gallery Stories of My Truth

In American Culture its commonplace for someone to promise they “won’t tell a soul”, after hearing another person’s secret. This phrase is often uttered when the secret is negative. In cases of child abuse, these words may not be uttered, but the child is left with the understanding that the incident isn’t to be discussed. The abuser may threaten to do further harm to the victim if they tell anyone about what happened. In other instances the child may not want anyone else to know because they feel ashamed about the abuse; guilt and betrayal are also common emotions experienced by victims of abuse. I know because, over the past twenty-six years, I’ve experienced all of them. Although, my need to experience the unconditional love of a parent, and a misguided sense of loyalty are the biggest reasons I kept my family’s “dirty little secret” for so long. That changed earlier this year when I realized I would never completely heal until I told the stories of my truth.
One of my earliest memories took place in the church where my father’s funeral was held. My mother and I had barely entered the sanctuary when a woman stopped us and said that I looked like my mother. The only feature that my mother and I share is the honey brown shade of our eyes. My four-year-old self-was outraged. I knew this woman had to have some type of visual impairment. I looked at her and said with the simplicity of a child,”No I don’t, I’m my daddy’s girl!”
As a young girl, I was my father’s constant shadow. My sun rose and set with him. When he went somewhere it was an unspoken rule that I would accompany him. My father coached football at one of the local high schools. I can remember attending a practice with him a few weeks after school started. It was still scorching hot outside. The football field was a beautiful forest green, but the grass off the field was brittle to the touch and had numerous areas where the grass was completely dead. I was in fifth grade at the time, just a few months shy of my 11th birthday. I was over 5 feet tall, but I weighed less than 100 pounds. I stood on the field yelling at the guys to get their legs up higher; they followed my commands without hesitation. I always felt like the luckiest girl in the world when I was with my father.
On May 26, 1986, my world came crashing down around me. School had been dismissed for the summer on the previous day. Several of my friends and I had attended a slumber party the night before. It was a typical preteen slumber party. We ordered pizza for dinner and watched scary movies. One of the girls had a container full of fingernail polish, so we all took turns applying it on one another’s nails. I still feel bad for the girl who was unfortunate enough to land me as the one to paint her nails. We finished that and my cousin suggested we play a game of Truth or Dare. I had no idea that choosing truth would have such a dramatic effect on my life. At the time, I thought having to kiss one of the other girls or eating some nasty combination of foods that my friends concocted was a fate worse than death. I wasn’t immune to the stories other girls told about slumber parties they had attended. I did not want to be added to the list of the infamous; I cringed at the memory of the story where one unsuspecting slumber party attendee had eaten a piece of pizza that contained a cockroach. I quickly decided that truth was the safest option, for my stomach and social status.
I thought I had hit the jackpot; my cousin was the person in charge of pronouncing the fateful question I was to answer. She knew that I was really good friends with a guy in high school. I was actually thrilled when she asked if the rumor was true, was I really friends with a senior. My ego got the best of me. I told her it was indeed true, as I wore a sheepish smile on my face. I knew my “cool” points had massively increased with my answer. In fact, when she asked for if I knew his telephone number I said each digit with pride. I didn’t realize the imprudent nature of my decision until my father picked me up the next afternoon.
My father’s smile appeared stranded when I first glanced at him, but by the time I looked again he had his normal exuberant smile on his face. I knew something was very wrong within the first 10 minutes of the drive. My father always had a story to tell, either from his job as a police officer, or his time as a Marine. However, he remained completely silent. I tried several times to strike up a conversation but eventually determined that he wasn’t in the mood. I began to look out the window. I noticed a creek that he and I had fished at before, so I didn’t think it strange when he parked the car and told me to get out.
I eagerly jumped out of the car and watched my father walk towards the rear of the vehicle. As I stood next to a nearby tree, I waited for him to open the trunk and remove our fishing poles. I began to get alarmed when he walked past the rear of the vehicle and continued towards me. All traces of his earlier smile was gone. He looked so angry, it seemed to ooze out his pores. In an attempt to reduce the tension, I made the face that always caused him to laugh. Instead of lightening the mood he became more incensed. He barked out an order for me to grab a switch from the tree; if it wasn’t up to his standards he would not only choose a replacement switch, but I would receive extra swats. He inspected the limb that I chose and ordered me to return to the car after he determined it was satisfactory.
The foundation of my personal hell was laid that day. I was in absolute terror for the remains five minutes of the trip to my house. I slowly reached for the handle to the car door, but my hand was trembling so badly I missed the handle on my first attempt. The calm tone of my father’s voice was in dissonance with the anger he outwardly displayed. He told me to go straight to the basement and wait for his arrival. I heard my father speaking to my sister in hushed tones. In order to understanding of what they were discussing it was necessary for me to get closer to the two of them, but I only dared to venture to the third step from the bottom. I was close enough to hear what they were saying from that distance while also being close enough to the floor to jump to the ground at the first utterance of the creaky door.
Once my father got to the bottom of the stairs he grabbed me by my left arm and dragged me into the hall between the bathroom and the laundry room.
