Chapter 3 • “Innocence Lost at the Lake”
Grade 6 (continued from Chapter 2). My mother remarried a Navy seaman from Missouri, and we moved to another state about 20 miles away. This man was a real family man, taking the family camping on weekends, coaching a my brother’s ball team, and bringing presents home for each of us when he returned from a sea tour to Spain.
I began attending my fifth school in six years, and I joined the Science Club. I loved heading to school early for the club meetings, and things were going pretty well. I think I was really happy. But then summer came, and “It” happened.
We had gone on a family camping trip to Lake Winnepesaukee, in New Hampshire. We arrived at the campground late at night, but that was no problem for us. My Navy step-dad had made us practice setting up our tent before we even made the trip, so we all knew just what to do.
First, we laid out the ground cover mat. Then, we spread the tent out over that, pulling it tight to remove any wrinkles. Next, a procession began, each of us in line: first, the main pole, then, the cross-pieces, and finally, each corner support with its brace. Finally, my step-father went around pounding in all of the tent pegs. It went like clockwork, and we kids went to bed that night, all proud of our accomplishments.
The next morning, we all took turns, youngest first, getting changed into our swimsuits in our large cabin-style tent. The younger ones grew more and more impatient, as the steady procession of family member passed in and out of our canvas “dressing room.”
My step-dad finally told my Mom that she might as well start the two or three-hundred yard walk to the lake with the ones that were ready, before the younger kids drove everyone crazy. My mom protested and said she’d rather wait.
After a couple more exchanges of a similar nature, it became evident to me that Mom was stalling, which gave me a vague feeling of uneasiness, although I didn’t know why. Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine anyone would hesitate to enjoy the unique pleasures that summertime water activities of any kind afforded, except for the fact that she couldn’t swim. Raised next door to a convent, such activities as swimming, or learning to ride a bicycle, were considered “un-ladylike, so she’d never learned to do either. Finally, though, she rounded up the impatient bunch and headed towards the water, through the scattered grove of pine trees, as I disappeared into the tent, and zipped up the door, for my turn to change.
When I was done, I unzipped the door and was just about to step out, when my step-father pushed me back inside, lunging in after me, saying that a hornet was chasing him. That’s what he used as his pretext for zipping up the tent door behind him, “to give the hornet time to fly off,” although I didn’t quite feel comfortable with that explanation, even though it seemed somewhat reasonable.
He walked over and sat down on a lawn chair, by a card table in our tent, and then proceeded to tell me how pretty and grown up I looked. I was looking forward to becoming a teenager on my next birthday, and it felt like I would be entering a mysterious realm known as “maturity.” So, his compliment had an almost hypnotic effect, causing me to feel like I had somehow gotten the jump on this other-worldly existence.
I suddenly felt warm and flushed, my mind racing with confusion. “Come sit down, here” he said, as he put his hands on my waist & set me down on one leg of his lap, with my legs between his. He then started telling me that my body would be going through some changes, reminding me that my chest had already been maturing. “So this is “the birds-and-the-bees talk” that I’d heard about. I assumed that this was what normal non-alcoholic, non-workaholic fathers did, talk to their sons (and daughters, too, I guessed) about sex and growing up.
That peculiar warmth and excitement grew, and the next thing I knew, he had started rubbing lightly on the crotch of my swimsuit. I was startled, and started to get up, but he quickly pushed me back down by my shoulder with his free hand, as he increased the pressure and pace with his other hand. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, so I put my arm up and buried my face to hide.
Suddenly, I felt really strange—not bad, exactly—but flushed, and sweaty, and tingly. That last feeling made me push his arm away suddenly, and I squirmed out of his grasp, heading for the door. I quickly unzipped it, and ran down to the water, to the safety of being surrounded by witnesses, so he wouldn’t try that again.
I considered telling my mom, but I felt too ashamed. And she seemed so happy with him, that I didn’t want to ruin everything by telling her. (a BIG mistake!)
Using the immature reasoning of my sixth-grade mind, I assumed two things that just weren’t true:
1) That his behavior had been stopped, so the problem was solved. (A child tends not to consider the possibility that this behavior would continue into the future.)
