Things Are Rarely As They Appear.
An essay on sexual trauma and coming out the other side of it.
A wedding, the bride and groom elated. The church, sparsely populated. The bridal party is their children. The groomsmen and best man are the sons of the bride and groom. The bride’s maid of honor, her eldest daughter. The flower girl, her other daughter. A crown of white flowers in her dark hair.
The groom is the sexual molester of the maid of honor. And yes, the bride, her mother, knows.
To add to this macabre, Jerry Springer type scene, the best man is also abuser to the maid of honor. Using her as his routine punching bag, as well as, frequently propositioning and threatening with regard to sexual “favors.
Things are, often, not as they appear.
Watching the tiny flower girl walk, hand in hand with the groomsman down the aisle, you might feel moved, endeared by the sight. A guest at this wedding would likely feel heart warmed. That same flower girl will eventually experience abuse at the hands of the groom, her own father. His setting up cameras in an attempt at the filming of her with friends during a sleeping over. Another incident, involving his “accidentally” lying naked in their shared cabin during the cruise on which she, her mother, and he were on together. On her coming into the room and startling at the onslaught of his nakedness, he remained on the bed in pause, unaffected, nonchalant. What’s the big deal?
During this wedding, you might watch the groom train his adoring gaze on the bride. His affectionate look, moving onto their children. You would potentially overhear the bride when calling her eldest daughter, the maid of honor, “Special.” The nickname bestowed on her daughter on the day of her birth. You wouldn’t know that when the dilemma was eventually posed, “him or me?” by her “special” daughter, that she would choose him, a pedophile and the molester to her own child.
You couldn’t know that just months later, he would turn to his bride’s sixteen-year-old daughter (maid of honor) once alone in the car together, and say “did you know I had a dream last night of bringing you to orgasm through oral pleasure?” That, on telling her mother this and her mother kicking him out (though he would return just a few weeks following), he would then all but cease acknowledgment of her existence.
Following this ordeal, he will fill any rare necessary communication, instead, with verbal abuse.
“No one wants you here. We cannot wait until you are gone.”
“You are so selfish. We can’t stand you.”
Her mom would look away sadly on these remarks, remaining silent. On occasion, she might pipe up and ask that he please stop. He never did.
“Look at the size of her ass in those shorts.”
“All she is ever going to say will be about either boys or makeup.”
Wrong. This girl would grow up with much to say.
In witnessing this intimate wedding, you might watch the best man’s eyes flick repeatedly to the maid of honor. Then, find yourself wondering about the nuances of their relationship. Dismissing the thought, surely imagined, that you may have glimpsed something sinister or cold within his gaze.
You should have trusted your intuition. For so often, we see what we wish, or even decide to see instead of that which is truly there. The sometimes more painful thing to realize.
You would have been right to trust your initial inclination. Soon, the maid of honor would get on her knees before the best man. Her joints and heart aching as she glanced up into his blank, disdainful eyes far above. Finally giving in to his repeated requests for it, on the imagined premise of earning his admiration, affection, and validation. Maybe, she imagined, even love. His routine threats of dismissal and disinterest had grated for too long on her already raw soul. Burnished and scarred, ripped and shredded by the abuse she endured at both his and the groom’s hands for years.
This maid of honor’s mother would routinely tell her over the years, “Lots of women stay with an abuser, sweetie. It’s not uncommon.”
This same mother who was currently working for an organization offering support services to victims of domestic and sexual violence. An organization that helped women leave these very men. All while she was marrying one of them, and currently allowing her daughter’s abuse by both her husband-to-be and his son. She would remain at this organization over the entirety of the time she was with this man, and beyond.
Naturally, the bride’s ex-husband was absent from such an affair, marrying a new man. This would be expected and thus, there was nothing amiss in his not being there. Where he was very much present, though, was in his daughter, the maid of honor’s, psyche. Her father’s frequent sentiments playing on a perpetual loop through her mind.
“You are insane, just like your mother.”
“If I had to choose between my girlfriend, Jo, and you, I would pick her any day.”
“I have no respect for you.”
“Are you fucking him?” This, he asked, referring to the groom, his daughter’s molester. The question, to his mind, a seemingly logical correlation as to why she was continuing to live with her mother.
She was eleven years old during this conversation.
His words took her breath away, though even more so, the fact that such a thing had entered his mind. Few words have hurt or shamed her more deeply since.
“How could you go on living with your mother? You are off your fucking rocker.”
And then, on her eventual crumbling and sobbing, “awwww, are you crying now? God, how pathetic.”
Witnessing this young woman, the maid of honor, move forward and into college, you’d likely write her off during that particular phase of her life. Especially if you didn’t know her past, which, on not knowing someone intimately, how could you? Most onlookers would readily slap on one of the readymade labels our culture is so fond of, especially toward women. Easy. Train wreck. Insecure and shy. Desperate. Dramatic. Out of control. For she was, in its most simplistic analysis, several of these things.
Within so much as a lusty or desiring male gaze, her growing weak-kneed. Her emptiness and hunger were too acute, so sharp, that on any seeming offering of perceived sustenance (love, validation, interest, all for which she was starved), she took off sprinting in pursuit. Grasping for, gobbling up, and shoveling down whatever she imagined was offered. She mistook desire and wanting for potential validation, caring, or genuine interest, assuming them to be interchangeable.
She learned the hard way, and many times over, they weren’t.
That one cannot live off empty calories, or really, no calories, and hope to flourish. Instead, one withers further. Drinking too much, and eating too little. Bending to tabletops and snorting from which she imagined having found a sense of commodore, of control and pseudo confidence. In truth though, this was a disappearing coin trick. All a mirage.
