My Sister’s Tragic Early Death—The Possible Backstory

The catalyst for this post is, as I mentioned last week, the recent publication of a piece of creative non-fiction—”Tornado,” powerfully and eloquently written by my niece Feagin Jones—in “Hippocampus Magazine.”

Feagin’s piece—a personal essay or a brief memoir depending on how you look at it—focuses, among other things, on her relationship with her mother—my sister—Alice, and on Alice’s various tribulations in life, which included periods of deep depression and addiction to cocaine.

As I read the piece again, on the “Hippocampus” website (Feagin had previously sent me a draft version), I found myself once more feeling, as I often have previously, that the origins of much of the darkness and suffering my sister experienced as an adult could quite possibly have lain in our father’s having sexually abused Alice as a child.

Alice told me on at least two or three occasions—the last occurring during a visit I made to Memphis, Tennessee, where she was living at the time, in late March and early April of 2011, several weeks before her death—that, although she had memories of having been emotionally—verbally—abused by our father, she had no memories of having been sexually abused. Nonetheless, I remain convinced of the strong possibility of my sister having been sexually abused by our father.

Forgetting severely traumatic events, such as being sexually abused as a child by one’s parent, is a by no means unusual occurrence. (For footnoted references to this phenomenon, see, for example, Blind to Betrayal by Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell, professors of psychology at the University of Oregon: “Sometimes [sexual assault] victims forget all or part of their assault experience. . . .  Rates of forgetting were higher for certain interpersonal victimization experiences (such as childhood abuse and completed rape) and lower for other noninterpersonal traumas (such as motor vehicle accidents).  Forgetting is apparently more likely in cases involving a betrayal trauma, such as when the victim trusted, was very close to, and/or was dependent on the perpetrator.”)

(Of course, the opposite of forgetting can occur, as well—intrusive memories, or flashbacks, of traumatic events—for trauma survivors who never forget their traumatic experiences or who later recover their memories after a period of forgetting. However, in light of the abundant academic literature documenting the commonness of suppression of memories of trauma, the use sometimes made of the occurrence this opposite phenomenon—of intrusive memories—in an effort to undermine the validity of the idea that memories of trauma can be suppressed, and to insist upon some sort of either-or choice between these two phenomena, can seem quite baffling unless one considers the possibility that the person so insisting may have had their views on this matter skewed, to detrimental effect, by some sort of personal agenda whose legitimacy depends upon such a choice.)

In addition, research supports the existence of a strong link between childhood trauma and significantly greater probabilities of substantially reduced longevity. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which I discussed in a previous blog post, involved a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. The study, which involved over 17,000 participants, showed—according to one article, titled “Can Childhood Trauma Shorten Your Life?” and based on an interview of Dr. Vincent Felitti, the study’s co-principle investigator working at Kaiser Permanente—a very strong connection between the degree of highly adverse experiences, including sexual abuse, that a person suffers during childhood and a person’s chances of developing:
(1)
various “coping mechanisms to reduce chronic major stress that are recognized as deleterious to health, such as smoking, drinking and drug use”;
and,
(2)
various serious diseases as an adult—including heart disease (which my sister’s autopsy indicated she’d been suffering from) independently of other risk factors, such as the just-mentioned coping mechanisms, for these diseases.

(The same article cites a previous article by Dr. Felitti as follows:

‘The study makes it clear that time does not heal some of the adverse experiences we found so common in the childhoods of a large population of middle-aged, middle-class Americans,’ Felitti wrote in his 2002 article, ‘The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold Into Lead.’

‘One does not ‘just get over’ some things, not even 50 years later.’

Here’s a link to that earlier article by Dr. Felitti.

And here are two links to YouTube videos—a long and a short version—of one of Dr. Felitti’s presentations on this subject:

long version;

short version.

Click here to go to the study’s own website.)

*

But why, more specifically, do I believe there is a substantial possibility that my sister was sexually abused by our father? It comes down to a combination of a small but, taken together, significant—to me anyway—handful of items:

(1)
I was sexually abused by our father, so I know through firsthand experience that our father was capable of sexually abusing his own children.

