When I think about it I feel like I am made up of a billowy, wavy outline, that I am a container or a vessel with delineated edges but hollow inside. When I think about it I feel the electric heat of pain in this space, a shimmering, wobbly centre of self that fragments and becomes disoriented, incoherent. Pieces of a put-together-puzzle come apart and float about. I am not in my body. It hurts to breathe, I feel a pressure outside of my ribs behind me, as if there is a monkey on my back. I am frozen. I breathe shallowly and quickly and wish to flee. I rock gently.
This is how the story goes:
When I was 4 years old I was molested by a male babysitter. He was 16 or 17. I say “I was molested” but the truth is that both my brother and I were. My brother Michael*, who was 7 at the time, remembers what happened that day, but I do not. Or, rather, I have memories of that day, memories of the babysitter, clear ones even, but I don’t remember being molested.
I found out that I had been molested when I was 19.
A few days before finding out, I was talking to my brother’s (now ex) wife Jane* about the sexual and physical abuse in her family and in her own childhood. I wondered out loud whether I had also been sexually abused. It was an odd thing to say – I had no memories or reason to think this, it was more of a feeling, a gut response. Nevertheless, I said it. The question floated on the air.
A couple of days later, Jane called me to have a chat. Without much preamble or sensitivity she said “You know how you were wondering if you were sexually abused as a child?… Well… you were.” Stunned, I listened to the story.
Jane had spoken to Michael about what I had said, and he told her the story of the male babysitter. A teenage boy called Shane*, from the neighbourhood, played with our genitals one day when he was babysitting us. He turned it into a game. He had some coins and said he could play a magic trick with us, a game to make the coins disappear. He did this by putting them down our underpants. After he put them in there, he took them out again, touching our genitals in the process.
Jane said that afterwards my brother told our parents, who in turn approached the boy’s parents about it. According to Jane, they were so ashamed of what had happened that they moved their family out of the neighbourhood.
There are all these layers. When I think about it I feel like I am 19 again, being told for the first time. I am stunned and speechless. My past has been rewritten. I feel unwell and I think I am in shock. I go out to get some air, to move and to process what has happened. I am walking down Rundle Street on a hot, sunny day, wandering aimlessly, numbly, squinting in the sun and peering into shop windows without purpose. I go into a shop and buy myself a pretty green dress to quell the sting. It doesn’t help.
When I think about it my own memories of that day also surface. I am 4 years old. It is a hot day in summer in 1978. The air conditioner is on in the lounge room. I am happy, laughing, playing. I remember Shane’s mid-length, curly brown hair. He is funny and fun to be with. He is so tall and big compared to us. Later, I remember him sitting in my bed, next to me, legs stretched out, then lying down. I remember thinking “funny Shane, his legs are too long for my bed.”
Until I found out, at age 19, these were happy, simple, untroubled memories. But in the context of what actually happened, in the context of my brother’s account, these memories sicken and confuse me. I will never know if anything else happened. The memory of Shane being in my bed makes me panic. I want to throw up.
When I think about it my body freezes up, I look around cautiously, I wait for the right moment to sprint away. Away from these feelings, from these memories and realities that do not match up. Away from the babysitter who molested me and my brother. That moment never comes.
After getting off the phone with Jane that day, I called my mother. She assured me that my brother’s memories were correct. When they got home that day, Michael told Mum and Dad what Shane had done with the coins. I asked whether Shane had done anything else to me, sexually. She said no, she didn’t think so, and that she would have noticed if any harm had been done as she bathed and dressed me at that age. I have just recently learnt that you cannot necessarily tell if a young girl has been sexually penetrated just by looking at her genitalia.
I remember him sitting in my bed, next to me, legs stretched out, then lying down. I remember thinking “funny Shane, his legs are too long for my bed.”
When I think about Shane being in my bed, and that there isn’t necessarily any visual evidence of sexual penetration, I feel sick. I will never know what he was doing in my bed.
The urge to run is constantly there. The need to be vigilant, cautious, to never trust another living being, ever again, least of all myself.
