ENOUGH: Finding My Abuser on Facebook

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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Finding My Abuser on Facebook
January Iyer

In the Filipino language Ilonggo, the word moning refers to a prepubescent girl’s genitalia. It’s a softer version of the clinical term monay, which is lighter still than the adult, sometimes vulgar word putay. My Ilongga mother taught me moning when I was a young child, probably when she bathed me. A nurse for over forty years, she has always discussed personal hygiene and physical illness and medicine with ease.

I do not speak my parents’ first language, but moning stayed with me: at seven years old it was the only word I knew for where Steven Greyson—a teacher and my friend Wendy’s father—had touched me during a sleepover at their house earlier that year. I remember the word because I whispered it into my mother’s left ear when I eventually told her about Steven. I had to pronounce the short, round o and the quick, firm tap on the second syllable—moh-nING—so awkward for my native-English-speaking tongue. Afterwards, I waited for my mother to do something, anything, but she never did.

Thirty-two years later, the word moning anchors my memory of that time, the same way durable details of the sleepover—Steven carrying me upstairs, Steven kissing my hand—are embodied evidence of my past layered in the present, what Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich calls the fact of a body. Yet for most of my life I did not consider this experience important; an inner voice almost always told me that being molested once as a child will never compare to the sustained sexual abuse or assault others have faced. It was the word only that tripped me up. It was only once. It only lasted seconds. He was only a teacher. Only is an adverb, but in many accounts of trauma it’s also a conjunction linking doubt to silence: It was only touching becomes It doesn’t matter in one heartbeat, one breath.

It’s taken decades to quiet that voice. In the wake of my mother’s silence and the swell of social pressures to erase my trauma, I have embraced feminism, writing, psychotherapy, and the love of chosen family. Such life preservers save me from sinking into doubt and denial: not that I was sexually molested, but that it matters. Yet I also know my survival is ensured by my seven-year-old-self, the little girl who knew Steven had done something wrong and who found the words to describe her abuser and her body. I needed her courage more than ever when, not too long ago, I found Steven and Wendy online and confusion engulfed me once again.

 

Steven was a teacher at Children’s Corner, the daycare I attended every school day from first through fifth grades. He had a barrel chest and a beard of curly brown hair, and from behind his aviator eyeglasses his eyes often twinkled with what at the time I thought was pure affection for us kids. A talented musician, Steven often gathered everyone at Children’s Corner into the large, sunny playroom on the second floor for group singalongs. I guess he was in his mid-thirties at the time, several years younger than I am now.

Steven’s daughter Wendy attended Children’s Corner, too. She was a pale, skinny girl who loved swimming so much that chlorine turned her blond hair green. For a time, Wendy and I were friends. We weren’t bound by book reports or science projects like the girls I went to school with, women I’m still in touch with today. But Wendy appears in a photograph of my seventh birthday party, taken in Temple Terrace, Florida, in July 1986. She sits directly across from me at a table on my back porch, her long hair gathered into a thick, meticulous braid.

The Greysons lived in a duplex with an in-ground pool, which I naturally considered far superior to my family’s single-story home with the tawdry above-ground pool my father bought during one of his manic moments. But our homes weren’t the only difference between us. Wendy called her parents, Steven and Tina, by their first names, something I had never heard of before then. When I shared this peculiarity with my mother, she simply replied Americans are sometimes like that. By Americans, my mother meant white people, which we were not.

The night of the sleepover—the only time I stayed at the Greyson’s home—Wendy, her parents, and I gathered in the living room to watch the movie Gremlins, in which an endearing furry creature known as a mogwai spawns hundreds of reptilian monsters overnight. By the end of the movie, Wendy was sleeping but I was still up, which worried me. Was it okay that I was awake? Would Steven and Tina be mad at me? I didn’t know the rules or what was right, so I decided to close my eyes and pretend to be asleep—a choice that still confounds me to this day. I remember myself as a confident and independent child, comfortable talking to adults and doing things on my own. But there was something about the moment that told me to copy Wendy, so I shut my eyes. As her parents turned off the television and collected our empty ice-creams bowls, I heard Steven tell Tina that he would carry us girls upstairs. The prospect of being carried gave me a slight thrill. I hadn’t been carried in years.