(2)
Another close relative of my generation told me of their experience of being sexually abused by our father when that relative was a child, so I know that I was not the only child of my generation among our father’s blood relations whom our father sexually abused.

(3)
In the summer of 1980—the summer, ironically, before I entered Vanderbilt Law School—I broke into our father’s then residence on Hampton Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee, where we once lived as a family and where our father was, at that time, living alone. My conscious motive, on that day, for breaking in started with the view I had through the front door’s sidelight windows of the floors of the front hallway and and dining room, which were carpeted with stacks of old newspapers alternating with clusters of empty wine bottles, through which a few newspaper-, bottle-free paths, for getting, apparently, from room to room, wended their narrow ways—my motive, on a conscious level anyway, arising from shock at the depths to which our father’s life had, based on what I saw through the sidelight windows, apparently sunk, and from a desire for further verification by undertaking an inspection of the entire house—something only breaking in, I reasoned at the time, would enable me to carry out, as I had no key and felt sure our father, who was away from the house at the time of my break-in, would never willingly permit such an inspection . . . I may go into the complete details of my memory of that day in a future, separate post; suffice it to say, for current purposes, that in the summer of 1980 I broke into our father’s residence and, wending my way down various newspaper- and bottle-bordered paths—for other of the first-floor rooms as well were covered in like manner with newspapers and wine bottles—came upon, in the first-floor bedroom that had once been my sister’s (which wasn’t thus covered), an eight-millimeter projector and a number of eight-millimeter films, all with packaging displaying images of prepubescent girls with makeup on their faces, wearing only underwear or nude; packaging whose titles and descriptions, together with the images, left no doubt of the films’ content: child pornography . . .

. . .  of prepubescent girls is the salient point for purposes of this post. (That all of this was located in my sister’s former bedroom could well have been without significance, in and of itself, given that room’s location just down the hall from our father’s own bedroom, which would have made that room the most convenient in the house for dedicated use as a child porn viewing venue.)

(And I’m aware of the notion, which I believe may be backed to at least some degree by research, that some significant number of minor-attracted adults who possess or view child porn may possess no intention—or even desire—to behave in a sexual manner with actual children and may never undertake to engage in any such behavior. Our father, however, was not such a non-offending minor-attracted adult.)

(4)
Memory of an Incident at the Dining Room Table:

The memory I’m about to recount by itself would mean little, but in the context of the items I’ve mentioned above, and of various specific aspects of my own experience of being sexually abused as a child by our father, this memory, for me anyway, carries potentially substantial import.

I was twelve or in my early teens—no older than fifteen I would say. We were seated at the dining room table and in the process of eating dinner at the above-mentioned house on Hampton Avenue in Nashville. (This was when we were still living there as a legally intact family, before my parents divorced and, my mother moving out, our father continued living in the house but by himself.)

I was seated in my usual place at the circular table—between my mother and father and with my back to the living room window. I believe my brother, who was about two years older than me, was at the table as well, which could argue for my being only twelve or thirteen or so, since my brother had, I believe, started going to boarding schools away from Nashville by the time I was fourteen or so, although he could have been back home during a holiday period. In any case, I believe I remember my brother being seated, as usual, on the opposite side of the table from myself (if one considers the two sides as having been made by a line running through the table’s center from my mother to our father) in a chair closer to my mother, while my sister, Alice, was seated on the opposite side as well, in a chair closer to our father.

The specific part of the memory carrying the import comprises only a few, brief moments: my sister— after looking towards our father, or perhaps after being spoken to by our father, and if she was spoken to, I can’t recall what it was our father said to her—lowering her head and looking down (at her plate? her hands in her lap? I can’t recall precisely) with a certain feeling about her, a sunken heaviness of shame, then bursting into tears and dashing from the table to her room.

