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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Most Difficult Discussion You Never Want to Have

Thanks to the post put up yesterday by Tara at If Mom Says Okay, I put aside the thinky post I was working on for today, in order to work to write this instead. It's a painful story that leads to a horribly difficult but, I think, important topic. I write this in the hopes that awareness may prevent some other little girl from falling victim to silence.

I was eight. I was at a slumber party with my little sister. I'm not sure now why I had been invited, and I do recall being a little mystified even then, as it was a birthday party for my sister's friend, and I didn't really know any other kids there. Something like 6 or 7 little girls around age six were sleeping over, and I felt a little like the den mother as everyone put out sleeping bags, giggled, stretched, laughed, and slowly one by one, dropped off to sleep.

One little girl remained wide awake. Her sleeping bag was close to mine. When the grandfather clock in the hall started its musical chiming of the hour, once everything else had finally quieted down (I have no idea the time; it was very dark by then), she started to cry.

I don't recall her face. Somehow I have the idea that she had shiny dark straight hair, but I don't know why I think that. I remember that she was all shivery, like she was nervous. I remember that I felt so much bigger than she. Not older, necessarily. But I was very tall for my age, and she seemed extremely small and fragile.

I tried to talk to her, figure out why she was crying, but she couldn't, or wouldn't tell me. When the clock stopping its bong - bong - bong she slowly calmed down. Her sobs quieted. She scootched her sleeping bag a little closer to me. The minutes ticked slowly passed.

Out of the darkness came her whisper. Thin. High. A question I have never forgotten. "Have you ever been finger f*cked?"

I had no idea what she was talking about. But it sounded filthy and unpleasant the way she said it. I felt like someone had sucked my breath out of me. I didn't know how to respond. So I merely whispered back, "No."

"I have," she said. "My big brother...his friend..." I cannot recall the verb she used. Whether she said he "showed" her or "did it to" her or "explained it to" her or what. I cannot remember whether she said anything about her brother knowing, or offering her up to his friend, or being completely ignorant. I do not know how old the friend was. Or if "friend" was simply a euphemism for "my big brother." I do not know if whoever this nameless boy was did other things to her too. I will never know these things.

What I do know now, what haunts me to this day although this happened nearly thirty years ago, is that something awful, traumatic, sexually explicitly horrible happened to this little girl one night while a clock was striking somewhere in the background.

And every quarter-hour, all night long at that birthday slumber party, she would start to shiver and shake as that god-forsaken grandfather clock would wind itself up to chime. And by the time the chiming was over, she was a gibbering mess -- sometimes crying, sometimes just staring and shaking.

She was terrified of the clock. I had to do something to make it stop. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I taught her a prayer. And every fifteen minutes, until the grey light of dawn starting coming through the windows, I murmured that prayer with her over and over and over again as the clock started its ominous trek towards bong - bong - bong, so that our voices would cover up the sound as much as possible. I held her hand, and I put my head next to hers on the pillow, and I talked her through that whole night. Somewhere near daybreak, as the room was getting lighter and my eyelids were feeling like lead, she finally fell asleep.

I feel sick to my stomach as I write this. My hands are shaking. And the horrible guilt I have felt about this incident since I reached adulthood, since I have been old enough to know what her traumatized reactions certainly meant, eats at me again. I never told anyone. I should have told someone. I agonize still over that little girl, wondering what ever happened to her, whether she got real help, whether she became an even bigger victim. I don't know her name -- I'd never met her before that night, and I never saw her again after that. She has disappeared into time, and I will never know.

In retrospect, I see that she was telling me because I was "older" and seemed safe, and because I happened still to be awake. I also of course realize that if I had no clear idea what she was experiencing, then there was no way for me at that age to know how dire it was that I tell someone what she had told me. It is only in retrospect that I feel that it was my obligation, as the receiver of this information, not just to help her get through that night but to help her get to some much bigger help. But that retrospective guilt exists, I am sure, because although I could not articulate it at the age of eight, I KNEW. I knew there was something enormously wrong. I knew this was not a garden-variety nightmare. I knew this child was terrified. I could feel her trauma. I could sense her deep need for someone to listen to her and help her cope.

