One of the most formidable obstacles for me when I am writing about the past (or simply thinking about the past) is putting me in the same position I was then. It is too easy to take my current self and drop that level of experience, that mindset, that knowledge into past events. Of course this helps explain why I have such trouble forgiving myself for things that – at the time – were the best decisions I knew to make. It takes a lot of focus and a lot of consideration to adjust for what I didn’t know back then, what I hadn’t learned, and what wasn’t common knowledge.
I remember when Mara first told me she had been sexually abused by her paternal grandfather. It was New Year’s Eve, or more correctly it was in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, only a month or so after we’d started going out. I’d been invited to spend the evening with her family and their friends in a celebration, and despite my misgivings it turned out to be a pretty good time. There was champagne punch, which was weaker than the alcohol I was used to consuming at age 15 but still enjoyable. There were party games, including “pass the orange” which I’d first seen in Charade; that’s still one of my favorite movies. There was a game of Trivial Pursuit where our team won, in part because Mara’s father thought James Bond preferred his martini’s stirred and not shaken. There was also a game of Password which Mara and I won outright. We did get a lot of funny looks and some half-joking accusations of cheating when I said “Florida” and she knew to respond “ashtray” but it made sense to us and that was all that mattered.
I walked home from the party, and called Mara a little after settling in as she had asked me to. We laughed about some of the evening’s excitement on the phone, and then she told me she had something she needed to tell me. “I was molested by my grandfather, from when I was an infant until at least when I was twelve years old.” And I told her I was sorry. That was it.
It is difficult for people to understand that neither of us knew anything about the long-term effects of sexual abuse back then. Society seems to choose one secret issue at a time and expose it to the masses through movies, news specials, Judy Blume books and after school specials. Alcoholism was already a known commodity by then. When we were just reaching puberty drugs were getting their day; movies like “Not My Kid” focused on the problems with pills, marijuana and harder stuff. And eating disorders were just making the rounds. We’d just learned the difference between anorexia and bulimia, and a few of the supposed reasons behind them. But sexual abuse, which today is talked about like it happens all the time (and it does), was still a dirty little secret. Nobody talked about, nobody admitted it, and most of all nobody knew the long-term effects. So when Mara told me, for her it was more about sharing a shameful secret that I might consider made her gross or disgusting. And for me it was just an explanation that fit into some of her family dynamics. But for both of us, the fact that she had been sexually abused – even for so many years – was almost the same as her telling me about a car accident she had been in. It was something bad that happened. There was no real significance in the present, except that she didn’t want to be around her grandfather.
I know it isn’t my fault, and I know we were both ignorant of the truth, but I still haven’t forgiven myself for how wrong we were about the impact it would have – and already was having – on her life.
So much of the problem was just bad timing, and unfortunate circumstances. Mara was my first girlfriend, my High School sweetheart. She was the first person I had sex with, and the first woman I fell in love with. I had no basis of comparison to see how odd some of her behavior really was. It wasn’t like I could compare Mara to my mother; although at that age I didn’t know the specifics of an alcoholic schizophrenic I knew enough to realize my mother was a mess. I didn’t have a “normal” female role model to use as a guide. As time passed and Mara grew depressed, acted crazy, slept with anybody who showed an interest in her, had blackouts where she couldn’t remember anything, or seemed to become an entirely different person for hours at a time I just thought that’s how most women were. Or at least that’s how Mara was, and so I’d have to accept her that way. It wasn’t a question of why she did what she did. That was just her.
I also remember the day Mara first learned that so much of who she was, and so much of the things she felt and the way she thought and the things she was driven to do, were a result of the sexual abuse she had endured. We were living together, and Mara had suffered her first complete breakdown. It was bad enough for her to go to the mental hospital and stay for a month or more. They put her in the eating disorder ward because she had gained a lot of weight in the past few years, and because she regularly found herself binging on food. She didn’t’ purge, but they still classified her as a bulimic; today I think she would have been diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder but that wasn’t a choice then. The hospital wasn’t doing her a lot of good; they usually don’t. The Doctors spent very little time with each patient, and what time they did spend was taken up trying to decide on a pharmaceutical course of treatment. There were group therapy sessions where most of the discussions were about how the anorexic girls were sneaking laxative tea into the ward. There were also “family” sessions which were the same as the group sessions but included family members. Those were just about as useless as the others; half the parents or relatives would be angry about why their children or spouses weren’t getting better, and the other half would make enabling excuses for the patients’ actions…something like “I read about a condition where people get depressed from a lack of sunlight. I think that’s why she tried to slit her wrists again.”
Mara had talked in small groups about her life, and mentioned the sexual abuse. One nurse suggested that while she was in the hospital it might be a good time to tell her father about what HIS father had done to her. (Mara’s mother had already been told about the abuse at some point, although she would later deny this). As a preliminary step towards that discussion, they had me buy her a book on sexual abuse. I don’t remember exactly which one it was; it might have been “Healing the Shame That Binds You” or that may have just been one Mara read numerous times in later years. But whichever book it was, I bought it for her, and she read it one night after visiting hours were over. And when she was done reading it, she started screaming, ripped the book to pieces, throwing things around her assigned bed, and spent the next 24 hours in the “quiet room.”
A lot of people couldn’t understand why Mara reacted the way she did. But it made perfect sense to me. For so long she had blamed herself for the things she had been doing, and wondered what she had done wrong to make her so confused and so depressed and such a total wreck. Why her? Why these feelings, these reactions, and these problems? And now, suddenly, she picked up a book about sexual abuse and her LIFE was on every page. Everything she knew about herself, everything she couldn’t understand, everything about herself that she hated and made her wish she was dead was right there, page by page. HE had done this to her. She was broken, twisted, snapped, stretched, polluted, bleeding and bruised at age 21 because of things that had been done to her a decade earlier by someone she had loved and had trusted.
And now, in one evening of reading, she had learned just a part of the price she had paid for what he had done. And it was too much for her to handle. Mara boiled over, melted, and exploded all at once in the nuclear fission of being exposed to that much unwelcome knowledge so quickly, and in such an unfiltered fashion.
Things could never be the same again after that night. I suppose she had to know if she was going to get better. But knowing didn’t mean she would get better.