How a Green Dress and Kindness from a Teacher Saved Me After Sex Abuse

“As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her.”

Trigger warning: there is a description of a child’s sexual encounter.

Hiding behind the house, between the brick wall and the wooden privacy fence…summer air… evening fresh…crickets chirping…and these words: “If you don’t let me, I won’t be your friend, and no one else will, either.” At the age of seven, my neighbor, Donny, who was my same age and size, convinced me to let him put his penis in me and stick his tongue in my mouth. With his little brother and all his friends watching. In fact, he liked it so much the first time that he came back for a couple of repeats; and I, who was so desperately lonely, was too afraid to lose one of my only friends to say no.

After the negotiations were concluded, Donny and his friends led me behind my house, and he made me pull my pants down. I couldn’t look up, I just stared at the feet of the boys. I had seen boy penises before, I had two little brothers after all, but theirs had never been erect, and they’d never been near my own skin. I let him put his penis into the space between my naked legs as he stuck his tongue in my mouth and enacted adult sex. He didn’t really understand where the penis went, so he slid it between the lips of my genitals, and it felt wrong somehow. Even with absolutely no knowledge of what sex is, no prior instruction or indoctrination, I believe human children instinctively sense a problem. I believe their spirits rebel against the aberration of sexual exposure. Mine did, and it felt shame.

If I close my eyes, I still see his face, with its button nose, freckles, and missing teeth. His hair was light brown. I can sense shadows of the boys who were encircling us, serving as witnesses and guards.

I can only assume he’d witnessed his own parents having sex. Or worse, saw porn in his house.

I remember when I found out that all the neighbors knew. Donny’s neighbor Karen was my age, and I knocked on her door, which her mom answered. “Can Karen play?” I asked. Karen’s mom simply glared and answered, “Karen is not allowed to play with girls like you.” She called me “nasty,” then she slammed the door in my face. Of course, I knew what she meant because I carried the shame in body, mind, and spirit.

Donny’s brother had tattled, so he told his parents that I was the one who forced him, not the other way around. As a result, I spent the next year in nearly complete isolation. I rode my purple bicycle with the banana seat around the block or down to the elementary school playground, but I never got off and dropped my bike in a friend’s driveway so we could play. I never rode bikes in a cluster of loud, boisterous, giggling girls.

I had always been quiet and preferred playing with just one or two friends, but this isolation was different. It was forced, it was ongoing, and it was complete. It’s when I started really knowing true loneliness and hushed days.

There was just one house where I was welcome. Our next-door neighbors were older folks, probably in their seventies. I remember white hair and a white mustache, and a kind spirit. His wife rarely came outside, but she did send out snacks. All the neighbors called the gentleman “Grandpa,” though he was none of our biological grandparent, for he filled the role for the neighborhood kids. He kept a pool table in his garage, which was a safe haven for me; I was never kicked out of that room. Occasionally, I asked Grandpa how to hold the cue stick, and he helped me hit the ball. I remember the click-click of the billiard balls striking each other. It’s a sound that, to this day, puts me right back in that garage, next door to my lonely house and my tainted back yard.

Grandpa had a tree in his front yard, a locust, which grew long brown bean pods. I used to climb into the tree and eat the hard little beans, observing the other kids as they played. I spent a lot of time in that tree. It was safe. The garage was safe. Grandpa was safe.

I began drawing with my pencil, little naked figures of anatomically correct boys and girls, with pointed penises and sharp clefts. I kicked the dog. I hid the drawings. These were the first inklings of my rage– not a cute, prissy, toddler-style anger expressed with pursed lips, but a violent and potent fury which was almost always turned back on my own self.

Incurlers: A Vintage Hair Rollers Buying Guide

I felt compelled to punish myself. I can’t explain it, really, it didn’t come out of clear and methodical planning, but out of gut-level, molecular shame: I began to insert hair curlers into my vagina. These were not smooth plastic ones, they were made of wire and had some sort of sharp plastic prickles around them. Wincing, with eyes teary, I would push them up inside me, which was not easy. My skin and muscles rejected the intrusion, and I forced myself to hold them there for about thirty minutes. When I drug them out of me, they were always covered with blood and mucus.

There was another place where I sensed love: from my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover. She set up a classroom store where students used good behavior reward coupons to shop for treats, it opened for business once a week. Early in the year, my eyes fell upon a beautiful dress. It was a soft minty green with a fitted bodice and full tulle and organza skirt (I didn’t know any of that vocabulary as a seven-year-old, but I surely recognized beauty). The bodice had satin piping in three rows around the rib cage. It had been donated by someone’s mom, but as far as I was concerned it was delivered by an angel, sent as a gift from the Almighty God, just for me.

