by Roxanna Bennett
[Trigger Warning for discussions of child rape and molestation]
I divorced my entire family in 2005 and it was the healthiest action I’ve ever taken for myself.
In 2004, I started getting panic attacks every time the phone rang. I had never had them before so at first I was convinced I was dying, that I was having a heart attack or something was wrong with my brain. I broke out in hives a lot. Had nightmares. Found myself spending entire days in bed, just staring at the ceiling, unable to play with my son. Sometimes making his dinner and staring slack-jawed at the television was a challenge. I’m not sure when I made the connection between what was happening in my family and what was happening with me but when I came to the realization that they were the source of my pain, I had no choice. It was them or me. My son or my mother. I chose my ability to function as a healthy parent over the feelings of my family and this is why.
I was raped by my uncle, my mother’s brother, when I was four years old. My mother is an identical twin, her sister was like a second mother to me. My biological mother was distant, anxious, sometimes cold. Her sister, my aunt, was more outgoing, warmer. My mother moved out of the province when I was 18 and it was my aunt who was my source of support during my early adulthood. She nursed me when I was sick, let me sleep on her couch when I had nowhere to go. She stayed with my son every night for a year while I put myself through night school. We were very close.
My uncle, who had damaged me beyond measure when I was a child, had been living in British Columbia for years when I made the decision to orphan myself. And this is why, and it sounds small to say it but it wasn’t, it was because of a family vacation.
No one in my family had much money so vacations were rare. My mother had never been on a cruise or seen a sandy beach or had a massage, or had the chance to relax and be pampered. Through a series of long-distance phone calls and letters, my mother and her siblings, all of her siblings, including my uncle, decided to take a vacation together to P.E.I.
That my uncle had molested me was not a secret, hell, I even told my mom and grandmother at the time.
“He makes me put my hands in his pants and touch him,” I told them one night before bed. Because they put me to sleep in his bed. I was a little child and he was almost an adult man and that, somehow, was OK.
“He makes me touch his…” I had no words to describe what he did, that he made me masturbate him before he touched me and then penetrated me. I was too young to have the vocabulary to describe that horror but I very clearly communicated to my mother that he was making me touch his penis.
“Well, tell him not to do that,” my mother said.
“I did,” I protested.
“Maybe you shouldn’t sleep in his bed anymore,” she replied. This sounded like a punishment. I knew what I did with my uncle was wrong but I liked being close to him. I liked feeling loved and special. I kept sleeping in his bed with him off and on until he left home.
Once, when I was 17, I had a conversation with her about my uncle. By then I had been raped by a boyfriend, sexually assaulted several times by various “friends”, and had been molested by a friend’s older brother. They were the kind of events I shrugged off, at least outwardly. Never mind that my arms were covered in cuts from wrist to elbow, that I had been struggling with anorexia since I was four, that not a minute went by that I wasn’t thinking about suicide.
“You’re OK now though, right?” my mother said. She was turned away from me, washing the dishes.
“I guess so,” I answered.
“You don’t need therapy or anything, do you?” It was implicit in the question that needing therapy would be a hassle.
“No, I guess not.”
“Good. Because you’re not the only person this happened to, you know.” I knew my aunt couldn’t remember anything of her childhood before the age of 12. I learned later that almost every woman in my family had been molested or raped by someone.
“It would kill your grandmother. You know how much she loves your uncle. This would upset her.”
That was the end of that conversation, although I always felt I had a lot more to say. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I realized how very wrong it was to not protect your child from predators. I couldn’t fathom allowing someone, no matter who they were or how much it would upset anyone else, to hurt my child. I could not wrap my head around the idea of tucking my son into the bed of someone I knew was going to rape him later that night. And I sure as fuck couldn’t understand wanting to go on a fun-filled family vacation with a person who had violated and damaged my child.
If someone did that to my son, they would die a painful death at my hands. I wouldn’t want to go golfing with them, I would want to murder them: a normal, parental response.
Once, when I was about 7, I was at the playground with my brother and a friend of ours while my mom and my friend’s mother were sitting on a blanket, chain-smoking and chatting. This friend had a kidney condition that meant that he was kind of small, not very healthy, and had to have a lot of operations. A group of big kids appeared and started pushing us around, telling us to get off the playground, making fun of us, shoving my smaller friend. I ran over to the blanket to tell my mom.
“You have to fight your own battles,” my mom said. “Either fight back or ignore them.”
“But they’re bigger than us and we were here first.”
My mother exhaled a stream of cigarette smoke, “You need to deal with it yourself.”
Ignore them. That was my mom’s advice all the way through childhood. If someone tried to beat me up, I should ignore them. If my friend’s older brother put his hands down my pants and shoved his finger brutally up inside me, I should ignore him. If my brother tried to beat down the bathroom door with a baseball bat, I had to ignore him. If he tried to set fire to the couch, I needed to ignore him. If people at school called me a slut, ignore them.
