Every superhero has a story of origin.
There is a defining moment when the hero transforms into an individual beyond recognition of their former self. They go through a metamorphosis into someone new. For Bruce Wayne, the beginnings of his journey into Batman occurred the night he witnessed the death of his parents. Afterward, he did not immediately become the Dark Knight. He did not wake up the next morning as an adult, trained as a skilled fighter and detective. Instead, the journey was difficult, requiring years of training, countless nights of tormenting nightmares, and failure upon failure before becoming Gotham City’s savior.
In a way, this is the problem with not only comic books, but movies, television shows, and even novels. The reader does not see the struggle of the hero after the origin of their metamorphosis. It’s true that in Detective Comics #27, we see Bruce’s joy as a child and his heartbreak on the sidewalk beside the dead bodies of his mother and father. We witness him taking the oath, but we lose the struggle of attempting to breath, move, live (let alone smile) each day following the murder of his parents. Instead, we witness his strength of mind and body before stalking the rooftops of Gotham as Batman. Even later comics, there is no way to view the internal struggle Bruce must endure day-after-day as he questions his actions and decisions as a good son honoring the legacy of his parents by vowing to live a life fighting crime. The origin of the hero is necessary. However, the moments after the origin, but before the cape and cowl are needed to understand the person beneath the mask.
For origins to create the needed metamorphosis of character into a hero, the transformation must be difficult. Like Batman, the origin of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse are tragic and difficult to stomach. My origins are no different. In the process of reflecting on my journey as a male survivor I know it is necessary to understand the man I was, but it is also important to recognize the continued day-to-day struggle of breathing, moving, and living (let alone smiling) as being the most difficult.
I first published my origin as a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse in my memoir, Raped Black Male. At the time of its publication the narrative of black men is much the same as it is now. Throughout the media it seemed as if black men were often portrayed throughout society as being “armed” rather than educated or “frightening” rather than as a loving father. It’s for this reason my wife and I decided on the title Raped Black Malein an attempt to change the narrative of the story being told. Below is an excerpt from my memoir that tells of my grooming and eventually sexual abuse.
Men Can’t Be Raped (from Raped Black Male: A Memoir)
I wish I had a better memory of what occurred the first time I was raped, but it’s been twenty years and some of the memories have become hazy. I do know the house was empty of my parents and brother. What’s interesting is that the first time wasn’t the first time. It began with my abuser and a pornographic videotape. My abuser was my sister and, at the time, my babysitter. I would often have a babysitter when Mom had to work late at Kmart, or Dad went out and had to DJ at the American Legion. My parents also simply went out sometimes (as parents should), or they did not get home from work until 5 p.m. So, during that time, when my sister and I were alone is when the grooming began.
Grooming is not what you may think. It is not when two individuals sit down and brush and comb each other’s hair like chimps in a zoo. Grooming is a term used to explain how abusers prepare their victims for molestation. For some abusers, it occurs when the victim runs around, becoming excited while playing tag, for example. Then, instead of continuing the game, the abuser grabs the genitals or breasts of his/her victim – anything to get the child sexually aroused and excited while making that the victim believe he / she is safe and participating in a fun game. Afterward, the roles are reversed. The abuser has the victim run, tag, and touch him / her in the same way. This makes the victim believe this is how the game is played and allows the abuser to open the door to more egregious acts and games in which the abuser can easily sexually assault with less resistance and more severity.
My grooming occurred in the form of pornographic movies.
My dad had a collection of pornographic videocassettes under the mattress of the bed in our basement that were easily accessible and could easily be returned as if they had never been touched. Eventually, after the basement had been remodeled and the bed and mattress were thrown into the trash, the cassettes were moved to the bottom drawer of the desk in the basement.
The reason I remember this bed so vividly is because me, my sister, and Daniel would often play on the mattress when my parents were gone. Both would have me lie on the mattress while they ran and jumped on the bed to try and fling me into the air and against the wall. I loved it. It was crazy, stupid, innocent stuff kids do when their parents are gone, unlike what eventually happened when Daniel moved away after physically fighting with my father and my sister began sexually abusing me.
The grooming began one afternoon when my parents were gone. I was being babysat, and she asked with a calm happy smile, after entering my room, “Hey Kenny, wanna see something cool?” Of course, I agreed. I was eight-years-old. I lived for cool. Cool was my life, and she knew it.
