An excerpt from “I Only Said” I was telling you the truth

Every day I seem to learn something new. Today in group Miss Tina writes the word “GROOMING” on the flipchart.

“Today we’re going to look at how sexual abuse happens. It’s less common for it just to happen out of the blue; rather it’s usually a gradual process where the abuser deliberately changes the boundaries between you both. Abusers are masters at manipulating. They divide and separate their victim from the rest of the family. Think about how it started for you.”

Sandy is the first to speak out.

“Every time my uncle came around our house, he’d make a fuss over me, and give me candy if I sat on his knee. He’d cuddle me, but I didn’t think anything of it because Mom and Dad were always cuddling me. He’d tickle me under my arms or on my tummy, and after I got used to him doing that, he’d tickle me in places where he shouldn’t. But I didn’t stop him because I just accepted it, and thought it was okay. Then when I was used to that, he began to touch me.”

Miss Tina says, “So he gradually moved the boundaries of what was appropriate touching to what was inappropriate touching between you both? Each time he made a move, he waited until you were okay with it, and when he made another move, he waited until you were okay with that. His behavior was deliberate, designed to work towards his goal, and his goal was to touch you. Behavior like that is called ‘grooming’ and it has one purpose – to get you accustomed to his behavior so that you won’t tell, and so that he can go further next time.”

Erin says, “My piano teacher started to touch me by insisting that he sit next to me on the long piano stool. Then he put his arm around me to help me press the right notes. I was uncomfortable with it at first, but then, when he said that he was only trying to help me, I was okay with it. When I did a good job, he’d squeeze me, which then turned into a cuddle. After the first time he’d touched me, I told Mom that I didn’t want to play the piano anymore, but she wouldn’t let me stop. I hated him, because he lied about me. He said that I was lazy and I needed to practice more, and that’s why I wanted to give up. Mom nagged me to death and forced me to have even more lessons with him because she thought I was slipping behind. When I finally found the courage to tell her what he was doing to me, he said that I was making false allegations just so that I could stop having to take piano classes. I hate my mom. She believed him. She wouldn’t believe me. She tried to force me to go, but in the end he refused to teach me and said that he had to protect himself and his reputation.” She almost spits the words out.

Miss Tina says, “His behavior was all part of the grooming process. The abuser has to protect himself by being able to discredit you if he feels that he’s about to be discovered. He has to make sure that you will not be believed.”

I’m itching to speak out, but I’m scared.

Ryan beats me to it.

“My dad discredited me all the time. When he raped me it hurt so bad that I’d cry, and he’d belittle me by saying to Mom that I was a crybaby, and that I was always crying for nothing.”

My stomach flips over, and I think back to all those times that Ryan would cry. I feel so awful because I, too, thought he was a crybaby. I can’t help myself, I start crying.

Miss Tina says, “Ruby?”

Everyone looks at me and I cry harder. I feel as if a dam has burst inside me.

When I feel able to speak, my voice sounds strangled. “Ryan, I’m so sorry. I thought you were a crybaby too.” I cry some more, feeling so ashamed of myself. “I used to feel angry with you for making Mom and Dad mad because you were always crying. I’m so sorry.”

Miss Tina holds up her hand.

“Stop, Ruby. You have nothing to be sorry for. You were reacting just as your dad had hoped you would. He set it up so that you’d all react in the same way in order to isolate Ryan. So if Ryan did tell, no one would believe him. He could say that he was always making trouble and always crying about something.”

I feel sick as I think about my dad. He’s a monster. To think that he would walk into the living room and say horrible things about Ryan, and call him a crybaby, when he’d just raped him. How could he sit there listening to Mom yell at Ryan for making so much noise, and watch Rachel and me become irritated with him, when he knew why Ryan was crying? That’s sick. I blow my nose.

Ryan speaks out.

“Ruby, don’t ever say sorry to me.” He shakes his head as if he can’t believe I said it. “You saved me. It was thanks to you that it stopped.”

I’m crying again.

Miss Tina says, “What are you feeling, Ruby?”

I sniff and shrug. “I’m not sure. I’ve blamed myself for the fact that Ryan was taken away. No one told us where he’d gone, and I felt so guilty. I didn’t know if he blamed me or not.”

