Silence is relative. Silence is never the absence of all sound. Things still cry in the darkness of silence. When we sit on a porch at midnight and comment about the silence, we mean the uninterrupted chirping of crickets and the cacophonous melodies from God's other night creatures. Silence is not the nonexistence of the sounds of life, but it, as we tend to define it, is relief from ordinary, unpleasant, bothersome, unwelcome, or uncomfortable sounds like the whisking of cars rolling swiftly on paved streets, the crying of babies and incessant whining of children, barking dogs, and uninvited conversation that summons us to think, talk, respond, recall, and imagine.
People from my mother and her mother’s generation believed that to survive many abuses and traumas, they had to silence them or not talk about them. They believed that if you didn’t talk about certain things, if you insisted upon silence, that those things would be forgotten and exercise no power over us. They believed (and have convinced some of us) that if we don’t talk about things but act as if they never were that in the night, like old dogs, they would sleep. But silence has a sound of its own. Self-imposed, forced, delusional, artificial silence cannot mask the sounds of the human heart beat, the consciousness of pain inflicted, the unending DVD that is our mind playing, stopping, and rewinding over and over again the horror flicks of our abuse(s).
In about 1990 when I bought my first new car, a red 1990 Toyota Corolla SR5, I had come home from Maryland to visit with my mother (as I often did). My mother, my younger sister, and I were sitting in the living room watching tv. Coincidentally, a show about sexual abuse came on; it compelled me to speak. I don’t remember if I waited until the show was over or if I blurted out in the middle of the show. But I said “mommy I was molested by papa.” Papa was what we called my grandfather. I remember my mother being stunned into silence. My sister, as I remember, said nothing, as if I had just asked for popcorn or something that was not at her disposal to give. (I asked her if she remembered and she said she did not fully recall. If she was silent, she said, her silence was not the absence of pain for me but an attempt to process what I had said and not knowing what to say.) They kept watching the tv. My mother was visibly shaken. I think she asked me, when? I told her when I was about twelve (I'll address this in Part 3). I asked her what was she thinking or feeling. She said she was deeply hurt that this should happen to me; that her father should hurt me. She rocked back and forth in her wheelchair as she did when her legs ached. But she could not talk about it with me; she did not want to talk about it. She eventually said that my grandfather was dead now and there is nothing we can do about it; that it would do no good to talk about it. I insisted that it was important for me to talk about it; I don’t remember where I got that idea, whether I read it or whether I instinctively knew I needed to talk about it to heal and to move forward in a healthy way. I am thankful that my mother believed me, regardless.
I was extremely shy as a little girl; didn’t know why. I wasn’t always shy. My mother said the mailman, Mr. Calvin, would come to deliver the mail when I was five. I would grab his rubber thumb, the one he used to sort the mail, and run with it insisting “ain’t you got a dollar” when he had offered a nickel for its return. Somewhere that boisterous, talkative, bold little girl became scared, unsure, and extremely quiet, so much so one could barely hear me when I did muster the courage to speak. My grandmother said I would sit on the steps in her kitchen silently gazing through the banister. I wonder what I was thinking. At some point, maybe by the God’s grace, I stashed away the memory of my molestation like winter clothes in a cedar lined chest waiting for the dawning of a new season when it would be safe to unpack my pain and the guilt I felt. Self-denial is often in these cases about misplaced internalized guilt; fear that people will see you for the dirty person that your abuser has made you feel like (and sometimes, tragically, others will blame the victim, the abused, rather than confront the reality of the abuse and identity of the abuser). Abused children often, if not always, feel that somehow they are to blame. But children are never responsible for the bad things adults do to them. Gone are not the days when a person's "virginity" is taken from him/her and s/he is blamed for "losing" it. Women in India, Afghanistan, and American households, courtrooms, and churches/mosques/temples are punished for being raped.
I think at some point I gave up trying to talk to my mother about how my grandfather molested me. But I would eventually understand her inability to talk to me when I came to recognize how she too was forced to lock away pain. I saw my mother cry about her silenced pain in her seventies. I would often sit with her and ask her about her life. I was living in Cambridge, MA, and had come home to visit when maybe for the first time as an adult my mother allowed herself to speak about and feel the pain of her own childhood scars. When she was about four or five (maybe as young as three) she and her sister Nellie were fighting over a doll, and my mother fell head first into the fireplace. The plait on the top of her head saved her life. But she carried a painful scar for the rest of her life, one that would take years to heal. Her hair would never grow back on the crown of her head. She could not wear a covering or wig on her head for a long time so that her wound could breathe and heal. Children teased her; they called her a big ball headed baby, she said. Even one of her elementary school teachers indiscreetly laughed at her. Tears, sixty something year old tears and cries, burst forth from my mother that day. We cried. I understood then why she required silence from me. Hers was a legacy of bottling up her tears, her pain, some of her stories, and surviving the daily challenges of living. If she had let me speak maybe her own bottled up pain would have imploded like a ruptured spleen or exploded like a volcano spewing hot flowing lava from an ever seething gaping cavity.
Before I was married, I thought it wise to share my experience of molestation with my then fiancé, just in case it might have an unforeseen impact on our marriage. His immediate response was to pray for/with me. From my then uncritical religious perspective I thought his was a good spiritual response. But he too could not talk about it with me. Prayer is no substitute for dialogue especially when it comes to exorcising the things that haunt and afflict us. Unfortunately, my then husband would use my secret against me. It became the only reason I could possibly not be interested in sex whenever he was!
In matters of abuse, silence is never a virtue. It is not acceptable to turn a deaf ear (or blind eye) to an abusive situation or person whoever or wherever they may be found. It is neither holy nor charitable to expect the victim to be silent; to act as if the abuse never happened. The breaking of my silence with my mother and my family was the beginning of my journey to healing cut short, interrupted by more silence. I wanted to talk, needed to talk to someone I could trust. Silence is crippling and diminishing. It diminishes the person and voice of the abused. And if the victimizer is still alive, it paves the way for more victims. According to recent research, as many as one-third of Americans have been abused as children. It is a silent and silenced epidemic.
In Part 3 I will discuss the “age of accountability” and the guilt of abuse: my journey to healing.