Let the record show that I spoke up for Susan Kerr and said that what she endured was not okay

Content note: trauma, child abuse, generational dysfunction, childhood sexual violence

So I’m not attaching or bonding with my parents, I’m developing a ridiculously unhealthy dependency on a horrific abuser. And no one talks about any of this because they don’t have the skills to do so. Welcome to 1972.

“How much do you love me?”

I remember asking my mum this in petulant tone because I did not understand why she made decisions that truly hurt me – like abandoning us after-school without a way into our home or not showing up on Halloween to help us get our costumes ready or simply not getting up from bed to make breakfast from 4th grade onward.

The memory is clear. We were on the porch while she riffled through her purse to find the house keys. I had been sitting on a chair in the dusky night, waiting for my parents to come home from whatever they were doing. My younger brother took advantage of the opportunity to go find other kids to pay with, knowing I would call him when we could get in the house. I remember the grayness of the sky, the very slight chill in the air, and my holding the screendoor open while she fumbled for the keys, then both of us moving into the warm house for a makeshift dinner.

My mother told me in complete seriousness that a woman’s first priority was always her husband, then her children. This had been deeply ingrained in her by her own mother, who perhaps was a bit desperate her mentally ill daughter would not find a husband much less keep him. So she warped her daughter emotionally.

So I’ve spent my entire life knowing I came third – first the husband, second the male child, then the worker bees like me. and girls. It was like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in a Pittsburgh suburban configuration. I always identified with Martha and her resentment that seemed quite fair to me. If no one woke up to prepare breakfast or came home to unlock the house after school, what good was Mary to me? I was hungry/cold/scared.

So I spent my whole life chasing my parents’ approval, love, and validation even though it was clear they would never show up for me as I needed. I knew this “husband first” line was antiquated bull-shit, but pushing back against generations of ingrained messaging was a bit much for any kid.

I believe my parents love me to the best of their ability. But I’ve rarely felt it. This is a classic symptom of attachment disorder – my bond with my dad and mum is more intellectual than emotional. There’s a hole in my heart that will never be filled.

When I was born, I was separated from them for an undetermined amount of time. My mother’s mental health deteriorated from the pregnancy and from the abuse she secretly endured from a male family-in-law member. She was pregnant again before I turned eight months old. She ended up confined to a psychiatric unit and I was sent to live with extended family, typically a healthy decision. Tragically, I ended up with her abuser.

He had a prolific record of sexual violence, ranging from young adolescent girls to young adult women, including family members. Some older women in the family spoke out, but his staunch defenders stood by him.

No one stood by me, a little baby with a very ill mother and a father trying to earn a living and cope. None of the other adults took me in to their homes.

He likely did not target me as an infant living in his home while my father worked and my mother was hospitalized. What he did was begin to groom me. He had ten years or so to work with me until I would age into his target age range.

So I’m not attaching or bonding with my parents, I’m developing a ridiculously unhealthy dependency on a horrific abuser. And no one talks about any of this because they don’t have the skills to do so. Welcome to 1972.

How long did this go on? Weeks, months, maybe as long as three years. I don’t know. I can’t reasonably find out without digging up very painful wounds for the adults who *did* try to say something and were silenced by the social mores of the late 60’s and early 70’s. I’m too grateful to them for trying. And some victims or would-be-victims are still alive.

I do know that by the age of four, I was living with my parents and brother in our own home. Everyone expected that things would magically get better.

They never did.

I had no security during those weeks, months, and years. In fact, the grooming which I’ll explore in another post just undermined any tenterhooks of healthy coping skills. My world was not safe to explore, my curiosity was warped and redirected and terrifying. Classic disorganized attachment. The adults in my life were not only failing to meet my emotional needs, but leaving me exposed to truly threatening fears disguised as comfort.

For awhile in my childhood, I was very fond of the abuser and his family. I felt safe and loved and valued there. I felt cherished. I wanted to be there. When I began to learn the truth and unpack what it had meant for me, I lost all of those good feelings and memories to the horror of realizing it was all designed to prey on me and protect him.

I have no analogy to describe how it felt when this was happening, when I learned it had happened, or when I realized the magnitude of the complicity of all of my extended family.

My mother coped by doing the duty ingrained in her. Until she couldn’t and then she ghostwalked through life, also betrayed and violated and broken.

As my birthday approaches, a milestone I covered in a previous blog post, I try to remember my childhood birthday celebrations. One year, I had chicken pox so we went to Howard Johnson and I remember the vanilla ice cream in the tin dish. One year we had a party at my house, during the “before time” when my mother was functioning. One year my mother made stew and told me I had asked for it, but I didn’t remember. And that’s it.

Well, one year my groomer gave me a stuffed animal that I lugged around with me from age 6 to now. It is here in our home, wrapped up carefully. I loved that critter fiercely for years and can’t bring myself even now to let go of some shred of a good birthday memory.

These are what’s known as ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ or ACES. There are ten yes/no questions and I answer yes to nine of them. This greatly increases my potential for health risks in my adult life (check) and chronic trauma (check.)

Fortunately, I’ve carried myself along through life by being intelligent and resourceful. Because I have nothing else – no iota of resiliency from healthy relationships, no financial stability, nothing. When I was a kid, I traded on being smart – I helped with homework, I let kids cheat off my tests to bolster my allies, I knew that being smart was my ticket out and no one else was going to help me.

When I landed at age 40 as a totally and permanently disabled adult, I was lucky to have my wonderful wife and good therapists who eventually led to me to understand my chronic trauma diagnosis and what it meant for me back in my childhood and now.

So I am actually doing okay in my dotage because I’m not alone and I’m not unaware. But as mentioned in my earlier post, I am statistically likely to have my lifespan shortened by 20 years because of all that trauma. So I’m not just feeling sad about my birthday – I’m responding to the very real possibility I’m not going to have a lot of milestones to celebrate. And that’s not a ‘getting old’ joke. It is the consequence of destructive choices made by other people, most of whom lived into their 90s.

It is why I hope to build my feral cats a winter fortress with bales of straw, wooden houses, and maybe some cheerful decoration. They deserve better.

And that is why I am going to start sharing my story, especially the bad stuff, before it is too late. I want the record to show that I spoke up for Susan Kerr and said that what she endured was not okay.

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