My First Doll

Mary in her cradle

Content Note: sexual violence, assault, intergenerational trauma, child abuse

I still have my very first baby doll, a rag doll named Mary. She sleeps in a cradle that was originally a wooden planter. She lived on a relatives dresser for many years and I finally inherited her when that person moved. I’ve written before about sad stories involving a childhood doll. This one is different and worse.

She’s like a little ghost, tied with string around her neck, and tucked to sleep with fabric scraps. I never felt a sentimental pull toward her, but dutifully visited her and took her in to a space on my own dresser. I’ve never cuddled or stroked her, simply kept her safe out of duty and obligation.

I was born in October 1970 in Upper St Clair. My Dad relocated us from their apartment in Mt. Lebanon to Baldwin Court Apartments while I was in the hospital.

My mother was pregnant again in eight months. She was hospitalized at some point in a psych unit and stayed there for long after my brother was born. She had endured a lifelong battle with depression and had been assaulted by a male relative, a pattern of assault that continued through my childhood.

I was sent to live with extended family during this time. By extended family, I mean the perpetrator. I was separated from my mother for nearly two years and had visits from my father while I was raised by a man who assaulted my mother (and others) and his wife.

Healthy attachment practices suggest that when parents are not available, children raised by family is next best thing to develop bonding skills. Not always. I would have been much better off tossed into the foster care system. I say that as a former foster care system worker.

I never had a chance. I was bonding with a serial predator who was grooming me. I was saved from the worst outcomes not by the many other adults in my family, but by the fact that my predator was old. I was not unscathed or undamaged. I was brutalized and struggling.

I figured this out, piece by piece, on my own over forty five years. Mary was part of it. I had been told I stayed with these family members when my mother was hospitalized and led to believe it was a few weeks during infancy. This was the official version.

An infant wouldn’t play with a rag doll in a cradle. An infant wouldn’t have played with small wooden blocks that are in the cradle, too.

Then I did the math, based on known facts such as when we moved into the house I grew up in and the slight handful of photos from those early days. I remember being treated to presents and gifts that did not include my brother, but did include sleepovers. I remember going to my very first movie with him and being overwhelmed by the clearly not fora  7-year-old content.

It was years I spent there, at his house as a baby. Years that filled my head with ridiculous beliefs from his twisted grooming tactics. I was confused and unsure of myself, I lost touch with my own humanity and value as a human being.

I never had a chance.

Most of the adults in my life knew the whole story. My cousins are now adults, too. Most are Trumpies who vote based on fear, ignorance, and selfish entitlement. They will never speak out.

I still resent that they just left me there. I was an innocent and helpless baby. Some had few resources, others had a lot but living in a closet under the steps would have been better than being dumped on the very worst person in the entire family. How could these so-called Christians put my father in that position, turn their backs on ny mother’s grievous suffering? How could they abandon me to that fate? How do you prioritize a vacation home at the beach over helping children in your family?

I didn’t even know this happened, much less get support and tools to process it for DECADES. Well, I had hints and glimpses about the sexual predation and grooming. But where do you take that? Family isn’t safe. Church is worse. Same with school. So you just push it down inside.

The horror and loathing are like a second skin fused onto the person I might have been. The suffering and devastation of realizing no one came to save me or help me recover is part and parcel with a family wracked with violence, addiction, and the core belief that you don’t talk about these things, beliefs held dear on both sides of my family.

I know that I survived, endured, and overcame, but that’s cold comfort to a child overtly groomed by a sexual predator who had violated most of the women and girls in my family. Thank God I had Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church nearby, I say bitterly.

I think I understand now why I kept Mary all these many years. Her existence confirms parts of my story, she’s tangible proof that these things happened. She is literally information I needed to realize just how long I was there living with this predator.

The damage is widespread, of course. The sexual violence is tied to the prevalence of addiction, especially alcoholism and the dark violent secrets so prevalent in the 20th century. My predator grew up in a fucked up environment himself. It is likely he was assaulted soon after his father died. His enabler was also damaged from childhood trauma.

I wish I could say my predator’s death put an end to his terror, but that’s not true. Other survivors struggle, often in denial. DNA matching in my genealogy hobby has introduced me to brand new victims and left me wondering how many girls and women were victimized. How many unknown relatives are possibly out there?

And wondering what I will say if they ask. Will I be brave enough to tell the truth?

Mary will be a reminder for me to be the adult I wish had taken action in my own young life.

If you need support, call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Mary did you know?


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