Yet because I did not know what name to give what was wrong, I said nothing at all. It would have seemed absurd to come home from a party on a sunny morning and explain that so-and-so had lain awake all night because she was afraid of the clock. Absurd not because one couldn't actually be afraid of a clock but because I somehow knew that her terror over the clock wasn't really about the clock. But it is only adult me who can so clearly see how her terror was tied to the question that made my mouth feel all dry and foreign and dirty. Child me set aside that brief conversation in the crisis of trying to help her stop panicking over the clock.

And so I feel complicit in her abuse through my silence. I failed her.

I do not write this so that you will reply in the comments that it was not my fault. I know I did what I was capable of at the time. I deeply regret, and will all my life, that I was not capable of more. That I did not know WHOM to tell. Or HOW. But I realize that an eight-year-old could not reasonably have been expected to resolve this situation.

I write this, instead, because I think it is so incredibly important to trust the instincts of children. To listen carefully to those short, broken sentences squeaked out in a moment of trust. To take seriously, so very seriously, any comments a child makes that might have deeper implications of abuse.

April is National Child Awareness Month, and in light of that, I think it is a good time to stop and think carefully about how we listen to our children. About what it would mean if one of them came home from a party one day with an offhand comment about how "Louis has lots of bruises all the time that he doesn't want people to see." I think I am sharply attuned, because of that night so long ago, to what might be telltale signs. I like to think that if I were to hear something suspicious, I would know how to follow up discretely and carefully, how not to jump to conclusions, but also how not to maintain a fatal silence.

But I wonder: how will I teach my children this? I want to be very careful about what I do and don't tell them, very deliberate about instilling appropriate caution without fostering unreasonable fear. But I also want them to know that if a friend tells them something about how someone is hurting them, it's not just okay to tell me. It's imperative. That doing so is not a breach of trust. That even if it's not completely clear what is happening, it is important to let a grown-up know that "so-and-so is very sad" or "gets sick every day after lunch" or "has bruises" because a grown-up will know how to intervene.

At what age do you start having conversations like this with your children? When do you begin to teach them about inappropriate touching or how to say "NO!" to an adult or how to speak up about a "secret"? How do you talk about this in ways that don't just scare the bejeepers out of them? Because my inclination, like that of most parents, I would bet, is to think, "of course, my child is too young for those conversations."

And then I think of the six-year-old who could not stand to listen to a grandfather clock chime. And I do not know what I will say when the time comes to try to help my children know that they should always tell me not just about what happens to them but about what their friends confide.

Do you know what to say? Have you already said it? Any wisdom you have about how to negotiate this minefield would be deeply appreciated. Because on this particular issue, silence can only lead to more pain.


Tara R. said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. Parents must talk with their children about this, and listen to them when they tell us about something they may not even have the words to explain.

pb&j in a bowl said...

Wow. What a difficult memory to write about. It is such a hard discussion to have, but it is one that must be done.

Maddie's school sent out a letter, telling us that they talk about "good touch and bad touch", and how to recognize the difference. They gave us guidelines on what they cover and how the parent should broach the subject and how to recognize the signs.

Basically, anything the bathing suit covers is off- limits, and she is to tell a parent or teacher immediately. The most important thing, I think, is for the child to know that it is not her fault and that she feels comfortable enough to let an adult know what is going on.

Thank you for venturing into this subject. I know it was hard for you.

truthinsoliloquy said...

LOVE your blog and take on life.

I am tagging you for Seven Things.


Momo Fali said...

Ick. I feel so heavy after reading this, but I'm so glad you wrote it. Things like this need to be said.

I have always told my children that, no matter what, they can tell me anything. They will never get in trouble, they will never be judged. I let them know they can trust me, and that I am here to protect them as best I can. I hope and pray it's enough.

Amy said...

Thanks for posting about this. My step-mom approached me about my then 3 year old being allowed to play alone in her bedroom with boys. At the time I graciously listened to her advice, but didn't put much value in it. It seemed silly to me that my daughter couldn't be left alone with a boy that she has played with since they were 8 months old. Now I realize that the older children get, the more aware of their actions and surroundings we need to be.

mommypie said...

Oh, my heart goes out to you. Guilt is a heavy, heavy load to carry. You already know you did the best you could ... instead of thinking it wasn't enough, what about the possibility that it was?

Maybe you were meant to serve as just the first person that scared little girl told - her first big step. Maybe after telling you -- an obviously very nurturing eight-year-old -- she felt safe enough telling someone else. Maybe you did more than you think.

