I remember when my mom woke my brother, sister and I in the middle of the night. She bundled us out of the door and into a taxi. She had taken a call from my father who was still at work. They had argued. He threatened to shoot her.
We left the home for good and lived in a shelter for battered women for a few weeks until my mom got a restraining order and found us a new home. We had little more than what we had escaped with. My parents divorced. Life limped on in slow, awkward paces under crippling poverty: the kind where you sleep on the floor and make do with garage sale finds, happy that you’re not living in your car.
I was about 10 when my mom remarried. My stepfather was older than my mom. Much older. He had adult children, and his grandchildren were our ages. But he seemed a decent guy. We got beds to sleep in, better food, and a nicer home. He taught us to fish and play baseball. We liked him a lot. At least, we liked him when he wasn’t drinking. Things changed when I turned 15. That was the year I got my first period. It was also the year that he started to sit me on his knees, using one hand to stroke my legs and fondle my breasts through my clothes while he balanced his drink in the other.
I’m telling this story so you might understand how life can go from bad to worse by slow degrees. Like the frog in the pot of slowly warming water, sometimes we don’t know we’re in hot water until it’s too late. Like most children living with alcoholics, we had learned to make ourselves invisible when he broke out the booze. It’s a defensive habit. These children understand on an instinctual level that we’re dealing with an unpredictable, easy-to-anger human being who seldom responds to reason. Confrontation just means bruises. It’s easier to lay low, as I continued to do so, but there were still occasional incidents. One night he crawled into my bed while I was sleeping. I woke trapped beneath the blankets to find him pressing himself between my legs while he gave me my first-ever French kiss, tasting of alcohol. I cried and pushed him out of my bed.
Our relationship changed after that. He turned his sexual attention to my sister instead and became an angrier drunk. Usually I was on the receiving end of his fists. I told people about his behaviour, but I didn’t tell the right people. I told my mom. My mom was the one who ripped the phone from my bleeding hands the night I got pushed through the window when I was 16, but it wasn’t until years later that I really understood why she stopped me from calling for help. I love my mom. She’s one of the kindest, most gentle-hearted people you could ever know. But she was crippled by fear. She would rather live with the devil she knew than the devil she didn’t. Nothing we had experienced with my stepfather was as paralysing to her as the fear of the unknown (or, more specifically, what he might do to her or to us if she tried to leave him).
Looking back, it’s easy to trace the path of abuse and violence and say “we should have done this; we should have done that.” It doesn’t matter anymore, because I’ve already forgiven her. When you’re in the middle of it, victims can lose perspective. Ironically, it was what happened after he was finally arrested that shattered our family. My sister and I were the primary evidence against my stepfather, and so it was mostly our word against his. At the tender age of 15, she was hoping he would be sent to prison where we both were told by the authorities he would most likely die either by violence or of old age. My sister bought in, but I just wanted to move on. All I ever wanted was to get away from him, make sure he couldn’t abuse others, and forget the whole thing ever happened. I didn’t want to debase myself in front of a jury. I didn’t want blood on my hands. The police got video testimony, but I refused to take the stand. He pled guilty anyway and was sentenced to 5 years of house arrest and 10 years of parole.
Did he get off lightly? Everyone heard about what he had done. He lost his whole family. He lost his job. He was a pariah. And he did die, alone, about 8 years ago. While our relationship now is better than it has been, to this day my sister hasn’t forgiven me for not making sure he died in prison. She and I are like two sides of a coin. She carried around so much hate and rage and always let it boil to the surface. I was the one who kept pushing it aside. She hated men, but I didn’t project his behaviour onto the motivation of other guys. Worst of all, she has covered herself permanently in the shroud of the victim and has stayed like this for the last 20 years.
In the United States, decades of Jerry Springer, Oprah and Montel have taught American TV audiences that being labelled a victim means that you have been granted a strange, almost-celebrity status. You are encouraged to celebrate being a victim, which many people do. It’s all about you: your pain, your shame, your suffering. It brings you attention both positive and negative, it sometimes gives you desperately-needed aid, it gives you an excuse for whatever failures or behaviours you care to lay on the altar of victimization. The problem with celebrating being a victim is that many of these people never find their way out of the pit. They are told they need to deal with their problems with medical treatment of either the pharmaceutical or psychiatric variety until they are “cured.” They might need such treatment the rest of their lives.
Because I had moved on, because I was happily married and had a family, my sister dismissed the fact that I had ever once been a victim as she had been. I needed no alcohol, no anti-depressants, no counselling. As far as she was concerned, the shame, pain and suffering I had experienced was of no consequence because I was no longer a broken human being. I was unable to get her to understand that she has the power within herself to “get over” the dark moments in her life. All she had to do was acknowledge that something bad had happened to us, put it behind her, and take the future firmly into her own hands to make it the way she wants it to be.
I suppose it sounds too simple. It is, but it isn’t. It is not easy to let go of the rage and shame, relearn how to trust others and understand that you actually have the power to change things when you have spent so long feeling helpless. It takes practice to forgive and forget the past, especially when many encourage you to cling to it.
Do not be a victim. I am living proof that you can exit the pit with dignity. Just because someone has done you wrong, you are not lessened; you are not broken. We are more than the sum of our experiences. You do not need to wear your victimization for the rest of your life. You deserve the right to seek happiness. Never forget that. My stepfather was a bad man who did terrible things. But, in the end, he was only a man—with feet of clay.