Eleanor Cowan

 

Healing old pain through a new disordered relationship

My throat, arms, and legs felt swollen. Not for the first time, the thought occurred: “Death would be an instant relief.” I could hardly walk. Heavy with grief, a searing acidic ache in my stomach, I arrived at the weekend retreat held by a support group for those affected by the addictions of a loved one. Assigned to a tiny room the size of a storage cupboard in the small community college, I dropped the worn backpack I’d hastily stuffed with an old nightie, soap, and toothbrush. I chose a seminar among those offered on the agenda lying on the desk and stumbled to it.

What was going on for me? I’d met someone. It had been five years since I’d left my sex-addict pedophile husband. I’d learned so much in my support group for Parents of Sexually Abused Children. I’d gone back to school, upgraded my teaching certification and landed work I loved. I was attending to both of my children and their painful fallout around their father. I’d felt better than I ever had.

Then, one day, I realized I was falling in love. It all happened so quickly. I could hardly believe my intense attraction to a woman who, as it turned out, lied to me from the get-go about her distinguished academic credentials, her artistic capacities, her musical talent as a guitarist – and her gratitude that at long, long last she’d met someone as wonderful, talented, deep and dear as me.

Stunned at her incredible attentiveness, her fabulous good humor and her knowledge about feminist activism, I began to look forward to our time together more and more. I began to question, as I thought of her incessantly, in “Am I gay? Am I falling in love with a woman?” After several months, I shared my new feelings with my children, both of whom encouraged me to be happy.

One day though, I got to see a completely different side of Sandy – and learned all about the concealed mental illness for which she’d stopped taking medication, her history of alcohol and drug abuse, her several suicide attempts and her chronic lies. She hadn’t finished high school and couldn’t play a note.

Suddenly, over a minor dispute, Sandy flew into a rage, threw a glass across the kitchen where it smashed into a thousand shards and stormed out. That was it. We broke up. I’d never see her again. When Sandy threatened suicide a week later, we got together. Then broke up. Then got together. Then broke up again. Finally, Sandy’s criticism of my daughter, my diagnosis of endometriosis, the threat of skin cancer, and thoughts of early death at yet another unbelievably crazy and screwed-up relationship – all led me to this retreat.

During that first seminar, I sat in the back row and, comforted by the presence of many others on a mission of healing. I wept as I listened to an older woman named Emily, the guest speaker, talk about the violence of her father from which her mother had rescued her, followed less than a year later by the sexual abuse of her new stepfather. She shared about her divorce from an alcoholic who’d successfully hidden his sex addiction behind his claim of being a recovering alcoholic drug-addict. Claiming to be a person of faith just as my ex-husband had, he believed that God would solve his secret, private problem without the aid of less compassionate human beings.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up into Emily’s peaceful face.

“Come,” she said. “Let’s get some food into you.”

This kind woman ushered me to a seat in the crowded cafeteria and soon returned with a bowl of vegetarian chili, a glass of water and a bowl of fresh sliced pears. As I ate my meal under her watchful eye, she said she’d heard me speak on another occasion and knew the story of my marriage to a sex addict who molested our children. She knew how grateful I was for all the expert support I’d experienced since my divorce. I replied that I was shocked to find myself in this terrible turmoil – so far from the peace I thought I’d accomplished.

“But you did accomplish that peace. You did grow. You did heal. All of your hard work was indeed successfully completed,” she said. “You’re not recoiling. You’re not mad or insane. You’re not retreating or falling backward, Eleanor. You’ve simply graduated. You’re now qualified for a much deeper clearing out at a much deeper level. Again, you’re not going backward. You’ve earned the capacity to go forward. This is all part of that process.”

I finished the chili. I ate the fresh fruit and drank the water. I listened, alert and grateful to an older woman in her early seventies, for generously sharing her insights with me, a forty-five-year-old.

That night, for the first time in weeks, I slept soundly. I dreamed of descending into a gray cellar where I approached an old, dusty, locked door. I’d placed my hand on the handle and was turning it when I awakened. Finding Emily in the cafeteria, she invited me to join her. Smiling, she pushed a tiny package towards me, a gift she purchased at the student tuck-shop. Wrapped in thick layers of Kleenex – a tiny pin of a graduation hat! Emily invited me to spend the day with her and I gratefully accepted.

That day, weeping into the soft tissue Emily had provided, I listened as she shared that she’d been an actor specializing in understudy work. For decades, she replaced lead actors who could no longer be present to perform.

“Over the years,” Emily explained, “it dawned on me that since I’d not done my healing work around my two violent fathers, because I just rampaged into the “get married, have children, start fresh” script, I sensed I’d just found a likely candidate to fill in for the missing hurtful people I’d never healed from. I learned many, many hard lessons until, finally, I figured out my own role.

Emily asked, “How long have you known Sandy?”

“Six months,” I replied.

“I wonder then,” she gently suggested, “If the giant grief I’m witnessing is not about Sandy at all? You only met half a year ago? I’m wondering if Sandy is your replacement understudy, your fill-in person for someone in your earlier history? Basement grief you haven’t yet dealt with?”

That afternoon, I thought about my mother, a parent with whom I’d never bonded or even liked, although I cared about her. I’d wanted to love her. I thought about her erratic mood swings, her harsh forms of communication – shouting and screaming, her throwing things, her sudden cruel criticisms, calling me a brainless idiot, and her wielding of a Mexican horsewhip when she was depressed or angry at me or one of her many unwanted children, kids required of her by her predatory religion. Unhealed from her own unresolved history, my mother ended her life at 52, in an alcoholic fall from her seventh-floor balcony.

At supper time, Emily explained to me her theory that if there’s cruelty from which we haven’t recovered, somehow, in a natural attempt to deal and heal, we’ll unconsciously attract an understudy into our lives, someone resembling the first abuser.

“In this way, we re-set the old stage. If we rewrite the script properly, we can leave the theatre at the end of the drama, instead of suffering rehearsal after horrible rehearsal.”

I thought about Emily’s idea, but one thing bothered me. Later that final evening, I shared with her that I hadn’t cried when my mother died. Nor had I cried when my Dad died. I never got to know my parents, two distant, humorless and depressed people. I admitted to Emily that I’d never felt the kind of grief that I saw in other grievers.”

