Laying Down My Burden
As many of you know, my father died last month, after sustaining injuries in a motorcycle accident. I’ve shared that my relationship with him was estranged, and I know some of you have had similar tensions in relationships with your family members. I want to share with you about why my relationship with him was estranged. I have spent a long time debating with myself whether or not I should write this, and whether I should share with just a few or more publicly. There are people who love my father very much, who were close to him, and I regret the pain that this will cause them to read and live with knowing. I’m sorry for that. But I feel compelled to speak, not to cause harm, but to speak truth, and to let go of a heavy burden I’ve carried with me for a long time.
I am writing this now because I’ve promised myself for years that I would and could. I promised myself that whenever my father died, whenever I no longer had to worry about or had the excuse of not telling my story because of not wanting to cause conflict with him or seem like I was “out to get him” or something, I would finally say it all, share it all, and unburden myself. Perhaps this seems like a selfish act, but I consider it an act of self-care, one that I have been putting off for decades. I have needed to do this for a long time.
When I was a child, a young girl who hit puberty especially early, around 9 years old, my father started sexually abusing me. He did not rape me or force himself on me. I feel compelled to make these disclaimers. So many have suffered much more horrific abuse than I did. Nonetheless, I was abused. I think it started with my father wanting me to lie down with him on the couch. He’d want me to lay on top of him. I felt – weird. I knew something wasn’t quite right with this. But I didn’t say anything to him, or to my mother about what was happening while she was working. Eventually he did things like pull up my shirt, expose my breasts, and lay on top of me, or pin me against a wall, and put his hands on my buttocks inside my pants. It wasn’t necessarily often, or every day, but I worried about when it would happen. He would also make sexual comments to me, especially threatening that he would try to come into the bathroom while I was showering so he could see me naked. Our bathroom door didn’t lock, and for a long time, I would barricade the closet door in front of the bathroom door and use towels to keep the door in place so that I would at least have a warning if he tried to come in. He didn’t come in, but I worried about it. He’d always try to slap my butt if I was walking ahead of him on stairs. Things like that. I had the clear understanding that he desired me sexually.
I’m not sure when this stopped. I think when I got closer to being a teenager, and when we moved to a new home. But even after my parents separated, the comments with sexual innuendo did not stop. One day, while I was in high school perhaps, I was washing dishes, and I splashed water on my shirt. My father suggested I just take my shirt off. After that instance, I wrote about what I’d experienced in my journal. I didn’t even use as much detail as I did in the paragraph above. I think the paragraph above is the very first time I have ever so explicitly shared ever what I experienced.
Perhaps in a Freudian-slip kind of way, I left my journal out on the table, and my mother read what I written. She was devastated. Heart-broken for me. Feeling incredible guilt for not knowing what had happened. Livid, as an understatement, with my father. She wanted to confront him. I begged her not to. I pleaded with her not to tell anyone, or say anything, or do anything. I was so mortified and ashamed of what had happened. All the classic responses of a victim of sexual abuse. My mother believed, and I think rightly, that not agreeing to be silent would cause me such trauma that it wouldn’t be worth it. She wanted me to go to counseling, and again, I refused. I told her I wasn’t impacted by what I’d experienced. I was over it. I could handle it on my own in my own way. Again, worried that I’d shut down if she forced me, she acquiesced. I know it hurt her, wore on her, to be in this weird, secretive, middle-place. She did it because I needed her to let it be this way, at least then.
What followed were some years of uncomfortable, lukewarm interactions between my family and my father. This was unsustainable and unhealthy. But it got us, me, through. And slowly, we became less and less involved in his life, and he in ours.
