The scars of a survivor

“Listen to the histories of survivors without shaming or blaming or prejudice. However difficult it may be to listen to our histories, it is a critical way in which you can help our healing.”*

The word Survivor often conjures the top-rated reality show in which stranded individuals connive, outwit, and manipulate their way to a million dollar prize. Real life Survivors are not often found on television, may never accumulate a million dollars, look great in a bathing suit, or travel more than a few miles from their hometown. These individuals have managed to make a life for themselves after a childhood of abuse and/or neglect. Abuse takes many forms: emotional, physical, neglect, and sexual. It does not discriminate and is found in homes of all social classes and ethnicities. The perpetrators are most often family members, neighbors, or pillars of a community, as the sexual abuse by priests in the Boston so tragically exposed.

Scars from abuse form a hard protective shell around victims who need to create impenetrable boundaries, who are often unable to comprehend assault especially at the hands of those who should be their protectors. It may take years, even decades, for the abused to trust with the support of knowledgeable therapists and perhaps individuals with similar or like backgrounds.

My sensitivity to survivors of childhood abuse and neglect stems from a personal history in which my brothers and I had to fend for us at a very early age. I was six, one brother four, and the other just eighteen months old when our mother and protector died of cancer. We were with a father who was rarely around, and did not know how to communicate. He left us in the care negligent and abusive housekeepers or alone without an adult present.

We never had spending money or an allowance and had to grapple for necessities. I remember having to wear shoes in which the heels and soles were worn out, leaving an imprint of my foot on muddy days. Life meant finding others to lend support that which was not available at home. This is my own survivor story, which, by the age of eighteen, left me exhausted and spent.

Walking the streets of our hometown, I learned how to find people that were willing to provide services that I would otherwise go without. A wonderful barber cut my hair without cost until I graduated from high school, at which time he brought me into his home for a celebratory dinner. A local dentist made sure that my teeth were cleaned and cavities were filled. Then there were the actors and stagehands I worked with and some neighbors who made life bearable.

When I was twelve, my father remarried, to a woman who had no concept of how to care for children that had long been responsible for their own survival. She was determined to establish authority, by locking up kitchen cabinets and outside doors, isolating feeding times, and preventing communication between my brothers and me.

I took flight and nested for several months at the home of another aspiring actress. My friend and her family became protectors. Once on her own initiative she went to see the high school principal to address my being placed on a track for students that were not bound for college. “This girl reads Dostoevsky, Camus, and Tolstoy, and you are putting her in remedial reading classes!” She must have made an impression because even with low to failing grades, I was able to continue in college bound classes. My sixteenth birthday party was held at her parent’s house and was attended by performers and staff of the North Jersey Playhouse where I was an apprentice. When my father called, my friend’s mother responded, “If you were interested, you would have called three weeks ago”. I would never forget how, for the first time, an adult had stood up for me.

By sheer determination and the grace of God, I graduated high school, and walked away from that life forever. My tenacity made me a survivor; the helpmates gave me the lifelong gifts of tolerance and compassion. This is not to say that I did not meet my share of exploiters and predators along the way.

During a period of depression, I sought out the help of a local public aid counselor. Each week, with no fee, I tirelessly attended sessions. She would always inquire when my parents were going to attend so we could begin a dialogue. Well, they never did, and I finally got up the courage to ask what was wrong with me. I was astounded when she comforted me by saying, “Nothing is wrong with you, there was no one there. You grew like Topsy," referring to the slave in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who was abused and yet somehow remained resilient enough to keep going and landing on her feet. Therein lies hope that every damaged individual clings to. The human spirit need not be destroyed by abuse: many victims have gone on to live creative and productive lives with exquisite sensitivity and insight into the feelings of others.

*Canadian Child Abuse Quilt