SHATTERED AT FIVE
By L.B. Boe
Uncle Mike built an apartment for us in his basement where the four of us—Mom, my brother and sister, and I—lived while Daddy was in Vietnam. It was a real apartment—no trace of basement left. Daddy called Mom on the phone regularly. The connection was always bad, which meant loud talking—even yelling—while they tried to hear each other. Mom never seemed happy after the calls.
We mailed cassette tapes back and forth. On one such tape, Mom recorded me playing piano. Daddy scolded me on his return tape by telling me there was no need to play the piano perfectly. “Play for fun,” he said. Before he left he promised, “I’ll be home. Don’t worry.” I missed him.
I felt something was wrong when we started watching TV and saw soldiers getting off planes as they arrived home from Vietnam. Ted, Daddy’s buddy and our neighbor, came home, but no Daddy. Night after night we looked, but Daddy never got off the plane.
We could barely contain our emotions; I felt like I was holding my breath underwater until my lungs nearly burst just before that next desperate breath. And that sense continued as we ate lunch one afternoon in the apartment. Mom sniffled and tried not to cry. No one talked. When I heard a knock on the door upstairs, I looked. I could see two men through the window. Mom saw them too and wailed, “Nooooo!” She ran out the door. I got up to run after her, but my aunt grabbed my arm and barked, “No!” I wrenched my arm free and ran out the door, chasing her.
I found her in the woods sitting on a giant fallen tree sobbing deep, gut-wrenching sobs. I don’t remember anything else, but years later Mom said the soldiers had followed her into the woods to tell her straight to her face that Daddy was dead. It’s a military rule.
I remember the funeral. I was the only one out of all the siblings and cousins allowed to attend. I felt special. I was five. It was a military funeral, of course. An American flag was draped over the casket. When I was older, Mom told me she had gone to many funerals as a child and had a ritual of touching the hand of the dead to verify they had truly passed. She couldn’t do that with Daddy; his body had already started to decompose, so her brother did it in her stead.
I sat on Mom’s lap next to the casket. Soldiers stood with guns at the ready. The man in charge told us not to take our eyes off the flag on the casket. Afraid I would be shot, I stared at the flag until my eyes burned. But eventually, I couldn’t stare anymore. When I finally glanced away and nothing happened, I curiously watched the proceedings. Soldiers fired their weapons for a twenty-one-gun salute, and trumpets played “Taps.” Even today, hearing “Taps” transports me back to my mother’s lap at the funeral.
As a child, I didn’t understand what was happening. I knew Mom was sad—everyone was sad that Daddy was dead—and we were having a reunion back at the house. After the funeral, I don’t remember anything but playing with the other kids. I drank coffee for the first time and ran around like a hellion.
My views on death are still immature. Death means someone permanently moved out of town. I feel sad and cry, but it’s not like the movies. I don’t lay around all day unable to move. Then again, since Daddy died, I haven’t lost anyone who was that close to me.
Daddy’s death changed our lives. During the war, Mom moved back to West Virginia because she was pregnant and needed help taking care of two kids—almost three—by herself. We didn’t leave West Virginia for the same reason—support.
After Daddy died, Mom rented a house a couple miles down the road from a man we kids called Uncle Buck. He was a deacon from our church. Our new house was not in the country. It was a neighborhood. Four houses stood in a row. Kids lived in most of them. My friend lived in the third house. Carla was her name. “You have to watch out for Uncle Buck,” Carla said. Uncle Buck took me on long walks. He took other kids on walks too, including his own. My mother thought he was safe.
Uncle Buck sexually abused me. He said, “Don’t tell anyone. This is our little secret. If you tell anyone, something bad will happen to your mother.” Keeping sexual abuse a secret is like being a secret agent and not telling your family, only uglier. He couldn’t have made a scarier threat. I had just lost my father to war. I didn’t want to be an orphan, so I kept quiet. But after three years, I finally cracked.
As my new step-father and family prepared to move in to our new house, I told on Uncle Buck. I don’t remember the conversation; it’s funny that I don’t because keeping that secret was such a big deal. I do remember returning a skillet to Uncle Buck’s house. I went to the front door, which we never did, and handed his wife, Louise, a pan. In a shrill voice, Louise said, “See what you’ve done? Give me that,” and she slammed the door in my face. Blame the victim—even a child. It’s what too many of us do.
In high school, my boyfriend and I, both drunk, paid Uncle Buck a visit at 2 a.m. I told him how angry I was that he had molested me, that he had ruined my life. Louise was a witness. My boyfriend screamed over and over, “You’re going to burn in Hell! You’re going to burn!” I grew up in the Bible Belt; it’s burn-in-Hell territory. The next day Louise called and told my Mom to tell me to stop harassing them.
