≈ Prologue: Rivers of Detail, Oceans of Fog
It's one of the good memories. My father is bending over the hull of the upturned boat, picking out the old caulking, scraping away at last year’s paint and barnacles. He uses a putty knife to push ropes of smelly, tarry oakum into the cracks. He will paint the boat gray, with a rusty fouling-resistant paint on the underwater part to keep the barnacles from slowing it down.
The fierce sweating sun is trapped on the oyster-shell shore between the steep bank and the water, making an island of heat. My father wears cut-off pants and one of those ribbed cotton undershirts with the thin straps. His shoulder muscles bunch and his freckled skin is red. He has a cap to protect his balding scalp, or else he has tied a handkerchief at the corners to make a rough covering. He swears occasionally when the knife slips.
I come near him and poke at the soft blisters of gray paint. I can only stand the heat for a short while, but I scrape until my eight-year-old arms get tired. Then I walk out onto the wooden dock to watch the tide come in and the little fishes swim. The sun-bleached scene is clear: the brown leather sandals I have to wear against the sharp oyster shells, the scarred wooden sawhorses holding up the boat, the strands of brown seaweed doodling the high tide mark, even the nails in the cedar posts of the dock. Hours of pleasure and idleness.
I HAVE OTHER MEMORIES, blurred in a sickly fog. Urgent night voices behind closed doors. “What can we do about it?” “There’s nothing we can do.” “She’s too young to remember; she’ll be all right.” And memories murkier still, fastened into my spine and pelvis with binding force, huge with emotion, no pictures.
When the foggy memories arrived, they rocked my world, forcing me to ask dizzying questions: What is truth and how do I know it? Is it in the Kodak-sharp image? In the wrenching gut, the nausea? How do I keep the clear-cut detail and also give the nebulous shadow its weight, neither denying the other?
This is the story of how the past overtook me, how I found help, and how at last I integrated the shadows of my childhood into my life. In the process, I found unexpected love, joy, and freedom.
≈ Introduction: Unintended Consequences
I didn’t intend to become a writer or an artist. I didn’t intend to grab at an early retirement offer and leave teaching, a job that I loved. I certainly didn’t intend to find out about childhood incest. These days I spend my mornings writing poetry or fiction, or painting abstract canvases. Those days, I got up hurriedly, checked my to-do lists, grabbed my briefbag already loaded with student papers and lecture notes, and headed off to the office.
I would not have moved from there to here without the raging crisis in the middle. It began with an unsolicited memory from age three. After the first memory came, I wrestled with doubt about whether anything at all had happened to me as a child.
I didn’t intend to spend several years immersed in the waters of my psyche, but my emotions left me no choice. My lifelines were my therapist, my friends, and my creative outlets. My therapist taught me to listen to the voice of the little girl inside me who had been molested and who felt intensely abandoned by both parents.
Currents of ancient emotions swept through me. In therapy and in my daily life, I crawled through thickets of mistrust and bogs of shame. I was enraged at people who trampled my boundaries. And yet I functioned well at work and kept up friendships. Slowly, my focus shifted away from the misery and need of the child inside me. As I began to trust my therapist’s love and acceptance, I gained a sense of being a sturdy, worthy person who had already survived the worst.
I wouldn’t have called it creativity at first. I simply needed to write in my journal every day, keeping track of my feelings as they swirled. I’d sit at the kitchen table and let my pen race uncensored. But words were limiting, too. When I was abused at ages three to six, I didn’t have words for what happened. Fifty years later I needed to involve the wordless, unscientific parts of my mind in the work of recovery. I took up pastels and scribbled dark, angry pages full of red and black. And I took my body-memories and reactions to the dance studio to act them out.
Other people have written moving stories of childhood abuse, detailing the trauma of their early years. Although I have plenty of childhood memories, I do not have clear recollections of the abuse, only fragments and body memories. It’s the adult experience of healing, with all its human messiness, that is the core of this memoir. Because it focuses on self-discovery, love, and creativity, I hope this book will also be useful to many individuals with differing backgrounds who undertake the inner journey of self-knowledge.
I am still my mother’s daughter—the persistence and discipline, the stubbornness. I am still my father’s daughter—the quest for something more, dashing off on new projects, the inventiveness. But I am my own daughter as well, the beloved creative child. This is the story of my transformation.
