happy memories of my surviving sister. Other than the ones before my father raped me, I have no happy memories of either of my older brothers. Over the years whenever I wanted to talk about our childhood both brothers said the same thing: They didn’t remember it and didn’t want to either.