“That’s true,” said Emily, “Nor have you ever experienced genuine love with your ex-husband Stan, or with Sandy. You know, it’s possible to deeply grieve what you never had. It’s possible to mourn the love, affection, warmth and rich history you never knew. People can grieve what they missed, you know.”

“I see,” I said, as we walked in the evening dusk to the riverside. “I never knew that.”

I never saw Emily again, but have always treasured our two days together, rich hours of education that remind me over and over to honor myself. I stay away from harsh or cruel individuals. I speak up to protect myself and others. I no longer tolerate abuse.

As our bus sped home, I realized I’d left my old backpack in my room – and suddenly felt lighter. I thought about getting a new purse and wallet. I knew that this time, Sandy and I were finished. We never met up again. Instead, when I arrived home, my daughter and I prepared a delicious supper and talked about her fall studies. Nell said she had only two courses left to graduate which in turn would qualify her for more advanced studies. I nodded. I smiled. I got it.

Emily taught me that what appears to be a step back may, in fact, be an invitation to heal a deeper layer of unresolved personal grief. She taught me not to judge my process, but to approach it with a spirit of inquiry and kindness.

I’m writing a wonderful new script in my life today. I have the lead role!

 

Fill in the blank: ‘Detaching from the abuser in my life feels like _____’

One early evening at the end of the second year in my support group for Parents of Sexually Abused Children, we were invited to participate in a new activity together. Our lead Social Worker, Aidan, also an artist and storyteller, suggested that we complete two unfinished sentences, each in our own words.

The first was, “Detaching from the abuser(s) in my life feels like _____.

The second was, “Once I let go, I found myself _____.

I’d like to share the responses I heard that evening with Lovefraud readers.

Aidan, also a former victim of physical predation both in her childhood and in her adult life, began:

“Finally detaching from my abuser dissolved tiny sharp shards of anxiety in my gut. My breathing changed from whisper-light to deeper. I went to bed smiling for the first time in my life. I awakened feeling well in the morning. I could lay back on my soft pillows for a few moments instead of leaping out of bed to ‘busy’ away from the usual rush of stressful thoughts.

“Once I let go, I found myself decluttering my home. First, my crammed bedroom closets. Next, I emptied the stuffed storage cupboards in the basement of things I hadn’t seen in years. At last, free space. ”

Next to Aidan, Ruth cradled her warm teacup. She became a lawyer after she was widowed, after she entrusted her son to her brother while she returned to law school. Her brother sexually abused her son, a youth who later hung himself in Ruth’s basement. Now working on behalf of trafficked teens, Ruth regularly attends our meetings.

“Detaching from the abuser of my son felt like only a toothpick of weight was lifted. The price of my brother’s predation was so high. After he was sentenced to jail, I followed behind the police van taking him to his prison gates in Ontario. I watched as the metal doors clanged shut behind him. Then I threw myself into my work helping youth whose innocent bodies provide pleasure for criminal consumers. Every time our team convicts a predator, I feel relief. That’s what helps me most of all.”

An amputee, Ruth often points out she’ll never get her missing leg back, but she has the best prosthesis available. “I’ll never get my son back, but I do the very best with my life that I possibly can.”

Next in the small circle came Lee, abused by an alcoholic parent, who struggled with food issues most of her life. When her two girls were molested by their older brother, Lee’s arthritis and diabetes symptoms soared. “Detaching at last from the predator of my daughters, my own son, felt like I’d been handed a diploma. I knew I’d earned this, and yet, when the welcome moment of release happened, it honestly felt like a tremendous personal gift. I kept saying to my kids, ‘I can’t believe it! I’m happy again! I’m happy!’ Once I seriously came to terms with my son’s pedophilia, I found myself looking up weight loss programs. I joined one that had a social component – not too many rules – just lots of support. I’ve made wonderful new friends. With my weight loss, my arthritis pain is reduced, and my diabetes is less acute.

That year Lee transformed her gourmet catering business into a vegetarian/vegan enterprise, more in keeping with her own eating goals.

Soon, it was my turn to complete the two unfinished lines. I used our leader’s prompts as a starting point, but answered in my own words:

“Realizing I was really and truly free from my abuser occurred in gusts of reality, bursts that erupted into consciousness. There’d be spontaneous joy as walked to my new home after work, or purchased pastry for the kids’ dessert, or realized I’d slept in peace through an entire unbroken night. Months earlier, someone had asked me how long it took me to get over my divorce. I’d replied, ‘A single weekend. Once I made my decision, the suffering ended.’ Those grinding years of demoralizing confusion and self-blame ended. The duration of years of submersion in disassociation, while living with a covert pedophile, hurt far more than the ending.

“Once I escaped, I found myself seeking more support – a group for adult children of alcoholics, one for adult children of parents who had committed suicide, another for victims of rape and mental abuse. I chose one in which I felt comfortable. I also found myself reading inspiring memoirs filled with powerful insights about reclaiming one’s life.

“Words like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘letting go’ felt irrelevant to me. Instead, vocabulary such as analysis and research and examination meant far more. I wanted to study a society that produced so many conscience-less predators, rapists, and pedophiles. What was wrong? What caused this horrible human aberration? Why the taboo of silence around such atrocity? I decided to add to my teaching credentials to become a certified life skills educator. Studying for a forever career cost a lot less than forever therapy, and put me in a position of responsibility, one I’d honor.”

All of us agreed, that evening, that we felt liberated now, free to live, to accomplish, to excel and thrive in an imperfect world.

Yes, we’d detached from our abusers, but far more important, we’d found our very valuable selves!

After the sociopath, taking back power and standing up to bad behavior

On Tuesday, a young friend from Montreal called with good news. A single mother of four children, proud of her escape from an abusive ex-husband, Kaila is back at school, works part-time to cover the groceries, and, each week it seems, successfully faces yet another challenge to advance her world.

