“My brother molested me.”
Four words. Small ones, really. Yet, it took many years to put them together and to understand what they mean in my life, for real.
When you’re 11, you don’t have any words at all. Something is not OK, but how can I tell anyone without any words?
It started small. Looking. Touching. I don’t remember saying “yes” but I don’t remember saying “no.” At first, it only happened when my parents weren’t home. As time went on, something would happen every time they left. I was embarrassed, then afraid. I sometimes hid in the bathroom because it was the only room with a lock. But hiding didn’t always work. He got bolder. I have an especially vivid memory of being groped in the basement while my parents were upstairs. Now, it felt very wrong.
It all ended suddenly one day, several months after it began. My parents were out that day and we were alone in his bedroom. I was very nearly raped that day, and I panicked. As an adult, I recognize it as a panic attack. As an 11 year old, I was just terrified. I screamed. And cried. And ran. I hid in my room, and he didn’t follow me. The next day, my mother unexpectedly asked if we had fought the day before. It seems the next door neighbor had heard my screams and cries and told my mother because she thought I was hurt. I said that nothing happened. I had no words to use. I struggled with knowing it ended when I fought back. Why had I been too weak to fight back sooner?
The first word I learned was “rape.” My experience wasn’t that, so even though something about it wasn’t right, it must not be so wrong because it’s not that. Then I learned the word “incest.” Could it be that? At that time, all that was said and written about incest was about it being by fathers and stepfathers. Not brothers, and not teenagers. One day, sitting on my couch, Oprah gave me the word I was missing. I was molested. By my brother. And it was wrong, and it is damaging, and it was about power, and control, and shame. So much shame. And hatred. And fear. I was afraid it would happen again. I was even more afraid that everyone would find out.
Not long after it ended, but before I was able to fit the pieces together and understand what had happened to me, we took a family vacation to Hawaii. My brother and I were to share a room. I panicked again. I begged, pleaded and sobbed to my mother not to make me share that room with him. She reluctantly agreed to let me spend half of the week in their room, but the other half was still with him. I was scared, and sleepless, but thankfully nothing happened. I keep an old photograph from that trip with me. I can see on my face in that picture every bit of what I was feeling. And through the years since, that photograph has kept me steadfast in the knowledge that what happened to me was real and wrong, even when those around me never noticed my struggle.
I needed a way to cope-a way to feel in control. So I stopped talking to him. Stayed out of the way. Made myself small. My parents never questioned it. How is that possible? You have two children. You see them interact (or not) every day. He was very charismatic with extended family and my parents’ friends. I disappeared, and no one seemed to mind. When I say “not talking” I mean no conversation ever. For years. No “pass the corn” at the dinner table. No “hello” or “goodbye.” If he walked into a room, I walked out. I got smaller and smaller, and he hated me for ignoring him. He whispered insults under his breath whenever he could. He brushed against me anytime we passed each other. My parents never seemed to notice or to mind. I was 15 the first time I told someone that I wanted to die.
I decided I would never be able to tell my parents about what happened. They would never believe me. I have never really waivered from that decision. Being allowed to disappear is more painful than feeling like you need to disappear. I still have some memories that haunt me. There are triggers that bring it all back unexpectedly. It consumes at least one moment of every day. I still struggle with words to talk about it, and fall back to silence when things are hard. While I physically have a family, I miss having a family. Maybe because of chance, maybe because of my fervent pleas to the universe, my brother has largely disappeared. He lives nearby, but no longer contacts my parents. He contacted me once by letter shortly after I got married and did not invite him. He resoundingly chastised me for treating him so badly and severing our family by ignoring him. I never responded. I don’t have to see him, or hear him, or smell him, save the occasional funeral. I see and appreciate this for the gift that it is. I remember vividly the dread and stress and heartache of many years of forced, uncomfortable holiday gatherings. I know many others do not share this good fortune, so I cherish it. While it is still sometimes hard to go to my parents’ home (I try to never go upstairs), there is no comparison to the gut wrenching years of seeing him there and continuing the family charade.
My parents feel like acquaintances to me now. Like people I used to know. But I have a daughter now that they are madly in love with, who loves them right back. She has never met my brother, and I will do all I can to ensure she never will. My daughter has this piece of my family that I will never have. She does not feel small with them. She is large, and important, and heard, and loved. She finds in them the gifts I was never offered: self-esteem, concern, belonging. By giving her this connection, by not walking away from my family all together, I hope I have broken the cycle for her and that she will have happy childhood memories of family.
As for me, I have found family in the friends who chose me. The friends that stood by me at my darkest moments and kept me alive and sane and loved. My brother is now the one who is alone. And small. And silent.