≈ Chapter One: Pandora's Box
The memory emerged from a dim corner of my mind, jolting me awake. It was a humid morning in August 1995. The air flowed softly through the bedroom window, bringing in a catbird’s song from the cherry tree just outside. I sat up in bed and propped a pillow behind me, grabbed my spiral-bound journal from its place on the bedside table, and began scribbling:
I am three or four and I hurt between my legs. I’m perched on the toilet in the big bathroom in our house at Shell Beach. The door is opposite me and the light streams in from the window on my right. I feel the sting when I pee. My mother says that I slipped in the bathtub and fell on the bathtub rim. I have no memory of anything that caused the hurt, but I know I don’t believe her story of how it happened.
Fear sank its claws into my stomach. I wondered what had happened and who had hurt me.
No way. Surely not. Not my father. I don’t know how to tell what’s true. I don’t want to make things up.
This was Revelation Day, the day that started me on a long journey into my past. How did it happen that a 52-year-old woman suddenly woke up to the possibility of long-ago abuse? What had kept the issues at bay so long? Why could the past now grab me by the throat?
At that point I had been divorced for ten years, after a long marriage. I had a college-age son, several good friends, and stable family ties. My father had died a year previously at the age of 83, after a long illness with Parkinson’s disease. My elderly mother lived alone about two hours away from my home.
* * *
I was a scientist. Evidence was my bread and butter. Even though I’d moved on from laboratory research to administration, there was nothing I liked better than a juicy set of numbers. Scientific arguments could be fierce and competitive, but they were based on demonstrable facts. I didn’t yet realize there was knowledge more important than facts.
I taught organic chemistry at a liberal arts college and was successful in my work. I loved the give-and-take of classroom teaching as well as the opportunity to guide individual students’ lives. Department politics were more difficult. I had just been passed over for the position of department chair.
It was an odd process. After the faculty met to discuss the candidates, it was clear that a younger man and I were the top choices.
Two women faculty were the steering committee for the process. One of them, Rebecca, pulled me into her office and closed the door. “We have some concerns about you as chair,” she said.
I planted my feet on the floor and prepared for the punch.
“You’re too pushy. Harry and some others said that if you were chair, they’d have to get their grades in on time.”
“This is a problem?”
“You come on too strong in a bunch of ways; that’s just one. Now, if you could write a memo to everyone in the department to let them know that you recognize your problem and you promise to soften, I think you’d have a good chance.”
“No, I’m not going to do that.”
I didn’t get the position. The public Jane was plenty assertive about ideas and principles, but I slowly came to know parts of myself that were frightened and quiet.
* * *
The people who weren’t at the party were as important as the ones who were. The smell of broiling bluefish filled the kitchen and dining room of my mother Myra’s modest home that July day, a month before my revelation. My sister Kathy bustled around the kitchen, my mother stood in the doorway to the dining room with her hands on her hips, Kathy’s husband and my son sat around in the living room, while I finished setting the table. The sounds of traffic filtered in through the window screens and lingered like dust on the family silver a hundred years old, sterling remnants of my father’s old Baltimore ancestors. My family was small, just my parents and their three daughters. Grandparents, aunts, and cousins had always been distant, both geographically and emotionally.
My mother, whose birthday we were celebrating, was 82 that year, her back hunched, her hair streaming back gray from her lined, pleasant face with its oversized glasses. She would have been bustling like my sister, except she was not allowed to do that on her celebration day, so she stood and watched us be busy, reminding us of any detail we overlooked.
Absent, of course, was the father whose great-grandfather’s portrait was on the wall, whose Uncle Matthew’s chairs were pulled up around the family table. He had last been seen here five years ago, trembling and pale-faced with Parkinson’s, the disease robbing him of his expressions and his words. The first anniversary of his death fell the day after my mother’s birthday, but we would not talk about that.
I’d always been on good terms with my parents. I visited them about once a month as my father aged and became incapacitated. Finally a fall and a broken hip sent him to the nursing home, which was both unfortunate and a great relief. My mother, a tiny woman, had been taking care of everything, including helping him in and out of bed, doing all the cooking and cleaning, and all his personal care. After his accident I continued to travel down to visit both of them, wheeling him out of his dim room at the smelly nursing home and outside to the patio whenever possible. He never came back to the house in the four years between his fall and his death.