On Monday, a problem with the toilet required a plumber. Kaila called the “cheapest in town” ad circled in red ballpoint in an old phone book. In his early 50’s, the uniformed plumber waited for Kaila to return from taking her children to school that morning. As he inspected the toilet in her apartment, he began to talk about the high cost of living. Raising his eyebrows, he whistled as he announced: “Big buck problem here.” He also spoke of the crazy rise in food prices, bus passes, ice skates. “The kiddie list goes on and on,” he smiled. Approaching Kaila, he touched her breast.

“How about free service?” he inquired, standing so close she could feel his breath on her face.

“You need to leave right now,” said Kaila. Alone in her apartment, she moved to the door.

“Ah c’mon now,” he said. “Don’t be like that. It’s $75 dollars for the half hour to drive over here and another $150 for the hour to replace your cracked pipe. Gimme ten minutes and we’re even.”

“Get out,” said Kaila. “Right now.”

Twenty minutes later, on her way to work and for the first time in her life, Kaila stepped into the local police dept. to alert them about the predator, the plumber who worked for himself.

“Will you press charges?” asked the officer, gripping the offender’s business card. Mis-reading Kaila’s expression as hesitation, he added that she might do so for all the poor women in the neighbourhood who’d fall prey to his shameless bribe.

“Of course,” replied Kaila. “I want this creep stopped!”

Later that day, Kaila learned more about the predator who, in the new-immigrant community close by, took full advantage of struggling newcomers.

“He raped a refugee woman whose citizenship papers were not yet official. Of course, she didn’t want to go to the police nor call attention to herself in any way. She feared her acceptance into the country might be jeopardized. She’s now pregnant. And she’s not his first victim.” said Kaila.

Kaila’s call meant so much to me.

On Wednesday, at my hospital volunteer job, my 84-year-old co-volunteer commandeered the front desk to make a personal call about his faulty phone bill. When I asked to use the computer to register the patient beside me, Greg yelled at me. “Back off! You darn well wait till I’m done!”

“Never mind,” whispered the pale young woman, rolling her eyes. “He’s old,” she added, offering a ready excuse for bad behavior. She took a seat. I pulled out my cell phone.

It took ten seconds for the Director of Volunteers to arrive on the scene and invite the rude offender to the office for a wee chat. Since Greg continued to justify his disrespectful behavior, the coordinator suggested he review his reasons for volunteering at the hospital and determine if such service remained on his priority list. The ill patient watched Greg tear out the door— and smiled.

This weekend, Kaila and I shared our small victories, the tiny triumphs still so necessary in our society, mini-victories that fell to us to accomplish. We felt proud. We took responsibility. We each of us did our small part.

“Our plumber predator won’t roam free anymore,” Kaila said. “Since I pressed charges, the police are moving forward with full prosecution. I’ll see the creep in court.”

“Wow, that’s great,” I said. “Think of all the terrified newcomers he’s held hostage for who knows how long!”

Moments later, Greg called, his tone subdued. He apologized to me. He said he’d behave on Thursday.

While the degrees of treachery in our two stories differed, Kaila and I agreed that the themes were the same.

We also agreed that our solutions had nothing to do with ignoring, overlooking or discounting problems.

We keep our own power tool kits at the ready.

Sociopath exerts control by holding important people and events hostage

One winter’s day, busy preparing to drive to a free art lesson for my children and their young friends, my disagreement with my husband took an unwanted turn.

I’d contested Stan’s view of God’s endless compassionate mercy and boundless clemency.

“If that’s so true,” I asked, “What’s hell for?”

My husband was a covert pedophile, although I didn’t know it at the time. Molesting our young daughter and ridiculing our son at every opportunity, while I was at safely at work, Stan never took responsibility for an addiction he knew was morally wrong. Even though he’d molested his own siblings as a teenager, he still felt entitled to become a seminarian as a young man. After that didn’t work out, after we met and married, he felt entitled to molest our children.

Yes indeed, Stan needed to trust in ceaseless forgiveness. God would take care of everything. With no effort on his part other than regular church attendance, he insisted that God solves everything – no need to risk exposing his pedophilia to faulty human personalities who might be judgmental.

Stan liked to remind me of my own history of binge drinking before marriage. Matrimony, he believed, was my salvific solution. I was now back at the church I’d abandoned when I was eighteen and supporting my chronically unemployed husband, a predator content to have me be the sole breadwinner while he excused himself for a decade based on his over-qualifications. Not every unemployed slacker had a doctorate.

“I find your flippancy offensive, Eleanor,” Stan said that day. “I suggest you take a few moments to yourself, perhaps a quarter hour of quiet, so that we can come to some agreement?”

“I’m fine, Stan.” I replied. I’d looked at my own history. I didn’t drink. I’d corrected my past irresponsible behaviors, even though I had a long, long way to go on my journey to self-love.

My son stood close by, all set to leave, when Stan stalled us.

“I’m uncomfortable about our lack of resolution,” he said, “especially your disagreement with me about God’s ceaseless compassion for those struggling with their weaknesses. I find it icy of you.”

My son and I glanced at each other. Dad had the car and the keys to it.

“I suggest you sit for ten minutes, Eleanor, and get quiet with God,” said Stan.

There was no question. I knew what I had to do. A sense of heaviness weighted my body, as I settled in for yet another grueling compromise for the sake of someone or something important. This was the price of getting my kids to the art class. I’d learned previously that if I refused to acquiesce, a valued event, like the art class, a swim or bike ride, would be denied.

I looked at my daughter’s pleading eyes and at my husband’s firm stance.

“Okay, Stan. I’ll be in the living room.”

Like an errant child, I sat on the couch. Taking a deep breath, I sought to quell the squirming, implosive writhing within. Looking out the window to a sunny winter’s day, I heard my son and daughter place their backpacks at the front door. I felt their quiet tension. I knew what I had to do.

“You’re probably right, Stan,” I acquiesced. “God is truly magnificent as you say. Who am I to judge anyone else’s experience with their creator? Thanks for inviting me to think things over.”

“I knew you’d come to your senses, Eleanor. You always do. And just because you don’t drink today, doesn’t mean you’re home free. God’s powerful love shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Car keys in hand, the kids and I tore off to pick up their friends and arrive at our community center just on time. They all painted happily together. Stan was mollified. I felt lost as I smoked a forbidden cigarette in the parking lot.