Steven took Wendy upstairs first, leaving me alone on the couch. Assuming he would return quickly, I initially kept pretending to be asleep. But a lot of time passed and I got bored and confused, so I opened my eyes and looked around the room. The light was low and warm. Corona, the Greyson’s black Labrador retriever, was sleeping soundly near the sliding glass doors. Directly in front of me was my reflection in the convex surface of the television; to the left were the stairs. I was considering changing my plan and going upstairs on my own when I sensed Steven coming toward the landing, so I resumed my posture: closed eyes, slack limbs, relaxed face. Then I felt Steven close to me and lift me off the couch. Floating up the staircase in Steven’s arms, my head resting on his shoulder, I felt pleased with my little performance and my prize of a free ride.

Just beyond the threshold of Wendy’s bedroom, Steven stopped. With my body still pressed against him, he slipped one hand between my underwear and my waist, then began to feel between my legs. He patted the area gently—once, twice, maybe more—and I remember wondering if he was worried I had wet myself in my sleep, but the idea confused me, given my age. When Steven was done, he laid me on the bottom of Wendy’s bunk bed and kissed the back of my hand—a gesture I recognized from television and movies and fairytales. Then Steven left the room and I heard running water in the bathroom hallway, as if he were washing his hands in the sink.

The next morning, Steven stood at the foot of the stairs as Wendy and I made our way down. He smiled up at us and announced that Tina was going to the supermarket. “You ladies want anything special?” he asked, and Wendy replied “MoonPies! I want MoonPies! Banana, if they have it.” She seemed cheery and unaware. Normal. But when I looked at Steven’s face, I didn’t feel normal. The scene turned flat and seemed far away, as if the staircase and walls and Wendy and Steven were props wheeled off by invisible stagehands. Like the loveable mogwai, Steven had become a monster overnight.

Later that day, my mother picked me up from the Greysons’s in her car. As I settled into the passenger seat, I was aware of something heavy and fragile between us, but the prospect of telling my mother what happened the night before seemed as impossible as her driving to the sun and back. I didn’t yet have the courage to make a journey toward something so big and so blistering.

 

My favorite toy at Children’s Space was Labyrinth, a hollow wooden box with a three-dimensional maze on top. The maze is punctured by dozens of holes and can be tilted in various directions using knobs on the side of the frame. The object of the game is to guide a marble to the end of the maze without letting it fall into the empty space below. Labyrinth was a present Steven bought for the kids at the daycare. I spent several afternoons trying to perfect the dexterity it required but I never did.

Like a marble in the maze, my memory of what happened in the weeks and months after the sleepover is stable in some places and unsteady in others. It also moves along several planes at once—toward shame and conviction, astonishment and grief. Walking downstairs the next morning, getting into my mother’s small, yellow car, these images and feelings lend the past firm structure and support. There are places, though, where my memory drops off completely. I can’t remember anything else about the sleepover, nor whether it was weeks or months before I tried to tell my mother what happened at the Greysons’s house. I do know that I first tried to forget Steven altogether. At bedtime, my blue Holly Hobbie canopy bed became an altar where I recited the same prayer—Please, God, let me forget; Please, God, let me forget—over and over and over again. But every morning was the same. I couldn’t stop thinking about Steven any more than I could stop being brown skinned, small, or smart. The only remaining option, it seemed, was to tell my mother.

