Welcome to the survivor moms speak out blog!

While practicing full-time as a community-based midwife, I had the opportunity to work with many women who were survivors, either of childhood sexual trauma, rape, or both. The experience of being their midwife, and witnessing their challenges and triumphs encouraged me to learn more about the effects of trauma on the body, and on the experience of childbearing specifically. So just as I felt "called" to practice midwifery, I felt "called" to shed light on issues that survivor moms face during the process of becoming a mother. That calling led me to begin the "Survivor Moms Speak Out" project. We surveyed many women who were both moms and survivors; and 81 of those women completed a narrative or contributed a poem for the book "Survivor Moms: Women's Stories of Birthing, Mothering, and Healing after Sexual Abuse."
Read more about the book, or order a copy, at http://www.midwiferytoday.com/books/survivormoms.asp.

Because of space constraints, not all of the narratives that women contributed to the book project were able to appear in full in the final version of the book. So I would like to take the opportunity to share some of the whole narratives in this blog, featuring a narrative at a time.
About reading survivor stories:
Although the stories are encouraging because they represent survivors’ triumphs over adversity, they can also to be hard to read, because of the intensity of the issues and events. I encourage you to check in with yourself while reading survivor stories, especially if you are a survivor of past trauma, and limit your exposure if you become “triggered”. Feeling triggered might take several different forms. You might start re-experiencing a past trauma you have had before, by not being able to stop thinking about it, or dreaming about, or just feeling like it is happening all over again. You may feel distress or have physical symptoms like feeling your heart race or sweating. If you start to experience these things, you may benefit from talking to someone who understands how trauma works and how to help you with post-traumatic symptoms.

To read more about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder you can check out the National Center for PTSD website: http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/.

The Sidran Foundation offers an information and a referral resource on-line: http://www.sidran.org/

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nan's Story

I’m 43. Thirty-one years ago, in 1969, at age 12, my life changed forever. What came to pass would affect every aspect of my being. Yet it would be many long years until I realized the magnitude of the scaring and mutilations.

My experiences began as a direct result of racial prejudice.

I lived in a mixed ethnic neighborhood, Armenian, Irish, Italian, Chinese and Hispanic. There were rich, middle class and poor blocks. From 1960 until about 1966, we lived on a poor block.

In school, each grade was separated into four classes. I didn’t realize then that the divisions were due to intelligence. By 5th grade, I understood. I was in the “1” classes, and had the highest IQ in the school (I found out later.)

My reports, drawings, projects, were always on the bulletin board in the common hallways. I was in most of the plays in the assembly. I was a soloist in the school choir. I was a school monitor, complete with a white and metal belt and sash. I was often a “teacher’s pet” and a very “goody-goody.”

My grandmother was very strict, in the “Old World” Middle Eastern Christian Orthodox way. That meant that even while seated, no appendages were moving. You sat at attention. I would never think of being rude or ill mannered, and find most people today horribly uncultured.

In the 1960’s, even in midtown Manhattan, most people, rich or poor, had good manners. Most, not all.

When I was in the 5th grade, the Hispanic fifth grade girls started the gang-horror treatment. (The school is still there. I have never been able to even walk by, ever since.) They began following me, calling me names, pushing me, spitting on me, taunting me, hitting me, always 10 or more to my one. I never called them names back. I kept a “stiff upper lip,” not even any tears. They would never make me cry. They never did. I acted so stoic, I didn’t even cry at home, alone. I thought that that would make me a weak, helpless female, like my mother.

I had two best friends, both tomboys with older brothers. Penny lived nearest to me, so every morning on our way to school for two years, we had to try and sidestep the Latino gang of girls. You may wonder why I didn’t go to the school authorities. I did! My mother and I went to the school nurse, who said, “You have to go to the guidance teacher.” We went to her. She called for my records. She looked them over very carefully, complimenting me on all my high marks, excellent grades, very high test scores and glowing personal character remarks from my teachers and the vice principal. Very sweetly she stated, “Nan, these girls are obviously very jealous of you. Why don’t you give them less to be jealous of, fail some tests, don’t be so smart, and they will become your friends.”

I was only 11, but I couldn’t believe my ears. An adult telling me to be dumb! Someone who was supposed to be on my side, to help me!!! To fail on purpose, to appease my torturers? It was too complicated for me to understand. I came to understand it many years later. It was because of the top three children in the school, I was the poorest, and the only Christian. That was her religious prejudice. We were horrified!

We went to the police. They said they couldn’t do anything until there was blood. I wasn’t going to stand for that. My mother went to the parents of the girls, who all pretended to not speak any English, in spite of the fact that they were often high on the street, yelling and singing in English. We only got the doors slammed in our faces.