Four years of distress later, with the support of a friend and a caring social worker, I made my escape with my children. I fled both my predator and the church that convinced him of its full protection.

I’ll always be grateful to a caring, counselor I visited who explained to me, slowly and carefully, over and over, that family happiness should include me too. While I listened to him politely, I just didn’t get it. It was as though a part of me was asleep or far, far away.

Patiently, he explained to me that at a vulnerable time in my life, after three rapes and the shocking death of my disturbed, alcoholic mother, I may have sought Stan’s protection, but I wasn’t getting it. Instead, I was being exploited by someone who pretended to be superior to me. My counselor said it would never, ever stop.

Somehow, I listened. Somehow, I began to understand how trapped I felt. Somehow, I became willing to escape someone who could only take, and never, ever give.

A day before I left Stan, I visited the counselor again. Once more, he clarified that I was living with a master manipulator.

“Make your move as soon as possible, Eleanor,” he urged me. “I don’t often make such stark recommendations, but I’ve discussed your situation with my supervisor and we both advise you to get out. Run, don’t walk from your hostage-taker. He has problems you will never, ever be able to fix.”

The social worker had some advice for me too. “Eleanor, for the past fourteen years you’ve made it easy for your husband to shirk his responsibilities. You learned a long time ago to tolerate abuse and accept so much less than you deserve. You have some long overdue homework of your own to do.”

Today, thirty years after I’ve left Stan, no one would dare invite me to “get quiet” or withhold car keys from me If I wanted them – for any reason. There’d be no such frightened yielding to manipulation.

An activist and writer, I’m so grateful for the healthy life I’ve earned.

I’m so grateful to have escaped hell.

Our cultural conspiracy of silence about predators and pain finally begins to crack

“She broke her neck on her way down,” said a police officer at the scene.

Thick yellow spray paint outlined an ovary-shaped form on the grass from which my mother’s body had been removed, wrapped in a zippered tarpaulin. Two screaming witnesses, bathers who’d been enjoying a pleasant afternoon by the building’s outdoor pool on that sunny August day, had happened to glance up to witness my mother’s horrid plummet from her seventh-floor balcony.

“She didn’t feel the final impact,” the investigator added. I noticed a tinged bloodstain on the grass.

“The skull sustained a crack,” said the kindly officer, following my gaze.

This week, more than four decades since my mother’s sudden death in 1972, I spoke with an old friend, a respected colleague of mine in Montreal. I learned about Kiley’s latest project, a life skills manual of guided exercises for victims of predators, those determined to salvage their happiness despite the impact they’d suffered. Kiley has dedicated her life to caring for others, as do thousands upon thousands of daughters of mothers who died of suicide, depression, murder, or other vile forms of imposed death. As we spoke, I thought how proud Kiley’s mother would be of her daughter, the beauty she left behind after years of living in her own hellish marriage.

How proud she’d be that Kiley, having reclaimed her own joy, decorates her world.

Back in the pre-computer era of my mother, there were no internet resources or educational sites. Open discussion about distress, sex addiction, pedophilia, sociopathy, predation and physical or mental abuse was discouraged. Silence ruled. I thought the word narcissist meant a kind of star-shaped flower.

Because my mother’s chronic screaming, her physical and verbal abuse of her children and her own distress all remained under cover, all wrapped up and unexamined, she, like so many, began to pop the solution of the day, Valium tablets. Mother chased her daily dose with a tall tumbler of rye and dropped into hours death-like oblivion, even on sunny days when she and her neighbors might have sunbathed by a pool, talking and sharing together.

Talking about what she wanted, what her dreams and goals might have been, would have offended those in her church, whose focus was on servitude and accommodation of the status quo. She’d have been shamed into silence. My mother’s world-renowned predator, her religion, showed no interest in her mind, heart or talent. The focus was on her ovaries. Her role was to produce new souls for God. While it is true that our disturbed mother left her children traumatized, I’d never have wished her such an end.

***

This past holiday season, I volunteered at my local community center to wrap gifts for children, toys selected by Moms who couldn’t afford the treats. Two of the volunteers, women much younger than myself, escorted excited mothers to tables where they chose from donated dragons, sleds and games to thrill their children. The rest of us wrapped the gifts with much ado of bright ribbon, glitter, and gold.

Suddenly, while wrapping a bingo game, the mellow voice of a 1950’s crooner filled the hall. Gentle words about ‘silent and holy, calm and bright’ stirred feelings of revulsion. I didn’t shout. I spoke in a normal conversational tone to the three younger women close to me at the wrapping table.

“How did that creep get away with being one of the nation’s most beloved father figures?” I asked, “That hypocrite spanked his sons with a belt dotted with metal studs until their bare bums bled, and much more weird, cruel abuse.”

An attractive, chic young woman beside me quickly handed me a wide band of Scotch tape. “Use this,” she said, her tone full of implication. “Eleanor, drop it. C’mon! Where’s your holiday spirit?” she added.

 Slowly, the three other wrappers inched away. Left alone at one end of the table, I quietly considered. Had I talked too much? Should I have kept quiet? Was the pleasant occasion not to be marred by my ill-timed comment? Had I offended?

Suddenly, the music station switched. Someone had turned the dial. I looked up to see our staff director smiling as she approached our table, an open box of chocolates in her hands.

“I called our local station, Eleanor,” she said, extending the sweets to everyone. “I asked them to drop that singer from their roster. I explained why. I also said that one of our volunteers is unhappily affected by hearing the croons of someone who hurt his family and that you, Eleanor, are important to us. “

Wow, here it is 2018 and my mouth fell open.

“And what was their response?” asked the tape handler, edging closer.

“They thanked me for taking the time to call. They thanked me for sharing our preferences. They said they’d have their capable recording engineer take care of it immediately.”

Wow again. A moment of hush. Another hairline fracture in the conspiracy of silence.

Soon, I noticed, the younger volunteers had edged closer again. Chatting cheerfully, we finished up.

When four rolls of tape ran out minutes before closing, the woman who’d handed it to me earlier called my name. Grinning brightly, she tossed each of the empty containers, one by one, into the garbage.

“I have a better idea,” she announced. “If we wrap carefully, we won’t need tape at all!”

