Surfacing long buried images,
Or tortuous present day lies?
I must be evil to think such things
They didn’t happen
They couldn’t possibly have happened.
Then why the terror in my eyes
Why the howls of grief and rage,
The tear streaked face?
I feel no status in this.
Mostly only shame and self punishment.
At a time when I was too small to handle it
I put everything in a drawer, locked it
And threw away the key.
The only way for a little one to cope you see.
Nearly forty years on events conspired
To jemmy open the drawer.
Frantic efforts to stem the tide of pain
End in failure.
As this time I realise;
“The only way out is through”
One thing that puzzled me a lot of the time as I worked through the whole thing was that I didn’t appear to have any clear-cut visual memories, or at least something concrete and tangible that I could trust to be true. It was as if I couldn’t trust that anything I was experiencing had any basis in truth unless I could remember something clear cut from my past that I could say with confidence “Yes, that did happen”.
One of my counsellors eventually pointed out to me that that wouldn’t necessarily be the case that memory comes to us in all forms, such as touch, smell, taste, sounds and bodily sensations and feelings, and much of this could also appear quite disjointed and unconnected with any particular incident. How do we really know that any memory is true or valid anyway? Even those that we experience as good memories, with all the attendant good feelings? We can only trust ourselves, that things did actually happen and that what we are experiencing as a memory is true and valid. Yes, we can get verification from people who were around at the same time but it has to be taken into account that their experience of the situation will probably be totally different from our own, with much of the information distorted or even blocked from memory, particularly if the incident was hurtful and damaging to them. Which it quite possibly may have been, since it’s difficult to even witness someone else being hurt without feeling hurt and degraded ourselves.
The strongest sensation I had much of the time while being counselled, and for a long time on a day to day basis, was of being very small and vulnerable and terrified that huge creatures were trying to kill me. This does have a logic to it since as a baby the adults around me would have appeared quite big and, depending on what was happening at the time, I could have felt that my life was in danger and simply associated that with the adults around me even if they were not responsible.
I spent much of my time as a client literally doubled up on the floor in a self-protective posture. Often I couldn’t bear people touching me. One sensation I had felt as if someone or something had tried to physically compress my body from foot to head, pushing my head into my chest in the process (a later conversation with my mother revealed that I had been a difficult birth, in her words “You didn’t want to be born”).
I did have some vague visual imagery. One of being in a field in the sunshine and of feeling attacked by bigger people that I identified as female. The other of being anally and orally penetrated by an older male. However, I still don’t trust these images. One of the problems I have at the moment is that when I look back on this period (now two years on) I realise that as a client I was extremely vulnerable and to some extent possibly susceptible to suggestion. A couple of my counsellors were incest survivors themselves and at times, and this is purely my opinion, were far too ready to point out the correlations between my experience and the currently available data on incestuous abuse. However, one of the commonest traits of incest survivors, apparently, is that of denial to self and others that anything happened at all. It’s possible that I may need to trust my gut here and explore these images further. At this point I’m still uncertain. Some fairly strong evidence did come to light though, that would point to the possibility that some form of traumatic event may have taken place in my infancy.
I happen to be the eldest child of a second marriage and part of the way through all this it dawned on me that no-one in the family ever talked about my mother’s first husband. He was quite simply never mentioned, and in all of my life I had never considered asking any questions about him. The only bit of information about him that I picked up as a child was that he died in a house fire while trying to rescue his second set of children.
I decided to try and talk to my mother about him. I set the scene one day by opening the bottom drawer of an old writing bureau of my fathers in which I knew were kept all the family photographs. I opened up the dialogue by suggesting that it was a shame that very few of the photo’s were labelled in anyway. I began asking who was who, eventually getting to an old tattered sepia print of what looked like a school classroom group shot. He was on it. At this point I asked the proverbial 64 thousand dollar question, “You know mum, you’ve never ever talked about him. What was he like?” With my mother’s outpourings at this point I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh or jump for joy. I felt like I imagine a detective must feel when a piece of evidence suddenly slots into place.
It turned out that he was incestuous. I sat and listened to the story of how he had made his own sister pregnant while married to my mother. Of how the first my mother knew of this was when his sister turned up on the doorstep one day to explain the situation. Of how my mother’s mother-in-law warned her never to leave him alone with the children and how my mother couldn’t understand why he often wanted to sleep with one of my older step sisters. Here was an incredible affirmation that there might be some validity in everything I was working through. The odds that something may actually have happened to me soared.
Recent research into child abuse and in particular child sexual abuse has revealed a conspiracy of silence within many families where it exists. I’ve tried to put myself in my mother’s position of over fifty years ago, as a mother with a young family who had just been confronted with the knowledge that her husband was possibly sexually abusing her children. Right now in the enlightened 1990s we are stunned and sickened that such things can and do happen. In the late 1930s I can only guess at what my mother’s response might have been. Shock, disbelief, anger? Who would she turn to? Male dominated local authorities, even if they believed her story, would probably have blamed her for not doing enough to satisfy her husband’s needs and thus forcing him to turn to his children and other women. They would probably have taken her children away from her and placed them into care for their own protection. There would also be the shaming and condemnation from her own family and community to be considered, so it seems to me that silence at that point in time would probably have seemed the most rational option available.