“Are you kidding?” Ryan says. “Yes, I was scared when I went into foster care, because I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t want to go home. I knew Mom would blame me for Dad being in jail, and I couldn’t cope with that. I felt guilty.”

“She didn’t blame you,” I interrupt. “She blamed me.”

Sandy asks, “Why did you feel guilty, Ryan?”

“Because Dad had told me over and over that if I ever told, he’d be put in jail and we’d lose our house. He said that everyone would blame me, and he said that I’d be hurting Mom and my sisters if I told.”

Miss Tina smiles and says, “That’s a perfect illustration of the manipulation an abuser does while grooming his victim. He twisted the responsibility for his abuse back onto you. It would be your fault if he got found out. He kept you silent by playing on your loyalty towards your mother.”

“I don’t remember him saying that to me,” I say.

“Okay,” Miss Tina says. “What did he say that stopped you from telling?”

I think for a moment.

“Uh… he told me that I was special, that I was his little princess, and that I couldn’t tell anyone, especially my sister Rachel, because she’d be hurt that she wasn’t special to him.”

“Manipulation!” Miss Tina says, triumphantly. “He played on the concern you had for your sister. You didn’t want her to feel hurt, did you?”

“No, of course not.”

“That was a sneaky piece of manipulation,” Miss Tina says. “He made sure you stayed silent, but he also kept you sweet by saying that you were his special girl.”

“I adored my dad. He was everything to me. I was glad that I was special to him. Oh, I wasn’t glad he did things to me,” I add quickly, “but I was pleased that he favored me.” I shrug. “I know that sounds bad.”

Miss Tina frowns at me. “Ruby, there isn’t a child alive who doesn’t want extra attention from their parents. Stop beating yourself up.”

“I remember feeling confused, though. I didn’t understand why Dad didn’t think Rachel was special, and I was scared that I’d do whatever she’d done, and I wouldn’t be special to him anymore.”

“She hadn’t done anything. Your dad just targeted you instead of her, that’s all.”

“But why?” I look around the room, hoping that someone will give me the answer. “I’ve spent four years believing that I did something to make Dad do things to me, and then there was Mom’s new boyfriend. What is it about me that makes men do things to me? I must have asked for it in some way.”

Miss Tina sounds angry and almost shouts.

“Stop right there. Nothing you did, or didn’t do, makes you responsible for someone abusing you. Do you all hear me? You are all children, and adults have abused you. It is their responsibility, not yours. They have manipulated and preyed upon you, finding ways to keep you silent for their own sexual gratification. They have used the trust that children have in adults to their own advantage. None of you is to blame for what’s happened, and it’s not your fault.”

Pansy starts crying.

“What is it?” Miss Tina asks.

“I feel so guilty,” she sobs. “None of you will understand me, I just know it.”

I look at her and wonder what she’s going to say that she thinks won’t be understood in this place, where anything you say will be accepted.

“All of you seem to hate your abuser, but I don’t. And…” She sobs harder. “And I liked what my dad did to me. It felt good. I feel so ashamed for liking what I knew was wrong.”

She’s right, I don’t understand, but I don’t say anything because I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings.

She hides her face in her hands and sobs louder. Miss Tina goes over to her and kneels down. She gently takes her hands away from Pansy’s face.

“Sweetheart, you are so brave to say that. I admire you so much. Don’t be ashamed, and don’t feel guilty. God gave us physical bodies that are designed to become sexually aroused when we’re touched in a certain way. Your body responded in the way it was made. You did nothing wrong. It’s your dad that did wrong.”

“I feel dirty though,” she cries.

Now I understand her. I feel dirty too.

Most of the kids say, “Me too.”

Miss Tina goes back to her chair and Pansy stops crying.

“Y’know, Pansy, in many ways your recovery will be easier because you were sexually aroused.”

“Why?”

“Well, one of the worst things about being sexually abused is that when the victim grows into an adult and starts to form relationships, having sex can be a problem. It can bring about bad flashbacks of the abuse and stop you from enjoying sex. I’m not saying that you won’t have any flashbacks, but the fact that you found being touched pleasurable means that you will be open to that aspect of relationships in the future.”

Pansy smiles. I wonder about myself. Will I be put off by sex in the future? I know it doesn’t matter now because I’m only fifteen and I’m not ready to have sex, but what about when I’m older? Will I ruin my relationships because every time I have sex I’ll be reminded of the things my dad did to me? I feel overwhelmed. Even though we’re talking about it all, will I ever get over it and be able to move on and have a good life?

