“Daddy said we needed to take more pictures for my photo shoot in your bedroom last week and then he got on top of me,” I told my mother on the bus ride home from the mall, breaking into tears. I was 13.
She hugged me and wanted to know why I’d waited seven days to say anything. I only mentioned the incident to my mom because my best friend’s sister, Ava, said I should. Ava reminded me that I had only graduated eighth grade, and although I felt I was grown up, I wasn’t. My mother didn’t say anything else on the 20-minute trip to our house. I thought now that she had learned the truth, she'd make my father leave.
At home he denied that he’d raped me, asking my mother how she could believe such a thing. Then, an hour later, he confessed the truth. She cried. When my father asked me to forgive him, I said, “I will try, Daddy.” He eventually told me he was sorry, but his apology was too late. Our two-bedroom house in northwest Pasadena had become too small, with only a pink and burgundy bathroom separating us. It was summertime. My mother had long hours at the phone company, often working overtime in the evenings and on Saturdays. My father was home a lot. He wasn’t able to hold a steady job due to his sickle cell anemia.
I’d spent my elementary school years in hospital waiting rooms. The nurses gave me ice and crackers to pass the time. But no amount of distractions could stop the tubes in my father’s nose and arms from frightening me. I thought my mother took care of my dad because she felt sorry for him. I hoped she had at least loved him in the beginning when she was a 26-year-old divorcee and he was a 29-year-old aspiring photographer who was working as a driving instructor.
My father wanted a son but was told if they tried again that baby would inherit his disease. I could never be the boy my father wanted. I was a girly girl who loved Barbies, Hello Kitty and Smurfette. As surprising as this might sound, I wasn’t entirely shocked by the rape. He’d never gone out of his way to hide the Playboy magazines and pornography videos he collected. He flirted with every woman he saw, and his flirtations never seemed harmless. I never trusted him.
He accused me of being spoiled and ungrateful. I was often asked if my father was my stepfather because of the horrible way that he spoke to me. I wished it was true, that he was not my blood relation. That might have explained the hate I felt. Yet he was my biological father. We even looked alike. Both of us were slim with long legs and strong cheekbones. It amazed me even then how much an adult male and a little girl could resemble one another. I couldn’t look in a mirror without seeing my father. It was such a relief when someone told me that I was beautiful or that I looked like my mother. She was attractive, smart and had a great sense of humor. She had thick, curly beauty salon hair and wore colorful size 12 dresses that cinched at the waist. My mom was a natural entertainer. At work she was often called first to perform with her immediate disclaimer, “I can’t sing but I can dance.” Colleagues said she reminded them of a taller Chaka Khan. I admired my mother’s confidence. I liked to think I inherited her best qualities. Yet when my father raped me, as every counselor I saw later called it--prior to that I’d been saying molested--I just assumed that my mother would throw him out of our house. But she didn’t.
A black psychiatrist who worked with my father recommended that we stay together as a family. He said it was important because we were one of the few remaining African-American families in our neighborhood, one of the few families where the father remained in the home. Our communities were in jeopardy, many of the black men in jail or in rehab. Some local men of color were around but they were struggling with unemployment, which left them feeling inadequate and open to public scrutiny. If my father were to leave, the damage to our family could be irreversible, according to this therapist. I also think our church influenced my mother in her decision to let him stay. She was a born-again Christian and I thought I was too. There were so many pretty women at our church without husbands. Most of my friends’ parents were divorced. I didn’t want my mother to be alone. My faith led me to more questions, which were never answered. I not only blamed my mother; I also held God responsible. When the therapist saw my resistance to his rationale, he quickly suggested that my parents take me on a family trip anywhere I chose. I picked Six Flags Magic Mountain. I had already decided any doctor who thought my father should remain with us was no one I could trust. But I was a kid who wanted to go to an amusement park.
Pretending we were a normal family, I ate churros, caramel corn and pink cotton candy, and rode the roller coasters with my father. Mommy never was an amusement park person. She stayed with us until we were buckled in and then watched. It felt awkward sitting close to him on the rides. As soon as we drove home I felt like I hated them both. Later I found out that Dr. Williams had been my father’s co-worker before Dad was laid off. He should have never seen us as clients in the first place. It made me mad all over again. Magic Mountain after a rape. Who’d given this guy a license to practice anything?
Although it was my father who violated me, and this therapist who exacerbated this violation by denying it, my feelings toward these men were, in many ways, more straightforward and easier to process than my feelings toward my mother. They had hurt me, and I would have to learn to somehow live with that hurt, to incorporate it or let go of it and move on with my life. But my feelings toward my mother, toward her role in the betrayal, were more complicated.
I was surprised by my mother’s actions because she’d once told me she and my grandmother had been beaten and verbally abused by my grandfather. My mother watched her mom leave an unstable marriage and go on to support herself. I hoped she’d do the same. When my parents stayed together, I felt deserted and rejected. I felt betrayed by my mother’s choice to protect my father at my expense. After all, I loved my mother. She was all I had. And I feared that if she wasn’t going to leave my father after what he’d done, she never would. Her need and dependency frightened me. It confused me. It didn’t make sense. I was afraid when I imagined her growing old by herself, and I was scared that she needed my father more than she needed me. Strangely, though I was the child, I wanted to protect her. But after the rape and the decision to let my father stay, all she did was cry. It took a long time for her to go back to church. She didn’t seem happy anymore. I don’t remember seeing her dance after that.
For many years, I was so filled with rage, it was hard for me to think about her pain. I resented the compassion and empathy she had for my father, and yet I still assisted my mother, out of guilt. I just looked past him and focused on her. I’d watched him have what looked like a seizure and a panic attack. It once took four EMT workers to restrain him. If I didn’t help her with my father’s sickle cell crisis, no one would. All of our other relatives were on the East Coast and her nearest co-worker friends lived 45 minutes away.
My mother was our primary source of income. She could have sent him home to Philadelphia with his family, to a hospital, to friends. He probably would have died if he didn’t have her private insurance. On his deathbed, when I was 19, I told him I’d forgiven him so he could die in peace. I was lying.
I thought his death would bring me joy. It didn’t. All his dying did was remind me I’d been betrayed by my mother, the person I loved the most deeply, the person who had the most deeply disappointed me. She was the one I held responsible for not protecting me.
I didn’t comprehend my mother’s choices. She made a decision I would not have made, and yet, I still knew that she loved me, that in her own way, given the limitations of her own life, she did the best she could. Knowing this was what made forgiveness seem so confusing and impossible.
It took more than two decades to find a therapist who didn’t ask, “Don’t you hate your mother?” The first one who took the time to focus on me and not her was the keeper. After my father’s death, my mother and I managed to become close again. When she became disabled a few years ago, I moved my son out of his bedroom to relocate my mother across the country into our house. At 71, she now lives with us, and at times helps take care of her two youngest grandchildren. On Saturday mornings while I pretend to sleep in, I can hear them downstairs, dancing.