A thud strikes the house while I sit on the floor with my sons. Not quite ready to walk, they roll and crawl about for their animals and trains. Bash has already made two successful trips across the room for my coffee.
I stretch myself upright, and see a smear the size of a baby boy’s leg on the window. The smear is white and red.
I peer outside, and see a large bird on the porch, a head of red feathers, grey breast, black wings. It’s blinking. Gasping.
The red head was not intended by creation.
Its chest heaves.
My sons gurgle, topple the zoo again.
Its eyes flutter, close, flutter, close.
My sons cackle at one another. I hear the ting of a train against my mug.
The porch turns red beneath its neck. Its chest rises, falls. Stays.
I’m here to write about a failure.
Everything seemed to be churning so well, like that wave of relief you get after finally vomiting all the bile. Back in May, I accepted the word “victim” in its connection to myself. After reading Zoe Zolbrod’s The Telling, I finally found words to fit what I had felt from those years ago: the pain. The anger. The confusion, lots of confusion, as Zolbrod put it: “I could not find a place for myself” (215). When you don’t really know you’re a victim, you don’t know what you need to tell. You believe what you’re told–this is what families do for each other–and there’s a part inside that hisses:
Your parents are doing God’s work. If you tell, they won’t be able to do God’s work. God won’t reach others. God is more important. His ministry is always more important.
So you make yourself believe what’s going on will have to end sometime, and then it will be done, boxed up with all the other past days where it can’t slip beneath your clothes. Breathe heavier, and heavier, while all you go cold in the world and pray to Not Be.
I turned away from the bird and took care to my own. Surely enough creatures lived around here who would love fresh bird. I saw a fox the other day. Cats lived nearby. Hell, I’ll take a snake, just…Nature, take care of your own.
When something is horrible and commonplace, especially when it’s caught in the web of loyalty and blood, it’s easy to look away, make the bet it won’t happen again, assume if it’s really of great consequence, someone else will force it to stop.
-Z. Zolbrod, 218
Bo came home and took care of his own. Our duties formed by expectations and obligations: Bread Winner, Stay-at-Home Mom. Admittedly, not an easy marriage then.
“Did you see the bird?”
“There’s a dead bird on the porch.”
“It’s been there all day. I was hoping something would carry it off, but nothing’s come.”
Shrug. “I’ll handle it in the morning.”
Morning came. He left.
The bird still lay there. Odd feathers blew around in the whirlwinds caught by our porch. The beak went slack: open, shut, open, shut.
While Zolbrod faced her memories and her family before she got married, I did my best to shove that box into the dark recesses. I can remember days in high school of being so bloody angry and unable to verbalize why. Because…God? Because everyone was going into the ministry but me? But now I can see it was because The Monster had started to take an interest in my friends. I wanted to protect them, but I couldn’t say why. I had scrawled “nightmares” on the box, hoping that would make it easier to contain. Childhood nightmares are just a part of anyone’s life, right?
Only in college, the first school where no other family member ever attended, was I able to create some sort of identity for myself….until The Monster announced he was enrolling there my second year. My parents thought it a marvelous idea. “Jean, you’ll help him, won’t you?”
I broke down crying with the college chaplain, and he recommended that The Monster and I address our family together. No healing could come without unity.
To be true, to be me. To open my mouth, and say, “This happened to me, and it’s affected who I am.” I could not finish what college had helped me start without this moment.
The Monster’s reaction to the chaplain’s suggestion: “Look, it was a bad thing I did back then. They don’t need to know.”
End of conversation.
And like a fucking coward, I did what I always did: I silenced myself.
Spring, beautiful spring. My firstborn sleeps on my chest. I’d barely had ten minutes’ sleep all night. I still reeked of ravioli vomit from labor that night. But I was a mom with a healthy baby. A daughter.
Family came round later that day: Bo’s father, then later on my family, including The Monster.
I have a daughter.