Miss Tina seems to sense what’s going through my mind because she says, “It can seem overwhelming at times, can’t it?”

There’s a knock on the door and Ken comes in pushing a two-drawer filing cabinet.

He looks funny and some of the kids laugh.

When the cabinet is in front of Miss Tina, he pulls the top drawer out, and without saying anything, he tips it upside down and all the hanging files inside fall to the floor, spreading colored papers everywhere. He puts the drawer back and pulls out the bottom one, and tips that out too.

“Well, that’s a fine mess,” Miss Tina says laughing.

She bends down and scoops up all the papers in the air and we watch them fly about. I don’t know what’s happening.

“This is what it can feel like when you’re overwhelmed by your feelings and your memories. It can feel insurmountable. It becomes a terrible mess and you can’t see the wood for the trees. Look at this mess. If someone said, ‘Deal with this,’ I wouldn’t know what to do or where to start. That’s a bit like coming to terms with having been sexually abused. Where do you begin to deal with it? How can you sort things out? Y’know, when I look at all this mess, I feel frozen. I can’t do anything. I feel stuck. If you try to deal with everything about your abuse at one time, you may feel overwhelmed. So this is what to do, okay?”

She starts to pick up all the hanging files and clips them back into the filing cabinet drawers. Then she picks up the pink papers and puts them into one hanging file.

“Come and help me,” she says.

We each choose a color and pick up those papers, and soon the floor is clear and all the papers are in separate hanging files. She closes the drawers.

“Okay, imagine that your mind is this filing cabinet. It’s full to the brim with thoughts and memories. To look at them all at one time would be totally overwhelming, but if you can deal with one thing at a time, one hanging file at a time, then you can deal with it more easily.”

She holds up a key and then locks the cabinet, and turns back towards us.

“You hold the key. No one can make you examine your thoughts and feelings. Only you can open the cabinet, and when you do, you’re in charge of what you look at. Take one hanging file at a time, one feeling at a time, one memory at a time, and then you won’t feel overwhelmed. You can look at as much as you want to, as much as you can cope with, or as little as you want to, and nothing more. That way you can deal with your feelings safely, and at your own pace.”

She turns back to the cabinet and unlocks it.

“This can also work in another way. You see this file here,” she points to the first one. “That’s everything that happened to me at college. This next one holds all my memories when I went to camp, and I’m not sharing any of those memories, okay?” she laughs.

“This next file holds all my memories of my children when they were little. This next one holds all my memories from my childhood. Can you see what I’m saying? Now this one at the back, with the orange papers, holds memories that I’d rather not remember. If all the papers, all my thoughts were lying in a mess on the floor, I’d see the orange papers all the time. I’d be faced with the memories I choose to forget all the time. I’d constantly feel bad, and I’d never feel free of them.”

I think I see what she’s getting at.

“Now, if I hold the key to my filing cabinet, my mind and my memories, I’m in charge of what I remember and what I think about. Therapy, and freeing yourself from the shame you feel after having been sexually abused, involves looking in the file titled, ‘sexual abuse,’ working through it, and then leaving it alone. Even though you know it’s still a hanging file in your filing cabinet, a memory in your mind, you can work through it and let it go, or you can dwell on it. If you’re able to let it go, and realize just how strong you are, that none of it was your fault, and how healthy you are, you’ll be free of it. But if you dwell on it, you’ll be trapped. You could become suffocated and bitter, and you let your abuser win.

“I hate that these awful things have happened to you, I really do. It’s not fair, but there’s a truth that you have to face; there are evil people in the world and you can’t change that. But what you can change is how you deal with the pain and betrayal you’ve felt in your life.”

I want to work through this so that I can live my life properly, to fulfill the dreams I had when I was ten years old. And even though I do feel overwhelmed at the moment, I’m going to try to see my thoughts and memories in the same way Miss Tina’s just shown us.

I’m going to open a new file in my head called “Sexual Abuse” and everything related to what’s happened to me will stay in there. I’ll know that it’s still there, still inside me, and I can look at it if and when I choose, but it’s not going to rule, or ruin, my life.

Ken hands something to Miss Tina, and she says, “I want all of you to close your eyes and hold out a hand.”

