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The Lesson is Garbage

Content warning for childhood trauma, sexual abuse, and suicide mention.

When I was four or five, there was an older girl a few houses down who I used to play with sometimes. She was about four years older than me. I understood that she, being older, was just sort of tolerating my presence, but because she was so mature and smart and pretty and charismatic and interesting, that was good enough for me. Being tolerated by her made me feel like maybe I was those things too just a little bit. She was one of those children that adults implicitly trusted and fawned over — a model child. She knew how to charm them.

As an adult looking back, I realize this was my first encounter with malignant narcissism. At the time, being a very young child, I just wanted the cool girl to like me. I think I may even have had a child crush on her. I know my brother who was her age did.

So one day, being four or five, I toddled over to the cool girl’s house to see if she’d let me hang around while she did cool stuff. My mom told me to be home by dark. I said okay, having every intention of doing as I was told. I’d lost track of the time at another friend’s house earlier in the week and my mom had been pretty upset, so I understood that I was on probation.

When I got there, neighbor girl wanted to show off her so-grown-up math textbook that she’d just gotten. Because she could make anything sound interesting, I said sure. She invited me down to the basement where it was. We were alone down there, door closed. She showed me the textbook and even pointed out the lesson they were on — it was something about units of measurement. Pints and gallons and so on. I still remember that.

As odd an accusation as this may sound like, she then coerced a four-or-five-year old into doing her math homework for her. At first it was like a dare — like, “I bet you’re not smart enough to do this,” and I wanted to prove her wrong because in my family, being stupid was the worst possible thing you could be called. So I struggled my way through what I hoped would be enough fourth-grade math problems to prove that I was smart and mature enough to hang out with her. It was never enough because after I’d done a few, proving that I could, she shifted the goal post. Now it was, “I just remembered that I have to do this other homework before my dad gets home. If you don’t finish that for me while I work on the other thing, I’ll get in trouble. You don’t want me to get in trouble, do you?”

Because we were in the basement, with no windows, I wasn’t sure how much time was passing, but I was conscious of needing to be home by dark and I felt like I’d been down there for a while. When I’d first gotten there, I had told the neighbor girl that my mom wanted me home by dark. Now I reminded her. I wanted to go upstairs to check the time. She told me if I left that basement before finishing the homework for her, she’d be in so much trouble that we couldn’t be friends anymore. Not only that, but as she said it she physically blocked the door, this girl about twice my age. She was terrible in her fury.

I still remember the feeling of cold panic that washed over me. The realization that if she wanted to keep me down there, there was nothing I could do to escape. Her mother was outside gardening. Her father wasn’t home. She was so much bigger, so much older and more sophisticated than me, so forceful. It felt to me in that moment that she could keep me down there until I literally died and I would be powerless to stop her. The only way out of that basement, I understood, was to keep doing her homework until she let me go.

So that’s what I did. She went upstairs on some pretext for a while; I think she must have been having dinner with her family. I don’t think they even knew I was there. She locked me in while she was gone. She made me do so many math problems that there’s no way all of it was her actual homework for the day. Either I was doing the whole unit so she wouldn’t have to, or she was just getting off on seeing how much she could make me do.

By the time she released me, it was well after dark. Of course. I was shaken and terrified as I emerged from the basement. And of course she was all smiles and charm once we were upstairs where the adults were. She thanked me for being such a good friend and insisted that I come back another time to play with her cool new swing-set. I walked home in a haze of gaslit childish horror, knowing that I was going to be in so much trouble.

At home, my entire family was in a state because it was so late and I was “missing.” They’d already had dinner without me. My father was furious that I’d disobeyed my mother. I told them what had happened to me — that the neighbor girl had trapped me in her basement and wouldn’t let me go home. I was still dazed and shaking from the experience.

But after listening to my explanation of what had happened, my plea for them to understand that I’d been afraid, my parents declared that I was lying. I don’t believe I was a child with a reputation for lying. My mom said she was so disappointed that I would make up a story and blame someone else instead of taking responsibility for my own actions. Then she stripped off my pants and underwear, exposing me in front of my whole family, and spanked my bare bottom. I was sent to bed invalidated, humiliated, and hungry.

That was when I learned never to tell anyone in authority about any abuse I might ever be victim to. It was a lesson that I internalized deeply.

I’d already learned by that point that the adults would not protect me from my own siblings. My mom would tell me that’s just how they played but they really loved me and they’d never actually hurt me. (They already had actually hurt me.) Then when my siblings found out I’d told on them, they’d make me suffer. So I already knew abuse at home was my own problem to deal with.

A few months after I was punished for the neighbor girl trapping me in her basement, the boy next door invited me into a dark room where he took off his pants and offered me a box of raisins if I’d show him what was inside my panties. (I’ve had a visceral hate reaction to that word for as long as I can remember.) He was at least twelve, maybe older.

I honestly don’t remember much about it. I remember a dark room with the blinds closed, stripes of sunlight between them. I remember his dark silhouette in front of that window. I remember a deep quiet. I remember raisins in a little cardboard box. I remember feeling shame and not knowing why I felt it.

I did not tell anyone.