2) That what my mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Wrong again! Had I told her right away, the next six years of continued and increasing abuse might have been avoided.
Chapter 4 • “Swim or Die”
I remember nothing else about that camping trip fifty years ago, except that my younger brother and I taught ourselves, and each other, to swim, before we left Lake Winnepesaukee that summer.
When I got to the beach, my two younger sisters, ages 10, and 6, were playing in the sand near my mom. But somehow, the idea of facing her made my face burn, and shame washed over me. I turned and walked out into the shallows, where my 11 year old sister and 8 year old brother were trying to teach themselves to float, sinking over and over, like lead balloons.
Suddenly, I wanted allies, so we could all make a break for it, and float out to the diving platform in the middle of the lake. It didn’t look that far away, but it would be far enough away to keep my step-father from touching me! I didn’t, or couldn’t, think of anything beyond just that.
But, as my younger sister and brother would start to lay back in the water–at the very last second—they would each jerk their head up out of the water and begin to sink. Yet, I was desperate to get them out there, where I would feel safe from my secret terror on shore. (At that age, I didn’t consider that I was putting my two siblings in danger with my plan.)
I finally realized, after watching for a few minutes, that neither of them wanted to lay their heads back far enough to float, because they didn’t like the sensation of water getting into their ears! “You don’t mind it when you’re taking a bath, do you?” I asked. But still, they argued: “Well, the tub isn’t as deep!”
So, I gave them my strategy for avoiding downing: “Go out ’til you are shoulder high in the water, and then (and this is very important) ALWAYS HEAD BACK TOWARDS THE SHORE!” I lay back in the water & felt myself floating & suddenly had an idea for them to try: “Tilt your chin up to the sky, let the water get into your ears, and you will float!” And it worked!
Well, after practicing for awhile, I really wanted to get out to that dock, But I couldn’t convince my sister to come out that far. Yet, my eight year old brother was ready, being just young enough to think that he would be perfectly ok, going out there with me, his trusted oldest sister. But just as we were about to make a break for it, who should decide to join us but my step-father!
Suddenly, I was frantically trying to get my sister, who was only 11 months younger than I, to join my brother and me, as my ally, because I didn’t see my younger brother as being able to protect me from my step-father, since he was only eight. But, she was still too scared of the water, and didn’t want to try to make it out to the platform all by herself. So, my step-father said he’d help her, and my brother and I started floating our way along beside them.
(I was secretly relieved when he wanted to focus his attention on my sister, because that meant he would be leaving me alone. What I didn’t realize, at twelve years of age, was that he didn’t only want to molest just me.)
As the four of us made our way out towards the platform, my little brother started to get tired, and my step-father told him to go back. But, my little brother didn’t want to go back. Yet, as he turned over from floating on his back, he started bobbing up and down and pawing at the water, in trouble.
In the meantime, I had swum until I was tired, then popped over on my back, and was trying to float the rest of the way to the dock. I felt like I was swimming for my life, too, like I had to keep going. I was scared to stop with no way to touch bottom. So, I just yelled to my little brother,“Kick your feet! Kick your feet!”, because my step-father was ignoring him. Somehow, my brother could suddenly dog paddle. And so, by some great miracle, we all made it out there safely.
(I think the grace of God had to be involved here, because if one of us would have gotten into real trouble on the way out there, we all would have panicked, and there was no way my step-father could have rescued all three of us.)
So, there we all were, out in the middle of the lake, standing on the platform. I felt proud, but shaken, at the grueling marathon we kids had just survived, as we all turned to see how far we’d come.
Each of us Olympians dealt with our fearsome victory in a different way. My little brother celebrated by quickly and thoughtlessly jumping off the platform, too young to fear the danger. My sister (who still could not swim) and I were both too afraid to get right back into the water just yet. So, my step-father told us that if we didn’t jump off, he’d throw us off!
He went to push me, and I hurried and jumped off. (To avoid contact with him seemed more urgent and important at the time, than subjecting myself to the real or imagined threat of drowning!)
My sister was not so fortunate.
