1. The Early Days of Healing
I open my eyes and know immediately it’s going to be “a day”. I feel like shit. I know why -though I prefer not to know.
My body is laden, full of rocks. That’s what it feels like. I am dull like a boulder, numb yet heavy. It takes a lot of effort just to move my limbs. I am vaguely nauseous and I want to stay in bed all day. Staying in bed is how I run from the heaviness. Sleep is my escape and my dear friend. It feels unbearable at times; the tightness in my chest is physically painful on days like today. Anxiety and shame run off me. I feel myself dripping in them. They are like a rain jacket gone awry- clinging to my skin, soaking me in exhaustion; steeping me in soggy irritability.
This is what I call a “body memory day”. I’ve gone months and months without them but I’ve never gone years. Sometimes they come seemingly out of the blue, sometimes out of the sadness. Other days they are sparked by rage, loneliness or feelings of being overwhelmed. Perhaps I will run into a man that reminds me of my father in some way. Perhaps I’ll hear a voice that sounds like him. He was my father and my captor. He was a rapist and a thief.
I am a survivor of incest. I survived the experience. It’s an ugly, unfathomable cloud that has followed me around for much of my life. I have only begun to conceptualize how this disaster has permeated each experience I have lived through. From depression to alcoholism, hypochondria and binge eating as well as infertility, the consequences of my father’s actions have been far reaching. I feel robbed, hysterical and incredibly pissed off.
I have to write about it. I have to tell the truth. I cannot pretend I am okay for one more second. I feel broken down and nervous. My hands shake. I lose track of what I am talking about. All I want to do is sit in silence but my mind won’t allow this. It picks and berates. Belittles me. I do this to myself; my mind is undisciplined on these days, my thoughts run amok. I pick up where my father left off. I pick and pick at the scab he made and I know I should stop but I cannot.
I changed my name when I was 18 years old. My given name is Leaha. Pronounced the same as Leah. I think my father thought it was somehow Avant-garde to change the spelling and make it into something odd. He cared about breaking the mold in really foolish ways. He wanted everyone to know he was the exception to the rule, the special one. He was a narcissist. Text book really. He viewed me as nothing more than an object for his use.
I changed my name for several reasons. He named me for one. He called me by my name, said so many awful things to Leaha. Ugly, rancid things. Leaha, as I experienced myself, needed a clean slate, a fresh start.
I was also afraid of him. Afraid he would come, find me and kill me now that I was doing what he had forbidden. I was telling on him by pressing charges. I was threatening his family. Even though I was his family. I shaved my head, relocated to Harrisonburg, VA and changed my name all the while only being dully aware that I was afraid for my life. He had made it very clear to me that he wouldn’t think twice of killing me if I told anyone about what had happened between us. What I had done. Not what HE had done or even what WE had done. What I had done.
He was watering the garden and as he threatened me and he spoke calmly, which made him quite believable.
“You know that I would kill anyone who tries to mess up our family. That includes you. I suggest you keep your mouth shut this summer. Got it?” He made it all sound so reasonable.
I was on my way to spend the summer with my mother in Maine and he must have been worried I was going to spill the beans. My stomach did flip-flops as he made sure I understood the depth and weight of his promise. No one was to ever threaten him or his family. Not even his daughter. Especially not his daughter. I’d like to say I seethed as he told me this-that I looked right at him, kicked him in the balls and ran to the nearest police station. Or even to the neighbors. But I didn’t. I began shaking.
As soon as I turned eighteen I made the decision that I would press charges against him for the abuse. And I did. And I won. He remained on the sex offender list for the remainder of his life. I hope it prevented him from hurting other people but he was so full of poison- I know that for as long as he was on this planet, he was hurting someone. My stepmother stood by him until after his dying day. She is loyal to him even today; at least that’s what I hear. I know that she paid the price as did their child together, my half brother Daniel. Daniel and I are estranged. He believes my father’s version of the story- that I was a perverted temptress bent on destroying my father. Why that narrative is more believable to him I can only guess. Maybe its because it allowed him to continue to depend and rely on his parents. Quite a clever trick actually. Emotionally smart. I have decided to let Daniel be. I cannot salvage that relationship- we were so young when “it” happened. He was still a small boy. I was thirteen. The last time I saw him was at the courthouse when I was eighteen. My father and stepmother had decided to use him as a manipulation, a tug on the heartstrings of the court instead of shielding him from the ugliness of seeing his father prosecuted in a court of law for pedophilia. I can imagine what the judge thought. So, I give Daniel a lot of space. I don’t need to be Daniel’s lightning rod. I feel sadness about how it all turned out. Of course. It feels like another loss in the annals of my childhood. I think of Daniel’s facial expression when I saw him last. I waved at him as I exited the parking lot of the courthouse. He looked lost, abandoned, and pale. Angry. I was shaking having just come off the horror of testifying against my father. I thought to myself, “That’s the best I can do kiddo.” I try not to think of what Daniel’s childhood must have been like. His adolescence. I try to understand how a convicted pedophile can be left to raise a child in this country.
I don’t remember a lot about the trial. I remember terror and begging the guard to search my father in a panicked whisper. I was sure he had a gun. I remember shaking on the stand and swallowing the hard nub in my throat, a deep dull ache and throb. I left the courthouse and drove straight to the house where the abuse had occurred. I’m not sure why I did this. I had to see it for some reason; it was such a famous place in my life. The place where my life went to smithereens, the scene of the crime. I felt like I wanted an autograph or something to make it more concrete. I hadn’t been there in five years. By the time I got there I was sick to my stomach from shaking, crying and screaming; Ani DiFranco was blaring on my stereo. I threw myself down in the backyard where the garden used to be. I threw myself down like Scarlet O’Hara might in a barren potato field. I had so much feeling inside me, so much rage; I didn’t know how to get it out of my body. I heaved there for a while. I’m not sure how long. As I was leaving I noticed the house didn’t look abandoned but it didn’t look occupied either. I always wonder if there was someone in there, trying to figure out what to do with the hysterical young woman in the backyard.