Trigger Warnings: sexual abuse; child abuse
In a way, our lives begin before we are born. Our histories are sketched out casually in pencil on a piece of newsprint by history and the biographies of our parents and their parents, and so on. It’s a vague picture at first. Stuff can get erased, even if the marks stay there faintly, but it’s a picture, or a kind of map, and it’s where we all start.
For example, before my parents even met, each had already suffered massive blows to their integrity, as first small, then as adolescent human beings. And by the time they met, they were slightly older adolescents — a very young family waiting to happen.
My parents married when my father was twenty and about to be shipped off to Vietnam; and my mother was 19. I was born when she was twenty and he was still in the jungle. By the time I was four, my dad had been home for three years and we lived in a mobile home.
I’m not sure, but I think they were saving even then to build a house. Then, one very cold night, our house started on fire. My mother woke first, rousing my father, and between the two of them, they got us out alive, and according to a newspaper article about the fire, with no injuries but “singed eyebrows.” We were lucky. I don’t know how long it takes for a mobile home to burn/melt into virtually nothing but toxic black smoke, but it can’t be a terribly long process.
All I remember is seeing the wall of flame at the end of the corridor, maybe some firetrucks outside in the freezing cold, and then later — maybe the next freezing winter day, all of us surveying the damage. This included, to my great fascination, our melted telephone, the molten plastic having run all the way to the floor. Everything was black, either burnt plastic or other artificial fiber, or coated in black grime. The toxic ebony smoke of burning plastic had ruined almost everything.
But we saved most of our pictures, somehow, and an antique sewing machine that I would later learn to sew on.
The fire — thinking of it now — seems distant, just like a thing that happened. What I do remember of it is more exciting and interesting than scary. When you’re small and your parents seem invincible, running through flames with them shielding you in their arms is an adventure. The scary things were to come later.
In order, I think, to keep saving for their house, my parents moved us into one side of a duplex owned by people they knew “in town.” Everything was borrowed, or second-hand, and a little shabby, but we had a roof over our heads, and the excitement of a new house being built out in the country on a large plot of land probably paid for partly with insurance money from the fire.
Some things should be noted about “town.” It was small. At the time, there were about 1500 people living there. Everyone knew everyone else. It was mostly — meaning, I think, 100% — Mormon, tightly knit, and, driving through, it probably looked idyllic. It was like a lot of small towns in the west in the 1970s: Places where you waved at every car you passed, even if you weren’t sure you knew them (but you usually did); places where neighbors really did help each other out; places where everyone knew your business — all your business; places where someone would recognize what family you were from based on what you looked like; places where everyone is “nice,” white, and, on the surface at least, teeth-grindingly normal.
These towns are still everywhere. And so far as I know, they’re still about the same. Because like then, I suspect that towns like this still share their tightly-knit community — their parades, their festivals, their pioneer celebrations, and their church services — with deeply troubled folks who like to mess with kids. Same goes for the suburbs, the ones that try to look like these towns, except less dumpy, better manicured. And the cities — the pedos are there, too. These heart-stoppingly misguided people — they are all over the place.
The difference from the city, though, is the sense of community in a small, historic town. When I say that, I’m including the good and the bad about community — communities can be close, but they can be insular; they can be groups of people who get along, but they can also be bigoted and small-minded; they can be concerned, but they can be blind to personal boundaries; worst of all, they can sacrifice the well-being of the weakest members of the community to the reputation, the cohesion, and the hierarchy, of the whole.
That’s what happened in our little town, with its (literally) white picket fences, starkly lovely town square church, and its homey cafe, where local men patted each others’ backs and often used nicknames left over from high school.
Our time living in town, though, started out not terrible at all. I was a little girl, four or five years old, just, I think, starting kindergarten, and I thought the next door neighbor’s seven-year-old boy — the son of the neighbors who were our landlords — was cute. You know, cute, as in, I thought he could be my little boyfriend.
We could hold hands, and whatever. And kids could make those stupid rhymes that I’d already heard, “Annie and Timmy sitting in a tree, K I S S I N G. First comes love, second comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage.”
In the narrative I carried in my mind for many, many years, this was the thing I did to cause the very bad thing. I was bored, so slipping notes under the locked, adjoining door between our apartments was fun — exciting even. I would ask my mother how to spell things. “Mom, how do you spell, ‘Timmy,’ and she would tell me. “Mom, tell me how to write, ‘I like you.'” and she would tell me.
Getting notes back was magical. I’d be in another room and hear a little scuff noise, and know that the mail was there. I’d make my mom read it to me. “Dear Annie, I like you to. Timmy.”
Something about it seemed vaguely secret, even though my mom knew every word of every note that passed under that door. Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t see Timmy all that often, since he was in school all day and I only had to go in the morning. Maybe it was the excitement of some innocent idea of romance. I knew it was exciting in the movies. And all the songs were about it.
