It was 1956 when I was sexually molested by a stranger. I was seven years old. Now I am almost 60 and still dealing with the effects of that trauma. Experts say the impact sexual abuse has on a child varies, depending on the severity and longevity of the abuse. Other factors such as home environment impact the victim as well. For me, well, I became frozen inside myself, like a leaf I saw buried four feet deep in a glacier—perfectly preserved.
Queens, NY, 1956
I told Mom I wanted to go outside to play. On the ground floor, a door stood open to one of the apartments and a man was inside, painting. Leaning against the doorframe, I was mesmerized by brush strokes spreading white paint over pale pink walls.
The man turned and asked, “Do you want to help?”
“Sure,” I said, walking to where he stood next to the closet, a bucket of paint at his feet. He lifted me onto a ladder, handed me a brush and told me to paint the closet shelf. Lost in a world of white, the smell of paint mixed with something like Daddy’s Old Spice, but earthier, like wet dirt. The painter stood behind me as I moved the brush back and forth, sheltered in his arms while he painted along with me. His baggy white overalls were streaked with dirt and paint, hiding the hard thing poking my back. Soon he put the paintbrush down and shifted his hand to my chest, rubbing back and forth. Slowly, he lifted my dress, his fingers probing on top of my underpants, while that hard thing nudged between my legs. His fingers slipped inside my panties and I leaned back, enjoying a tingling sensation. But my tummy started to hurt and pretty soon my “down there” got sore. Stop, I wanted to say. But I was frozen. His fingers were rough and chapped. His mouth nibbled my ear. Paint dripped into my hair and onto the sleeve of my pretty new dress. Oh no, Mom’s gonna kill me.
My mind blanked as paint covered dirt on the closet shelf. Almost done—just that small spot in the corner and I can go. But it feels so good, but I better go. Hurry up and finish. There. All done.
“I have to go now.”
“Okay, but listen. Don’t tell anyone you helped me. It’s our little secret. Understand?”
The look in the painter’s eyes conveyed something different than the gentleness of his voice—not the last time men gave me mixed messages, saying one thing with their words and another with their tone, gesture and actions.
Back home, my mother discovered the paint in my hair as I changed out of my dress. “Did he do anything?” She shook me, hysterical. I don’t remember much after this point. Today, I understand how frightened Mom must have been, but back then it came across as anger. This exchange with my mother was one of the earliest times in my life where I misinterpreted someone’s words and behavior. I thought she was angry that I got paint on my new dress. I was afraid the painter would be angry that I told.
Years later, I was grateful for my mother’s sixth sense. But in that moment, confusion reigned. Why was she so upset? Something was wrong, but I had no idea what. That confusion led to drawing erroneous conclusions—like it was my fault the painter did what he had done, and that feeling good was wrong. As I grew up, a similar pattern repeated itself. When involved in an argument and I had conflicting feelings and the other person was upset, I got quiet rather than speak up or ask for clarification. Then I would invariably make inaccurate assumptions about what the other person was feeling as well as what their intentions were.
I told Mom what the painter did. She ran out, leaving me standing there, alone. Time blurred as I stood frozen in my room, arms stiff at my sides, knees locked tight, tummy aching.
Police were called, the painter was arrested, I was questioned by detectives, and over the course of several months, had to testify in court.
I don’t remember details about the experience. What I do remember is feeling small in court. The room was cavernous; the judge sat high and imposing. Mom considered dropping the charges because I became so distraught. I didn’t want to leave school, didn’t like court, didn’t want to go, and didn’t want to answer any more questions. What I did want was food—comfort items like tuna fish and macaroni and cheese—but I especially wanted chocolate. There were always sweets in our house, and the day of the painter, when we got home from the police station, I discovered the numbing benefit of eating. That afternoon several chocolate cupcakes seemed to soothe the discomfort in my gut. It was the first time I used food to cover emotional pain. Geneen Roth, in When Food is Love, says that as children, some of us have no power to make choices about our situations. If we feel the pain around us is too intense and we can’t leave or change it, we choose to shut it off.
It would be 20 years before I discovered the truth in Geneen Roth’s books and even now, some 50 years later, I struggle with food—sometimes able to make a choice to remain present—other times succumbing to the unconscious need to cover my pain.
At some point we learned that authorities had dropped the charges against the painter after discovering he was wanted for murder in Oklahoma and rape and sexual abuse in Long Island. He was extradited to Oklahoma to face murder charges.
I overheard grownups say I was lucky. Not raped, not penetrated. No, just abused by a strange adult male who whispered soft things in my ear as he rubbed my vagina. At age four, I had discovered my own vagina and how good it felt to rub it. But being touched that way at seven by an adult male changed who I was—and probably who I could have become, had I not been molested.
I suppose my parents believed if we didn’t talk about the molestation, I would forget. Instead, I sleep walked and talked in my sleep. A recurring nightmare in which I was being chased by a tidal wave began. Playing outside alone was no longer enjoyable. I blamed myself for being abused. Everyone always told me how pretty I was, so I must have done something to make the painter do that to me. And although I didn’t know what to call it back then, I felt ashamed because something that was obviously so wrong had felt good. The most difficult aspect was trying to understand why pleasing sexual sensations were so wrong.
Over time, I’ve thought a lot about what the painter did, how I felt at the time, and how those sensations and how I processed them affected my sexuality. Our five senses add texture, enriching our lives. Somehow, being molested so young affected my ability to experience these senses in normal ways, thereby altering how I experienced life through them. We may be drawn to the smell of freshly-made popcorn or the aroma of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. The taste makes us feel good. Red balloons floating in the sky may cause a fluttering in our heart, and we feel like skipping, perhaps trying to catch them. The visual experience leads to a bodily reaction. Our skin responds when we cuddle a fluffy teddy bear. But I have few memories of these kinds of sensations after I encountered the painter. Sexualized way too young, I pushed my sense responses deep inside, creating a chasm between sense awareness, stimulation and appropriate response.
As time went on, I understood how being sexually abused impacted my life, especially how I felt about my appearance, hating how I looked. Wearing make-up still makes me uncomfortable as does primping to enhance my appearance. Other effects linger. Questions upset me. Being indoors feels safer than being outside. Allowing sexual pleasure is often difficult. But perhaps the most troubling effect molestation had on me was my not learning to speak up for myself—especially when it came to personal boundaries. It’s somewhat easier now, but for many years, saying “No” was hard. Questioning someone when I needed clarification was scary. It was almost impossible for me to tell someone I was angry or hurt. These issues, along with my lack of self confidence, affected my ability to make appropriate choices and trust myself. How can one make the right choices when one is out of sync and out of touch with inner feelings, sensations and desires?
* * *
What I thought was love up until the time I met my current husband, wasn’t—if a man wanted me, that meant he loved me, and if he didn’t want me, he didn’t love me. If I was attracted to someone, it meant I loved them. I had love, sex, lust, and sexuality all mixed up. And intimacy isn’t the same as sex. Sex is intimate, but there can be intimacy without sex. And love can be shown in different ways. My husband’s ways make me feel loved. Like when I get into bed before him, he always places his hand gently on my back when he joins me, connecting. He calls at least once a day to check in and see how things are going. His face lights up when he comes home at night, genuinely glad to see me. We cuddle on the couch while watching TV or reading. He only reads Harry Potter novels and train magazines, while I read everything from philosophy to religion to the classics to the current bestseller. But I feel loved for the first time in my life. And I am responsive—still self-conscious, still afraid, still not comfortable, but responsive.
If I were a country western singer, I’d write a song, “Hungry for Love.” It would tell the story of a girl using an outside substance to mask her pain, just like a heroin or cocaine or marijuana addict. Only my substance is food. I’m slowly learning other ways to comfort the anxiety in my gut when I’m stressed, frightened, sad, angry, or turned-on—a partial list of the emotions I tend to eat over rather than feel.
What is the connection between food and sex? The best I can figure is that being molested screwed up the internal wiring somehow. What felt good was bad. Sexual pleasure became associated with negative feelings. So being attractive became scary. If I wasn’t pretty, men wouldn’t want me, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the confusing feelings about sex. It has something to do with not allowing myself pleasure. So I froze, stuffing my face with food in order not to feel. Good sex is not possible if you are frozen. You need to be open and vulnerable.
Intimacy comes in ways that are not sexual. It comes on the dance floor, step-hopping and doing the grapevine, our arms wrapped behind each other’s waists, smiling as we whirl and twirl in a waltz. But insecurities are never far away. I still worry that he will stop loving me.
These days, I’m learning to live without chocolate or pasta or chicken soup or cupcakes when I feel whatever it is I’m feeling in a particular moment, rather than eating to cover it up. I either live with it until it shifts or disappears, or choose a healthier analgesic. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll unfreeze enough to allow myself the pleasure of feeling my husband’s love in a way I never have before.
Parts of this essay are excerpts from a recently published memoir, “Following the Whispers.”