Also carrying import is what I recall feeling as these few, brief moments transpired: a sense of knowing what my sister’s shame was about, but without being aware, at all, on a conscious level, of what this “about” was about.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, and attempted to articulate, or at least suggest, the mechanism and process of in “Preludes,” an extended short story focusing on my sexual abuse as a child by our father, I had no conscious memories at this time, of this dining room table incident involving my sister, of my own experience of our father’s sexual abuse. Conscious memories did not begin to return for me until a point in the first half of my twenties, when the memory of a single incident (of my father masturbating in front of me under the pretext of toilet training, in the downstairs bathroom of the house we were then living in on Central Avenue in Nashville; occurring, to the best of my recollection, I was three or four years old) came back, following which when I was thirty-four years old the bulk of my sexual abuse memories concerning our father, catalyzed by a life crisis I was facing at the time, returned.

So yes, I had no conscious memories of my own abuse at the time of this incident concerning my sister, and yet I had the definite sense of knowledge of the source of my sister’s shame, which, as I’m suggesting here, may well have been our father’s sexual abuse of my sister.

One specific reason for this sense of knowing may very well, I believe, have to do with a resonance between this dining room table incident involving my sister’s possible sexual abuse by our father and  an earlier dining room table incident involving my own sexual abuse by our father. This earlier incident, the memory of which I recovered when I was thirty-four, forms the basis of one of the chapters of “Preludes,” which chapter is based to a substantial degree on the details of the memory itself. The setting of the chapter is the family dining table during dinnertime the evening after the the father had come to one of his son’s beds in the middle of the night and, under a pretext of punishment, raped the son, whose name in the story is “Sam.” I quote here the paragraphs of that chapter most relevant to this earlier resonating incident:

. . .

As always, they held hands, bowed their heads, and closed their eyes, and his father proceeded to say grace: “Bless, oh Lord, this food to our use and us to thy service, in Christ’s name, Amen.” Before the prayer was finished, the boy opened his eyes to examine his father’s face—gloom-darkened, as it often was, but, it seemed to the boy, more so this evening than usual. The boy kept looking at his father as they took, from under their forks to the left of their plates, the thick, white paper napkins his mother bought at the West End Avenue A&P, unfolded them, and laid them on their laps. (Linen napkins, embroidered with the initials of female ancestors, were reserved for Sunday dinner and guests.) He kept looking as his sister and brother, and then, at his mother’s prompting, he also, handed their plates to their parents, who served them the dinner the maid had prepared. He kept looking as their father, his tie fastened to his starched white shirt by a thin brass clip, picked up a silver carving knife and its two-tined matching fork to slice the meat loaf that filled the china serving platter before him, placing the juicy slices on each of their plates as they were passed to him; and as their mother used silver serving spoons to add green beans, glazed carrots, and mashed potatoes from china serving bowls, spooning gravy over the potatoes with a silver ladle from a china tureen, then offered them home-made rolls from a cloth-covered wicker basket. Through all of these routine dinnertime activities, the boy glanced away from his father as briefly as possible—to unfold his napkin or when his mother took his plate to serve him his vegetables, then handed it back to him, or offered him a roll—returning to his father’s face each time, searching for the smallest sign of acknowledgement.

Somewhere, perhaps, in the depths of the boy’s heart, far beneath the level of his consciousness, with its complete forgetting of what had happened, a wild hope feebly stirred—a hope that, were it put into words, could perhaps have been articulated thusly: that his father would set down the carving knife and fork, look him full in the face, and, after settling himself with a long, deep sigh, say in the calmest and sincerest of tones, “Sam, I made a terrible mistake last night. You didn’t misbehave and so, of course, you didn’t need to be punished. In fact, I was the one who misbehaved, and terribly so, and not just in punishing you for no reason, but in the horrible way that I did it. Sam, my dearly beloved son, can you ever forgive me?”

