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Breaking Free from Sexual Abuse

The man with pedophilic tendencies lures his prey not with candy so much as by offering a different kind of yearned-for sweetness. He chooses the child hungry for love.

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By Tessa Stein

04/02/14

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The year I turned ten, everything changed. It was my Fanny and Alexander year, a seismic traumatic shift in my family life, the end of paradisial childhood, although I was still very much a little girl. It was the year I began to be sexually abused. When I recall the frequent incidents, I feel somewhat numb. But sometimes still, it is as if he reaches out a leg to trip me up. 

An eloquent letter from a young woman to the Opinion Pages of The New York Times, depicting her famous father sexually abusing her as a child, brought my own memories of things past blasting back like some kind of musty Madeleine. I recognized the underhanded hiding, the ridiculous machinations, the freakiness of the lascivious acts. Also familiar were the long-term effects of such violations, to which I can add more, but specifically in the letter: the angst summoned by reminders of the abuser; the eating disorder; the cutting, a first cousin of substance abuse, with its mixed bag of self-destructive, punishing, repetitive, endorphin-inducing qualities. The famous father wrote an op-ed retort denying his daughter’s allegations. But I am not so interested in explaining whom I believe or why. Rather, I wish to impart my own experiences and epiphanies elicited by this sad public debacle. My coming out—as someone whose boundaries had been crossed as a child for an adult’s prurient self-gratification—didn’t happen on such a grand scale. 

And here I was thinking I was special for playing it cool, when only reliving something deeply familiar. Enough of that!

That summer, my mother, Poppy, whom I adored, sent my fifteen-year-old sister, Miquela, and I to see our father in the States. For the last two years, we had been living in a rambling farmhouse in the south of France with my Brooklyn-born mom and her also American boyfriend, a Julliard protégé who had once played drums with many a jazz great in New York City. Poppy and Jazz had dropped out, leaving the States in 1971, settling with us girls in the Ardèche after some travels. Mom put us on a plane, my saucy blue-eyed sister and I, and off we went to see our dear father in Los Angeles, me in a violet ensemble I loved but in retrospect hideous. 

Shortly after we arrived at the Brentwood mansion with a cleaning lady, washing machine, swimming pool among flat stones and tropical plants—a contrast to our austere digs with woodstoves and minimal plumbing—our stepmom, Deena, took us into a bedroom to read out loud the letter Mom had charged Miquela with handing to our father.

Poppy stated she could barely take care of herself, let alone us. Rather than Dad keeping the increasingly difficult Miquela as they had previously agreed, she requested we both remain in the States. Deena explained that they would keep only Miquela, as planned. With her three boys, they only had room for one more. 

“But where am I going to go?” I asked, sobbing. My mother no longer wanted me. No one did. Plus, I’d already been devastated I was losing my sister, my fierce protector, who had always been a part of me. I was the shy, quiet good girl; she the loud, outspoken bad one. I wailed, while Miquela, shell-shocked, turned silent. Deena didn’t answer, only stared at the carnage of this grenade of a missive tossed back at us in retaliation toward Poppy. 

UNWITTING ACCOMPLICE

Before school started, I returned to France. What Dad didn’t realize was that they were delivering me into the hands of the man who would harass, sexualize, and molest me until age fourteen: the tall, blond drummer Poppy was so myopically in love with she couldn’t see anything beyond his attentions toward her or the I Ching coins she threw daily.

We’d been living with Jazz since I was six. In France, the weirdness had already begun with Miquela, but neither of us thought to mention this to Dad. My sister would tell you she was too busy saving her own skin. And all I longed for the moment I heard my mother no longer wanted me was her: Poppy’s arms, her comfort and kisses. 

I often preface saying it wasn’t that bad. I know others have suffered a thousand-fold worse. But my last four years with Jazz fucked me up. They have taken decades to undo. If I glimpse a photo of him, my heart slams and I want to vomit. The sight of a particular male hand, large with pale hairs, creates a similar reaction. Occasionally, he resurfaces in a dream as if still hounding me. Sometimes, I see him in a subway car, a visual echo, and I run to another, though he is far away.  

