Against the Odds
1 Oct 2012
In the past week, a JPGer, Mike Apice, commented on a photo I posted. His comments: "Interesting, but you walk a fine line here with PS magic and a piece that's overproduced and direction-less. Keep in mind that PS is not going to make a piece interesting if the original is just average. I would like this a lot better if I had a connection with the subjects eyes." I felt that Mike's comments were an impartial and more than fair assessment of this photo. I try to stay objective regarding my images, particularly the portraits because nearly all are family. I know the history imbedded. I know each nuance. I know the subjects intimately and therefore see in each photo what no one else will ever see. And even when I give a bit of history, hidden meanings and purpose are seldom revealed.
After seeing my image through Mike's eyes, I considered writing a photo essay about what has been apportioned to Hannah, my grandniece. Writing such a story is never easy. Not because it is hard to write, but because it is hard to read. The information is personal, it is sexual, and it can easily be regarded as 'too much' information. Given the life I've been apportioned, a mere version of real is unacceptable to me. I lived 'versions' of the truth all my life. These versions were comfortable for everyone but me. These versions gave everyone an out but me and my siblings. We were in pain and no one cared. Versions exist because it removes obligation. The benders of truth are not required to 'do' anything, or say anything, or intervene, or rescue, or save the day. Versions allow people to look away... comfortably.
So yes, I decide, I will write this essay. And, once again, I wrote it, posted it, and removed it within the hour. The message was wrong. The detail was wrong. The purpose was obscured by a sanitized version of what needed to be said. What I had become is just another person with some version of the truth and was amazed by how easily it took shape on the screen before me. To follow is the essay I should have written.
Part of the story is my life. Part of the story is Hannah's life. The two are intertwined. We are bound, not only by blood, but by the abuse and molestation inflicted on us by our biological fathers.
This abuse has dominated my life. It has infected every single aspect of my personality. I started out scared and I ended up raging. I had a mother who knew... I told her when I was 11. She did nothing because she had her version of why it was okay. I had a father with no version... just an insatiable appetite. I had aunts and uncles who knew and a school system that had to suspect. And there were the preachers who knew and oh so many others. It was beyond my comprehension that this was okay with absolutely everyone when it felt so wrong to me.
My stories of these years have little application here. What does have application is what I carried into my life as a result. The most devastating part of it was living as a child in a world that had been sexually defined. I was almost never free from the sights and sounds and smell and taste of it. Sexuality became my obsession and definition. And, though I learned how to use it, I have never known what it was meant to be because I stand sentry over this thing that will never be taken from me again. This part of me was so badly broken it can never be repaired. From where I was tossed, there is no path to normal. This is what stands before Hannah and my heart breaks for her. It was not her father's to take. It was not her father's to destroy.
Those years also ushered in mental illness: anxiety attacks, panic attacks, profound depression, agoraphobia, and complete mental and physical breakdowns that lasted months and months. I have no friends because I trust no one. I have enormous issues with control. I live in dreams and sleep with demons. I process abnormally and inappropriately and therefore have learned to keep everyone and everything at a distance.
Quite predictably, I divorced after 31 years of marriage and moved to Texas. One day the phone rang. It was my brother Tim. His daughter Julie's kids, two boys and one girl, were being brutalized and molested by their father. Tim's approach to our abuse was to leave, stay gone, and pretend it never happened. Now he had no choice. The flight home was horrendous... the memories consumed me and I knew this would, once again, dominate my life.
Tim hadn't called until the whole thing blew wide open, the father had been confronted, a family member turned him in and he was taken into custody. I have always blamed my mother more than my father for the abuse. How do you live under the same roof and not know what's going on. Julie was a stay-at-home mom which made it even harder for me to grasp. So this was my first question.
During the years this was going on, the kids started having behavior problems. And the worse they got, the more protective Julie became. Bedtime was a nightmare. None of them would sleep alone. So Julie would make a palette on the living room floor, tuck them in all around her and sleep with them there. When all were asleep, their father would steal in, pick up the sleeping child he wanted, carry them to his bed and use them until he'd had his fill. As the months wore on, Hannah and her younger brother began losing speech... a sign of profound sexual abuse. Hannah's older brother was the protector as Tim was mine. When Julie was out in the evening and his father would go after the others, he tried to intervene. His father would grab him, throw him against the wall in his room and lock the door. He lives today with seizures from that abuse.
Unlike my mother, Julie did not suspect this. Their father was a preacher's son and a pillar in the local church. So was my father. But predators are sly and cunning chameleons because that is what's required. Julie and I talked about this for many hours. She knew about my history and had so many questions. Mostly she wanted to know what the kids would be up against in the years to come. Her situation was different than ours. The kids were rescued. We were not. I knew this was a plus but I also knew that irreversible damage was done.
In the months that followed, I became as active in their lives as I could from a distance and flew home every chance I got. Little by little, I became a fixture and the kids began to accept me. On one trip home, Hannah ran in and handed me some pictures she drew for me. One was a princess in a ball gown. She had a pointed hat with a veil trailing off to one side, rosy cheeks and china red lips. She also had bindings on both wrists that were connected to chains that ran off the edges of the page. It has never been as hard to keep my composure as it was at that moment.
The princess she drew was nearly identical to the ones I'd drawn as a child.
The other drawing had a huge head up in the sky looking down at five tiny people huddled together in a bottom corner. There were crosses and fire and clouds and a great big sun that didn't fit and the tiny people had no eyes. This is the world that was fashioned for Hannah and her brothers by the man who is their father
With my brother's financial help, Julie was able to stay at home until recent years and homeschool the kids. Public school was not an option given their emotional, psychological, and behavioral issues. Today they are thriving. But the wounds remain. I see it because it is my constant companion. It is a look. It is the inability to receive affection. It is the distrust that flows from their eyes.
I am someone Hannah is learning to trust. Even still, she keeps her distance and we must renew that bond every time I come. Many times I see her gazing off in the distance and know she is 'there' once more. I want so much to tell her I understand, to tell her I know what she is feeling. But I don't. That will be for Hannah to decide. In the meantime, we do our pictures and she waits impatiently at home for the newest collection. And when they arrive, in these moments, there is no gazing... there is no remembering. There is only beautiful Hannah who will figure it out one day at a time... with a little help and against the odds