By Anne Penniston Grunsted
In a lifetime of moments, most are quickly forgotten. Only a tiny number are retained, and most of these are filed away in our mind, reminiscences that can be pulled out or put away as desired. But a few, our very most profound moments, transcend the vagaries of memory and etch themselves into our very brain. They become part of us, always present. My etchings include the moment my son emerged from my partner’s womb, the phone call telling me my father was dead, the day my mother looked away when she could have stopped me from being raped.
The day my mother didn’t protect me.
It happened when I was five or six. One of my older siblings had recently run away from home, an act of defiance that left my mother reeling. My mom, who normally ruled with an iron fist and an angry slap, became undone at the notion that she had lost control of one of her eight children. Anxiety consumed her. She literally became sick with it; for months she could not leave the house without experiencing a severe case of diarrhea. Overwhelmed, she disconnected. And we children who hadn’t yet grown up and achieved separateness from her, were stuck in the house, stagnating, afraid to disturb her.
My father was a warm and hard-working man, but completely out of his depth with respect to my mother’s issues. He kept a careful distance from the drama in the household, so careful that I never considered asking for his help in any matter concerning my mother. I knew she would fiercely retaliate against me if I dared circumvent her authority, and he would never be vigilant enough to protect me from her.
My mother had long assigned many of the tasks related to my care to my older siblings, and during this time of turmoil, she assigned my brother the job of turning on the water for my nightly shower. It was a ridiculous chore, one I was more than capable of doing. But that’s what anxiety can do; she was irrationally worried I would burn myself and so overlooked the very real problem of having an eleven-year-old boy supervise a small girl’s bath time.
Every evening he forced me to undress in front of him.
When I argued that he should turn on the water and leave before I undressed, he said that if I didn’t do what he said, he would tell our mother. And in those days, the angry attention of my mother was still the worst scenario my mind could conjure.
So I did what I was told, to keep the peace.
But it’s the things that your mind can’t imagine that become the basis for the most difficult kinds of anxiety. As I sought to avoid my mother’s negative attention, fear of my brother was exerting ever-increasing pressure inside of me, demanding release. I lived in constant dread and with the growing certainty that something terrible awaited me beyond the undressing in front of him. I was too young to understand what that something was, but my fear of it and him soon eclipsed my desire to escape my mother’s attention.
And so, after a few weeks of the undressing, I turned to her.
And thus begins the moment that changed my life forever, an instance of immeasurable harm.
I approached my mother, trying to be casual, trying not to upset her. “Can I take my shower by myself?” I asked.
“No. You’ll burn yourself.”
“But I don’t like him helping me.” And then I paused, taking a giant leap into the unknown, telling her as much as I had the words for. “He makes me undress in front of him.” My casualness gave way to uncontrollable sobbing.
My mother’s jaw clenched and her eyes hardened at my revelation. She did not misunderstand what I was telling her, but if the truth had penetrated her conscience for a moment,it was quickly, and by sheer force of will, expelled from her mind.
As if to emphasize her rejection of my plight, she physically turned away from me, denying me comfort. She said nothing to me, then or ever.
And she chose not to save me.
Instead she called to my brother who was listening from the next room and told him to “knock it off.” That was the final word, the only discussion.
Now, “knock it off” is an appropriate rebuke when your child has thrown a tennis ball against the side of the house for the hundredth time, or is laughing uncontrollably because someone has passed gas in church. It is not how you stop a pedophile. That requires engagement, and my mother had none of that for me.
She did not stop the shower ritual. She never listened outside the bathroom door to see if I was safe. I don’t know if she ever gave the moment a second thought. And because of her inaction, my abuse continued, and then worsened.
When, a few months later, the terror moved from the bathroom to my bedroom, I chose not to risk another rejection from her and instead learned to disassociate while my brother stuck his hands between my legs and fondled me. I recited the rosary obsessively, dozens of times a day, the repetition numbing my mind and the prayers acting as my penance.
A couple of years later, after my brother lay on top of me and penetrated me, I spent months pounding my stomach at night, praying that I wasn’t pregnant. And, again, I told no one. Because I had no one to tell.
It ended, finally, because after several years of abuse I made it end. One day when my brother grabbed me, I was so scared that I accidentally peed on him. He recoiled. After that, I purposely peed on him any time he touched me.
That was nearly forty years ago. My mother has been dead for seventeen of them. I never confronted her. I knew she was not resilient enough to accept responsibility; I had no desire to crush her. So I am left with the question of forgiveness for a crime that was never acknowledged.
My feelings towards my brother are easy. I barely consider him human, so nonexistent is his remorse for what he did. My mind recalls him as the smell of dirt and sweat and semen, a noxious odor, but one that dissipates soon enough. I have severed all contact with him and have no issue holding him fully culpable for his actions. If forgiveness means I need or want nothing further from him, than he is forgiven. If it means that I have understanding or compassion for him, then he is damned.
But it’s not so simple with my mother. I inherited her propensity for anxiety. I too have wilted in the face of burdens both real and imagined. And while she failed me so monumentally in this crucial moment, she was in other ways often very present in my times of need, especially in my adulthood when she no longer was burdened with the day-to-day responsibility of raising children.
She did good things. And she did terrible things. So if forgiveness means I have compassion for her, then she is forgiven. But forgiven is not forgotten. In many ways, my mother’s failure to protect me was much worse than my brother raping me. His presence in my life is an unfortunate cosmic coincidence, but he and I are not part of one another in any soul-entwining way. Damage caused by my mother, the person I loved and needed the most in my childhood, permeates my every fiber.
How has this etching impacted me? On a physical level, my abhorrence of showers and baths has at times created a physical distance from others. Emotionally, I have protected myself by (figuratively) pissing on people the moment they fail to meet my expectations. The anxiety I inherited from my mother has found full flower in the knowledge of the horrible and dark things people do to one another. I don’t believe people are inherently evil, but I do not trust them to be good to me.
A few years ago, after my mother was gone, I told my siblings what had happened, hoping they would embrace me, make me feel loved and protected thirty-five years after the fact. Hoping they would heal me. But with a couple of exceptions, they also turned away. They didn’t so much disbelieve me as want me to be quiet, to protect their lives from the crime against me.
But why should I keep quiet? Telling my story gives me back the power over my darkest moments. We expel our physical human waste, so why let horrible memories rot inside us, spreading their poison through our lives? Having compassion for my mother does not preclude me from stating her accountability as a mother who did not protect her child.
My healing comes in telling my story. It’s in laying bare the reality that the most pivotal moment of my life was too big for my mother. It’s in being the voice for that little girl who had no one to turn to. And it’s in showing other mothers the power they hold in their children’s lives—the power to protect or the power to crush a soul. To tell them to be vigilant and wholly and soulfully engaged when the etching needle is poised to leave its mark.
Author’s Note: Maybe not so coincidentally, I am married to a former child abuse investigator. We work hard at being vigilant with our own son without turning attentiveness into smothering. I am largely out of contact with my family of origin. I miss them, but I need to keep enough distance from my past to allow for a happily ever after with my partner and son.
Anne Penniston Grunsted is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on the topics of disability and parenting. Her work has been published in Role Reboot, Chicago Parent, and she won the 2014 Nonfiction Prize from Beecher’s Magazine.