This has been an emotional post to write. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve only just now found the strength to write it. Maybe the mindfulness meditation is getting to me, breaking down barriers.
My sister and I have had a strained relationship for many years. I’m not sure when that started. Because as she reminded me yesterday, we used to be close. Maybe she was resentful when I went to law school and she was stuck working with our dad and two brothers. Maybe I came off as obnoxiously superior, seeing as I was the only child of four to finish undergrad. And then when I went to law school, maybe it (I) just got worse. Or maybe my sister’s shift had nothing to do with me. Maybe it had everything to do with the fact she had found out her husband (we’ll call him Jim) was molesting their daughter. And when she found out, she told no one. She lived through that hell on her own and made decisions as best she could, with no one to talk to about what had happened. And then when I found out, from the daughter, I trumpeted the news throughout the family, condemning her and her choice to stay with her husband. No doubt that’s when things between us became strained to the point of disrepair. And then of course there’s the fact that I accused him of doing the same to me.
That last piece has been troubling me for many years. I had a therapist, Vicki. (Not my first.) My friends were seeing her and all loved her. So I believed Vicki knew what she was doing and was good at what she did. Vicki had decided I’d been sexually abused and had repressed memories. All the signs were there. And when my niece told me her father had molested her, I reported this to Vicki. Vicki then became convinced, and proceeded to convince me, that my brother-in-law Jim was also my abuser. It all made sense, she insisted. Molesters don’t operate in a vacuum. He must have done the same to me, and I’d blocked it out. Well, there was the time he’d taught me how to drive.
My sister met her husband when she was fairly young. She was working at a fast-food restaurant, and so she must have been 15 or 16. Her husband, who is 8 years older, would have been 23 or 24. The man who would become my sister’s husband often sat at a table in the restaurant and chatted her up. My brothers would say later, after I trumpeted the news of his molestation of our niece, that it was weird. Like stalking. And really, a man in his mid-20s trying to make it with a girl in her early teens is pretty creepy. Eventually, at 20, my sister would marry him. I’m 6 years younger than her, so I would have been 14 at the time they married.
Jim and I were close. We spent lots of time together, talking about music, and books, and philosophizing about life. He seemed to find me smart. And interesting. My father, who was largely absent, found me irritating and obnoxious. And he said I talked to much. So when Jim wanted to talk to me, and listen to me, and spend time with me, I was thrilled. One day when I was 15, he took me out to the country in his stick-shift Toyota to teach me how to drive. I recall that he rather abruptly decided we were through for the day, and he told me to pull over to the shoulder so he could take over and drive us home. As we passed at the back of the car, he kissed me. It was a passionate, yet tender, adult kiss. He seemed to be in a bit of a trance, and after a moment, he pulled away and said we needed to be getting home. I can’t remember what I thought of the kiss, other than confused. I don’t recall whether I thought it was gross or I liked it, or whether I was disappointed or relieved when he seemed to recover his senses and pull away. When we got back to the apartment where he was living with my sister, she must have sensed something, and she was angry. She told him he was spending too much time with me, and he protested that he was only teaching me how to drive. She told him, “Her father can teach her how to drive.” “Her father doesn’t teach her anything, does he?” he said. Jim and I spent less time together after that. I’d lost my friend. Because he’d crossed that line, things were never the same.
For 25 years, I told no one what Jim had done that day. Eventually I would tell a friend or two, a boyfriend, Vicki, my therapist; but never my family. Never my sister. Until my niece told me what he’d done to her, which was far worse than a kiss. And then I told everyone, including my sister, that he’d done it to me, too. But not only did I tell them about the time he kissed me, I told them I had recollected hazy images of him doing more. Hazy images brought on by my therapist’s certainty that there had been more, and I had repressed it. I did protest when Vicki initially brought up the idea that Jim was my molester. (Today, I am fairly certain there never was a molester; not Jim, or anyone else.) I told her the only memory I had was of the kiss, and if I could remember the kiss, it seems I’d remember the rest. Vicki said I’d blocked out the most traumatizing events, and only recalled what I could handle. She surmised that it went back years, from the time Jim first met my sister, when I would have been 9 or 10. So I started having hazy memories of what Jim had done to me. And I told my sister. I told her partly because I believed it at the time, and partly because I wanted to punish him even more for what he’d done to my niece, and to my sister. And, I wanted to punish my sister for staying with him.