 

Once Groomed to be Compliant, I'm Reclaiming My Own Life

 I picked up my sweet, chubby grandson and cuddled him in my arms. He’d reached up to me and, thrilled to respond, I held him close. But ah, a colorful object on the floor beckoned, and instantly, he wanted down. Wriggling only once and issuing a single sound, he found himself back on the wool carpet crawling towards a plastic lamb-shaped cookie cutter. It claimed his full attention. With no hesitation, he’d signaled his wish and I honored it. Simple as that.

Not so in my childhood.

Responses to me were, “What do you want now?,” “Go away,” “Get lost,” or, “What a pain in the behind.”

So today, to say no when I mean no, or yes when I mean yes, without compromising myself for the sake of offending anyone, is a huge accomplishment. These small triumphs require endless practice for me. I can slip into my need for approval at any surprise moment.

Re-winding to a day in childhood – all dressed in pure white to make my First Communion, I vomited in the bathroom. “Cover her dress!” shouted Mom, who’d spent time and money to get me properly dressed for a religious ceremony with my Grade 3 class.

“I can’t eat it!” I cried, repulsed about eating the body and blood of Christ.

“It’s not really the actual human flesh of Christ,” said Dad. “Well, it is, but only in your mind and heart. And Christ’s flesh isn’t human. The morsel placed on your tongue is just flattened bread, so don’t worry about it,” he added to my confusion.

“And white signifies purity,” said my grandfather, who’d traveled to our city for the special occasion. “Girls need to take their modesty seriously. And don’t worry about feeling love for your Saviour. Just say you do, pray for faith and eventually, the feelings will come.”

I learned compliance. Confused, I acquiesced. I learned to be a fleecy sheep in the obedient herd. I submitted to being shepherded. I trusted rewards would come after I died and went to heaven. A male god would always take care of me if I said I loved him, even though I felt so little, if I received communion regularly, and had pure thoughts. Happiness was assured.

In fact, what did happen was that inside and outside of my family, my innocence was raided by sexual violence. Steadfastly submissive, effectively disassociated from my own instincts and far from reality, I readily agreed that the violence I’d suffered was mostly my fault. I was the one who visited my grandfather after my mother’s suicide. I was the one who raised a glass of beer to my lips at his cozy kitchen table. I was the one who asked to take a nap in the guest room for an hour or so before supper.

“I knew what you were leading up to, you sneaky, slippery lass,” said my grandfather, as I awakened to his hands in my underwear. I was 24. I should have known better.

If I’d been raised in honesty, I’d have known that my grandfather was a sex addict who molested my angry, depressed mother in her youth, and I’d have been warned he’d never leave me alone just because I was his granddaughter. Talking about those secrets would have opened shelves of canned worms. Honest, open discussions might have deterred me from marrying a pedophile, someone who could sense my disassociation, a predator who sniffed my vulnerability and gullibility, a heart-eater who knew how much I wanted my dream of happily-ever-after.

I knew the script. Get married, have a family and everything will be okay. No qualifiers or proof of standards were required by me. No, for me, I was grateful to meet an educated, well-spoken fellow whose swift marriage proposal bypassed the usual tests of time and experience. Grateful to be wanted by a smart, handsome man who assured me that over time, despite my history of sexual abuse and my semi-annual binge drinking, with his and God’s help, I’d indeed prove myself worthy. And so, I married the secret, chronic and unrepentant pedophile who molested first his siblings and then our children.

There was a constant gnawing in my stomach during my marriage, a nameless anxiety and unidentified tension, unease that, gratefully, like a baby’s insistent squall, got louder and louder. Slowly, very slowly, my thoughts, like errant sheep, jumped the fence one by one, and finally revealed to me that I wasn’t happy in my marriage. I was shocked to realize that I didn’t even like my husband. I wanted to be free. I reached out to a friend at my workplace. I’ll always be grateful for her strong encouragement to follow my heart. When I said that I couldn’t tell what my heart was saying, she suggested I listen closely.

“You’ll meet someone,” said Ruth, a wonderful member of my support group for Parents of Sexually Abused Children. “There’s someone else out there for you! It’s going to happen!” she enthused.

“No,” I heard myself reply. “I’m not looking for anyone. I’m reclaiming my own life. I’m on a new adventure now.”

“Is it because you’ve been so disappointed?” she asked, “Is that why you’re steering clear?”

“No. I’m not steering at all. It’s because I’d like to meet the real Eleanor, at long, long last!”

That exchange with Ruth took place twenty-eight years ago. Since then, I’ve been on an incredible adventure – lots of bumps as I trialed and errored my way to honoring my life on an uncharted course.

There are always tiny tests, though, like slender strands of cat hair on my black sweater sleeve.

“Did you like the book, Eleanor?” asked a new friend who gave me a gift copy of a treasured tome, one I quietly planned to donate to a bookstore.

How to word my honesty? “Thank you, Jane. It was so nice of you.”

“Does that mean you didn’t like it? she pressed.

“Well, the fact is, religious books aren’t for me.”

So simple for some. So hard for me. Jane happily reclaimed the book and gave it to a friend who loved it. And, despite our differences, we’re still friendly neighbors.

It was I who tossed that lamb-shaped cookie cutter on the carpet for my darling grandson last week. I don’t use that shape anymore. I live well in my uncertain, unscripted life.

With no guarantees or promises, but far more aware, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

My husband’s entire family knew what he was, but nobody talked about it.

 

January 1973 – Quebec

At the college where I worked as a secretary, I smiled up at the chubby cherubs fixed along the ancient oak hallway, their alabaster gazes uplifted in hope. I knocked on the chaplain’s door. We’d arranged to meet during my lunch hour. Anxious to hear about the results of his appointment with my fiancé’s mother, I took the same wooden chair Edna sat in only hours before.

That morning, my future mother-in-law begged Father Price, the priest booked to officiate our wedding, to dissuade me from marrying her son, Stan. Edna explained that while she liked me, I was emotionally unreliable. I’d been raped and molested. Sometimes I binge drank and my mother, an alcoholic, had taken her own life. Edna said that she was only thinking of her future grandchildren who, with an unstable mother, might one day suffer the consequences.