From my room, she led me down to the basement, lifted the mattress, removed the black cassette tape, and placed it in the VCR. I remember that the cassette was not labeled as pornography; instead it had a normal white label on the spine of the cassette, as if it had once been a different movie that had been recorded over. Because it looked so similar to many other movies in our library, I never suspected its contents.
The video had been paused in the middle of the cassette, so it did not start at the beginning. Instead, it continued from the last moment my father pressed the stop button, which was in the middle of two people moving, groaning, and humping in ways I had no idea was possible at such an age. Immediately, I was disgusted. At the time, I did not know what it was, but I knew it was a movie I was not supposed to watch. My eight-year-old brain flashed back to scenes of Spike Lee’s, School Dazeand my parents telling me to cover my eyes during the “dirty parts.” Seeing what was happening on the screen, I figured this was most definitely a “dirty part” that I was not allowed to watch, so I covered my eyes and waited for the okay that the scene had ended and I could open my eyes to something safe. Instead, she took my hands from my eyes and said, “Watch. It’s funny.” I tried to cover my eyes during a few scenes that followed that were especially embarrassing, but I was coaxed into watching.
Soon, it was over. When it came to the end, she rewound the cassette tape to where it began, put it back under the mattress, and went back upstairs to continue the day. Nothing happened. She did not try to touch me, or tell me to touch her. Rather than grooming me to become sexually aroused through a game that allowed us to explore each other’s bodies, she groomed me to like the idea of sex through the use of movies, which were a primary source of entertainment in our house. Any free moment the family had was spent watching a movie. We all had our classis repeats that we could (and did) watch over and over again. My mother loved Toy Soldiers, The Five Heartbeats,and The Temptations. Daniel loved The Last Dragon. I loved The Rocketeerand Hook. My father loved movies in general. Going to Blockbuster on Friday evenings to search the shelves for a new release or an unwatched classic was our regular routine. Because movies were such a large part of my family’s life, pornographic movies could be made to seem like a safe, fun, and common form of entertainment that my eight-year-old self would never question as being invalid and unacceptable. It was a way to groom me.
Of course, I knew not to tell anyone about watching the videos. I was never told not to tell by my sister, but I knew. Technically, nothing happened, but I had been prepared after years of accidentally breaking figurines, rules of staying in-doors, and going places that were off limits after my parents had vacated the house that what happened while they were gone was not to be discussed unless we were caught. It ensured that no one got in trouble. Unfortunately, my abuser never got caught.
For months, this is how it went: my parents would leave, she would get the tape from under the mattress, we would watch, put it back, and continue with our day, never saying a word to our parents. The only other person to tell who could have stopped the abuse from happening was Daniel, who was eighteen-years-old and living in Germany. After high school and attending Alabama A&M in Hunstville, Alabama for a year, Daniel dropped out of college, joined the military, and moved to Germany to raise a family of his own.
Although the grooming lasted for a number of weeks, it eventually turned to something much more sinister. As time progressed and the grooming continued, my abuser and I no longer sat on the floor together watching the video in silence, disgust, or mock laughter. Instead, each of us had our own positions in the room, separate from the other. She lay on the bed with a comforter over her body while I sat on the couch and watched the scenes play out on the screen. After months of watching the scenes play out on the screen. After weeks of watching the cassette in secret on weekends or late at night when our parents were gone, I no longer covered my eyes and looked away in embarrassment. In fact, most times I had become sexually aroused. My therapist tells me that this is normal – a natural reaction of the body to the stimulation of the brain. But I find it hard not to view myself as a protagonist of the sex and abuse, no matter what she tells me. However, I did not masturbate, mostly because I had no idea what masturbation was or that it was even possible. I was too young to know. My abuser on the other hand, being five years my senior, was discovering masturbation beneath the comforter on the mattress ten feet away, watching women receive pleasure from men in the same way she was sexually stimulating herself.
After being groomed to willingly watch pornography, remaining silent and sexually aroused while my sister was sexually stimulated through masturbation, all the pieces had fallen into place for me to be raped with little resistance and that’s precisely what occurred.
The first time in which grooming became rape, my abuser called me to the bed where she lay with the blanket pulled over her body. I looked at the bed and walked over. She said calmly but with hesitation, “Let’s try something different. Get on top of me.” This is when she pulled back the blanket to reveal she was wearing no pants or panties.