Finally, with some distance from him, I allowed my mother to confront my father. I realized we both needed it. I think maybe I was in college? I’ve honestly lost track of the exact timeline. Anyway, she confronted him, and told him she knew what had happened. He didn’t deny it. In fact, he had read my journal both when I originally wrote about it, and then read my journal when I wrote about mom finding what I’d written. He’d known all this for years. And when she confronted him, he said, “I can’t believe that still bothers her.” I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT STILL BOTHERS HER! Infuriating! It still baffles, shocks, appalls me. Even so, even as enraging as his response was, it also made me weep with relief that he didn’t deny what had happened. I felt justified in some way. He wasn’t going to try to paint me as a liar or crazy or delusional. He sexually abused me, and he admitted it.
For the longest time, I didn’t, wouldn’t, tell anyone about my experiences. The best I could do was allude to it vaguely: “My dad isn’t a great guy.” In a strange turn of events, the first time I ever actually willingly said, “My father sexually abused me” was during seminary during a game of “Truth.” (Hey, it was seminary. We played Truth but not Dare.) It was not even exclusively among my closest friends. I was not the only one in the circle who had such an experience. But it was a turning point. It was easier – not easy – but easier to share my experiences when I needed to. Sometimes it still takes me years to be so revealing even to people I am close to, and sometimes it slips out just as a fact about my life with people with whom I am less close. But I can say it, speak of it. Speak the truth.
And so, I am writing this, for me, and for others. I’m writing this because my church, Liverpool First UMC, has participated in Vera House’s White Ribbon Campaign every year, and the ribbons mean, “you will not commit, condone or remain silent about domestic or sexual violence.” I have been staying silent about my own experiences, while telling others to speak up, and I don’t want to do that anymore.
I’m writing this because #notallmen, but #yesALLwomen.
I’m writing this because what happened to me is not ok, and because the abuse that children experience is not ok, and it is not their fault, and because they are victims, and because if in anyway my voice can help someone else find theirs, I should speak up.
I’m writing this because it shouldn’t be wrong to tell the truth about things that have happened.
I’m writing this because I want to continue a process of healing and grieving, and telling the truth is part of that process.
I have to talk about my mother in all of this. My mother is one of the best people I know. She just is. If you know her, you know that already. She embodies unconditional love. She once argued in a class she was taking that none of us, except God, could truly love unconditionally, faulty as we humans are, but she disproves her own argument. I have never, ever, doubted or questioned my mother’s complete love for me.
My mother didn’t know what was happening when I was a child. She wasn’t at home when these things happened. She was working hard – sometime multiple jobs – to take care of us. And I never told her. Children don’t, often. I was ashamed, and confused, and didn’t know how to even put words to what I would try to say to her. So how could she know? The comments and innuendos he never made in front of her. She had no way to know. And yet, I know, she’s struggled with feeling guilty and responsible somehow. That’s what happens with abuse, with victims of abuse. They try to take responsibility. They end up being the ones who feel guilty. But that’s a part of the lie. This was not her fault. It was not my fault. My father was responsible for his own actions. The end. However many times I have to tell her that, tell me that, I will. We will remind ourselves until we know it.
I tried, as I mentioned, when my mother first found out about what had happened, to convince her that I hadn’t been impacted by what had happened to me. But she knew better, and I knew better over time, as I became an adult.
What happened to me meant my first experience with my sexuality was an abusive experience inflicted by someone who was supposed to love me and protect me from harm.
What happened meant that I found it difficult to accept people finding me attractive. I found and find it difficult when people look at me in this way. I feel uncomfortable and exposed, and have had to work hard to process healthy, normal interaction between adults seeking out romantic relationships.
What happened makes it hard for me to watch fathers and daughters together without an eye of scrutiny. I’m glad that I’m aware of and intuitive about unhealthy relationships around me, but I regret that I sometimes overanalyze, sometimes have to check myself and ask extra questions of myself to figure out if what I am seeing is normal, that I have to make those assessments.
