My mother is sitting across from me warming her hands with a cup of tea when she blurts out, “why do you think it is that my mother and I both married child molesters?” She searches my face as though she is searching for the right wire to clip before another bomb goes off in her head. I exhale and try to sink further into my own body. “Feel you, not her,” I repeat this to myself over and over again like a prayer, a constant rosary in my head keeping track, imagine my hands sliding expertly over the beads. If I don’t keep track of myself in these conversations with my mother, I will get lost in her.
I spent years lost there, allowing her concerns to weigh heavier than my own. I spent decades searching for ways to let her off the hook for this very thing–for marrying a child molester and looking the other way. For unconsciously working in tandem with my father and disintegrating our family. For perpetuating the lie that my father worked alone. Because if one thing has always been clear to me, even when everything else in my life was a chaotic blur, it’s this: it takes a village to harm a child.
I can’t count the number of times I heard my mother pace the floor room in the dark of her room, turn on the light, the TV, flip through a magazine. She was wide awake while my father was right next door, in my bed, just a wall and adjoining door between us. I tried to tell teachers, doctors, friend’s parents before I gave up. How often the response was “that’s a terrible thing to say about your father, don’t repeat it,” “that’s sounds like a very bad dream you had” or “Oh, honey, that never happened.”
No one ever asked a follow-up question. No one ever even said “Tell me more about that, because I’m having trouble hearing what you’re saying.” Even that would have been something. I hear stories like this from my clients over and over again. How often sexual abuse happens in plain sight, and is met with a profound lack of curiosity from those who witness the scattered pieces and refuse to see the full picture.
I think that most people don’t want the full picture for fear that the truth will get on them, like spray from a sewage treatment plant. Then they may feel dirty, or uncomfortable and may be forced to take some kind action instead of continue on with their lives as usual. But “life as usual” is a privilege that most people take for granted. And using our privilege to keep someone else quiet or contained, to dismiss someone else’s struggles or concerns, well, that’s the definition of oppression. That is an abuse of power. And that is the primary way the “village” colludes in the rape a child.
As a Somatic Coach, most of the work I do ends up boiling down to this: I teach people how to build capacity for their own feelings and sensations of discomfort. When we have capacity for discomfort, life doesn’t have to stop the second we get uncomfortable. We don’t have to act out, shut down, or shut someone else down just because we feel something we don’t like or don’t want to bear. We can sit in our own discomfort long enough to see the whole situation, consider it, then make a choice. We get to choose how to act in a way that is in line with our values rather than at the mercy of our need not to feel something difficult.
My tea has gotten cold and my mother’s hands are still wrapped around her cup, trying to absorb the last bit of warmth. I look at her hands and think about how cool they always were on my forehead when I was sick. It’s the only time I remember her comforting me. The truth is, I don’t want to go anywhere near my mom’s question, but her eyes are imploring me to give her an answer. I tilt my head to the side and automatically embody my professional persona–a professional distance feels like the best choice right now. “I’m not sure, why do YOU think that happened?” I ask. It is a question that I would only jokingly ask my clients, but my face is serious enough to convey it as a useful one right now. I am just at a loss about what would be of actual use.
Once I ask the question, she stops searching my face and drops her gaze to the tea in her cup. Her cheeks tighten and flush with shame. I have always tried to protect her from this, from feeling ashamed. I feel myself scramble for the right words to make her shame go away. But then I take a breath and just sit with her, stare at the bright white part in her hair, bite the insides of my cheeks, and wait.
I want so badly for her to be able to weather her own discomfort. I want her to be able to sit with me and see the whole picture without turning me or parts of herself away. That is what makes healing possible. That is what gets us back in line with our own values, so we can forgive ourselves and each other. So we can heal our relationships, our families and communities and rebuild our lives.
I want my mom to forgive herself so we can be closer, so she can have a richer, more joyful life. But this is not my choice to make. This is the most difficult part of love for me–learning to let the people I love make their own choices, even if those choices take them further away from themselves or from me.
We finish our tea with very little solace in our conversation. I feel sad, until I remember that even that, tea without solace, is our practicing being uncomfortable with one another. That gives me a small splinter of hope for the future, a brave crocus poking out of the snow.