Eleanor Cowan

 

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.

Grooming: How religious and cultural ideas of my childhood conditioned me to accept pain and abuse

When I said that “god was my first abuser,” at our regular meeting of Parents of Sexually Abused Children, no one sucked in their breath or exhibited shock. A tough group, no one even blinked an eye.

That week’s topic, “Grooming” was assigned by Aidan, our lead Social Worker who, while she listened to us, liked to re-shape lifeless paper clips into unconventional characters that she’d stand up on an enormous art canvas she’d been creating for years and years.

I shared with my group that, in Grade 1, when I learned that god ordered his own kid, a boy, to save the world, I instantly thought of Gordie, my teenaged brother. As Sister Brebeuf pointed to a bleeding figure nailed to a crucifix on our classroom wall, tears of blood running down his face, I saw Gordie.

My Dad followed god’s example. Dad knew good and well that Mother disliked Gordie, that my step-brother was used as a slave at home, slapped hard for innocent mistakes and shamed for his chronic skin condition. Dad saw no reason to protect his son, either.

Escape was Dad’s impulse, not resolution. His career as a traveling salesman nailed Gordie to his cross.

With the group listening, I reviewed my earliest memories of questioning a god who’d ask his boy to save the world instead of doing it himself. Why would any god want to rescue the earth, if he wouldn’t protect his own kid from harm?

“In my humorless home,” said Marta, “we were coached to pray. Prayer, we were told, pleased a male deity who loved children. Our sacrifice, especially of daily pleasures, could be used as a kind of exchange, a currency that would, if we prayed hard enough, rescue evil doers from hell.”

“This is where things pretzel for me,” said Ruth, “Isn’t in unnatural to focus on rescuing the very people who’ve hurt you? Why twist yourself into rescue agents for the bad guys?”

I loved how a simple word, grooming, could, step by step, travel so far. Holding onto my warm teacup, my mind slipped back into the bedroom I shared with my three sisters decades ago. I was eight.

When Dad was in town, he’d position his straight-backed chair, so we could all see him before he read bedtime stories aloud to us. While Irene fell asleep in minutes, Maureen and I would remain alert, two little sponges absorbing toxicity we had no way of filtering. Dad selected stories of the saints, mutilated martyrs, loyal to god even unto grisly death. The tales described, in minute detail, what the faithful were willing to suffer for god’s approval. Some of the tormented were hung upside down or immersed face first into boiling oil. Others were released into the Roman Colosseum, where thousands cheered while these loyal saints were torn limb from limb by crazed lions, wild animals starved so there’d be no chance of befriending their lunch.

As I lay in the bed I shared with Maureen and listened, my hands pressed to my face, I’d review the menu of tortures and consider the ones I might one day endure. Dad described the torture of saints being roasted alive strapped to sizzling iron chairs, their eyes poked out with hot pokers. The lucky ones got rapid death by beheading or quick drowning. We’d end our story time with our usual prayer, “Dear god, I love you. Please teach me to love you more and more every day, Amen.”

I’d scrunch up and pray to endure any persecution for dear god. One night, I made my decision. I opted to get it over with, to die quickly when my time came, rather than squeal for hours in unspeakable terror. Slowly, I began to dislike my cowering, shivering, comfort-seeking self. “You’ll jump in to be tortured when its time,” I reassured myself, “You’ll die fast, and god will be pleased.

One day, I watched Dad select a capon from the chicken coop and slaughter it for dinner. Its headless body ran around the dirt floor for several seconds before it fell, its face still on the chopping block. If I opted for a martyr’s death by beheading, would I also reel about with blood pouring from the hole where my head had been?

I began splashing scalding hot water from the tap onto my face to evaluate my tolerance of heat. I held my urine inside my body as a secret gift of personal pain to please god. Still, the thought of torture made my skin crawl. I bargained for survival.

“Daddy, how long would I boil in hot oil before I’d die?

“About three minutes, I’d guess, Eleanor,”

“And drown?”

“A good two minutes of struggle.”

“Buried alive?” I asked, my hands sweating.

“A day at most.”