I love your blog - thank you for your heartfelt and thought-provoking post.

Mr Lady said...

Good lord, woman.

I think you were invited to the party to help her. I think you did. I think you gave her a coping mechanism, and I'd bet money she used it.

I HAVE had the talk with my kids, for reasons I am not willing to go into. As soon as they were potty trained we had the Private Stuff talk, and no one has seen anyone naked since.

We continually have the talk, and it's not hard anymore. We will always have that talk. No one's messing with my babies. NO ONE.

LceeL said...

We all have had the experience of 'talking until I'm blue in the face' to our children and having whatever has been said seem to go in one ear and out the other. The important thing is trust. Your children must be able to trust that anything and everything they say to you is first, okay, second, confidential and third, okay and will never lead to recriminations against them. There are times when they need to know that what they have to say is important to you, valuable to you and it doesn't make any difference what the subject is or the question is or who or what it's about. TRUST is the whole thing.

Sandy said...

My sister has had to talk to her 5-year-old for years about what touching is OK and what's not, because the child had no boundaries at all and tried to touch EVERYONE. So they talked about private areas, and how no one was supposed to touch Eve's except mom or dad when they were helping her out on the potty or if something was wrong. I don't know if she's talked with her about reporting the plights of others, but it's definitely a talk worth having.

Fawn said...

I came very close to crying as I read this. This has got to be one of my biggest nightmares.

I try not to be paranoid, but my little girl is still such a little girl and I worry that if something awful like this happened to her at this age, she wouldn't be able to tell me.

Of course, we don't let her go around with people we don't trust, but I once babysat for a little girl who had been molested by a caregiver. It's absolutely terrifying to think that even the people one trusts might not be "safe".

BusyDad said...

It just pisses me off to all hell when I read stuff like this. I know that another kid did this to her, but the fact that this child felt so alone as to not feel like she had people close to her to turn to is extremely upsetting to me. We tell our son that he can tell us anything, and we've drilled time and time again the boundaries that people are not supposed to cross. Unfortunately these incidents are not 100% preventable - but letting your child know that he/she has somewhere SAFE to turn to if it ever does happen will make all the difference in the world. Thanks for sharing this. If it makes one person stop and think about it, then it was worthwhile.

Sandy C. said...

Thank you for posting this. How difficult this must have been to relive this night for this post. This is such an important topic, and I often struggle with what, how and when to speak to my daughter about this. My mother was terrible about talking to me about this. I hope to do a better job with my daughter very soon as well as being a better listener.

Mrs F with 4 said...

Thanks, Mommytime, for the exceedingly uncomfortable, but thought-provoking topic. The thought of anyone coming near my children makes my fangs and claws sprout in true momma-cat fashion, however.... we had tried our hardest to be sensible, and teach the children not only about stranger-danger, but also about their intimate parts being private and just for them.

I think we started at about 3, dropping gentle comments into conversation at appropriate times, bathtime perhaps, about only Mummy/ Daddy can help you to wash your private parts, and kind of drip-fed it in after that. There hasn't really been a Big Talk (yet), but as the girls get older (the boys are 4 and 6, the girls 2 and 5 months), I think there will be more of those. We are very clear with them, though, that they can always, always tell Mummy / Daddy ANYTHING, and so far, they have. Very clear too, that no-one, but NO-ONE gets to touch them in a way that they don't like.

Number 1 child, in the French school system in Quebec, has a nurse who comes to the school each week to talk to them about all sorts of 'body' things, from eating well, disease prevention, exercise, and child abuse is one of the topics too. An information sheet was sent home ahead of time, for us to discuss beforehand; No1 boy seemed to take it all in, then digested, and over the next few days, questions kind of dribbled out at intervals, about what people do, why, and what he would do... and that it isn't being a tell-tale, but that it is an adults job to deal with it.

Sorry, wittered on too long!

debawriter said...

That was so difficult to read, but I'm glad I did.

I absolutely want to protect my child from everything and know I can't, because I won't be there every minute.

But it's good to know you were there that night and that little girl could tell you and you gave her comfort.

What a horrible thing to have to remember, but thx so much for sharing it.

OHmommy said...

Yes, we have had the talk. I spoke to my doctor before approaching my children.

She told me to let them know that no one can touch their privates besides mom, dad, and doctor. That is it. It is their privates, they are special, very special to them.