Vintage Student Reader  Mysterious Wisteria image 0

I started saving my behavior coupons like they were the very link to life itself. I was always a well-behaved child, so it was no struggle at all to mind my manners, take out my Mysterious Wisteria reader when told, and tidy my messes. I was quiet, though, and my extra special efforts could easily have been overlooked. When you’re good and always quiet anyway, sometimes teachers forget to notice you when they are busy corralling the noisy troublemakers who shoot rubber bands across the room, make fart noises during phonics instruction, or don’t clean up after themselves at the art table. But Mrs. Hoover saw me and quietly set coupons on my desk for my goodness.

Each Friday when the class store opened, my classmates cashed in their coupons for pencils, Hot Wheels, or stickers. I held my breath and watched the green dress. My teacher watched me watch the green dress. After months of waiting and saving, I had enough coupons for it. 43 years later, I remember the moment it became mine. Mrs. Hoover beamed when I gave her my tickets, and I carried it home on a cloudy, gray winter day, holding it gingerly for all six blocks until I got to our little home.

This dress became the inspiration for years of imaginary play: princess, queen, debutante, wife, singing star, all enacted alone in my room wearing my heavenly mint green dress. It remains the most enchanted single item I remember from childhood, that gown scattered little bits of fairy dust over my wounded, solitary spirit until it eventually fell into tattered pieces.

I wish I was not so hurt by this story– I know there are so many women and girls who have endured violent rape. By comparison, my story seems tame, it was a kid my own size, for God’s sake. Indeed, in my telling of my experience with Donny as a middle-aged woman, there have been some who didn’t understand the trauma, who compared it to adult sexual molestation and thought that because the perpetrator was a child, rather than a trusted relative or adult, that it really should not count. They have said, “You were too young to even know what sex was, how could it have affected you so? It couldn’t possibly have.” Dismissed.change 2

Except that I suffered. I really did: isolation, fear, and an awareness of sexuality long before I was old enough. Blood and mucus. Shame. Sexual shame, yes, but just as debilitating and maybe more insidious is the shame of letting him. Many, many people who have been molested talk about this particular shame, and they were likely molested by a full-sized adult who had the physical strength to force them. I said yes to a boy my own size, not because he had strength on his side, but because I feared loneliness. Oh, and underpinning it all was the understanding that boys get to dictate what girls do with their bodies. I learned that if I said no, I would lose my few friends. I said yes, and I lost them anyway.

Though I didn’t realize the lessons I’d internalized, they informed most of the rest of my life, up until about my fortieth birthday. I didn’t ever think of myself as a virgin. I did think of myself as a slut. That’s a sad thing; I understood quite well about men and power; and I lived and worshiped in a church culture that placed such a high value on sexual purity that I was terrified I would be banished to hellfire should I perish in a car wreck. As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her nakedness. Even more, now I understand that the Divine One was with me, surrounding me, and in me: feeling the strange, hard little shape between my legs, trembling with fear and pain as I withdrew bloody curlers from inside myself, adoring a gentle and perceptive teacher, donning a discarded prom dress to escape my lonely world, and gently rocking my shameful spirit on its long, long journey to freedom.

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If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, there is help. Here’s a crisis text line, it’s discreet and could be the thing to save someone who’s hurting. https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/sexual-abuse/#understanding-sexual-abuse-1

 

Speak Up…If You Can. Part Three.

Recently, I auditioned for a musical. Mamma Mia. It’s one of those show’s I’d really love to do. It wasn’t always, but as I moved into the casting category of MOM instead of ingenue, it became a show that really appealed to me.

It was the first singing audition I had braved in almost five years.

I have been telling a story over the last couple of weeks, a tale in which I, the lifelong vocalist, lost my voice due to a surgical mishap; in my last post, I described the agony of having two specialists confirm damage. There is a moderately happy ending to the whole thing, and I will get to that. Clearly, I couldn’t have auditioned for Mamma Mia if some sort of healing had not occurred. I did manage to do a couple of musicals after my throat was finally repaired, getting to that point was only possible, really and truly, because my husband was the director of the shows and he was willing to risk casting me.

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That first post-repair show, The Drowsy Chaperone,  wasn’t smooth sailing. I had rehearsed for the audition secretly, singing in private to build up strength and flexibility in the cord and in the muscles of the throat. I didn’t want to let on what I was doing, just in case I failed spectacularly. My voice had always been the source of my self esteem. It was my identity. Having lost it, I was bereft, heart broken, my confidence completely gone. So when I went to auditions and announced I was singing the big belt song instead of a simpler, easier one, I saw my husband’s hands clench under the table. He’d had no idea I might be up to this. I did it, I did it well, and that precious man cast me.

