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Breaking Free from Sexual Abuse

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By Tessa Stein

04/02/14

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One night, as my hands rested on my belly beneath the blankets, Jazz entered my room, then accused me of playing with myself. I said I wasn’t. He quickly pinned me down, painfully sticking a finger inside me as I tried to wriggle away, then stormed out. I was mortified, brim with frustration, a rage that had no outlet. He had made it clear my body wasn’t my own to touch, even innocently. It was his.

SELF MEDICATION

By fourteen, I’d become a sullen, hair-in-the-face teen, smoking pot and drinking to tamp it all down, which Jazz only encouraged. I had learned to push him away better, shrug him off, but he was undeterred, his sneakiness part and parcel of his salaciousness. I heard the floorboards creak above the bathroom when I bathed. I knew he had a spy hole, though I could never find it. He let me know by saying, “You shouldn’t wash your underwear with lavender soap.” I bathed hunched over. 

He lurked around every corner. A girlfriend wrote me a letter about losing her virginity. I went off to read it in private, but Jazz caught me before I could—he had a sixth sense about these things. We fought as he wrested the letter from me, shoving me outside, locking the door. Through the glass, he waved the stationery victoriously like a teenaged boy. I wanted to hurt him; I wanted to hurt myself. I punched at the pane until my fist went through it, slicing my wrist. The cut gushed, but it wasn’t as deep as I’d wished. It had to come out, blood the obvious metaphor. On the French countryside in the late seventies, a time beleaguered by unhinged boundaries, with a blind, love-addict mom, there was a dearth of resources. 

Poppy half woke. Her vacationing sister ran off with Jazz, who ran off with Mom’s money. We returned to California. Splitting up, we stayed with friends. Miquela lived with a surfer dude. We rarely spoke. I was still angry at her for abandoning me. I kept my secrets corked. They had left a blot. I felt ugly, marred, unworthy. I stood apart from the Manhattan Beach high school girls, carefree and perfect, with their silky, blond hair, Chemin de Fer jeans (whose label I pronounced better), and Formidales sandals. With my dark hair and eyeliner, safety pins, and wedge sneakers (not a brand-new concept), I smoked pot daily, clicking with the freaks. I ate only broccoli and sweet potatoes, which gave me a lightheaded feeling of cleanliness I craved. I stuck a basketball under my T-shirt, hanging out at the corner gas station strung out on Qualudes with my brilliant, crazy, enormous best friend, laughing our asses off. 

Poppy and I headed to New Mexico, where the manifestations of my sexual abuse accrued momentum. I drank in earnest, losing my virginity to a faceless boy in the woods during a party at fifteen. I went on a sex spree, discovering the feeling of power to pick a boy, any boy, chasing the elusive ace of hearts. I ate compulsively. I fasted on spirulina water when a girl told me my ass was fat. Every boy in Pojaque called the phone of the family I lived with, my promiscuity notorious. I got kicked out. I did mushrooms, peyote, black beauties, acid, anything to get out of my body. 

By the time I moved to NYC for college at eighteen, I had scrubbed up my act. I worked, got straight A’s, took too many credits, made the dean’s list: the perfect outside, never perfect enough. A worm gnawed at my insides. I scratched furiously at my head, arms, and legs, sometimes till I bled, as if to help it out. Without alcohol and drugs, I felt a constant angst. During one terrifying panic attack, I ran out in the middle of a class. In the little courtyard, a wellspring gurgled up from my gut, the best crying jag I’ve ever had. The kind English teacher who had followed me out recommended therapy.

COMING TO

It was quiet and gradual. I needed to feel safe when once I had not. Astute, soft-spoken Wendy, my college shrink, gently helped me unearth the worm. One night, early twenties, on a fire escape, smoking cigarettes, a girlfriend and I swapped stories, hers about her famous father. Years later, she would write a memoir about her sexual abuse, a response to her father’s memoir about his spiritual awakening, creating a similar stir and divide of camps of believers versus nonbelievers as the earlier-mentioned letter to the NYT. I was shocked by how people could label you batty when you sounded like a perfectly rational adult. I had once been similarly dismissed when I’d spoken up as a teen to an admirer of Jazz’s. 

I attended a self-help survivors’ group. These women had suffered the horrific. Surprisingly, they expressed rage toward Jazz, offering me their gracious support. This odd seal of approval, given by women whom I believed had experienced much worse transgressions, felt validating. But the most significant milestone came in my mid-twenties. Sitting on my ratty couch in Inwood, surrounded by walls of books, I confronted my visiting mother head-on. For the first time, she heard me. She pressed me against her large bosom, where I satisfyingly wept as she profusely apologized for having been “a horrible, horrible mother” and not having protected me. In the end, this was the epicenter, the most shattering aspect of those years: not having had a protector, which translated as not being worthy of one. 