Immediately, I froze. I had no idea what to say or do. I thought to myself,
Is this okay? Can I say no?
I wanted to say no, but I didn’t know how. How could I? She was someone I trusted. I thought I had to do what she said. She was my sister. I believed with all my heart, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that she wouldn’t do anything to hurt me. It’s taken nearly thirty years, therapy, and meditation for this belief to finally change.
In the moment, she noticed my hesitation and knew she couldn’t give me an option. With more confidence – invitingly but with more force – she said, “Let’s do what they do. Come on,” as she worked off my pants.
When the rape happened and she placed me on top of her, I didn’t move. I lay there, lifeless, uncomfortable, and cold. She was larger and there was no way for me to tough the mattress, so I lay hovering in the air on top and inside her body as the pornographic movie continued to play in the background. When I didn’t move, she became frustrated and annoyed that I wasn’t doing it right. Again, she took control over the situation, grabbed me by the waist and made me move up and down, in and out, as she watched the scenes play out on the screen on the other side of the room. It lasted only a few minutes, but the impact has yet to vanish. She finished, and I stopped moving. We both got dressed, she rewound the tape, and put it back under the mattress as always. But this time was different. Rather than go upstairs to continue her day, she stopped and told me as she had never done before, “Don’t tell. It’s bad,” she said, “and we’ll get in trouble.”
I was too young to argue, or know what it meant, so I didn’t tell. I remained silent, just as she wanted. For over twenty years, I remained quiet because I didn’t want to “get in trouble”; I thought it was my fault and I’d be punished. There was nothing I could do if I didn’t want Mom, Dad, and Daniel to look at me with the shame and regret I felt. I had done something wrong that no one knew had occurred except her, so the best and only option was to keep quiet and keep her secret.
How did this make me feel?
In the moment, I felt dirty. I curled up inside myself, waiting for it to stop, and I haven’t stopped waiting. I didn’t say much. There was no kissing or fondling, just sex. And that’s how it went for almost two years. Our parents would leave, pornography would play, I would be raped, and I wouldn’t tell. Over time, I began to anticipate when it was going to happen, even look forward to it. My therapist says this is natural. She says it’s normal to have been aroused and sexually stimulated. It’s something the body does and something I couldn’t control, but it still doesn’t change how I feel – that it was my fault.
That I could have stopped it.
That I enjoyed it.
That I’m to blame and, no matter what I do, I’m damned beyond the reach of forgiveness.
Then, one day, abruptly, the rapes stopped. After church, she told me we couldn’t do it anymore because it was wrong and that it never happened. I said okay, but my mind was racing. One thought after another came into my mind without stopping.
You did this to me and now you’re saying we can’t do it anymore? And you’re telling me it never happened? You’re telling me it was wrong – how wrong was it? Why was it wrong? What’s going to happen to me if someone finds out?
It wasn’t until much later that I would find answers to any of these questions.
You may be wondering why rapes abruptly came to an end. I have asked the same question. I believed for years that she had an epiphany, realizing that she was psychologically, physically, and morally damaging someone she was supposed to love and protect. But the truth is much more logical and hurtful. I had become too old and was no longer useful. In the two years since this all began, I had gone from an eight-year-old child to a ten-year-old prepubescent boy who could get my fifteen-year-old sister pregnant. Pregnancy meant being discovered and this was something she could not allow to happen. So, instead, she told me it was wrong and brought it to an end, leaving me broken and confused, with no help of understanding the incest that had occurred. She allowed the thought that would mature into a belief and eventually become a cold hard fact in my mind: men can’t be raped.
Our culture and society implicitly communicates, through its celebration of hyper-masculinity and clichéd ideas of what it means to be a man, that rape is an impossible fate for a red-blooded, heterosexual male. There’s no way you can be the victim of sexual assault, unless you are a woman or a homosexual. These beliefs, seen through the eyes of the warped and damaged ego of a perpetual eight-year-old, help to create the negative view of myself I have today. A view I attempt to conquer once a week in therapy, like Quixote’s ever-shifting and fictional windmills.