One night shortly after my niece told me what Jim had done to her, and I had told my sister what he’d done to me, my niece and I were cooking dinner. (She was living with me at the time she made the disclosure to me.) My phone rang. It was Jim. “Ella, what’s going on?” he demanded. “What don’t you ask Sam?” I said. He told me he had asked my sister, and he wanted to hear from me what I’d told her. “I never did anything to you!” he said. “We were friends!” I was shaken. Vicki was wrong. And I’d wrongly accused him. “What about when you kissed me when you were teaching me to drive? Friends don’t do that. You were married to my sister!” Would he admit it? If he denied it, I could assume he’d denied all the rest. And then I’d know I didn’t make up the vague memories in my head. “I told Sammie about that,” he said. “I told her! I have taken responsibility for what I did, for all of it, but I’m not taking responsibility for something I didn’t do.” I hung up on him. When I told Vicki what had happened, that I’d wrongly accused him, she said he’d of course deny it. I asked her why he’d admit the kiss, work to make amends for what he’d done to his daughter, and not admit doing more to me. He admitted what I could clearly remember, yet he denied what I did not remember. What I only remembered after she insisted I’d been repressing memories. She had various explanations, some of which sounded plausible, and her strongest argument was this: “Look. Even if what he did to you was limited to the kiss, that’s still abuse. You were 15 and he was married to your sister. And he admittedly molested his daughter, your niece. So it’s not like you accused an innocent man.”
I, and the rest of my family, wouldn’t talk to my sister again for several years, when she came to the hospital when our mother was very sick. And then not again until my oldest brother’s funeral. And then at hospice when my father was dying six months later. And again when my other brother died five months after that. Throughout all the dying and the funerals, Jim was by her side. And by mine. He offered comfort and support to my sister, to me, and to my mother. He was kind, but also tentative. And the thing is, Jim was always a kind and loving man. He was a good father, as odd as it sounds for me to say it. Of my six nieces and nephews, my sister’s children seem to be the most well-adjusted. The most productive. The most successful. Back when I told her that I knew what he’d done to their daughter, and what he’d done to me, I asked her how she could do it, how she could stay. She said, “Because I love him.”
While I haven’t wanted to admit it for many years, I know what my sister meant. I know why she stayed. She stayed with a good man who loved her and their children. A man who was molested himself as a child. A man who had his monsters and when faced with what he’d done, he acknowledged it and did what child protective services and his wife insisted he do to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. A man who spent years trying to rebuild a relationship with his wife and daughters. And to this day, I remain conflicted. I want to hate him and never forgive him. I want to hold on to the idea that this is a black-and-white issue, if there ever was one. I want my sister to have left him and choose her children over him. She insists that she did. She insists that her choice was the best one for everyone to heal. I’ve come to believe that maybe she did make the right choice. Or at least a right choice. But how could staying with the man who molested your child be the right choice? And so the war in my head continues.
Here we are, seven years after my niece made her disclosure to me. My father and brothers are dead, and my mother is in assisted living, her health declining. Soon, all I’ll have left is my sister. On May 20 this year she sent me a happy birthday text for the first time in nearly a decade. It was the first birthday wish of the day. I was still in bed when I got it. And I broke into tears. I was so touched. And filled with an ache I hadn’t even known was there. Yesterday was my younger brother’s birthday. Sam called me to talk about my mom’s beach house that’s up for sale. She asked me to come down and visit my mom more. She told me she thinks I need that, and so does my mom. She told me mom won’t be around much longer, and she wants us to spend time with her. She told me I’ll soon be her only family left and she loves me. She reminded me we were close once. And then she told me she’d stood out on the deck of her beach house that morning and sung happy birthday to our brother. She said she’d almost called me to sing it with her. She invited me to her daughter’s engagement party in August, and said I could see her other daughter’s baby then, who soon would be turning one. I’ve only seen her once since she was born. So I’ll see her for a second time next month.
