Trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse.
This is the second of three parts written by guest poster Beth Fehlbaum. Part 3 will be published tomorrow at noon.
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The eighteen months we lived on six acres outside Terrell, Texas, isolated from neighbors and family, were so traumatizing for me that to this day I cannot drive through the town without feeling physically ill. Seeing landmarks from that time are PTSD triggers for me. When I was home sick with pneumonia, my stepfather came home from work early and literally took the bathroom doorknob apart to get to me. I can still remember crawling on the carpet, shakily, my panties around my ankles. I was 9 years old.
We moved to DeSoto, Texas, and the nighttime assaults intensified. He crept into my room regularly, and I was paralyzed by fear as tried to roll me onto my back; he pulled to unwind the tightly-wrapped blankets from my body, and pried at my locked-to-my-sides arms. I wanted so badly to cry out for my mother, but I could not find my voice. . . until that sunny warm day in May, 1980, when I broke.
Seconds after I made the outcry to my mother as she ironed, my stepfather bolted from the room, thundered down the hall, and slammed their bedroom door closed.
My mother parked the iron on the stovetop, but did not approach me. Not a word. She did not even come toward me; she exited stage right through our home office, then the hallway to their bedroom.
I was stunned: I had done what I had been told for years would bring about the vanishing of my stepfather, and, boy, was I ready. I had told. So…was he going to leave, or what?
My heart pounded in my ears, cushioning the sound of their voices from their bedroom.
It may have been moments, but it felt like forever, waiting for my mother to come out of their bedroom. Then the back-and-forth started. I don’t remember how many times my mother returned to the kitchen and questioned me, insisting that her husband did not do anything to me. “He says he didn’t do it,” she kept saying.
I stood my ground. In fact, if one were to go into my childhood home on Bailey Drive in DeSoto, Texas, I suspect that if the same laminated wood floor is in the living room, my footprints are imprinted in it. I was that determined. I had had enough. I couldn’t take it anymore.
I had told.
He would leave.
It would stop.
It had to stop.
At last, my mother returned to her ironing board. She picked up the iron and said tiredly, “He…admits he did it. But he was sick. And he’s not sick any more. We’re just going to move on.” Then she went on to question me as if I were my stepfather’s mistress, rather than the child he began molesting at age eight.
She interrogated, “Does he pinch your breast when he passes you in the hallway? Does he call you. . .?” –Some pet name he called her, like Honey Tits.
I was in such shock that my mother was seeing me as competition, I began to break apart on the spot. The whoosh in my mind—as if all the blood were emptying from my brain and pooling at my feet—is as loud today in my memory as it was on that day near the end of my freshman year in high school.
I was still rooted in the same spot when my stepfather barrelled back into the living room and headed for me. He was a big man: six feet tall and over 225 pounds or more.
I was frozen, and my thoughts moved glacially, but I was sure he was going to knock me down. He stopped just short of bodily contact, and all I saw was his thick index finger in my face. He growled, “You are not mine. You were never mine. Don’t talk to me, don’t look at me, don’t ever speak to me again.”
Shortly thereafter, my mother went on a road trip for two weeks and left me in our home, alone, with my stepfather. I begged to stay with my boyfriend and his family, but was not allowed to do so. “What would people think?” my mother said.
I barricaded my bedroom door with my furniture each night, and, as I had been doing off and on for years, I slept in my closet, behind my clothes. If I wrapped my clothes around my feet just right and stayed still, I was reasonably sure I was hidden.
I. Was. Terrified.
When my mother returned after not contacting me at all the entire time she was gone, she asked, “Did he. . . bother you?”
My stepfather was so angered—apparently felt so betrayed—by my telling my mother what he’d been doing—that he ignored my existence for a good year. I was persona non grata in our home.
Eventually, a switch flipped inside of me, and I became The Perfect Daughter, doing all the housework, volunteering in the family business office, and even calling my stepfather “Dad.” That’s when I started being treated as if I mattered again. I had learned the key to my survival: as long I pretended that nothing happened, I was acknowledged as a person in our home.
Make no mistake: things were still awful: my stepfather drank heavily, had done so for years, and continued for many years after I was out on my own.
I married my high school sweetheart, Daniel, when we were 19 and 20. We had three children within five years, and I had an extended family because I kept pretending that nothing ever happened to me.
I was eating myself to death; I had constant anxiety and didn’t know why; and I woke every morning with the sense that I had done something really awful. I would question myself—what had I done? I felt so guilty all the time that I wondered what I had done that was so terrible. Had I killed someone? Had I robbed a bank?. . .No. So. . .why did I have this incredible fear that someone would find out what I’d done?
Beth Fehlbaum is the author of the Kirkus- Star Reviewed Big Fat Disaster; Courage in Patience; and Hope in Patience. Hope in Patience was named a 2011 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. Truth in Patience, which rounds out The Patience Trilogy, is as yet unpublished. Following the dissolution of the publishers of Courage in Patience and Hope in Patience, Beth regained the rights to the novels, and she seeks to place the entire Trilogy with a new publisher.
Beth has a following in the young adult literature world and also among survivors of sexual abuse because of her work with victims' advocacy groups. She has been the keynote speaker at the National Crime Victims' Week Commemoration Ceremony at the Hall of State in Dallas, Texas and a presenter for Greater Texas Community Partners, where she addressed a group of social workers and foster children on the subject of “Hope.”
Beth is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, like Ashley in The Patience Trilogy, and the day-to-day manager of an eating disorder much like Colby's in Big Fat Disaster. These life experiences give her a unique perspective, and she writes her characters' stories in a way meant to inspire hope.