by E.R. Ortega
Four years ago I found out about something that happened to me. On my way to work, I had listened to a podcast in my car that immediately thawed one of my frozen memories. At once I had my eyes forced open to the undeniable past. I was unearthing a secret that I had forgotten for decades. Bit by bit it returned with fierce power and stunning revelation.
I remembered that I was sexually abused after I finished kindergarten.
At that time, the pre- or post- nuptials of Luke and Laura were all the buzz in the soaps. I liked Hello Kitty and would trade delightfully scented erasers with my friends at school, wishing we could eat them. It was summer vacation and my mom left me with a caregiver relative while she went to work.
That summer, I played with my caregiver, ate all the food I wanted, went outside in the backyard to chase the dog, and woke up late every morning only to catch the cartoons and mid-day soaps. This was my summer repertoire, unfortunately, and my caregiver was a person I admired nonetheless: a cousin several years older than I.
One time, the soaps were on and my caregiver wanted to enact what the couples did on television. It was confusing to me, and it felt dirty. It was uncomfortable and I felt ashamed. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew it was forbidden. It was always like this, on the occasions when it took place, and I didn’t want to think about how I was going to get punished for doing things that only grown-ups are supposed to do. I was told to never tell my mother, that I would get in trouble for doing something bad. That a crocodile would come and bite me in my nightmares.
When I was sexually abused, I no longer understood what role I was supposed to play in my family, what part they were supposed to play in my life. But I did find out what “wrong” was, and I recognized what it felt like to be dirty and to keep a secret.
I only remember one summer, or it may have been more. I only remember my caregiver channeling General Hospital and Days of our Lives on television in the middle of the day, thereby securing my enduring repulsion of all soap operas, Spanish or English. I don’t remember the rest of my summer vacation nor how many occurrences there were of the abuse, but I do remember my abuser bullying me as we grew through the years.
Because our mothers were related, we saw each other regularly. My cousin became a promiscuous social drinker who hung around the party crowds in college.
I kept my ordeal locked away in the dark corner of a sealed room until that day when a podcast broke it open. I heard about a man with a shocking account of being raped as a child and the meticulous plan he devised to assassinate his offender. I listened, gripping every word that recounted the events leading up to his own sexual abuse experience as a boy of seven years old. It was his narrative voice seared with pounding honesty that shed light on my own reality. Something happened to me when I was little, and I had just discovered it all over again. I was sexually abused by my cousin.
The memories of my abuser, now in retrospect, are not positive. I remember being pushed around as a child and made to feel stupid. As I grew, I remember experiencing the tornado that whipped the family with my abuser’s destructive behavior, the failed relationships, and then much later, the divorce and domestic violence allegations numbed by adultery and alcohol escapades. Enough years had passed in each of our separate lives, and we were living them antithetically from one another.
The moment I decided I needed to confront my abuser, I told my husband instead. It was the same week I had listened to that podcast. I was working at a university with a sprawl of trees under which I could pray and meditate. I had been married 8 years and had two sons. I was confused, angry, and hopeless. I began to recall more of what happened, uncovering one layer at a time, memory after memory. When I went to my husband with the news, he responded sorrowfully. There were questions that this opened wound had explained. It stood to reason that he had suspected something was wrong all these years, during family gatherings where I seemed uncomfortable around my abuser.
I’d like to believe that the chill that filled the air between me and my abuser was an indication that I had not repressed the memory. I began to research the effects of childhood sexual abuse. I discovered that victims may experience depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, suicidal tendencies, sociopathy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. On and on the list went, all the varying magnitudes of what happens to someone who has been wrongfully touched, raped, or molested as a child. I found out that among adult sex offenders, approximately 30 percent have been sexually abused, according to the Center for Sexual Offender Management, which is a project of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs.