I weighed my options, considering the duration of each torture. Even sticking my toe in too-hot bath water scared me, but still, could lingering in a dark box for a day be worse than three minutes of being cooked?

“Daddy,” I said. “If there’s a persecution, I could pray in secret. That way I could live. I could run around serving god in other ways.” I waited in silence.

“Which do you think would please god more?” Dad replied, adding that the saints willingly sacrificed themselves. “They suffered horribly. So let’s not complain about our small irritations and minor tribulations around here. Instead, let’s honor god’s magnificent love for us.

After Dad said goodnight, Maureen and I’d grapple with our confusion about a relationship that combined abject obedience, love, and possible torture. “Let’s practice,” my sister would grab my arm. “A little bit of salt, a little bit of pepper,” she’d say, pretending to season my flesh before biting into it. “Test how long you can take the pain, for god.”

As for me, I’d already stopped being who I was. I only wanted to please the power I feared.

***

Long after she’d retired for a richly deserved rest, I saw Aidan’s wall-sized installation in the reception area of the Social Service Agency where she’d lived her magnificent profession for three decades. I looked up to thousands of silver paper clips lying flat in the congested center of the canvas. Emerging from this pile though, radiating outward, hundreds of upright paper clip people, legs outstretched, made their way to far more spacious ground. Each one stood up tall, individually.

Grooming, I learned, can be re-shaped.

Recovery from the sociopath — learning to count what really matters

“Was it the sex?” a new member asked me at our weekly meeting of Parents of Sexually Abused Children. “Is that why you stayed with your user for 14 years?”

Three faces swung to me, including the lead social worker of our small assembly, a tall, serious senior woman who encouraged us to ask and answer questions. Aidan didn’t smile a whole lot, but over time, I came to respect her genuine sincerity and tremendous breadth of knowledge.

“You mean, knowingly trade family wellbeing for my sexual pleasure?” I asked, disheartened at a question that I found hurtful. “No, the truth is that my husband showed no interest in me. He called me ‘Mum’ despite my frequent requests that he use my name. I had no conscious idea when I married him that he preferred children to adults.”

That’s all I knew, at the time, to say to the curious newcomer whose older son had sexually abused his two little sisters in their family home.

The new member, Lee, was a widow. She’d ignored her daughters’ complaints for months until a vigilant teacher called her into their school for a chat. Upon discovering that her 10-year-old had symptoms of STD, Lee stopped brushing away her daughter’s claims. She quit her job. She began to cook for a caterer from home. She signalled Social Services for help for her son and sent him, the babysitter of her daughters, to live with his grandparents. She’d handled a lot, despite her shock and disappointment.

When Aidan asked Lee where she might have learned to discount her daughters’ complaints about their brother’s molestation, Lee said that she wanted to discuss that in the group – and Aidan nodded her approval.

“It worked well for my disinterested, pedophile husband that I worked nights during his years of unemployment,” I continued to answer Lee’s question. “Throughout, Stan liked to underscore his strong support of Women’s Liberation – women wanting to develop a career outside the home should do so. ‘Education is never a waste of time,’” he’d say, adding that he was not an ‘Archie Bunker’ type of guy.

“But I don’t want a career, Stan!” I’d remind him over and over. “I want to stay home with our children!” He’d explained that his elevated educational level, and the high salary he’d one day command, continued to contrast, for the time being, my uncomplicated opportunities to waitress.

“The sad fact I suffer,” he said, seven years later, “is that all doors open wide for you while for me, they remain shut.”

When my husband thanked me for rescuing our family until his ship came in, I felt proud, appreciated, needed and in control. I had a shining new identity, behind which I hid. Mother and Wife, Supporter and Rescuer — the opposite of the anxious estrangement and vulnerability I’d felt on my own, when I couldn’t seem to trust anyone.

Little by little, beginning with the first years of my divorce and my re-education, I realized that yes, my toleration of my husband’s chronic usury was indeed about sex – my own history of sexual abuse as a child and young adult that left me stunned and disconnected from myself. Until I faced my own distress, my happiness would be minimal.

