As an adult survivor of child abuse, I perked up when Facebook statuses like these started to appear: “Please change your Facebook profile picture to your favorite childhood cartoons/characters and invite your friends to do the same. Until Monday there should be no human faces on Facebook, but an invasion of memories. Support the worldwide protest against child violence.” The Monday date of December 6th has come and gone, and some cartoon faces linger. The meme didn’t start out as an anti child abuse movement at all, yet a disorganized “campaign” rode the tidal wave of an existing movement for nearly two weeks. There has been a lot of debate by cynics and do-gooders and well-meaners alike, and heated conversation continues to smolder.
In spite of the disorganized roots of the movement, and in spite of the fact that it is “just Facebook, people,” people are talking. And some are even listening. Child abuse thrives on voicelessness and secretivism. I can attest to that power even today: people who knew me as a child and have read my blogs have contacted my sister to ask if I was lying and making things up. Disbelief and denial continues to fight my voice nearly fifteen years after the last time I wiped my mother’s spit from my face. Therefore I feel compelled to tell my story.
When I was two years old, my mom held my head by the hair just above my forehead and banged my head against the wall behind my bedroom door over and over and over. I remember getting dizzy. I remember a large dresser towering over me to my right. I can’t imagine what I could have done wrong. I was wearing those filmy plastic training pants that catch the pee if you have an accident. Perhaps I had filled them up.
At five or six, my mom took me into the bathroom to tell me I was a piece of shit. Then she asked me, “What do you do with a piece of shit?!” I mumbled, “Flush it down the toilet…” She made me repeat it until I was yelling the answer. She flushed the toilet, and I shook as I heard the rushing and gulping sound of the toilet gobbling up the shitless water that I was apparently worthy of. Lesson learned.
When I was seven, my mom got a knife from the kitchen. She told me I’d better run. I went to the same spot I always went to when I was trying to get away from her. Atop my pillow, up on my tiptoes, I stood on the bed in the corner against the wall. It was as far away from her as I could get and I pressed my butt cheeks and lower back against the wall to buy me inches that I thought might save my life. She’d have to climb up on the bed to get me. She screamed at my sister and asked if she loved me or not, and that if she loved me, she’d try to stop her from killing me. My sister hung on my mom’s arm, screaming for her to stop as my mom dragged her weight down the hallway, knife in the other hand. I remember screaming over and over and over when I saw that the knife my mom normally used to cut carrots was now meant to surely kill me.
At ten, I’d been a total nightmare with not cleaning the toilet in the bathroom I shared with my younger sister. My mom dragged me to the bathroom and stood above the bowl with me, screaming about how nasty it was. Yellowish brown scum coated the toilet bowl. She reached her hand into bowl, scraped scum from its surface, wiped both cheeks with it, and asked me if I could smell it. That same year, I’d let my thermos leak in my lunchbox. That time it was sour chocolate milk that was wiped on my face.
At thirteen, as I was leaving the house for church, my mom decided she didn’t like how high the slit went in the back of my knee-length skirt I was wearing. She bellowed that she’d told me to sew it up. With a handful of my skirt in each hand at either side of the slit, she tugged as hard as she could and ripped it all the way up the back to the zipper, exposing my underwear to my father. (That’s mortifying when you’re thirteen, by the way.) That was one of many items of clothing torn on me or to be torn off of my body as I grew and developed.
When I was fifteen, I went out to dinner after an evening service with the church group. I took my boyfriend with me, and I was nervous and self-conscious as hell. I’d worn new barrettes in my hair and parted it differently. I was having a bit of trouble keeping it out of my face as I ate. (It was a pretty normal problem to have at an age when you’re still mastering the basic shit.) I made it through the meal, sweaty palms and all. It was a rush to be allowed to eat a meal with the boy I had a huge crush on, as difficult as it was to get through it. Yet once in the car, my mom laid into me. She told me that she was embarrassed by me and that everyone noticed how stupid I’d looked with my grinning and tossing my hair for attention. She told me I’d made a fool out of myself. I was destroyed. One more drop into the pot of emotional and psychological abuse fell.