I endured all through 5th grade, 6th grade, and into 7th grade, in a new school. I never went to school authorities there, because I no longer trusted any adults working in schools. By the end of the 7th grade, at 12 years of age in 1969, I was tired of being afraid all the time. I didn’t even know the words for racial prejudice. I had never been taught to hate people at home, because they looked different or had a different religion. On the contrary, that was how my real grandparents came to Ellis Island in 1921, with my mother as an infant, barely escaping the Turks, who had killed my grandmother’s family in front of her, savagely, in their own family compound of 800 years. Issues of hate never came up at our home. I would have been considered a sin. My mother didn’t understand anything about basic human rights. She was afraid of her own shadow. She couldn’t fight for herself. How could she fight for me?

There was a gang of boys, multi-racial, who called themselves the “Devil’s Angels.” They were patterned after the Hell’s Angels, but were young, teenaged boys with bicycles instead of motorcycles.

Robbie was an African American boy of 15, in the gang. He was nice to me. He was cute. He became my boyfriend. I thought that now the girls would leave me alone. I was right. They did. Many years later I realized it was the “race card” that made them back off. At the time, I believed it was because the boys were tougher, which of course they were. My education was to begin soon.

I was a big girl of 12 now, so I could come home a little later, 5:00 or 5:30. My mom didn’t insist on being right there, as she always was when we were playing up until that year. I later was glad that she never let us out of her sight when I was younger, unless I was with friends that she knew well and we were at their house.

One day after school, I went with Robbie to his home, which was out of our neighborhood. But my mom didn’t know. She trusted me, and I had no idea that there was real danger in the world. Danger to me was on TV or the movies. I had no imagination of any real horrors, except the Spanish girls, who were history now. They still called me names, but didn’t hit, spit, pull my hair, or follow me any longer.

Under the guise of “doing homework,” Robbie put on rock music. We had tongue kissed before, and that was nice. We had some beer. How much, I don’t know, but being 12 and perhaps 90 pounds, it didn’t need to be much. I passed out. Sometime later, when I came to, my clothes were messed up. I had culottes on, and they were off to one side, as were my underpants. I had pain between my legs. Robbie didn’t say anything, and I didn’t know to ask. I was puzzled.

The next morning, on my way to school with my best friend, Penny, I told her the strange stuff of yesterday at Robbie’s house, falling asleep, waking up, my clothes a mess and “hurting down there.” I still had no idea what was “down there,” on my own body, even though I had been menstruating for over a year. No adult had told me more than how to use a Kotex pad.

Penny said, “Nan, I think you had sex!”

“Sex?” I asked. “What do you mean, sex?”

“Don’t you remember I once told you that when a boy gets excited, he gets hard?”

“Yes,” I said, but again asked, “But what, what gets hard?” I had never seen male private parts.

She gave up trying to explain it to me, not having enough words and understanding at 11, I suppose.

Now Penny said, “I think you better ask Robbie what he did to you.” I think that she thought he would explain it to me.

The next day, I did confront Robbie. We were back at his house, and I asked him, “When I fell asleep the other day, did you do something to me?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I thought that if you were awake, you would say no.”

“You’re right, but let’s try it again. This time I want to know what it is.”

We got undressed, and for the first time in my young life, I saw a male’s private parts. He was long, large, and not circumcised (I didn’t know that at the time.). It was ugly!

I asked him, “What are you going to do with that?” pointing to him.

He said, “Put it inside of you.”

I said, “How?”

“I’ll show you.” He got on top of me and tried to penetrate me.

It hurt. It hurt a lot, and I yelled for him to stop. He stopped. I told him that I didn’t like it, and we got dressed. A few days later, he told me that he didn’t want to go out with me anymore, and we broke up. He started seeing a girl his age, 15.

Perhaps six or seven weeks later, one of the other gang members told me that Robbie wanted to get back with me. I was told to go down by the river that evening, where he would be waiting for me. Being rather innocent, I went. Robbie wasn’t there, but five of the gang were. They took me to a coal storage warehouse along the East River, and all of them raped me!

I still remember bits and pieces of that experience, as if they happened to someone else. My skin and clothes were covered with dark coal dust. I’m quite fair, so my skin looked bruised from all the black dust.

I remember going home in a fog. My mind and body were numb. A few days later, I went to the only person in the world who I thought loved me, my adopted grandfather. He had been my only father figure from the age of three. He was the only source of affection in my life. His name was Danny. We were at his house almost every day. His wife was the only real grandmother that I had loved all my life. Lisa had gone to Christian boarding school with my maternal grandmother in the old country. My real grandmother was already dead.