I suspect that my mother waited for an opportunity to separate and ultimately divorce her first husband. After this the main aim, I’m sure, would have been to put the whole painful period behind her and start afresh with a new life. So the episode was probably blotted out by the entire family and never talked about.
Unfortunately at that time my mother would not have had the information we now have concerning child sexual abuse. That if her first husband did actually abuse her children, and there seems to be fairly strong evidence that suggests that may have been the case, then that may not necessarily have been the end of the story.
When an adult abuses a child in any way or form it can be seen as a misuse of power. Small children have an almost blind faith and sense of trust in the adults around them and will generally look to those adults for guidance and support until they get to the point where they can make informed choices and decisions independently of those adults. If an adult betrays that trust by committing a sexual act with the child before the child is physically or emotionally ready to make an informed choice, then they are in a way removing some of the child’s sense of power and control over it’s own life.
I hold a belief that humans have an innate and natural propensity towards complete power over their own lives. So it seems logical to me that any child who has had their power taken away from them in some way will seek to reclaim it given the opportunity. If a parent had the ability to become invisible and placed themselves in the school playground of their own child, they may be quite shocked and embarrassed to witness their child scolding or smacking smaller children in the same way that they may have punished their child. I view this simply as an attempt by the child to reclaim some of it’s power by taking it in the same way it was taken from them by an adult-from someone smaller, weaker and more vulnerable than them.
There is now a fair body of evidence to suggest that sexual abuse is inflicted on children in the same way. A child who is sexually abused in infancy may, when it becomes capable of sexual activity, take the opportunity to reclaim this piece of lost power by committing a sexual act with another infant or child.
There was roughly a ten year gap between the birth of the fifth child of my mother’s first marriage and my birth. This would mean that my older step siblings would have been in early puberty. I have conjectured that at some point, probably out of sight of my mother, I may have been incorporated in some form of adolescent experimentation that may have seemed entirely innocent to them but could have been quite distressing for me.
Apart from the possibility of a single (or maybe multiple) traumatic event in my infancy I became aware, as I counselled, of other factors that may have contributed to my later life insecurity and confusion around women.
Again trying to put myself in my mother’s place in the 1940s, I wonder about the effect that the relationship with her first husband would have had on her and how that would have translated into her attitudes to childcare. Would she have become anxious, possibly over-protective? Would she be frightened of touching her children and of allowing anyone else to touch them in case the limits of normal affection and nurturing were over-stepped again? Suddenly finding herself as a single parent at a time when there was minimal support for someone in that position, particularly someone with five children, how was she to survive? The only realistic option at that time for any woman who wasn’t wealthy was to re-marry. Given the hard earned lessons of her first choice of husband who, from my mother’s description of him, was unfaithful, dishonest and sexually compulsive, it doesn’t surprise me at all that she would have chosen my father as a suitable second husband.
My father came across as someone who had few, if any, grey areas at all. He had an almost rigid moral framework that he lived by. Once he had taken on the responsibility of a ready made family, he would have committed himself to what he would have seen as his job within that family unit, namely that of breadwinner. In those post war years gender roles were strictly divided and I suspect that the only contribution he believed he needed to make towards childcare would have been as occasional disciplinarian.
While my father could not have been seen as a macho male, neither could he be considered, to use the current vernacular, a “new man”. In choosing my father as a second husband my mother had picked out someone who was emotionally and sexually repressed. Dad was definitely not the cuddling and nurturing type of man that we are seeing more and more of today. In fact I had never seen him so much as kiss my mother, let alone witness them curled up on the sofa together to watch a good old fashioned weepy on the box.
The point I’m getting to here is that it was left to my mother to provide all of the nurturing and emotional security that any infant needs in the first couple of years of it’s life. From my perspective as an infant however, something went wrong here too.
From my mother’s description of her own childhood it seemed to me that she had suffered a fairly repressed upbringing herself. Her father in particular seemed to have a pretty Victorian attitude to child rearing, even banning laughter from the household. I wonder now if the combination of her upbringing and a marriage that was emotionally unstable wouldn’t have left it’s scars, leaving her shut down and depressed.
Much of the early terror and grief that I began to work through seemed to be around my mother. Or more precisely the absence of my mother. Even when I had a sense of her physical presence I felt as though there was some form of emotional absence. I did have a sense occasionally that she was trying to understand me but since the time period I was in was too early for me to have developed language, all I could do was scream out my despair and frustration. I think that probably all I was looking for was to be picked up and held but I don’t think it ever happened. In fact I have no memories of being held or cuddled by my mother at all.