She told me later that night, when we were supposed to be going to sleep in our family tent, that he threw her off, and that she kept sinking down and down, until the water started getting dark and cold, and she felt like she was going to explode. She finally was able to grab onto one of the support pilings, and pull herself up underneath the dock, or she would have drowned, unnoticed by my brother and myself, who were too busy to notice! She became convinced that my step-father wanted her to drown on that day. (A later experience at another lake, where he actually held her down under the water, until she managed to squirm away, would finally convince us both!)
I soon began jumping from the dock, as my brother was doing, to get away from my step-father, trying to be wherever he wasn’t. But each time I went to get up onto the platform, I would feel my step-father’s hand and fingers come up between my legs, until he grasped and fingered my crotch, to boost me out of the water. I kept swimming around the platform to get away from him, but he kept coming up behind me from underneath the water. I tried moving next to my brother, but my step-father’s sneaky moves continued unnoticed by anyone but me.
I finally saw my sister, who was clinging to the side of the dock. (She told me later that it was because my step-father had seen her come out from underneath the platform, and had threatened to throw her off again, if she climbed out of the water.) I told her to “watch and see where he puts his hands,” the next time he “helped” me out of the water. When she saw what he was doing, she nodded to me, and so began our secret sisterhood of the abused.
Chapter 5 • “If You Close Your Eyes Tightly Enough, Does the Problem Go Away?”
I tried to stop thinking about everything that had happened on the camping trip. But instead, that was all I could think about. Why had my step-father done that to me? Didn’t he love my mom? Why had my step-father tried to kill my sister in the water? And, come to think of it, why had my step-father told my brother to go back, and then not even looked back once, to check to see if he had made it back to shore ok? It was awful, but it was over now. I thought about telling my mom; I wanted to tell her. But, I also didn’t want to ruin things for her. And the terribleness of it all started to fade, like it had just been a dream, a nightmare.
Back home, things seemed normal in every way. My step-father behaved the way I imagined a normal father-figure would behave. He took all of us out bowling, or to a drive-in movie, or out to dinner. He still coached my brother’s little league team, and he played lots of games with us older children, like cards, and board games, like chess. For the first time since my dad had died, my mom seemed really happy, and I didn’t want to ruin it for her. Or for us. We kids liked finally having an actual “father” like other kids did, not one who was always gone, or dead!
The only problem was that my step-dad started trying to control every little detail of my life, like what I wore to school, and how I wore my hair. I felt like I couldn’t even breathe, without him being in my face, and having something to say about it. My mom was constantly trying to smooth things over between him and me. And, I was sure she was wondering why we weren’t getting along, why her oldest child, who had always been so agreeable and cooperative, was now acting so grouchy and resentful all the time.
Things got really bad one day, with me shouting and crying. My mom and step-dad ended up in a big fight in their room. All of us kids could hear my mom crying, from where we were gathered in the dining room, and no one knew what to do. But, I suddenly knew! The fight was about me, so I would solve the problem: I would start doing the best I could to get along, until I turned sixteen—just 4 more years. Then, I would move out! Problem solved. So, I decided that I wouldn’t tell my mom, and break her heart. She would never have to know!
I tried to return to the way things were before everything happened. But, even though I thought I was hiding what had happened to me from everyone around me, something about me had changed—and boys picked up on it.
One morning, near the end of my sixth grade school year, I suddenly found myself with 7 or 8 boys waiting outside to walk me to school.
I guess, I should have been flattered, but, instead, I was so embarrassed! And, it didn’t just happen once. They were waiting for me at the end of that school day, and the next morning, and the next! I felt like a tramp, so ashamed, that they were paying so much attention to me. The last thing I wanted was to be singled out for attention! Someone would know what had happened to me!
So, I began to sneak out the back door to get to school, leaving my admirers behind. After a couple of days of being late to school, the boys gave up on me, and quit showing up to wait for nothing. I was relieved, but somehow disappointed, that they gave up on me so fast.
Would the Pope Know What to Do?
Sometime later that same school year, my mother had to go into the hospital, and stay overnight for a miscarriage. My step-father was babysitting all five of us kids. I don’t know why I do, but I remember seeing on the news that a new Pope had just been chosen.