Bottom line, I did not qualify to marry into her family.

“I guess I’ll have to prove myself, Father,” I said, my throat swollen with shame.

“You will, Eleanor,” Father encouraged me as I wept. “Edna will come around. You’ll see. I told her that one day she’d be thanking God Almighty that her precious prize married a sorry lot like you.” We both chuckled at his attempt at humor.

 

January 2018 – Alberta

Last Monday evening, I chased down the hall to answer my cell where I’d left it, this time.

The caller, a woman whose voice I recognized immediately even though we’d not spoken in thirty years, identified herself as Stan’s sister, Beth. Her older brother, my ex-husband, chose never to seek help for his pedophile addiction. Beth was one of his first victims.

“I know who you are, Beth,” I welcomed her. “I’m glad to hear your voice.”

It seems that well before my divorce from Stan, his sister, who’d lived thousands of miles from us, had been deeply affected in her own life. Now in her fifties, she told me her story of chronic alienation from her siblings, from her own children and from a special someone she’d loved deeply, a man who left her.

“When Joe left me, I was crushed. Devastated. Heartbroken, I finally, finally entered therapy, where I surfaced memories of Stan’s constant sexual molestation of me during my childhood. At long last, I understood the reason I’d always managed to sabotage intimacy and push closeness away.”

“I’m so glad that you’re taking good care of yourself now, Beth. Every effort is richly rewarded, you’ll see,” I encouraged her. I told her, truthfully, that surprising joy can find its way into the most parched hearts in a vast variety of ways.

“We all knew,” Beth interrupted my reassuring words. “On your wedding day in Montreal, we all knew,” she continued as, shocked, I listened. “Our whole family, all lined up in the first pew before the altar, knew you were marrying our family pedophile. No one told you nor did any of us discuss it. But we all knew. My dad, my mom, all my siblings, including the sister who first discovered Stan’s molestation of me – the one who died of depression-related illness a few years ago.”

Beth continued, “My brother’s never-addressed always-secret underground pedophilia has been so destructive to me, to my happiness with a partner I loved, to my relationships with my children, to my sister who, over the years, came to dislike herself for not having said anything, for not having protected your children from what we hoped would not happen – but did happen.”

As Beth spoke, I didn’t suck in my breath or react with shock or umbrage. Even though Beth and I hadn’t spoken for nearly thirty years, since when she was a sweet teenager wearing long hippie skirts and stuttering a bit, I felt only grave sadness as she spoke today.

“Back in those days,” Beth added, “Silence was the order of the day. Say nothing and ‘it’ will go away. Even during my intense therapy in the late 80’s, Mom and my sisters refused to support my legal confrontation of Stan. ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’, Mom begged me at the police office. ‘It’s over now. He’s safely married. He has a family now. Don’t destroy your brother’s life,’ she implored, blind to the devastation to my life.”

In the past few days since Beth and I made a date to meet, I’ve retraced the moments when, with some brave voicing, telling and speaking up, life could have been so different for my small cherubs.

I imagined Edna once again in the priest’s office in Montreal. What would have happened if she’d had the capacity to share her real concern about her son’s pedophilia, and tell that her fears for her yet unborn grandchildren were not about me, but about her son, and his likely molestation of them?

What might have resulted if Edna, a devout Catholic all her life, had not been groomed to “say nothing,” “let it go” and “leave it with God”? Even silent about her own daughter’s abuse, Edna’s only solution that day in 1973, was to make her distress about me, another woman, and not her son.

The unspoken injunction, to stand by the abuser, was honored. If Edna had had the capacity and the permission to take care of business, her son, Stan, and her daughter, Beth, would have received the care they needed – and perhaps lived happier lives. Her grandchildren would have been protected from the sexual abuse that did happen. I’d have had an earlier chance to be happy too. If Edna had been able to speak up, perhaps her older daughter, the one who died of depression, might have lived.

But Edna had no encouragement to tell her secrets.

“When my dad started cracking me over the head with his giant university ring, Mom up and left him,” said Beth towards the end of our call. “In the 70’s, it was impressive that my mother took off like that. She left behind all the benefits of being supported by a wealthy man and moved into a small inexpensive flat with us kids. That Mom put her foot down about physical violence was the best she could do at the time,” said Beth.

Confronting sexual violence, though, was out of the question for Edna, my mother-in-law, repressed, distressed and depressed all her life, suffering her protected son avoided. Unthwarted, unchallenged, he continued to molest a whole new generation of children.

It’s taken time in recovery, through the long corridor of the decades, for me to be able to handle such a call as I received this week. I’ve learned about the historical, religious, and social grooming that effectively silenced my mother-in-law. I also note that alone, like the alabaster Virgin Mary she often knelt before in prayer, she lived without any parental support from Stan’s absent, remote father.

Edna did the best she could in a repressed, pre-computer, pre-permission era.

Over time, a corridor of lives was deeply hurt by the secrets, shame, and silence.

Not clay faces, but real people — dear, deserving, and innocent.

Healing after the sociopath - a long bridge over painful memories

I awaken this first day of 2018 to a winter world of snow.  Outside my window, sunshine brightens a yellow bus full of passengers lumbering over a mile-long overpass. Even though layers of heavy slush still cover its roof, it’s plowing along.  The bridge, dripping with glistening icicles, allows the access to town that otherwise would require a long overland trip.

Thanks to hard-working night time crews, the road is clear.

 It’s been twenty-eight years since I awakened from a freezing burrow of long-term disassociation and managed, with wonderful help, to escape the pedophile I married - a confused, disturbed exploiter who hid behind the respected academic letters stuck to the end of his name. 

 The time lapse between then and now does nothing to change the facts. History is not erased. My children were molested by him in their very early lives. A forever grief marks my life.

 Over the last decades, I’ve analyzed my early grooming to a high tolerance for craziness, irrationality, and drama. I’ve accepted the brutal, grueling fact that if, at the outset, at the time I first met my husband, I’d been a healthy, confident person of high self-esteem, this devastation would never have occurred. I’d have read the many clues I ignored even before we were married.  I’d have listened to my instincts, and I’d have escaped. That’s not what happened.