That fall day of our weekly meeting, six of us in our ever-diminishing circle squirmed when Aidan posed another of her tough questions, queries that, the week before, caused two more members to up and leave the group — moms who had no interest in considering that perhaps their own fragility or lack of knowledge or unpreparedness might have somehow played into their present suffering. There was nothing they needed to learn to improve upon for the next time – no common clues or profiles or patterns or habits of exploiters – no, thank you. Aidan often repeated that most of us in the group had arrived unsuspecting victims of our abusers, that we’d truly had no idea of who we’d invited into our lives. “With the education offered to each other, by each other, in our group, though, we’ll all become far more skilled at discerning ‘who is who and what is true,’” she said.

“Maybe,” I offered, “Maybe I wanted a real family. Maybe I had no idea what love was. Maybe I just wanted to flip the page on all the sexual abuse I’d experienced in my home, with my boss, at college and by my grandfather. Maybe, I ran straight from the frying pan and into the fire. I fell in love with an idea, a magical solution I’d seen advertised all my life and, unprepared, I chased it. I think that was my part.”

No one spoke as I considered my unexamined life of running this way and that, seeking better and different, each time without my essential healing, without education or even inquiry. My habitual avoidance reflex boomeranged back to work against me – and the children I loved.

Despite the many painful moments in this group, despite Aidan’s sometimes strict insistence that we must take charge of our lives, I knew I’d stay with these good people who wanted to figure things out and comfort each other. I didn’t want to eke out a crouched, parched and pinched life. I didn’t want to find myself a victim in another disastrous situation, either. I needed this education.

“Those who don’t learn how to add and subtract get cheated big time at the cash register,” said Lee. She told us that before she learned to read English, she paid $2.50 for the can of tomatoes with the bright red picture on its label. The tin beside it, the no-name brand with only the printed word on the label, cost 89 cents. “Before I could read, I shopped by the picture,” said Lee. “And boy, did I pay double!”

“Well, it looks like I can read now,” I burst into tears. “Now that its too late,” I wept. “Now that my kids have been so hurt and now that I’m all alone.”

“Eleanor! Eleanor!” Aidan snapped the fingers of both large upraised hands. “Are you kidding? Look around you! We’re all here with you! We’re all in the same Advanced Reading and Math class, every week.”

That evening while cooking supper with my children, I got the picture. As I chopped fresh tomatoes for our spaghetti sauce, I calculated the ironic change in my life.

With my criminal husband, I was so alone. Now, without him, I’m not alone at all.

The following week, two more newcomers joined our circle.

The insights shared in that group began to add up. We learned to count and read.

We changed.

 

 

My Drug Rape

By Eleanor Cowan October 11, 2010

Unearthing my repressed memory of being drugged and raped

A young woman from my building banged on my door at 3 a.m. “It’s me! Darlene!” Soon on the couch and sipping the hot tea I made for us both, she wept uncontrollably. “I know what happened,” the twenty-four-year-old cried as we waited for the police to arrive.

“I know what happened. He ordered me a night cap at the bar while I was in the washroom. I don’t remember going to his place. I woke up undressed and in pain. Oh! I’m lucky I escaped.”

“Wow, a nightcap knocked you out like that?” I asked, tucking my shawl around her shaking form.

“No, not the drink but the drug dropped into it when I wasn’t looking!” she replied, in tears.

The two responding officers, both women, gently comforted Darlene and led her to their car and then to the hospital for the caring medical examination that I never got.

That very night, Darlene’s abuse enabled me to recall my own trauma. Memories began to surface.

Twenty years earlier, also at twenty-four years old, I’d been so excited about our trip – the light breakfast served on the plane, the fancy hotel room with tiny bars of perfumed soap, mountains of white towels and pillows piled on the bed – and the soft mattress that I never got to sleep on. In my second year of enjoying the title of Business Manager of a trade magazine, my aging boss and I flew to represent his company at an elegant firefighter’s convention.