Anyway, late that night, I woke up to find my step-father trying to put his hand down into my pajama pants. I pulled it away, but he just kept trying. Finally, I dug my long fingernails into his hand and said, “No!” (I remember thinking that that way my mother would see what he’d been up to while she was gone.)
About that time, the sister who’d been with my brother and me, on the platform at the lake that day, started stirring beside me. So, he left the room—but not before snatching up my sleeping six year old sister from her bed across the room.
He took her into his and my mom’s bedroom, and shut—and locked—the door. I waited for a couple of minutes, debating what to do. I couldn’t call the hospital: I didn’t know the number, and my mother, we were told, was bed-ridden that night. I thought about my mother’s parents, but they were in their seventies, and not well.
So, I finally decided to simply open up his door. I don’t know what I planned to do next, except that something inside told me that he wouldn’t keep doing what he was doing—or planning to do—if someone, anyone, was watching.
I tip-toed through the short hallway to the next room, after locating a bobby-pin (to unlock the door), and tried to sneak open the door, to “catch him,” at whatever he was doing. I thought that would make him stop.
But he had heard (or expected) me, and was holding the lock button in, from the other side of the door. I strained with all my 12-year-old might, to push the bobby-pin inside the pinhole of the doorknob, to unlock the door. But, it wouldn’t budge; so I knew that he was holding the button in, from the other side of the door.
I decided to wake my sister, who’d fallen back asleep, to get her to help me to get the door open. I was desperate to save my baby sister. But, try as we might, we couldn’t do it. My step-father wouldn’t let go of that lock button! We couldn’t save her. In spite of nearly an hour of trying, my step-father would not let go of that door; he was still standing there, waiting for us to give up—as we eventually did. No one had said a word.
Back in bed, that night, I cried for my little sister, and I cried for myself. I lay awake wondering, “Would the Pope know what to do?” and “Where was God? How could I talk to Him to get Him to help us?”
It started to rain, and I heard the thunder, and I wondered, “Is God crying, too?” And I cried myself to sleep.
Chapter 6 • “Now, I Have to Keep His Attention”
(I’ve asked my grown daughter, whom I respect, to critique my writing. She’s noticed that, as my story has progressed, I have adopted a less personal style of relating. She went on to say that I’ve started showing less and less of the inner life of my character, who happens to be my younger self.
I think this may be due, in part, to the fact that, as time went by, and the abuse continued, it became more of a psychological type of abuse. I spent a lot of time “in my head,” pondering, feeling ashamed, experiencing a growing anger, and desperately trying to hide it all.
So, some of what happened to and around me, became lost in the deep recesses of my memory, some, even to this day. Consequently, I may find it necessary, from this chapter forward, to go through a series of edits, or complete re-writes, from time to time.)
I Walked to School, But Where Was I?
Ages 13-14. Grades 7-8. I don’t remember anything about what happened in school during my middle school years, probably because of what was going on in my life at home. Whatever it was, I made straight A’s at it, even though I was in the sixth school in seven years.
I do remember the walk to school though. We had to pass by a big, ultra-modern style house, with walls made of glass, that went around a pool, built right inside the house! I remember wondering whether they had any kids, and if they were being molested, like I was. I say me, because I kept trying to put the thoughts of what my step-father had probably done to my little sister out of my head, like it never really happened, because I felt so guilty that I had failed to save her.
(This, I learned later, is something known as false guilt. At 11 years old, I could not have “saved” her. I was a child. And, unlike today, with numerous “Hotlines,” and countless other resources to help those caught in similar situations, in those days there were not large numbers of resources known about, or available, to victims or to the very important witnesses of abuse.)
Being the oldest of the (then) five children, I was often made an example of, for the sake of my younger siblings. For instance, I recall having to wash the family car, a red, white, and grey 1957 Chevy Impala convertible, in 12-degree weather, for 2 dollars to buy records. I couldn’t earn money with my grades like the younger kids, I was told, because mine were so high, that my parents (meaning my step-dad) couldn’t afford it. I hated when he came up with things like this “high grades=no pay” deal. Every time my step-father treated me as special, there was something wrong with the reason. Either he wanted to mess around with me, or he wanted to flatter me in some weird way where I got to miss out on something good. It was messed up either way, and my hidden anger came boiling to the surface.