I have long reached the point where I can speak about Jazz matter-of-factly, what happened no longer fraught with mountainous weight or shame. A relief, really. I forget the impact it can have on others. Strong reactions jar me. I become aware of the way I’m expected to feel but don’t. During the NYT-letter scandal, I was struck by the photos of the famous father along the ensuing commentary. With his white hair, pale wrinkled face that appeared to tremble, he suddenly looked so small. Not that I thought he hadn’t done it. My research had led me to believe he had. Not that I wasn’t disgusted. I just didn’t experience the clarity of feeling many did, outrage and an instant need for retribution. I felt unbearable pity. I wanted to hand the famous father an EMT blanket to cover himself while I averted my eyes and others self-assuredly tossed rotten eggs.

Discussing the fiasco with a friend, I mentioned Jazz. My friend Googled him. She saw that one of his albums had been recently rereleased by a label a friend of hers is with. Furious, she said she would get the word out about Jazz being a child molester. I felt the impulse to retract it all, a Stockholm syndromish need to shield him, ironically protect him. I did some mental pirouettes until I could say with confidence and logic, “Yes, you should. People need to know so they protect their girls from being harmed by him.” A few years back, I heard a woman had come forth in Switzerland to expose him for sexually abusing her daughter. Well into his seventies, Jazz was still up to his filthy old tricks. 

IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT

The arduous task of putting things back to rights continues for me years later. The clichéd axiom “You weren’t responsible,” impossible not to hear in the teary voice of Mariska Hargitay, might be a truism but not enough to make it all go away. Some of the damage has been permanent. I never wanted a child or experienced the biological urge women speak of to have a baby. That was lost when I learned children were not safe. Some things, I have proudly fixed, and it’s looking good. Other problems persist despite repairs, like an annoying recurring leak in a top-floor N.Y.C. apartment. 

Besides the well-known effects of sexual abuse (self-loathing, anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, promiscuity), I have battled a legion of related quirks. There’s the crazy fear of going to sleep; a lack of self-confidence no matter the achievement; a cantankerousness toward male bosses; a vision-blurring angsty self-consciousness when observed (at work, I go into a sweaty panic, words swimming on the screen, when anyone looms over my computer, telling me what to do, however kindly); giving others undue power; stuttering or blanking out mid-sentence; flying out of my body into the stratosphere; paranoia about intentions; spending too much time alone; and, on a lighter note, needing visual order in my cupboards. 

And sex and love. I must be in charge of my orgasms. I envy girlfriends who tell me they come fast and easy, no hands—at least not their own. Once, I could only orgasm by summoning images of old, disgusting men defiling me. For years, I role played with lovers, starring as girl molested or woman molesting. Afterward, I felt repulsed. Eventually, the mental porn reels lost their gloss. I've come a long way in bed, amorously seeking out my partner's eyes, my sexual progress commensurate with my mental health—the final frontier, letting go, trusting. About relationships, so simple as to make me feel foolish for not having pegged it earlier: I can quietly put up with a shit-load of crap just for a scrap of love. And here I was thinking I was special for playing it cool, when only reliving something deeply familiar. Enough of that!

“Someday you’ll thank me,” Jazz said. 

Do I? 

I don’t see why I should. 

But he is no longer the boss of me.

Instead, here’s my thank-you speech: I do not thank you, Jazz. I thank the feel of my teeth cracking the skin of a grape. I thank my best friend Shelly from Santa Fe High for saying, “Wow, do you know how incredibly pretty you are?” as we sat on her shag carpet. We were probably high. I thank my shrink Gene for telling me writing was “my first real therapy.” I thank my mentors. I thank my brave sister for having my back when she was just a kid herself. My mother for her ear and her kisses. My brilliant father for having the right words in a crisis. My ex-husband for gently stilling my hands in the night when I scratched at my legs. My cousin for telling me not to leave rehab when a man snuck into my room eight years ago. I thank my friends with their own tainted pasts who have been models of overcoming. I thank Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, though they might all duke it out if they were in the same room. I thank angry, sad, funny, beautiful songs and poems. Philip Larkin for putting it so simply. I thank me for sitting here, wits intact. I thank the young woman who wrote the letter to The New York Times for sparking these reflections—and you for reading them.

Tessa Stein is a pseudonym for a novelist. She last wrote about leaving her addicted husband.

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