Once we become adults it’s amazing how much clarity we have about situations that happened to us long ago, sometimes decades in the past. When we are children we are at the mercy of adults, who we rely on to keep us safe and meet our emotional needs. The lines get a bit blurred with siblings as they can be older, and although sometimes close to adulthood, elder siblings are often guilty of bad judgement. They’re more responsible than a child, yet not quite “ready for prime time” of adulthood and the decisions that accompany it.
In the case of my brother and sister, I was oblivious to this growing up. I trusted them completely and at seven and nine years older they just seemed like cooler, more unpredictable versions of most of the adults I knew. I think my life was probably in danger more times than I knew when they were supposed to be looking after me.
When I was ten years old my older sister Robin was eighteen and newly married with a baby. Her husband David was twenty one, had been in jail for theft at least once and was not on a good path in life. One summer day we walked the railroad tracks (trespassing on railroad property) picking up coal that fell from train cars. He and his friends planned to sell it. Robin and David often argued about his greasy friends hanging out at their apartment smoking joints in the living room while I was there. I don’t remember any of them having a job. My sister worried that I would report back to my parents about what I saw, so they often whispered around me. I never told my parents anything I heard or saw there.
My parents disapproved of the match, but had been unsuccessful at preventing the marriage. They fretted about my sister and her baby girl and desperately wanted more for Robin than to be a high school dropout and new wife and mother at eighteen.
Visiting my sister at her apartment was great fun for me. My niece was a happy baby and I loved helping to take care of her. I remember the first time Robin let me take her out in the stroller alone. I was very careful to keep the baby happy and most of all to pick up the toys as they fell, keep her from kicking the blanket to the ground, and to just keep moving so she would stay content. When we arrived back at the apartment my sister had started dinner and we sat down to eat eat together. Sometimes I would spend the night at the apartment if it got late and I’d sleep on the couch in the living room.
My sister was trying hard to make this new life work and she was a good mother and wife, but her husband was the wrong man. She had no idea how wrong.
One summer night when I had stayed over at the apartment I woke up on the living room couch with the sensation that I was being touched. I recall slowly waking up, not sure what was happening, if I was dreaming or awake. I kept my eyes closed as I began to fully realized what was happening. David was touching me between my legs, rubbing me. I froze, trying to stay in the exact same position I been when I awoke. In my ten year old mind I knew this was wrong. I wanted him to go away but I was terrified to let him know I had woken up. I shifted my hips sideways, trying to make it look as if I was moving in my sleep, just enough so that his hand would not have such easy access. His hand became still for a moment, then he pulled his hand away. I didn’t open my eyes, but I think he knew I was awake. The only light was coming from street lights outside the windows, but I’m fairly certain it was too dark for him to see my face. I lay still for a long time, afraid to open my eyes. He sat there awhile. I had no idea what he would do next. I was ten, but I knew what pedophilia was and I knew I wasn’t safe. Then he walked away. It never happened again. He never spoke to me about it. They divorced two years later after she got tired of him beating her. I never told anyone about the incident until I was in high school. I was twenty when I finally got the courage to tell my sister and I did so only because I was concerned that he might be abusing my niece as well. He wasn’t. Her reaction was distant and without emotion or empathy. Then it was never mentioned again. I never told my parents. It never felt necessary.
I reflect back on this night sometimes and wonder, why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I tell my sister or my parents? I could have told the school counselor and utterly caused a shit storm, but I kept the secret, the secret he had not even asked me to keep, but I kept anyway, because I felt shame. I felt I had caused the incident by being nice to him, by not being covered up on the couch that night. It was a hot night and I had kicked off the covers.
I worried that I would cause trouble in our family if I told my parents. I worried I’d make my sister mad if I spoke up, that my parents would have more reason not to like David. I didn’t want to be the reason her marriage didn’t work out. I didn’t want to inconvenience everyone. So I swept it under the rug, but it refused to stay. It resurfaced as sexual promiscuity, insecurity, self doubt, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol when I was thirteen. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, my relationship with my sister became tainted as well. She was my protector and she did not protect me.
One effect of this experience is that once I had my own children, I was overprotective about where my kids spent the night and with whom. My daughter’s friend down the street invited to her sleep over and I remember asking her a million questions about the mom’s new boyfriend and where he slept, etc. I never fully trusted that my kids were safe when they were away from home. Some of this made me a better mother, but mostly it just stole my peace of mind and made me constantly on guard that my kids would be molested by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
I know that when we know better, we do better. David was a broken person and on a self destructive path. He did not break me, but I felt tarnished because of the incident. I kept the secret and it felt dark and dirty and still does. I knew I’d done no wrong, but because of where he had touched me, I knew I’d never tell. I hated having this secret and hated that I was protecting this scumbag from what he deserved. I did it for my sister, but mostly I did it because I did not have the courage to do anything different.
Thank God we live these times and that I have a much different relationship with my kids than my parents had with me. I don’t know for sure if my kids would tell me if they were abused, but they know that when they are struggling that I will listen and believe them and we will work through any problem they bring to me. And hopefully, that is enough.