Since I found out, I have discussed this incident several times with different psychologists. Most of them don’t seem to think I’ve been affected too badly. Most of them suggest moving on, accepting that I’ll never know what happened, accept that I don’t remember being molested. There is little to go on from my own memories, short of undergoing hypnosis or some other kind of memory recovery process. Mostly, we end up moving past this issue and discuss other, more pressing present day problems. And yet with each new shrink, I bring it up, asking their opinion on whether this might matter. Might it be the cause of later problems with my parents, with sex, with my relationships with men? It never gets resolved, but I take some comfort in the fact that my own child-mind did the brilliant job of protecting me from the memory of being molested.
Two realities. Two sets of memories. A schism and a discord eat away at my core.
When I think about it I feel sick that I remember that day fondly and that I remember having fun with the man who molested me. I liked Shane. I liked his curly, bouncy hair that reminded me of loosely coiled, glossy brown springs. He was naughty and cheeky and funny. And he molested me. Both/And. I liked him AND he molested me.
It was the 1970s, I tell myself, I tell my therapists, as a means of excusing it. As a way of protecting my parents. No-one seemed to care much about sexual transgression back then, I say. Everything was free and loose and easy. Helicopter parents hadn’t been invented yet. As children we were left to our own devices, playing in the streets, the park and the creek a kilometre away, completely unsupervised. The freedom was delicious, necessary, good for our development. And yet, my parents engaged the services of a male, teenage babysitter. Was this wise, even then, especially then? A virile, quite possibly horny, physically mature 16 or 17-year-old boy.
The age of consent, back in 1978, as it is now, was 17. Was Shane legally, sexually an adult? Does this even matter? Does it make it somehow less serious if he was only 16?
I shudder when I think of how such an incident would be dealt with now. The child victim would be checked out by a doctor, taken to a child psychologist, gently questioned and counselled. Charges may be pressed against the perpetrator. The child victim may have to testify in court. The perpetrator may serve time, etc. etc. Why do I shudder? Because there’s a part of me that thinks such a process is over the top, but I know that that part of me is trying to protect my parents, and myself, to minimise what happened. But there is also a part of me that thinks they could have done much more, even taking into account the social climate of the time.
When I spoke to my mother about the incident, she said she thought I seemed OK afterwards, that I was physically and mentally unharmed. That I’d get over it and forget about it in time. It seems that I did forget; my young brain didn’t retain any harmful memories at all. But did I get over it? Am I still carrying the weight and residue of what happened in my body, in my psyche, and into all of my relationships?
My brother, three years older than me, remembered and still remembers the incident. Even so, we have never spoken directly about it. I am too embarrassed, too ashamed. I am scared too. I know that he would think nothing of brushing this incident off, yet the reality is, he went through it alongside me. His motto in life is “get over it”. He doesn’t seem to be a man of great introspection, even though he has suffered immense loss in his life. I wonder how he really feels about what happened? I wonder if we will ever discuss it?
I don’t know how to sum up this piece. It seems as unresolvable as the incident that I’m writing about. The Me Too movement has re-triggered memories and feelings surrounding this incident, and continues to re-trigger them daily as more and more cases of sexual abuse and assault are revealed publicly. The incident with the babysitter is only one incident in a long history of sexual harassment, abuse, misconduct, and assault that I have endured since. But it is significant in that it was the first such incident in my life, and that it happened to me as an unable-to-consent sexual minor.
When I read recently about Dylan Farrow’s account of her father Woody Allen molesting her at age 7, of him touching her genitals, there was, oddly, a disconnect. An incredible sense of outrage and sympathy, but a personal disconnect. It took quite a few moments for me to remember, to logically compute, that something similar happened to me. Sure, in Farrow’s case the incident was more serious – her father was the perpetrator – and she can remember the incident, as well as her father’s subsequent denial of it, the public denial of it, the ensuing media frenzy, etc., which has no doubt caused her immense pain. Yet my body, my brain even, took a while to connect to the similarities in our stories, to say “me too” to this particular incident. This both fascinates and horrifies me. It shows that I’m still blocked somewhere. There’s still a part of me that is in disbelief, still in shock and denial. There’s part of my brain that happily wants to plug its ears, cover its eyes and sing “la, la, la” and pretend it all didn’t happen.
When I think about it, when I think about telling my story, I want to run and hide. I am very small. I run and crawl under the big table with the long table cloth. There I sit, knees-to-chest, curled up, long blonde hair streaming down my back. My hands cover my eyes, which are closed. The table cloth conceals my presence. It is dark and I am safe and no-one can hurt me.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.