I watched my daughter’s twinkling eyes as she excitedly blew out the candles on her birthday cake. As she blew, I exhaled. This was her eighth birthday. A moment of excitement for her and me. But, as I watched the scene, I had a moment of deep refection. My memory of being eight is one of pain.
At eight, I was sexually abused.
At the time, I had no idea what it was, or what it meant. I did not even think much about it. In fact, it seemed “normal”. I guess my eight-year old mind could not fathom people that I knew – that I would run to when afraid; that I would hold onto for support; that represented what was good; that my parents would leave me with to guide and to protect me – would not do abnormal things to me. I was abused by people in my home I trusted – people my parents trusted.
I knew them. They were not guests or strangers. They were relatives. Family.
Like many Liberian homes, mine was often filled with relatives. An aunt from up country for a weekend would end up staying for months “visiting”. A nephew whose parents could not afford to send him to school would be sent to our home “to help out”. A cousin who finds herself down on her luck would “stop by for awhile”. They became a part of the household. Their children became brothers and sisters.
Then there were the other people in the home. The nurse (housekeeper) who manages the home, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and supervising daily chores. Then there is the “houseboy” who does yard work, runs errands, and other menial works. So my home was never empty, always filled with family.
Family. I do not seem to recall fear in their eyes, nor did they seem nervous. It was as if they were doing what was expected of them. The reality is that I did not know I was being sexually abused, but, I did come to recognize the signs much later.
Alas! Much too late.
My mom worked full time with a very affluent organization. She was gone most of the day and usually got home at night. We had very little time during the week for as much interaction as I would have liked. She had to work, and would often return tired. As such, my rearing was split between the various aunts, cousins and nurse who were always around. “We will tell your ma oh”, was the overused line to put me straight. I would be reported to her for misbehaving, and my mom would be called in when I was being difficult.
“We will tell your ma oh” was more than an inconsequential threat. It represented the disciplined involvement of my mother. It was not a moment of judgment between me and anyone elderly. It would be punishment time. I soon learned to be obedient, kind, tolerant and trusting of my older relatives to avoid the punishment that would be handed down after “telling” my ma.
I adored my mom. Most of everyone who knew her, even superficially, tell me I look just like my mother. It makes me feel really good in a way. She was this beautiful woman that I wanted to be like. Tall, always smiling, smelled good and dressed nicely. I would go sit and watch her dress for work, or for a social event. I would watch her put on her makeup, and try to do the same. She would afford me a disarming laugh and say “you’re not ready for that yet”, and gently proceed to take the colorful palette from me. Such was the picture of my household at the age of eight.
The overflowing memory came rushing back as I looked at my eight year old. And rather than the joyful and celebratory moment now presented, I slipped to my past. No less than thirty years later, the stinging image was as real as today. Shelved in an inner recess of my mind, the memory just seemed to burst to the fore. As I looked at my daughter, I saw me being molested and abused. I saw my innocence taken. I saw my trust broken. I saw my mind and body violated.
I had shelved it. But I have been unable to forget it.
It may seem difficult to understand but the truth is that I did not know at the time that it was bad. I did not know that I was being molested. I did not know that I was being abused. Of all my childhood memories, suddenly as I looked at my daughter, at eight, this one hit me unexpectedly hard. With such clarity that I could actually recall the color of my dress so long ago as the repressed memories rushing back.
The first time I was molested, John (alias) was the culprit. John was a relative who had come from Lofa to “go to school”. He asked me to sit with him atop the manhole which was under the bathroom window.
“Come sit on my lap” John said. I did.
Pointing to the blooming plum tree he said “bigger girl you really learning how to climb tree good good now oh, come go pic me plum to eat”. I was excited being praised and called a “bigger girl”.
Just as I got up, anxious to show off my climbing skills, he pulled up my dress, pulled down my panties a little, and put his fingers on my vagina.
I was frozen. I said nothing. I did not react.
My silence and lack of response may have embolden him.
He touched me again, lingering a bit more, then removed his hand, and quickly pulled up my panty. I just looked at him. Blanked. No thoughts. No sense of what had happened. No response. I cannot imagine what he saw or sensed in my reaction or lack thereof. But I recall him putting his fingers to his nose and smelling it. I just stood there. Waiting.
Then he smiled and said, “Go pick my plum now”.