When my mother decided to go on vacation with my uncle, I made myself very clear.
“It makes me angry that you want to do this because it says to me that you condone his actions,” I explained very calmly. “It makes me feel like you don’t care that he molested me.”
My mother protested that she had never had a real vacation and that I was being selfish.
“What would you do,” I asked my aunt, the aunt who had been like a mother to me, “if someone did this to your daughter?”
“I’d kill them,” she answered without hesitation. It was like getting punched in the stomach. So someone hurting her daughter deserved to die, but me, just her niece, I wasn’t worth skipping a vacation for. Or at least, not inviting the guy who raped me.
So they went on vacation and something in me broke, something I had been trying to hold together inside myself since I was a little girl. I didn’t matter to these people. I was worth less than their brother, a child molester with two daughters of his own. Confronting him, upsetting my grandmother, those were not options. I was told to get over it. Move on. Stop dwelling on the past. Stop making a big deal out of nothing. Stop being so goddamn selfish. As though wanting to be protected by your family is selfish.
I realized that I didn’t want any of these people near my son. I have a few cousins whom I adore that got caught in the cross-fire of my decision and that I regret, but I couldn’t live with myself if I continued to be connected to people who made me feel guilty for speaking about the crime that was done to me. Because the crux of it was that I wouldn’t be silent. And if I wouldn’t pretend that nothing had happened then my mother, my family, would feel bad. And that, it seemed was my fault, I was a bad daughter, bad niece, bad granddaughter, for having needs and wants and wishes.
I had to stand apart from that and decide, no, I won’t have this poison infect my child, incapacitate me to the point where I can’t parent my son in the manner I need to, I won’t let these people, whom I am connected to by an accident of blood and birth and not choice, I won’t allow them to make me feel worthless one second longer. I cannot change who they are, I cannot make them listen to me, I can only say what I have to say and I have done that, I cannot alter their choices or do anything on this earth to make them give me what I need, that is, love and validation. I cannot. And so I can choose, as my mother told me long ago, to either fight back or ignore them.
So I ignore them.
For a long time my mother and aunt both called me, almost every day. I stopped answering the phone. I changed my number. They wrote letters. I recycled them without reading them. They enlisted other family members in their campaign. Once, in a moment of carelessness, I answered the phone and it was my mother. I told her that I was very angry with her for having gone on a trip with my uncle.
“I’m angry with you for not talking to me,” she screamed. “I’m so mad at you for ignoring me and for being so damn selfish.” That word again. My body reacted before I could formulate a response, slamming down the phone and yanking it out of the wall so it wouldn’t ring again. I moved soon after. I kept moving. They seemed to always find me. I never felt safe.
Just a few days ago my mother left a comment on my blog. I have already blocked her once so I assume she’s changed her email address again. She’s humiliated me by leaving comments on blogs that I write for, leading to awkward conversations with editors. Sent messages on twitter, I delete without reading, blocking her IP over and over again. She follows me around the internet and many times I have stopped writing or posting for months at a time, paralyzed with anxiety, depression.
Every time she sends me a message I spend days curled up, crying. They’re always the same. Her feelings. Her right to know if I want to talk to her, want her in my life. Nothing about me, about how I matter. She has never, in my years of silence, respected that boundary. Her need to not feel whatever pain she feels far outweighs my need to not have her in my life. I am obviously not dead – I’m online, so if I haven’t answered a phone call, letter, email, comment, message, I am, because my mother taught me that is how you deal with bullies, ignoring her.
It isn’t always easy to be an orphan. Holidays and birthdays are difficult. It would be nice if my son had grandparents. My son, by the way, whole heartedly supports my decision not to be a part of a toxic clan, and often offers to tell my mother what a horrible person she is, but there’s no point. My silence speaks in a louder voice than the four year-old or the 17-year-old who told and was ignored, or the 33-year-old who expressed anger and was ignored. It’s isn’t easy but it’s easier than the weighted silences or cutting remarks or the constant reminders of worthlessness, the put-downs, the guilt trips, the fights, the insults, the ignorance.
Here’s how to become an orphan:
Tell yourself that you matter more than the people who hurt you. Tell yourself that you will not sacrifice your mental health so they can sleep better at night. Tell yourself that you did not ask to be born into a group of people who treat you like you’re invisible, who put you in harm’s way, who failed to protect you. Tell yourself it’s all right to grieve for the loss of a family you wish you had. Tell yourself that you did nothing wrong by speaking the truth, and that you are not a bad daughter, bad sister, bad person. You are a good mother. You are a good person. There is nothing wrong with choosing yourself over them. You have a choice. You can fight back. And ignore them.
(Photo of child’s drawing via Wikimedia Commons)