But his father finished serving the meat loaf silently, with averted eyes, serving himself last, then—responding to their mother’s tautly cheerful, “Bill, would you care for some vegetables?” with a leaden “Yes,” the same way he’d said the prayer—passing his plate to his wife via the boy’s sister, receiving it back, hunching over his food, and becoming completely absorbed with his eating.

The china, a Blue Willow pattern by Wedgewood, was for everyday use. The boy’s mother had given it a prominent place on her bridal registry, along with the sterling silver flatware—engraved at the handles in elaborate cursive with her initials—which also was for everyday, and which the boy, his sister, brother, and mother, following the father’s lead, now picked up to begin eating. The pattern’s platter, serving dishes, tureen, and plates all depicted a faraway world of gazebos, pavilions, and willow trees bordering placid lakes and gently flowing streams over which glided pairs of beautiful, broad-winged birds—a world of harmony, order, and tranquility into which the boy would, on many evenings as he ate, frequently find himself escaping. But tonight the boy didn’t notice this world at all, nor did he pick up his knife or fork as he kept looking at his father.

The boy looked from his father’s laden fork, his cheeks bulging with food, his tensing and releasing jaw muscles, back to his own plate, but he didn’t feel hungry at all—this though he felt an emptiness inside greater than he’d ever known. When his mother offered the butter dish for buttering his roll, he shook his head slowly and returned his attention to his father, who, sullen-faced and hunched over his plate, continued forking in mouthfuls, chewing dully, swallowing, then forking in more.

The more he watched his father eat, the less desire the boy felt for the food on his plate. Each time he looked at it, it seemed even less appetizing while the feeling of emptiness deepened. The boy looked from his food back to his father again, waiting for his father to offer him the smallest crumb of recognition—a word, a smile, the briefest glance, anything at all. A movement as small as a raised eyebrow might have struck the boy as a sign of acknowledgement, of approval even, but his father gave him nothing, seemed unaware of his existence as he stayed hunched over his food, consuming it with a mechanical regularity; his eyes glazed, seeming to look only half at what he was eating and half inside themselves; his attention absorbed completely with nothing left for the boy.

“Why aren’t you eating your food, Sam?”

His mother’s words broke his focus. His sister and brother looked up for a moment, glanced at their mother, then their father, hurriedly looked back down at their plates and returned to eating their food; but the boy, who usually ate more quickly than they, still hadn’t taken a single bite. He looked at his mother, her brow furrowed with incomprehension, then down at his food, then at his father. His mother looked from him to his father, then back to him. The emptiness inside him felt like it wanted to, needed to, absolutely had to maintain itself. Glancing again at his food, then back at his father, he felt himself sinking into his emptiness.

“Sam, I want you to eat your food.”

His mother’s tone had sharpened, but the boy continued to stare at his father—at his father’s mouth taking in food, chewing and swallowing; at his father’s eyes and the way they seemed to be half-looking inside themselves.

“Sam, I will not let you leave this table until you eat your food!”

His mother’s tone had sharpened more, turned absolute.

The boy cycled through again—looking at his mother, his father, then at his food—as he felt himself sinking further and further into the emptiness inside him. Then, sensing the hopelessness of it all, he picked up his fork, and, releasing a long, quiet sigh, cut a small piece of meat loaf from the slice his father had put on his plate, secured it with the tines of his fork, lifted it, put it into his mouth, and—his mother’s eyes fixed upon him, his father still ignoring him—slowly began to chew.

The central resonance—as I feel it when I recall these two dinner table memories together, side-by-side, as I’m now writing—had to do with the sense of shame—or perhaps it was shame admixed with guilt—which I propose I and my sister felt in common in response to our father’s sexual abuse, combined with our father’s complete refusal—or utter incapacity—to acknowledge the behavior on his part constituting this abuse, or give even the slightest hint or indication of the possibility of such an acknowledgement, within the public (in a family sense) setting of a family dinner.

* * *

Was there any way that my mother could have prevented the surpassing tragedy of her husband sexually abusing her own children?

There was not, I’ve come to conclude, given my mother’s background and the prevailing social milieu of the time during which the sexual abuse occurred.

My Mother’s Background:
As for my mother’s background, I will here give one example of the way in which this background influenced so heavily the degree of my mother’s ability—or lack thereof—to detect, and respond effectively to, her husband’s sexual abuse of her children, citing, for this example, my mother’s own words from a video-recorded conversation I had with her, within a year of her death, about her husband’s sexual attraction to and sexual abuse of children.

In one part of that conversation, I and my mother were talking about a specific incident—occurring, apparently, in the second half of the 1950s—that had brought to her awareness her husband’s behavior of masturbating in front of at least one of her children (which at the time consisted of two boys—myself and my brother; Alice was yet to be born). Concerning this incident, one part of my and my mother’s conversation went as follows. (My mother’s use of “father” refers to her husband—her children’s father. I’ve added material in brackets to provide clarification of the meaning in cases of redaction to protect anonymity and to provide context from the relevant portions of the conversation preceding this excerpt):

ME:
. . . OK, so basically, the reasons why you didn’t ask anyone at that, at that point [as to whether this behavior by your husband was normal or not], um, when [you became aware of this behavior], were . . . I mean—

MY MOTHER:
It never occurred to me there was anything wrong with it.

ME:
OK. That was the basic—

MY MOTHER:
It never occurred to me not to take what father said at face value.

ME:
OK, all right . . . and I think you had told me once that you had been raised . . . you had been socialized in your family or raised to believe that a wife should obey her husband and believe, sort of follow her husband and this, this was, came into it also, right, that—

MY MOTHER:
Certainly.

ME:
That you should place your trust in your, in your husband’s judgment or something like that?

MY MOTHER:
Right.

ME:
So, that if he said that [that masturbation was the means by which fathers taught their sons about sex], then . . . then you should trust in his judgment in the matter or whatever.

MY MOTHER:
Yes.

ME:
OK. All right.

MY MOTHER:
Especially things like that.

Clearly, my mother’s background—involving, as it did, socialization of women to place a complete and unquestioning trust in the correctness of their husband’s judgment with respect to matters of such utmost centrality to child-rearing—predisposed her to minimization, rationalization, and outright blindness when it came to her husband’s sexually abusive behavior towards her children.

(I should also note that at another point in this same conversation, between me and my mother, my mother recalled getting angry at our father as soon as she learned of this behavior on his part, and confronting him on the spot, shortly after the behavior had occurred. In other words, based on these recollections, it seems that my mother did, in fact, sense that something was seriously amiss in her husband’s behavior, but that her background countervailed against this immediate reaction to a degree sufficient to allow her mind to accept her husband’s behavior as being, possibly, within the realm of legitimacy.)

The Prevailing Social Milieu:
As for the prevailing social milieu, my mother’s remarks during our conversation included the following:

MY MOTHER:
If I had know then what I know now, I would have picked you all up in the car and left town. . . .

ME:
OK . . . OK. So, if you, if you had known . . . then what you know now about child sexual abuse and, uh, the harm that it can do . . .

MY MOTHER:
What else could I have done? Not, not—there wouldn’t have been one soul in this world who would have believed a word I said.

ME:
All right.

MY MOTHER:
The only thing I could have done was to have left . . .

ME:
OK

MY MOTHER:
. . . with all of you.

ME:
Because the, the atmosphere back then was such that . . . things like that were hardly ever talked about, and . . . there was no . . .

MY MOTHER:
And father was a . . .

ME:
Yeah.

MY MOTHER:
. . . great person.

ME:
OK.

MY MOTHER:
Everybody liked him.

ME:
OK. So he had a very good image as a . . . teacher at that time . . .

MY MOTHER:
After all, yes, that was, that was long before he got . . .

ME: Yeah.

MY MOTHER:
. . . overtly so very sick [with alcoholism, manic-depression, etc.].

ME:
OK. So, it would have been . . . it, it would have been . . . hard or maybe impossible for . . . for most people to believe that a . . .

