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.