My two sisters weren’t immune to her attacks. There was hitting. Punching. Slapping. Kicking. Spitting. Threatening. Screaming. Pinching. Yanking. Humiliation…
My older sister, under the fluorescent light of the kitchen, took a blurry photograph of my younger sister’s upper lip which had been cut when my mom threw books in her face. One other time, we tried to get a good photograph of a bruise on her neck. The problem wasn’t that we were crappy photographers or that we were unaware of our situation. We weren’t sure who to tell. My older sister told me she’d called some sort of hotline from a telephone booth by the Walgreens across the street. It was a number she’d seen on television. To this day, I don’t know if she really did, because no one ever came and checked on us. But the desire to escape was real.
I kept a bag packed more out of wishful thinking than dire emergency. It was up in my closet underneath a thick and heavy pile of jeans. I kept money taped under things in my room. Feeling like I could leave at any point was part of coping. At night, many times, I’d imagine ripping the money from its hiding places, pulling down the satchel that contained clothes and a notebook, and running to the end of my street… and then walking the distance to the bridge… and then crossing it by moonlight. My fantasy would always end at the bridge. Quite literally, I didn’t know where to go.
Researchers have discovered that the part of the brain that controls reasoning and logic isn’t fully developed until after twenty five years of age. Today, I think I’d know what to do in that situation, including refusing to put up with it. But I’m much older. I’ve learned to say “that’s enough. I’m outta here,” and I can get outta anywhere. I have a car that I can drive. I can get a hotel room. And I’ve been capable of renting a place and paying for it for a long time. I can think of five people or organizations I could call if I needed help.
But I couldn’t do it at two. Nor seven. Nor twelve. Nor fifteen. Nor seventeen, for that matter.
At seventeen, I went away to college. I was the only one I know who was crying on December 22 because I didn’t want to go home for Christmas. My roommates tolerated my emotional outburst. But no one came to save me or offer me an alternative then either.
More than a place to stay or a volunteer service to hand me a stuffed animal, I needed to be discovered. And I never was.
I think of the probably 100 adults that were regularly in our circle of influence as children. Three girls. Three sets of symptoms. 45+ cumulative years of observation. No one noticed. No one said a thing. No one helped us. And when you’re a kid, you don’t have the cognitive skills to go get help for yourself even if you know you need it. We survived, but damn, we could’ve used someone to go to bat for us.
Child abuse happens when you’re not there. It spans all ethnic backgrounds and income levels. It can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and mental abuse as well as neglect. In each case, it often comes in more than one of those forms. It is a carefully kept secret both for legal reasons and because the parent often sees himself or herself as a failure at parenting. Children are disbelieved, as I was the one time I told somebody.
5.8 million children in more than 3.5 million cases of child abuse and neglect are reported each year to Child Protection Services according to their most recent statistics. I want you to see the number typed out. 3,535,501. That’s the number of cases in 2007. Now how many inescapable situations go unreported? Half? A third? One tenth? More? Is the undiscovered number of children living in daily fear and humiliation near ten million? More than ten?
If you know of a kid that is sending up flags, please don’t shrug your shoulders and hope they don’t play with your kid or simply comment that they always smell bad. As a child, I did not have a voice or a vote in my situation. It would have taken someone to notice me and stand up for me, and no one did. Can you think of that kid? Consider that kid. Wonder wisely. Keep an eye out. Don’t shrug it off. You only need to remember one number: 1.800.4.A.CHILD. You will be directed to the proper resource for your state. Trust your instincts. Get involved at the risk of pissing someone off. Ask questions. You know if something isn’t right. If you wish to report abuse anonymously, your identity will be protected from the alleged perpetrator in 39 states. Learn more HERE.
Most of us will remain unaware of specific child abuse happening around us, and will never be able to make a life-changing phone call on a child’s behalf. But approximately 30 children an hour, every hour are removed from dangerous and abusive situations. Try to imagine the resources it takes to adequately care for these uprooted children. You can help. The next time you’re at a bar, think of what your tab comes to with tip. The next time you buy yourself something you don’t need, consider the child going through the roughest year of his or her life who might need to cry into a teddy bear’s face. You can help. The next time you hear your kid’s laugh from the living room, think about what you would do if someone tried to harm them. So your kid is lucky enough to have a bouncer. What about the kid two streets over?
Now that you’ve considered the problem, realize that the key is to act. Don’t just ride the emotional wave of a good story or blow all of your good will into a Kleenex. There was a lot of that these past two weeks. You can actually help. That’s what I chose to do this weekend. I got angry again. And I spoke up again. And I got involved here.
Maybe you can do the same.