After I told my husband, I continued to participate in family gatherings and didn’t say a word to my mother. I wanted to keep it from her a bit longer and didn’t want to shatter her world. I didn’t want her to be overcome with the guilt of her being a single mom, needing to work to raise me and pay a mortgage, leaving me alone at such a young age with someone she trusted. I rationalized that it wasn’t as traumatic as say, someone who was abused by a parent. Or if the abuse was committed by someone outside the family, which would make it easier to sever ties. I agonized, however, over the forfeiture of safety and nurturance I felt only because my assailant was a close relative. The damage wasn’t reduced by the relief that the abuser was outside and away, out of reach, and less of a threat to the family dynamic. The fact was that the abuser was still very present in the lives of my family.
When I confronted my cousin, it was evident in the tone of my voice on the phone that my request for a face-to-face was summoning the eerie past. The response, right away, was of a sigh, as if it was acknowledged and validated. My cousin apologized profusely, with tears. “I am so sorry. I was a child myself. I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am.”
After the apology, my cousin gave a litany of excuses for why it happened: “I was exposed to pornography as a child. If my mother knew what I've gone through, she would never be able to recover. I was a minor myself, so how could I be held accountable?”
My abuser was abused as a child in unspeakable ways. That day, I did not question the details of my abuser’s past as a victim of child sexual abuse. We ended the conversation, and it was their expectation that this would remain a secret between us. “What would be gained,” I was asked by my abuser, “to tell your mother? To hurt her? To bring it up at this time now after decades?”
We were grown up and had children of our own already. We had careers and had finally confronted the skeleton in the closet that lay hidden between us after all these years. I never thought that the confrontation would arrive because I hadn’t remembered anything specific that had happened, as I had read about in accounts from other victims of sexual abuse. I had memories that were hazy at best, and deeply hidden. I was uncomfortable, embarrassed, and frightened. But now, I was finally unveiling it for what it was.
I accepted the apology. I cannot remember if I cried, though I may have. My cousin asked if I had already told my husband. “Yes, he knows,” I said.
“And your mom?”
“No,” I said.
My cousin had just gone through a divorce and the timing of this was impeccable. The hurts of my cousin’s divorce were, in my mind, the disastrous fruit of a behavioral pattern meeting its day of reckoning. Upon remembering the past, my cousin wanted to leave it behind. My cousin pointed out that my life was fine, and that my marriage was strong and my family was growing, and why ruin that with this mess?
I told my cousin that even though I didn’t give my life over to self-destruction, I did carry the wounds of a broken childhood, which can be summoned by the autumn-color of my childhood photographs. I look at those photos often, and the muted orange, rust, gold, and copper hues bring up restrained recollections… my mother sitting with me at our apartment’s dining table, a can of beer in front of her… me with my hands pinned over my mouth, covering what I may have said.
“I am glad that you are OK, from the looks of it,” my cousin said. “That you haven’t thrown your life away with drugs, or alcohol, or some other thing that could have put you in prison. If you’d like me to go with you to therapy, I am willing to. I know you’re a Christian and if you prefer getting counseled by your Pastor, I can do that too.”
“I haven’t given it a thought. I am still processing this.”
* * * *
Time being the great equalizer that it is made it seem reasonable to let it go, to let the carcass remain buried. But after our conversation, it was clear to me that I was not going to live in perpetual secrecy.
A few months after I spoke to my abuser, during an emotional exchange with my mother, I told her what had happened to me. I couldn’t keep it to myself and maintain the façade any longer. I didn't have rest since the day of the podcast and I couldn't work effectively at my job. The cold shower of truth had inundated me and the menacing memory of the abuse was relentless. It was haunting the depths of my sleep in which nightmares would awaken me. My mother laid out her hurts about what she now knew about my past. The grief for her was just beginning. She got help from her priest at her local church to sort out some of her regrets and guilt. She invited herself to go with me wherever I wanted to pursue help, but I never did. She offered to help however she could. To support me in my recovery, to walk with me through healing. I was a mother of two at the time, and she knew it would affect my children and how I would eventually raise them.