 In my former support group for Parents of Sexually Abused Children, I wondered why a much older woman, a widow and an amputee, continued to attend, meeting after meeting.  After all, it had been over two decades since she’d discovered that her trusted brother had abused her son. One day, when the group questioned Ruth, she pointed to her prosthesis, a metal appendage invisible to us under her cashmere slacks, “There’s no day I’ll leap out of bed without first attaching my little friend here”, she explained, and then, pointing to her forehead, she added, “And here too. It helps me to be here with you once a week.”

 On the worst night of her life, Ruth found her son, David, hanging from the rafters in her basement. Five years after she’d legally charged her brother for the sexual abuse, and gotten help for both David and herself, the distressed young man still took his own life.  Months before he died, he’d begun to blame his mother. She was the one who’d left him with his favorite uncle during the stressful time of her bar exams, studies she wanted to pursue to support her son, and to honor her own aspirations.  Despite the sudden death of her husband, Ruth felt she had good reason to carry on, complete her law degree and be a good provider for David.  

Even though David later joined a born-again religion and claimed to be a brand-new person, his unaddressed, episodic rancor towards Ruth erupted regularly. Increasingly anxious, he learned new vocabulary to direct at the mother he blamed repeatedly. When Ruth refused to fund new habits she suspected David had, he called her names such as cruel, vengeful, and merciless.

 Ruth had a lot to look back on, even though she’d done nothing wrong.

 I have stinging memories too. Regularly, especially as I’m going off to sleep, sharp memories jolt me wide awake. Critical thoughts of instances that could have been so different, thwart my rest time. I turn on the lamp and reach for a special book of quotations and find comfort. Or, I open my laptop and read a Lovefraud article that reminds me that I’m not alone, reading that acts like an overpass.  Reassured, I can sleep at last.  And quite often, first thing in the morning, especially if I don’t have a plan or feel vulnerable, toxic sludge-like feelings continue to impact me.  Like Ruth, I too need a prosthesis – mine is not metal though. It’s mental. And it’s also for all my life.

 Still, I celebrate my progress – and Ruth’s. A bunch of us from the group attended her final graduation from law school and enjoyed a grand dinner afterward. Today, despite the loss of her beloved son, despite the destruction of her happiest dreams for their small family, Ruth continues to work as a legal advocate for sexually abused and trafficked youth. She has good friends, good health and work she loves.

 I returned to school too, became a teacher, and enjoyed twenty-five years of a rich professional life. I’ve supported my children through their many aftermaths, volunteer widely, and love to write.  As Ruth advised at one of our last group meetings, “There’s relief when you become part of the solution.”

 So yes, a bridge stretching from one side of an impasse to the other side is an encouraging symbol to see outside my living room window. And Ruth’s finger pointing to her artificial leg is another realistic reminder to me. I’m always looking for new signs to interpret.

 Without any judgment of the personal process of others, I know what I need to do every morning – and I do it. I’m grateful for my very own gentle morning routine, one that rolls my little yellow bus onto the sunny bridge every day.  

My sociopathic husband denied – with outrage and tears – what turned out to be the terrible trut

 

In our tiny upper flat, I took all the vitamins and folic acid tablets never available to my pregnant foremothers. I ate well, our table a rainbow of green, orange and yellow every day. I drank a concoction called Tiger’s Milk, thrilled to nourish the growth of my child within, a baby I loved with all my heart.

One sunny day, while Stan, my then-husband, subbed for the Toronto School Board, I sat on the carpeted floor near our tiny attic window, a pillow to my back, and gazed at an astonishing Time Life photo of a baby inside a mother’s womb. I had no idea how it had been taken, but it inspired me to draw a woven basket so full of colorful spring flowers they toppled over the sides, a welcome home card for my soon-to-be-born baby. I was lost in art when the phone jangled.

It was our local priest, a cleric we’d met at his parish soon after we arrived in the neighborhood.

“Is your husband home, Eleanor?” he asked

“No, shall I have Stan call you, Father?”

“Actually, I was hoping you’d answer. That’s why I’m calling now.”

I wondered if the padre wanted to book the baby’s baptism.

“There’s been a complaint from the parents of a little girl in our First Communion group,” he said.

“The one Stan is volunteering at?” I asked

“Yes, well,” Father hesitated. “His service is now, most clearly, at an end. The child told her parents that Stan touched her private parts.”

“Touched her?”

“Yes, fondled her inside her underwear when he took her into the washroom to pee.” He blundered on as though my heart wasn’t beating a mile a minute, as though I was the police officer he should have contacted — not Stan’s wife. “Your husband,” he emphasized our connection – somehow implying my guilt, “had no business escorting the little girl to the washroom. There was a female volunteer close by. He should have deferred to her.”

“Yes.” I watched my belly ripple.

“Please have your husband call me. I’ve some suggestions he might want to follow.” I watched my stomach undulate. I waited for Stan.

“What a foul-mouthed liar! It’s not true!” Stan roared two hours later. He was outraged. “That priest suffers from an authority problem! My success with the kids in the First Communion program chafes him. It bothers him to have, right inside his church, the competition of a Ph.D. and former seminarian from a prestigious order, not an uneducated, dime-a-dozen country frock like him!”

“Stan, did you take a little girl to the washroom?”

“You never lived in residence with seminarians like I did,” he continued, jabbing his finger, still talking about the priests he once lived with. “Playboy magazines under beds, clandestine dating, and oh yes, the call girls, slutty prostitutes secreted under cover of the night right into the residence bedrooms! Oh yes! Believe me. I had to live with that blatant immorality, night after noisy night! And no one liked me. Why? Because I made waves, because I reported their screwing around! And here, a priest is accusing me?”

“Stan, why didn’t you ask the woman volunteer to take the little girl to the washroom?”

“Because I didn’t think of it! It simply didn’t occur to me! And it’s not true! I did absolutely nothing wrong!” Stan began to cry. He sat on the couch, covered his face with his hands and wept genuine sobs, an undeniable testament to his innocence. Who can generate real tears, unbidden?

“Let’s go then, Stan. Let’s discuss this with Father and the girl’s parents.”

