Body of Words
His name was Dr. Lipton, like the brand of tea. He had white wild hair, a thin pink curve of a half-smile, and a translucent wart at the tip of his chin.
Dr. Lipton counseled my parents for several weeks before he recommended they bring in my older brother and me, “in order to help your father become more involved in the therapy,” my mother explained to us privately the evening before we went: my father had been threatening to quit. He didn’t see the point of going—he wasn’t the one with the problem; someone else was the cause of their marriage troubles.
“How old are you?” Dr. Lipton asked from his maple-colored rocker stationed across from me in his one-room office, which was located in a finished basement at the rear of his family home.
I was sitting on a dark brown sofa with my mother to my left, her palms lightly closed between her thighs; beside her was my brother, silent as a cumulonimbus drifting across a darkening sky.
“Fourteen,” I said, rubbing the tips of my thumbs with my forefingers, focusing my gaze on the base of my nails, the half-moons of white, which was easier than looking anyone in the face.
My father was sitting diagonal to my right in a large cushioned burgundy chair. From the corner of my eye, I saw his posture: at ease, amiable.
Nervousness numbed my legs and arms and ribs, surrounded my collarbones, wrapped around my neck. As the session continued, I went somewhere else in my head until Dr. Lipton jerked me out of my mental haze.
“One minute you want to be affectionate with your father,” he said, his voice rising, “and the next you don’t. How’s he supposed to know?”
My father had mentioned examples such as my sitting on his lap or letting him rub my head and play with my hair. Sometimes I liked it, wanted it, sometimes I didn’t.
From the corner of my eye, I saw my father’s posture: slumped, hurt.
My mind ran, searched for words, got lost in the glare of the light from the stained-glass lamp behind Dr. Lipton’s back, got stuck on the end table, on the box of tissues waving its single white flag.
“He says you send mixed signals,” Dr. Lipton pushed. “How’s he supposed to know what’s okay to do?”
I had no answer. I didn’t know if Dr. Lipton would understand. I didn’t understand. Anger rose in my throat. I swallowed it. Sadness pooled like warm blood in the cavity of my chest.
“I’m sorry,” I said in my father’s direction, but I couldn’t look. “I’m sorry.” I said nothing more. I had nothing else to give as consolation, reparation. I didn’t mean to withhold myself from him. I was confused. I didn’t understand.
“That’s okay,” my father said stoically, taking what words I had. From the corner of my eye, I saw him fold his hands in his lap: case closed, discussion over.
Bits and pieces of words wafted through the air after that, but I let it all go over my head like steam rising over a cup of stilled tea, vanishing, until my mother and father went at each other with furious tones: then my body stiffened, my face turned warm and so did my limbs, except for my hands, which went ice cold. I had to go to the bathroom. I felt an intense pressure within my body. Thoughts flooded my mind. I was afraid of my father’s anger; I was afraid of my mother’s fear. I was afraid of the drive home. I was afraid we’d get into an accident. I was afraid I would die in a wreck.
I thought I saw Dr. Lipton look at me then, his spectacles catching a flash of light. I felt an urge to scream please, please make it stop, but my voice had left. I tried to say it with my eyes, until I realized Dr. Lipton wasn’t looking at me after all—he was focusing over my shoulder, at the clock on the wall. He let time register in his mind, and then he looked away.
This was the end of the session. This was the end of all of the sessions.
On our family summer vacation, I swam in the pool at the resort where we stayed. In the distance, I could see my mother sitting supine, her legs and feet stretched out on a lounge chair like a paper weight, her head and torso hidden behind the New York Times, the tips of her fingers holding it open across her upper body as if the publication were a shield from the life that went on around her.
I dreaded climbing out of the water, the way my bathing suit clung to my skin, the way my father always stared.
Standing at the pool’s edge, he planted his eyes on the V-shape of my body where my legs met at my hips, where I felt the water drip. I saw his brown irises turn hard and hungry.
I felt like prey.
Silently, quickly, I walked past him but not so fast as to show my discomfort or fear: to reveal a reaction, an emotion, would mean to be caught, consumed.
I breathed shallowly to contain myself, though I felt my heart pounding past my collarbones, up my throat to my jaw, as if I were trying to escape from my body through the exit of my mouth.
Finally, I reached the lounge chair next to my mother, grabbed my thick towel where I’d left it, and wrapped it tightly around my waist.
“Dad’s staring at me in my bathing suit,” I said, keeping my voice out of my father’s range, barely above a whisper. I felt alarm prick at my throat, and I swallowed.