I shut my eyes and hold out my hand. I can hear Miss Tina coming closer to me, and when I feel her next to me, she puts something in my hand.

“Keep your eyes shut, and make a fist.”

I do as she asks.

After she’s been around the group, she says, “Keep your eyes shut and listen to me. You have in your hand a key. It is the key to your filing cabinet, your mind. YOU, and only you, are in charge of your thoughts and memories. If you experience bad memories or flashbacks, don’t panic. See them as the orange sheets of paper, the ones that need to be kept in a file all of their own.”

She tells us to open our eyes.

“Keep the key in your pocket, so that it’ll remind you that you have control over this, and can beat it.”

She goes over to a shelf and comes back with a black tin box, the sort my Granny used to keep her money in.

“Now if you find that you’re having too many flashbacks to cope with, you need to do something else to keep yourself safe from them. If you still see your orange sheets of paper from the back hanging file, the back of your mind, every time you open your filing cabinet, every time you think, then this is what you have to do. Take all the orange sheets of paper, all your awful memories and stow them in this locked box.”

She reaches into the hanging file at the back of the filing cabinet and takes out the orange papers, and folds them before putting them in the tin box. She holds up a key and locks the box.

“All the bad memories are safely locked inside this box and only you have the key.”

Then she pulls all the hanging files forward and places the locked box behind all of them.

“And your ‘locked box’ is safely stored at the back of your locked filing cabinet, meaning that your nasty memories are ‘double locked’ at the back of your mind. If you can train yourself to see these images, they will help you to deal with the bad memories. Sometimes you will have flashbacks, or bad dreams. I’m not going to lie to you and say that you won’t. Even after you’ve worked through your feelings in therapy, you will. But if you’re able to imagine locking up those thoughts when one escapes, it will help you regain a sense of control. You won’t feel overwhelmed or frightened that the bad memories will always be there to haunt you, as if they’re orange papers scattered among a pile of memories in a heap on the floor, like Ken’s papers.

Suddenly I’ve gone right off the color orange.


Chapter Nine

Miss Tina lets us go after giving us “homework.” She says that we’ve got to practice in our heads to see ourselves putting our bad memories in the black tin box. She says that as soon as we’ve worked through one memory or feeling, we can put it in the black tin box and turn the key, so that it’s safely locked away.

I don’t really know how to do it because I haven’t worked through anything yet.

“What’s wrong?” Miss Tina asks as we leave the Group Room.

I tell her what’s on my mind.

“Oh, but Ruby, you have worked through some things. Think about what you told me last night about eating too much, and your decision that you don’t need to eat so much anymore. Think about the guilt you worked through when you felt irritated with Ryan’s constant crying.”

“Oh yeah,” I say, and with those two things in my mind, I head for my room and lie on my bed.

I shut my eyes and ignore the sound of the ocean beyond my window. I want to learn how to do this so that my bad memories won’t keep coming back to haunt me.

I screw my eyes tightly shut and I can feel my jaw tense up. My mind is like a filing cabinet. My mind is like a filing cabinet,” I tell myself over and over. I force a picture to come into my head of a drawer with lots of hanging files in it. I deliberately label each one. The first is “Being at the lake.” The second is “Aunt Sally’s wedding.” I remember all the good things we did before I was eleven, and then the word “eleven” makes my birthday pop into my head. I want to make it go away, but it sits there right in front of my mind and won’t go. Right! I’m going to take charge of it. I take the memory by the corner, pretending that it’s a piece of orange paper, and I fold it up and lift the lid to the black tin box that’s buried deep within my mind. “You stay in there,” I tell it, and I force my mind to see the key in my hand as I lock the bad memory away.

I practice some more and it becomes easier. Sometimes I feel as if I’m chasing Bella’s crazy puppy around as I try to grab the bad memory before it gets away. I feel myself smile. I want to yell at it the same way Bella yells at her dog. “In your box!” she’d say. “Dang, that dog’s a nightmare,” and that’s how it is, my memories are a nightmare.

I can’t remember falling asleep but Erin wakes me. I splash my face with water to wash the sleep out of my eyes. I spend the rest of the day on the beach, wading in the cool waves and hunting for shells to make a necklace.

Celia Banting 2006

This excerpt can be found in the novel, "I Only Said I Was Telling The Truth"