A Space for Women of the World
My back was to the apple tree. I stood in the yard about five feet behind my father while he sang, beer in hand, to the dog, who was idly sniffing lawn, oblivious to any attention. The song was about the moon, the fact that it was out, how bright the shining. I was in eighth grade, and that early spring day as the sun began to set, I tried to imagine my father was singing to me. For years the only thing he’d sing to me was a little ditty that went, “Take off your panties and your bra, I want to see it all.” He sang that to me before I wore a bra and after. He sang it in the kitchen whenever he went to get a beer and occasionally he sang it when we passed in the hall downstairs. He never sang it in front of my mother but he did sing it in front of my younger brother, my brother who never had to worry the song was addressed to him.
If my father was prone to sing, he was not prone to speak. What little I know about his life, I got by eavesdropping when he talked to strangers he brought home for dinner when I was a child. With family he was reticent—or perhaps reticent is an understatement. Even simple interactions were thwarted. If he wanted a family member to pass the butter across the dinner table, he negotiated the deal simply by staring at the coveted item until someone, usually me, responded. Up until I was twenty-one, I count three actual conversations with him.
One talk was meant to serve as the regular—and regularly awkward—birth control conversation teenage girls are supposed to get. My father sat me down at the kitchen table and informed me that if I ever got pregnant, I would permanently lose my figure. He cited my mom as an example.
The second conversation came only after he had chased me with a belt into the bathroom when I was fifteen. I cowered fully clothed in the tub. When he looked at me coiled in a ball by the drain, he dropped the belt and started weeping. When he was done sobbing, he sat with me for an hour on the carpeted stairs talking about God and telling me how he’d witnessed a miracle in his twenties. The miracle might have been a distractive ploy but I’d earned any kind of breather and what he said was beautiful: he witnessed the sky change colors while his mother was having brain surgery and knew she’d live. And she did live, that time. I hadn’t realized he had any faith; I barely knew he had a mother. When I look back, I can honestly say, that talk was worth nearly being beaten.
The third conversation happened almost accidentally, the result of a college assignment. In a summer undergraduate course, each student had to write a twenty-page autobiography. I wanted to incorporate outside source material and promptly went looking for details. Because my parents weren’t divorced yet, I had to return to the old family house, the one with the apple tree. First, I asked my mother, who was in the living room, for a few stories and jotted those down. Then, I approached my father who was sitting at the kitchen table in military fatigues and a white undershirt having his second or third beer of the day.
“Hi Dad,” I said, “I have to write a paper about my life for college. What do you remember about my childhood?”
It was such a generic question, such a naïve and open-ended question, that I expected to hear about the little girl who read books and sang stories. Maybe something about playing in the mud, tracking dirt inside. Perhaps something I broke.
Instead my father winced, hunched farther forward over the table, stared at the empty space on the placemat between his beer glass and the ashtray, and said, “What do you mean? About molestation? I don’t know anything.”
Then he took a drag, set the cigarette on the lip of the ashtray, reached into his back pocket for his billfold, pulled out a twenty, and pushed it towards me, saying, “Here.”
I was stunned. I was also hungry. I took the money and left.
That predators use bribes and threats during molestation is common knowledge. What happens later in life between predators and victims who have ongoing contact is less articulated. At least I haven’t read any analysis about the tactics of fathers who want continued secrecy, control, and even dependency, from their adult daughters, daughters who often struggle in the throes of PTSD, various degrees of recovery or revictimization. Given how psychologists have responded to my stories, and given what I know from friends who also survived incest, such manipulations are common enough.
For years whenever my father got concerned that I might speak, or might ask him to speak, about what he did to me, he gave me money. He’s even given me cartons of cigarettes and loaned me a Ford F-150 for a year. The pattern goes back as far as the first quarter he handed me. I still have nightmares of coins being inserted into my flesh as if I were a jukebox.
The threats I received as an adult have been multifarious, veiled but insidious: an insistence at nineteen that I invest in life insurance and a burial plan; claiming me as dependent on taxes for years when there was no support, thereby negating options for student loans; twice convincing landlords to grant him entrance to my apartments; manipulating a lawyer into accessing my entire social security history on the premise that he was going to provide support and become my sole caregiver. My nightmares range from seeing his mugshot on posters plastered around my dreams, to literal or metaphorical reenactments of the worst abuses, all the way to being threatened by his former employer, the military, if I break silence. That part is not much different from my childhood reality when speech would have jeopardized my father’s job, and consequently our family’s ability to eat.
Survival has its own rules.
For a long time, economic need kept me tethered to my father. Not long ago, I managed to escape his clutches completely for almost four years. Then my health degenerated again. These days what rare help he offers feels less like a bribe and more legitimate, almost sincere or caring, more even than guilt.
Perhaps I’m being wistful. On a purely ideological level, “harrowing” is the only word that comes to mind when I acknowledge that today, as in childhood, I still sometimes have to depend on a person who hurt me for things as simple as an unpaid medical bill or food.
And yet in practice, the four-year break helped. I got respite from one genre of triggered nightmare and a break from complicated negotiations. In the interim he also made shifts: simple things like a partial curtailing of his alcohol consumption at a doctor’s mandate. Today, our communication improves, also his self-knowledge.
Now I can say, safely, “When will you be sober enough to drive and meet me in a public place?”
And since he was able to diagnose himself with obsessive compulsive disorder, accurately, by watching an Oprah show, I’m also able to ask, “And when is a meeting possible so we don’t interfere with your patterns?”
And every now and then, I can say, “I need help.”
As the one person wholly complicit in the toll that long-term abuse and stress has taken on my health and function, sometimes now my father is the only person who can understand, that yes, I do need help. He doesn’t ask for any explanation and I don’t offer one. Some topics remain off the table.
But two decades ago, in that kitchen windowing an apple tree, we spoke across the void of a green placemat. And that day, beer and cigarettes between us, everything came down to a matter of diction: my father used the word “molestation,” whereas the times I was able to muster any language, I called what happened “sexual abuse.”
We were in agreement.
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Lisa Gill is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship and author of five books, including the poetry collections Red as a Lotus; Mortar & Pestle; Dark Enough; as well as a verse play featuring woman and rattlesnake called The Relenting; and the illustrated memoir Caput Nili: How I Won the War & Lost My Taste for Oranges, which uses poetry and prose to tell the story of how she got her MS diagnosis and examine some of the implications of violence on health. You can also find her writing in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability; The Truth about the Fact; NDQ; Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry; Room Magazine, Canada’s Oldest Literary Magazine By and About Women; more.