Monday, November 05, 2007

The Legacy of Shame

Do I wish I had escaped the legacy of shame that started with the sexual molestation I suffered when I was eight years old? Sure. I suppose. It seems a little absurd to me to even think that way, though, because it did happen. If I'm going there, though, I have to say that I wish it in a pretty global way. I wish the person who taught that 17 year old boy that it was important to wield power over little girls by ravaging their bodies hadn't taught him that. It is hard for me to separate my experience from his. As angry as I was with him for choosing to act in that way, I can't help but wonder how he was broken. I doubt he truly understood why he was doing what he was. I know in my soul that he will someday, if he hasn't already, suffer some torment either by spending time in prison or by coming to terms with what he did. That doesn't make me feel better.

This morning the question that came to me was not one of punishment or revenge. The thoughts that bubbled up to the surface of my psyche had to do with the origin of my reactions to the way he treated me. For the first twenty years after I suffered the abuse my brain walled it off like some foreign body inside of me. I was not allowed to remember or process it. As grateful as I am to the inner workings of my brain for trying to protect me from this, I am dismayed that it didn't quite work. While the actual scenario was hidden from me my reaction to it was not. My primary response was to feel shame. Hot, vile-smelling, acid-producing shame. Shame that roiled in my belly for decades and sometimes still does. That shame prompted me to work extraordinarily hard every day to craft a shell of perfection around myself. That shame told me that I was not good enough or pretty enough or smart enough. That shame convinced me that I would never be loved unless I fooled everyone around me and made them believe I was something I was not. Something better.

As I begin to peel away the layers of shame and humiliation I sit and envision the real me as one of the tiniest in the set of Russian nesting dolls. Year after year I made good grades, did everything that was asked of me, plastered a smile on my face and ingratiated my way into the heart of every teacher I ever had in order to make people believe that I wasn't the white trash scum I knew I was. Every mistake I made added fuel to the small fire of shame that perpetually sat in my gut and threatened to burn outward and destroy the full body mask I presented to my friends and family.

I am curious about the origin of shame. Why, as an eight year old who trusted her babysitter, did I feel shame at being violated by her son? Why did I automatically assume I was the one at fault? Was it because I didn't cry for help? Was it because I had already been taught that I was unworthy unless I worked hard to prove otherwise? Did I somehow feel as though I had done something to deserve this? Was it the loss of power? Lying in the dark smelly bedroom of this greasy-haired 17 year old boy being sexually traumatized over and over again I certainly felt powerless. As an eight year old girl did I already understand the importance of power enough to lament losing it? Why did that shame continue to impact my every decision for the next two and a half decades, even after I was able to recall the abuse?

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. While I mourn for the loss of innocence of that eight year old girl, she somehow accepted her fate in a way that made her stronger. I am who I am today because of my struggle to become better. I did not physically harm myself in any way that left lasting scars, nor did I aspire to integrate the lessons I learned about sexual power in an effort to victimize others. At this point, I am only seeking understanding of the aftermath of sexual abuse for myself and others and I have nothing but compassion. Don't get me wrong, I am sickened and angered by the prevalence of sexual abuse. I have my moments of pure hot red rage for pedophiles and rapists. I just don't happen to have any for the one who victimized me anymore. I'm not thanking him, but I don't want to kill him, either. I just want to understand why I expected so much from that little eight year old girl that I made her feel ashamed of something she had no control over.


Michelle O'Neil said...

Holy shit Kari! You are so brave.
Love to you now and the little eight year old you.

I am in awe and I am so glad you are exploring the shame that you never deserved to carry.

Scott from Oregon said...

In my 17th year, I really really wanted to touch a girl's body. I just remember the hormones and the longing and all the time spent obsessing in that direction.

I had opportunity and girls liked me well enough, but I often wonder about the side-lined ones...

I won't make excuses for them, but I think there is a chemical motivator beind their seemingly evil act...

I am angry that young girls have these horrific experiences, and I don't have answers.

But I can say I understand something about the drive that perverts us as males...

(Oh, and I too am a liberal through and through. I just realizd that I can be a better liberal if the power for my liberalism (and the money) was closer to home.

Jerri said...

Dear, dear Kari. What a powerful piece. Forgiveness happens when we stop wanting the past to be different. I salute you for your acceptance of what is and the freedom that brings.

Love to you. Love to the little girl you were. Love.

Suzy said...

Extraordinary piece Kari.
When we are young, hopefully we are taught that it is "wrong" to be touched in any place by anyone. No one, at least in my life ever explained the perpetrator so I assumed if it was wrong, then it must have been me that was wrong.
It was a secret not to be shared or told. It was shameful, but once again who's owned the shame?
Certainly not you or me.
The ones who kept the silence and continued the abuse are the scum.

Beautiful post my friend.

Anonymous said...

You are amazing and so is this post. You deserve to feel peace and be free of the shame that you felt for so long. You were a child, it was not your fault, and I am so glad by letting go of the secret and the shame, you can move forward and truly be safe and free. You deserve no less.

riversgrace said...

Kari, I am stuck by how clearly you speak. That's powerful. I see the strong spirit behind the words.

I wonder at how ancient this story is...somehow. And I want to hear it in mythic form. Have you ever written it as a journey? If it were a pilgrimage across your life, what would it look like?

I guess this is what I see behind the clear explanation, a great journey. And I wonder how it would be for you to write into it in this way.

I'm with you here...truly.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

So sorry I'm just now reading this. Wow. I am so proud of you for writing this, and writing it so well. That is hard, hard, HARD to do. You are brave and strong and well on your road to healing, my sweet friend.


Deb said...

Hmmm. I left a comment here days ago. Came back to revisit the conversation and it's not here. I need you to know how much this piece touched me. How proud I am of the steps you're taking to let that little girl know she's okay and that it really wasn't her fault. Love you! And her.

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