The show wasn’t easy, though. In the final week of dress rehearsal I was belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glided with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I planted my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. Director/husband’s face froze in horror as I coughed and gasped, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager ran toward me with a bottle of water, and I drank, but I still could not squeeze a sound out of my throat. I ended the song with tears streaming down my face. There was no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome was my undoing, just two days before opening night, and I felt just as I had on the day I left the doctor’s office in September of 2011.

On that particular day, I cried all the way home because my throat was damaged; it got really quiet at my house, in my classroom, and in my spirit. As soon as the doc gave me the diagnosis, I cancelled an acting gig I had booked for the months of October and November. It put a burden on the show, I know it did. Blessedly, there’s always another actress waiting in the wings, and the show went on.

More difficult, though, was my classroom. I remember standing in front of groups of 30 or so students each day, trying to quiet them when the tardy bell rang. After a week or so of me standing at my podium, tears in my eyes and jaw clenched in frustration, waiting for rambunctious teens to quiet down, there was a change in the climate of my room. There were kids who realized how I struggled, and they began to get the room quiet for me. I lectured in a whisper, it was utterly exhausting. But then something happened: the students began to hush themselves, without a classmate doing it for me. Even the most stubborn, rowdy kids showed compassion and self-restraint, facing me with mouths closed when they heard the tardy bell. I wish I could say that behavior hung in all year, of course it didn’t. Freshmen and sophomores were particularly difficult to manage. In an effort to save expensive audio equipment in our auditorium, I screamed (an attempt for volume, not anger) at a couple of boys who were horse-playing on stage with our microphones. The pain of that attempt to push air and sound through my throat hurt as badly as anything I have ever, ever experienced. There was a day when, surrounded by misbehaving freshman boys, I couldn’t make myself heard, and I called the HR Department of our school district sobbing, they struggled to hear me as I begged for help on the phone.

Image result for prosthetic vocal cords

For twelve months, I couldn’t breathe without gasping, I couldn’t speak, and my soul simply went into hiding. I had ever been an introvert, but at least I had the power to speak when I wanted to. I could talk to friends. I could advise or comfort my kids. I could teach and act and express myself. I began to hear rumors of gossip, that there were “friends” who believed I was faking my silence as a way to garner attention or get out of obligations. I turned even more inward.

So I began to write. I look back now, at my first attempts at writing, and they amuse me. I had to develop the writing muscle with as much rehearsal as had ever been needed when I sang. While I was mute, I found my authentic voice. In that twelve months of early writing, it was the only way I had to communicate with the world. I started speaking my truth, because words were so precious and painful to articulate that I didn’t dare waste them on false flattery or needless babble. I learned even more powerfully that listening was the key to connection and leaning in to speak so that I could be heard enabled me to draw closer to the people with whom I shared space.

I learned who my true tribe was.

One year, to the day, after the spinal surgery that cost me my voice, Dr. B. implanted a silicone cord, it’s attached to the paralyzed right one. I could, once again, speak and sing, though with not as much power or range. I began to rebuild my confidence brick by brick, I shed relationships with those who had proven during my silent time that they could not be bothered to listen well. I performed in two musicals, then stepped away from the theatre world because it felt unhealthy. I didn’t sing for a long, long time.

Then came a show that tempted me enough to hazard an attempt. Mamma Mia.

That audition? I learned something. As I prepared a recording to send to the director, I kept breaking. My voice cracked, my eyes filled, my throat clenched. My daughter, who was coaching and recording me, observed, “Mom, it’s like you have all those years of silence straining to pour out. It’s all been so tightly held. Your creative spirit just needs the space to let go.” It took us an hour to get a take that I could send, one in which I managed to sing calmly through the one minute clip of “Take a Chance on Me.” That song choice was no accident. But it wasn’t the director I was begging to take a chance, it was my own wounded heart. I didn’t get the part, the director chose to take a chance with a different actress. That’s okay. It’s way more important that I take my own chance on me. It was, ultimately, an exercise in resilience. Gotta keep singing, speaking, and writing my story. You should, too.

 

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Speak Up: Part Two

September is a great month, isn’t it? The light is just starting to shift from high-octane sun to a softer diffused version of itself, breezes begin to tickle cheeks and make leaves dance. Rain falls and the scorched earth of August relents. The grass is verdant again and shadows lengthen on the pavement ever so slightly. School is back in, students are, for the most part, still excited to be back in the classroom, and teachers have renewed purpose and fresh, unmarked lesson plan books. In our family, we have two birthdays to celebrate, the Astros are still playing, and we are usually preparing to open the Renaissance festival that we’ve worked for twenty years now.