Over three consecutive days I wrote three passages in my notebook relating to the feelings around my mother that I was working through at the time:
“Mother you failed me. Oh, you probably weren’t to blame,
maybe didn’t even know. But at crucial periods in my life you
just weren’t there. You let me down. I was helpless. All was
chaos and fear to me. Didn’t you know? Couldn’t you put yourself
in the position of someone just born? I didn’t know what I was
let alone who I was. I came from a world that was totally safe,
warm and nurturing, into something alien, cold and harsh. The
experience was devastating. I needed you more than anyone else at
that time and you let me down consistently, not only then but
throughout my life. You were just never there. I needed you to
hold me, to see me through. Instead I faced every experience,
every trauma, totally alone. The shock to my psyche was so great
that I had to numb myself emotionally. It was the only path left
open to survive. But I’ve decided I just can’t live with it any
longer. It’s just living life as death. No wonder I consider
suicide. One doesn’t seem much different from the other, so it’s
an easy choice to make.
I keep hoping I can push through it and find life. It’s
amazing that something that so many people seem to find easy ie,
living and just feeling alive, seems such a difficult option to
The following day I suffered a panic attack in work and tried to describe what was happening in my notebook:
“Morning. The awful feelings again. All is chaos and
confusion mentally. Torturing thoughts and happenings. Babyhood
again. Like a mouse in a busy kitchen full of shouting and
clatter. Please God make the hurting stop. Just feel torn apart.
No logical thread. Just hurting terribly. All I want is comfort
and peace.I need to nurture the baby within, because he just
didn’t get enough!”
In the third passage I seemed to be reaching for some form of understanding and reconciliation:
“I love you mother. I sensed your struggle, but I was
helpless to do anything about it. I just ended up carrying your
pain as well as mine. I wanted to help you, to help me. I
struggled to communicate but we just didn’t understand each
other. I don’t think I was ready to leave you. Just not ready to
separate. But that decision was taken out of my hands. Somewhere
though, because it wasn’t my choice, I’ve been hanging on
desperately, for fear of imminent death if I should let go.
Sometimes now though, I get glimpses not of death but of life and
freedom and joy. A sort of relaxed, delightful, excitement in
Looking back now I realise that as a baby, far from being the empty and unintelligent vessel that many people in the fifties believed that babies were, I was actually highly aware of everything that was going on around me. I recognised my own needs and realised that they weren’t being met because the person I was dependent on was confused and distressed herself. In order to survive, I tried to take on the responsibility of helping my mother. I was then, however, confronted with my own limitations of lack of language, lack of knowledge of my mother’s past, lack of physical mobility, and everything else that would suddenly confront a tiny human being thrown into the alien world of adults.
“So much damage gets done in the first couple of years of
life. I’m convinced now that everything that holds me down and
cripples me emotionally in the present was laid in place at that
time. My mother’s absence when I needed her, the lack of
attention, touch and nurturing led to my tremendous insecurity
carried through my life. My confusion about who and what I am was
part of the same thing. If my mother left the room I felt like
part of me had gone. Death always seemed imminent. My fear of women,
particularly aggressive or authoritarian women, was laid in by
the abuse incident. My powerlessness and seeming inability to
walk away from situations I find intolerable were also laid in at
that time, since I couldn’t physically remove myself from the
situation at that time, it actually feels like that now. My
emotional discomfort about teasing or women laughing collusively
about me, also probably comes from the same incident. My
desperate need to understand, stems from my belief that if I
could understand the situation ie, get the information I needed
or find out what it was I had done wrong, then I could put the
situation right and stop the person I so desperately needed from
withdrawing and leaving me to die.”
Looking back on my later childhood, I can remember more clearly many other attitudes to child-rearing that would be seen as inappropriate now. It seemed to be a common practice to leave babies feeding on their own from a bottle propped on a pillow, a practice it seems to me which could only serve to re-inforce any sense of isolation that a baby might already have. Gripe water was still in use quite late into the fifties and I can remember watching this alcoholic liquid being spoon-fed to crying babies almost routinely, and when this wasn’t available a tot of brandy in the milk would serve the same purpose. It was also accepted practice at that time to leave a baby to, “cry itself to sleep”, a phrase I heard often in my childhood. What a simple and effective method this seems to be for convincing any beginning personality that it is ultimately powerless to do anything about it’s situation, when the one method it has for attracting attention to its plight is simply ignored. The general attitude of adults at this time seemed to be that babies were empty vessels with no will of their own, that they had to be moulded to fit in with the adult world around them. Rarely the other way around.
None of these methods were ever actually meant to do any harm to the child at all. Every single adult, parent or not, aims to be the best possible model of an adult human around every single child. The problem is that virtually every adult in current societies has ended up with, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the individual’s life history, a distorted view of life and the world around them. Much adult behaviour towards children is rationalised as being for the good of the child, whether it is or not. So through a combination of accident, unintentional and intentional behaviour believed to be benign in my infancy, I ended up with several negative viewpoints about myself and the world around me:
1. That as a person in my own right I didn’t exist.
2. I didn’t develop a true sense of self, of something
solid at the centre of me that I could be confident was
3. My self esteem has been virtually zero for most of my life.
4. I’ve carried a constant sense of failure even
though most of everything I’ve ever done in my life
I’ve carried through to some form of positive conclusion.
5. Because very early on in my life women quite literally
held the power of life and death over me, and because
of everything that went wrong with that early
relationship, I ended up with a fear of women. This
was coupled with a desperation to get close to them
and understand them in order to stave off the rejection
I always felt was just around the corner.