In our roped-off area in the main hall, among the other sellers, Mr. Normins set out dishes of expensive chocolate to tempt firefighters and their families. Behind a cardboard ad of a blazing red fire truck set up on our table, my boss tucked his Marilyn Monroe ashtray, the one I cleaned compulsively. It bothered me to see her lovely smile ground out by the cigarettes he smoked down to the filter, her body smeared in ashes and butts.

“Now, always take a few seconds to jot down one identifying feature, a bit of data on the back of their business cards right after you meet, say ‘Joe Blow,’” instructed my boss as we awaited visitors. “So, when Joe happens to blow by next year, you can ask him if his daughter, Tootsie, did well at school this year or if his wife, Flossie, is still with Toastmasters. Little hooks work. Right away they think they’re supposed to know you, and if you look a little slighted, why, that helps reel in the ads too.”

After that busy day, I was stretched out in front of the TV in my quiet, restful room when my boss knocked on my door. Sucking on a cigarette, his mouth wrinkled into a corrugated grimace, he asked, “May I prevail upon you to do an old man a favor?” He confided that tonight marked the first anniversary of the death of his long-time mistress, Jean.

Earlier that day, at the booth, he shared that many years ago he’d made a bad mistake. He’d married an academic bookish type who over the years managed to get Crohn’s disease. “Problems with her female plumbing system. Now don’t judge me,” he added, “I didn’t abandon ship. After all she birthed my four children and I’ll always finance her. Still, with all the nightly bathroom moans and groans, you can understand that I quietly moved into a second bedroom.

“Then I met Jean, the prize of my life. Man, could she hold her liquor! We were glued solid for twelve years till she died suddenly last year. Stomach problems. Ulcers. Boy oh boy, have I been unlucky.”

While I imagined the nameless mother of four agonizing in her bathroom and Mr. Normins’ former business manager dying with ulcers, my boss said he desperately needed to honor Jean’s life right here, in this hotel where they’d spent their last time together — before she’d abandoned him to desolation.

I glanced back to my new book, my Rosette chocolate buds, and my big soft bed in such a beautiful room. Perhaps Mr. Normins gauged my reluctance.

“To tell you the god’s truth, Eleanor, I feel suicidal tonight.”

I disliked my boss and planned a speedy departure as soon as I finished my last courses that term. Still that didn’t mean I’d abandon a suicidal man. After all, in my teens, I’d rescued my own mother from her first suicide attempt. Sadly, I didn’t make it for her last.

“In the main lounge?” I agreed. “Ten minutes?”

“Eleanor, I’d like us to do a small eulogy for Jean, in the exact same room she and I shared last year. I pre-booked it months ago. I’ve already placed two of Jean’s personal items, a ring and an ankle bracelet, both gifts from me, on a little table by the window. The Maître d’ lent me a linen dinner napkin and, in anticipation of your kindness, I half-filled two crystal glasses of Jean’s favorite wine for our toast to her. I’d be grateful for even a half hour of your time, Eleanor.”

The next morning, I awakened in his bed to the scent of cologne. I opened my eyes groggily to see Mr. Normins standing over me dressed in his pin-striped suit and tie. He smiled down at me. “You were a tigress, Babe” he said, a lit smoke in one hand. “God, I couldn’t keep you off me. I tried to get you out of my room and into yours but you stripped naked and jumped my bones so fast I couldn’t handle you.”

Shame seared my body from my confused head to my stunned toes. I began to shiver.

“I’ll be at the booth,” he said. “I won’t speak of your behavior to anyone and I suggest you follow suit.”

It was my turn to feel suicidal. When the door closed, I stumbled into the bathroom, my body sluggish. The floor-length mirror reflected dozens of small bruises, round, the size of thumb prints, red lacerations and bite marks all over my breasts, abdomen and back. My left nipple was bleeding. My buttocks were black and blue as though spanked. I spotted his razor on the back of the toilet.

“In two minutes, this could be over,” I thought. I knelt there, believing every word my boss told me.

“Get up,” said a calm voice inside me. “Get dressed and get out of here. That’s Step One.”

