I have a strong memory. I always have. I remember going to Disneyland when I was two years old. It was December. We were sitting in the parking lot, in our RV, eating breakfast and looking toward the park as the sun came up. I was anticipating the rides, and whether they would be scary. At the park, the first ride was the Matterhorn, and when the yeti jumped out at me, I was terrified. Later, we rode the Pirates of the Caribbean, where my dad told me the pirates were real. The idea that those drunken pirates could jump down and grab me at any moment was scarier than the Matterhorn. I remember my dad laughing while I panicked. I also remember thinking that I should be grateful for the trip, so I was. It was one of the only memories I have from my childhood where we did something kid-related. In my family, every activity revolved around my dad’s interests and hobbies. Even though some scary things happened that day, I filed the memories under “good.” It was only later that I realized that the way I was treated by my dad was pretty shitty. I didn’t go back to Disneyland until I was an adult, and I never saw any pictures from the event, except the one where we’re wearing obligatory matching sweatshirts, but I can still recall many details from that day.
I can also recall being sexually abused at the same age, and even younger. Some memories are pre-verbal. Most of them are tiny snapshots. Some are recovered memories that line up with other ones that are crystal clear from an older age. All of them are clumped together with a ton of situations where I was forced to comply. I was taught from birth that anyone can do whatever they want to me or my body, and if I complain, I will be in trouble. Any adult can grab me, tickle me, spank me, or push me around. If I say no, I will hurt their feelings. If I speak up, I will be in trouble.
The fear of being punished for saying no and not being allowed control of my own body translated to me being molested regularly until I was twelve. When I was a toddler, I had a knowledge of sexual things that I would blurt out occasionally. When I was in elementary school, I would flirt to get attention, because I thought that was the only way I would be noticed. When I was fourteen, I was raped.
There was a time in my adolescence where I pushed all of those memories away. I was afraid to admit to myself it happened, let alone anyone else. I had completely internalized and taken responsibility for the abuse. Then, little by little as I matured, I started to see it for what it was. How could a seven year old ever be responsible for what an adult was doing to her? On what planet is a seventh grader a slut? Why should it ever matter what I was wearing, or if I shouldn’t have been in that place at that time?
Some details of the early memories are still coming. When I started doing this work in therapy, I was concerned about recovered memories, because I had heard that they weren’t legit. As I researched more, I found there were several lawsuits in the 80s and 90s, where lawyers were successful in throwing it out as evidence. However, just because it could not be proven in a court of law did not mean it didn’t happen. There is plenty of research and evidence that support recovered memories for the sake of therapy. Even if the facts aren’t provable, the fact that it feels true to the victim is a matter to be addressed. As I go through my own work, I am finding I have enough evidence of clear memories and behaviors that, as an adult, connect many of the dots I couldn’t connect as a child. It’s like the Disneyland trip. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that what my dad said to me on the Pirates of the Caribbean was cruel. In the same way I filed that day under “good” memories, I will stumble across a memory of being molested that was previously filed in a different category and have to re-file it.
Thankfully, I learned to say no, even if I was afraid of being punished. Saying no to abuse is something I still have to do every day. It means saying no to thought patterns that formed when I was a young child coping with abuse. It means I question whether I am doing something nice out of choice or because “niceness” was how I was trained to be complicit. My knee-jerk reaction to conflict is still to be more worried about managing someone else’s feelings instead of my own. Each time it happens, I have to gently remind myself of the truth.
The vast majority of child sexual abuse cases go unreported. Of the ones that are reported, 90% of them involve someone that the victim knows. If a child speaks up, 90% of the time they are telling the truth. In my case, the cycle of abuse had started at a formative age, and perhaps the most damaging aspect was that I was taught from that start that I was bad and wrong for having boundaries. Teaching children to respect their bodies is essential for prevention, yet sadly, the kids who most need to be taught that are the ones whose parents teach the opposite.