I have had a draft of this post I’ve been working on for weeks so I apologize in advance for its length and any mistakes I haven’t found.
The week before Christmas my son handed me the phone and my father said “it’s me, Dad”. I can’t remember him calling me before. Once he called me because he had an episode and couldn’t remember where my mother was or what he was doing alone in the house but I have no other memories of him calling. For much of my adulthood we spoke only when I called my parents house and my mother wasn’t home so my father would take the opportunity to talk to me. Those conversations happened less frequently over the last seven years as I’ve distanced myself from my FOO so I call my mother less often and I share less of my life with either of my parents. He asked me if I remember the conversation we had last spring. I said “I thought you would never mention it again.” Now I need to give some history but rather than go back to our conversation last spring I’ll start earlier.
I was sexually abused by two older male family members. They lived with my family and were over ten years older than me. I should make it clear that they didn’t know about each other. They both abused me separately. The abuse started when I was very young and I think ended by the time I was 10 but I’m not sure because I don’t remember much clearly, a few specific incidents that happened in my bedroom or the bathroom. Memories that are like snapshots with no beginning or end just flashes. During my childhood I told nobody what was happening. I was sure it was all my fault and I was to blame. I had a lot of fears as a child. I was afraid of the dark, I had nightmares. I frustrated my parents and my older siblings (I am the fifth of my parents six children).
When I was 14 years old one of my abusers moved to the city my family were living in and my parents invited him to stay with us until he got settled. It was very difficult. I was struggling with being a teenager, trying to figure out how to be like everyone else when I felt disgusting and my parents were overly controlling. I wasn’t allowed to have any money, go to stores, go out in groups with boys (certainly not individually). They didn’t trust me which added to my guilt. It is ironic that they paid so little attention to me as a child and didn’t have the slightest clue what was happening under their noses but once I passed the age of 13, they were prison wardens. Those rules didn’t apply to family members though. So I spent several months trying to juggle all these different things. My family member might pick me up after school and take me out for a ride or a movie. One night he showed me my first porn movie. Eventually he told me that what had happened between us when I was little (4 or 5 by his memory) would never have happened with anyone else because I started it. He said I was special and he loved me and he hadn’t found anyone else to love like that in his life. It was overwhelming. I was 14 and he was almost 30. I felt so guilty, look what I had made him do. I was confused by his confession and things got even more confusing when he stopped talking to me after and focused all his attention on my younger sister.
Eventually, I told my parents. It wasn’t planned. It happened because another family member told about being abused by a different family member and that is when I learned that I wasn’t the only one this had happened to. My family was filled with offenders and victims and there were hidden layers that I had not glimpsed before. When I told them my father was upset and hugged me and my mother had no reaction. My father asked me why I hadn’t told him before because he was worried when my relative started spending so much time with my younger sister and stopped talking to me. I told him I never left them alone. I asked if I could see someone so I could get help (I was thinking a therapist) and my father said yes we would get help. We went to sleep and when I woke up it was like I had never said anything. We continued to see those family members. I waited for my father to bring it up but he never did. I went to their weddings and celebrated holidays with them. My mother continued to treat me like I couldn’t be trusted. After about a year I admitted they were never going to help me and I was furious but I couldn’t do anything because I was still under their complete control.
As an adult
There is no way to summarize what happened when I was an adult. If you have experienced something like it you can imagine. I was furious but couldn’t admit it because my parents have always told me how much they loved me and how perfect our family is. If I didn’t come home for every family dinner, or didn’t call home enough, or didn’t listen to them, then they were disappointed and made sure I knew it. I tried to put it behind me because it was all over a long time ago. I knew what had happened. I knew they couldn’t deal with it but there was no point in still being angry about it because I was an adult and I could take care of myself. I got married, had three children, remained close to my family. I had occasional fights with my parents where I got angry at how they told me what to do, how to parent my children, and my mother would cry because she had to tell me what to do because she loved me so much. Fighting with them didn’t help, they didn’t change how they behaved and I couldn’t stay away from them without feeling very guilty.
I started therapy at 38. My presenting issue was my weight. I was morbidly obese and I couldn’t control me eating. My parents had been telling me my whole life how unhealthy I was, how I overate, how I was lazy and didn’t exercise like my siblings. When I was pregnant my father told me I was hurting my children by bringing them into the world with such an unhealthy and damaging environment (he meant my obese body). I told M about the abuse when he took my history. I told him I was over it and it didn’t affect me. I said bad things happened to lots of people and this was mine but it was in my past, not my present or future. It might have been believable if I hadn’t broken down into uncontrollable tears during that speech. It was the first time I had talked about the abuse in decades. I went home that night and sat in bed crying, while my entire body shook.
