My childhood perpetrator is dying. He’s in his late 80s and has lived a long life of middle-class ease without being charged for his crimes against me and, very likely, other children — since there are several of us who won’t go near him.
It was an open secret in my family and I even told some neighbors but no one did anything about incest in the 1960s. In school, I drew strange and scary family pictures when I was six and was sent to the school psychologist. I don’t know the outcome. Nothing changed.
Before my mother married my stepfather, my grandfather was my sexual abuser. I told my mother about it when I was four, in the form of a question that made it very clear what was happening.
But my mother was sexually abused by him, too, a family legacy. She married a sexual abuser. I was the prey. They say men who sexually abuse children look for divorced women with children. That’s why it is more common for a stepfather to be a perpetrator than a father.
I met my real father, my biological father, on my 27th birthday. I looked for him after I moved to New York, 3,000 miles away from my perpetrator. I was his spitting image, though his blue eyes were watery with remorse and alcohol and cigarettes — and mine, well, I’d like to say they were cold as steel, but mine were big with fear and guilt. I didn’t like fathers. Any father. We never quite bonded.
It took decades to understand that as a child, calling my stepfather into my room, acting “seductive” and looking at Playboy magazines with him did not make my sexual abuse my fault — they were preemptive strikes, trying to manage what was inevitable. My connection to him was not identification, not compassion, not friendship, not conciliation — it was survival. When I understood this, I understood that I was not guilty.
When I was 11, I stood at the door of the yellow wallpapered kitchen while my mother made dinner. She looked at me and I said, “Mom, Dad is molesting me.” She sent me to my room and later gave me dinner in there. The next day I went to school and so on. I found the word in my elementary school library, but in what, where, I don’t know. Where would child sexual abuse be explained in 1967?
It disgusts me to say his name. I’ll say it once here: Vic, as in “victim” and “victor.” When I briefly tried out the incest movement of the '80s — group therapy, "Courage to Heal" talks — I got angry if anyone called me a “victim.”
At 15, I left their house, hitchhiked over the hill to Hollywood, became a groupie, then a prostitute, relied on lots of drugs and alcohol to get by, was raped repeatedly, had two abortions. At 16, I hitched to their house; it was dawn and I hadn’t slept in days. I was dirty and brushing my teeth with my finger. I went in my old room and fell asleep, my childhood doll by my side. At night, he woke me and told me to get in the Cadillac. I never drove with him. I dug in my heels before getting in a car with him. I was too exhausted to protest. He drove me to a psych hospital that accepted his insurance. I was committed for three months, and then I got out on a family visit and left for good.
My daughter was three months old when I took her out to California for a visit. He came into the bathroom as I put on makeup, the bathroom where, when I was a child, he had the key and entered when he wanted. As my shaking hand put on lipstick, he blocked the door and said, “I have daydreams of you visiting me on my death bed.”
That was the beginning of my haunting. I was plagued by visceral memories of what he did to me. With every shred of maternal instinct that I had been making up as I went along, I had to protect my child. I was 30 then, married to a wonderful man who knew nothing of my past until then. His response, and his parents’ response, made me brave.
I called my mother and told her he could no longer be part of my life. She said, “Get over the past.” I said, “If he tries to contact me or my family, you could never see your grandchild.” So often, women battle while the perpetrator goes free.
It’s 26 years later. My mother remained married to him; he never saw my children, never got a reply from his feeble attempts to seduce me from afar. My mother hates me because both her husband and her father cheated on her with me, because I didn’t play along through life like she did, because I made her have to control a man. He’s dying in her home now.
I’m twice divorced and have two children. They are incredible people. I did not give them the stable life I dreamed of, but very much love.
I’ve missed the life events that make a family because he was there. In most cases, I didn’t even know they happened until much later: the funerals of my grandmother and beloved aunt, the weddings of my cousins and my half-sister; the children of all of them, bar mitzvahs, illness, tragedy and joy. I can never have that back.
My friends and few family members are gleeful that he’s dying but I don’t feel anything. My life won’t change when he’s dead. Maybe my mother will reach out to me after a lifetime of privileging his well-being over mine.
There is no linearity here. Incest is not a story with a beginning, middle and end. It is the story of your life. Maybe you go to college, get married, have children, buy a house — the things in life that feel foundational, but underneath is the story, the backdrop, the sad story that was the beginning.
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