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My childhood wasn’t normal, and I don’t mean that in a benign, quirky way. For at least 10 years, I was a victim of incest. I want to say abuse, but I still don’t know if I can characterize my situation that way. You see, what happened to me was done by my brother, and he was two years younger than me.
I can’t begin to describe the perfect storm of fuck-you-up this set of circumstances brewed up for me. None of what I had heard or read or been told gave me a definition for what was happening to me. Abuse is what happened to women jogging in the park, or to children left alone with evil stepfathers or babysitters. Abuse wasn’t pushing your little brother’s hands away, again and again, until you finally just froze up and zoned out and let it happen.
I never repressed the memories of what happened, although I do occasionally have a fresh and horrifying recollection of some particular occurrence that had someone slipped my mind.
Growing up, I read stories about people who had repressed the memories of their abuse and wished I could do the same with my own. I wished I could forget, even for a little while, but the knowledge was always there, right under the surface of everything I thought and did.
It undermined everything from those years that might have made me feel good about myself. Whenever I felt happy, or accomplished, or admired, the memory of who I really was would rush in and destroy that feeling. I couldn’t be anything good, because I was doing dirty things with my little brother, and how on earth could anyone like that be good in any way?
Years later, I find that the memories have attached themselves to good, normal things that can never be good or normal again -– a family friend’s backyard fence, our cousin’s pool, that one episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." My high school graduation.
Even as I guarded my secret obsessively, I wanted to be found out. I couldn’t imagine telling anyone, though. What would I say? That this boy who was three inches shorter than me was touching me against my will?
None of the abuse stories I read sounded like mine. The abusers were always older than their victims, and were hardly ever blood relatives. Incest didn’t sound to me like something that had innocent victims, only twisted people engaging in perverted sex. I know better now, but this was 20, 25 years ago, and I was a child who didn’t know much about traditional sex, let alone its taboo variations.
To their credit, my parents had tried to warn me about sexual abuse; I recall at least one time when my mom told me that I should tell her if anyone tried to touch me. I understood without her telling me, though, that she was talking about adults, not other children. And I couldn’t imagine how the scenario would play out if I had told her.
Because of the difference in my and my brother’s ages, I even feared that she would see me as the abuser in the situation instead of him.
And then there was the issue of loyalty. My brother was the baby in the family, and I couldn’t imagine my mom turning her back on him to protect me. How would that even work? Grown-ups who molested kids went to jail, but could he? Did I even want my brother to go to jail?
When he wasn’t destroying me from the inside out, my brother was my foremost playmate, and in some ways my best friend. What on earth do you do with a situation like that when you’re 10 years old?
And I remember imagining my nightmare scenario -- What if my parents found out, but no one moved out or went to jail, and I had to go on living in this house with everyone while they knew what had happened between my brother and me? In my mind, at that time, no outcome could have been worse.
If everyone around me knew, then I wouldn’t be able to pretend it hadn’t happened, and pretending the abuse wasn’t real was the only thing that made my life bearable.
Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to keep my secret entirely. When five people live together in 900 square feet, it’s only a matter of time before someone sees something.
I think I was about 12 when my mother walked in on us. I remember it clearly -– she said, “Get off of her!”, and then she turned around and walked out. She didn’t sound shocked, or horrified, just annoyed. It was if she’d caught him sneaking a cookie from the kitchen.
She never mentioned it again, and it wasn’t long before the abuse resumed.
I know I should be angry with her for this. Having our situation come to light would have spared me years of trauma, and it might have let me and my brother get help when we both really needed it. I don’t feel angry, though, and I’m not entirely sure why.
Maybe it’s because I understand what it’s like to be so afraid to be caught out in a shameful situation, and I know that’s what it would have been for her. Maybe it’s because I understand that, if I didn’t (and in some ways, still don’t) know how to categorize and manage that situation, she might not have, either. Or maybe there just isn’t an emotion big enough to encompass how completely she failed me.
(Five years. She could have saved me from five years of that.)
In the end, I saved myself the only way I could. I got engaged when I was 18, moved out when I was 19, and moved across the country a few years after that. The distance helped; it let me see the situation from a perspective outside of the dysfunction of my family group. It has let me recognize that something was terribly wrong with my brother, and while I probably ever won’t understand what was behind it, I’ve come to recognize that we were both victims.
I’ve seen several therapists over the years, but have never talked to them about what happened between my brother and me. Even though my thoughts about it have evolved, the evolution is still a fragile thing. I imagine them saying the wrong thing to me about this, and I feel as though I would shatter. I am whole in so many ways now that it seems a worthless risk to take.
I can’t say that I walked away without a scratch. My first marriage ended in divorce, and I went through a string of abusive men because their kind of love was the only kind that felt real to me for a long time. I’ve tried to kill myself three times (the first when I was 12, shortly after my mom did/didn’t catch us), and I cut myself for a while.
For a few years, things were really bad. Maybe the worst part was that, from the outside, I probably just looked like someone who was simply weak, a mess for no good reason. There’s no way anyone who didn’t know what had happened could understand why I was stuck for so long in such a self-destructive place.
It’s better now, a lot better. I’m remarried to someone who is faithful and honest and gentle. My husband knows there was abuse in my past, but I’ve never told him who did it. I have two reasons for this. The first is that he, like my therapists, might say the wrong thing and destroy me. The second is that I visit home about once a year and need my husband to be able to do what I do, act naturally around my brother and his wife.
Because I’ve never been though therapy for this, I don’t know the right way to heal from something like this. (Hell, I don’t even really have a name for it that feels exactly right.)
But this feels like healing to me, to look squarely into the perfect storm of fuck-you-up and say, you might have taken 10 or 15 years of normal away from me, but you’re not getting any more.