When I was 40 my eldest child (a girl) graduated from middle school. When she excitedly showed my parents her dress, my father told her it looked like it was too small for her and she would have to avoid all sugar and treats until after graduation. At the graduation, my mother spent 15 minutes before the ceremony telling me how fat I looked in my dress, asking if I had gained weight, and acting like she didn’t believe me when I said no. I decided I had to confront my parents and tell them they weren’t allowed to comment on the weight or appearance of me or my children. It lead to a huge fight. Why was I so sensitive? couldn’t I hear some advice? that is just how people their age and nationality talk about appearance, it isn’t insulting. When I wouldn’t back down my mother switched tactics and started to cry and tell me how much she loved me and she was sorry for anything she had ever done that had upset me or I had been hurt by because that was never her intention and how could I believe that of her. That fight led to individual phone conversations with each of them later on.
During those conversations I told them I was angry at them for doing nothing about the abuse when I had told them about it 25 years ago. My mother said “what do you want me to do? say sorry?” and then explained there was nothing to do because the abuse was over by the time I told them. My father told me that I didn’t understand how complicated and difficult it was for him because the family members were my mothers’ family and not his. He told me he didn’t know what to do and that I hadn’t told him when I was a child. I was glad I told them I was angry but their response was all about them still.
It has been 2.5 years since I spoke about the abuse on the phone and we’ve never mentioned it again. I’m talking to my father (on the phone again) about my asthma and he starts to explain how it is caused by my obesity and how I became obese because of my eating as a child. I disagree with his story and tell him so. He gets angry and tells me that if I were a reasonable person I would listen to what he says. I get so angry I see red and I tell him he doesn’t get to call me unreasonable. He doesn’t get to tell me what I do wrong as a parent or a person. As far as I’m concerned he failed me by doing nothing about the abuse and so I don’t want to hear his opinion about anything. I say he lost the right to speak to me like he knew better than me when he did nothing to help me as a child. He says I didn’t know what was happening when you were a child. I say I was still a child at 14. You were the adult and you found it difficult. Imagine how much harder it was for me. My father switches and says he doesn’t know what he can do to help me but he is willing to meet me to discuss the abuse in my childhood “once and for all”. He doesn’t know what good it would do but he will do it. I am surprised and tell him we should discuss it in the future. Then I didn’t hear from him until just before Christmas.
Back to the present call
My father says I’ve been thinking about our conversation last spring and I want to set a date to meet to discuss it. I don’t know how it will help or how we could meet. I ask him if he is calling because my mother isn’t home. He says yes and I realize that if we have this conversation we have to do it without letting my mother know about it. He starts to get emotional and talks about how he is getting older and he doesn’t know how much time he has and he doesn’t want to leave this unfinished between us. A lot of different things go through my mind, like did he find out he is sick, why is he asking now? I have to leave the room because I am sitting with my three kids at the beginning of this conversation so I start to head for some privacy and by the time I get to my own room the conversation has switched.
Now my father is telling me about his life. He is talking about his young adulthood when he went away to school and wasn’t married. He talks about his childhood in another country. He tells me how unhappy he is because he has nothing to do and my mother won’t do anything he wants to do. They usually go away every winter but she won’t go where he wants to go. She has turned down three ideas and he is miserable. He talks for 45 min with me saying very little. I’m trying to figure out how this went to talking about me and my pain into his memories. I’m torn between feeling angry that he seems to have forgotten me as he talks on and on without even needing me to say anything and feeling sorry for him. When he first said he wanted to talk about my childhood there was a part of me that was so happy it was like I was finally getting my heart’s desire. Another part of me was so worried that he was upset and worried about dying. I wanted to tell him it was okay, I was okay and we didn’t have to talk about anything about him. Then I was angry that he was ignoring me again. It was so disorienting, like on of those funhouses where the floor isn’t flat and you can’t seem to walk.
I managed to ask him if he was worried about his health or had received bad news and he said no but at his age it could happen any time. I suggested that he write some memoirs while he was stuck here for the winter because it was something he could do without my mother’s permission or help. Then I started to get off the phone. He said he would like me to make time to meet with him in January because it would have to be after the holidays. Only after the call did I realize that he had managed to dig up this just in time for our huge family gathering where we would all pretend to be happy and nothing bad has ever happened. It wasn’t easy. Now I’m avoiding answering the phone because I’m not sure what I want to say.