He always looked at me with condescension, disapproval, contempt. Always. There was the constant scent of disapproval whenever I was in his presence, coupled with his plentiful criticisms of me. Criticisms I took to heart as I tried to win his love and reservationless approval. But until recently, when the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t me he despised. It was himself.
Many of us have long suspected we were sexually abused as babies, toddlers or little children. The particular incident has yet to spring clearly to mind. Yet, things are definitely not right.
My first hint that ‘something happened’ was when I discovered my Chief Criticiser (“CC”) silently weeping over a faded photograph of me taken decades ago when I was four or five. That was odd and unsettling. As usual, the other members of our large family tried to spin the situation, claiming he was merely sentimental, but the nauseating knot in the pit of my stomach said otherwise.
Over and over, the family told me how lucky I was to be one of the few women in Wales who had never been sexually abused or raped. CC belaboured this theme the most. It seemed strange to me to harp on how ‘lucky’ I was not to experience something that should never happen in the first place. Does one say, ‘You’re so lucky not to have been murdered in your bed?’ Never. So why was it so important to them to repeat the theme: You’re a virgin. You’re a virgin. You’re so lucky to still be a virgin.
Things became even more bizarre as I experienced the hell of puberty. Repeatedly, CC ‘accidentally’ touched my breasts. So innocently, so accidentally, so frequently. But I chalked it up to his clumsiness. After all, our family assured me he was the one man I could trust, a man who wasn’t aroused by large breasts. While he harped on and on that most men were leches and perverts, CC himself seemed curiously asexual. The one safe man in a dangerous world. Grooming? I think so.
While my girlfriends whispered about who’d ‘done’ whom and which girl had just had her cherry popped, CC took my SRE (sex and relationship education) upon himself. CC’s take on sex was archaic, misogynistic and, in retrospect, highly offensive. In his world, sexual relations were not something that women wanted nor enjoyed. Sex was a man’s thing. But once the sex act begun, there was no turning back. The woman must conclude to the man’s satisfaction. In CC’s world, men did sex to stupid, unwilling women who, once deflowered, were damaged goods no one could ever love or want. I have no words strong enough to express my disgust in him and what he chose to teach me.
One message was clear: My virginity was his. His responsibility to protect and protect he did! Vetting my dates. Direly predicting that they might try to cop a feel as if that was a fate worse than death, something I would never desire. Yet the only man regularly copping a feel, I now realise, was him.
Things came to a head when I met the love of my life. He was everything I’d ever wanted in a man and everything CC had insisted I deserved in a man. Honest, faithful, loving, caring, gentle. How happy CC will be, I thought, that all his fondest hopes have come true. I’d heeded his advice, chosen well and was finally I’m in love with a good man!
I couldn’t have been more wrong, more sadly mistaken! CC was not happy at all. He did his best to break us up and make it difficult for us to see each other.
When that didn’t work and we consummated our relationship, CC never looked me in the face again. His anger was tangible. You could almost taste it, see it, smell it.
Mere jealousy would have been directed at my man. But CC’s anger was all directed at me. I was blind-sided, hurt and confused. In my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined that I would sever all ties with CC, my closest family member and most trusted confidant. It was a sad wrench.
As the years have passed, my initial assumption that CC was simply having difficulty adjusting to the fact that the girl he tried so hard to protect was no longer a virgin has morphed into something more sinister. As more of the puzzle pieces fall into place and long forgotten memories surface, more and more I realise CC’s constant disapproval and CC’s obsessive protectiveness stemmed not from love, but from guilt over what he had already done and a desperate need to protect himself
More and more, I trust my gut. Memories surface of discovering old photos under the eaves as we prepared for a boot sale. In the photos I’m about four years old and CC is bathing me. Suddenly, it all comes rush back.
I remember having a tremendous capacity for happiness when I was three. By age five, I was an angry little girl, sketching pictures of naked people, careful to draw their sex organs anatomically accurate. By age six, I could dissociate at will and rather enjoyed the sensation of floating above my physical body. I have many memories of being curled up in a tight ball, the my body wracked in a half-physical, half-psychological agony triggered by nothing more than scratching an itch on my genitals. By age seven, I was flashing at adult men, severely boy crazy and self-pleasuring on a regular basis, something CC claimed did not exist for the female gender.
There aren’t too few clues: there are too many. How I overlooked it all is a testament to the power of love, of trust and of brainwashing.
In retrospect, CC’s harping on the importance of virginity, particularly mine, was not as I thought to protect me, but rather himself. He was terrified that the first time I had sex, I would discover I had no virginity to lose. That long-buried memories would surface. In fact, what my partner actually experienced was an impenetrable wall, possibly scar tissue, definitely vaginismus.
It’s been many years since I last saw CC. A member of our family once asked me if he’d ever raped me. Of course I said ‘no’, astonished. Their reaction spoke volumes. They laughed! I can easily imagine them going back to CC and saying, ‘Don’t worry. She remembers nothing’.
Today, I’ll change my answer to ‘yes’.
The physical scars and vaginismus have resolved but the emotional scars are still there. Every day when I look in the mirror and turn away filled with abject self-loathing, I try to remember that CC’s attitude of disapproval was not inspired by any failure on my part, but rather, by his own guilt. Guilt for what he did to a tiny little girl who used to be happy.
Photo by Darien Library