My older sister, Suzie, was also not at the party. She had been pushed out of the nest at age three because of her Down syndrome. Back in the 1940s, of course, virtually no one kept a Mongolian idiot at home. She was sent away to a special private school in upstate New York, where a woman with a cushiony bosom mothered all of her 30 retarded chicks with impartially warm regard. Now Suzie lived 20 minutes away in a foster home. She watched TV and did needlepoint, was proud of her work at a sheltered workshop. And yet each time my mother’s birthday came around, Mother said, “Oh, let’s not invite Suzie. It’s too complicated.”
Finally the dinner was ready and we called in my son, Will, and Kathy’s husband, Richard, from the living room. It was a bit awkward figuring out who would sit at the head of the table, where my father had always sat, even though he hadn’t been there for five years. My mother settled it with a directive—“Kathy, why don’t you sit there and serve?”—rather than mention his absence. Kathy, Richard, and I made trivial conversation during dinner while Myra and my son were characteristically quiet.
The next day I was alone with my mother. We did not converse much, but she gave me many chores to do. In the few months surrounding my father’s death, she had been open to talking about him, but now when I asked something about how she was feeling without him, she said, “Oh, I don’t like to think about that. I’m fine.”
* * *
It took me a long time to understand the importance of the sister who wasn’t there. As I grew up on the sidewalks and in the scrubby backyards of my Connecticut neighborhood, the kids asked, “Don’t you have any brothers and sisters?” Most of them were from sizable Catholic families.
“No, I don’t,” I said awkwardly, thinking of my sister, Suzie, and my family’s trips to see her in the summer. Kathy was not born until I was 15, so I grew up like an only child. When I started school my mother told me, “When kids ask, just tell them you don’t have any brothers or sisters. It’s a lot easier than explaining that she’s retarded and she doesn’t live with us.”
In fifth grade I told my best friend about Suzie. We had a pact that she wouldn’t tell on me and I wouldn’t mention her wearing glasses. One day in a pique I called her a “four-eyed dinosaur.” In retaliation she told the other kids, “Jane’s sister is a retard,” and they teased me. I challenged her to a fistfight, my one and only fight in elementary school, and bloodied her nose for telling my secret.
All through my growing up I saw Suzie about once a year, on our trips to the school in the bucolic village where the Down syndrome kids played on swings and talked in their strange slurred accent. The school taught them the basics of reading and writing—a stunning innovation for the 1940s. When this wonderful school changed hands, my parents brought Suzie back to Connecticut to be cared for within the state system. My mother said proudly that Suzie was queen of the roost at the state institution for the few weeks she was there, before she was placed in a foster home.
I thought that Suzie was just a tiny part of my life, a distant figure to be taken for granted. Then one spring day in 1991 I walked into a local card shop to pick out a birthday card to send to Suzie. Under the fluorescent lights, I stepped sideways to browse the birthday cards. To my sister, for all the memories we’ve shared. Nope. My dear sister—the giggles, the tears, the hopes, the fears. Not true for us. Sis, my best friend, my companion. No, no, and no! To my surprise I felt tears of frustration welling up—I had a sister who was not a sister. I chose a generic card from the kid section to send.
I brought my distress to Sarah the next day. She was the therapist I’d been seeing for two years at that point and the one who would guide me through so many years of work. She had an office on the main street of my small town. I entered and shut the door on the traffic sounds. As I waited, I scanned the familiar objects in the room. Her many educational certificates and diplomas were framed on the wall, along with photographs of trees and a sketch of a woman holding a child. A large wooden bookshelf held the psychology books she freely lent to her clients, a collection ranging from Gestalt therapy to family dynamics books to popular self-help. I noticed a new rock crystal, smoky yellow, on the table next to her chair. Her new-age stuff was just a little outside my comfort zone.
Sarah walked in wearing her usual garb—loose, colorful rayon pants and a soft shirt. She was a slender woman about my age with graying wavy hair and alert brown eyes. After we greeted each other, I told Sarah how I’d felt at the card store.
“Of course, she’s your sister.”
“But I don’t remember a thing about her. She was only three when she was sent away.”
“How old were you?”
“Two. Really, too young to remember.”