It is the belief of our society that the raping of males never occurs because the sexual abuse of males is hardly ever reported, no matter what the age. Therefore, it seemingly does not exist. Male survivors of sexual assault, meanwhile, suffer under the assumption that they’re the only male to have been raped, leaving them feeling helpless, alone, damaged, and refusing to seek help. It leaves survivors like myself feeling inadequate as men and human beings, with serious psychological consequences.
In no way am I asking for the spotlight to be taken from female rape survivors. However, when rape of a female does tragically occur, women usually know they are not alone. They know they’re not the first, and, unfortunately, will not be the last. This does not rebuild the ego they were stripped of after being violated, but it can make seeking help more conceivable. Getting help is key to becoming healthy, and that is why I hope other male survivors read my story. Male survivors need to know they’re not alone. They need to stop blaming themselves for what was done to them. They need to know that they did nothing wrong.
Rape is about power, control, and dominance – nothing else. It has nothing to do with sex. The abuse of male survivors is no different and neither was mine. To fully understand how this abuse was about power and control, you have to understand the history of my abuser and how it all began.
My abuser – my sister – was, like me, raped by her babysitter, Mr. Miller, probably around the same age that I was raped by her. When sexual abuse occurs at such a young age, the ability to feel safe and in control is stripped from the victis, leaving their psychological development stagnant between the ages of seven and nine. At this age, healthy individuals learn to gain independence, explore the world on their own, and take control of their environment. However, when an individual is raped at this age, such independence and control is stunted, leaving the child frozen in that early stage of psychological development. It is possible to progress through the other stages of development, but that stage will remain underdeveloped until help is sought and the wound can be healed properly. This means that without therapy and help, the rape victim will always feel as though they have no control over their life or their surroundings. This is why rape is powerful. It allows the abuser to seemingly take back some of the control that was taken from them, continuing the cycle and perpetuating more sexual assault and abuse until help is sought and the cycle is broken. This is what happened to my abuser.
At thirteen she was overweight, bullied, and felt as though she had lost all power in every aspect of her life. Being unable to seek help because of her embarrassment or fear of repercussions, she attempted to take back some control in the form of food – eating what she wanted, when she wanted. It was one of the few things that gave her pleasure and contentment. Unfortunately, gluttony was a bandage too small to deal with her psychological wound. The resulting obesity made her directionless, exposing her to bullying and rejection.
Her feelings of helplessness and powerlessness led her to sexually abuse me for a number of reasons. The primary reason was that I was the youngest. As the baby of the family, I could easily be groomed and manipulated into doing what she wanted. This also meant that she gained power through my weakness. Her dominance continues to this day and is one of the primary reasons that we no longer speak. By raping me, she stripped me of my ego, leaving me perpetually eight-years-old, seeking approval without the strength or ability to say no or stand up for myself. Regaining my ego is what I struggle with in therapy. It wasn’t until recently that I stopped sympathizing with my abuser and saw the years of rape for the vile acts they truly were.
Being the youngest of three also meant that I received the most attention. Generally, I was well-liked and accepted by my parents and brother. I was funny, happy, smart, and kind, while it seemed she was none of the above. Seeing these qualities in me and not in herself may have ripped her to shreds inside. I was everything she wanted to be, but physically and mentally could not be. So, she pulled me down. By raping me, she ensured I would always stay in my place and that she would always have the upper hand. It gave her the control over me that she always wanted over her own life. Years after the sexual assaults had come to an end, the mental abuse continued.
You may be wondering, was this planned? When she sat me down and put the VHS into the VCR, did she consciously intend to regain the control she had lost by taking mine? No, I don’t believe so. Not then. However, now, I believe she does realize what she is doing. Throughout her adult life, she has sought to control, manipulate, and dominate every situation and relationship. Rather than seek help, she has continuously worsened over the years and I fear for the mental health and stability of my nieces and nephew. Without help, her unstable personality will pass to her children through her words, actions, and behavior.
If rape and sexual abuse is all about power, dominance, and continuing the cycle, why haven’t I become an abuser? Why am I not a sex offender? Honestly, there is no logical reason. According to my therapist, many people with my background are addicted to drugs; victims of alcohol abuse; struggling in education; and unable to sustain lasting, stable, and healthy relationships. Yet, I have never done a drug in my life (besides the 20 mg. of Lexapro for my depression and anxiety), I drink no more than two beers before falling asleep, I have both a bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, and I am a happy father and husband who could never dream of sleeping anywhere besides his own bed or the couch in my daughter’s room if one of them were sick. There is no logical reason that I have patience or pleasure in working with some of the most annoying, frustrating, and coolest people on the planet – seventh graders. The only explanation is that I am truly blessed. My therapist believes that I have somehow been able to compartmentalize the abuse. She’s not sure how, but I have a theory.