When I saw my novel and my untouched chocolate in my room, I longed to turn the clock back to yesterday. Flying home was punishing. My internal organs ached during the one-hour trip. It was painful to eat, drink or sit, even on plush first-class seats. Mr. Normins downed my complimentary drink and then, slipping his empty dinner platter onto my tray, transferred my meal to himself.

“Why waste good meat?” he said.

***

Darlene called me in the wee hours. I sat where she’d sat. I wore the shawl she’d worn. I wept too.

“It’s me. May I stay with you tonight? My bruises were photographed and a rape dossier filled out. I’m going to press charges. I’m so glad you were home.”

She began to cry again, and so did I.

I’d just realized that I’d believed a lie about myself for twenty shameful years.

When Sociopaths Use Righteous Indignation to Exert Control

My husband liked to discuss discipline. The importance of it. The intrinsic value of restraining one’s impulses especially when such personal control would benefit the greater good of mankind.

My two children and I’d eat dinner while listening to his serious value-driven talks about what would please God and advance the salvation of this sorry world. Sacrifice and service topped the list. Politeness and containment followed.

It’s very hard to look back at those years of my disassociation – to calculate the degree of blindness and emotional paralysis that, unresolved, characterized my life since childhood in my first abusive family.

I considered my husband to be a religious, professor-type, whose deep interest in philosophy was the cause of his seriousness. And while I thought I was super-Mom, supporting our family, my children were being sexually abused.

I had no idea. I missed king-sized clues.

One day, during our brief engagement, Stan and I walked towards a magnificent cathedral in Ontario. I began to speak about the recently arrested pedophile priest there who’d molested an innocent altar boy, a young kid who’d regularly assisted at the priest’s Mass. The pastor was awaiting his trial at a retreat house.

I swore. “Jesus Christ Almighty! What a phoney bastard! What a depraved, selfish, compulsive hypocrite!”

Suddenly, Stan dropped my hand. He stopped short on the sidewalk and forcefully confronted me.

“Such foul, filthy and profane language!” he shouted with an venomous intensity that shocked me. “I would never, ever have anticipated such obscenity would spew from your mouth, Eleanor!

And I’ll tell you right now, our engagement is off, terminated, finished unless you apologize this instant!”

Blood rushed to my face as my heart thumped in sudden shame at having offended Stan, an ex- seminarian. I began to explain myself but was swiftly cut off. “You dare to swear against my personal God? You dare to blaspheme the very Son of God, the man centermost in my life?”

“I’m so sorry!” I said, still in shock. It all happened so fast. Shame burned through me from head to toe. I wished I’d expressed myself less offensively.

“I’m so sorry – to who?” Stan prompted me.

“I’m so sorry to you, God,” I replied – my confusion and humiliation complete as I sought to pardon myself. I hurried away from the stone edifice.

Stan caught up with me and took my hand. “I see I’ll have a courageous wife,” he said. “It takes an honorable woman to admit her wrongs and her wrongdoing.”

Within minutes of castigating a pedophilic priest who’d committed a crime against a child who trusted him, I became the bad guy, the guilty party, the despicable one, the one who needed to be forgiven for my gross, unacceptable behavior.

I’d passed Stan’s test. I got 100%. I’d do nicely.

That summer’s day, I qualified to become the unsuspecting wife of a pedophile and sociopath.

My First Unsuspecting Year in My Marriage to an Exploiter

My First Unsuspecting Year in My Marriage to an Exploiter 

With a sparkling wedding ring on my finger, I’d claimed a much-desired new identity – no longer the binge-drinking daughter of an alcoholic mother who’d taken her own life, no longer the thrice-raped young woman drowning in shame, but instead newly married to a handsome, highly educated university student. I’d begun a whole new chapter of life.

Still, I noticed things. Little things that I dismissed. That summer of 1973, after my regular work hours at the library, I waitressed part time for the extra cash to pay for my fall university courses in Paris. While I noted my husband’s five-year high stack of unpaid student loans, I decided that his finances were none of my business.