The next day, he saw me in the front yard and gave me a necklace. I remember being uncomfortable but thinking it was pretty. When I brought it inside, my mom became stiff with anger and demanded to know where I’d gotten it. It was a crucifix and we were Mormon — Mormons object to displays of the cross. I hadn’t known that. I was just a child.

I was embarrassed and ashamed of having done something wrong, just by having been given this necklace I’d never asked for by a boy whose attention I also had never asked for. My mom seemed so angry and disappointed as she confiscated it. I think she went to speak to the boy’s mother about respecting our religion. On top of the shame I didn’t understand feeling, I also felt guilty that I’d somehow gotten him in trouble.

By the time I was six years old, I firmly understood that authority exists not to protect, but to punish. I never told anyone about the boy next door. I never told anyone when I was seventeen that my boyfriend raped me a month after I gave birth to our son. (I went on to marry him anyway because of the deeply internalized lesson that my assault and trauma were my problems to manage.) I never told anyone about anything until I was on the verge of committing suicide in my mid-30s and I wanted a friend to understand why I couldn’t survive my husband’s abuse any longer. I wasn’t looking for help, because help isn’t something my experience has taught me to expect when reporting abuse. I was just explaining.

My friends talked me into surviving and sticking it out until I could get a divorce. When I told my mom I was leaving my husband because he was abusive, she cried and asked if I wouldn’t consider trying to work things out with him because “he’s always taken such good care of you.” Even as I attempted to explain how bad he had really been to me, I was not believed. The message was that I was either misreporting or mistaken about my own experience of what I’d been through.

When I was trying to pack up my life in a hurry and escape him, he told me “all of our friends” believed I was trying to screw him over in some secret way because why else would I be leaving so suddenly and going away so far? He was the charismatic abuser and I his introverted victim — who were people going to believe, after all? I had to cut off contact with many people I’d thought were friends because I had no way of knowing who was safe and who thought I was a conniving liar.

I’m thirty-nine now and I’ve never been able to seek help for any of my mental health issues because of how deeply I’ve learned the lesson that you don’t tell people in authority about trauma or abuse.

The very highest authorities in our land have spent the past few weeks reinforcing this, repeatedly mocking our trauma and stating on the record their contempt for survivors of rape and abuse. We’re all liars, or we’re just trying to ruin a good man, or we’re unreliable reporters of our own lived experiences; we’re confused, we’re mixed up, we’re crybabies, we’re too sensitive. Senator Hatch said to a woman who told him she’d been raped, “Too bad.” He also said, about women coming forward to attest to the true character of the Supreme Court nominee his party is attempting to ram through without due deliberation, that he doesn’t think the GOP should “put up with it.” Doesn’t think he should have to “put up with” women telling their stories. Senator Grassley revealed earlier in the week that he’d already made up his mind to confirm Brett Kavanaugh no matter what any testimony to his past abuses described. Authority does not exist to protect us.

Today alone, for sharing my disgust with the language and tone our congressmen and POTUS are using to talk about this subject, I’ve been called a “drama queen,” “whiny,” “delusional,” a “man-hating lesbian,” and of course the old go-to, “bitch.” Conservative men have made it clear that, despite the contradiction, they believe a.) sexual assault isn’t that bad, b.) no woman has ever actually been really assaulted, and c.) pretty much all men have sexually assaulted a woman at some point and that’s just how it is so women need to get over it.

Authority does not exist to protect us. These men do not believe rape survivors to be deserving of respect, you can see in their contemptuous sneering responses, because no woman is deserving of their respect — what makes us lying bitches who speak up when we should know well enough to keep silent think we’re entitled to more than other women?

If it was so bad, why didn’t you report it? If that really happened, you would have told someone. If this kind of stuff were really going on, no woman would ever put herself in that situation. Ridiculous. Nonsense. Lies. If we’re calling that assault then every man ought to be worried. You women will cry rape about anything.

We don’t report it. Over and over again, all around this festering garbage can of a planet, we internalize the lesson that our trauma is our problem, that no one is there to help or protect us, and we do our best to pick ourselves up and stumble on with our lives anyway, and we don’t report it. Why should we when they don’t give a shit? When they’ll just tell us it was our fault and we’re lying anyway?

Why didn’t you say something sooner? they ask out of one side of their face while cursing at us from the other for saying anything at all.

I don’t have a neat conclusion to all of this or a wise lesson to impart. I’m just feeling invalidated and humiliated all over again. Trying to pull myself out of the dissociation I’ve been dealing with today as Conservative members of the Senate have publicly subjected a brave woman to additional violation because she’s trying to warn us all about the predator who stands to be appointed to the SCOTUS. As they’ve called her a liar, an opportunist, confused, to blame for her own assault if one really happened. I’m not alone in hearing all of this vitriol as if it’s aimed at me and getting jolted back into all of my most powerless memories. I’m part of a dismally vast sisterhood, all of us struggling today, all of us wrestling either again or for the startling first time with the magnitude of men’s disdain for us.

We’re weary/scared/angry/demoralized/feeling helpless and revictimized/ready to burn this whole damn thing to the ground. That this is the world we’ve built is endlessly, endlessly exhausting. That it still doesn’t seem possible, in 2018, to conceive of a better one where men don’t actually want to harm women is… I don’t have a word for how bleak that is.

I’m just so tired.

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