When I was younger, and even to this day, I loved superheroes. Then, and now, I adhered to what they stand for. In the realm of comic books, there was no gray; there was only black and white, right and wrong. I wanted to be on the side of light and good, and the only way I knew to do that was by trying to be perfect in every way. I could strive to be kind, intelligent, sympathetic, moral, and adhere to a code of honor. These beliefs about how to live and treat the people around me have stuck with me to this day. It’s why I wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of chivalry through the ages – its representation and embodiment in knights, and the eventual replacement of knights by superheroes. This is the reason it took a year of therapy once a week before I stopped sympathizing with my abuser. In my mind, hating her was wrong because hate is wrong and she was a relative. I believed she needed understanding until she found her way. However, my attitude toward her has changed. I know everyone is responsible for their own actions. And it is the thought of my nieces and nephew, writing these same words and going through these same struggles from a person who never received help because I remained silent, that pushed me to put my own story to paper.
I run, meditate, read, and go to church to not be the person / thing that I fear I will become. The cycle of abuse will not continue with me. But my abuser has made sure that I never get to know the eight-year-old boy that I have locked away in a room deep in the recesses of my mind.
A number of years has passed since the publication of Raped Black Male: A Memoir. Since then, some things have changed, while others remain the same. Since those four years I wish I could say I drink less, exercised more, and attended church each Sunday, but I can’t. I’m still “two beers Rogers,” resulting in a sleepy haze and goofiness that makes my wife giggle. Life has a way of becoming busier, pushing what once seemed a priority to the backburner, making room for true priorities such as family, friends, and writing as a source of support for others and myself.
I wish I could say life has become filled with less stress and anxiety over the years, and (in a way) I can. This is not because I have fixed all my problems and “healed” my childhood sexual abuse. In fact, it is just the opposite. Little has changed in reality of my sexual abuse except the way I view life and approach problems. The last four years have been difficult, filled with heartbreaking loss when my son (Casus) passed away, and a deeper understanding of what it means to be a survivor for myself and others. Recovery is still a daily process. However, I can say, I am happier, and more at peace with the man I have become.
Most nights, nightmares plague my dreams, making me question reality from fiction when I awake, but fewer panic attacks result afterward. There are fewer mornings of sheer panic with my wife cradling me on the floor of our bathroom, telling me everything will be okay. There are fewer bouts of hypervigilant perfection in my own actions that make me feel shame and believe I am a failure who only deserves to die by my own hand through suicide. Each day I realize, more and more, that I am not perfect, but continue to strive to become a better father, husband, educator, coach, mentor, guide, and survivor. Each day I fall short, but it does not stop me from waking up the next morning to try again.
Overtime more memories have returned about my sexual abuse. I can now see in my mind the pornographic VHS that was used and how the label read The Little Mermaid. This is possibly because my father ordered the pornographic video from Pay-Per-View, wanted to have the opportunity to watch it again at a later date, grabbed the first tape he could find, and recorded over the contents. The irony of the VHS The Little Mermaid holding the contents of a pornographic video titled Roxanne,resulting in the loss of my childhood innocence is not lost on me.
Memories of Peoria, my hometown, return as well. Memories of the fast food restaurant Velvet Freeze across the street from where I would get onion rings and a hamburger with money from my paper route. Memories of the gas station on the corner, Landmark cinema, the mall, Willow Knolls, and other memories that have nothing do with my sexual abuse but seemed to be pushed away and forgotten. I wish I knew why. Each causes me to pause and become lonely in a melancholy way when I remember times of happiness that were layered with depression, shame, and sadness.