Sarah made a note on her yellow pad, then looked at me with sadness in her eyes. “But just the right age to suffer from a separation. Can you recall any feelings about her?”
“When she was little, not even a glimpse. Mostly I remember the trips to see her in upstate New York, every summer. We’d drive up through the Catskills and have a couple days of vacation on the way. Then we’d visit her at the school.”
“How did you feel when you saw her?”
“I didn’t feel much, it seemed like. But now…” I reached for the Kleenex and wiped away some tears.
“Are you willing to try something?”
“What kind of thing?”
“I think some contact with your younger self could be really helpful here.”
“I don’t know.” She could probably hear the skepticism in my voice. “I can’t remember anything from that time.”
“Sometimes we remember more than we think we do, when we let it come bit by bit. It helps to do a little light hypnosis, if you are willing.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” I had always been curious about hypnosis.
“Get comfortable,” she said. I shifted a little in my chair. “Now just breathe. One, getting relaxed… Two, going deeper inside.”
Voices in my head said, This is hokey. Why am I doing this? I noticed a cloudy feeling of relaxation. A quiet space opened up inside my mind, while my thoughts still circulated.
“Now let your mind go back to an early time in your childhood. Can you remember some place clearly?”
I remembered back through my teen years of social embarrassments, academic successes, school friends. Junior high, classroom scenes, and buses. Grade school and the house by the river. “Yes, I can see my room in the house where I’m maybe seven years old. There is my bed by the window on the wall that faces the street, a chenille bedspread, the Venetian blinds. The big wooden phonograph player and the cabinet with the 78 RPM records.” It was clear in my mind, even though it shifted a little, as the furniture had probably been shifted around.
“Can you feel yourself in that place?”
“Yes, it feels real.” I floated through the familiar rooms of my childhood.
“Good. Now see if you can go back further in time.”
“Don’t worry, just breathe and let it come. See if you can get any feeling from the time that Suzie was there.”
“I can’t…it’s…no pictures. It’s long before grade school. We must have been living in New Jersey but I don’t see…” I spoke slowly from a dream state. I had a vague sense of large grown-ups moving around a sofa in a room.
“Let anything come…”
“I just have this feeling of hugging someone. A solid, soft body right here…” I placed my hands on my stomach and chest. The sensation of warm pressure was comforting and familiar. I started to cry. Sarah made a slight, encouraging sound.
“I think I…she…she was there. That’s what I remember, someone to hug.” I sniffled and reached for another Kleenex. “They took her away! My sister!”
“It’s true. You were little and they took her away.”
“Oh, I miss her! She never came back.” After a few minutes I sighed and opened my eyes, finding my way back to the solidity of Sarah’s office, glancing out the window at the budding trees. I had been far away.
“Suzie was a comfort,” I said. “She was my big sister.”
“I think you loved her a lot. I think it was very hard when she was taken away.”
“But they had to do it.”
“Probably they needed to, but it doesn’t mean that you had to like it.”
“And they didn’t want me to be sad about it. Somehow I know that. My mother especially. She was sad herself but she didn’t know how to comfort me. She tried to make me cheer up. I was only two!”
“Just when you needed their help. That’s exactly how the child learns not to have feelings. It’s how a young part of you gets split off.”
“The little one who is not allowed to have those feelings becomes kind of stuck back there. The purpose of the inner child work is to get in touch with her and bring her back into your life.”
The experience felt powerful, but I didn’t know whether to trust it. It certainly wasn’t like science, where everyone could see the evidence.
* * *
I was thinking of quitting therapy, that summer before Revelation Day. In the previous four years I’d worked with my feelings about Suzie and other family patterns, and I thought I’d had enough. I was doing fine. Work was all right despite its ups and downs. Friends and family were steady.
On a sticky day in July I entered Sarah’s office, which was now in the basement of her house. I sat there on the clunky but comfortable tweed couch, waiting for her to come in and looking out into the jungly green backyard. She was late, as usual. I arrived promptly and as I waited, I wished she’d show her caring by coming on time. This day I was nervous because I had told her I might want to end. I wondered whether I had to tell her that I hadn’t been feeling close to her lately. I was afraid to challenge her, to risk the fragile thread that seemed to connect us.