Every family gathering thereafter put me on DEFCON 1. The Monster showed little interest in baby Blondie, yet I always kept my distance, always nursed out of sight. When I told Bo I wanted to speak up, he pointed to The Monster’s behavior and said, “You don’t know if he’s going to do anything. Just leave it be.” He saw me as paranoid, fed the part of me that thought like Zolbrod did: The Monster was working through his own growing sexuality. He wouldn’t do anything now.
The morning after Bondie’s first Thanksgiving, I walked outside to say good morning to my father. I remember the bright blue sky, and giant elm in the yard half red, half green. The dog, sniffing for squirrels. My father turned to me, and I could see nothing “good” was meeting his eyes.
“I don’t know what’s going on with you and ___, but you need to grow up.”
“You always look down on ___. You need to deal with that. Now.”
Here. Now. NOW, Jean, say something! All the missed chances in the past, all the pain and anger and dreams of killing The Monster, just open up and FUCKING SPIT IT OUT
I remember shaking all over. Visibly shaking. “Do you ever wonder why I act like that?”
My father bit his lip. “Yes, I do. And maybe you’ll tell me some day. But it’s still something you have to work out.”
End of conversation.
Zolbrod wonders, as I do, what would have happened if she had told. She learned after her first child’s birth that the cousin who had abused her was arrested for molesting another child. I see The Monster come and go at family functions, and hate myself because I don’t know. Were there others? Are there others?
Or maybe I was it. Maybe it really was “a bad thing he did back then.” Maybe everything is okay now. I once tried to make myself believe that, but motherhood rewired me: how I walked, how I ate, how I slept, how I even went to the bathroom. But especially in how I viewed the past.
When the Josh Duggar scandal broke, my mother blamed the media for slandering a “good Christian family.” “They took care of it themselves, like they should,” she said while my sons played at her feet. “Besides, it all happened a long time ago. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
I had to leave the room, bite my fist to keep from screaming.
The past so. fucking. matters.
My children shouldn’t share my nightmares. The same self-loathing that makes it so damn hard to accept any compliment from anyone, because who compliments garbage? Who can look at me, this thing used and discarded, and somehow see me as worth their time?
No. My children will not have that tar slathered on their souls by The Monster’s hands.
I hate being afraid of my own porch. I can’t have the kids grabbing a dead bird–let’s not have that be a generational thing.
I’m sick of being afraid. I need to be what my kids need me to be:
Unafraid to do what must be done.
I gather up some newspaper and a shoe box. With Thomas the train distracting the children, I step out. Drop the newspaper over the body. Kneel. Lower my clawed hands over the newspaper where it lifts from the ground, and slowly clutch.
It’s still so soft. Light.
Into the shoe box. A small red patch on the concrete holds a single feather in the air.
My therapist does not consider me ready to face him.
I had wanted to do it this coming weekend, when my children are to be watched, and my mother–The Monster’s biggest ally–will be occupied elsewhere.
Yet I’m being encouraged to wait. And with every day’s wait, I grow more and more afraid to speak.
The holidays are coming. Holidays mean family for long visits, attention drawn in one direction while kids go in another. I think of this, and I think of the summer shindig my mother threw: everyone outside, Blondie goes in to change out of her swimsuit, I see The Monster go in after her, and I pound through another door and shout my daughter’s name.
The Monster was staring at his phone by the kitchen table. Blondie looked at me from the hallway, confused. I…I had to make it sound okay, just….it’s okay, Kiddo, I just wanted to make sure I knew where you were…and I could see he wasn’t near her, but–
Why did he have to go inside just to check his phone?
I think of that moment, and I think of the holidays, and lose my breathe to fear. I do not see how others can tell me to wait.
Because this isn’t about me. I can’t alter the past, but I can prevent its recurrence. All it takes is the voice which crawled into the back of my throat time after time let’s play a game to come back to my lips, to look into the eyes doesn’t that feel good? and push back the hands this is what families do for each other
The voice that failed then. That fails now.
This failure has to stop.