I can now remember the layout of the basement (pre and post remodel) and how the small rectangle windows near the ceiling were used as an alert system when a shadow passed overhead, warning when a car had pulled into the driveway, or someone was walking to the backdoor. Eventually, I could remember seeing the black mildew and chipping paint of the wall below this window and remember how there was sometimes an unexplainable moisture that made the cement cool to the touch. In front of this wall is where the bed lay before the basement was remodeled. It was on this bed that I remember the video tape being hidden beneath the mattress, the pressure of her body on top of mine, and the odd odor on her breathe that never seemed to go away no matter how often she brushed her teeth. I remember the darkness that room could hold and the smell of cigarettes that made it difficult to breath when close to my father’s brown felt chair and the soda can filled with ash that was sometimes mistaken for Coke. At first, these memories haunted me without knowing why.
The weight of my pregnant wife while making love would make me feel depressed and dirty.
The smell of my daughter’s breath in the morning before brushing her teach would make me hate her.
The irrational fear of the larger pre-teen and teenage black girls I taught would make my heart feel as though it were going to burst from my chest when helping them to answer a simple question.
All of these factors would remind me of that basement, and the fear I felt in that house on Wilson Dr. However, as my sister screamed at me one afternoon in a voicemail, this is only one side of the story. The bad side. And she was right.
In Batman #25-32, following the “War of Jokes and Riddles,” Batman saw his actions as irredeemable when he attempted to stab the Riddler in the face with a machete to kill him. As Bruce Wayne, he recounts to Selina Kyle, how after the war, the world saw him as a hero. They gave him nicknames such as “The World’s Greatest Detective” and “The Caped Crusader,” but inside he felt as if he were living a lie.
While Bruce Wayne lives with feelings of guilt and shame for not being able to prevent the murder of his parents, these feelings of guilt and shame following the War of Jokes and Riddles were different. As a child, Bruce did not have the ability to stop the murder of his parents. However, Batman’s attempt to kill the Riddler were actions he had control over. If the Joker (Yes! Joker!) had not stopped him, Batman would have crossed the line that separated himself from the criminals of Gotham City. The guilt he felt changed the way he saw himself and his actions. He no longer believed he was deserving of being loved by Selina, or anyone else.
These comics helped me to understand the guilt I felt after recounting the events of my childhood sexual abuse. It’s a story where I am painted as the survivor, and my sister as the abuser, but, the answer is much more complex.
One morning, a few weeks after Thanksgiving, I woke up to a voicemail from my sister. For the longest time I was afraid to listen, terrified of what she would say. However, the fear of having an unanswered voicemail from her terrified me even more. With a racing heart, I pressed play and listened. She said, screaming into the phone.
I want to put this on the record. And this is your sister calling you. I just read the interview that you just gave and when I want to tell you that you did nothing but lie in that interview it’s best with the fact that I chose not to get in contact with you. Kenny, you need to face your own shit too. I have sat back, not said anything, and I have let you put this book out there. And even in the event that this happened back at thirteen. And the fact that you acted as if nothing, nothing was wrong. And me and you even talked about this. And even in the fact now that I read this interview, and the way that you put me back out there, it is good where our relationship stands at because it was not by my choice this was by your choice. And I will be taking screen shots and I will be sending this to Daddy and Mommy and I will send it to anybody that needs to know because you are not the only one that has a voice in this situation. I do too. You use my situation in your book that was not given your permission to use by any means necessary. I am so hurt by the way you doggin me in this situation completely. I do not want to talk to you, and I do not want to hear back from you. But this is, and you can put this out so the world can hear this too. Because it seems like that’s what you’re choosing to do. You putting things out there, but yet, you don’t remember the good things that’s happened. And the way that I just read this interview. See, I’m glad (my husband) seen it for me until he just showed me this interview that you put me out there like this. Like this, Kenny? I mean, really? You put your sister out there like this? Oh my, God! After the shit I have done for you. As a young boy and as a man. This is how you treat me? This is how you repay back me? Like this? So, I hope you get this. And God have mercy on your soul, Kenny. Because this makes no sense, at all! And the way you portray me out in this world as the woman that I am. And I been keeping my mouth shut, and haven’t said nothing to you. And then I let you go through your struggle, and letting you get help. This don’t make no sense. So, this is personally from your sister. And it’s (she was screaming and I could not understand what was says) that you did not answer the phone because I am hurt! I am more hurt than anything and they say healing starts first. And with you being a man know with the fact that you did! You don’t know what the fuck I’ve been through! So, you need to get your damn interview and your damn story straight! And I mean it! And leave my name out your mother fucking mouth!
