The summer before 7th grade, I spent every afternoon floating in Katie’s pool. Her dad was a contractor, so they would live in whatever McMansion he’d just completed until it was sold, and this one had a pretty spectacular pool. One day, as I dried off in the sun next to Katie, I told her a secret and asked her to promise not to tell anyone. Katie broke her promise, making her at once the best friend I ever had and someone I hated for years after. In fact, we never spoke, though we were in many of the same classes, until she moved to Oregon after 10th grade.
Earlier that year, my parents had turned an office into a bedroom for me, and I had my own room for the first time since my little sister was born. But having a room of my own turned out to be less a privilege for me than an opportunity for my stepfather. I told Katie that August afternoon what my stepfather did to me while my mom was asleep. Sometimes it was while I was asleep. I was always a sound sleeper, but I would wake up in the middle of the night, at least once a week, to the feeling of a man’s rough hand in my underwear.
I didn’t tell Katie everything, though. I never told Katie about the mornings I would wake up to find him standing over me, fondling himself, asking if I wanted him to make me breakfast with a tone so casual, one might think it perfectly normal to rub your cock as you stand over your 11-year old daughter and ask her how she wants her eggs. I didn’t tell Katie that I’d started taking my sleeping bag into my sister’s room and sleeping under her bed, but that even that was not always a deterrent. I didn’t tell her about the cocktails he would offer me when my mom was at night school. I didn’t tell her about the way he would try to make it seem like I wanted it, like the time I woke up with his dick in my hand, like I’d reached out to grab it. I didn’t tell her about things so traumatizing I still can’t make them real by typing the words.
But I told Katie enough. She made a promise she couldn’t keep, and two weeks into the start of second grade an office aide pulled me out of 5th period and took me to the guidance office. The person I met with, however, was not a guidance counselor. I know now that she was a social worker, but at the time I thought she was a cop. I thought I was in trouble. She asked me all sorts of questions and I felt my face burning as I realized Katie had told my secret. I knew she had, because I hadn’t told anyone else.
I don’t remember much about that questioning, because the rest of my memories from 7th grade to my senior year are blurry, painful apparitions in my mind. I do remember that I was taken from my school in a sheriff’s car to the station, which didn’t ameliorate my fear that I was in trouble, nor did the trip downtown to Hillcrest Receiving Home, a purgatory for foster kids that might as well have been a minimum security prison, save for the kind woman who rubbed my back as I sobbed into a rough institutional pillow at lights out. They brought my little sister in later that night.
I think we were in the receiving home for three or four days. We wore unfashionable donated clothes that fit poorly, and they tried to make things as nice as possible by taking us out for ice cream and bowling, but it still felt penal. I was taken during that time for additional interviewing in a room with toys and a two-way mirror. I was given my first gynecological exam, at 11, an experience that felt to me as much a violation as my stepfather’s actions.
On the last day of my stay in the home, we had “school,” which consisted of some worksheets in math and language arts that were far below my grade level. My mom picked us up that evening. Her eyes were red and puffy and they would not make contact with mine, except for one split second, and they were full of hate. Hate for me.
The car ride home was my extradition to a new prison. My mother told me on that car ride home that I was a liar. She told me I had behaved atrociously toward my stepfather for months. She referred to a special evening episode of Oprah that had aired in June or July, dealing with incest, and said I must have gotten my inspiration from that to falsely accuse my stepfather. That Oprah episode was certainly pivotal, but not the way my mother painted it. It had merely given me a name for what was happening to me and the courage to tell just one person.
We never pressed charges.
For the next year, I allowed my mother to convince me I’d made it all up for attention, or to get back at my stepdad for something. During the therapy sessions ordered by a family court and Child Protective Services, I spent an hour a week telling a counselor that I’d been confused, that what I’d confessed to authorities was just a vivid dream. A dream so vivid I remembered, in some of the scariest parts of the dream, the exact placement of the glow-in-the-dark hands of my alarm clock’s dial and the ragged sound of his breath near my ear.