Eventually, I think I wrote, “Timmy, I love you. Love, Annie.” Not long after that, the notes stopped. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I remember being puzzled. I’d done something not quite right, but what it was was well beyond my five-year-old’s understanding. I’ve never put the puzzle together completely, but now, finally, I no longer feel the need to. Things that have profound and long-lasting effects can happen almost by chance. It doesn’t have to make any sense.
I was five years old. I trusted people. No one had ever led me into danger, or tried to hurt me. I kept playing with the neighbor kids after school. Sometimes, Timmy was there. Sometimes not.
There were some older kids in the neighborhood, too. Sometimes they showed up when we were playing in the irrigation ditch that ran parallel to the street, floating paper boats under the pipe that ran under the driveway to see whose would come out first. They’d skip rocks along the ditch, or tell us how, if we caught a water skeeter and put it under a rock, it would turn into a penny. That’s why we also called them penny bugs. I never wanted to put one under a rock, though. I thought that anything that could literally walk on water deserved better.
It was early autumn, but still warm. Summer hung on. It must have been late September or October. We were outside. Then the older boys showed up. They asked me and Timmy if we wanted to come over and play a game.
We ended up in a musty, though finished, basement. I don’t recall much about what it looked like, except that it was dark and the walls had that cheap, wood panelling. Music was playing. It was music like I’d never heard before. Nothing like the country my dad listened to, or the pop music my mom always played on the car radio. It made me feel strange, like maybe I needed to pee. I started to get a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach — the one I’d later recognize as a sign that something wasn’t right.
It wasn’t. The boys were older, but I don’t know by how much. Maybe they were twelve, thirteen? Fourteen? All my five-year-old brain knew was that they were big kids. Big kids knew things. They could do things that I couldn’t do, and were privy to lots of secrets.
Lots of secrets. The game went like this. Timmy and I were to get underneath a blanket and pretend that we were in the desert and it was hot. “It’s really hot. So what do you do when it’s too hot?” I didn’t know. I just stayed under the blanket, sweating. “When it’s too hot,” one of them said, “you take off your clothes.”
That is how they got me to take off my clothes. And Timmy to take off his clothes. I don’t know what they were doing, or even how many there were, but they were standing up around us, watching. Then they told me to lie down on a table and told Timmy to climb on top of me. “You love Timmy, right?” they kept saying. “This is what you do when you love somebody. This is what everyone does.”
They had Timmy try to put his penis inside me. It hurt. I said so. The next things that happened are blurry. Either they stopped trying to make a seven year old have sex with a five year old because she said it hurt, or one of their older sisters walked into the room. I know the sister showed up, because she then asked her brother, one of the older kids, what the hell was going on. I think she helped me dress or ordered me to dress myself.
When I got home later than expected, my mother seemed frantic. “Where were you? What were you doing? Your shorts are on backwards. What happened?” The exact questions are lost in a fog, but their vague meanings are still there — the gigantic question she was asking me hung like a dark miasma over us, creeping coldly into my heart, yet incomprehensible to me, and I assume, urgent and terrifying to her.
In my five-year-old language, I tried to say what happened. By then I knew it was definitely something bad. It had to do with being late, and my shorts, and something else I just didn’t understand. Whatever it was, it caused terror to radiate from my mother in waves. What I didn’t know was whether I had done something bad, or if someone else had done something bad, or if something bad had just happened, like a house-fire, or a dead pet.
Despite not understanding, I sensed deep, deep shame. I struggled to feel that I could get a satisfying breath. I begged my mother not to tell my dad what had happened, which was, I now knew, a very bad thing. “Of course I’m going to tell your father!” she replied.
I still don’t know how she meant it. Did she mean, “You bet I’ll tell him because you’re a bad girl who has done a very bad thing and who needs to be punished”; or “You bet I’ll tell him because a very bad thing has happened, and he needs to know about the very bad thing“; or “You bet I’ll tell him because he’s going to punish someone else for the very bad thing“? I truly had no idea, because, you see, not much was said about it after that. And by that, I mean nothing.
What I do know is that I heard my little seven-year-old neighbor getting beaten senseless with a belt next door the next day. He shrieked in that way that is old, that comes from the center of our beings, from the old part of our brains where pain goes beyond sense. It was animal, that sound. It was the sound of a suffering animal. I had never heard a sound like that in my life, up to then. I imagined how it felt, and I wanted to cry out too. I wanted to beat myself because I thought it was my fault.
The things I understand now are that Timmy and I were both victims; that those older boys were probably also victims of some local victim turned victimizer. It was the 1970s in small town Utah, and really, the very bad thing was that no one explained to me that it wasn’t my fault. No one got me help. I was alone and confused and covered in the poison soot of a shame that belonged to someone else. Like the items from the housefire that we had to just throw away, I believed the dirt might never wash away.
The other things I understand now are that my parents were young and frightened and that they probably hoped against hope that I would forget the whole thing. I also know that they loved me/love me, fiercely, and that they did the best they could, and that my life would go on,
despite that moment after which nothing would ever be the same again.