Years later my boyfriend wanted to make signs and put them up and down the street where he lived: “Uncle Buck is a child molester. Uncle Buck is a child molester.” ButI wouldn’t let him. Maybe Uncle Buck was trained by his own abuser. Perhaps he is plagued by the same PTSD symptoms that plague me. I decided in high school that something terrible must have happened to him too. It’s not an excuse. It’s an explanation.
I dredge up the past—analyzing and rehashing it like a gold digger sifting through sand looking for that one nugget, only I’m looking for a cure. I attempted suicide for the first time when I was eleven; it was a cry for help. If I really had wanted to die, you would be reading a different essay.
“Write what you know,” writers are advised, but no one wants to read what I know. I shared what I wrote in a writing class years ago, my story masquerading as fiction, every detail included. Looking back, I think I believed that if I exposed the truth I would be healed. That theory did not pan out. I could have interpreted the visceral reaction of my classmates as a compliment to my writing skills, but I didn’t. “It’s such a stereotype. I don’t believe it. It isn’t real,” one classmate said venomously.
The teacher told me, “A little sexual abuse goes a long way.” I never forgot that. I always felt my sexual abuse experience wasn’t bad enough to warrant the pain I felt. I wanted to include all the details to prove I wasn’t overreacting. My teacher forced me to realized that details weren’t important just saying the words was proof enough for everyone else.
Every time I write, I wind up here; darkness from the past stalks me like a hunter’s silent footsteps. I’m obsessed. I need to tell my story. I need to be heard. I need to share how that experience changed me. I don’t reach out because I want to; I reach out because I must.
Nearly a century ago, Protestant minister Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat.” His words changed me. I knew I needed forgiveness. The hate ate at me, taking bite after bite, day after day, like a parasite eating my flesh from the inside out. PTSD symptoms plagued me. It was like watching movies in my mind as I reenacted the whole sordid thing; I could feel Uncle Buck’s breath on my neck during sex with my boyfriend; I took alternate routes home because I thought someone was following me; I sat at my kitchen table with a butcher knife in my hand as I waited for him . . . and then there were the delusions, the bad relationships, the emotional pain, and the doubt.
Almost no one wants to talk about such things—like the crazy uncle who left for Vietnam as a charming boy with a winning quarterback attitude but came home a raging, abusive alcoholic, destroyed by the things he’d seen and done. Those are sad, whisper-behind-your-hand stories, but they are stories—like mine—that must be told.
I wrote Uncle Buck a letter when I was twenty-five. “You sexually abused me,” I told him. “You hurt me. You can’t make it right.” And I cried as I typed. I screamed on the page, “You violated my body! I know you know who I am even though I’m not going to sign my name. I can’t forgive you.” Then I stopped writing and stared at the monitor. I realized I had to forgive. My house was burning down.
So then I wrote, “I know you must be in pain too. My wish is that you get help and break the chain. I guess I do forgive you and hope you find peace.” And I meant it.
A month later he wrote back—he signed his full name—but there was no return address. He had addressed the envelope to the wrong building number and the wrong apartment number, yet his letter somehow found me. He wrote, “I received your letter and wish to apologize for any pain I caused. I wish for you the same peace you wish for me.”
The haunting didn’t stop after that, but it did diminish. When I stopped keeping the secret, I progressed. The symptoms never left me completely. Sometimes, after I talk about it with a fellow sufferer, I feel him there again—breathing. It’s part of me—like the lead in my friend Susan’s eye from when she was poked with a pencil in elementary school.
Uncle Buck is dead now.
I thought the goal was to patch up my injured self so I couldn’t feel her inside me anymore. But I can never be sexually unabused. Denying is holding on. If I break my leg, it will always be a healed broken leg. It will never again be the same leg I had before the break; I may need help simply to walk. After Uncle Buck, I was broken, and I needed an emotional walker. I was full of self-loathing. Now, I walk unaided. All that remains is a slight limp. It’s more progress than I could have hoped for.
The good things in my life are a direct result of clawing my way out of the torment that abuse caused me. Today, I am in love with my husband. Don’t think I’m a stellar picture of emotional health. He’s my third husband. But I know I’ve got it right this time. We have sex, with love. I think it’s “normal” sex, but I don’t know. I do know that it’s just us. He knows everything about me, and, like my friends and family, he loves me as I am—no improvements necessary.
I realize that without suffering sexual abuse, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. And I like that woman. Other men and women with similar experiences gravitate toward me. I like strong people: survivors and underdogs. We find each other.
I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I’m reaching out. Not all my fellow sufferers have voices or writer monkeys on their backs that won’t jump off until their stories are told. So I have a message if you, too, were injured: You are not alone. Don’t give up. Hope lives.
About the Author:
L.B. Boe resides on the coast in Northern California with her family, two dogs, and a cat. L.B. has been a technical writer for over 20 years. She loves to hike, when she’s not suffering from age-related injuries, read, and laugh.