My memory trembles when it reaches the conversation with my mother, something she and I remember differently. I recall it being nighttime. I was sitting on a candy-pink velour blanket, its satin trim forming a smooth, shiny boundary around me. About ten feet away, Mom was standing at the sink washing our dinner dishes. I remember thinking I don’t want to tell her, but if I do then I won’t have to see Steven and Children’s Corner every time I close my eyes. So I stood up, breached the border between the blanket and floor, living room and kitchen, myself and my mother. When I reached her side, I whispered that Steven had touched my moning. But in my mother’s recollection—revealed to me thirty-two years later—I told her that I had seen Steven touching Wendy, put his hands in her panties. She recalls asking what I did when I saw this and my response being I just shut my eyes; she recalls thinking That child should tell her mother. Then, as she remembers, she said Thank God it wasn’t you, and that I said nothing in return.

I am overwhelmed by the difference in our memories, my mother in her maze and I in mine. Yet both versions of this moment lead to the same difficult end: my mother told no one what I had told her and allowed me to return to Children’s Corner. If what she recalls is true—and I am inclined to believe there is a good deal of truth to it—then Thank God it wasn’t you must have deepened the well of dread and shame forming inside me. If what she recalls is what really happened, then by assuming the reason for my silence, my mother closed off the space where I might have told her what Steven really did, to me. And if for most of my life I believed I had told my mother that Steven touched me, it’s probably because for a young child trying to describe something unspeakable, saying it happened to another girl with whom I spent the night was telling her something happened to me. I accept my mother’s version of the past, but I also believe that continued silence and erasure were my only meaningful choices once that conversation, however it started, came to an end.

For months I waited desperately for my mother to talk to me again, for a sign something would change. Instead, I had to feel the dull panic whenever Steven was near me, his presence as suffocating as Florida’s humidity in the dead of summer. Once, during an afternoon when only a handful of kids were at the daycare, Steven brought us to a public park. After getting a drink from a water fountain, I turned around and Steven was right behind me. We were alone. Like the moment I realized Wendy was asleep on the couch, I didn’t know what to do, so I described what was literally on the tip of my tongue. “This water tastes sweet,” I said to him. Steven smiled and replied, “Maybe it’s your lips that are sweet.”

 

Over the last twenty years, I have learned the statistics on sexual abuse, the damaging dynamics of self-blame, disclosure, and trust tied to trauma, and the importance of survivors telling their stories. As I discussed these things with friends, teachers, and colleagues, I also learned to identify—and feel angered by—the sexual harassment and violations I experienced as an adult. The casual predations of men in public who tell me to smile. The uncontained lust of a man on a bus who began masturbating after I sat down next to him. And my fear of being sexually assaulted when a roommate’s visiting friend, drunk and nearly naked, tried to force his way into my room after returning at dawn from a night of partying. Each of these instances pulled at the threads of my personhood but I found within my communities the means to suture the seams and remain whole.

Yet before I became a feminist, a scholar, and a professor, I was a child, twisting in the tangled knot of belief and recognition. What I knew about Steven and felt with my body were not reflected in the world around me, so like many victims of sexual abuse, some part of me detached from reality and therefore myself. By the time I was a teenager, I had reduced my story to a three-part plot: a man did something to me, I told my mother, and she did nothing. While the ending caused me grief, I could not, until recently, feel anything about its beginning. I didn’t understand then that the simplicity and emotional vacancy in the narrative itself were already effects of the chaos caused by childhood sexual trauma, a refraction and recombination of reality into something exquisitely logical but also painfully flawed. This sense of detachment also defined my years in therapy, which I started at age nineteen. Within the first few years, I only talked about Steven twice. My mentally ill father, my indifferent mother, my difficulty feeling close to other people—these things always seemed more urgent and real, but also disconnected from the abuse and its immediate aftermath. I was convinced, too, that talking about Steven was dramatic and indulgent, that I had no right to claim something so fleeting and old could cause me pain. Even now, I sometimes hear a faint voice saying She should be grateful, because it could have been worse or She can’t remember everything, so how does she know what’s true?