And then, a year later, when the cost of my court-mandated treatment and living in two households became too much of a burden for my family to bear, my parents realized I wasn’t getting out of this until I gave the therapist what she wanted. After over a year of lying, I’d become pretty well convinced of the fiction my parents had spun for me, but now I was supposed to renege so that I could “get better” and we could work toward rehabilitating my stepfather and reintroducing him to our home.
I can’t remember when, but at some point, my stepfather admitted to the truth in a joint couple’s session with his own mandated therapist. I remember my mom coming to my room sobbing in my lap, begging for my forgiveness. I don’t remember events and time lines; I just remember the confusion. I remember girls on the bus to school who stared and, even worse, the girls and boys who wouldn’t look at me. I remember my next door neighbor bringing me a gift when I came back to school after a week’s absence. She gave me a tin box decorated with roses, full of makeup. It was my first and, thankfully, only “sorry your stepdad rapes and molests you” present.
I also know that, at some point, our therapists decided that under strict circumstances we could start slowly reintegrating my stepfather back into the house. A day here, a weekend there—provided my door was fitted with a lock from the inside and therapy sessions continue for at least another year. I remember being happy, or maybe just relieved, because this meant I hadn’t really ruined our family forever like my mother said. I remember happy vacations, but I also remember the chronic excema I developed on my hands from constant stress. I remember easing into what seemed like comfort, leading to nights I would forget to lock my door. And I vividly remember the day my stepfather took that as an invitation.
The difference is that this time I told my mother, and that this time she believed me. Even so, it was not the incident that led to her finally sending him packing. It took an affair with a woman two years older than my mom to inspire her to kick him out for good. Though I’ve forgiven my mother for much of what happened to me, that is something I’ll never quite get over: that what happened to me wasn’t enough for her to end it. That it took an affair with a grown-up and a stranger to make her leave and secure my safety once and for all.
The confusion I felt over that year I spent convincing myself I’d lied or misremembered things led to an extremely delayed reaction to my abuse. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I truly got angry about it, and by then I was no longer in therapy where I could have help expressing my anger productively. I drank heavily once my mother had passed out from drinking herself to sleep. I smoked, a habit I am still to this day struggling to kick. Despite his transgressions, my stepfather ended up winning in the divorce settlement the house we’d grown up in. My mother and sister moved 40 minutes away from my high school’s district, and I moved in with my best friend.
In an act of rebellion, I got my tongue pierced in a stranger’s bedroom. I skipped school more often than I attended and slept through the first four periods when I did go, nearly failing my senior year. I lashed out at my mother when she would call and called her every bad name I knew. At one point she told me she’d paid her penance, as though it was up to her to decide when I should stop being angry. She accused me of doing drugs, which I hadn’t been, at least not until after that accusation. I began smoking pot, figuring, “what the hell, if I’m going to be accused of it anyway.” I slept with the first boy who asked me out, on the first date. I just remember thinking I wanted to “get it over with.” I met a man six years older than me, lied about my age, and slept with him too. At school I was called an ugly slut, and I began to put on the weight I am still struggling to shed 12 years later.
For two years after high school graduation, I engaged in more and more risky behavior and alienated my friends, lying and thieving, until I felt I had little choice but to move across the country where no one would know about my past or what an asshole I’d been. I started over, and I’m certain that act of freeing myself from that small town where everyone knew this about me is what helped me survive.
I’ve done a lot of healing, but while I declared just a few months ago that I am not irrevocably broken, lately I am beginning to feel I’m not as mended as I thought I was. I am almost wholly unable to completely trust anyone. I am always bracing myself for the inevitable betrayal, and the sad thing is, I’m usually right to. The one exception was my husband, and I felt that my ability to trust him completely meant I was—hooray!—cured. But then this man with whom I’d finally felt I could invest my unmitigated trust betrayed it, and that revelation triggered the worst PTSD I’ve experienced in over a decade. Two weeks ago, had I not reached out to friends in a moment of clarity, I’m certain I’d be in a hospital today instead of writing this.
I realize now that I will spend my whole life breaking and mending from this. The difference between my 29-year-old self and my 11-year-old self, is that I know how to ask for help. I know that it’s not my fault, and I know that my anger is righteous. The difference between me then and me now is that I have a voice.
Amber now blogs at Pieces of Amber.