Danny took care of the foreign language library in his wife’s Christian Orthodox Church. The church was across from their building. I went to him there after school, perhaps one or two days later, because I needed help. I didn’t go to my mother because I hated her. She had told me nothing about boys. I knew nothing about my own body, sex, or anything. I realized that I didn’t know how to protect myself against something that I didn’t know existed. I didn’t think that she would help me. She hadn’t helped me stop the Spanish girls, and this was worse. I thought that she would throw me out on the street. I was ashamed and very afraid. I had nowhere to go.

So, I went to Danny. He was a tall, skinny, old man of 80 years. He listened. He comforted me. He told me to come back the next day. When I got there, he had hard-core pornographic articles for me to read. They were disgusting. They scared me. He told me, “This is what young men will do to you. They have diseases. They will get you pregnant. They will hurt you, like they already did. I won’t hurt you. I won’t get you pregnant. I won’t give you diseases. I am safe.” He had me sit on his lap. He started touching my body as if it was his.

“You are my queen. If Elizabeth Taylor would come to me, I would tell her to go away because I had my Nan.” (I looked like Elizabeth Taylor, except with brown eyes, before I was 30.)

This was in 1969, at the age of 12, between March and June; date rape, gang rape, and then molestation from the one person who I loved completely and trusted. Danny would continue his “love” until December 1976, when at age 20 I left home to live with my boyfriend from college.

In 1969, I started using drugs to deal with the emotional pain and confusion. I drank, I smoked cigarettes, and I ran away from home several times. I was an ‘A’ student all through school. I was popular and had lots of friends. I was invited to every party. I had sex all the time. I’d have sex at the drop of a feather, but these were “Hippie” days, so it all fit in. By age 18, I knew I had serious problems, but didn’t know what they were. I still loved Danny, even though I didn’t like the things we did together. I would leave him and run to one of the young men I liked, and would fuck all the bad feelings away.

I was 22 when Danny died in 1979. Only when my sister asked me a question one day, after his death, did I finally break my silence. It couldn’t hurt my grandmother then. I never told her. I never wanted to ruin her life. I protected her as long as she lived. She was married to him for 56 years when he died.

It wouldn’t be until I was in my late 20’s, with a child of my own, that I finally discussed these experiences with a female therapist. It was after more than one year of therapy when, quite by accident, she asked me a question. I don’t remember what. I told her that I was sexually abused for over seven years while growing up. I remember that she was so startled that she almost fell off her chair. I said it so matter of factly, so coldly, without any emotion or change in expression, as if I was giving a weather report. I often hear and do things as if someone else is saying them or doing them. It’s like I’m outside myself, watching someone else. It makes me feel strange, but I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve been like that so long.

Only at the end of 11 years of therapy, as an adult (27 through 38), would I finally realize the magnitude of the damage that was done to me. It is like having an arm and a leg, on opposite side of the body, amputated. You can have therapy, have prosthetics, to replace the missing limbs, but it is never the same as never having the real ones removed. The scaring is permanent and the handicap is forever! There is no going back to what you were before the experience. There is only trying to heal and going on with whatever you have become. Some days are good; some years are bad. If I could prevent these things from happening to everyone else, I would spend my life doing it. That’s why I’m part of this book. Knowledge is the only protection!
I would like to share my advice with the reader. I will not sugar coat this for anyone. It is too important and too deadly.

If you are not yet pregnant with your first child, read very carefully. If you are already pregnant, and/or already have children, it is never too late to get smarter, and to make your children smarter and safer. Don’t leave it to someone else to do. They might teach your babies like I was taught! Do not help anyone make your babies victims! It was way too late to take it back after it happens, way too late, and there is never any going back. It is forever. We all survive somehow, but none without horrible pain. Some of us cannot live with the pain. Some can only die with it.

1. Always arm your children with the truth. When they ask where babies come from, and they will, go to the public library and pick up some books for parents and children to help explain “the facts of life.” Please get the books with true explanations and diagrams, usually illustrated, of the two human sexes. Go over the books together, like a regular book. Do not put your hang-ups into your babies. They are worth more than that.