You might look at this young woman, the wreckage she invited and allowed inside, as well as left in her wake, and assume “that poor girl. She was so lost. Selfish. She was causing pain to the man she supposedly loved, with whom she carried on a romantic relationship this whole time. She had terrible boundaries. She was impulsive. Shameless.”
This woman, the maid of honor in that initial wedding, she has been all of these things. Wandering in dark corners. Insecure. Hurting both herself and the people she’s loved with her emptiness. Because when one is empty, they cannot hope to or have a means by which to fill others. She was afraid, desperate, angry.
She is also a woman who, if you met her today, would tell you that she is not at the mercy of her past, nor her circumstances.
This woman still struggles with maintaining a consistent inner strength and infallibility. Sometimes, still too easily shaken and blown about emotionally by others. She runs up against walls and obstacles with regard to interpersonal boundaries, though in a different way. Finding herself, on occasion, in the hands emotionally of other people’s moods and behavior. Her sense of self, too easily swayed. Frequently having trouble in trusting her own instincts until, numerous discussions later, her nearest and dearest more often than not, validate, affirm, and support those initial instincts and impressions which she so doubted.
She is ever working toward maintaining that more unwavering sense of self in the face of storms that will inevitably come throughout life. And yet. Simultaneously, this woman has weathered the hurricane, and come out more than upright on the other side. She has grown into the redwood tree, intact and standing tall, beyond the destruction that was her childhood.
She took off to Europe, a one-way ticket in hand, without a job, any social connections overseas, nor knowing the language. She set forth building a life there over four years, traversing throughout Europe. Discovering, strengthening, and healing herself further. Between Europe’s narrow alleys, along its cobbled roads, within its ornate and bewitching piazzas. During this chapter, she would fall deeply in love with a handful of supportive, honest, kind people. Most of whom she remains close with today.
She ceased the senseless hookups. Something shifting inside of her. Growing to find the idea strangely unappealing, disheartening, and deflating. Deciding that her interest had shifted to people who truly valued her, now finally seeing and understanding what this looked like.
She never turned back.
This woman would go on to work for a campaign on returning stateside, fighting to enshrine protections in the state constitution that would offer victims of crime the same rights that their accusers are afforded. Within this role, finding much meaning, challenge, thrill, and satisfaction.
The climax of such work, marked on the morning New Hampshire would vote on this prospective bill. The House of Representatives deciding whether or not victims of crime would receive the protections they deserve. A concept that hit akin to a home run for this woman, who knew the sensation all too well of being relegated to the sidelines, of feeling cast aside and unprotected. Her investment and loyalty further fueled for this cause by her childhood experiences.
With her colleagues, they set forth planting 2,637 purple flags on the lawn of the Concord State House to signify all the victims of violent crimes for that year.
The sky early that morning, downpouring on their initial arrival to work. This young woman, remarking to her colleagues, “the weather, it’s fitting, isn’t it? Do you ever feel like weather sometimes reflects symbolically the happenings of poignant days of your life?”
Her colleagues agreed, the few of them discussing this concept for a few minutes. Then, they were off.
Crossing the road, with heavy boxes and umbrellas balanced precariously in hand, rain pounding the canvas above their heads, moments later something miraculous happened. In bending down and setting their supplies on the damp lawn, the clouds drew back to reveal the sun. The rain ceasing on the spot. A shiver ran up her spine. Her soul coming alight.
The group of them divided and conquered, spreading magic in the form of what, from afar, appeared to be a sea of morning glories or purple wildflowers across the expansive, vivid lawn. The sky slowly illuminating. Her heart racing as, at the same moment, a sensation of stillness and heart-swelling awe swept through her.
As her hands grasped each flag and, bending down, she pushed it into the soft earth among dew sprinkled grass, her soul surged for all victims of crime to whose stories she listened as they pled to the hard-hearted local politicians one week prior. Though especially for those who were abused sexually or physically. All of these victims and ultimately, survivors, having gone through everything never feeling heard, nor protected by the legal system.
In a home where, for most of her life, this woman was silenced and emotionally abandoned, marginalized, relegated to the sidelines, cast out, and made invisible, quite literally, by an abuser who refused to acknowledge her existence for years, this campaign work filled her with a sense of agency and meaning. It was crucial work. She couldn’t go back and rewrite what happened to her. She might, though, be able to change the experience for someone else.
With no protection from the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that came her way in varying degrees, and by more than one person throughout her childhood and teen years, this campaign work burrowed its way into her heart Something about this particular moment of pushing thousands of flags into the ground, driving itself into her deep. Raw power, conviction, strength, even heartbreak, swirling themselves within her chest simultaneously. All but threatening to knock her over.
She looked up, the lawn growing covered in violet before her gaze. The flags waved like liquid silk in the breeze for the entirety of that day. She had found the work she loved.
Going to bat for those in need. Lending a sense of support, a sense that they matter, to other people. Connecting deeply with and adding meaning to the lives of others, in whatever ways she could. Listening. Offering (hopefully) thought-provoking or supportive insights to people, however and wherever she was able.
This woman, most of all, is no longer starving. She is no longer searching. She isn’t lost. There are further growth and learning that she is ever undertaking, via avid reading, as well as continually learning within the navigating naturally through life. However, this woman is found and further, she is filled. Through seeking healing, much support, and the right relationships and loves (coupled with lessons mindfully learned from the wrong ones), she poured light, a sense of meaning, wonder, and hope into the scars and holes of her heart.
Things are rarely how they initially appear.
On meeting someone, one can never know, nor fathom the truths, secrets, and experiences that lie behind the heart and within the prior path of that person. More important though, she learned that whatever that past and path may have looked like, we are never at the mercy of this. We cannot choose our family, nor can we select our childhoods. We can, though, decide into who we grow, and who we become.