Sarah walked in with a folder of notes and said hello. She settled in her customary chair, offered me a glass of water, and took a sip from her tea. She looked at me both keenly and sympathetically. It was that combination of quick intelligence and warmth that had attracted me to her as a therapist. “When you started with me in 1989, it was about four years after your divorce. The divorce itself didn’t seem to be on your mind that much. You came in with distress about some conflicts at work, I remember.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
“You said right away that you didn’t want me to hassle you about relationships—do you remember?”
“I do remember. Some of my friends were on my case about finding a lover, and I didn’t want a therapist bugging me, too.”
“Well, I certainly don’t want to push you about finding a partner or anything like that, but how do you feel about the kinds of support and intimacy you have in your life? Does it feel like enough to you?”
I admitted that I did not feel enough intimacy in my life, not enough close friends. I wished I could be closer to my mother and my much-younger sister, Kathy, but was rebuffed when I tried to talk about emotions. I had to acknowledge that relationships were a problem area, worth working on. I didn’t talk about my reservations about Sarah, because her attentiveness that day reassured me. I was back on board for more therapy, not knowing that the boat was headed for the rapids.
* * *
Pandora’s box—that was the image that plagued me as I thought about relationships. In the fairy tale as I remember it, the young girl Pandora is shown a little box and told she must never open it. One day, while the grownups are away, she of course opens the box. All manner of evil things fly out of the box and into the world: Pestilence, War, Poverty, and Meanness. Last of all, Hope flies out to keep humans going.
The moral of the tale, in Hawthorne’s version that I read as a child, is that little girls need to obey and not mess with closed boxes. Later I did some library research and found that the original Pandora may have been an all-giving and very powerful goddess, who was later tamed and relegated to the role of naughty girl.
I was furious that the grownups blamed Pandora for all the evils in the world. Meanwhile, they had created the setup to lure her into “wrongdoing.” I wrote in my journal:
Pandora. They left her all alone, and in her loneliness she opened that box. When they came back, they knew from the ugliness that came into the world that she, all by herself, alone and only, had opened that box.
And I? What is in the box for me? I am so bad that people pull away from me, they flee. Am I shut up in the box for this? Everyone is right to be scared of me, no wonder they keep me in a box.
Before she opened the box, they say, there were no troubles in the world, no lies, no sharp teeth, no sorrow. And they expect me to believe that that this fully grown world, with castles and mysterious chests, had no troubles, no pain, no deceit? Oh no, they blamed it on her, but they had put the box there. They knew all about it. It makes me feel dizzy.
And what has this to do with intimacy? With my feeling of hideous wrongness? I must be the contents of the box, I must be the girl to blame.
A few days before Revelation Day, I was sitting across from Sarah and wondering where to start when she asked, “How do you feel now about working on relationships?”
“I’m scared.” I looked down. “I don’t understand. I didn’t have a bad childhood. I should be able to love and attract people.”
“What’s wrong with me?” I asked her. I was surprised at the intensity of the fear that knotted my stomach.
“Can you reframe that and defuse it a bit?” She leaned forward and looked concerned. “You’re being hard on yourself.”
“I can’t. That’s the way it really feels. Putting other words on it won’t make it feel different. I feel like I’m bad and it makes me lonely.”
“Why don’t you go back in time and see if the little girl inside can tell you about her feelings?”
“OK.” I sighed.
“Just breathe and let your attention settle in deeper. Go back as far as you wish.”
I could see my grade-school self back inside the dim rooms of the big house by the river. “I feel sad and angry. I know I’m not supposed to feel this way.”
“Nothing much is coming. I still just feel wrong and bad, that there’s something wrong with me.”
“Just let things come.”
I caught a fleeting image of sitting on the toilet in the bathroom in our earlier house. It seemed trivial so I let it pass by without saying anything. Then I felt dizzy as a cloud took over my consciousness. My eyes were closed and I spoke from a distance. “Sarah, I feel the fog again. It is red and huge.”
Feelings of blurriness had been coming up for a while, intense sensations of dizziness and disorientation. I was blinded by gray or colored fog. Sometimes in therapy I felt lost for long periods of time. Later, Sarah used the word “dissociation” to describe my state. Over time I began to notice fog creeping in when I would get close to something that my defenses did not want me to know.
In that session where Sarah invited my inner child to help us with the question of relationships, nothing much seemed to happen. There was the blur, and three days later, the revelation.