2. Factually and honestly answer all your children’s questions. Don’t answer their questions with fairy tales, cabbage patch nonsense, and cute words. Use the correct words, even if they make you comfortable. Use no baby language. For example, this is your penis. It belongs to you. Nobody can touch it, except you. It is for making urine and one day being a daddy. Mommy doesn’t have a penis. Mommy cannot be a daddy. Mommy has a vagina. Mommy can make babies inside her uterus. Men and boys have penises. Women and girls have vaginas and a uterus. We are different, but we are all necessary. You can have this talk any way you want, just for your kids’ sake don’t lie or tell half-truths. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

3. You have nine months before the birth of your child. That is plenty of time to think about how to raise your child. Be prepared. You have no valid excuse, not my house needs to be cleaned, not buying a new purse, and not my husband is . . . . .. Don’t wait for him to do anything or everything. He could be gone tomorrow. Plan ahead. Be reliable to yourself and for your child.

4. All babies and children are innocent. They will always need you to protect them, for many years. They cannot protect you. Do not use them to hold onto a man. Don’t have them to give you love and support. They need those things from you, first and last. One day they will love you, however, those are no reasons to have a baby. Neither is being married. Many married people should never be parents. A dog or a cat will always be like a baby, and can be cared for badly, with less dire consequences. Think long and hard before becoming pregnant.

5. Children always come first. Babies and young children cannot feed themselves. They cannot wash themselves. They cannot even talk. They cannot walk or make their own bottles. This may sound silly, but often people think of babies as dolls or “things to have”, like having their hair done. Selfish people make very rotten parents. Selfish people like to come first. Good parents realize that children are hard work. They are the best work that you can ever do. If you take it seriously, they are also fun. But the work always comes first!

6. Do not make or ask your children to touch or kiss someone. Children should never kiss anyone on the mouth, not you, daddy, grandma, the mailman or the dog. Kissing on the mouth is for adults only. Good boundaries are very important. Things can never go too far, if they don’t start at all. Children get confused easily. If they are asked to touch and kiss too many people, in too many different ways, the line between “good and bad touch” becomes blurred. That’s when trouble can happen. Don’t put your baby/child at risk to spare an adult’s feelings. Let people know, “We don’t allow Bobby to kiss anyone on the lips.” In private, you can tell them why. If they are quality people, they will understand. If not, you can be sure that they will undermine you in other ways, due to their own willfulness. That kind of person is not a good person to ever trust your young child with. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and there are no cures for child abuse. It is forever. There is no going back. It will forever be too late.

7. You are the best! Not a babysitter, in-law, sister, brother, friend. If your baby is important to you, take care of them yourself. If you will give your child under age four to someone else, whom are you having the child for? Mommy is the best. No job is worth more. Save money, if need be, to stay home with your child until kindergarten. By then, if they are armed with the truth, they will have the words and knowledge to make them safe. Always remember, even with words, their bodies are small and weak. If any adult really wants to use them, they may be too weak to stop them. If you have armed them with the truth, hopefully, they will tell you if something unnatural has happened.

A few years ago, I heard a man say, “If someone tries to touch you in a bathing suit place, scream loudly, run away, and get help. If the person you go to for help doesn’t help, keep going to other adults that you trust until someone helps you in the right way, and makes it stop.” If I had been told that, my abuse would have stopped at 12, instead of 20. I might have had a more normal life, instead of being a person with scars that can’t be seen. I have even been discriminated against as an adult, in a trade school, because I had been in therapy for child sexual abuse. When I went to the female director of the school to complain, she said, “You are a certifiable mental case. You’ve been in therapy, who will believe you?”

Today I am 43, now disabled in my body with fibromyalgia, two other kinds of arthritis, and chronic fatigue. I am a Sagittarius with an 18-year-old son and two gerbils. I was a surrogate mother when my son was three years old, for the money to get away from my son’s father. That son is now 14. He has a normal, loving family.

My son has only me. But he has been very lucky! I armed him with the truth. At 18, he is graduating from high school. He doesn’t smoke, drink or take drugs. He is a virgin and hasn’t been sexually abused, or abused anyone else. He has never been arrested or had any trouble with the law or with police. We have watched “America’s Most Wanted” for over 10 years, and still do. I never even let my son play with toy guns, for I believe that to a child playing with guns sets a bad pattern for violence with a real gun.

My son is the single best thing in my life!

Following the advice that I have written here, I helped mold my own child into the good, caring person that he is, without putting him at risk, like I was, by a selfish, helpless, uptight, ignorant parent, who never bothered to learn how to be a good parent.

I still take care of my mother, at 79. I’ve been doing that, one way or another, for 40 years. My mother had a nervous breakdown in 1960 and never got help. She put my younger sister and myself at risk, and all the worst happened to me. Don’t let your pain or ignorance place your babies at risk. They are too beautiful!

Namu –Amida – Butsu. Nam – Myoko – Renge – Kyo. Buddhism has saved my life since 1972. Without this light to guide me, I would have been forever lost in darkness, pain and suffering.

Live well; live safe!

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

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