By Eleanor Cowan
January 1973 – Quebec
At the college where I worked as a secretary, I smiled up at the chubby cherubs fixed along the ancient oak hallway, their alabaster gazes uplifted in hope. I knocked on the chaplain’s door. We’d arranged to meet during my lunch hour. Anxious to hear about the results of his appointment with my fiancé’s mother, I took the same wooden chair Edna sat in only hours before.
That morning, my future mother-in-law begged Father Price, the priest booked to officiate our wedding, to dissuade me from marrying her son, Stan. Edna explained that while she liked me, I was emotionally unreliable. I’d been raped and molested. Sometimes I binge drank and my mother, an alcoholic, had taken her own life. Edna said that she was only thinking of her future grandchildren who, with an unstable mother, might one day suffer the consequences.
Bottom line, I did not qualify to marry into her family.
“I guess I’ll have to prove myself, Father,” I said, my throat swollen with shame.
“You will, Eleanor,” Father encouraged me as I wept. “Edna will come around. You’ll see. I told her that one day she’d be thanking God Almighty that her precious prize married a sorry lot like you.” We both chuckled at his attempt at humor.
January 2018 – Alberta
Last Monday evening, I chased down the hall to answer my cell where I’d left it, this time.
The caller, a woman whose voice I recognized immediately even though we’d not spoken in thirty years, identified herself as Stan’s sister, Beth. Her older brother, my ex-husband, chose never to seek help for his pedophile addiction. Beth was one of his first victims.
“I know who you are, Beth,” I welcomed her. “I’m glad to hear your voice.”
It seems that well before my divorce from Stan, his sister, who’d lived thousands of miles from us, had been deeply affected in her own life. Now in her fifties, she told me her story of chronic alienation from her siblings, from her own children and from a special someone she’d loved deeply, a man who left her.
“When Joe left me, I was crushed. Devastated. Heartbroken, I finally, finally entered therapy, where I surfaced memories of Stan’s constant sexual molestation of me during my childhood. At long last, I understood the reason I’d always managed to sabotage intimacy and push closeness away.”
“I’m so glad that you’re taking good care of yourself now, Beth. Every effort is richly rewarded, you’ll see,” I encouraged her. I told her, truthfully, that surprising joy can find its way into the most parched hearts in a vast variety of ways.
“We all knew,” Beth interrupted my reassuring words. “On your wedding day in Montreal, we all knew,” she continued as, shocked, I listened. “Our whole family, all lined up in the first pew before the altar, knew you were marrying our family pedophile. No one told you nor did any of us discuss it. But we all knew. My dad, my mom, all my siblings, including the sister who first discovered Stan’s molestation of me – the one who died of depression-related illness a few years ago.”
Beth continued, “My brother’s never-addressed always-secret underground pedophilia has been so destructive to me, to my happiness with a partner I loved, to my relationships with my children, to my sister who, over the years, came to dislike herself for not having said anything, for not having protected your children from what we hoped would not happen – but did happen.”
As Beth spoke, I didn’t suck in my breath or react with shock or umbrage. Even though Beth and I hadn’t spoken for nearly thirty years, since when she was a sweet teenager wearing long hippie skirts and stuttering a bit, I felt only grave sadness as she spoke today.
“Back in those days,” Beth added, “Silence was the order of the day. Say nothing and ‘it’ will go away. Even during my intense therapy in the late 80’s, Mom and my sisters refused to support my legal confrontation of Stan. ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’, Mom begged me at the police office. ‘It’s over now. He’s safely married. He has a family now. Don’t destroy your brother’s life,’ she implored, blind to the devastation to my life.”
In the past few days since Beth and I made a date to meet, I’ve retraced the moments when, with some brave voicing, telling and speaking up, life could have been so different for my small cherubs.
I imagined Edna once again in the priest’s office in Montreal. What would have happened if she’d had the capacity to share her real concern about her son’s pedophilia, and tell that her fears for her yet unborn grandchildren were not about me, but about her son, and his likely molestation of them?
What might have resulted if Edna, a devout Catholic all her life, had not been groomed to “say nothing,” “let it go” and “leave it with God”? Even silent about her own daughter’s abuse, Edna’s only solution that day in 1973, was to make her distress about me, another woman, and not her son.
The unspoken injunction, to stand by the abuser, was honored. If Edna had had the capacity and the permission to take care of business, her son, Stan, and her daughter, Beth, would have received the care they needed – and perhaps lived happier lives. Her grandchildren would have been protected from the sexual abuse that did happen. I’d have had an earlier chance to be happy too. If Edna had been able to speak up, perhaps her older daughter, the one who died of depression, might have lived.
But Edna had no encouragement to tell her secrets.
“When my dad started cracking me over the head with his giant university ring, Mom up and left him,” said Beth towards the end of our call. “In the 70’s, it was impressive that my mother took off like that. She left behind all the benefits of being supported by a wealthy man and moved into a small inexpensive flat with us kids. That Mom put her foot down about physical violence was the best she could do at the time,” said Beth.
Confronting sexual violence, though, was out of the question for Edna, my mother-in-law, repressed, distressed and depressed all her life, suffering her protected son avoided. Unthwarted, unchallenged, he continued to molest a whole new generation of children.
It’s taken time in recovery, through the long corridor of the decades, for me to be able to handle such a call as I received this week. I’ve learned about the historical, religious, and social grooming that effectively silenced my mother-in-law. I also note that alone, like the alabaster Virgin Mary she often knelt before in prayer, she lived without any parental support from Stan’s absent, remote father.
Edna did the best she could in a repressed, pre-computer, pre-permission era.
Over time, a corridor of lives was deeply hurt by the secrets, shame, and silence.
Not clay faces, but real people — dear, deserving, and innocent.