Some nights when I am unable to sleep, my mind plays over and over in my head the time when I was 10 years old visiting my grandparents’ home, five states away from my own home, hiding behind the china cabinet, listening to the two of them argue over the kitchen bar.
As I stood there, frozen in my cream pajamas with tiny rosebuds on them, listening to my grandmother warn my grandfather, “People will start to wonder when they see you favor her over her brother,” I realized that she was choosing her husband, my grandfather, over me, her granddaughter. And as my heart dropped and my cheeks burned crimson, I realized that she knew what he was doing to me, and she was giving him directions on how to hide our secret.
I realized that she knew, and she knew everything.
She chose a pedophile over me. She chose to roll over in her bed at night when he got out of the bed to come into mine. She chose to put me in the bedroom across the hall from them, instead of further down the hall, out of his grasp. She knew he had groomed me with threats to keep my mouth shut for all of these years, and groomed my parents, his own son, to trust him to leave their precious child alone with him because grandparents should be the adults you can trust to leave your child alone with. She knew that he would ejaculate on me, or in me, and put me in the bathtub or their pool to “cleanse” me.
She knew all of this, I would come to figure out as she and I argued. And yet, she chose their money over me, even though she was an educated woman and could have supported herself without him. She chose security in their wealth and success over me. She chose everything else in her life over an innocent child.
My parents knew she chose him over me, and my parents chose me over them. Choosing me, they once told me, was the easiest decision they ever made. That their love for me and concern for my future stability and happiness mattered more than anything else — even the rest of their own families. They knew with the right help, I could and would go on to live the life I deserved. I had already been in therapy for disordered eating, which developed into severe anorexia as my way to cope with the abuse. It was the beginning of the hardest phase of my life, a avalanche of shame, anger, and grief.
Several years later, I figured out that my family wasn’t like the other families of the kids I went to school with. Sitting on the porch swing of a friend, I listened to a friend complain that she was going to have to spend time with her grandmother. My weekends and holidays weren’t spent with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins, like hers were. I couldn’t figure out what my emotion was. I only knew she had a grandmother to spend time with and I didn’t, even though I knew I didn’t even want to spend time with my own grandmother, who I knew to be a bad person. I wanted what she had, and instead I felt the weight of the shame my family had from a secret that no one else knew.
My father had joined the military, putting space between himself and his family even before my parents knew what my grandfather inflicted upon me. After they knew, they fled the situation by choosing to rank assignments that would keep thousands of miles between us and them, giving our family the easiest reason to be as far away from family without prying questions from neighbors and friends.
Guilt became a dominating emotion for me for most of my life. I felt guilty my father cut himself off from his family, and I felt guilty that my little brother was robbed of an extended family because of something that happened to me. I felt guilty that by them moving so far away, it moved us away from my mother’s family, who didn’t hurt me.
About 10 years passed and my grandparents began to try to manipulate their way back into our lives. About once a year, I would receive a check and a handwritten note that always ended with “blood is thicker than water,” and “God speaks of forgiveness in the Bible.” For several years, I cashed the check and donated the money to the local rape crisis center. And then about 10 years ago, when I moved to another town, my parents would still receive the letters in the mail, addressed to me. They shredded them at my request.
Eventually, the letters stopped.
Once I was happily married and had children, my only hope was that they could grow up with what I didn’t — an extended family. We live in a town with my husband’s family, and I am able to look forward to crowds of family at our dinner table for holidays. My parents live in a nearby town, and my brother lives on the other side of town, and we see them often.
What I didn’t realize was that by giving our children the one thing I wanted as a child is how difficult it would be knowing exactly what I missed out on in my own childhood. When our youngest son asks me over and over with excitement what time his cousin will be over, or when my brother shows up to ride bikes with him, a pang of a mixture of grief and anger causes my stomach to turn. I feel this flicker of shame creep onto my cheeks which over the years has quickly turned to gratitude and happiness for the life I have given to them. I know now what I missed out on; the waves of emotions come and go. I acknowledge these negative feelings because they are outweighed by the positive emotions I have from a life better spent.
I didn’t anticipate what a leap of faith it would be to let adults into our children’s lives. I know that evil can appear anywhere, including in the individuals we are supposed to trust the most. For the first few years of their lives, it physically pained me to let our children out of my sight, knowing that I can’t see all of the danger, but I knew I had to in order not to pass my distrusting feelings on to our children. This leap of faith has given me the ability to learn to trust others and teach our children how to trust, something that is crucial to feeling safe.
Thirty years later, our secret is no longer a secret. And with age comes the wisdom that most families have dysfunction; some just hide it better than others. As a parent, I can only imagine the guilt that my parents felt, and I am forever grateful that they chose me over him, the rest of his family, and the financial security that would have come with turning the other cheek. They chose me because my future and happiness was worth it to them. On the other side of grief, sadness, and displaced shame for someone else’s actions, I know I would have chosen the exact same thing, because I know how happy and beautiful life can be on the other side.