“Was it the sex?” a new member asked me at our weekly meeting of Parents of Sexually Abused Children. “Is that why you stayed with your user for 14 years?”
Three faces swung to me, including the lead social worker of our small assembly, a tall, serious senior woman who encouraged us to ask and answer questions. Aidan didn’t smile a whole lot, but over time, I came to respect her genuine sincerity and tremendous breadth of knowledge.
“You mean, knowingly trade family wellbeing for my sexual pleasure?” I asked, disheartened at a question that I found hurtful. “No, the truth is that my husband showed no interest in me. He called me ‘Mum’ despite my frequent requests that he use my name. I had no conscious idea when I married him that he preferred children to adults.”
That’s all I knew, at the time, to say to the curious newcomer whose older son had sexually abused his two little sisters in their family home.
The new member, Lee, was a widow. She’d ignored her daughters’ complaints for months until a vigilant teacher called her into their school for a chat. Upon discovering that her 10-year-old had symptoms of STD, Lee stopped brushing away her daughter’s claims. She quit her job. She began to cook for a caterer from home. She signalled Social Services for help for her son and sent him, the babysitter of her daughters, to live with his grandparents. She’d handled a lot, despite her shock and disappointment.
When Aidan asked Lee where she might have learned to discount her daughters’ complaints about their brother’s molestation, Lee said that she wanted to discuss that in the group – and Aidan nodded her approval.
“It worked well for my disinterested, pedophile husband that I worked nights during his years of unemployment,” I continued to answer Lee’s question. “Throughout, Stan liked to underscore his strong support of Women’s Liberation – women wanting to develop a career outside the home should do so. ‘Education is never a waste of time,’” he’d say, adding that he was not an ‘Archie Bunker’ type of guy.
“But I don’t want a career, Stan!” I’d remind him over and over. “I want to stay home with our children!” He’d explained that his elevated educational level, and the high salary he’d one day command, continued to contrast, for the time being, my uncomplicated opportunities to waitress.
“The sad fact I suffer,” he said, seven years later, “is that all doors open wide for you while for me, they remain shut.”
When my husband thanked me for rescuing our family until his ship came in, I felt proud, appreciated, needed and in control. I had a shining new identity, behind which I hid. Mother and Wife, Supporter and Rescuer — the opposite of the anxious estrangement and vulnerability I’d felt on my own, when I couldn’t seem to trust anyone.
Little by little, beginning with the first years of my divorce and my re-education, I realized that yes, my toleration of my husband’s chronic usury was indeed about sex – my own history of sexual abuse as a child and young adult that left me stunned and disconnected from myself. Until I faced my own distress, my happiness would be minimal.
That fall day of our weekly meeting, six of us in our ever-diminishing circle squirmed when Aidan posed another of her tough questions, queries that, the week before, caused two more members to up and leave the group — moms who had no interest in considering that perhaps their own fragility or lack of knowledge or unpreparedness might have somehow played into their present suffering. There was nothing they needed to learn to improve upon for the next time – no common clues or profiles or patterns or habits of exploiters – no, thank you. Aidan often repeated that most of us in the group had arrived unsuspecting victims of our abusers, that we’d truly had no idea of who we’d invited into our lives. “With the education offered to each other, by each other, in our group, though, we’ll all become far more skilled at discerning ‘who is who and what is true,’” she said.
“Maybe,” I offered, “Maybe I wanted a real family. Maybe I had no idea what love was. Maybe I just wanted to flip the page on all the sexual abuse I’d experienced in my home, with my boss, at college and by my grandfather. Maybe, I ran straight from the frying pan and into the fire. I fell in love with an idea, a magical solution I’d seen advertised all my life and, unprepared, I chased it. I think that was my part.”
No one spoke as I considered my unexamined life of running this way and that, seeking better and different, each time without my essential healing, without education or even inquiry. My habitual avoidance reflex boomeranged back to work against me – and the children I loved.
Despite the many painful moments in this group, despite Aidan’s sometimes strict insistence that we must take charge of our lives, I knew I’d stay with these good people who wanted to figure things out and comfort each other. I didn’t want to eke out a crouched, parched and pinched life. I didn’t want to find myself a victim in another disastrous situation, either. I needed this education.
“Those who don’t learn how to add and subtract get cheated big time at the cash register,” said Lee. She told us that before she learned to read English, she paid $2.50 for the can of tomatoes with the bright red picture on its label. The tin beside it, the no-name brand with only the printed word on the label, cost 89 cents. “Before I could read, I shopped by the picture,” said Lee. “And boy, did I pay double!”
“Well, it looks like I can read now,” I burst into tears. “Now that its too late,” I wept. “Now that my kids have been so hurt and now that I’m all alone.”
“Eleanor! Eleanor!” Aidan snapped the fingers of both large upraised hands. “Are you kidding? Look around you! We’re all here with you! We’re all in the same Advanced Reading and Math class, every week.”
That evening while cooking supper with my children, I got the picture. As I chopped fresh tomatoes for our spaghetti sauce, I calculated the ironic change in my life.
With my criminal husband, I was so alone. Now, without him, I’m not alone at all.
The following week, two more newcomers joined our circle.
The insights shared in that group began to add up. We learned to count and read.