Moreso, even at a young age, after reading books at night I reserve some time to talk. I talk to each child and let them know that I listen. I don't judge... I just listen. It is amazing what children will tell you.

You are right. We should listen to our children. Great post.

Kimmylyn said...

I just got finished reading Tara's post and now yours.. to say my heart is heavy is downplaying this feeling I have right now. It is a horrible terrible subject that boggles my mind that children even have to endure such evil in their life.

Thank you for sharing this.. it was a powerful post.

foolery said...

What a moving story. I just can't add anything useful.

I am so behind on this issue because our children have never been alone with anyone but one of us or my parents, and, on three occasions, a family of four, who are our good friends. My SIL refused to let ANYONE babysit her son until he could speak full sentences and articulate things, and her adamant stance on the issue has stayed with me. Here we are with a 4- and 7-year-old with almost zero babysitter experience!

The time has come to address the touching issue, and I'm starting, but thanks for the hurry-up, MT. You did good.

MommyTime said...

I really appreciate all the thoughtful comments you have made here. It was so hard to write this, and I am deeply grateful for your engaging in such a difficult topic.

Mommypie, I honestly have never considered that it might have been enough. But I feel a little flutter of hope over that idea -- it brings me some bit of peace. Thank you.

Mrs F, thank you for such a long and detailed response. It is really helpful to have such concrete ideas. I like your too, OHmommy; I also think it's really important to emphasize the positive, the fact that we are always here for them and that they can talk to us about anything.

Deb, thanks for coming over and for leaving a comment.

Really, all of you, thank you for chiming in and helping me feel so much less alone in figuring out how to parent around such a difficult issue.

Nicole said...

Thank you for sharing what is obviously a very painful memory. I'm 38 and mom to 5 and 3 year old girls. I hate to say that I'm living in my generation because I never even think to talk about these things with my girls. I was just as surprised when a friend told me her pediatrician recommended "THE shot" for her 12 year old... just in case.

It's only through this type of sharing and awareness that people like YOU can slap people like ME in the face and say "Don't be naive." Thank you.

Amber said...

This made me feel sick. Anytime I hear of a child being abused I feel like a part of me is being ripped out. It makes me more resolute to have open communication with my daughter and to protect my children as much as possible. That poor girl!

Kelly said...

That heartfelt post just helped more people than you will ever realize. Talking about this subject is hard, but SO necessary.

I am a social worker who used to work for child protection. You can't work there without getting a thick skin so my suggestions start out from that perspective and end with the perspective of a mom.

First, you can't start too soon by talking with your children about their bodies. The bathing suit is a good way for them to begin understanding where their private parts are. Only parents and doctors are to touch those parts, but (fill in the blank) can change your diaper or help you wipe your bottom.

Let your children know if they EVER feel uncomfortable with someone, say grandma, changing or wiping to let you know and then stop having that person change. (that doesn't mean something is wrong, but it teaches the child to TELL you and shows them that you will listen) This is annoying at times because the child might just want mommmy to change them, but it is worth the extra diaper duty.

Teach your chilren the anatomical names: Vagina, penis, bottom. Let me tell you why: when interviewing a child who has been sexually abused it can be difficult to know what they are talking about when they say the man (sorry, it is usually a man, but not always) touched my "wop wop" or my "dookie" or my "tee tee". I can GUESS what those mean, but when you enter a court of law guessing doesn't do any good. The dolls certainly help to get down what the child is saying. BUT if the child says the man touched my penis, then shows on the doll the penis...that pretty much leaves not question. SWIM?

The last thing is to be careful about using "good touch/bad touch" because many times those touches DO FEEL GOOD to the child and it is very confusing. Labeling the touch bad also brings in the shame factor...if it is bad, why does it feel so good? Am I bad? I don't want to get in trouble for being bad.

I whole heartedly agree about the fact that you were likely the first person she told, but not likely the last - all because of how you handled it. Teaching her to pray was such a gift and I am sure that was not the last time she used that coping mechanism either. You are a hero to that little girl and to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this.

To add to the comments, particularly the last, it's important also to keep in mind that the "only mommy/daddy/doctor" can touch you there" isn't very helpful in the cases where mommy, daddy or the doctor is the abuser. Which also happens.

Pretty much all you can do is listen and be watchful.


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