When I threw a fit with my mom about it being unfair, way out of proportion to the actual injustice, my step-father (whom I really blamed) stepped in between us, and made a big fuss consoling me. I hated it when he tried to smooth over the messes he had created in the first place, by getting me off to the side and talking to me like I was special. I wanted to be special, just not like that, and not with him!
I remember having conflicting and out-of-control feelings so often. Even though I didn’t want my mother to find out about the abuse, and have her heart broken, I wanted her to figure it out on her own, or have my step-father give himself away by his unreasonable actions. But, my constantly-erupting anger kept everything in such a swirling turmoil all the time, that you, basically, “couldn’t see the forest for the trees!” By that, I mean that my anger drew attention away from my step-father’s behavior—the opposite effect from what I had intended!
Not everything was about me, though. During that same bitter, cold New England winter, on the night of November 21st, 1963, we were all awakened at 3 o’clock in the morning, by my middle sister, who was 10 years old at the time. She’d had a nightmare that someone had shot Santa Claus in the head.
That brings to mind the one day of school I do remember now, out of those two blanked-out years in middle school: the day John F. Kennedy was shot, the day after my sister’s dream. I was in Geography class after lunch. Our teacher, Mr. Brown, an older man with a handlebar mustache, from Cambridge, England, had once let our class look at his real estate magazines from Great Britain. They showed huge castles for sale, for 12 and 14 thousand dollars. We liked them, and him. On the day the loudspeaker startled everyone with Walter Cronkite telling that President Kennedy had been assassinated, our teacher, normally so proper, and composed, so different from us, took off his glasses, and cried with us, right in front of our whole class.
A few days later, my mother remembered my sister’s dream. She said that, to a child, Santa Claus was the most important person in the world. So, my sister’s nightmare was like a premonition of the death of President Kennedy, the most important figure in our country to adults.
I Decide to Play House
Sometime after that, I decided that I would have to start being nice to my step-father, to keep the peace, and to keep him from going after my sisters (something my anger wasn’t going to accomplish). The constant outbursts of anger were hurting everyone, and not solving anything! (as evidenced by my younger sister’s nightmare) So, I started acting flirty, laughing at his jokes, and smiling a lot when he was around.
I also started learning to cook, and I learned how to make his favorite dishes, just the way he liked them. I took an interest in cleaning, too, and would go around after my mother had already cleaned, rearranging things, like she hadn’t done a good enough job to please me.
For some reason, putting things in order on the outside, when everything was so chaotic on the inside, made me feel better for a little while. Since I felt bad every day, I went all around the house, cleaning things every day, and I’d feel a little better. That is, until I was lying in bed each night, when my thoughts of sadness, shame, fear, and confusion would just race through my head for hours. Most nights, I wouldn’t fall asleep until two or two-thirty in the morning, after going to bed at 9. Then, I’d have to be up at 6 or 6:30 the next day.
As I had become older, I felt the need to hide the secrets of what was going on in my dysfunctional family from my mom and my school chums. It may sound strange that I mention my mom as though she had not been a part of the family. Let me explain.
I felt an overpowering need to protect my mother from what was going on. I loved my mom. She was a very sweet, loving person all of her life, and I did not want her to be hurt, nor be the one to hurt her. So, I expended great amounts of effort to keep her in the dark about what was going on, so she could remain happy.
All the while, my step-dad had been focusing more and more attention on me. He spent a lot of time ‘finagling’ ways to get me ‘alone’, even right out in the open, challenging me to a game of cards, or chess, or a trip to the store, for example.
He even seemed to be jealous of the fact that I liked, or rather, loved the Beatles. So, he spent a lot of time making me listen to his kind of music, which was country western. And, after awhile, I did start to like some of it, because a lot of the music was sad, and I felt sad, very sad, all the time.
To report child sexual abuse: