One of my favorite television shoes, Bones, shows the main character, Temperance Brennan, examining a skull and quipping, “Bones don’t lie.”
That quote strikes a deep chord for me, because if it weren’t for my bones, no one would have ever believed that the first eighteen years of my life were filled with abuse.
Think about it—eighteen years is a long time to be beaten, belittled, smashed against walls, tied up, threatened, and otherwise abused. A lot of people would crack under the intensity and duration of what I endured.
I saw on the news the other day a teenaged survivor of abuse, being publicly validated. She and her mother ran for years from an abusive father and husband, respectively. Now the teen is helping others to escape from abuse.
Stories like this bring up a mixture of feelings for me because there was nowhere I could run. And no one to run with. I tried hundreds of times to tell what was going on in my home, that there was no safe place for me. But because my father was so careful about how he administered his beatings, there was little or no physical evidence.
Which brings me back to the bones.
My father would say, as he was tugging his belt loose from his pants and folding it so that the buckle end would be free to smack against my body, that he had to be careful how and where he hit me.
“I aim for the arms and legs,” he’d say in a calm voice, “also the back and torso. That way, even if you tell, and you’d better not try that—but even if you did, no one would believe you. They’d think you just fell off a jungle gym or slipped. Everyone knows you’re a tomboy, after all.”
And there I was, standing or crouching, listening to this, feeling very much like a prison camp victim, listening to my abuser coldly calculating how he was going to inflict damage to me.
And he was right. Though he and my mother made me wear long sleeves and pants to school, sometimes I tried to tell. I’d roll up a sleeve and show a bruise or roll up a pants leg and show blood blisters.
And people always jumped to my father’s defense.
“We saw you fall off the monkey bars!” they’d crow. ”Why do you lie about your father like that? He’s on the volunteer fire department.”
That was in the 1960s, when the general public didn’t yet “get” that abusers create situations and environments where their victims can’t get away and where they won’t be believed.
That didn’t stop me from trying to tell, but telling over and over again how I was beaten several times a week—on a bad week, every day—cemented the details in my mind. How I’d watch the clock turn from nine to ten a.m. and still the beating continued. When I was a teen I’d lash back, not physically, but with words.
My father had broken my physical body to the extent that I couldn’t keep up with my classmates and friends. My stamina was destroyed, my limbs ached from arthritis and tendonitis, and my lack of self-confidence made my body feel too heavy to do more than get through school each day. I couldn’t fight back physically but I could fight with words.
Which is what I did. I’d zing him, asking if he felt like a big man, beating up a little girl. Daring him to let his friends at the fire station and in the cultlike religious group he’d forced us all to join see how he started in on us kids before he’d even gotten the car out of the parking lot. I asked him how he could stand himself.
Oh, yes, my words intensified the abuse. That intensity also used up his energy more quickly, turning a ninety-minute beating into a forty-five minute beating instead. Still, no one would believe me.
I’d get to know people, begin to feel safe, after seeing that the dynamics in their houses were much calmer than mine. And when I felt safe enough, what I wanted to do was to tell them what was happening at my house, so that maybe they could do something to stop it.
They’d go from my close friend to a cold, distrustful acquaintance in a half second flat.
“How dare you say such things about your father!” they’d snap.
And I wouldn’t be allowed in their homes any more. I learned early that friendship is a very subjective thing.
And so I learned to find back doors, quiet spaces, like the hollow beneath the stairwell at my high school, where I could sit and write. And I write and write and write about what was happening in my house.
When I got married, I talked incessantly about the abuse and the dysfunctional patterns my family had developed. My husband was patient, thankfully, but there wasn’t much he could do other than listen. It helped that at least one person believed me. But my friends continued to downplay and deny that what I shared was true.
Until a chiropractor took a full body X-ray.
When I saw him afterward, he asked, “Car accident or abuse?”
I don’t think he could read the mixture of feelings that went through me. Relief, amazement, hope, excitement.
“Abuse,” I answered simply.
He said that my back looked like it belonged to a sixty year-old woman instead of a thirty-five year old. He showed me impressions that looked like fists on my hip bones.
The bones don’t lie.
But it took me so many years to find a way to have proof of what happened for the first eighteen years of my life, that by the time I had my proof the abuse wasn’t current enough to be relevant.
In other words, no one cared.
And that’s all I really wanted. All those years when I tried to tell. All those years that I refused to be silent. I knew my father wasn’t going to kill me, not intentionally, or he would have done it early in my life. What more could he do to me.
I just wanted someone to care. That would make me feel human, to know that the eighteen years I spent as prisoner of war in the modest clapboard house in a tiny New Jersey town, meant something.
I just wanted someone to care.