“Take off all of your clothes!” my dad screamed at me.
“What? I’m not going to take off all of my clothes in front of you!”
I thought my dad was going crazy, I was on my way to becoming a woman, had rather large breasts and had even started my period. Did he really want me to stand naked in front of him?
My dad pulled out the switch and started hitting me with it all over my body. Even though I had clothes on, the pain from the switch was worse than when I’d gotten a severe second-degree burn. When he finally stopped, I began to hurriedly peel off my clothes. I didn’t want him to start hitting me again. As soon as I stood naked before him he started to call me horrible names.
“You’re such a whore, to stand in front of me with no clothes on,” he screamed.
“But you told me to take off all of my clothes,” I said in a voice that came out like a whisper.
“When you grow up, you are going to be a worthless slut. You’re going to end up on welfare and no one will want you!”
“Why are you saying that to me,” I asked as tears began to stream down my face.
“You know what I should do; I should get my gun for work.” “I should kill you and then kill myself, just think what that would do to your mother,” he said.
There was a noise from upstairs; my sister had gotten home from the errand that he’d sent her on. He told me to go to my room and not to talk to my sister, and that he would beat me again if I told anyone what had happened that day. I ran to my room and began to cry. I had to sit on my knees because the rest of my body had welts all over it, and it burned like hell when they touched anything.
When my mom got home from work she opened the door to my room. “Why are you crying,” she asked.
“He beat me, look at me! He hit me all over my body with a switch,” I yelled at her.
I was almost in hysterics by this point. She looked at me, and I swear to god it looked like she had a smirk on her face.
“That’s nothing, my grandma always used a switch on me when I was little,” she said as she walked out of the door.
Now I see my mother’s uncaring response, as a symbol for all the times I would cry out to her for help, and she would turn her back on me. And the part of me that I allow to feel pain, realizes that this experience is where the seeds of my self-doubt and self-hatred were planted. It’s where the voice that plays in my head when I don’t live up to perfection was created, the one that says: “You’re going to grow up to be a worthless whore on welfare.”
Regrettably, my virginal experience of mental, physical and emotional child abuse was minuscule in severity compared to what I experienced in later years. After two of the more physical encounters, the damage was unmistakeable and remained visible for several days after the beatings occurred. Grant it, the fact that my father called me at school to inform me he was going to beat the hell out of me, put my guidance counselor on notice that something wasn’t right at my house.
Two days after that incident took place my counselor requested I come to her office. I figured nothing would happen; she didn’t believe me when I tried to tell her that he really meant it when he said he was going to beat the hell out of me. In her defense, I’m sure the number of child abuse cases that involve the child of a retired police officer and child protective services caseworker are finite at best. She directed me to sit in a metal folding chair across from her desk. Once I was seated I looked up to speak to her and saw the look of horror on her face before she could disguise it. The state law required my injuries be documented; the assistant nurse was my friend’s mother. I closed my eyes as she took pictures of the bruises around my neck, on my back, and my black eye. The second time she documented the injuries was after my father broke a wooden baseball bat on my back.
I sought refuge at a shelter for teenagers who were having difficulties at home, after these two experiences. Following the first instance, I was only out of my home for a week. The other one required a short stint as a foster child and a longer placement in a group home. Even though my mother’s previous employment entailed being responsible for the safety of abused children, she neglected to protect me. Countless professionals told her that my refusing to return to that environment was the healthiest response to the abuse, she continued to rely on the advice of a psychologist that I never met.
One of the few skills my mother acknowledges my expertise and proficiency in is my ability to act. After all, I’ve been perfecting it for as long as I can remember. In public, I’ve always had to portray myself as a child who adored their parents. I read a piece that I wrote at my father’s funeral. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I didn’t want to lie about my father, but I also didn’t want to take away from the positive things that my father accomplished. So, I described the way my father behaved until the day after fifth grade ended.
Over the last four years, I’ve tried not to hurt my mother or sister. I’ve refrained from telling people what my childhood was really like. In May, I finally broke my silence. My mother tried to say she didn’t believe my father broke a bat by hitting my back with it. I came to the realization that I’d been continuing to play the role of an abused child. I was still embarrassed about being in foster care and a group home, even though my behavior isn’t what necessitated my placement. My mother and sister were both happy with their lives; they continued to pretend like the abuse hadn’t occurred. However, continuing to lie by omission was eating away at my soul. I became cognizant of the fact that I would never be able to heal, as long as I continued to protect them. I determined I could tell the truth and begin to heal, or maintain the charade in an effort to continue protecting my mother and sister. In the eleventh hour, I determined that choosing myself had become a fundamental necessity.
When the primary relationship that teaches you how to interact with the world, models how you are supposed to give and receive love, and provides the foundation for how you see yourself is tainted, it spills out into every other relationship that you have. The infection begins in small doses that you are able to manage in the beginning, but eventually it will devour your soul. Eventually you are forced to make a decision, you can either stay in that situation or you can risk the little part of your soul that hasn’t been tainted in order find a place where you can survive.

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