“No! We’re not going near that filthy liar! I need you to believe me. Is that too much to ask of my own wife, my own spouse?” he asked, tears streaming down his face. “I would never, ever, have done what he accused me of, never, never, never, never. It’s just not true. The oldest of a family of ten kids,” he added, “I was always taking someone to the toilet!”

Stan’s back and shoulders shook as his tears fell onto his shirt. I’d never seen him this upset. “I’m a good person,” he cried, the corners of his mouth flecked with white foam. I had no further questions about why a grown man would steer a little girl into the woman’s washroom, or think that he must have made sure the coast was clear, chosen the moment his co-volunteer was busy, just as his mother had been occupied in the past, and my mother, fast asleep.

“I believe you, Stan,” I said. “I believe you.” And I did. I’d learned not to question early on. While it is grueling to stifle such inquiry early in life, eventually, with practice, rationality subsides.

“That’s all I need to know, then,” he said. He stood up, sighed several times, deep breaths of relief. “All a man needs to know is his own wife backs him up. That’s all he needs,” he said. “I need a walk in the park,” he said. “Thank you, Eleanor, for your confidence in me. I married the right spouse.”

When I called Father back and begged him to come over to our flat and speak to Stan personally, perhaps with another priest, he refused. “Stan can present himself at my office space. I will see him here. Otherwise, I have only one suggestion for you, Eleanor, that you tell your husband to seek therapy immediately.” When I, secretary for two men, relayed the message Father could not bring himself to deliver, my husband also delegated a message, again through me. He told me to call the priest and recommend similar therapy.

Both religious men, I realized much later, seemed to prefer psychological recourse than spiritual communion.

“That country frock is still an outrageous liar,” Stan bellowed after I reported my last call to Father. “You also come from a big family, Eleanor. You yourself also escorted kids to the toilet all the time, didn’t you? Anyway,” Stan said as I nodded my agreement, “now that you, my own wife support me in the truth, let’s leave this alone. We have a baby coming into the world now. Let’s focus on that joy in our lives.”

In the dozen grueling years to follow, during which time I slowly fit the puzzle pieces into a conscious and terrible reality, Stan sexually molested both of our children.

Overcoming the residual fear from sociopathic abuse — two steps forward, one step back

One bitterly cold winter’s morning at the Vendome metro in Montreal, I hopped a bus that would take me to a lecture on “Attentiveness and Developing Awareness” — and got a complete lesson well before I arrived at the class.

The driver of the vehicle, an unsmiling muscled-bound individual, closely examined my transfer for the minute expiry hour stamped upon it. With a curt nod, I was permitted to take my seat. About two minutes later, the driver revved up the ignition for departure, but not before an elderly lady rapped on the glass door, asking for entry. The driver looked down at her, examined his watch for the ten seconds it would have taken to open the door and admit her, adjusted the shift sticks and noisily tore off without her. I saw the aged woman bow her head and quickly step back onto the snowy sidewalk shelter as the bus swept away without her.

Shame flooded me. I could have done something. A fully functioning adult, I could have stood up and insisted the driver open the damn door – but I didn’t. Suddenly afraid, I froze. I squirmed in my seat. My hands began to sweat. My stomach clenched. Without warning, in that single moment, I’d regressed to a mute adolescent terrified of someone’s hostility and anger. I’d spiraled backward. Unexplainably, I even said a polite “thank you” to the jerk when I got off the bus to attend a lecture on a topic I’d just learned so much about.

That day, I did not hold the bar high for a frail senior who deserved so much better than the hostility she got – antagonism that my silence allowed. During the lengthy lecture and question period at the class, I found myself imagining different scenarios in which I played a heroic role. There I was, standing up, politely asking the driver to open the door and, when refused, insisting that the right thing happen on a cold winter’s day! I imagined three other more emphatic and colorful scenes – that didn’t happen. Wringing my hands during the lecture, I realized that I hadn’t acted according to my values. I felt disappointed in myself even after years of using my recovery tools. What had happened? I called a friend.

That evening, at the end of her shift, Jennifer, a critical care nurse, and I met for supper at her hospital cafeteria. My good friend listened as I shared my distress that I’d recoiled so suddenly on the bus that morning, that I’d just flipped into an impotent, fearful freeze.

“Look, Eleanor,” said Jenn, “let’s not diminish the accomplishment you’ve had in the past few years. Anyone on a recovery path is, without question, going to stumble. Count on it! It’s going to be up and down, up and down. It’s always 2 out of 3. The third will be the mistake, the screw-up, the blunder you’ll wish hadn’t happened. That’s where the word ‘apology’ comes in. That’s where we dust off the words, ‘Try again.’”

“I still see myself sitting there, utterly silent while the driver ignored the older lady’s request!” I said. “The poor older woman was rejected so rudely.”

“Perfectionism,” advised Jennifer, “is now classified as a shame-based mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders. Don’t even try to go there! What you are seeing today,” she continued, “is that the roots of early distress still lurk within, and, like the streptococcus bacteria strain, will never entirely disappear. Find some helpful ways to prevent flare-ups.”

Finally falling off to sleep that night, I decided that I needed to practice a kind of vigilance – a gentle watchfulness – and be kind to myself when I fell short. I valued the humanness in the “2 out of 3” idea Jenn had shared.

I decided to honor my fragility rather than attempt to erase it. I purposefully choose to volunteer inside strong teams where discussion and consensus happen. I find that the practice of consulting with others has strengthened me in ways I can take onto the bus.

When I think of that dear gray-haired woman today, I thank her. I whisper to her that she did not miss that trip in vain and that as a result, I’m on a better route. I’ve become an activist. Just the memory of her bowing her head in the snow motivates me to better deal with the “speak up” opportunities that come my way.

A city dweller, I sold my car years ago and love taking the bus and metro. This driver was one of the very few 1% I’d ever seen offend a passenger. Most are pleasant, welcoming and helpful.

While it was delayed, I stood in my sturdy winter boots at the Vendome station shelter the following day and luckily, got the requisite badge number of the rude chauffeur. I wrote a detailed account for the MTC, who called me the following week to say the driver got a stern warning which had been filed.

It was a late response, but better than none. In my forever evolution, I’m doing my imperfect best.

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