I heard a sigh and the newspaper rustle before the top edge parted, unveiling my mother’s face, her eyes on the page, her pupils moving across the words, taking in the news.
“Cover yourself up then,” she said, sounding annoyed, or afraid—I couldn’t tell which—by my father or by me, by my body.
I did what she said. I covered up, layer after layer, year after year.
This is a picture of me. I’m three-and-a-half years old. It’s my first day of nursery school. That’s what my mother’s handwriting notes in ballpoint ink on the back of this photograph.
I’m sitting on the cement steps in front of our house, next to the wrought iron railing, wearing a blue denim dress with red trim, and red print knee highs and red shoes that I scuffed up on our driveway the day before when I got lost in my imagination, caught up in the sight and the rhythmical sound of my shoe tops dragging across the rough cement until my mother’s voice cut through the fog of my mind, telling me to stop, and I did, mid-drag, mesmerized.
When I saw what I’d done, I felt sorry.
Frantic, my mother tried to polish the shoes back to their untouched state, her delicate hands insistent, rushing across the leather surface. “Why?” she demanded. “Why did you do this?”
I didn’t know. I felt sorry.
In this picture, my hair is brushed up in pigtails. My father is standing a few feet away, holding the camera, bending down. He looks between my legs, at my flowered panties. He laughs. He takes this photograph.
Hotness tightens my shoulders, spreads across my face and forehead. For the first time it registers: I’m angry. I press my knees together, smooth down the front of my dress.
My father tells me he’s going to take another picture. I look very pretty, he says, “Sit like you were before.”
As a girl, I felt loved by my mother, and safe, as we sat together on the black-and-white pinstriped couch in the living room in our house, next to the bright white globe lamp, with Frog and Toad Are Friends spread across our laps and my head leaning into the crook of her arm. This was a soothing backdrop to the unthinkable sinister reality that pervaded our home.
When I was four, five, and six years old, on Saturday mornings, when my mother got into the shower, I’d get into bed with my father.
The walls in my parents’ room glowed with the yellow morning sunlight as my father lifted up his sheets and I slid inside and closed my eyes as if I were going into a dream. I pretended it was a whole magical world down there. It was so warm with the heat of my father that it was a little hard to breathe at first, as if I were in the depths of the ocean, but I told myself I’d get used to it, I’d be like a fish.
When we heard my mother turn off the shower, my father said we had to stop. I could still stay in the bed but we couldn’t do what we were doing. Thinking my mother might catch us made my stomach flutter. I couldn’t say why.
There were days when I released sudden fits of rage upon my mother while my father was at work. She reacted by putting me in my bedroom, down on the hardwood floor. She shut the door on my tantrums, and walked away.
I called for her, but she didn’t respond.
I screamed, “This is for you, Mom!” then slammed my feet against the closed door. She didn’t respond.
“And this one!” I yelled, smashing my soles onto the lime-colored wood, the pain of my rage reverberating up my bones, from my shins to my knees.
“And this one!” I shouted and kicked and wept until my mother’s silence hurt more than the pounding and I lay my body flat on the floor, exhausted.
When I was quiet for a time, my mother returned. Opening the door, she led me across the hall to her and my father’s room, sat me on her lap on my father’s side of their bed, and told me with hugs and kisses that she did what she did because she loved me: she was teaching me how to behave—I’d been bad.
She never asked me why I was so angry. And I couldn’t grasp hold of the words to tell her.
“Did the surgeon remove part of your brain when he took off part of your breast?” my father said with bite.
I was seventeen, standing in my bedroom doorway, listening to the silverware sparring with food on the dinner plates in the kitchen. I imagined my father cutting his meat with the jagged edge of his knife. There was silence. I imagined in the silence that my mother, who was recently hospitalized for the removal of a borderline-malignant lump in her breast, was dishing more peas onto her plate, letting them tumble in circular patterns, poking their middles with the points of her fork.
Pots and pans crashed on the linoleum kitchen floor. The sound lodged itself in my ribs. Taking a few steps to the hallway closet, beside my brother’s vacant bedroom—he was away at college—I retrieved a thick towel and then tiptoed, barefoot, towards the bathroom, which was located halfway between my bedroom and the kitchen. I counted each step, feeling my skin brushing against the bark-colored carpet, until I reach the cool tiles of the bathroom floor: safe.
I closed the bathroom door, pressing the lock securely in place, then undressed quickly, piling my clothes on the countertop by the sink. I stepped into the shower and turned on the faucet to drown out the sounds of arguing.