“One thing I admire about you,” said Stan one evening, “is your pleasantness. Everyone likes you.” He smiled at me before lowering his head. “Whereas for myself,” he added, “I guess I sound complicated to most ordinary folk. I’ve been studying for so long, I’ve lost that simplistic touch, that down home manner.” There was something about that comment that irked me, but, thrilled that we’d both soon be off to school in Europe, I brushed it off.

“If the Loans and Bursaries Department can manage to do their jobs properly, my student loan money will arrive soon,” Stan said. When the funds hadn’t yet been approved and flights needed to be booked, I offered to help until Stan’s his newest loan kicked in.

“Two flight tickets paid. Three months advance rent on our student residence – paid. Enough for groceries too,” I proudly announced the day before Stan was fired from a library job I’d secured for him through a work contact.

So far, I’d never seen my husband so angry. He railed at being unfairly terminated by a demanding librarian who insisted work be done according to her finicky-precise directions. Stan said he’d shown his new boss a more efficient technique to proceed and her reaction was offensive. Stan’s dismissal came two weeks before our departure and, since I had no idea what happened, I let it go.

When the telephone company called twice in one week to say they’d traced to our phone number a barrage of threatening calls to the woman who’d fired him, Stan swore on the bible that the phone company got their wires crossed. After all, I’d called him at the library using our phone, hadn’t I? I believed him. Off we flew to study in beautiful Paris. So exciting.

Every day of our first four months in Europe, I checked the mailbox in our student residence. No cheque. Tension mounted. I asked Stan for his application papers so that I could refer to them when I called Canada. Oh no, they seem to have been lost – not only by Stan, but by the Government Loans Department who claimed they’d never received them. It was exam time and Stan said he was overwhelmed about the tests to come. I offered to quit my classes. I offered to find a job. I could always study later.

“My family thinks the world of you, Eleanor,” Stan said. “You handle distress like a queen, you’re forgiving about the lost loan papers and you’re not letting me down. I married the right woman.”

I found three part-time jobs in three different locales at which I remained for the rest of our stay. With no more talk about the missing forms or any other financial aid, we relied completely upon my salaries.

I worked twelve-hour days, leaving our room in the early morning and returning just in time for the evening kitchen meal with the other students. One evening, there was a bus jam and I missed supper. The kitchen had closed – but after eating his meal, Stan forgot to bring a plate for me. “I’ve so much on my mind!” he said. “You’ve no idea! I can’t believe you’re actually angry with me about food!”

I said I understood – but I didn’t. I knew in my heart I’d have brought Stan a good meal. Since we could store only dry food in our rooms, I munched on crackers and went to bed. It would be okay. I calmed myself, but when it happened again, and I wept to a new friend down the hall, I was told that I’d married an ‘absent minded professor’. She counseled I let it go. “It’s only a minor detail” she said. “Don’t make a big mountain out of a tiny molehill.”

One afternoon, I received a letter from a former colleague at the library who said that a barrage of anonymous letters deposited in the book returns box threatened harm to Stan’s former boss and that the librarian’s terrified mother insisted she quit her job and return home immediately.

“See,” said Stan. “Obviously, I couldn’t have sent mail from here, or the post mark would have condemned me, but, not surprisingly, she’s attracted another enemy.” It was his lack of dismay and his use of the words ‘another’ that made me wonder. Was Stan her enemy too? Had he got someone to hand deliver the threats for him? I soon felt shame at my strange suspicion of my husband.

The following day, at a celebration for one of the staffers at one of my workplaces, I was warmly welcomed to a delicious lunch with lovely people – who hoped I’d stay in Paris for years to come. I felt so grateful and happy. I also drank too much and arrived home looking drunk.

“You terrify me,” said Stan. “Do you want to die of alcoholism like your mother? I thought I could count upon you to conduct yourself with integrity!” Filled with remorse, and confusion, I vowed to become a better person. It was all my fault. All my minor suspicions paled in the face of my own disgrace.

The following day, Stan shared his tremendous anxiety about his student loan repayment schedule now due. I offered to start making the payments which he very gratefully accepted. After all, I had to redeem myself. I had to restore peace, equilibrium and my self-respect. 

Eleanor Cowan   www.eleanorcowan.ca

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