Some part of me, however, has always wanted to reinsert myself into the past. I have done this by searching for Steven and Wendy on the Internet; I started years ago, well before the emergence of Facebook and Google. In 2002, when I worked as an investigator for a public defender, I looked for them on the people-finder databases we used to find the addresses of witnesses. When I got access to digital archives as a graduate student, I searched for them in old newspapers. As the Internet grew, so did my search terms. I typed in Steven’s name and “child molestor” or “arrested,” since I thought it possible someone else had spoken up about Steven and tried to send him to jail. I searched for Wendy and “swimming.” When I signed up for Facebook in 2006 and found childhood friends who would have known Wendy, I asked if they remembered her. The searches always went nowhere but every year or so I tried again.

One day not too long ago, something shifted. I was reading Jeannie Vanasco’s memoir The Glass Eye, published in 2017. In Vanasco’s story, the letter i in Jeannie is important because her beloved father named her dead half-sister Jeanne, without the i. After her father’s death, the additional letter in the author’s name becomes an object of Vanasco’s mania, as she obsessively makes connections between the loss of her father, her father’s loss of an eye and his daughter Jeanne, and the loss of herself to grief and mental illness. Thinking about the difference one letter can make, I began a search for Greyson instead of Grayson, which is how I’d been spelling their name for over fifteen years. And there they were.

I discovered Wendy’s Facebook profile first, though it took me a little while to confirm it was hers because the profile picture was a drawing of a cartoon person holding a gun to its head. The drawing is meant to be clever and humorous, but along with the absence of photos of herself in her account, it made me shudder. I had long imagined Wendy was regularly abused by her father and had suffered a lifetime of anguish as a result, so I thought even this facetious allusion to self-harm was a sign she had suffered tremendously. The feeling intensified when I ventured back into newspaper archives and this time found a news report about a serious car accident Wendy was in when she was seventeen. The accident occurred around 3 a.m. on a weekday; no other drivers were involved, but Wendy had been thrown from her car. At seventeen, I was lonely, anxious, depressed. Wasn’t it likely Wendy was, too—and more?

Then I discovered something that unsettled me completely. Although Wendy didn’t have pictures of herself in her Facebook profile, I concluded it was the right Wendy Greyson because she was friends with her mother Tina and with her father Steven, who has posted photos of himself—dozens of them—on his profile. One is from the 1980s, looking just like the man I remember. How was all of this possible? How, if Steven abused Wendy, could they be connected in this casual manner? And why would she, as an adult, appear in photos with him? In one, they stand side-by-side in a hotel lobby during a family vacation. They look happy, even giddy. Their smiles sent me into a spiral. Had Steven abused Wendy or not? Had she repressed it? Had he repented and she recovered? Did he only abuse children other than his own? Was I the only one? Perhaps I should have been happy to see the girl I knew decades ago smiling at the camera—her hair still long and beautiful—but I was disappointed.

The disappointment gave me pause. Of course, I did not really want Wendy to have been abused her whole life or Steven to have hurt other children. That’s when I realized that my switching between the story of the car accident and the image of her smiling next to Steven was simply my own mind-body shuffling back and forth between affirmation and disavowal of my trauma. I was using Wendy as a model and mirror, the same way I did when she was asleep on the couch right before her father molested me and then later when, as my mother recalls, I substituted Wendy for myself. What I saw in those pictures didn’t reflect what I assumed about Wendy but, more importantly, it didn’t reflect what I knew about myself: I was once ripped out of reality and the pain I endured for decades was devastating and real. I understand now that by searching for Steven and Wendy, the seven-year-old girl inside of me was revealing how she saw the world and herself—broken and refracted—but also that she’s ready to be whole. I now know I don’t need a photo of Wendy or Steven to recognize how something that happened over thirty years ago can still affect me to this day. It’s in the discomfort I feel when someone falls asleep in my presence, the aversion to a partner’s hands stimulating me sexually, the night terrors, and the fear I feel when important things go unsaid.

I will almost definitely never know what Steven did to Wendy, but I know what he did to me. And I know the voice that says It’s not a big deal or How can you be certain doesn’t speak the language of healing and recovery. It knows no other language but silence.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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