I understood my mother’s impulse to turn away, to block out reality in order to survive.
The steady stream of hot water filled my ears, pelted my back and flowed over my body, warming my shoulders and chest. Shutting my eyes tightly, I prayed the arguing would be over when I turned off the water, but when I did things were worse.
For years, I buried my pain. It wasn’t until I was twenty-nine that my consciousness considered it safe to face the truth, to exhume the past. I was living on my own, working as a college professor, suffering from panic attacks, debilitating arm tendonitis, and severe TMJ. I started seeing a therapist who diagnosed my anorexic tendencies, depression, and anxiety. It took me two years of sessions before I trusted him enough to let him see me cry.
One day, my father called and told me that his wife (he’d divorced my mother when I went to college, then quickly remarried) had a malignant tumor in her uterus.
“She has pain when we have sex,” he said, his voice breaking.
It was as if he poured lava over my body with his sentence. My head, my shoulders, my stomach and legs felt singed, then numb. My breath grew short. I told my father I was sorry. I got off the phone. I tried to push away “pain” and “sex,” tried to forget my father’s words, but they’d penetrated.
Over the next few days and weeks, the memories of the sexual abuse of my childhood became unstuck from where I’d stored them for decades; as if my mind were a roll of masking tape, it dispensed piece after piece.
A few months later, diagnosed with complex PTSD, I sat with my mother in her condo living room, the framed photos of my brother and me as children watching from the mantel like witnesses as I took the lid off the silence of our family.
“When I was growing up,” I began, “Dad sexually abused me.”
My mother’s eyes widened but her voice remained measured. “When did this happen?” she asked. “Where was I?”
“There were many instances over many years,” I said. “Sometimes you were in the shower or in the living room reading, or you were asleep in bed.”
My mother’s eyes became glassy and fixed. “I think you were too sensitive,” she said. “Some other little girl would’ve liked it.”
My breath left me as if I’d been sucker punched. She mustn’t have spoken what she had—my mother wouldn’t, couldn’t—I thought. At the same time, I wondered if she was right. (Later, I’d ponder whether she was saying something that someone had once said to her.)
“Why didn’t you tell me when it happened?” she asked, her voice rising.
When I was growing up, “it” was never safe to tell anyone, not even myself.
My mother turned towards me, her eyes suddenly searching mine. Her face crumpled and she began to sob. “I know it happened,” she said. “There were signs!”
She flung her body upon mine. I held her as I would a child.
“When your father and I were seeing the marriage counselor,” she said, “he said ‘the children show signs of abuse.’”
I hadn’t heard Dr. Lipton say this. “What did he mean?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “I didn’t ask.”
“What do you mean you didn’t ask?” How could my mother or a trained therapist let that go?
“He said it in passing on our way out,” she said.
“He should’ve done something,” I said.
At my suggestion that my mother seek help to deal with my news, she decided to see a social worker, a woman who ran a local battered women’s shelter, not because she needed any therapy, she said, but “so that I can understand you.”
After her first appointment, she called me. “I made a mistake in the way I first reacted,” she said. “I should’ve been supportive. Now I can help you heal, if you’ll let me.”
I wanted to let her.
Each time we talked on the phone she asked, “How’s the therapy going?” When I said I was struggling with painful flashbacks she interrupted: “I can’t hear about it. I won’t be able to function.” She wouldn’t be able to get out of bed or go to work or do her laundry, she said. She wouldn’t be able to live.
So I stopped sharing. When my mother asked, “how’s the therapy going?” I responded only by saying I was going to my sessions.
She became irate: “You refuse my offer to help you heal! You’re punishing me for the past by withdrawing yourself and withholding information! I don’t understand where your anger towards me comes from! I didn’t do anything. Your father was the one.”
“You didn’t stop him,” I said.
“I didn’t know!” she shifted. “You never said anything.”
That was true—I hadn’t.
“I’m sorry it happened,” she said.
“Anyone can say they’re sorry ‘it’ happened,” I said. “You never say you’re sorry for your part.”
“My part?” she said. “I didn’t abuse you. If I had known what was going on I would’ve done something, but you never said anything, no one from outside ever said ‘something looks wrong,’ no one ever told me–” She took a breath, then spoke as if she were in a trance: “I had panic attacks when your brother was five. I had trouble swallowing meals.” She continued in a monotone, as if she were reading a grocery list. “I had trouble breathing while driving the car with you two in it. I’m sure as kids you and your brother picked up on that vulnerability. I thought I was crazy, but really it was that your father was controlling my mind, telling me that my perceptions were wrong. He manipulated me.”
