Fourth article in Secular Woman’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month
by Claire Bardelux
My older sister has a room of her own now, which upsets me terribly—at five years old, I am afraid to sleep alone. Sunshine floods through my bedroom windows and I have just woken for the morning. I start shifting about in bed, yawning, rubbing my sleep-crusted eyes and untwisting my flowery cotton nightgown. As I squirm, I sense that something’s not right, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I stretch and look about my sun-brightened room. Toys are scattered where I discarded them last, my favorite doll splayed in unnatural pose against the floor, stuffed animals in a variety of shapes and colors, crayons, books… And there on the sunny yellow rug is a small white blob that I don’t recognize. I roll out of bed and pick up the blob, confused. It is a pair of white cotton panties—the ones I wore to bed last night? Anxiety washes over me as I tentatively pull up the hem of my pretty nightgown to check. Sure enough, I’m bare. I’m instantly irrationally ashamed and desperate to be covered. I pull on my underwear and smooth down my nightgown, glancing around furtively to make sure no one else has seen this. How did my panties get across the room during the night? Could I have taken them off in my sleep? I squirm uncomfortably, feeling dirty, ill at ease. What happened last night and why don’t I remember? I pick up my doll and hug her tight.
It’s the middle of the night, and, at seven years old, I am sleeping in my big girl room for one. One alone. One unallied. One unprotected.
I am suddenly startled into alertness. I hear whispers and feel someone touching me between my legs—the center of my body, my most vulnerable of vulnerabilities. I panic. But to my horror, my eyes don’t fly open though I’m willing them to do so with all my might. I’m trying to scream, “Stop! Go away,” but my mouth won’t work. While I feel the scream building and intensifying inside of me, I am silent as Munch’s painting. My arms and legs won’t move. I’m trying to flail, to kick out, to close my legs, but my limbs betray me, remaining limp. I am utterly powerless. I can’t even cry, despite my terror. I am paralyzed—it’s not fear, it’s sleep paralysis. I am perfectly aware as they are touching me and mocking me. I feel invaded, attacked, frightened, ashamed, dirty. And, I am furious at myself for being unable to stop them. After several minutes, the paralysis eases and my attackers, perceiving that I am waking, are frightened away. But I can’t stay awake forever, and they know this. There is no such thing as safety. I am tormented all night—when I am being invaded, when I’m fearing that invasion, and in the morning when I don’t even know what happened while I was sleeping.
From around five years old until I was thirteen, I endured repeated nighttime attacks at the hands of my three brothers—sometimes they acted as a group, but, as we got older, my primary attacker was my older brother acting on his own. Or, at least, that’s what woke me up. I struggled with the sleep paralysis that held me captive and powerless even as I was being violated, and I never really knew what happened when I was asleep. Some mornings, I would wake with the tell-tale missing panties and feel sick with the not knowing, with the lack of control over my body. Those nights that I couldn’t stay awake to defend myself, when they or he (depending on the night) wouldn’t leave me alone, I’d flee to my mother’s bed for protection. She needed her sleep, maybe she didn’t quite understand what I was telling her, maybe she interpreted my pleas along the lines of, “Mom, he’s playing with my toys—make him stop.” But every time I begged and pleaded for help, she sent me back to bed, back to the big bad wolf. I was crushed, frantic. There was no help to be had. My father was largely absent, but even had he been there, he would have been of no help—he didn’t like having his sleep disturbed either, and he had taught us all that we were most definitely not entitled to bodily integrity and dignity. He was also a strong proponent of the “Children are to be seen and not heard” school of thinking, so excessive chatter from me was met with duct tape over the mouth. No, this was a battle I had to fight on my own, but I was failing. told them emphatically to leave me alone, but they didn’t listen. Locks wouldn’t keep them out—they’re the ones who taught me to pick every lock in the house. And I couldn’t stay awake forever or even trust myself to wake up to act in my own defense.