I love September. I have been a teacher/professor for twenty four years now, and I always look forward to the opening of school (which technically happens in late August here, I am taking a wee bit of poetic license- the relevant stuff happens in September, I promise). It was no different in 2011, when I opened a new year with a black eye because I dropped my first gen iPad on my face while checking Facebook before getting out of bed. Those early model tablets are no joke in the weight category! Each class began with excited chatter that quickly silenced when I took to my podium after the tardy bell. My poor new high school students were afraid to ask what had happened, so I began each of six class periods with an introduction and an explanation.

IMG_9669I spent the first week of school swallowing Gabapentin pills (as prescribed) to numb the nerve pain that tingled from the base of my spine to the tips of my fingers and back again, all while learning students’ names, playing warm up games, and preparing young actors and student directors for the fall play auditions. We were putting up the Don Zolidis farce The Greek Mythology Olympiaganza, and some seniors were going to assistant direct the various scenes, to give them a bit of practice applying what they’d learned in three years in my program, but also to give me much-needed assistance since I’d be recovering from spinal surgery.

My assistant principal had endured the same procedure just a couple of years before, she assured me that she was back on her feet and working within a week. I requested the day of my surgery (a Tuesday) and the Wednesday and Thursday off from work to recover, with a plan to return to my classroom on Friday.

On a warm, sunny September first, I walked into the nearby hospital, all prepped for spinal surgery, which went well. My spine was fused, and the extreme, debilitating pain I had been suffering for months was gone.

On an equally sunny day, just two weeks later, my world was rocked by a new doctor’s diagnosis: paralyzed vocal cord.

When I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, I included just one mention of what I had been since childhood. Just one word. One measly word to tell you, dear reader, who I had always, ever been: a singer.

Not just a sing-in-the-shower singer. A state-level soloist and all district, area, and region choir qualifier in one of the most vocally competitive states in the country. A voice major in the early years of college who switched to elementary music so she could get married and have babies instead of pursuing a grueling performance career. A singer that brought some listeners to tears, others to laughter, and a few to envy.

I sang on stages and in sanctuaries and by cradles.

In recording studios.

On the radio.

I sang. It was the only thing I thought I did well. My only gift.

Chorus 1985-1986

I had warned my neurosurgeon that my voice had to be protected when my throat was pushed aside so he could get spinal access, I asked if he could access my cervical vertebrae from the back of my neck instead of the front of my throat. His answer: “No. but in the twenty years I have been doing this surgery, no one’s voice has ever been damaged. Of course, I can’t make you a promise, but the likelihood of your voice being affected in any way is negligible.”

I went for my follow up appointment with my surgeon three weeks after my surgery, when I had already had my throat scoped by an ear, nose, throat specialist. When Doc entered the examining room and cheerily asked how I was feeling, I beckoned him to lean near and whispered, “My voice is gone. The cord is paralyzed.” He went pale, his eyes widened, he was clearly and authentically horrified. All he could say was, “You’re a singer. Oh, no…this has never, ever happened to one of my patients, and it had to be a singer.” He couldn’t say he was sorry, that’s something doctors really can’t do. Apologizing is like admitting guilt, or a mistake, which can become a legal liability. No, he couldn’t apologize with his mouth and his perfectly working voice. But it was in his eyes.

The ENT who had made the initial diagnosis referred me to a specialist in Houston, a physician who has dedicated her practice to saving voices. I made an appointment, my husband drove me as I worried what she would say. I doubted my own ability to remain calm enough to navigate Houston’s infamous high-traffic freeways. It was good he was there, because the news was not good.

Dr. B. sprayed my throat with vile banana-flavored numbing medicine, and ran the camera through my nasal passages, down my throat. I attempted all sorts of vocalizations: vowels, consonants, sung tones; nothing came out. The cord didn’t vibrate even a tiny bit. It was dead. Kaput.

The physician wanted to wait a few months, see if the nerve endings would wake up on their own.

I left the office, bereft, silent tears ran down my cheeks and dripped off my jawline for the hour of the drive out to our suburban home. I climbed into bed, and I despaired. My throat was silent, but my spirit screamed; I was, as Shakespeare described, an empty vessel. Though I made no sound that was audible to the world, my inner world was a cacophony of noise as I railed against fate and wept out all my world-shattering grief.

I wouldn’t speak again for a year.

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