After complaining to my therapist of chest pains after transcribing this message, she reminded me how stupid that was given my heart condition, and convinced me to delete the message. However, the guilt I felt afterward remained. It was guilt I have felt for a long time because it seemed I had betrayed my sister by telling only one half of the story. Not about the abuse, but afterward.
In high school my mom and I were homeless during my junior and senior year. As a result of years of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse by my father, my parents went through a rough divorce, resulting in the foreclosure of our home and living in the basement of the home of relatives. During those two years, and for a very long time before hand, I had been hurting. Rather than confront that pain, I became very hypervigilant. I focused on my school work, sports, and extra-curricular activities with the goal of getting to college. I believed that if I could get to college and escape, I would be healed. I could start my life and forget the past. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
By the time I graduated from Peoria High School, I received a full academic scholarship to Bowling Green State University. However, within a week of moving on campus I had become severely depressed. My days were spent in bed with severe stomach pain, crying, and confused about what was wrong with me. I know now how trauma affects the mind, body, and brain. The pain in my stomach was due to the vargus nerve becoming triggered and being faced with the realities of my past while living in a new surrounding. When upset, or feeling threatened, the vargus nerve becomes activated. It runs from the base of the skull, through the body, and ends at the colon. When threatened, the vargus nerve dries out the throat, increases the heartrate, causes gut wrenching pain, and speeds up or slows down breathing. Because I ignored the complex trauma of being sexually abused as a child, living in an unstable household for all of my young adult life, and living in the basement of relatives for two years while attempting to excel in school to make it to college, my fight-or-flight mechanism kicked into overdrive, forcing the vargus never to cause gut-wrenching pains in my stomach. Later, this nerve, and the complex PTSD of my past, will be retriggered when a former Baltimore principal tells me I am not allowed to state that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse while on school grounds, causing me to suffer from a viral heart infection from the stressful working conditions.
Within a week, I had withdrawn from my classes at BGSU, forfeiting my scholarship for the academic year. When I withdrew from my classes, I could not return to Peoria. The stress of not having a home was too much. Instead, I spent the year with my sister in Maryland, working at Old Navy and attempting to figure out my life. Eventually, I returned to BGSU, and after a semester of academic probation, my scholarship was reinstated. However, I never returned back to Peoria during my breaks from school. If I did not stay on campus, I returned to Maryland, to stay with my sister. She was there for me when I needed to recenter myself. And no matter what happened in the past, she is still my sister. While there are memories that are painful, she was right. There were good memories as well. Telling my story of sexual abuse made me feel as if I were the villain, playing the role of the hero. Unfortunately, life is not a comic of contained panels and black-and-white images. The realities of life were much more complex and I did not know what that meant when first speaking of my abuse. Over the years I have attempted to make sense of the relationship I did have with my sister in an attempt to figure out if there are any villains to this story, and whether or not I am one of them.
I wish I knew the answer to this question, but I don’t. Heroes and villains are meant for comics and movies. Reality is more complex. However, I do know Batman carries the guilt of his actions in “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” and that’s okay. His guilt does not stop him from doing the right thing and holding himself accountable. He was wrong, and would have had to pay a price if the Joker had not stopped him. Similar to Batman, I have to carry the guilt of telling the story of my abuse in which my sister raped from age eight to ten-years-old. This is not about being hypervigilant, this is about knowing that speaking of my abuse is the right thing to do. Telling my truth is not meant to harm her, or my family. It has very little to do with any of them. It is about healing myself and letting other survivors know they are not alone.
I know the story of the relationship I have with my sister is complex, but while it requires a complex response it also requires my sister to get the help she needs to heal if she would like to be a part of my life. Help I cannot give her. She helped save my life when I needed it the most. She stuck her hand in the way of the machete and stopped me from spiraling out of control. Unlike the relationship of the Joker and Batman, I carry fond memories of us sitting together in the cold of the car delivering newspapers; laughing and playing together with my nieces when I returned for summer break from college; and spending nights telling jokes to (and about) one another while watching old movies from our childhood. While some memories are pleasant, these times of happiness do not erase her past abuse. I do not blame her, but I do, and will, hold her accountable. I love her. Always will. It’s for this reason my door will always be open when she has made the decision to heal and begin the process of recovery. Until then…