So, for years, I felt hurt, angry, frustrated—I felt all the pain of being a victim and all the anger at being ignored and dismissed, all the frustration and panic at not being able to control my body or access to it. I also felt horribly ashamed, as if this were my fault because I couldn’t stop them. This shame was intensified when my older brother defended his actions, telling me that he knew I really liked it. My everything revolted against this notion, but really, I had no way of knowing how I had responded in my sleep, no way of knowing fully what was happening to me. This made me feel even worse about myself and my predicament. I hated me, and I really, really hated him. I wished he were dead.
Our father was in a perpetual state of abandoning or having recently abandoned us or having temporarily renewed his residence with us. He was certainly not reliable, and when he was there he was violent and domineering. We were all frightened of him and his anger, his yelling, his throwing things, his kicking down doors, his indiscriminate whippings with the dreaded leather belt or a switch from a tree outside (he explained once that he was whipping me on general principle—in other words, because he could, he felt he should). He rode in like a tyrannical king, making decisions from on high that only made my life worse. It was he who decided my older sister needed her own room, thus stripping me of protection and comfort at night. I was afraid to sleep alone and with good reason. On another visit, he decreed that my sister should have the larger room, the one we’d once shared, and he moved me farther down the hall, adjacent to the bedrooms of my brothers—that’s right, the ones who were attacking me on a nightly basis. I cried and cried when he ordered us to change rooms, but I could never have explained to him why it was so important for me not to sleep at that end of the hall. He was just plain scary, and questioning his decisions was unwise.
I was envious of my sister, both because our father seemed to love her more and because she escaped the nighttime attacks. Why me? It felt so hideously unfair. Why should I, of all my siblings, be singled out for perpetual victimization? And, why would no one listen to me or help me when I asked? I was trapped and miserable. So, for years, it was “poor me.” I was filled with spite and responded to life with sarcasm and frequent escapes into reading. Finally, when I was thirteen, my older brother’s vicious lashing out forced my mother, who was at her wit’s end trying single-handedly to manage five children, to seek outside help. He had threatened my older sister, the one who was loved, the one who mattered, with a knife over a television channel dispute.
My older brother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and we all had to go there regularly for family meetings, walking with trepidation (at least on my part) through two sets of heavy magnetically locking doors to get to the meeting room. It felt like a prison. One day, a couple of weeks into my brother’s hospitalization, his psychiatrist started our family session by asking us all how we felt about having to be there. Emulating my big sister, whom I envied and admired, I responded that I didn’t want to be there and didn’t think I should have to spend my time there because of something my brother had done—this was all heavily coated with my usual dripping sarcasm. The doctor decided that I was full of anger, and right there in front of my unbelieving eyes, she convinced my mother that I too should be admitted the hospital. It was like slow motion with me looking frantically from serious doctor to nodding mother. I was trapped. They’d already locked me in—I couldn’t possibly get past those two sets of heavy locked doors or break through two-inch thick, bullet-proof windows. There was no way out. My terror increased when I learned that they would be doing a thorough strip-search as part of my admission. Even though I wasn’t the one who had done something wrong, I was being punished (You don’t have to tell me life isn’t fair—don’t I know it). My small store of dignity and my futile grasping at control over my body were ebbing away.
I was locked away for eight weeks, during which time I experienced an even greater reduction of dignity and privacy. Aside from the strip searches performed on me every time I re-entered the unit (since I was attending regular meetings for victims of sexual abuse in the adult unit, these forced showings of my naked body to a complete stranger were quite frequent), my captors searched my room and even garbage can daily. I couldn’t say or write anything with the expectation of it remaining private. They’d pull my crumpled up notes out of the trash and put them in my case file to analyze and judge. They watched me literally every hour of the day and scored my behavior for each time increment on a scale of zero to three—they showed these scores to my psychiatrist and to me to make sure we both knew just how imperfect, how bad I was. Every single morning in full view of all the other adolescent patients, they weighed me (if you’ve ever been a thirteen year old girl with body image issues, you’ll know this is traumatic), took my temperature and required me to answer personal questions about my mood and bodily functions. They’d come into my room multiple times at night to make sure I was still there and asleep.