I was realizing the ways my mother was also my father’s victim.
“I read a story in the New York Times about a little girl who was raped by her father on the Long Island Rail Road,” she continued. “He put her on his lap and did his thing. She didn’t make a sound. A woman across the aisle saw the whole thing and reported it to the conductor and the police met them at the next stop and arrested the man.” She turned to me and threw up her hands: “What would’ve happened to our family? What would’ve happened if I came in in the middle of it all? What would’ve happened then?”
I finally voiced what I’d wished had occurred: “Hopefully you would’ve called the police and they would’ve put Dad in jail.”
I’d wanted my mother to save me.
“No,” my mother said, adamantly, shaking her head. “That would not have happened, because your father would’ve made up a story about how it wasn’t what I thought I saw and I would’ve been convinced by him.”
Her words hit me like a train. If she had seen it with her own eyes, my mother wouldn’t have tried to help me—she wouldn’t have believed me. She would’ve believed my father. He had all the power.
That’s how it went on for all those years.
“I’m sorry you were so traumatized by Dad,” I said. “But you were my mother.”
“I trusted your father,” she said. “He was my husband. That’s what women were told to do in those days.”
“I was a powerless child,” I said.
My mother’s eyes moved back and forth across the floor as if she were trying to find the words. “I was powerless too,” she said.
Over the next months and years, the more I worked to recover, the less my mother and I were able to honestly talk. We grew estranged.
When I was thirty-six, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer, a disease known as “the silent killer.” She said she’d be fine, but she lived only a year. She kept her illness a secret, sharing only the barest of facts. After each new hospital visit and body scan, she became angry when I asked questions. When I offered to speak directly with her doctor so that she wouldn’t have to talk about it but so I could still be “in the know,” she grew more annoyed.
“I will tell you information,” she yelled over the phone, “when I am ready to tell you!”
I felt myself losing my mother and I started to cry. “But what if there comes a point when you’re unable to tell me?” I asked.
“Do you tell me everything?” she asked with a sharpness that made me shrink.
“No,” I answered, hearing my voice sound like a girl’s.
“And why is that?” she countered.
When my mother died, she left behind a body of words. Once a writer and copy editor, the pen was her paragon. As I prepared her condo for sale and went through her belongings, I found notebooks full of prose and poetry she’d composed when I was a girl, verses conveying her state of mind and her relationship with my father during the years of my abuse. I also discovered newspaper articles she’d compiled about incest and perpetrators and family denial, and notes she’d recorded during my PTSD recovery, when we were in conflict. On 3×5 pieces of paper my mother outlined what she wanted to say during our phone conversations:
You have a right to be angry about what happened to you.
You have a right to express that anger (I have difficulty with that expression of anger:
- It frightens me since you explode and it doesn’t seem like you
- I am sensitive to it, if it is directed at me [brings back yelling from my childhood so I need to learn how to deal with that—working on it])
Re: I’m sorry and accept responsibility for
not being there for you; not protecting you (I was not aware of it, or not aware of the signs that I can now see in hindsight)
(did not think M was capable of doing what he did)
leaning on you for emotional support
(did not realize the effect on you; did not do intentionally, was traumatized myself –
While she did state some of it to me, most of it she never found the courage to express.
It was only after she was gone that my mother shared her deepest self, her uncensored thoughts and feelings. Through her written words, she drew me closer. She helped me heal.
As a girl, slamming my feet into my bedroom door gave me a fleeting sense of strength. As an adult, I thought that letting go of my anger would render me powerless.
In the abusive world of my childhood, I was bound by silence and terror. The truth remained unacknowledged, as if it didn’t exist. And yet, even years after I cut ties with my father, the abuse inhabited my body and played out in toxic relationships.
It wasn’t until I found my voice that I harnessed the power to stop my pain. Only when I was able to put language to my experience could I name it, claim it, examine it, feel it, surmount it, transform it—and release myself from it.
Each word was a rung upon which I found my footing. One step at a time, I climbed out of the depths of my past to live in a healthier realm. I wrote poetry and prose, as my mother once did, but I didn’t keep it under wraps: I shared it—I published it, with the hope of helping someone else.
With my words, I went back to that girl who was shut in her bedroom. I opened the door. I set her free.
Rumpus original art by Dana Schwartz.