So I did. I was off climbing as he watched from below. I climbed the tree, shook the branches and watched the ripe plums drop to the ground while he picked them up. Eventually, I climbed down. I sat next to him while we ate the plums.
I thought nothing of what John had done to me. I did not mention it to anyone.
In fact, I felt happy that my “big brother” had told me to go climb the plum tree and pick plums for him. You see, I was forbidden from climbing the plum tree, and was constantly punished whenever it was told that I did. So it felt like my “big brother” and I shared a secret that day – a secret of allowing me to climb the plum tree, something that I liked to do, and he would let me do without “telling” on me.
And so, the abuse started. It got progressively worse. John became bolder and bolder. He would place my hands on his genitals, asking me to rub it. His looks became furtive. I began to sense that something was “wrong”. I became uneasy. I reached for the available, and less troublesome help. The nurse was always around supervising throughout the day.
I asked her: “What does it mean when a man puts his “thing” in you?”
She was ironing clothes. She stopped immediately. Abandoning the ironing, she looked at me quizzically. And she alarmed: “Someone put their thing in you?!”
I did not know how to respond. I didn’t want to get John into trouble. In retaliation, he would tell that I had been climbing the plum tree. And I would be punished. So I lied. I said, “No”. She was unconvinced. She changed tactics. She became more interested in my question, and encouraged a conversation rather than alarming about what I had asked. It then seemed alright to confide in her without getting me or John in trouble.
I do not know if or when the nurse ever told my mom. But not long thereafter, John left our home. Today I believe he may have been thrown out. Years later, news filtered into the house about his death as a rebel fighter in his native Lofa. I silently felt happy hearing the news.
As I watched my daughter blow out the candles that dressed up her birthday cake, it occurred to me that mine was blown out for me. I watched the blissful innocence that lit up her countenance, and I realized that my innocent childhood mist got lifted too early.
At eight, I see her smile light up the room, and it warms my heart. And I swear to protect her – to protect her innocence. I long to tell her that this world is filled with good people. And yes, there are bad people too. That the good and the bad can reside even in people we know – in people we are comfortable with; people we believe hold our best interests at heart. People we trust.
I have not forgotten me at eight. And although John is dead, it just does not seem right that I did not have a chance to confront him with this memory. So, I do the next best thing. I share it with you – with the world. I do so not to seek revenge on John, but to tell that I, too, was abused, beginning at the innocent age of eight.
Why am I telling this story now 30 odd years later? Many reasons.
For one thing, I hope that my story will inspire others to tell theirs. It is troublesome that victims are too accepting to throw a lid on sexual abuse out of the real fear of being stigmatized. I have felt this way for at least thirty years. That is, until I looked in the eyes of my daughter. If we do not tell our stories – if we do not talk about sexual abuse as happening to real people and affecting real lives – how do we hope to come to grips with it? How can I protect my beautiful daughter in a society that tolerates sexual abuse by covering it up, and or being too afraid to talk about it?
Another reason is that I find “un-shelving” this experience healing. It is no longer this silent hidden burden I have to carry.
Thirdly, I feel there needs to be a more “national” open conversation around sexual abuse in our society. For us to recognize the various cultural nuances that we either don’t realize happens or that we ignore.
Like the elderly male “compliments”: “Baby Brenda and all got rice grain on her little chest oh!” This is often followed by the humiliating pinch. And the outbursts of laughter.
Or the “You are a big girl now oh!” when they know you are really a baby but are planting seeds of sexual exploitation which “big girls” are supposed to be engaged in.
Or the comments about the “getting big butt like her ma” followed by a light (and sometimes not to light) pat.
Nothing is thought of the “uncle” who invites the “niece” to sit on his lap. No one seem to notice or care about his wiggling.
There are much more examples I could give. You live here, you know what I mean.
All of these being dropped on an innocently trusting mind with an air or nonchalance – as if it is right and expected. No, it not right! It is wrong.
I certainly wished it had never happened to me. But it did. And I know it continues to happen to many so much younger than eight. And it must stop! But sadly, it will not until we are willing to talk about it – to confront each other. And to hold each other accountable for it.
Lest I be mistaken, sexual abuse is not limited to girls. Boys are also being molested and abused. We have to stop this – and stop it now. This is not a “western concept”, it is a shocking reality, and in some places may even be viewed as expected and acceptable.
We have to talk about it. And we have to stop it.
It has ruined lives. It is ruining lives. And it hurts.
I, too, was sexually molested and abused. And I was only eight years old.