Is there such a thing as forgiveness in a situation like this? I want to forgive him. I think I’ve at long last forgiven my sister. I hope they both will forgive me.
Listen. I was in a similar situation, hazy memories. a therapist assuring me I’d “repressed” things, facing my supposed molester and then many years realizing that it truly might not have happened.
The thing about forgiveness is – at least the way I understand it – that you decide someone wronged you, but you will absolve them. Thing is, how can you – in your heart of hearts – absolve someone if you still think they did something to you?
I know I “forgave” my supposed-molester because I stopped feeling so angry at him. It wasn’t a decision; it was more of release of energy which helped me breathe, and the more I breathed, the more space there was around the situation. I didn’t care any more – I’ll never know for sure, but it felt damn good not to hold him captive with my anger. It just didn’t matter, and I can’t say exactly how I got there.
What if you took the risk of not being angry any more? What if you faced that void? You sound like you’re on the edge of it; why not jump in and see what happens?
What a brave and touching post – not only this one, but the one before. I hope you keep writing. You’ve one hell of a story, and you tell it well.
Thank you so much for this, Denise. I think the forgiveness is in progress because the anger is fading. The constriction in my chest is lessening. There’s sadness underneath. But also love.
There is a phenomenon of “memories” that have been talked into somebody:
(source: Wikipedia, of course)
“False memory syndrome (FMS) describes a condition in which a person’s identity and relationships are affected by memories that are factually incorrect but that they strongly believe. Peter J. Freyd originated the term, which the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) subsequently popularized. …
The principle that memories can be altered by outside influences is overwhelmingly accepted by scientists.
False memories may be the result of recovered memory therapy, a term also defined by the FMSF in the early 1990s, which describes a range of therapy methods that are prone to creating confabulations. Some of the influential figures in the genesis of the theory are forensic psychologist Ralph Underwager, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and sociologist Richard Ofshe.” If your therapist did that to you, I would research if there was a chance to sue her! She might have enlarged your trauma!!!
Still: Your brother in law transgressed lines he should not have crossed.
You are the one to decide if a (sexually motivated and adult) kiss has hurt you so deep that you cannot forgive him ever.
It is NOT YOU who has to forgive him molesting his own daughter, though. That is her decision. Not her aunt’s, nor her mother’s. She was the one suffering. She decides if she is done suffering.
Very interesting, Fran. My inept therapist has retired and moved to New Mexico. I think it’s best for me if I let this one go. As for forgiving my brother-in-law, he’s never apologized. He just pretended it never happened. Which was even more confusing, I think. Maybe forgiveness isn’t the right concept when it comes to what he did to my niece. But it wasn’t just to my niece. It was my sister, and our family. His abusing her was like ripples on a still lake. For years I felt nothing but anger and contempt for him. And for my sister. I didn’t want to be around him. Or her. I wanted to spit in his face. And I wanted to shake her. Is letting go of that anger forgiveness? I’m not sure what you’d call it. But whatever it is, I’d like to find peace.
If he cannot see he has done wrong (even if less wrong than you thought) you cannot forgive him – one needs the other.
Anger is not always a good guide, though. As they say:
Pray for the energy to change things that can be changed – your past cannot be changed.
Pray for the patience to live with things that cannot be changed.
And pray for the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
I can fully understand that you feel for your niece – but in a way continuing to look at the crime as the thing that defines her life will not help anybody and make her a victim for the rest of her life.
What a truly insightful point: I am perpetuating the idea that what her father did to her defines her life. It does not. And making peace with my sister, in addition to freeing me from my anger, will help free my niece from the past.
At least it will free her in her relationship to you, when you can see her as somebody who is not just a victim of child abuse. To allow a wound to heal you have to stop picking at the scabs, until they are “ready” to be taken off. Most will just get off then by themselves.
If she ever will feel free or less burdened in the relationship to her father or her mother depends on circumstances you cannot influence.
It’s not my invention – I have two colleagues who have been raped as children. Both refuse to be reduced to their victim-state. It is there, a scar will always remain (literally with one of them who was raped when 7 years old). But it is not the reason they live, not the thing that defines every deed of them. They have decided to be more than just victims and be afraid or bitter or disturbed.