So, really, this wasn’t substantially different from what I was experiencing at home except that it was systematized, more thorough and done by people I didn’t know. This was all under the guise of trying to help me, but from the perspective of a child who has been traumatized and taught that her body and possessions are not truly her own, that she has no right or recourse to control and protect herself, the perpetual scrutiny of my body and lack of privacy was horrific. On top of this, I knew that my classmates couldn’t help but notice my prolonged absence and speculate as to my whereabouts. Now they too knew something was wrong with me. Privacy? Who needs privacy?
The nighttime attacks stopped after the hospitalization—I was moved back into a bedroom with my older sister—the same one we’d shared eight years prior—and Child Protective Services started visiting to check on me in particular. They offered to take me away (another punishment?), but I wanted to stay at the home I’d just returned to after a long and frightening incarceration. Family life continued to be dysfunctional and fraught with discomfort. I might not be able to avoid being hit, threatened, yelled at, derided, but at least I wasn’t being molested in the night. The fears and shame and sense of violation never really left me while I was in that home—in part because healthy boundaries still had not been introduced. We none of us had the skills to relate to each other properly. I continued to feel anger over my treatment, and I felt isolated because I was the one who had been chosen for the role of victim, abused and ignored, mocked and shamed, punished with imprisonment and degradation. My focus stayed on myself alone and how everyone else had wronged me, was complicit in my trauma. As I grew older, I couldn’t wait to leave my dysfunctional family, to escape the house of horrors—I often wondered why I hadn’t elected to leave when Child Protective Services had given me the opportunity. At seventeen, the day after I graduated from high school, I fled the home of my unhappy youth, moving into an apartment near the campus where I’d be starting college in the fall.
I’ve spent decades attempting to heal myself, to make myself emotionally stable, to stave off anxiety and panic attacks, to forgive my family and myself, to learn to trust myself and others. I’m making progress, but it’s not easy and I certainly have setbacks. I’ve come far enough along to step outside of the “poor me” perspective at times. I’ve come to terms with much of the trauma I’ve experienced, but discussion of these things with my family has been very limited. I don’t think I’ve ever told my brothers that I forgive them, but I do. They were just children too, raised in a chaotic and unhealthy family that set them up for failure in their interpersonal relations and their understanding of appropriate behavior. In traumatizing me, they were also traumatizing themselves. I have forgiven them, but unless they’ve done a better job than me at blocking out the past, they still have those memories—have they forgiven themselves?
Back then, I was angry too at my sister. She had told our school guidance counselor about what had happened to me, and the counselor took me off guard when she asked me about it—I felt that it was my experience to choose to share, not my sister’s. I felt exposed and once again out of control of my life. It all seemed so unfair because it wasn’t her that this happened to. Now, I realize that she too needed to talk about our home life to heal. It actually wasn’t just me suffering from what was happening to me, and it wasn’t just my story; it was all of us, every single one of us was sinking on that cursed ship.
It’s like we were all tossed into a moving blender, pushing off against each other in an effort to avoid the blades, but no one could escape unscathed—a pulverized family. Whether you landed directly on the blade or not, you were still going to subsist in terror, viewing and feeling splatters of the carnage. We didn’t all make it out alive. My older brother, the most severe of my tormentors and the one I’d wished was dead, passed away while I was in college. I never told him that I’d forgiven him or that I loved him—talking about such things was impossible. It’s painful for me to think on what his life experiences were, how much he craved love and approval, how much difficulty he had in forging intimate relationships. Recently, I’ve been able to talk to my sister a little about my experiences and how they made me feel, something we’d scrupulously avoided in the past. It was good for us both to connect, to tell each other how much we love each other. I hope one day soon to have the courage to broach the past with my living brothers as well.