MY MOTHER:
Oh, no, nobody would have believed it.

ME:
. . . a, a successful, a successful Vander- [Vanderbilt University professor, as my father was] yeah—

MY MOTHER:
I would have told ’em, but nobody would have believed it.

ME:
That, because he was a . . .

MY MOTHER:
Not a soul.

ME:
. . . successful professor at Vanderbilt and . . . and, um, was intelligent and . . . OK . . .

MY MOTHER:
He taught Sunday school classes.

ME:
OK.

MY MOTHER:
He had given, he had given the sermon at our small church in Athens one time . . .

ME:
OK.

MY MOTHER:
. . . and did a good job of it.

. . .

ME:
. . .  in any case the point here is is that there was nothing about his, um, ex, his reputation, his external image that would have caused anyone to believe that . . .

MY MOTHER:
No, actually, at that, that, that time, he wasn’t even drinking enough for most people to have realized there was a problem.

. . .

Clearly, the prevailing social milieu of the time was extremely inhospitable to the notion that a man of the social standing and economic and educational levels of our father might sexually abuse his own children; and may, perhaps, have been even far more inhospitable to the notion that the possibility or suspicion of such abuse was something worthy of being broached even in the most private of conversation, even by a party so centrally concerned as the mother of the children involved. (I.e., the “no talk” taboo may have been much stronger, even, than the underlying taboo against what should not be talked about—adults behaving in a sexual manner with children.)

(In this same conversation, my mother spoke of her own discovery of our father’s—her husband’s—child pornography. Those parts of our conversation may be included in a future post or posts.)

(Sidenote Regarding Lolita:
Considering the assertions of the preceding paragraph, one might then wonder about the position in American society of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, whose first American edition was published in 1958, gaining an immediate popularity, and whose initial film version, directed by Stanley Kubrick, was released in 1962. As you may be aware, Lolita revolves in substantial part around the erotic-romantic obsession of its narrator-protagonist, Humbert Humbert, with the, at the story’s beginning, 12-year-old daughter—named Dolores and whom Humbert nicknames Lolita—of his landlady. As the story progresses, Humbert, after becoming Lolita’s stepfather and following the death of the mother, enters into a sexual relationship with Lolita—a sexual relationship in which Humbert later characterizes his behavior as having constituted rape and for which he expresses deep remorse.

Whatever one may think of Lolita and what that novel may say or have said about the social milieu, in America, of its time (a detailed and, it seems to me, well-balanced assessment of Lolita is provided in the novel’s Wikipedia page) , suffice it to say, for purposes of this post, that the on the whole positive, highly-romanticized vision concerning sexual behavior by adult males with girls in their tweens or early teens which some significant number of readers seem to have understood Lolita as affirming would have stood at a distance approaching infinity from the complete and utter horror of what my sister Alice would have experienced in being sexually abused by our father if her experience were at all similar to my own of our father’s sexual abuse and which I describe in “Preludes.” This is not, of course, to say that our father may not—from his own, highly distorted perspective—have viewed any such behavior on his part toward my sister within the rubric of some such positive, highly-romanticized vision. Judging by the imagery on the packaging of the child pornography that our father had in his possession involving pre-pubescent girls—imagery that, as I recall, attempted to depict the girls as sexually willing nymphets—he, or some part of him, at least, may well have viewed his behavior in such a fashion, which would only have made the utter tragedy of the deep and vast destruction he, by his behavior, was causing to his daughter all the more immense.)

* * *

I can never think of my sister’s tragic early death without this possible backstory, of my father’s having sexually abused Alice during her childhood—a backstory whose probability of having actually been the case seems to me quite substantial—coming to my mind. That it does so serves, more than anything else, to strengthen my conviction of the need for the pursuit of whatever measures may be taken—on an individual, family, and societal level—during our present time and going forward, within the context of an enlightened, humane society, to raise awareness concerning the existence and nature of child sexual abuse and to lessen both the possibility of its occurrence and all of its consequent suffering.

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