Forgiveness does not mean you agree or accept the wrong doing, it means you love yourself more and no longer want to carry the burden. I learned so much about forgiveness and grace over 30 years ago through the writings of Nelson Mandela.
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
― Nelson Mandela
Yes, Lynne. This. This is it. This is what I want. I want out of this prison I’ve been in. I want to put down the burden. I want peace.
It is great to read your post. I can feel the depth of feelings this post generates in you and the quandary it presents. Although I could never even pretend to have all the answers I do think I can be sensitive to feelings and that’s what this post was all about.
Your feelings, below the surface of the words, speak volumes to me. It seems you’re ready to forgive and be forgiven. How you go about that is your journey to discover but I can tell you my experience.
I was sexually abused by my brother who is 5 years my senior. I was 9 and he was 14. I remember it because it happened repeatedly for over a year, in my bedroom after I’d fallen asleep. Nothing like being woken up with a overweight brother breathing heavily on top of you! The end result was years of living with a secret and not feeling protected in my own house. Eventually, when I was 22, I disclosed the secret and my brother admitted to his behavior and did his best to make amends.
I took some healthy time away from him and my family which was important to my own self-identity. I regret that my dad died never knowing and my mom continues to minimize the events because of her love for her son. Oddly enough, I forgave my brother before my mother because my brother made more of an effort to admit his wrongs and make things right. My mother, I have learned to accept, stood by my brother out of love which did allow him to seek counseling with his pastor and a therapist. I felt a sense of betrayal but it’s all in the past now. My mom is in a retirement community and last month this brother and I celebrated my mom’s 79th birthday with her and her husband. We’ve all moved on.
Our own sense of shame can be worse than the anger we have for others. I suggest if you have the opportunity to explain yourself and be forgiven — go for it! I think at this time in your life it would be cathartic. I also think as much as you feel regretful that the memory you recalled may be false, in some ways you helped your niece not feel alone by you having experienced the same unjust, real or imagined. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
I think you are fabulous and you will work all this out in your own time!
Oh, Fern. Thank you for sharing your story with me. I had a special vat of anger allocated to my sister for her betrayal of her daughter. Your story has shown me that it isn’t black and white, and there can be healing. And I now see the silver lining that I may have helped my niece feel less alone, and hopefully less shame. Shame that we feel as victims, even though we are blameless. You have had quite the journey, my friend. It’s been lovely to be along for part of it.
Wonderfully written and straight from the heart. I can feel the pain in your words. Don’t let your mind trap you. Your sister is reaching out. Accept her love. It may take time, but I see healing beginning.
Thank you so much. You are right, my sister is reaching out. I have been so focused on my niece’s pain and my own, I didn’t have a thought for what she’s been through. Her gesture on my birthday caused a dam to burst. All kinds of good stuff poured out. Who knew?
Bravely written. You miss your sister. Family is important – and life goes on after many many bad things. Take it easy and go with what feels right, but you miss your sister and she misses you. You did what you could for your niece – she will manage herself – you manage you and what you need. Give yourself time. Be gentle with yourself. May peace find you.
Thank you. I do miss my sister. And my nieces. And, truth be told, my brother-in-law. It’s so very complicated. But to now feel less alone after all the dying, that’s not so bad.
It’s so sad that we often have to battle these ethical gray areas nowadays. We do not get to choose our families and that tends to bring on unwanted questions that don’t necessarily have clear cut answers. You clearly desire a relationship with your sister and you definitely should not deny yourself this opportunity. Although upsetting, I love the way you wrote this post. I imagine it rang true for a lot of people dealing with similar family situations. As another comment said, I really hope you find peace with your sister.
Thank you so much, Savannah. Life would be much simpler without gray areas. Or would it? I have a feeling my sister and I are on our way to a new beginning.
Honey, my tears have pools of water in them. To forgive is to set yourself free. I understand how hard it is at times, to do this. I’m sorry. I’m shaking. I am not able to write any more. Love, Amy
Thank you for reading, Amy, It’s a difficult subject, to be sure.