I began boarding school, two grades ahead in the experimental section for gifted kids. My course load, including chemistry and physics, was exacting, hard. I was lonely and often cried myself to sleep in the military single bed of the dorm. On weekends when I came home, Poppy and Jazz lounged in their room, and I ran in my PJ’s through the drafty house, barefoot on the icy flagstones, then hopped under the covers with them to snuggle and read. 

Jazz had always been good to me, attentive, warm, laughing at my witticisms, pointing out when I’d said something cleverly observant. Though he was strict, we hit it off. I did as he said: Girls smiled, never showed tears or anger (unlike Miquela who hadn’t given two shits, which was primarily why she’d been banished). I knew Jazz better than my father, whom I loved intensely but couldn’t remember living with. Jazz had been my buddy; I, his helpmeet and sidekick. 

During these mornings, he began pressing his erection against me. I would say stop, push him away, then he’d do it again and laugh, as my mother lay there oblivious. When Poppy went off to make breakfast, Jazz convinced me to wrestle. Once, while I straddled his back, in the midst of giggles, he lifted up. As I hung over a shoulder, his erection pushed out from his robe. It was obvious he wanted me to see it. He knew I knew it was wrong. The sight of it repulsed me. He called to Poppy, saying we should show her our “trick.” I felt panic. Somehow he knew I would vehemently protest. I wasn’t about to get myself in trouble, especially knowing I was a burden to my mother. My anxiety at being caught in this bizarre sideshow act made Jazz laugh all the more. 

Things had entered the freaky zone. Jazz peeked out from his shorts with a hard-on while we chatted. He tried to get me to kiss him on the mouth, once offering to do it through a candy wrapper, so it wouldn’t be so bad. I acquiesced quickly. If I rebuked his niggling advances, he gave me the cold shoulder, not talking to me for days, which hurt. When my breasts began to grow, barely bumps, he forever tried to cop a feel. Foolishly, naively, I got suckered, eager for attention, always hopeful for something normal. He offered to teach me how to drive, making me scoot up beside him to steer, then went for my tiny breasts as I was forced to keep the Triumph on the road. If I wanted to learn to play the drums, I had to sit on his lap. 

When his attention turned sexual, I broke away, and he would invariably say, “Someday you’ll thank me.”

CHOOSING THE CHILD HUNGRY FOR LOVE

The man with pedophilic tendencies lures his prey not with candy so much as by offering a different kind of yearned-for sweetness. He chooses the child hungry for love. His deceptive promise to satisfy that child’s needs in a reasonable way is his stock-in-trade. It’s the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf stalks the girl alone in the woods, then dons the granny-suit, a ruse to get close but also to fool himself and her into thinking devouring her and her little basket of goodies is consensual when, in fact, he wields all the power.  

Jazz offered to put Vicks on my chest when I had a fever, then reached further than below the collar bone. He came to tuck me in at night, going for a grope as he had with Miquela, once in the empty adjacent bed. She had been vocal. “Mom,” she shouted, “Jazz is bothering us!” Poppy called back a lame, “Leave the girls alone, Jazz.” She never came. I knew it useless to call for help. I had to fend him off on my own. Also, I was deeply ashamed. 

He saw this shame and used it as leverage, yet another trap. On a hot day, we drove to water his marijuana plants, down a dirt switchback, not a soul in sight, on foot past a turquoise-green waterhole that beckoned. When we returned to the Triumph, I wanted to go for a swim but didn’t have a bathing suit, so I stripped to my underwear. He accused me of being priggish, uptight, self-conscious. I took everything off. In the water, he insisted on teaching me how to float, then asked if I were still a virgin, commenting on my newly developing body. I splashed away, quickly dressed, my fingers trembling.

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