What happened made me feel ashamed and dirty and wondering what was wrong with me that my father would want to treat me that way. Why did he want to do that to me? What was I radiating that made these things unfold? Rationally, I knew I was a victim. But I’m amazed by how hard it is, emotionally, to not feel like you are at fault, somehow, in some way, causing the abuse. It was hard to tell people what I experienced because I was embarrassed, mortified at what happened. I could only ask myself, what kind of girl has a dad who wants to do that to her? It’s hard to explain that feeling, and it is hard to shake it.
What happened made me so very thankful for my mother, and for her courageous breaking out of an abusive relationship, breaking a cycle of violence, abuse, mistreatment of women. She endured a lot too, and has her own story. And when she decided to separate from and then divorce my father, she didn’t always get a lot of support. She didn’t want to tell folks about why she was ending her marriage – in part, because she didn’t want to betray things I wasn’t ready to talk about. I think some people she had been close to believed she was leaving my father to be with someone else. In actuality, she was ending her marriage because over time, with help, she learned to value herself, to see herself as a precious child of God, created in God’s image, worth being treated with kindness and love and respect, to see herself as capable and able to be on her own and take care of her children on her own. I am so thankful to Bruce Webster, my pastor, for the role he played in helping nurture my mother as she ended a deeply unhealthy relationship. It is so hard to leave abusive situations. If you’ve ever tried to walk with someone and help them exit an abusive relationship, you know that. If you’ve ever tried to leave yourself, you know that. My mother is strong and brave, and I’m thankful for people who helped draw that out of her. And I am thankful for the strength she then had to protect and help and love and care for and go to bat for me in so many ways. And I am thankful for her getting my brothers out of an environment where they would only be learning to repeat patterns they would grow up with every day. I am thankful for the men my three brothers have become, for the way they treat women, for the respectful, caring ways they are in relationship with women. I am thankful for my brother Jim, for the way he is an excellent, loving father to Sam, who is teaching him already, explicitly, how men should treat women and all people. I am beyond thankful for the men in my life who were not like my father, and who have tried to step in and nurture me and my siblings in the ways that we missed. I am thankful for my grandfather, Millard Mudge, and his extraordinary gentleness, and extraordinary kindness. I am thankful for Bruce, his mentoring, his friendship, and his commitment to help my family when we so needed a hand to pull us through the biggest change in our lives. I am thankful to Uncle Bill, who still tries to protect me from harm however he can. I am thankful for Uncle John, who has modeled “tough guys” with big, loving hearts. I am thankful for men who get it, who speak up for and with women, who are advocates for and with women, who do not keep silent, who do not see women as objects, but partners, and who teach their children to do the same.
I don’t know why my father did what he did. I remember taking a class during my freshman year of college called “Family Violence.” We learned a lot about the reasons, the causes, the factors, influences that led people to act with violence toward their families. And I remember saying in class, “Isn’t it sometimes because they’re just jerks?! Is there always a reason, an excuse?” Of course, I know some of the things that influenced my father, some of his family history, some things that shaped him. But I also know that he has to be responsible for his own actions, and that not all people with his particular family history acted in the same way. I don’t know what was in his heart.
His death has left me mostly confused and overwhelmed. I am not sure what to feel. I feel many things. I feel partly relieved. I can’t deny that. I feel sad – sad for the father he wasn’t, and for the father he was. I feel a loss of what will never be, a relationship that I will never have had with a father. I feel overwhelmed by all that his death has stirred up – memories and anger and pain that have caught me off guard. I feel sorry that my brothers and I are not simply mourning the loss of a beloved father, no strings attached, that things are so complex and muddled. I don’t hate my father. I have, of course, some good memories too, that I try to set aside, apart, if such a thing is even possible. I can honestly say that I have wished him wholeness and healing. And I believe that God’s amazing grace is available to us all, even him, even me.
If you’ve made it to the end of this, I thank you for letting me share these words with you, even if they were hard to read. I have been so blessed by the kind words and thoughts and prayers of so many of you during this difficult time. You’ve made me feel overwhelmed with love, and strengthened on every side. Thank you.