When my mother asked why I hadn’t told her, I said I didn’t want what happened to me to damage the relationship I had with her or other family. I didn’t want to disrupt the confidence I had in her love for me by provoking damage to the order of our lives. I wanted to protect her. She immediately told my cousin’s mother and my cousin was outcast from the family for months. After some time, I began to hear the pleas from my auntie, attempts to regain control of their peaceful lives. I heard appeals that the abuser did so many wonderful things in their accomplished life, so how could I be angry for just one regrettable failure?
My mom now understood a lot about me. She described how this explained a lot of what I suffered as a child on the periphery. I was a bright child in school throughout my entire K12, so it was a comfort to my mom that my intellect was unencumbered by the abuse. However, I had developed an aversion to eating and had emotional problems that she had addressed with my pediatrician. I was melancholic and isolated, with a stronghold on anxiety. I didn’t trust anyone.
While my mother and I talked, I remembered my dreadful first grade year when three boys would chase me during recess and pick me up and flip my dress up. Francisco was the ring leader. During assemblies, when the auditorium room was dark, he would sneak under the seats to get to me and press his mouth on my cheek. I would bribe Arcadio with candy to sit next to me so that any of the three offenders wouldn’t have a chance. Ivette would be sitting on my other side; we were both their targets. I would get headaches or would fake illness to stay home from school. My lunches, carefully prepared by my mom, would get tossed in the garbage. I recall one occasion when, in her frustration, she shoved food into my mouth. I don’t know what gave me the courage to finally tell her one day about the boys, that they bothered me. I was too ashamed to say the word ‘kiss’ and ‘touch’ to describe what they were actually doing, but she heard enough to request a teacher conference.
I remembered the instance in seventh-grade when William squeezed my breast as I was getting to class one morning. My mother had waved it off, shaking her head, saying, “boys.” And even further back in time, when I rode the bus with my auntie to Olivera Street and an old man sat beside, put his hand on my leg, and squeezed it; my auntie oblivious to the whole thing.
All this became so lucid, so clear and palpable. All these years, all these encounters that caused me discomfort, that made me feel violated, of having my body, my privacy, my dignity damaged. Now I can bear it a name. Now I can come out and confess and admit that I am a sexual abuse survivor. I carried the secret of my sexual abuse like a veiled contaminant through the years of my adult life but now I have the permission to confess it for what it is without obfuscating the truth.
Being a mother has given me permission to protect my children in a culture that tells me over and over to let them go at a young age. I can shield my children from going into rooms with teenage boys (out of my sight) and not feel like I am breaking a social code of conduct, or that my prohibitions are implicating suspicion or paranoia. I am allowed to be vigilant about the places and people I allow my children to surround themselves with. I am allowed to be apprehensive when my toddler’s natural affability with grown men is responded to in kind.
God has designated my husband and me to be stewards of our children, and as such, we will protect them to the uttermost, as far as our hands can reach, and even farther. Now my voice can testify, now I am able to speak, cognizant of limitations, with a gentle reserve of boundaries, with a keen attentiveness of man’s shortcomings and failures.
My own failures, too, are magnified as I mother my children. My sons and my daughter are vessels of goodness and mercy to my existence. I give credit to my children for, unbeknownst to them, ushering me through this process of healing. I understand God’s love more deeply via the immeasurable devotion I have for my children. What I wouldn’t do! Through my children, I learn to give myself to others more profoundly, more intentionally. This was a great challenge earlier in my life, before I met my husband, who was the impetus for my renewed trust in mankind.
Through no fault of my own, my sexual abuse experience was a crime against my soul. My God-given humanity was violated. I have plenty of reasons to allow my emotions to be ravaged, for my hurt to burn in the recesses of memory, but I’ve renewed my life with God, who never abandons (as my biological father had), who restores my dignity, who responds to me with tenderness. In my darkest hour, I sought the word of God for spiritual reconciliation and through a long process, I came to forgive my offender. I can shed the vestiges that hinder my joy and find the solace I need to be bold, to forgive, all without the burden of that which was done to me.
E.R. Ortega has work forthcoming in The Cossack Review and The Tishman Review. She lives with her husband and children in California.